Schnittke's Piano Quintet, a creative response to his mother's death, is an austere, haunting work full of grief and tenderness that marks one of his early ventures into polystylistic writing. The opening piano solo is unique, a spare statement of puzzlement in the face of tragedy. It gives way to a waltz, as if recapturing a lost past, then the graceful dance melody literally disintegrates as the strings venture off into other regions, vainly trying to reassemble the theme and failing. At the end of its touching five movements the music's despair is transformed into serene, hard-won acceptance. Shostakovitch's 15th Quartet, his final statement in that form, premiered just months before his death. It's six slow movements are shot through with contemplative sadness and regret. The music is so rich in texture and substance that attention never flags.
One of the major voices in the highly political Asian improvisation movement of the 1980s and '90s, baritonist Fred Ho on this memorable CD performs everything from modernized swing and Charles Mingus-influenced ensembles to short solo baritone pieces and selections that mix together Western and Eastern instruments. He utilizes two ensembles: the 11-piece Journey Beyond the West Orchestra (which includes such instruments as the sona, erbu, and san shuen along with more conventional jazz horns and rhythm, plus occasionally the somewhat jarring Chinese soprano vocals of Cindy Zuoxin Wang) and the five-piece Afro-Asian Music Ensemble.
It’s not every day that you run into a musician who joins a protean range of talents—as a composer, saxophonist, writer and bandleader–-with a commitment to Marxist ideology….For twenty years now Fred Ho and his Afro Asian Music Ensemble have been defending the turf where the personal and the political slam into the maelstrom of new jazz…a fiercely imaginative baritone saxophonist and composer.