Rediscovering acoustic beauty

Larry Chernicoff's Windhorse ensemble

by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., April 7, 2004) – It used to be that rock ‘n’ roll was the musical expression of teen rebellion, the stuff that was loud and angry that would drive parents up the wall. Larry Chernicoff was one of those who got so turned on by the sounds of doo-wop music and rock ‘n’ roll in the late-‘50s and early-‘60s that he picked up an electric guitar and taught himself to play. Chernicoff’s love of rock ‘n’ roll eventually led him toward jazz, and for the past 30 years he has worked as a keyboardist and a composer of electronic, experimental and world-beat influenced music.

But recently the tables were turned on Chernicoff by none other than his teen-age daughter, Lydia, whose study of violin opened her father’s ears anew to the wonders of the classical repertoire and the beauty of acoustic music.

It has had a profound effect on Chernicoff as a musician and composer, as can be heard on his new CD, “October” (Windy Planet), a collection of 10 new pieces performed by Windhorse, an all-acoustic miniature orchestra Chernicoff assembled especially for the recording. The group, featuring old friends from Chernicoff’s days at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock and several classically-trained improvising musicians, will join the composer for an all-acoustic concert at the Berkshire Museum on Saturday night at 8.

Chernicoff freely credits his daughter’s influence on his work. “I was always a classical listener, but I’ve been getting large doses of it in the last decade,” said Chernicoff, who lives in Alford, in a recent phone interview. “I found myself in a phase where I came to feel that the very warm, natural sounds of strings and reeds and wood and brass are -- in a way that we’ve really gotten away from -- very healthy.

“Another thing that happened to me was that I’ve been to concerts by classical musicians maybe playing with a trio or just piano and violin in large auditoriums, like Ozawa Hall or Symphony Hall, with no amplification. And then I’ve been to see jazz bands that I really admire playing in famously wonderful acoustic rooms, like the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, with big piles of amplifiers playing so loud that I and the people I was with had to leave.

“We didn’t get the chance to appreciate the music because it was too loud, too electronic and too aggressive. What I’m trying to do now for our ears in 2004 -- it’s almost revolutionary -- we’re going to have to adjust our acoustics, our dynamics, ourselves. So many jazz and rock bands leave the sound of the group to a young nineteen-year-old kid with a red bandana sitting in the back with a mixing board.

“With the caliber of musicians I’m dealing with, we ought to be able to deal with sound in a more subtle way than that. In the Berkshire Museum auditorium there is no need for a single microphone. We’re going to play like a chamber ensemble.”

With his new pieces on “October,” Chernicoff draws on an unusual palette for lyrical compositions that are highly notated but that also allow for improvisation.

“With my quintet, I used to hand out a piece of paper for a composition that had four lines of music on it, and we played for fifteen minutes,” said Chernicoff. “With the new music, it’s far more carefully notated. But we can take that to another dimension in the live situation. We have more time. I can just let people go a lot more.”

“Talking Rain” is a stately composition with a classical feel showcasing harpist Carol Emanuel, who has worked with John Zorn, Marty Ehrlich, Bill Frisell and other jazz notables and who lives in Great Barrington. Cinematic in scope, it’s not surprising to read in the liner notes that it was originally written for a dance. “Sailor and Siren” is a miniature drama, and the title track builds to a slowly pulsing climax worthy of Philip Glass.

“Timeless” is one of the disks more experimental pieces, a structured improvisation in which the musicians, including bassoonist Janet Grice and clarinetist Tim Moran are given only four notes to draw upon for their parts. Untethered to any fixed meter, the musicians conjure up a profoundly wistful mood, setting up a contrast for “East 13th Street,” a frisky, jazzy strut through the East Village fueled by bassist John Lindberg and percussionist Tony Vacca. The album closes with a hint of gospel on “Last Dance,” featuring a bluesy saxophone solo by Moran and inspirational, jazzy piano by Karl Berger, who co-produced the album with Chernicoff.

The ensemble will be conducted by Berger, founder of the Creative Music Studio. The group also includes John Clark (French horn), John Lindberg of the String Trio of New York (bass), Meg Okura (violin), Tomas Ulrich (cello) and Vicki Bodner (woodwinds).

Chernicoff still thinks of his music in terms of jazz, even if he takes issue with some aspects of the way jazz is currently performed. “I’ve come to feel that in the jazz world, the music is often a reflection of ‘attitude.’ What I find missing sometimes is a certain kind of sumptuous beauty that you do get in classical music, and I was going for that.”

Nowadays, when people meet him for the first time and ask what kind of music he composes, Chernicoff says, “I have a background in jazz, and the music that I do now is a kind of a combination of jazz and classical. I work with classical instruments but still with the spirit of jazz and improvisation.”

For reservations, call 443-7171 ext. 10.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 9, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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