Archives: At WSJ on Maya Beiser’s Uncovered

A fun review to research, especially all that original/cover side by side listening, and fun to write, even though I was distracted with other projects.  And as I say in the piece, it’s a really good recording.


A Classical Take on Classic Rock

‘Uncovered’ triumphs because it never sounds novel.

Aug. 27, 2014 6:05 p.m. ET

Cellist Maya Beiser’s new album features covers of works by Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. ioulex

It seems likely that “Uncovered” (Innova), the new recording by cellist and composer Maya Beiser, will be the only classical record this year that starts with the lyrics “Hey Hey Mama/the way you move/gonna make you sweat/gonna make you groove.”


The words are from “Black Dog,” a song written by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and a big hit for the band in 1971. The Zeppelin repertoire isn’t new to Ms. Beiser; she covered “Kashmir” on her previous recording, “Provenance” (Innova, 2010). But “Uncovered” is the innovative cellist’s fullest foray into the repertoire of classic rock and blues. The recording features Mr. Beiser’s take on works by Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Howlin’ Wolf and seven other essential tracks. She will tour the material starting next Thursday in New York.

Ms. Beiser has achieved renown in the classical music world for her facility with a wide range of repertoire. She has also deftly integrated such technological innovations as multitracking and video seamlessly and intelligently into works like her 2012 opera, “Elsewhere.” Her 2011 TED talk, “A Cello With Many Voices,” has been watched more than 800,000 times, and she has commissioned work from or collaborated with many of classical music’s leading figures, including Louis Andriessen, Tan Dun, Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Gordon, David Lang and Steve Reich. In addition, she was the founding cellist in the groundbreaking new music group Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Ms. Beiser, who is 49, has said that this project takes her back to her roots. She grew up on a kibbutz in northern Israel, and while the cello works of Johann Sebastian Bach affected her as a child and inspired her to take up her instrument, she was also moved by chants from Arab prayers in nearby villages, and by the music of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, which her parents played on the family’s stereo.

She performs Joplin’s riveting and distinctive cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and in the press materials Ms. Beiser explains that the famed singer was a special inspiration to her. “The first time I heard Janis Joplin I felt shaken to the core. Somehow her unique, raw expression snuck its way into the inner shrine where, until then, only the likes of Bach and Schubert were allowed to enter. It felt so sacrilegious that I was giddy with guilt. Just imagine a young acolyte of any dogma, experiencing her first transgression.”

“Uncovered” succeeds because of Ms. Beiser’s ability to make well-known material her own. For instance, she doesn’t try to mimic Robert Plant’s pungent yowl. Instead, she murmurs the opening lyrics and employs her multitracked cello to play Jimmy Page’s guitar riffs.

Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” works because the cello covers the range, world weariness and menace of Howlin’ Wolf’s voice as well as his fleet, piercing harmonica licks. In addition, the spare arrangement allows percussionist Glenn Kotche to give the tune a different vibe; it’s a Chicago blues standard, but you hear the Delta fields lurking in the background.


Maya Beiser, a classically trained cellist, plays songs by Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin and others on her new album “Uncovered.” Photo: Jennifer Weiss for The Wall Street Journal

Some of the tunes that work best—Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” Muddy Waters’s “Louisiana Blues” and the AC/DC classic “Back in Black,” which was written by Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson—showcase Ms. Beiser’s ability to reach signature stances like Hendrix’s gruff vocals, Waters’s warm growl, and the Australian band’s searing guitar riffs with just a multitracked cello, bass and drums. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” seems made for a stringed-instrument cover, but Ms. Beiser’s gritty intro deepens the sense of loss in the piece and makes it even more elegiac. Similarly, King Crimson’s “Epitaph” lends itself to the setting nicely, and Ms. Beiser captures the mood and intricacies of the tune.

Not everything works. Nirvana’s “Lithium” simply never sounds like Ms. Beiser—even as I listen to her cello, I’m hearing Cobain singing the lead vocals. Also the recording closes with a version of “Kashmir” that now feels like old news. It isn’t different enough from her 2010 version.

The overall triumph of “Uncovered” is that it never sounds novel. The Vitamin String Quartet and the pop group Nouvelle Vague often recast rock classics into string-quartet or bossa nova settings, but it’s always done with a wink. In Ms. Beiser’s hands the cello can capture a wide range of voices, and with multitracking it can effect the sound of a power chord. On “Uncovered,” the cellist plays classic rock with the unbridled passion that she brings to her other repertoire; she doesn’t cover Sly Stone on this recording but she wants to take us higher.

Mr. Johnson writes about music for the Journal.





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Archives: At WSJ on Barrel Aged Beer

It’s a little counterintuitive, but this story began while I was researching a story on local gypsy brewers.  I was at the Other Half’s brewery, which had been up and running for barely a week at that point, so it was a big vacant space with big steel tanks lining the perimeter.  The brewers, Matt and Sam, had talked earnestly and enthusiastically about bringing the west coast style of pale ale to the NYC market.  The guys had gypsy brewed for a few months while their space passed its inspections, so I knew them for that style.  Then as we talked about the future, Matt gestured toward an empty corner and announced he had 100 wine barrels arriving later in the week.  “Man,” he exclaimed, “the possibilities are endless.”

This struck me.  I knew of dozens of bourbon barrel aged stouts and porters but wine barrels and lighter beers. I began to pursue a story and this is it.

Barrel-Aged Beer Is Making a Comeback

A growing cadre of brew masters is aging beer in casks that once held bourbon, brandy or wine.


Martin Johnson
Aug. 18, 2014 4:45 p.m. ET

Owner Matthias Neidhart holds a glass of Zymatore beer and a glass of the beer in its original format. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

With its barn, greenhouse and bucolic fields of camomile and berries, B United International Inc., from the outside, doesn’t look like a typical warehouse beer distributorship.

And inside the Oxford, Conn., facility, there is another anomaly: a room where beer is being aged not in huge industrial steel tanks, but in hundreds of hand-me-down wooden barrels. That is where B United, which distributes aficionado brands like Germany’s Schneider Weisse and Japan’s Hitachino, is giving some of its clients’ brew a secondary round of aging—in containers that formerly held wine, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages.

The Zymatore room at B.United International. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

“Select beers can actually soak up the flavors and aromas of the spirit previously housed in the wooden barrel in a way that…makes it highly interesting,” said Matthias Neidhart, founder and owner of B United.

Mr. Neidhart is among a small, but growing cadre of respected artisan brewers using pre-used wooden barrels, in the belief that the residual flavors and lingering microflora from whatever liquid they previously held can enhance a beer’s aroma and taste.

Those elements don’t transfer from wood to beer automatically, brewers said, but are teased out during a secondary fermentation process involving wild yeast.

“Barrels that once stored a Syrah or Chardonnay to maturity can bring out so many more complexities in flavor,” said Zach Mack, co-owner of the Alphabet City Beer Co., an East Village bar that offers more than 350 varieties of craft brew.

The enthusiasm for barrel aging was first rekindled nearly a decade ago, when brewers discovered that aging beer in bourbon barrels could add tasty vanilla overtones to their porters and stouts. More recently, some have begun expanding their container repertoire, using barrels that have held everything from Sauternes and Scotch to brandy and rum, seeking flavor notes that range from sour to tannic.

New York area brewers are among the leading-edge wood-barrel users.

Garrett Oliver, brew master of the Brooklyn Brewery and editor of “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” said he is partial to bourbon barrels, which are typically made of virgin American oak and used only once before being sold. His brewery’s facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard currently houses more than 2,000 wooden barrels for aging beer.

“Bourbon wood is quintessentially American, and that’s a big appeal for me,” said Mr. Oliver.

Brewmaster Ben Neidhart in the Zymatore room with barrels used to age beer. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

Matt Monahan, co-owner of Other Half Brewing Co., which opened in January in Gowanus, prefers wine barrels. “If you age a beer in a bourbon barrel, it tastes like bourbon,” he said. Other Half is currently using barrels that once housed Zinfandel, Sauternes and even the cult California Cabernet Opus One.

Wooden barrels aren’t exactly new; for centuries, beer was stored and aged in them. But after Prohibition, the American brewery industry dramatically consolidated, and growing companies seeking larger-capacity storage with greater sterility turned to massive stainless steel tanks.

The return to wood-barrel use comes at a time of greater experimentation among craft brewers with more traditional, less industrialized materials and techniques. Some Pale Ale makers, for example, are using techniques like “dry hopping,” popular in the 19th century as a way to stabilize beer and enhance its flavor, by adding hops during the beer’s secondary fermentation.

Wooden barrels usually slow down the aging process. Basil Lee, co-owner of Finback Brewery, which opened in January in Queens, said his company ages beer in both bourbon and wine barrels and chose its 13,000-square-foot space because it had room for longer-term brewing projects.

“I have tasted beers where you wished that they had aged more,” he said. “We sought out a space that would enable us the freedom to age beers for a year or two if necessary.”

Many large-production commercial beers typically age for one month; some lagers take up to four, experts say.

Mr. Neidhart of B United said slower barrel aging allows natural processes to take their course, rather than artificially helping them along with, say, rigorous climate control.

“Conventional brewing is all about controlling the process,” said Mr. Neidhart. “We are trying to return the control to nature.” He ages some of his clients’ beers for two or three years.

“Clients ask us when their beer will be ready and we tell them we don’t know,” he said.

Owner Matthias Neidhart holds two bottles of Zymatore beer. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

For all the effort, Mr. Neidhart said his barrel-aging program accounts for just 2% of his business, moving over 400,000 case-equivalents of beer annually.

And to be sure, barrel-aged beers are still a niche part of the $14.3 billion annual U.S. craft beer market. But their influence is spreading nationally. California craft breweries like The Bruery and Firestone Walker Brewing Co., for example, have recently launched extensive barrel-aging programs.

In New York, drinkers can find them in beer bars like Proletariat, Terroir and Owl Farm.

And some are beginning to show up in local restaurants. Other Half, for example, is brewing several barrel-aged beers exclusively for Roberta’s, a popular Williamsburg eatery. That is because barrel aging not only adds to overall complexity, said Mr. Monahan, but also tends to soften a beer’s finish over time, helping raise its food-friendly quotient.

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Oh, The Joys of Being Refused Service

buon Yeah, I didn’t think THAT happened anymore.

I run the cheese, cured meats and beer program for an upscale retail market and cafe on the Upper West Side called Gastronomie 491.  My boss loves the Buon Italia bresaola, and suggested I try it too, especially since my preferred variety Larchmont was unavailable and I didn’t like the suggested substitute brand, Creminelli.

I went to the Chelsea Market and after visiting some of my fave shops, Fat Witch, Dickston’s Farmstead Meats, and Lucy’s Whey, I went to Buon Italia.

When asked at the counter what i’d like, I explained that I was from a wholesale client and I’d like to taste the Bresaola as my boss thinks it’s divine, but I run the cured meat and we like operating from consensus.

This brought about a blank stare from counterperson.

I explained further that if I get on board with the Bresaola, then we’ll probably order lots of it.

This turned the stare into a glare.

I was mystified, and said, you’re looking at me as if you don’t think this is a good idea.

The counterwoman responded “I don’t think it’s a good idea.  I can’t just give taste to anyone who walks in here.”

Oooohhhh, I haven’t risen above the “just anyone” yet.  I figure I’ve been in the business long enough that I don’t have to prove it.  And for another anyone asking about bresaola knows more than a thing or two about cured meats. They ought be taken seriously without presenting credentials.

Frankly I was flustered so I left.  I’m more than willing to fight for my principles but for a taste of bresaola, eh, I’ll save my ammunition for something more important (like protesting the current wave of police brutality).  My distributor tells me that the Larchmont will be back in stock soon.  I’ll wait.
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The Saggy Jeans Situation

article-2632340-1DFD028A00000578-234_634x422It came to my attention a few weeks ago (and yikes, it’s been nearly two months!) that the town of Pikeville Tennessee passed an ordinance fining young men who wear their jeans very low sung, typically below their glutes, thereby exposing their boxer shorts.

This intrigued me as I had seen two kids—it’s hard to call them young men—thusly attired on the bus a few days before I saw the story. I’ve usually written off this style, which is hard to call a trend since the rap duo Kriss Kross sported the look in 1992, as just youths trying to piss off their elders. But when I saw the kids on the bus, I was struck by another angle. If they are trying to assert their bodies, this is an absolutely miserable way to do it. Lowering jeans to reveal something baggy below is the equivalent of pulling back a curtain to reveal another curtain perhaps with another curtain visible behind that one. It’s essentially phony and dishonest and rather than revealing—which is best done as a defiant gesture of self-celebration (at least that’s how I read a lot of the style choices of Rihanna, Beyonce and especially Jennifer Lopez). Instead it’s just another example of male insecurity expressed in clothing.

Seriously, if a guy wanted to escape the institutionalized grip of male insecurity in fashion, then he’ll have to take a real risk, jeggings or running shorts/tights for instance. L’il Wayne and Conan have tried the former, and probably about a third of the men who marathon and even more who bike avidly are into the latter. The first part of the risk is about stealing something from the feminine wardrobe but men have done that with earrings, purses (I call mine a messenger bag but still), and other accessories without the walls of Jericho tumbling down. I think most guys perceive the bigger risk in letting the world know that they’re no porn star. Guess what fellas, the world knows. It’s my observation from five decades on this planet that a well hung guy walks differently than one of shall we say average endowment. It’s for good reason, the well hung cat knows he can get away with stuff from straight women and gay men that he ought not be able to get away with; he’s the winner of some sort of gene pool lottery.

Anyway, smooth and sleek and physique baring is a much stronger fashion statement than baggy and ironic (that’s the most optimistic read I can give to showing that you’re wearing baggy underwear with cartoon characters on them as was the case with the kids on the bus). It’s also a powerful way of saying that you don’t share the insecurities that many men share.

I’m reasonably sure no municipality would pass laws banning that look.

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Archives: At WSJ on the new recordings by Freda Payne and Kellylee Evans

KellyleeThe story is here,

This was a fun piece to write as neither of these records are ones that I would been likely to listen closely to unless I was searching for story prospects.  When I discovered that two contrasting recordings by jazz vocalists were releasing on the same day, I plopped them into heavy rotation and began to parse.

What I think of the Payne recording is pretty well explained in the prose.  The Evans recording as is often the case with the second of the two recordings I’m packaging got the short shrift, not by much, but there was a point that deserved expansion but I lacked the space.

To me, “I Remember When” succeeds not so much because it incorporates so many hip hop influences without sounding stilted but rather because it is about a love and enjoyment of hip hop.  I name check J Dilla in the review without explaining much about why he’s there, and my editors let me get away with it.  Dilla’s importance to this disc is deeper than a lick here or lick there that remind me of his classic Donuts (actually I was reminded of his stellar remixes of De La Soul’s Stakes is High).  Instead, my read of Donuts is that it’s about loving music and explaining the terms.  “I Remember When,” accounts for a similar love in a distant genre effectively.  To me, that’s the big success of this recording.

Had it come out in mid September rather than mid July, it would have warranted pairing with Jason Moran’s All Rise, which is about loving Fats Waller on Moran’s terms.



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Rudy Royston’s 303 at the Village Vanguard

Royston                I think everyone into jazz remembers their first trip to the Village Vanguard. Mine came in the spring of 1979. Exams were over and since I had an extra week before I had to clear out of the dorms, I was taking some time to check out NYC. When I saw in the Village Voice that McCoy Tyner was playing the Vanguard, off I went with my neighbor Dave in tow. A #1 train, a #2 train and five minutes later we were being seated underneath a photo of Bill Evans, about fifteen feet from the piano. I still remember our jaws dropping a few minutes later when Tyner walked by our table to take his seat at the piano bench.

I suspect that the sense of awe is even greater for musicians. It was palpable from Rudy Royston Tuesday night as he embarked on his first set as a leader at the revered venue. He nearly choked up when it came time to make remarks about the set list and introduce the band.

Royston is a superb drummer who has been heard often in the company of bands led by guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist JD Allen. Here he was leading his band, 303, named for the Denver area code as Royston grew up in the mile high city and lived there until about eight years ago when demand for his skills in the jazz capital became too great to stay away.

303 is an unusual septet in that it features two bassists, Mimi Jones and Yasushi Nakamura as well as guitarist Nir Felder, pianist Sam Harris, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis and ace saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Since it’s yet another drummer led band that doesn’t play simple straightforward tap your feet hard bop, I wondered how the crowd which seemed a little heavier on the tourist quotient would respond. I needn’t have been concerned; early in the set one couple got up, but instead of leaving, they moved to a spot where they could see Royston more clearly. Aside from that, the audience sat rapt for the 75 minute set.

303 opened the show with “Invocation,” a brooding piece where gentle thunder Royston’s tom toms was joined by dueling and infectious bass lines and topped with a pithy solo from Irabagon. The second tune was a slow blues, and it felt as if each soloist was describing the sun rising over a meadow. In the third, Irabagon, Harris and the leader brilliantly shared solo space, finishing each other’s phrases and pushing the tune and the excitement in the room higher. After a tune that was about as close as this band gets to that stone cold tap your feet burner as this band gets, it closed with “Gangs of New York,” a piece that builds on a riff from the soundtrack to the movie.

Afterward, I saw Lorraine Gordon, the owner, beaming from her usual spot near the door. If he draws as well as he did for Tuesday’s first set, leading a band at the Vanguard could become a habit for Royston.

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The Iron Rule of Sentimentality in the NBA This Summer

LeBron and Chris playing violin and singing.                Sentimentality is the rumpled trump card of sportswriting. The games are actually won or lost on the basis of strategy, tactical adjustment and execution, but that’s as dry as a brand new cardboard box. Better to tell the story on the basis of the star player thinking about his sick son as he nailed the winning shot. It also sets up better—or at least more usable—quotes. It’s why during the Olympics we rarely see stories about the physics that go into the amazing feat being attempted, but we do hear that the competitor’s kid sister overcame a vicious case of acne to be in attendance.

The surprise to me this offseason is how sentiment has ruled the transaction wire. The offseason is usually a paradise for sports geeks because sentimentality goes on vacation and it’s all about performance and money, salary caps and windows of contention.

Not this year in the NBA. LeBron James’s return to Cleveland was draped in “I’m Coming Home” angle of the Ohioan returning to unfinished business. It is such an archetypal western story that I’m surprised no one photoshopped a cowboy hat onto Bron. I can give James a little bit of leeway since the real story isn’t particularly diplomatic. His brand would suffer enormously if he told the truth which is his buddy Dwyane Wade is in serious decline, and Pat Riley, the mastermind behind his title run with his former team, the Miami Heat somehow thinks that Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger are the solution to an aged and ineffective bench.

Then Carmelo Anthony turns down offers from the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to stay with the New York Knicks for a near maximum deal of five years and 122 million dollars. He then put out a wordy statement with all kinds of loving words about the honor of being a Knick. The statement stopped just short of saying that he wished he could have been Willis Reed running out of the tunnel with a broken leg in 1970 to lead the Knicks to their first title. Again, it sugarcoats a less noble reality: 124 million was too much money to leave on the table. Due to the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, L.A and Chicago could only offer ‘Melo about 75% of what the Knicks did. What they did offer was a better chance of pursuing a title. But money is money.

Thank goodness, Lance Stephenson didn’t talk about how North Carolina is a cradle of basketball after leaving the Indiana Pacers to sign with the Charlotte Bobcats, er Hornets.

This week’s story is now about whether the Cleveland Cavaliers will trade their recent draft picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to Minnesota for all star forward Kevin Love. It’s been fun watching the press search for a sentimental angle when there isn’t one. LeBron signed a two year contract. That means the window of opportunity is already closing. Waiting for Wiggins and Bennett to develop isn’t luxury the Cavs have. They have gone from promising young team to a group that has to win now.

The good thing is that NBA GM’s don’t seem to give a damn about sentimentality. So far, most the moves this offseason have been pragmatic. I don’t understand what the Lakers want with Carlos Boozer, but maybe someone will explain it to me. Otherwise it’s been so logical that it’s strangled everything else in the NBA news cycle.

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