We’ve had so many extraordinary musicians study in the New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Musical Arts department since it was founded in 1972 (under the name “Third Stream”), delving deep into ear training, learning to cross boundaries, pushing limits, and finding their own musical voices. As we celebrate 50 years of the program, it seems fitting to look back and take stock of those voices. Here are a few of our favorite recordings by alumni.
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the tracks in this Artist’s Choice:
Bug Music (Nonesuch, 1996)
One of the most prolific and creative figures in modern music, Don Byron continues to surprise aficionados with his ventures into deep stylistic waters of every genre, including klezmer, art song, opera, swing, and most recently, scores for PBS documentaries. My favorite of them all continues to be Bug Music, his 1996 tribute to Raymond Scott, Duke Ellington, and John Kirby. With a pen that captures every nuance of each arranger’s intention, Byron always lets the music speak for itself with ageless eloquence.
A Different Time (OKeh, 2013)
Ever since he began recording and touring with two former NEC compatriots, Billy Martin and Chris Wood, in 1991, pianist John Medeski has been a major force in groove-based improvisation. But on his 2013 solo release A Different Time, fans got to experience him in a pensive mood. Here he pays tribute to a different set of influences, including Ran Blake, his principal musical mentor back in his student days, and—on “Luz Marina,” my favorite track on this superb CD—the dreamlike world of early French impressionist composers like Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie.
The Jamie Baum Septet+
“The Meeting (Tana Dery Na)”
In This Life (Sunnyside, 2013)
A virtuosic flutist and arranger with a true gift for lyricism, great imagination, and a wide range of musical sounds and genres at her fingertips, Jamie Baum joyfully weaves together improvisational and ensemble settings that mix contemporary jazz harmonies and textures with deeply felt influences from distant corners of the world.
“South Brooklyn Bulgars”
Kosher Style (OU People, 2019)
In recent years, Michael Winograd has become the go-to musician in the world of American klezmer, and his current band Honorable Mentshen—also featuring NEC alums Dan Blacksberg on trombone, Zoe Christiansen on clarinet, and Carmen Staaf on piano—plays at a level of virtuosity rivaling that of the greatest 20th-century practitioners of the genre. Anyone looking for a burst of musical energy need look no further than this track.
Dominique Eade & Ran Blake
“West Virginia Mine Disaster”
Town and Country (Sunnyside, 2017)
In a world full of powerful voices, Dominique Eade stands head and shoulders above the rest. No matter how many times I hear her perform, she never seems to reach an end to what she can do. Eade came to NEC as a student in 1978, shortly after the Third Stream department was founded by Gunther Schuller, with Ran Blake as chair. Blake and Eade have recorded numerous albums together, often drawing on the Great American Songbook. With this project, recorded in the wake of the 2016 election, they chose to focus on folk songs about poverty, the prison system, and other issues of disparity and injustice. This song, originally written and sung by Jean Ritchie, takes on new weight and poignancy in two different iterations here.
The Kiss Belongs to Nobody (2017)
This album reflects composer/multi-instrumentalist Nima Janmohammadi’s lifetime immersion in Persian classical music, an aural tradition emphasizing improvising and playing from memory. After intensive preparation, engaging with formal, melodic, and rhythmic “points of departure,” each track on this album was recorded from beginning to end without editing. Perhaps one can best speak about this music in the artist’s own words: “I am interested in that infinite moment, that experience of timelessness, when the border of playing between consciousness and unconsciousness is blurred, as well as the border between improvisation and composition. ”
“The King of All Birds”
In the Magic Hour (Yep Roc, 2016)
Aoife O’Donovan may be best known as the lead singer with Boston-based progressive string band Crooked Still, as one of the members of I’m With Her, or perhaps as a featured artist on The Goat Rodeo Sessions, A Prairie Home Companion, or countless other collaborations. But over the past few years, her work as a singer/songwriter has been recognized as some of the most creative and interesting writing on the scene, moving beyond traditional expectations of genre. On this album, she weaves stories about childhood, loss, love, strength, and mortality. This track, with its poignant horn and string parts, combined with the pulsing groove of the rhythm section, is one of my favorites.
“XII: Hanged Man”
Since graduating from NEC in 2020, Magdalena Abrego (guitar/electronics/voice) and Allison Burik (alto sax/bass clarinet/voice) have continued to rise as internationally recognized figures in the jazz and experimental music scenes. The album Seven by their duo Umbrella Pine artists features compositions by both, taking the listener on an intense and mysterious musical journey, pushing of boundaries of sound, time, composition, and improvisation.
The New England Conservatory: Jazz at 50