David Amram So in America: Selected Chamber Music Compositions 1958-2017 (Affetto Recordings)
Well into his ninth decade, the American composer David Amram is such a gas as a public personality that the grace and gravity of his serious music comes almost as a surprise. A winking self-promoter and a beatnik-styled bellwether of the whole idea of self-as-brand, Amram is, additionally, a heavy cat—one who collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Jack Kerouac, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Arthur Miller. While the works on So in America are not in chronological order, a progression will be apparent to anyone paying attention to the dates. Early works like Sonata for Violin and Piano (1960) are stringently modernist in technique and harmonic language—de rigueur for the serious composer of the era.
Over the decades, there is marked warming in his compositional voice, a playful widening of reference and stylistic vocabulary, and a partial shift toward tonal harmony. His 1979 gorgeous, Brahmsian "Portraits for Piano Quartet" feels pivotal. By 2016's "Three Lost Loves," Amram emerges as a generously lyrical and melodic composer. Its stunning, long second movement is both meditative and oddly bluesy. After five pieces of proper chamber music, the collection closes with the light incongruity of the jazzy "Two Excerpts from Jack Kerouac's On the Road" (2017), a world premiere recording narrated by first-call orator Estelle Parsons accompanied by the composer on piano—his only appearance as performer on this rich collection.