Arthur Fagen’s Superb Diamond Performances

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DIAMOND: Rounds for String Orchestra. Music for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Symphony No. 6* / Indiana University Chamber Orch. & *Philharmonic Orch.; Arthur Fagen, cond / Naxos 8.559842

The late David Diamond was a composer who prided himself on being part of the “Americana” scene in classical music while remaining an iconoclast. Even as late as the 1990s, he refused to own a telephone or a fax machine; if you wanted to contact him, you had to go out to his home and visit him in person!

He was also an iconoclast who refused to write music he didn’t feel, and thus composed to satisfy his own muse. Often it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but the three pieces on this new album are all outstanding.

The Rounds for String Orchestra were composed in 1944 at the request of Dimitri Mitropoulos, who wanted something to cheer him up in the midst of those dark, terrible times. Although a light work, it has substance; Aaron Copland loved this piece and one said he wished he had written it himself. But what makes the music work is conductor Arthur Fagen’s strongly-accented, emotionally committed performance. He does not approach the score as light music. He gives it as much attention and drive as if it were a major work, and in so doing brings out all of the music’s strengths while somehow managing to keep it from sounding too lightweight. The frequent counterpoint and imaginative progression of the music are his focus, and in so doing he makes you pay attention to each strand of the piece. The slow second movement is the most American-sounding of the three, also perhaps the most Copland-like, thought there is a certain American feel to the last movement, despite it not being based on any real American tune.

Romeo and JulietMany years ago, I owned the original 78-rpm set of Diamond’s Music for Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” played by The Little Orchestra Society under Thomas K. Scherman (Columbia). I thought it was a pretty good piece. But I was disappointed by Gerard Schwarz’s recording of the same music on Delos…it just didn’t create the same effect for me. Fagen’s performance, on the other hand, is even better than the original Scherman recording: crisp, stylish and full of passion. One thing that helps in its favor is the clear, forward sound. My readers know that I’ve complained in the past about many Naxos recordings, which seem to always want to bathe their orchestras in echo and reverb. This one is quite the opposite, thank goodness, which particularly helps in such soft music as the “Balcony Scene,” where you can actually hear the vibrato of the strings as clearly as if you were sitting in the front row of a concert hall. The tenderness and beauty that Fagen and his Indiana University forces draw out of this music is truly exceptional, and “Juliet and her Nurse” is played with a nice, light touch that does not trivialize the score. “The Death of Romeo and Juliet” is more tender and less dramatic than in others’ music for this play, but Fagen enhances its effectiveness.

Then we come to the Sixth Symphony from 1951-54, of which this is the first-ever recording. This is a powerful, epic work, far greater in both its scope and development than the other pieces on this disc, and it is played here by the full Indiana University Philharmonic rather than just the Chamber Orchestra. To be honest, I was blown away by this piece; it’s a very different David Diamond than I was previously used to, a truly major American symphony with drama and power, and is, again, conducted and played superbly. Yet this score was met by derision from critics when it premiered in New York; Winthrop Sargent, in The New Yorker, called it “possibly the worst composition of its type by a composer of any pretensions to have been heard since the Philharmonic preformed Carlos Chávez’ Third, about a year ago.” I disagree. What apparently set Sargent off was its modernism or, to be more precise, its disregard for music of the past. “Mr. Diamond is either ignorant of the tradition or is perversely and fashionably bent on writing as if it didn’t exist.” Well, yeah, Winthrop, I think that was kind of the whole point. It is, in my view, the most modern of his scores, and still holds up superbly today, particularly as played here. At times openly dramatic, at others quiet but a bit sinister, it pierces the heart like the cry of a wounded bird, yet at the same time is rigorously constructed and well-developed. Kudos to Fagen and the Indiana forces for wanting to play and record this great piece!

This may well be the finest single collection of Diamond’s music, and surely one played by a great interpreter who understands his aesthetic. You need to hear it, particularly the symphony!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Jungsu Choi, Jazz Composer

Tiny Orkester

TSCUSS JAZZ ERA / CHOI: Stolen Yellow.* PARKER-CHOI: Anthropology. CHOI: Nach Wien 224.1,2 STRAYHORN-CHOI: What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train?3 COREA-CHOI: Spain3 /Jungsu Choi Tiny Orkester: Yejung Kim, tpt; Junyeon Lee, tb; Eunmi Kim, fl; Minkyu Cha, a-sax; Sungil Bae, t-sax; Sehwa Kang, cello; Jungmin Lee, pn; Sungyun Hong, gtr; Joseph Han, bs; Hyunsu Lee, dm; 1Jungsu Choi, 2Jinho Pyo, 3Sehyun Baik, voc / Challenge Records CR73451

This album is proof positive of what I’ve been saying in my reviews for the past 17 years, ever since Clare Fischer went into semi-retirement due to failing health and Toshiko Akiyoshi finally gave up her great jazz orchestra, that to be great in the jazz world doesn’t just mean writing cool, swinging charts for a standard 16-piece big band in a generic style. You need to think outside the box, not only in your creation of the music but in your scoring, and a lot can be done with only nine or ten musicians. George Russell did it for years. So did Charles Mingus and Rod Levitt. Thinking outside the box means coming up with your own timbral blends, scores that don’t just sound like everyone else’s. Daniel Schnyder, Dmitri Tymoczko and a few others have done this in their jazz-classical hybrids, and this is what Jungsu Choi has done here.

Choi’s brief but intense liner notes give you an idea of how much this music means to him. “Writing music is one of the most painful things I do,” he says. “Sometimes it takes more than a week to fill a single measure, which is a difficult and lonely time…in the majority of cases, this first idea is not the right one and instead is thrown out because it might be a cliché, old fashioned or simply too plain. For me, writing a piece of music is a laborious series of choices and throwing ideas away again and again.”

It took Choi three years to write the five pieces you hear in this album, three of which are actually rewritings of others’ work. What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train? is erroneously attributed on the inlay and booklet to Duke Ellington instead of the song’s composer, Billy Strayhorn, but that is the only mistake you will see or hear in this impeccably written and arranged series of pieces.

Stolen Yellow is not, as some of us in the West may assume, a mistaken combination of English words (as the Japanese sometimes do for their “Japlish”), but a tribute to a former President of South Korea whose name was Yellow. The opening line is simply astounding: complex, bitonal and striking, with Choi’s wordless vocal woven into the ensemble. The piece then reaches a section where repeated low As on the piano play an ostinato rhythm beneath an excellent trumpet solo by Yejung Kim, after which altoist Minkyu Cha interweaves lines with him. Following this is a squealing solo by what sounds to me like tenor player Sungil Bae in overdrive, pushing the upper limits of his instrument to sound almost like a soprano sax. Eventually tonality takes over, but the complex, interwoven lines are, as Choi points out, devoid of cliché or predictability. The rhythm within each bar is shifted rhythmically in such a way that the tune seems to be contracting rather than expanding. The heightened tension is such that the piece seems to not be very long at all, whereas in fact it runs for eight minutes.

Choi’s arrangement of Anthropology is also stunning and creative. You recognize the melody, but only in bits and pieces; the harmony is completely rewritten, and the music sounds like an entirely new piece using Anthropology as a thread that runs through this new piece. And, like Rod Levitt, Choi is able to make his tentette sound like a big band. At one point, tenor saxist Bae (now sounding more like a traditional tenor) plays a rhythmic solo while flautist Eunmi Kim plays Parker’s melody above him in counterpoint, following which he goes off on a solo of his own, still in counterpoint, now with Bae expanding on his solo. This is clearly great music. The ensemble finale is also full of contrapuntal effects.

With Nach Wien 224, we finally get a respite from the manic uptempo of the first two numbers. This begins with the piano playing in a ruminative manner, with cymbal washes and a guitar entering (in its low range) with Choi humming along. Then the melody comes in, quickly leading to a passage played by cello and flute, eventually followed by a complex ensemble playing in counterpoint, following which we reach a moment of quietude with Jinho Pyo singing a vocal over the rhythm section. To re-use an old cliché, you can’t take your ears off this music. It keeps you engrossed because it is always moving, developing, shifting and morphing. There’s also a passage where Choi and Pyo duet in counterpoint.

What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train? begins with low-register growling (trombone, possibly) before moving into Strayhorn’s tune, again contracted and rewritten in the manner of Anthropology. Certain notes are omitted, others truncated in length, before it moves into a really swinging passage propelled by Joseph Han’s bass. The tempo is then cut in half for an excellent trombone solo by Junyeong Lee, sounding not too dissimilar from Jimmy Knepper (yes, that is a compliment; Knepper is, in my view, somewhat neglected today as one of the greatest and most original jazz trombonists in history). Another ensemble passage, again truncating the melody further, leads to a rock-influenced guitar solo; this was, for me, the least pleasant moment on this disc (I DETEST rock guitars in jazz). Another ensemble takes Choi’s rewritten Train into an entirely new station, in a new musical universe, before a brief restatement of the melody and then a complex rideout.

Chick Corea’s Spain, already a fairly complex piece, is made more so in Choi’s rearrangement. This one also has a nice, relaxed piano solo in it, as well as a tenor sax/vocal duo-improvisation (Sehyun Baik is the singer here) that suddenly crashes into the finale.

This is not just a good disc. This is a stupendous disc. His record label is aptly named: Challenge.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Les Petits Nouveaux Redefines Manouche Jazz

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STOCKHOLM / MAC: Neptune.* Blue Jasmine.# Morning Brew.# HOMZY: Catnip.*+ Bluie.*+ King’s Garden.# Brz.# ARIKUSHI: Leapsheep.* REINHARDT: Stockholm.* ULMER: Si tu Savais.* HILDÉN: Tango Sobremesa.# Dépaysement# / Les Petits Nouveux: Aline Homzy, vln; Andy Mac, *Tak Arikushi, #Mikko Hildén, gtr; *Jim Sexton, #Marten Korkmann, bs; +Michael Davidson, vibes / Les Petits Nouveaux LPN002

Les Petits Nouveaux, a collaborative jazz group from Canada and Sweden, plays older and original swing tunes in the manner of the old Stéphane Grappelli-Django Reinhardt Hot Club Quintet. I’ve commented several times on the irony of the fact that, up until the 1970s, this style of music was virtually ignored by the general public (but not by musicians) in America, whereas nowadays it is almost omnipresent, even as background music for TV ads. Nevertheless, this does not detract from its attractiveness or its almost limitless scope in enveloping more modern jazz, in part because Reinhardt’s harmonic sense and brilliance of invention on the guitar reached into the future.

The principal difference I hear between Les Petits Nouveaux and such groups as the old Frank Vignola Quintet and modern-day bands Man Overboard and The Faux Frenchmen, is their gentler, less hard approach to swing. Yet there is another difference, and that is their musical imagination. Not only in the solos by guitarist Andy Mac and violinist Aline Homzy, but also in their ability to create new works that fall outside the Hot Club Quintet canon, they reach beyond the “classic” application of this genre to produce music that is not only swinging but inventive. I was particularly struck by Homzy’s composition Catnip, with its tongue-in-cheek pizzicato violin and whimsical turns of phrase, not to mention the addition here of a vibraphone for color. This is clearly not the kind of piece that Django and Stéphane would have played, but it’s wonderful and original.

Apparently the quartet (most of the time, anyway) uses a different second guitarist and bassist when they play in Stockholm than when they play in Toronto, but the effect is the same. Nonetheless, the different members of the group from the two different countries have added their own compositions to the band’s book. Leapsheep is a piece that could easily have been in the original HCQ’s book, as is Andy Mac’s Neptune. Yet they consistently surprise you with their new and novel approach to this repertoire, not only in Catnip but also in Bluie, a slithering sort of piece with unusual changes, including rising and falling chromatics. Homzy makes up for her occasional lack of “oomph” by producing a consistently sweet tone and a nice, relaxed concept of swing, and her solos are consistently interesting and original. Vibist Michael Davidson, who plays on both Homzy originals in this set, gives us a particularly fine solo chorus in the latter. It almost sounds like Grappelli meets Milt Jackson.

The almost startling downward chromatic opening of Stockholm is as good an indication as any of Reinhardt’s musical imagination at work, and the band plays it with wonderful taste and swing. Here, however, the guitar solo is somewhat circumspect in comparison to what Django played on the original recording. Another Hot Club piece, Si tu Savais, is taken at a relaxed ballad tempo and played with great delicacy and charm by the quartet. Note particularly the wonderful string tremolos played by Homzy behind Jim Sexton’s bass solo. The guitar solo is also very fine on this one. (I was led from the posted lineup to believe that Andy Mac is the guitar soloist on all of the tracks, but Tak Arikusi informed me that the two guitarists on each session take turns soloing and playing rhythm, and the soloists are not identified in the album.)

Moving on to the Stockholm sessions, we open things up with Homzy’s King’s Garden, yer another departure from the HCQ tradition, with an almost rock-sounding beat in the introduction and a melody line that sounds a bit like Klezmer. Mac plays interesting rising chords beneath Homzy at one point, and her own playing is absolutely amazing in its invention and technical security. There’s also a surprising, slow-tempo coda at the end. Our Swedish second guitarist, Mikko Hildén, wrote Tango Sobremesa, a lovely piece combining Spanish tradition with Manouche jazz.

Morning Brew is another Mac original, starting out almost like a C&W tune in its rhythm and chording before moving into a gentle, medium-tempo swing. The guitarist doesn’t attempt to emulate Django in this one, but he doesn’t have to; what he plays is delightful and original in its simpler way. This is his showcase, and very fine it is, too, although Homzy also comes in for a nice, relaxed chorus of her own. Her own composition Brz follows with its finger-snapping beat and simple, catchy tune, and her violin dominates the solo space.

Mac’s Blue Jasmine is up next, a slow, moody piece with a quasi-Latin rhythm. The performance, and solos, are very laid-back. We close out the album with Hildén’s Dépaysement, which starts out very quietly with relaxed solo guitar before moving into the melody. Then the tempo picks up (hooray!) as rhythm guitarist Hildén plays some nice double-time chords with a particularly fine guitar solo. We suddenly get a half-chorus in 3/4 time before moving back to 4 as Homzy solos. The finale is particularly interesting with its rolling triplets. Overall, then, a very fine album, though I wish they hadn’t played so many slow numbers in the second set.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Music From the Crackpot Hymnal

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CRACKPOT HYMNAL / TYMOCZKO: The Eggman Variations / Corigliano Quartet; John Blacklow, pn / Typecase Treasury. This Picture Seems to Move / The Amernet Quartet; Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner, pn / Another Fantastic Voyage / Daniel Schlosberg, pn; Illinois Modern Ensemble; Stephen Taylor, cond / Bridge 9383

Despite the album’s title, Crackpot Hymnal contains no vocal or choral music, but rather is a collection of unusual instrumental pieces. The Eggman Variations. in three movements (“Pentatonia,” “Bent” and “A Rolling Worm of Sound”), combines what sounds like gentle and ordinary classical themes with rather odd rhythms played by pianist John Blacklow. The string quartet plays shifting versions of the musical elements of the theme in changing ways. The first movement ends with what composer Dmitri Tymoczko calls “the ugliest major chord I know.” In “Bent,” Blacklow eventually abandons his little rolling rhythm for backbeats played against the quartet as the music develops. The strings slither and slide chromatically before the tempo pick up again. In “A Rolling Worm of Sound,” we hear lively string figures above a rhythm that seems to combine calypso and jazz as the music seems to develop sideways rather than in a linear fashion. The tempo decreases and increases, apparently on a whim.

Typecase Treasury was inspired by a childhood recollection by the composer of “a small table made from a printer’s typecase, divided into a hundred little compartments. Each had been filled with a mineralogical curiosity—a strange crystal, a piece of iron pyrite, a shark’s tooth, or a fossilized trilobyte.” In this piece, despite a pianist being credited in the ensemble, I never heard one; it is the string quartet writing that dominates, here using the quartet in a more traditional manner (all four instruments playing together) rather than in the solistic nature of The Eggman Variations. Also, despite the rhythmic nature of the music, it is much more in the vein of modern classical music than jazz or rock. The third movement of this suite bears the name of the album. Trying to give a verbal description of these pieces is, however, quite difficult, although Tymoczko does a credible job of it in the notes. As he puts it, the pieces are short, “just long enough to make a coherent statement but not long enough to sustain much development.”

This Picture Seems to Move is one of Tymoczko’s earliest pieces. Composed in 1998, he describes it as “more straightforward and in the pocket…willfully and assertively traditional.” Yet it is a fascinating piece, based on two paintings that impressed him by Paul Klee and Boccioni. Despite its being more “traditional,” the music is clearly individual in style; I can’t think of any other composer who might have written it. He fuses elements of Ravel and early Stravinsky into his own aesthetic, using rhythmic (but not jazzy) figures that propel the unusual, moving upper lines that constantly shift and morph. Here, too, his use of the string quartet alternates between using them as a homogenous entity and pitting upper strings against the lower. The second piece, “Those Who Go,” opens with the cello playing its theme against pizzicato violins before moving into quirky and often interrupted figures played by the whole quartet. In this, he uses backbeats as well…this seems to be one of his trademark sounds. Later on, running lines in triplets play against long-held notes in an unusual way.

The last and longest piece on the album, Another Fantastic Voyage, is by far the most “crackpot” piece on this disc. Written for piano and an ensemble of 15 strings, brass, winds and percussion, it is intended “as a musical analogue to literary genre fiction,” whatever that is. This music is clearly wacky in a good way, with abrasive atonal figures blasting their way in and out of one’s consciousness. The first of the three pieces, titled “The Mad King,” is indeed mad-sounding, much like Hillary Clinton on her “I-blame-everyone-in-the-world-besides-me-for-my-loss” tour. Indeed, the later, galumphing rhythm set up by the ensemble reminded me of her not-so-infrequent tripping and falling down staircases, and the peculiarly rambling piano solo sounded like her on-the-tour chatter. Yet this was written in 2012; how prescient Tomyczko was!

The second piece, “Changeling,” sounds like a lullaby for the murderous baby in the movie It’s Alive! It keeps trying to stick to, as Tomyczko puts it, “all sorts of adagio sweetness,” but the sinister harmonies and black-sounding mood of the ensemble eventually comes out wrong and sinister. I always wondered how the baby in the movie, less than a month old, had the prescience to find its direction while crawling through the streets and even find things to eat that it clearly couldn’t know were edible. This kid was clearly no vegan.

The finale, “An Evil, Evil Carnival,” makes one wonder if the composer was scared to death by the fake mad gorilla at local carnies as a boy. But as he puts it, it was meant to be scary in a “good fun” kind of way, and the music builds from its slow introduction through an accelerating second section “where demons are invoked and souls are stolen.” The piano plays swirling figures while the ensemble plays syncopated and sometimes jazzy-sounding figures around it to the sinister harmonies. What a great climax to a fascinating record!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Dmitri Tymoczko is Taking Beat Therapy

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BEAT THERAPY / TYMOCZKO: Loop & Swing.1 Kachunk.2,3 Katrina Stomp.2,4 Sweet Nothings.2,4 The Mysterious Stranger.2,3 Earthquake.1 Dreams May Come.2,4 Sayonara2,3 / Thomas Bergeron, tpt; 1Jon Irabagon, 2Alejandro Aviles, a-sax; Geoff Vidal, t-sax; 1Rane Moore, 2Ken Thomson, bs-cl; 1William Stevens, 3Vladimir Katz, 4Daniel Kelly, pn; James Johnston, synth; Michael O’Brien, bs; David Skidmore, dm / Bridge 9353

Having given a rave review to Dmitri Tymoczko’s CD Rube Goldberg Variations, I was interested in hearing his earlier music, and Beat Therapy is the earliest issued by Bridge. And what an album it is!

The opener, Loop and Swing, opens with a syncopated drum figure, over which the trumpet and saxes enter, playing what sound like disconnected notes. The music then develops through what Tymoczko calls “a Stravinskian climax” before moving into a jazz-rock sort of beat. But the music is just so complex and so interesting that you can almost ignore the rock influence (thank God!) and enjoy what is going on. The opening notes return in a different key as the music again builds up to an exuberant climax. And despite what sounds like improvisation, this piece is completely written out. Having recently reviewed a jazz CD by Dave Tull (Texting and Driving), on which the trumpet player was Wayne Bergeron, I couldn’t help wondering if our trumpet player here, Thomas Bergeron, is any relation, but I couldn’t find anything online one way or the other.

Kachunk is more of a straightahead swinger (in rhythm, at least) with the kind of quirky, awkward melodic line that might have been written by Rod Levitt back in the early 1960s (and if you’re not familiar with the Rod Levitt Orchestra, you need to check them out). Tyomczko identifies the soloists as Bergeron, tenor saxist Geoff Vidal and Alejandro Aviles, but slyly doesn’t say whether or not they’re improvised. I rather think they are. The beat shifts into double-time, with excellent bass lines (written out?) played by Michael O’Brien under the saxes (playing in solo as well as in tandem, the latter obviously written) while Bergeron plays his own line above them. This is pretty wild stuff!

Katrina Stomp, Tymoczko tells us, “is supposed to be endearingly awkward, juxtaposing dissonant and aimless chords in the keyboards with more straightforward lines in the horns,” later turning darker as he reflected on the hurricane that nearly wiped New Orleans out. But the music doesn’t resemble older New Orleans music; rather, it more closely resembles the Dirty Dozen Brass Band with its quasi-rock-and-zydeco beat. Bergeron is the star here, despite solos by others. The slower, darker music that it morphs into uses some of the earlier material but in an entirely new way, and here it is clarinetist Ken Thompson who has the most striking statement. The music tries to recapture its original upbeat feel, but slips back again into sadness.

Sweet Nothings is in a ballad tempo, built around a fairly simple melody that returns in various forms. This one is filled with solos, probably improvised, by pianist Daniel Kelly, Thompson on bass clarinet, Aviles and Vidal. This is followed by the “haunting and sad” tune, The Mysterious Stranger, with its atonal opening and odd little repeated melody, the trumpet and alto sax being underpinned by the bass clarinet. The tempo then suddenly increases as the band swings; then a return to the slow tempo for the finish.

Earthquake has the players accompanied by computer-generated sound textures, but it’s a slow-moving earthquake, one might say a tremor on Prozac. Here the score is also fully notated, with little eighth-note flutters by the saxes playing in thirds while Bergeron plays solo above them. Another extreme shift to a slower tempo emerges, with the piano playing slow chords beneath the others, playing fluttering figures above it.

Dreams May Come is a sort of jazz-rock ballad, which Tymoczko calls “a lullaby blues.” The music here is relatively simple and straightforward. I didn’t like the rock beat, though; I don’t go to sleep with pounding rock drums floating through my brain.

We end this excursion with Sayonara, which is in a funky groove but a jazz one, but the constantly shifting rhythms and the complexity of the overlaid instruments keep pushing one’s mind away from the persistent drumbeats. As Tymoczko put it, “it works its way into a giant chromatic configuration by the end.” The soloists are Aviles and Vidal, though Bergeron plays some interesting figures above them on trumpet. It ends on a soft, slow chord.

This is, for the most part, extremely interesting music which will appeal to the jazz lover as much as to those who appreciate modern classical directions.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Fred Hersch Releases a “Found Object”

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LIVE IN EUROPE / MONK: We See. Blue Monk. HERSCH: Snape Maltings. Scuttlers. Skipping. Bristol Fog. Newklypso. The Big Easy. Miyako. SHORTER: Black Nile / Fred Hersch Trio: Hersch, pn; John Hébert, bs; Eric McPherson, dm / Palmetto Records (no number), available from Apple/iTunes & Amazon. (live: Brussels, November 24, 2017)

In the liner notes for this release, pianist Fred Hersch admits that this album is “one of many” that he only discovered was being record live after the fact.

The performances here are in Hersch’s usual style: harmonically interesting but emotionally laid-back. Nonetheless, he does a great job picking apart Thelonious Monk’s We See and putting it back together his own way, and his musical partners, Hébert and McPherson, are right there with him. One of this trio’s great qualities is the way it “breathes” together; listen for the way they shade the volume, down to a quiet piano and then slowly back up again. This is superb music-making.

The first of several originals on this disc, Snape Maltings (also known in England as the Maltings Snape—I always thought it sounded like a creature that the late Edward Gorey would have drawn) is a curious piece, almost put together of short fragments that somehow make up a complete tune. Hersch and the trio has fun with this one, playing the somewhat surrealistic music in an appropriately surreal, almost disjointed fashion. This is really almost a composition on the classical sense of the word, only given a quasi-jazz beat (at times) and including improvised passages…including a few by Hébert on bass that are superb. Scuttlers begins with an unusual drum solo (sounds like sticks on the rim of his snare drum) which leads into Hersch’s piano, and once again the music is a bit odd, almost sounding atonal, and again resembling classical music, although in this case very modern classical. It reminded me of the late Cecil Taylor, except with the walls and floors filled in (Cecil gave you structures without them). Skipping is in the same vein, except that about a third of the way through, a jazz pulse makes itself felt and the music begins to swing, but the overriding feeling is still that of a real composition.

With Bristol Fog Hersch presents us with a slow waltz in the Bill Evans vein. The quietude of the music is enhanced by the omission of the drums; most of it is a duet between Hersch and Hébert, and a lovely one it is, too. When McPherson does enter, it is to play very softly with brushes. Newklypso is, as the title infers, a jazz calypso written as a tribute to “Newk,” a.k.a. Sonny Rollins, evidently inspired by his classic St. Thomas. Not as deep or complex as the preceding pieces, it is nonetheless an excellent piece, and Hersch plays it with great wit and invention. This one also includes a rather fulsome drum solo for McPherson, which rises to a crescendo before quieting down to allow Hersch to re-enter.

The Big Easy (for Tom Piazza) is (sort of) an old-fashioned medium-slow swinger, which Hersch invests with a few crushed chords and outside playing. Miyako is another slow tune, something of a ballad, and more tonal than several of the originals in this concert, but not lacking in imagination when it comes to the solos…well, Hersch’s. since he pretty much dominates this track, and well he should since he has so much to say in this piece, including some cute little tempo shifts towards the end. This morphs into Black Nile, an uptempo original, via a nice drum solo before Hersch enters to establish the melody and go on from there. The trio really swings on this one, with Hébert propelling him with a nice, light, John Kirby-like touch. Hersch takes the music into somewhat exploratory territory but always finds a way back to the home key and keeps the melody going, one way or another, throughout the piece.

The set ends with Hersch’s solo performance of Blue Monk as an encore. He completely deconstructs it in the intro, slowly playing little bits of the original tune until you start to recognize it, though he only plays the original melody as written in the last chorus. I think Monk himself might have really enjoyed this treatment, as his own solo piano performances were also experimental excursions into deconstruction and reconstruction of his own (and others’) music. So few modern jazz albums end on such a high level of performance and invention as this!

A “found object,” indeed. Hersch found a gem when these tapes showed up!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Rosen & Artymiw Play Mendelssohn

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MENDELSSOHN: Variations Concertantes. Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Lied ohne Wort, Op. 109. Assai tranquillo / Marcy Rosen, cel; Lydia Artymiw, pn / Bridge 9501

I reviewed this CD immediately after doing the Schubert Trios by Trio Vitruvi. The musical approach here is similar: fairly brisk tempi, taut phrasing and very little rubato, but in this case it works better because Mendelssohn was the 19th-century Mozart and, well, this approach just feels more right in the Classical style.

Moreover, Lydia Artymiw is a more varied and interesting player that Trio Vitruvi’s pianist. She has a richer, more deep-in-the-keys style, and gives out more emotionally. This is key in these sonatas, which are true dialogues between cellist and pianist, and it doesn’t hurt that Marcy Rosen has a luscious tone with a quick vibrato that falls gratefully on the ear. Between the two of them, they dig into the music with aplomb, giving their all emotionally as well as musically.

As I’ve said many times in the course of my reviewing career, I not only consider Mendelssohn the true successor to Mozart but, in many ways, a superior composer. He possessed the same sense of classical balance as his predecessor, but was much more varied not only from work to work but also within each movement of each work. Whereas Mozart generally rode on the surface of everything he composed, albeit with little harmonic twists that added interest, he generally stayed outside his own music (a few works, like the Requiem and the 40th Symphony, being exceptions), whereas Mendelssohn gave you everything he had. And he did this as a part-time composer, spending most of his relatively brief career as a pianist and conductor, often of others’ music (his two favorites being Bach and Beethoven). Nothing Mendelssohn wrote was really perfunctory, or just brilliant, pretty music without substance. And the same can also be said for his talented sister, Fanny, who was his musical alter ego. As for his younger brother Paul, an accomplished amateur cellist for whom these works were written, we can only guess from the high quality of this music, particularly the superb Variations concertantes which opens this CD (which are also superbly played, I must add, on records by Zuill Bailey and Steven Isserlis).

This is especially evident in the slow movements, which Rosen and Artymiw play with care and feeling without overstepping the line into bathos. There is so much attention to detail here, in fact, that it would take a full page just to describe all the little things they do to enhance the music, and never overstep the line. These are superb performances by any measure.

Their performance of the second sonata is as good as the first, superbly detailed and emotionally moving. If Paul Mendelssohn was as good as his reputation suggests, I think he must have played them in a similar manner. The small encore pieces, Lied ohne wort and the Assai tranquillo, are played in a similar fashion. This CD is clearly competitive with most of the big-name versions of these pieces.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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