Wadada Leo Smith’s Triumphant New Suite

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AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS / SMITH: New Orleans: The National Culture Parks USA 1718. Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park. Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and It Ecosystem, 1872. The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 B.C. Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave Systems 1890. Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill, 1890 / Golden Quintet: Wadada Leo Smith, tpt/dir; Anthony Davis, pn; Ashley Walters, cello; John Lindberg, bs; Pheeroan akLaff, dm. / Cuneiform Records 430/431

Trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, who turns 75 on December 18 of this year, has been in the forefront of avant-garde jazz for decades, though he began his career—as did the brilliant Clifford Brown—by playing R&B. His real breakthrough came in 1971 when he formed the New Dalta Ahkri band with Anthony Davis, Oliver Lake and the equally brilliant Henry Threadgill, and founded his own record label, Kabell. It was also during the 1970s that Smith studied ethnomusicology at Weslyan University, but only after he became a Rastafarian that he began using the first name of Wadada. He also began using graphic notation system, which he dubbed Ankhrasmation, in 1970.

Thus we obviously have here a musician-composer who operates outside the mainstream of American culture, even outside the jazz mainstream. This project is a follow-up and expansion on his 2014 Great Lakes Suites (Tum Records CD 041-2), in which he reunited with Threadgill in a quartet including John Lindberg on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Here he introduces his “Golden Quartet,” a group which, interestingly, includes a cellist, Ashley Watkins, along with piano, bass, drums and Smith on trumpet. This, I’ve learned, is an expansion of his previous Golden Quartet with pianist Vijay Iyer, who has since gone on to greater fame on his own, bassist Lindberg and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. What really fascinates me is that he was able to score these 93 minutes of music in just 28 pages. The liner notes tell us that this music “is an elegant and interrogatory blend of thorough-composed, fully improvised, and Ankhrasmation-guided approaches that allow for expressive freedom while maintaining a cohesive intellectual viewpoint.” The musicians thus “construct a dazzling, ever-evolving monument of invention from blocks of melodic, sonic and rhythmic ideas.”

Interestingly, Smith hasn’t visited many of the parks he creates images of in this score, but rather used historical research to inspire his musical portraits. He also took inventive liberties with the definition of a national park. For instance, New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA argues that this city should be considered such a landmark due to its cultural and historical contributions to America, focusing on the birth of jazz and specifically Buddy Bolden, whose music we know almost nothing about. It’s a bold risk but one that Smith was willing to take. Similarly, Smith invents another “national park” from the writings of musicologist and author Eileen Jackson Southern, with whose work I was totally unfamiliar. He also creates another “national park” out of the Mississippi River, which he calls “a memorial site which was used as a dumping place for black bodies by hostile forces in Mississippi.” I’m not sure I fully agree with this expansion and redefintion of what a national park is. And as long as Smith is politicizing the term national park, why not one on Wounded Knee? When one politicizes an art form, whatever it is, the music thus becomes a symbol for your viewpoint, and you cannot just decide arbitrarily what is or isn’t a”national park” just because it’s your record.

Yet taking the music on its own merits, without the politics, it is a fascinating suite. The music is sparse, as is typical for Smith, but the addition of a cello with its ability to spin long, unbroken lines adds a richness and extra dimension to the music’s effect. What I found interesting was that the music was, for all its avant-garde properties, essentially tonal in character, and at least in the opening piece (New Orleans) owed as much to Miles Davis as anyone else. Unlike his colleague Threadgill’s music, which emerges in small and medium-sized blocks of notes (I’ve described it in this article as a musical mosaic), Smith’s scores very definitely have a melodic flow, and it is within this flow that all the little pieces fall info place. Think of it as watching a river flow lazily by as you notice certain objects bobbing up to and down from the surface. It has that kind of effect on the listener.

Despite the essentially tonal nature of the music and the legato quality of the cello, I found it interesting that pianist Davis took a more angular approach, playing against the flow in spiky double-time flurries of notes rather than laying out rich, full chords. And then there is the sheer length of these pieces, the first lasting over 20 minutes and The Mississippi River over a half hour. Smith evidently enjoys taking his time—and the musicians’-time—to explore each topic in musical depth. There’s a lot of “space” in these pieces, moments of repose and silence that manage to bind the sections together. Another way of looking at them is like a series of conversations where, whenever there is a lull, someone in the room manages to come up with another topic or another viewpoint of a previous topic to keep the chat flowing. Another thing that struck me as I listened is how the music only occasionally sounded like jazz in any traditional sense, even less so than the avant-garde jazz of the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the World Saxophone Quartet. Improvisatory, yes, most definitely; most of this is improvised into being. Yet if he omitted the drums (which he does in the second piece, Eileen Jackson Southern), I’d have a hard time defining this music as jazz. It is spacey, moody, extremely creative and emotionally moving, but to my ears more closely related to modern classical music than modern jazz. And I say that with a tremendous degree of respect for these scores. They are not merely fascinating, but brilliant.

Due to the slow-moving nature of Smith’s music and its use of space, it is not an easy record to listen to, though I’m certain that a large number of people who have no real ear for what is going on will use it as background music for reading or a party. There is always the temptation to use soft, quiet music as a form of ambience, but this would be a gross insult to Smith. Even in so small a moment as the held trumpet note, under which the cello suddenly changes key and the bass and piano add a few sprinkles in Eileen Jackson Southern, is wont to pass by an inattentive listener without incident, though it is actually a pivotal moment in time and in this piece. Indeed, since I listened to the recording without being able to see where I was on the CD, it was difficult to tell where one piece ended and the next started. This is a tribute to Smith’s musical imagination and his ability to create musical forms that intertwine and are similar in motivic ideas without being identical.

As the album progressed, in fact, I found myself thinking much more of the music and its ebb and flow than of any association with a national park, real or imagined. In Yellowstone, for instance, I did not and could not really visualize anything about the park as I listened to Davis’ ongoing sprinkle of notes against the gentle rocking rhythm of cello and bass and the sprinkle of cymbals, eventually moving into an a cappella bass solo of extraordinary lyricism (and, again, an almost classical sense of structure). And yet, this music is evocative—of states of mind, not geysers or canyons.

In short, America’s National Parks is a stunning musical achievement. Smith’s music takes you on a tour, so to speak, of the canyons of your mind. Even when the mood itself changes, as it most certainly does on the dark-hued Mississippi River portion of the suite with its roiling, fast-paced section, Smith’s musical vision remains compelling in its minimal but striking use of the smallest gestures to take your mind on a trip you didn’t even know you wanted to take.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Schnabel Shakes Up Books, Bottles & Bamboo in New CD

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BOOKS, BOTTLES AND BAMBOO / SCHNABEL: Burnout*. Toy. Drunken Books. Dying Swan Under the Bamboo Moon. Luggage. Loss Laments. Reef. Plop. SILVER: Peace / Anna-Lena Schnabel, a-sax; Florian Weber, pn/*melodica; Thomas Morgan, bs; Dan Weiss, dm. / Enja ENJ-9636

Here’s something wildly different: an atonal, no-holds-barred jam session featuring the quartet led by alto saxist Anna-Lena Schnabel, and in the first track a “melodica” (sounds like an accordion to me) in place of the usual piano. Judging from this album, Schnabel is a fired-up jazz composer who plays a mean yet cool-sounding alto sax, and the performances are as much about collective group improvisation. In other words, Schnabel’s music, though purely jazz and not really tied too closely to formal structure, has a structure within each piece that is closely adhered to by all concerned. Thus whenever one of the musicians plays a solo—the leader included—it must contribute to the melodic and harmonic progression of the music as a whole. This has always been a feature of the best German jazz, going back as far as Hans Koller, the Mangelsdorff brothers and Jutta Hipp in the 1950s, and it remains a feature today even of such avant-garde German jazz composers as Alexander von Schlippenbach,

Indeed, strictly as an improviser I found myself fascinated by Schnabel’s playing. Despite her complex lines, sometimes going outside the strange, linear chord changes she has written, she employ a tone and style reminiscent of Koller or Lee Konitz, whose work inspired Koller to begin with. She also has a good sense of humor in her compositions, as is witnessed by the playful, off-kilter introductions to Toy and Drunken Books, or the flutter-tongue antics in the latter to simulate (I think) uncontrolled page-turning by said books in the spirit of intoxication. Despite a number of influences that I hear in her work, in the end her music sounds like no one else’s, at least not on this album. It is strange, moving, and tongue-in-cheek humorous all at the same time. Perhaps a combination of Monk and Ornette Coleman might best describe what she does, but I’m not sure that even that does her justice.

Pianist and melodica player Florian Weber is also fully on her wavelength, embellishing and supporting everything she does with solos that combine swing with Harry Partch-like harmonics (note, especially, his tack piano or paper-in-the-strings piano solo—I’m not sure which it is—on Drunken Books). As in so much modern jazz nowadays, drummer Weiss plays around and in between the beats rather than on them, which further obscures the basic pulse. On Dying Swan Under the Bamboo Moon, Schnabel enters playing the alto so high up in its range that at first I thought sure she had switched to flute, but as her volume increased I realized it was indeed a saxophone. This is a piece so wildly impressionistic that someone like Arthur Honegger would have been proud to call it his own: sparse, slow, atmospheric and only occasionally touching the base tonality. It is also played only by Schnabel and Weber at first, with Weiss coming in only for atmospheric percussion effects after a passage in which Schnabel merely breathes through her horn.

One of the most interesting and impressive things about this album is that every track is different in style, mood and structure, yet you can’t imagine anyone else other than Schnabel having written and of these pieces. Following her dying swan, she gives us deep, almost guttural groans on the alto in Luggage, a piece that plods forward like the Frankenstein monster stomping down a hill. The intensity grown through wild, flying piano passages around the steady bass pulse (played by both the bass and the piano left hand) while the drums go absolutely crazy around them. One of the more interesting aspects of this album, at least through the first six tracks, is the way the album decelerates, starting from the whirling mélange of sound on Burnout and working its way to the almost still, stately progression of tones on Loss Laments. There’s no doubt about it: everywhere you go in this extraordinary album, you encounter something different but equally as effective as the music preceding what you are just (now) hearing. On Loss Laments it’s mostly the piano trio that speaks so eloquently as the leader sits out of much of it, and although Weber is not so much concerned with altered chord changes their loose interplay put me in mind, a little, of the old Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio.

anna-lena-schnabelIn Reef, Schnabel present us with another musical enigma in music that is at once built on both tonality (mostly G major) and chromatic movement that tries to edge itself outside the chords, but inevitably it pulls itself back to G as the tempo doubles and the whole quartet swings. Plop, which tends towards F major, has a sort of strange mechanical feel to the pulse, as if the music were being played by robots—and Schnabel’s odd, quirky alto solo doesn’t dispel this notion. During the bass-drum exchange, it almost, but not quite, sounds as if the rhythm is coming apart, like a robot with loose bolts, and this is how we end the piece, with the quartet deconstructing the music.

Schnabel ends this slightly mad recital with the one piece she didn’t write herself, Horace Silver’s Peace, played in a lovely, relaxed manner with lots of space around the notes. This one starts out with just the alto and bass in an intimate duet; when the piano and drums enter, it is just for color around them, like nighttime blinks of fireflies in the deep indigo. What a remarkable album!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Gielen’s Brahms Insightful and Exciting

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MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION, Vol. 3 / BRAHMS: Tragic Overture. Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Piano Concerto No. 1 in D min., Op. 15*. Schicksalslied+. Double Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra#. Piano Quartet No. 1 in G min., Op. 25 (orch. Schoenberg) / SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; *Gerhard Oppitz, pianist; +WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; #Mark Kaplan, violinist; #David Geringas, cellist; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19022CD (5 CDs)

Having skipped Vol. 2 of the Michael Gielen Edition because of my antipathy towards the stultifying music of Anton Bruckner, I took the plunge on this Brahms set and am glad I did. These are, in my view, the best stereo or digital recordings of the four symphonies you will ever hear or hope to hear, and most of the other performances are equally fascinating and riveting. The recordings were made between 1989 (Fourth Symphony) and 2005 (the Second Symphony and Schicksalied), with most of them falling in the early-to-mid-1990s.

We start off with a rousing performance of the Tragic Overture before moving on to the symphonies and the variations on Haydn’s St. Antoni and the Fishes theme. In each of these performances I was reminded of various performances by Toscanini I have long admired, with slight differences in approach. Those differences generally came in the first movements of the symphonies, where Gielen begins conducting them in what one accepts as a moderate pace, not too dissimilar to many German conductors, but then in each one he picks up the pace and begins nudging the music forwars in such a way that one is caught up in the unfolding drama—and he doesn’t let go until the last notes of the final movements have died away. The First Symphony has a warmer, more rounded sound than the others, which have the kind of bright sound profile I prefer, but I suspect that this was due to the microphones and not Gielen.

The Haydn Variations are taken at a faster clip than I’ve evr heard anyone play them, either on the podium or at the keyboard. Gieles paces the opening theme, which is marked “Andante” in the score but without a metronome marking, at quarter = 66. This is certainly within the realm of an “Andante,” but bear in mind that the music is written in clipped time. 2/4 rather than 4/4, which makes it sound faster. Toscanini, in his three most famous recordings of it (New York Philharmonic, NBC Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestra), takes it at about quarter = 62. This doesn’t seem like much of a difference until you actually hear it. And, of course, by taking a quicker pace in the opening theme, Gielen then takes similarly quick tempos in the variations and finale. It’s an exhilarating performance, to say the least.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 also begins somewhat moderately paced and with the same warm sound one heard in the first symphony, but picks up once the soloist enters. Oppitz is a fine pianist but takes a very Romantic view of the work, which I personally find a trifle soggy for my taste. I noted online that he had studied with Wilhelm Kempff, one of my least favorite German pianists, which might explain his approach somewhat, but at least he meets the challenge of the powerful ending of the first movement and plays with some energy in the last. Overall, however, I like the Rubinstein-Reiner recording rather better.

As you continue to listen to the performances in this set, what strikes you as much if not more than the enlivened musical line and forward momentum is Gielen’s wholly unorthodox phrasing. To an even greater degree than Toscanini, Gielen frequently introduced luftpausen in the musical progression to bring out a certain detail or details. This is true of everything he conducted, regardless of style or era, and it is a feature of his art that baffled and sometimes frustrated average listeners. As stated in the liner notes, Gielen’s career “was considerably hampered by his reputation as a strident nonconformist” which made him commercially unsalable on a large scale. This is why he was “Avoided by the record industry” while his few early recordings and many broadcast performances “are exchanged internationally by connoisseurs in private collector forums.” I should also add that another reason he was disliked was that he purposely avoided a plush, “beautiful” orchestral sound, but rather preferred lean sonorities. This is also evident on most of these recordings.

The Schicksalslied or Song of Destiny was new to me, thus I won’t pretend to be able to compare it to other performances. The music is similar to the Alto Rhapsody, which I don’t like: rather on the slow side, pseudo-reverent, and somewhat drippy. Nonetheless, Gielen’s performance of it is professional and not without interest.

Conversely, his performance of the Double Concerto is lively and energetic, and again with a bright sonority which is how I remember hearing Gielen in person. It is not, however, anything like the phenomenal performance Toscanini gave on NBC television in 1948 with Mischa Mischakoff and Frank Miller, where he essentially turned the work into a symphony with violin and cello obbligato. Gielen does maintain a strong grip on the orchestral portion of the score, conducting it powerfully and with tremendous purpose, but he allows the soloists freedom to play as they wish. Happily, he has two outstanding players here in violinist Mark Kaplan, whose Bach Partitas and Sonatas I raved about several months ago (see review here), and cellist David Goringas. They complement each other perfectly, taking their music out of the orchestral context and making it rise into an atmosphere of elegance with feeling. Gielen appropriately relaxes his tempos when they take center stage, the orchestra reduced to a few winds and strings behind them. A good indication of what I mean is the opening of the third movement. Kaplan and Goringas take it at a good pace but with a leisurely lope to the rhythm; when the full orchestra finally comes in, they all play with greater intensity.

This outstanding Brahms set ends with an oddity, Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1. Nowadays a rarity in the concert hall, in the early 1960s it was in vogue for some time, even garnering the subtitle of “the Brahms Fifth Symphony.” As B.H. Haggin pointed out in one of his reviews, the scoring is nothing like anything Brahms ever wrote, focusing on bright sonorities and including a xylophone for effect. Haggin thought it somewhat gauche, but I personally liked Robert Craft’s recording of it (in his complete Schoenberg set for Columbia) and I like Gielen’s way with it here. Perhaps because of his richer-sounding orchestra and more modern, digital sonics, Gielen is able to make it sound a bit more “Brahmsian” than his predecessor, and one is so involved in the listening process that it’s hard to step back and say, “No, no, this is wrong.” How can it be so wrong when it sounds so good? Gielen’s musical integrity saves the day here.

All in all, then, an outstanding set, well worth getting. Granted, you may not find yourself playing the Schicksalslied more than once, but nearly everything else is on an extremely high level that will intrigue and thrill you.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Weinberg’s 17th Symphony in a Great New Recording

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WEINBERG: Suite for Orchestra; Symphony No. 17, “Memory” / Siberian State Symphony Orch.; Vladimir Lande, conductor / Naxos 8.573565

For those who have already discovered Mieczysław Weinberg (pronounced “Vainberg”), this is an important release; for those who haven’t, I would say that it’s a good introduction to one of the most consistently excellent and intriguing Polish-Soviet composers of the Communist Era.

A brief background: Weinbereg was discovered to be immensely talented in music even as a child, received a good education, but fled to the Soviet Union at age 20 (1939) when the Nazis overran Poland. For whatever reason, he chose not to return there after the war but stayed on until his death in 1996, by which time, of course, Putin was in power and the old Soviet system was gone. He was friendly with Shostakovich, who always encouraged him, but Weinberg had a curiously retiring nature and lacked any sense of self-promotion. His music was played only sporadically during his lifetime—the Suite that opens this disc, written in 1950 and designed to please Stalin and the Politbureau was never performed—and received only a few bones in the way of commissions. He is probably best known to children who grew up in the early 1970s as the composer of the background music for a series of very cute Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons shows on Soviet television.

Tonal and relatively simple though the Suite is, it exemplifies the tremendous skill Weinberg possessed. There is scarcely an uninteresting page in this work, light though the score is, and one often hears the influence of Klezmer music (in both compositional style and orchestration) coloring what he wrote. And even in this deliciously buoyant performance by Lande, you can hear the undercurrent of “I’m trying to keep this interesting but, you know, I’ve got to make it happy and peppy because otherwise Iron Joe will send me to Siberia.” And oddly, it is this undercurrent of desperation that makes the music interesting. In the “Galop” that closes the suite out, Weinberg switches from Yiddish Klezmer to Russian circus music.

The Seventeenth Symphony, composed in the 1980s, Weinberg switches gears from good spirits to tragedy. This was written to commemorate all his friends, and untold millions unknown to him who died in World War II. It was premiered in 1984 at the Moscow Autumn Festival in a performance conducted by the fine Russian conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev; his recording on the Neos label is the one I was familiar with. Lande’s performance is a shade faster but also more intense; even in the soft passages, the strings almost cry with pain and suffering, but not—as was so often the case with Shostakovich—with heart-on-the-sleeve bathos. And this is what distinguishes Weinberg’s work and makes it emotionally affecting as well as tragic, not just heart-on-the-sleeve sobbing. Note in the first movement, however, how the emotion-laden strings suddenly break off, followed by a forlorn solo clarinet, under which cellos play, followed in turn by the upper strings while the clarinet continues its sad, meandering tune. Weinberg always had a long view of his music: he saw where he was going and thus wrote interesting and moving bridge passages to get it from point A to B to C, whereas I always felt with Shostakovich that he was more interested in composing juxtaposed themes and then later somehow tying them together. Which isn’t to say that I dislike all Shostakovich; I don’t; but I love Weinberg much, much more.

Lande’s performance of this symphony is so affecting that even as I listened, already knowing the Fedoseyev performance, I felt I was hearing it for the first time. This is really great art, the kind of music that summarizes tragedy and evokes these kind of feelings in the listener without shaming him or her into feeling that they are culpable for what happened. Remember that Weinberg was already a resident of the Soviet Union by the time Nazi forces, headquartered in his home country, invaded his adopted one in the Battle of Leningrad. Thus in a sense one can compare this symphony to Shostakovich’s Seventh and hear the difference in approach. Weinberg is concerned with the internal, the feelings of tragedy that an individual feels, where Shostakovich is concerned with big, outward clashes, symbolizing the physical struggle rather than the spiritual. It’s an entirely different “take” on the same basic feelings.

Which isn’t to say that Weinberg’s symphony remains quiet throughout. On the contrary, most of the second movement (“Allegro molto,” which runs 15 minutes) is basically very loud and in its own way summarize the clashes of war. But listen to the careful, meticulous way Weinberg uses his musical materials. Despite his emotional catharsis, he is first and foremost a composer, building the movement structurally in a way that makes sense and is inherently logical, whereas Shostakovich was first and foremost an emotionalist, pushing his feelings to the breaking point, considering structure to be secondary. Again, this is not altogether a criticism of the latter, but it illustrates the difference in their approaches. An objective performance of Weinberg’s 17th Symphony can still be effective, as Fedoseyev proved, whereas an objective one of Shostakovich’s 7th can feel as if it misses the mark, as Toscanini proved.

All in all, then, this is an indispensable recording for any Weinberg collector. You can safely dispense with the Fedoseyev version if you need to make room on your shelf, as it contains no other work on the disc, while this one has the interesting Suite as a filler. The Siberian State orchestra plays with vigor, precision and a beautiful tone, and Lande brings out the full measure of this score with tremendous passion. A splendid release.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Iturbi’s Solo Recordings Available at Last

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JOSÉ ITURBI: THE VICTOR AND HMV SOLO RECORDINGS / D. SCARLATTI: Sonata in B min., Kk27 (L 449). Sonata in C, Kk159 (L 104) / J.S. BACH: Fantasia in C min., BWV 906. PARADIES: Sonata No. 6 in A: Toccata. MOZART: Piano Sonatas: in A, K. 331; in F, K. 332. BEETHOVEN: Andante Favori in F. Bagatelle, “Für Elise.” SCHUMANN: Arabesque in C. Romance in F-sharp. LISZT: Liebestraum No. 3. Les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este. CHOPIN: Polonaise in A-flat. Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor. Waltzes: in D-flat, Op. 64/1; in C-sharp min., Op. 54/2. Mazurka in B-flat, Op. 7/1. Nocturne in B, Op. 32/1. Preludes: in E, Op. 28/9; in C-sharp min., Op. 28/10. “Revolutionary” Etude in C min. TCHAIKOVSKY: The Seasons: June; November. RACHMANINOV: Prelude in C-sharp min. PADEREWSKI: Minuet in G. LAZǍR: Piano Sonata in A min.: Marche funebre. SAINT-SAËNS: Allegro appassionato. DEBUSSY: Clair de lune. Rêverie. Arabesques: Nos. 1 & 2 (2 vers.). Estampes: Jardins sous le Pluie. ALBÉNIZ: Suite Española: Sevilla. Cantos de España: Córdoba. España: Malagueńa. granados: The Maiden and the Nightingale. Spanish Dances: No. 2, “Oriental”; No. 5, “Andaluza”; No. 10, “Danza triste.” LÓPEZ-CHAVARRI: Cuentos y Fantasias: The Old Moorish Castle. DE FALLA: El Amor Brujo: Dance of Terror; Ritual Fire Dance. INFANTE: Sevillanas. ITURBI: Cancion de Cuna. Pequeña Danza Española (under pseudonym of J. Navarro). GOULD: Interplay: Blues No. 3. Boogie Woogie Etude / APR Recordings 7307 (3 CDs, mono)

José Iturbi Báguena (1895-1980), handsome, debonair, charming in front of a camera and immensely talented, was at once the most popular classical pianist of his time and the target of vindictives from critics who deplored his “selling out” to Hollywood. Alas, we haven’t had much to judge him by in the last 35 years because most of his recordings have never been reissued, but here at last are all of his solo recordings issued by RCA Victor and its British affiliate, HMV, between 1933 and 1952.

My own experience with Iturbi was largely one of ambivalence. I had heard a couple of his 78-rpm recordings and, of course, seen him on TV during the late 1950s when the local New York used-movie mill, “Million Dollar Movie,” would run his 1940s films once in a while. During one such viewing my mother, who dabbled in liking classical music but wasn’t really knowledgeable (she had briefly studied singing in the 1940s but gave it up before pursuing a career), walked through the living room and saw the TV screen. “What did you think of José Iturbi?” I asked her. “He was very handsome,” she said. “Did you like his playing?” I pressed. A moment of silence. “I liked Claudio Arrau better.” Arrau was also a very handsome Latino pianist—but he wasn’t a movie star. My mother, however, knew so little about Arrau that when I called and told her that I had seen him play on TV in the late 1970s, she said, “Oh, you must be mistaken. He died years ago!” So much for my mom’s knowledge of classical musicians.

If you watch Iturbi play, on one of his YouTube film clips, you’ll notice a very unusual approach to the piano. Rather than having his hands slightly cupped over the keyboard,with fingers fluttering as usual, Iturbi spread his fingers on both hands fairly far apart and had them crawl over the keyboard like two giant spiders. It worked for him, obviously, but as a former pianist myself, I find it rather creepy.

The one Iturbi record I really enjoyed was one of his oddest, Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude, as much for the music as for its performance, although Iturbi played it very well. So, in a sense, this was my first exposure to his playing in anything like a large view, and after reading Jed Distler’s excellent and informative liner notes I have finally come to grips with Iturbi. He was a very gifted pianist who played in a wide-awake, clear-cut manner. He used little to no sustain pedal and almost as rarely used the mute pedal. His interpretations were very “outward,” meaning that he rarely indulged in introspection or delicacy though he could play softly when he wanted to. In short, he was almost a classical pianist in the style we’ve become used to nowadays: crisp, clear, and not imposing any specific point of view on the music while still retaining a fine legato, undeniably clean articulation and—perhaps best of all—a clear sense of each work’s musical structure.

Although he had studied in his early years with Wanda Landowska, very little of her innate charm rubbed off on Iturbi. So much is clear in his performance of the Scarlatti sonatas that open the first disc of this set, particularly the Sonata in C, Kk 159, which happens to be one of his earliest recordings, very much pre-Hollywood. And, in the end, I think it was this that ultimately led critics to disparage him. He simply never grew as an artist.

And yet a great many pianists loved his playing, and not just classical musicians. Thelonious Monk, of all people, enjoyed him tremendously. Thus we look among his solo recordings for those that work better than others. Among the successes are his Bach Fantasia in C minor, his two Mozart Sonatas (praised by both Monk and William Kapell), Beethoven’s Andante Favori, the excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and his renderings of two of the most “pop” piano works of his day, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp minor and Paderewski’s Minuet in G. Here, his penchant for extreme clarity, lack of sentiment and emphasis on the structure of each work do full justice to the material. The Mozart sonatas in particular, recorded in the 1930s before he went to Hollywood, show a remarkable flexibility in phrasing and touch that he rarely displayed in his later recordings.

I also liked, very much, Iturbi’s performances of the more flamboyant Chopin pieces, the Polonaise in A-flat and the Fantaisie-Impromptu, and although his Debussy just misses the poetry of such pianists as Gieseking, Pollini or Korstick, I also found his versions of Clair de Lune and Rêverie to be outstanding. Listeners who would seek Spanish charm and elegance in his performances of music by Albéniz, Granados or de Falla may be disappointed; although he observes all of the dynamics markings and does not play with brutish force, he is much more concerned with structure than elegance. A good example is “Córdoba” from Albéniz’s Cantos de España; he plays with great attention to detail, including a generally delicate rendering of the score, but in the end one is not so much aware of soft Southern breezes as simply of a very good piece of music well-played in a crisp and somewhat elegant style.

Granados’ The Maiden and the Nightingale is elegantly crafted, for instance, but in a wide-awake manner. This is a maiden with insomnia who no nightingale is going to seduce into sleep. On the other hand, I did enjoy the Albéniz as a different way of playing those pieces. I’ve never heard another rendition of de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance that combines fire and structural clarity in such equal measure, and I heard Rubinstein play it live once in the late 1960s, a very flamboyant performance that inspired me to learn it! Iturbi’s two self-composed pieces reveal a simplistic tonal style, obviously aimed for audience enjoyment. I didn’t think either piece terribly distinguished, but on their own terms they’re not badly written and would please most non-discriminatory listeners.

In toto, then, Iturbi was kind of a cross between Glenn Gould and your basic garden variety piano competition prizewinner of nowadays. In the liner notes, Distler refers to Van Cliburn and Lang Lang as two other pianists whose work was/is disparaged by critics because of their overwhelming popularity, but Iturbi was far closer to Lang than to Cliburn in style and temperament. I happen to like some of the things Lang Lang does, but he’s not one of my favorite pianists because he almost never achieves the heights in the music he plays scaled by others. The same is basically true of Iturbi, and yet I would really not be without some of the better recordings described above. A mixed bag, then.

The sound quality varies depending on the source and how much audio engineer Mark Obert-Thorn chose to clean up the original discs. Most of them are clear and noiseless, but some are clear of noise but dull on top. Several of the 1930s recordings have too much surface swish for my taste, and the Debussy Clair de Lune has some disc noise or turntable rumble left in that I found distracting in so quiet a piece. I would recommend looking for a way to download individual tracks rather than the whole album and make one good CD from them…and please don’t disregard the Boogie Woogie Etude!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Simone Weil Inspires Brilliant Jazz Composition

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KATZ: The Death of Simone Weil / Rebecca Shrimpton, vocal; The Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra: Keiichi Hashimoto, Mike Peipman, tpt; David Harris, Bob Pilkington, tbn; Dirk Hillyer, Fr-hn; Jim Gray, tuba; Hiro Honshuke, fl; Matt Steckler, Jeremy Udden, a-sax; Phil Scarff, t-sax; Hans Indigo, bar-sax; Art Bailey, pn; Norm Zocher, gt; Rich Greenblatt, vib; Rick McLaughlin, bs; Harvey Wirht, dm; Warren Senders, Al Tatarunis, voc. / KATZ: Like a Wind / Rebecca Shrimpton, voc with the Abby and Norm Group / Innova 582

Sometimes, great art can arise from the strangest inspiration. Such was the case when Frederick Rzewski composed his outstanding set of piano variations on the simplistic Chilean Socialist song, The People United Shall Never Be Defeated, and such is the case here where jazz composer Darrell Katz has written stunning music to the memory of the emotionally disturbed French writer Simone Weil.

Weil (1909-1943) is described in the booklet as “an enigmatic and disturbing figure.” She was certainly that and more. Although undoubtedly bright and attracted to intellectual pursuits such as Greek literature and philosophy, history and mathematics, she was also an ardent, radical Communist but only from a distance, because she disliked people on a personal, one-to-one basis. Katz’ late wife Paula Tartunis, who wrote the words for this suite dedicated to Weil, states that “she felt a deep compassion for and identification with suffering and oppressed humanity”—but of course, only from a distance. Had any of those suffering and oppressed people wanted to get to know her, she’d have booted them off her doorstep. Sadly, this is so typical of armchair Communist and Socialist sympathizers that you wonder if all of them aren’t as sociopathic as Weil. Born a non-practicing Jew to a family of Alsatian agnostics, she became fascinated by Catholicism, specifically “the image of the crucified incarnation of the ever-absent, impossibly distant God” (like many female Catholic saints who ended up flagellating themselves or cutting holes in their hands to simulate the stigmata of Christ). Weil almost converted to Catholicism but refused baptism, preferring to remain a heretical outside observer rather than a participant. Although living safe and sound in England, Weil refused to eat more than the meager war rations allotted to French citizens, which hastened her death from tuberculosis. Yet despite her tendencies towards insanity, she was considered a great mystic and philosopher, and it is this side of her that Tatarunis greatly admired.

Tatarunis, who was a medical doctor in addition to a writer and poet, constructed an interesting text to work with. Each of the six sections opens with a quote from Weil herself, then goes into Tatarunis’ “take” on this phase of her life. Some consideration is given to Weil on account of her being racially Jewish in the anti-Semetic 1930s, her mental and emotional stress as it culminated in her fixation with the crucified Christ, and the physical stress of her TB. It’s an interesting take on Weil, although at the end I still felt she was suffering from severe mental disorders.

And interestingly, Katz’ music reflects Weil’s schizophrenic personality perfectly, moving between eerie, impressionistic passages (such as the introduction to the opening section, “Gone Now”) and somewhat more conventional melodic structures that have an underlying feeling of unease about them. Katz is also very in having the underlying instruments of the orchestra—tuba, guitar, piano and bass—“move with” the melodic structure. It’s a device that goes at least as far back in jazz as Bill Challis’ innovative arrangements for the Jean Goldkette Orchestra of 1926-27, yet not one pursued by that many jazz writers or arrangers since (Thelonious Monk, for instance, only did it on occasion, as in Four in One, and Mingus almost never did it).

Within the body of each piece, there are solos that complement the written sections, thus filling in the gaps that might otherwise exist in the music with development sections. Moreover, Katz manages to connect the different pieces so that they play continuously, with no breaks between them, giving the listener the impression of an unbroken composition with different sections rather than as a “suite” with contrasting music. He is also very clever in his use of similar thematic material which further enhances the feeling that this music is continuous. In the second piece (“Renault”) he completely switches tempo and melody around the three-minute mark, which almost makes that section of this piece sound like a different movement, but then pulls things back together later on. I’m sure there is a great deal of freedom given to the musicians within the orchestra as they play against each other, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes in canon, at other times in hocket style, throughout this suite. And yet the orchestra scarcely registers as such on the listener; rather, it almost sounds like a septet most of the time because of the judicious way Katz dispenses the instrumental forces. And all of this is achieved, more or less, within an attractive tonal style (aside from the eerie passages).

And, of course, one is constantly aware of the spoken and sung contributions of Rebecca Shrimpton, whose work I lauded so highly in Katz’ most recent release with OddSound, Jailhouse Doc With Holes in Her Socks. Without ever raising her volume above mezzo-forte—often much softer than that—Shrimpton is able to color her tones and give stress to certain words in the text without really overdoing it. She’s simply amazing in her own way.

In this suite, Katz generally employs a modern jazz style of the type that came to fruition just before the explosion of “free jazz” in the early 1960s. But this is not saying that his work is derivative; on the contrary, it is as different from the norm as was the late-‘50s work of cellist Fred Katz, whose scores for Chico Hamilton and Roger Corman impressed so many musicians while remaining outside the evolving continuum of jazz composition. In certain sections of “November 1938,” I also heard echoes of Marius Constant and Lalo Schifrin, but again in a fresh and original way—respectful but not derivative.

The filler composition on this disc, Like a Wind, is set to a text by Sherwood Anderson and features Shrimpton with the duo of guitarist Norm Zacher and Quantum Guitarbassist Abby Aronson. This has an entirely different feel to the music, conditioned by the two instruments being used, and Shrimpton, too, adapts her vocal resources accordingly, becoming even softer and more intimate in her delivery. More lyrical and less malevolent than The Death of Simone Weil, Like a Wind floats just above one’s consciousness without resorting to the lowest common denominator of “soft” or “ambient jazz.”

In whole, then, a remarkable album and one well worth seeking out.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Tindall’s Tuba Thrills in “Transformations”

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TRANSFORMATIONS / SCHULLER: Concerto No. 2 for Contrabass Tuba & Symphony Orchestra / Aaron Tindall, tuba; Ithica College Symphony Orchestra; Jeffery Meyers, conductor / STOCKHAUSEN: Harmonien / Aaron Tindall, tuba / WILSON: Concerto for Tuba and Wind Ensemble / Aaron Tindall, tuba; Ithica College Wind Ensemble; Stephen Peterson, conductor / LANG: Are You Experienced? / Aaron Tindall, tuba; Steven Stucky, narrator; Ithica College Chamber Orchestra; Jeffery Meyers, conductor / Bridge 9471

Imagine my surprise when I received two CDs from Bridge to review, this one and the Eighth Symphony of Charles Wuorinen. I expected to enjoy the Wuorinen disc but wasn’t sure about this one. A collection of tuba concertos? Really? Well, as it turned out, I wasn’t at all crazy about Wuorinen’s symphony but this recording absolutely blew me away.

It’s not just that Tindall, who is assistant professor of tuba and euphonium at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music (wow…you mean there’s a better tuba player in Miami who is the senior professor?), and has been an orchestral soloist throughout the world, has a phenomenal technique including the ability to sustain trills in the upper register. He is also an interesting interpreter, able to make the tuba play lyrically like a trombone when called upon. In addition, it turns out that all of the music on this CD is interesting and engaging, even the piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen!

We begin, however, with a tremendous piece by the late Gunther Schuller. Those who have read my book From Baroque to Bop and Beyond (see below) know that I liked Schuller’s earlier third-stream music to a certain extent but felt that much of it was too fussy and not really very imaginative. This late work, written in 2008, catches Schuller in a very creative frame of mind. In fact, and I mean no disrespect to Tindall here, I found the writing for orchestra even more interesting than the writing for the soloist. This doesn’t mean the solo part is poorly constructed; it’s not; but to my ears it sounds like (pardon the expression) filler material to what is essentially an outstanding orchestral work with many unexpected twists and turns. The solo tuba part, which is highly virtuosic, sits atop this brilliant cake like frothy frosting, but Tindall makes the most of this by playing with consistent high energy and even a touch of humor. Humor? From a tuba? You bet!

Stockhausen described Harmonien as a piece divided into five large sections, each made from a 25-note series. As the composer described it, it came into being “from successions of melody groups, each of which has a different tempo, rhythm and register.” All of which is well and good and fine, but the proof of any piece of music is in the listening, not the theory of it, and I enjoyed Harmonien because it was engaging and not dense and ugly like so many of Stockhausen’s earlier works.

Dana Wilson’s Concerto for Tuba and Wind Ensemble (2013) is dedicated to Aaron Tindall. What I found really curious about this work—which I enjoyed immensely—is that by writing the three movements in different musical styles while using similar thematic material. The first movement of this concerto, “Freely steady,” starts off with a duet between tuba and French horn over a cushion of woodwinds and piano, but then moves ito a truly lovely section that uses the tuba in the lyrical, elegiac quality I referred to earlier in this review before ending in an extremely agile final section. Tindall is pushed even further into the direction of lyricism in the second movement, “Plaintively singing,” but for me, personally, my heart leapt when I heard the very exciting and jazzy final movement, “Strict time.” We always tend to doubt that classically-trained musicians can swing in a jazz setting, and I would say that unless your name is Don Butterfield this usually goes double for classical tubists, but Tindall really swings here!

The CD ends with a really wacky piece, David Lang’s Are You Experienced? (1987-89). Although those of us who grew up in the 1960s will immediately recognize this as the title of Jimi Hendrix’s debut album from 1967, the music doesn’t draw on anything he played on that LP but rather an allusion to elements of his style such as the drone-like chords, single note repeated phrases and rhythmic patterns. As critic Mark Swed stated, “Hendrix’s song is the experience of losing your mind to pleasure; Lang’s is about simply losing your mind.” I think you’ll find yourself laughing, as I did, at the very opening where the narrator talks about being hit on the head, interspersed with staccato chords like hammer blows on the cranium. All that went through my mind (weirdo that I am) was Monty Python’s old skit about “Getting Hit on the Head Lessons”: “Just put your hands on your head and cry, WHAAAA!HH?” Of course, there’s much more to this wacky yet imaginative piece than that, such as the weird dance in the second movement where the tuba plays in the wrong key and the cadenza is for electric tuba(!), but you get the idea. Later on, when “On Being Hit on the Head” is reprised, Lang takes the listener through surrealistic passages where you wonder if you’re hearing “the voice of God” in the narration or a variation on the old “Duck and cover” command to “Drop” from the 1950s. It’s one of those pieces that has more srructure than first meets the ear, yet which remains fresh on repeated hearings because it is so innovative.

All in all, then, this is a fascinating and highly enjoyable album, one in which the whole is even more enjoyable than the individual parts all by themselves. “Transformations,” indeed!

  • — © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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