Irish Girl Got the Blues

Ottilie Patterson

I’ve heard at least a half-dozen white female jazz singers who I would pit against anyone in the field (Connee Boswell, Anita O’Day, Alice Babs, Annie Ross, Sheila Jordan and Cleo Laine), but only one white female blues singer, Anna Ottilie Patterson. If you happen not to be British and/or a fan of 1950s revivalist trad bands, you’re probably scratching your head and asking, “Ottilie who?” But I assure you that she is worth exploring and, once you hear her, I think you’ll be as bowled over as I was a couple of years ago when I accidentally tripped across her on YouTube.

She was certainly the least likely woman on earth to become a blues singer. Short of stature Patterson birth housewith dirty blond hair and a wide-eyed look, Patterson was the daughter of an Irish father and a Latvian mother. She studied classical piano when she was nine but apparently had little enthusiasm to become a professional in that field. While studying to be a teacher at the Belfast School of Technology, she met a fellow student named Derek Martin who played boogie piano and introduced her to the recordings of Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith. Patterson was absolutely bowled over and began singing blues numbers with a local band that included both Martin and trombonist “Wild” Al Martin (later named The Muskrat Ramblers) and, later, with Jimmy Compton’s Jazz Band. “I’m still trying to work out whether I got the blues or they got hold of me,” she mused later.

She graduated and became a teacher at Ballymena Technical College, but found her job drab and dull. During her 1954 summer vacation she went to London where she met singer Beryl Bryden, who took her to hear cornetist Ken Colyer’s band in Soho. Patterson asked the band if she could sing with them but was brushed off. After the gig was over, she asked pianist Johnny Parker to accompany her in a few numbers while the rest of the band was packing up. Suddenly, the whole club took notice, the musicians unpacked their instruments, and the party was on. Word got around and, a few days later, she was asked by trad jazz trombonist Chris Barber to sing with his band for the remainder of her vacation.

ottilie-and-chris-barber

Ottilie with the Chris Barber band

Out of such chance meetings are careers often born, and Patterson was no exception. While back in Ireland teaching at Ballymena, she received a telegram from Barber making her a firm offer to work full time with his band. She quit in an instant and flew to London where she debuted with his band in January 9, 1955. The audience went absolutely wild over her. For more than a year she shared the stage in the Barber band with young Lonnie Donegan, dubbed “The King of Skiffle,” who then went out on his own and had a storied career for a few years until such rock bands as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and The Beatles took over the British pop market.

Patterson was caught up in a truly whirlwind career, singing up to 200 nights a year. In 1958 she married Barber and not only starred on his recordings but also made discs on her own, occasionally playing piano and contributing songs. Her biggest thrills were when she was allowed to perform with visiting American black blues artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, who toured England with the Barber band. “If they thought her dedication to the blues was incongruous,” wrote Peter Vacher in her obituary in The Guardian, “they never let on, offering her nothing but encouragement and approval.”

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Ottilie Patterson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Patterson herself felt that the highlight of her career came during Barber’s tour of the U.S. in the early ‘60s when she visited Smitty’s Corner blues club on the South Side of Chicago to hear Muddy Waters. Waters recognized her in the audience and asked her to come up and sing with him. You don’t get more black than that, yet the crowd went wild and, when she was finished, one woman called out, “Hey lady, you sing real pretty. How come you sing like one of us?” But there were other great moments as well. After singing in San Francisco, a music critic in The Examiner raved about her. At the Washington Jazz Festival of 1962 the reaction of the largely black audience to her singing was so enthusiastic that Duke Ellington’s band wasn’t able to take the stage for ten minutes.

Her obit in The Guardian simply states that “her health began to fail and she stopped singing in the mid-1960s.” I’ve been unable to discover what health issues she had, particularly since she emerged to record an album of folk music in 1969 (3,000 Years with Ottilie), briefly returned to tour with the Barber band in 1983, and lived to age 79. My best guess is that it was work stress: as a natural, untrained singer, her voice simply didn’t have the stamina to stand up to the constant touring and performing, but whatever the case she was devastated when Chris Barber divorced her. She permanently retired to an old castle in Ayr, Scotland in 1988 where she spent most of the rest of her life in virtual isolation and oblivion. John Service, one of the few people to visit her there, recalls that she had returned to playing classical music on the piano for her own enjoyment but also listened to blues records and continued to sing for friends. She also began to paint and sketch—Service owns two Patterson originals, “one being The Dream of being a professional musician, and the second The Reality which she captures to perfection.” She was also one of the first people to own a computer and had amazing command and dexterity with it. Her biggest love during her years of retirement was, of all things, American “Western” movies, of which she had a huge collection on videotapes and DVDs.

Then real health problems overtook Patterson, In 2008 she moved to the Rozelle Holm Farm Care Home in Ayr, where she spent the remaining years of her life. She died in anonymity on June 20, 2011.

Listening to Ottilie Patterson is an amazing experience, for here was a clear, pure Irish soprano bending notes and growling like an African-American blues diva. One difference is that her diction is crystal-clear, not always the case with blues singers in general. Another is her astonishing sense of rhythm. The Barber band tended to be stiff and metronomic in their playing, but Patterson’s singing transcends these limitations. Listen, particularly, to Bad Spell Blues, Stumblin’ Block, Georgia Grind (one of the few double entendre songs she performed) or Weepin’ Willow Blues and you’ll hear what I mean. The voice and the diction is Ottilie’s, but the phrasing is Bessie Smith’s. It’s absolutely uncanny. Note that she also recorded one of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s big hit songs, Strange Things Happening Everyday, and two songs she wrote herself based on texts of Shakespeare, Oh Me, What Eyes Hath Love Put in My Head? and Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred (from The Merchant of Venice). This is a way of combining the Bard with the Blues, years before Cleo Laine did something similar with her “Wordsongs.” In her live 1983 performances her voice has clearly lost some firmness of tone but nothing in terms of guts or expressiveness. This is blues singing of a very high order.

One of the few touring blues performers who recorded with Patterson was harmonica player Patterson 45Sonny Boy Williamson, who blows up a storm behind her version of I Feel So Good, but if I had to select one recording to illustrate just how good she was I’d have to pick Jealous Heart. It’s not that the song is so good—it’s really just a mediocre pop tune—but that she proves how good she is by completely transcending this trite material to create a work of art. The song is pure junk, and the introduction, played by an ersatz rock band with a whitebread chorus humming in the foreground, does not bode well; but as soon as Patterson enters, pushing the beat and slurring notes, the entire mood changes. By the end of the record, you are left stunned by what she could make of this tripe.

If you already know of Ottilie Patterson but haven’t heard her in a while, you need to reacquaint yourself with her; and if you don’t know her, you really need to go to the Internet Archive and listen to her now.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Biggs Gets the Ragtime Bug

Biggs 2

In the mid-to-late 20th century there were four organists of worldwide repute who so dominated their field that they impressed both serious critics and the general public: Helmut Walcha, Marie-Claire Alain, Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs. The latter two, by virtue of living and working in America, came in for the lion’s share of publicity, but in international circles it’s quite possible that Walcha and Alain overshadowed the flamboyant Fox, who never subscribed to the belief that Baroque music should be played on Baroque organs. For that matter, neither did Alain until late in her life, whereas Walcha always did so and Biggs began the practice after a 1954 European tour on which he played Bach on the small period organs of the composer’s time. We shall get into a discussion of the rightness or wrongness of this practice in a later blog post, but for the nonce let us ascribe to Biggs his belief in musical purity.

Which brings us to two of his strangest albums: Columbia LPs made in 1973 and 1974 of the music of Scott Joplin, played on the pedal harpsichord. Just think about that for a moment and let it sink in. Here is prim, proper, British-born E. Power Biggs, a dominant figure in the organ world, suddenly letting his hair down to play ragtime—and doing so on an instrument he wasn’t known for. From a marketing perspective, the project made sense at the time. After Joshua Rifkin’s surprisingly successful LPs of Joplin rags on Nonesuch came out, America went ragtime crazy. Other musicians jumped on the Joplin bandwagon, among them pianist William Bolcom, conductor Gunther Schuller who recorded orchestral arrangements of his rags (The Red Back Book, Angel Records) and led live performances (and a DG recording) of Joplin’s ragtime opera Treemonisha, and last but not least, film musician Marvin Hamlisch, who adapted a clutch of Joplin rags for the soundtrack to the wildly popular film, The Sting (possibly the only time in Hollywood history that an Oscar was given for “Best Original Film Score” to a man who simply arranged someone else’s music).

Biggs plays JoplinBut insofar as an artist like Biggs was concerned, popularity wasn’t necessarily a motivating factor. At the time he recorded the first of these two albums, Biggs was 67 years old and had never been involved in anything resembling popular music before. He wasn’t an entertainer, he was an artist. There was no real reason for him to accept the proposal. In addition, I don’t think he ever made another record on the pedal harpsichord, the instrument of choice for this project because of its “banjo-like” qualities (according to the liner notes). He certainly had every right to tell Columbia Records to go stuff it, or at least find another musician to do it—yet he accepted. Why? I think the answer lies in the extraordinarily high quality of the performances. He really liked this music. He played it as if he loved every strain, every phrase, every bar of it. He not only revels in the bounce of the syncopation—something I wouldn’t have believed him capable of—but also lavishes extraordinary care on each and every piece. As an organist he was intimately familiar with the way music for his instrument was “layered,” how the bass line played against the treble and how the inner voices were colored to provide an aural contrast to each other. Biggs plays one of Joplin’s weakest pieces, the innocuous Binks’ Waltz, as if it were a nocturne by Chopin, with a surprising amount of rubato and delicate shading, and in the more extroverted pieces he constantly reminds the listener that this is really music, that the A-B-A-C formula used by Joplin is not trite so long as the musical inspiration is high.

As a result, the 20 performances Biggs recorded over a two-year period remain fascinating and valuable. Yes, I would have liked to have heard what Fox could do with this music—his natural effusion as an artist seems perfect for ragtime—but the more musically sensitive Biggs is more than simply adequate. He is stunning. I don’t think I’ve ever heard more attractive performances of Joplin anywhere, not even in the later (and fine in its own way) harpsichord album of Joplin recorded by Elisabeth Chojnacka for the Valois label, and I highly recommend that you explore them for yourself.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Listen to Biggs play Joplin:
Vol. 1
Vol. 2

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The Boogie Woogie Harpsichord of Company B

Marlowe

Sylvia Marlowe, born Sylvia Sapira in New York in 1908, was a one-woman whirlwind. From her earliest days she was noted for her excess energy as well as for her deep, passionate love of music. She began her career as a pianist, going to Paris to study piano and organ at the Ecole Normale and composition with Nadia Boulanger (as, it seems, did roughly 3/4 of American musicians and composers over the years). While studying with Boulanger, she heard Wanda Landowska for the first time and was completely bowled over, switching to the harpsichord (and later, studying with Landowska herself). But upon returning to America and starting to get involved in the musical scene, she also became smitten with boogie-woogie piano—so much so that she made it her mission to include it in her concerts and recordings. Indeed, she even played boogie at the then-well-known Coffee and Cake Concerts for blue-haired little old ladies in New York City. There’s a good chance she gave some of them cardiac arrest.

Let’s take a moment to consider why a rising, gifted harpsichordist, whose métier was the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, threw her lot in with a popular music form—and why boogie instead of, say, stride piano, which might have made more sense? I think one can find a clue to her choice in the fact that Marlowe loved modern music as much as she did early music, and in fact later commissioned works for the harpsichord by Elliott Carter, Vittorio Rieti, Henri Saguet and Alan Hovhaness, but the other reason may simply be that she personally dug that eight-to-the-bar beat. And there is no question that she played it Marlowe Honky Tonk Trainvery well. I’ve only been able to locate four recordings of her playing boogie woogie: two selections by Meade Lux Lewis, Honky Tonk Train Blues and Yancey Special, which she recorded for the General label in her 4-78-rpm disc set, From Bach to Boogie Woogie; her performance of Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie on the kooky NBC radio show The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street; and a live performance from a 1943 Armed Forces Radio transcription disc when she appeared on the Harry James radio program. There’s also a November 1944 Decca-Brunswick recording available of a piece by Lou Singer based on Rameau’s Tambourin, titled 18th Century Barrelhouse (click HERE to go to the page it’s on and listen; more on this interesting record later). Yet her passionate proselytizing of boogie harpsichord helped inspire Francis Steegmuller’s 1949 novel, Blue Harpsichord.

Blue HarpsichordMarlowe was certainly not the only keyboardist to play jazz on the harpsichord. Contemporary with her, Meade Lux Lewis made a few harpsichord sides for Blue Note (also some recordings on the celeste with guitarist Charlie Christian and clarinetist Edmond Hall), and pianist Johnny Guarneri—scion of the famed violin makers of Cremona who went rogue and joined Artie Shaw’s big band, where he switched to harpsichord for Shaw’s Gramercy Five recordings—were also involved in this endeavor, but let’s face it, none of them had Marlowe’s academic credentials. Not even Carmen Cavallaro, a trained concert pianist who made his living playing schlock in the movies (and recorded Runnin’ Wild Boogie for Decca on the “harpsipiano”), was on her level of legitimacy. In addition to her recordings and appearances already mentioned, Marlowe also appeared at the Blue Angel cabaret (3143 Broadway) in New York, pitching boogie to undoubtedly well-lubricated listeners. There is some question, in fact, as to whether or not Marlowe’s boogie woogie period hurt her reputation in the long run. Her obituary in the New York Times is headed, succinctly, Sylvia Marlowe, A Harpsichordist, as if she were just some wandering nomad who trucked around with a Pleyel in her Pontiac pounding out jazz, not a serious artist who also played Bach, Rameau, Couperin and Handel in addition to the modern composers she commissioned.

barrelhouse18th Century Barrelhouse is a fast swing treatment of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Tambourin written by Lou Singer, an elusive figure in jazz history who worked as an arranger, and sometimes drummer or vibes/marimba player, for the John Kirby Sextet, jazz singer Frankie Laine, and the big bands of Artie Shaw and Woody Herman. On this track, Singer uses an anonymous band that sounds like a dead ringer for the Kirby Sextet. I may be wrong, but without knowing the names of the musicians used, there’s a good chance it could be the Kirby Sextet itself. At the time, they were signed to the Asch and Circle labels, and so probably couldn’t use their names without incurring legal difficulties (think of how Decca sued RCA Victor when Benny Goodman issued a few sides in 1936 with young Ella Fitzgerald singing, even though both Fitzgerald and her boss-manager, Chick Webb, were perfectly OK with the arrangement). Since Marlowe plays Rameau’s theme fairly straight despite the jazz beat, there’s not quite as much going on here, but the two half-choruses played by the Kirby-inspired sextet are excellent. This was also part of a 4-78 set that she recorded at that time, but only this piece and Cuckoo Cuckoo have surfaced over the years.

In 1948 Marlowe married neo-Romantic painter Leonid Berman. and her “legitimate” career got a huge boost when she became Professor of Harpsichord at the Mannes College of Music in New York. One of her best and most famous pupils was Kenneth Cooper, who remained a close friend until the day she died. Cooper was bowled over by the fact that Marlowe continued to keep in touch with him—and many of her other pupils—for years after they studied with her, calling them up to ask their opinions on her choice of new Blue Angelrepertoire and how best to approach it. She treated her pupils as valued colleagues, not as peons. She also gave great parties at her New York apartment, the walls of which were covered with Berman’s paintings, and came to know virtually every living composer in the Big Apple. Among those who gathered there regularly were W.H. Auden, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, and composers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Hovhaness and Rieti. She undertook a tour of the Far East and Southeast Asia in 1955, accompanied by her traveling harpsichord and gowns of “miracle fabrics” she could wash in her hotel room, dry out and wear. Her life was a whirlwind of activity that only ended with her death from emphysema on December 11, 1981.

Marlowe took not only her live performances but her recordings very seriously indeed, and left a valuable legacy behind, but in the long run she will undoubtedly be best remembered for those modern works she commissioned—and her boogie woogie playing. Despite the fact that Marlowe did not and probably could not improvise (she played these set pieces exactly the way they appeared on the original recordings), she got the swing and rhythm right, not an easy task for a well-bred woman from the halls of academe. Yet nowadays her boogie is far less known or admired than her classical performances, and this really isn’t fair. Sylvia Marlowe was a pioneer of her instrument in ways different from Landowska, and this chapter of her life deserves to be better known and appreciated.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Listen to Sylvia Marlowe play:
Honky Tonk Train Blues

Yancey Special
untitled boogie piece

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Nadia Reisenberg’s Mozart Concertos

 

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One of the greatest sets of the Mozart Piano Concertos is also one of the most elusive. Nadia Reisenberg (1904-1983), the immensely gifted Lithuanian pianist who emigrated to America but always seemed to fly under most critics’ radar, has (perhaps surprisingly) established herself as a major pianist of the 20th century only in the years since 2008, more than a century after her birth. Her son, well-known New York radio show host Robert Sherman, thinks this is because there were “so many other great and unique pianists around when Mother was active,” and yes, this is part of the answer. The rest of it is two-pronged. One, she was so good that she quickly went into teaching, first at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and then later at Juilliard, and by the early 1950s these teaching duties came to overshadow her recordings and personal appearances (though she occasionally concertized until the end of her life), and two, her kid sister happened to be one of the most famous and unique musicians in the Western world: theremin player Clara Rockmore. Originally a violinist, Clara had to give that instrument up after she permanently injured her bowing thereminarm in the late 1920s, but Russian electronics whiz Leon Theremin came to her rescue with his odd, whining wooden box that only Clara seemed able to coax real music out of. (RCA Victor, trying to capitalize on Rockmore’s fame, actually marketed theremins in the early years of the Depression, 1929-30. They lost a fortune on the venture because 1) the theremins were very expensive—$232 with the vacuum tubes—and 2) no one else could get much out of them other than whines and whoops.)

But I digress. Reisenberg, originally a pupil of Leonid Nikoleyev at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, later restudied with Josef Hoffmann in New York in 1930. By the end of that decade she was, at the very least, one of the most sought-after pianists in the New York-Philadelphia axis (in the mid-1940s she was chosen to accompany Benny Goodman in a recording of the Brahms Clarinet Sonata for Columbia), and thus came to the attention of Alfred Wallenstein. Like Clara Rockmore, Wallenstein had himself switched careers by then. Initially one of the top orchestral players in the world, he had served as first cellist under the great but now-forgotten conductor Alfred Hertz at the San Francisco Symphony, then with the Los Angeles and Chicago orchestras before working under Arturo Toscanini in the New York Philharmonic-Symphony. Toscanini was so impressed with his musical acumen and ability to lead his section that he encouraged Wallenstein to become a conductor, which he did in the early 1930s. By 1939 he was music director of the WOR Radio Symphony Orchestra, and in that capacity he invited Reisenberg to prepare and perform the entire canon of Mozart piano concertos for the next season.

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It was a project of wild ambition. One must recall that, at that time (and really, even into the 1950s), the only Mozart concertos that were probably well known by serious music lovers were Nos. 20, 21, 24 and 27. I seriously doubt that even Reisenberg knew many more than those four; certainly, the WOR Symphony barely knew any of them. Moreover, this was not a project that had a lot of preparation time. Both Wallenstein and Reisenberg probably had little more than four months to learn all of this music, and then they had to perform it live—not in a recording studio where they could splice out errors—week after week after week between September 12, 1939 and March 26, 1940. The orchestral musicians’ lack of familiarity with the material is more evident than Reisenberg’s; there are several dropped notes and wrong notes, particularly in the first movements, throughout the performances of the less-well-known concertos. In addition, despite Wallenstein’s excellent musical skills, this was an orchestra that, although obviously professional, wasn’t on a par with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. The fact that they did as well as they did, playing unfamiliar material live, is a tribute to the conductor’s great skills, but it is for Reisenberg’s playing that the series remains stunning.

Her playing is simply extraordinary, and in fact within these precious performances one can hear in microcosm why Reisenberg is now considered one of the greatest musicians of her time. She plays these concertos with infinite care, constantly coloring and shading the musical line in such a way that she manages to give some emphasis to the occasionally strange, out-of-tonality excursions that Mozart put into the concertos (he wrote to his father that his music sounded simple enough to the amateur listener that it was tuneful and attractive, but contained some twists and turns that made it interesting) without exaggerating anything; and does this without the precious, overly-delicate Mozart playing one later heard from such pianists as Clifford Curzon, Alicia de Larrocha or Murray Perahia.

The question then presents itself: how do these performances sound in light of the historically-informed bias of today? To my ears, pretty good, but if you read my article on HIP practices you’ll know that I’m not a fan of most of the bizarre, white-sounding, wimpish orchestras and period pianos now used in many Mozart recordings. Yes, Reisenberg uses a 20th-century concert grand, not a pianoforte of Mozart’s time. Get over it. The orchestra, however, is probably a lot closer to what Mozart himself had to work with than we realize. Again, reading letters from Mozart to his father, one is bombarded with his constant carping about the flubs and dropped notes in the orchestras he himself rehearsed and conducted. But I rush to point out that the WOR orchestral playing isn’t consistently poor. More often than not, it’s just somewhat colorless…but since HIP practices encourage drab, colorless playing (albeit with Straight Tone), these performances fit right in.

Since each weekly program was a half-hour and some of the concertos didn’t run that long, Reisenberg filled in the remaining time with contrasting music of other composers and centuries. These, too, are valuable performances, particularly since Reisenberg never recorded most of them elsewhere. Among the gems are the Four Polish Dances of Alexandre Tansman, excerpts from Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, Poulenc’s Suite in C and Trois Mouvements Perpetuels, Scriabin Etudes, Medtner’s Fairy Tales, Shostakovich’s Five Preludes, plus music by Godowsky, Mendelssohn, Palmgren and Liszt. And what makes these performances so fascinating—to me, at least—is the way Reisenberg is able to turn her mental image of the music on a dime from the 18th-century style of Mozart to this far more modern aesthetic. Indeed, so many listeners (and critics) tend to connect Reisenberg so much to traditional repertoire (particularly that of Chopin and Brahms) that I’m sure several of these performances of modern music—and their idiomatic “rightness”—will come as a bit of a surprise.

Presto recorderThe recordings were made off the air by an anonymous recordist, probably using a Presto recorder (the preferred method by which private citizens recorded radio programs at that time). But not everything has survived. The beginning of the last movement of the Concerto in F, K. 459 is missing, as is most of the last movement of Concerto No. 11, K. 413, and our unknown recordist was apparently ill on October 31, 1939, the week Reisenberg and Milton Kaye played a two-piano arrangement of the Concerto for Three Pianos, K. 242, so that entire work is lost. Nonetheless, with most of the series intact, it is a valuable and important group of very unique performances that deserve to be heard.

So why haven’t other critics written about them? Because they’re not available for sale in the conventional way. In 1987, the airchecks of these precious broadcasts—the only surviving copies—were donated to the International Piano Archives at Maryland State University (IPAM) as part of a large Nadia Reisenberg Collection. The recordings can only be obtained in return for a monetary donation to IPAM, $15 for each disc you want or $200 for the full set of 14 CDs. Checks or money orders should be made payable to “University of Maryland College Park Foundation” and sent to:

IPAM
Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library
University of Maryland
2511 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
College Park, MD 20742

The contents of each CD (with audio cleaned up and restored by Seth Winner) are as follows:

CD 1: Concerto No. 1 in F, K.37 (with encores: TANSMAN: Four Polish Dances) (September 12, 1939)
Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat, K.39 (with encores: GODOWSKY: Three Dances; POULENC: Suite in C) (September 19, 1939)

CD 2: Concerto No. 3 in D, K.40 (with encores: RAVEL: Minuet from Tombeau de Couperin; FRANCAIX: Scherzo) (September 26, 1939)
Concerto No. 4 in G, K.41; Concerto in D (after J.C. Bach), K.107/1 (with encore: TOCH: The Juggler) (October 3, 1939)

CD 3: Concerto in G (after J.C. Bach), K.107/2; Concerto in E-Flat (after J.C. Bach), K.107/3 (with encores: SHOSTAKOVICH: Five Preludes: CHOPIN: Mazurka, Op.68/4; RAVEL: Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin) (October 10, 1939)
Concerto No. 5 in D, K.175 (with encores: POULENC: Trois Mouvements Perpetuels) (October 17, 1939)

CD 4: Concerto No. 6 in B-Flat, K.238 (with encores: MENDELSSOHN: Three Songs Without Words) (October 24, 1939)
(Concerto No. 7, K. 242 is for three pianos was performed in an arrangement for two pianos in the broadcast of October 31, which is missing)
Concerto No. 8 in C, K. 246 (November 7, 1939)

CD 5: Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat, K.271 (November 14, 1939)
Double Concerto (No. 10) in E-Flat, K.365 (Milton Kaye, second piano) (with encore: ROGER-DUCASSE: Clarionerie) (November 21, 1939)

CD 6: Concerto No. 12 in A, K.414 (with encores: MOMPOU: Cancion y Danza No. 2; PROKOFIEV: Prelude, Op.12/7) (December 12, 1939)
Concerto No. 13 in C, K.415 (with encore: PALMGREN: Refrain de berceau) (December 19, 1939)

CD 7: Concerto No. 14 in E-Flat, K.449 (with encores: LISZT: Transcendental Etude No.10; PALMGREN: Two Finnish Dances) (December 26, 1939)
Concerto No. 15 in B-Flat, K.450 (with encores: SCRIABIN: Etudes, Op.8/2 and 12) (January 2, 1939)

CD 8: Concerto No. 16 in D, K.451 (with encore: CHOPIN: Nocturne, Op.55/2) (January 9, 1940)
Concerto No. 17 in G, K.453 (January 16, 1940)

CD 9: Concerto No. 18 in B-Flat, K.456 (January 23, 1940)
Concerto No. 19 in F, K.459 (beginning of third movement missing) (January 30, 1940)

CD 10: Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K.466 (February 6, 1940)
Concerto No. 21 in C, K.467 (February 13, 1940)

CD 11: Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat, K.482 (February 20, 1940)
Concerto No. 23 in A, K.488 (with encore: DEBUSSY: Arabesque No.2) (February 27, 1940)

CD 12: Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K.491 (March 5, 1940)
Concerto No. 25 in C, K.503 (March 12, 1940)

CD 13: Concerto No. 26 in D, K.537 (March 19, 1940)
Concerto No. 27 in B-Flat, K.595 (March 26, 1940)

CD 14: Concert Rondo in D, K.382; Concert Rondo in A, K.386 (with encores: MEDTNER: Fairy Tales, Op.26/3 & 34/2; GLAZUNOV: Gavotte, Op.49/3) (November 28, 1939)
Concerto No. 11 in F, K.413 (most of last movement missing) (with encore: RACHMANINOFF: Etude-Tableau Op.33/2) (December 5, 1939)

Being broke, I was only able to afford half of the series. Since I had good recordings of some of the later concertos (by such pianists as Clara Haskil and Rudolf Serkin), I chose CDs #1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 12, but believe me, if I could afford them I’d have gotten the entire series.

They’re that good.

— © Lynn René Bayley 2016

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Clifford Brown: The Bach of Jazz

 

Clifford Brown

I’m sure this opinion will astound some readers and rile others, but in my personal opinion Clifford Brown (October 30, 1930 – June 26, 1956) was the greatest jazz trumpeter who ever lived. Bar none. And more to the point, he was in many ways the Bach of jazz. This may seem like a rash judgment (or, at least, an emotionally informed one) to those who think of jazz pianists as being closer to Bach; but not even the great Jacques Loussier, who has made a lifetime’s work of combining Bach and jazz, has ever surpassed on the keyboard what Clifford Brown did on his horn.

And what, you will certainly ask, is Bachian about Brown’s playing? To my ears, it is his consistently structured playing in which every note builds the phrase, every phrase builds the solo, and each of his solos within a tune comprises a piece of an overall structure. Granted, he uses intervals and smeared notes indigenous to jazz music and not within the vocabulary of J.S. Bach, but that is not the point. Listen carefully to each of his solos—particularly his last session performance of A Night in Tunisia—and tell me that the overall construction is not like Bach.

Brown was a superb melodist and could, in fact, play mellifluous solos without his famed double-time runs and fills, but more often than not his playing was contrapuntal and mathematically logical—two of Bach’s hallmarks—and never failed to fulfill the promise he held out to his listeners once he embarked on an improvisation.

Of course, being a jazz musician Brownie’s solos were full of surprises: not only the bent and blue notes, but also unexpected leaps upward and downward throughout the range. Although, like all jazz musicians, his musical imagination occasionally led him to flub a note here and there, Brown’s rock-solid technique precluded any real breakdowns. Most of the time, every note he wanted to play was at his lips and fingertips. He didn’t have to worry about technique because the technique never really failed him. Whatever was in his mind came out of his horn, and what came out of his horn was both inaginative and logically built.

Listen to his famous 1953 recording of Cherokee, for instance—which just happened to be the first record I ever heard by him—and you’ll see what I mean. Brown never once plays the melody straight; from his very first entrance he is busy playing eighth and sixteenth-note runs, filling space the way Bach filled space in his keyboard works, and like the violin partitas and cello suites, Brownie sometimes played his own counterpoint to his melodic ideas, thus completing the musical structure in a way that was fulfilling emotionally and intellectually. Then follow Cherokee with the orchestrated version of the tune, the Paris Big Band performance now retitled Brownskins. Here, as in Bunny Berigan’s famous performance of I Can’t Get Started, Brown creates a slow, ballad-tempo introduction before launching into the fast part of the piece. And even in this slow introduction, Brown is thinking ahead in terms of structure and substance, so that this introductory preface is more than a mere curtain-raiser. It is an integral part of the piece to come.

If you examine the first two pages of his solo on the 1953 performance of Wee Do, for example, you will notice the almost mathematical precision with which he constructed his work. Even when a rapid series of accidentals or whole-tone scales are used, Brown’s musical thought continues to carry him beyond the moment. I’m convinced that his musical thinking was at least four to eight bars ahead of where he was at any given time; he was therefore creating spontaneous, logical compositions when he soloed, not just a few phrases followed by a few more phrases.

C Brown Wee Dot

C Brown Wee Dot 2

You can hear this solo if you click here.

I’ve heard every recording Brown ever made and own most of them. The only one I no longer have is the “Clifford Brown with Strings” album, and the reason I don’t have it any more is that it is the least impressive of his records. Here, Brown wasn’t trying to play in a particularly inventive way, but rather to create a mood music album. He succeeded in this, but it wasn’t him. I think he knew it. To me, it doesn’t even sound as if he’s playing with any heart. And this was certainly not characteristic of Brown; if anything, in all his other recordings and live performances, playing with heart (as well as with the mind) is what attracts one to him and keeps the listener enthralled.

Charles Mingus became angry with Brown, and his former friend Max Roach, when the Brown-Roach Quintet rebuffed his request to play some of his music. Following Brown’s turndown, Mingus hired the young and then-unknown Thad Jones, who he claimed in an interview was better than Clifford. Even Thad knew that wasn’t true, good as he was. In a way, however, I understand Brown’s reluctance to play Mingus: Mingus’ music was circular, with unusual chord positions and sometimes several tempo changes. This was closer to the aesthetic of Mahler, the great late Romantic, not to the Baroque and Classic styles that informed Brownie’s playing. You can hear the difference between them in Brown’s own compositions, e.g. Daahoud,[1] Joy Spring and especially the wonderfully underrated Tiny Capers, which starts out with a mini-fugue (or round) in the opening section before moving into the looser, more improvised section. Brown’s mind just worked in a different way, musically, from Mingus’. They were contemporaries in the same timeline but quite different musically.

So the next time you listen to a Clifford Brown recording, please listen carefully. Listen for the structure, the way he builds his solos, the way he occasionally plays his own counterpoint; and then listen for some of these same qualities when he is improvising within an ensemble. Once when discussing trumpeters with one of my closest friends, the late trad jazz clarinetist Frank Powers, I asked him what he thought of Brownie. Being a trad jazz musician, I figured he wouldn’t like him very much, but that wasn’t the case. He said, “Clifford Brown was a genius. He could play the freaking phone book and make it sound great.” And indeed he was. I agree with you, Frank.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

[1] One online post claims that Daahoud was the name of Brown’s “drug dealer,” but this is completely false. Brown made a point of being totally clean: he didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs, and only drank in moderation. A much more believable story came from an interview with pianist Matthew Shipp, whose mother was friends with Brown, at http://www.jazz.com/features-and-interviews/2008/2/29/in-conversation-with-matthew-shipp. Shipp said, “Where I lived, in Wilmington, Delaware…was a guy named Daahoud, who Clifford Brown wrote the song about…this old alcoholic who still played.”

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Tiny Parham: The Jogo Rhythm Man

 

Tiny Parham

It was in 1988 that the British label Nimbus issued the album Hot Jazz 1928-1930: Original Jazz Performances Remastered, and on it were five tracks by a band I’d never heard of before, Tiny Parham and his Musicians. I was completely flabbergasted, for here were interesting, exotic, and well-conceived compositions combining Sephardic music with ragtime and jazz licks. Why had I never heard of him before? It turned out that Parham, who was Canadian, moved to Chicago in the mid-1920s, became well known as a quick reader and fluent pianist, and by 1928 was leading a 12-piece band simply called His Musicians. Apparently, when Jelly Roll Morton left Chicago for New York at the end of 1927, Victor Records went looking for a local Chicago African-American band that would sell to that demographic, and chose Parham as his successor.

It took me almost a decade to find all of the Parham band’s Victor recordings—to the best of my knowledge, RCA itself never reissued them on either LP or CD—and when I had heard them all my admiration doubled. Desite the fact that his orchestra was trimmed back to seven or eight pieces for recording purposes, which particularly hurt the string section (reduced to one violinist who used a heavy, throbbing vibrato to compensate for the lack of support), and occasional fumbles by the trumpet or trombone soloists, this was clearly a band that played intricate, interesting music that went beyond the parameters of Chicago jazz. Such titles as Black Cat Moan, Cathedral Blues, The Head Hunter’s Dream and Jogo Rhythm not only suggest the qualities of exoticism I heard in his records but deliver this in the form of sliding chromatic passages, downward-moving chromatic bass lines in a minor key, and an extremely clever juxtaposition of themes in such a way that the composition not only builds but continually morphs into different forms and styles. After having heard Parham’s full output (on the European “Classics” label), I made the comment to a friend that it was like opening a Chinese box or one of those Russian Easter eggs that had smaller boxes (or eggs) inside, and smaller ones inside those.

Parham 78So who was this brilliant man, and why didn’t he build on his success? The answers to the first question were easier to discover than the latter. Hartzell Strathdene Parham was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on February 25, 1900 but grew up in Kansas City. He worked as a pianist as the Eblon Theatre, where he was praised by ragtime composer James Scott, before touring with territory bands throughout the Midwest and landing in Chicago in 1926. A few records by “Tiny Parham and his ‘Forty’ Four” led to his accompanying clarinetist Johnny Dodds on a few records, following which he formed His Musicians as a full-time performing band.

Several sources, including Wikipedia, credit Parham with playing music in the Morton style, but this is only true insofar as he favored a two-beat sound rather than the four-four that dominated the scene in New York. The resemblance of Parham’s band to those of Morton is superficial at best; no one would really confuse the two even in a blindfold test. Moreover, though he used Ernest “Punch” Miller as cornetist on several sides, Parham’s soloists are adequate at best, certainly not up to the majority of brass and reed soloists on most of Morton’s recordings. The primary attraction of the Parham recordings are the compositions, and that in itself is astonishing when one considers the state of 1920s jazz.

Parham 2

What I find ironic is that very few scribes have noted the strong resemblance—in form if not exactly in style—to Duke Ellington during his “jungle band” period at the Cotton Club. One can hear the influence of Ellington’s East St. Louis Toodle-O or The Mooche, both of which were signature tunes of his (the former, in fact, being his theme song for nearly a decade) to Parham’s more exotic pieces like Jungle Crawl, The Head Hunter’s Dream or Voodoo. The difference was that, thanks to manager Irving Mills, Ellington was able to record with his full orchestra whereas Parham was not.

The Parham band finally hit the wall in 1930 when Victor pulled the plug on recording him—as they did with nearly every jazz band except Ellington’s. It seems unclear, however, why the Musicians disbanded. Could the termination of his Victor contract have impacted his finances negatively? Quite possibly. In any event, Parham struggled from that point on, eventually finding jobs playing the organ in movie theaters and skating rinks. Near the end of his life he made some recordings on a portable electric organ—lively playing, but not nearly as interesting as his Victor output. Parham, whose nickname of “Tiny” was given him for the exact opposite reason—he weighed more than 300 pounds—died of a heart attack on April 4, 1943 while playing a theater gig in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

With the limited information we have, it’s difficult to say why Parham was either unable or unwilling to write similar pieces for other jazz orchestras during the 1930s. Indeed, in his later recordings he sometimes recorded earlier works at a different tempo with different titles. Perhaps his inspirational well ran dry? We’ll never know for sure, but listening to Parham is a fascinating and joyful experience well worth investigating.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Listen to Tiny Parham and his Musicians:
Jungle Crawl
Jogo Rhythm
The Head Hunter’s Dream
Black Cat Moan
Stuttering Blues
Voodoo
Tiny’s Stomp (Oriental Blues)

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Carl Orff’s Forgotten Opera

Gisei

ORFF: Gisei – Das Opfer / Kathryn Lewek, soprano (Kwan Shisai); Ryan McKinny, bass-baritone (Genzo); Ulrike Helzel, mezzo-soprano (Tonami); Markus Brück, baritone (Matsuo); Elena Zhidkova, soprano (Chiyo); Jana Kurucová, mezzo-soprano (Kotara); Burkhard Ulrich, tenor (Gemba); Deutscher Oper Berlin Chorus & Orchestra; Jacques Lacombe, conductor / CPO 777 819-2

And now, as John Cleese so often said, for something completely different. I was curious to hear Gisei – Das Opfer (Gisei – The Sacrifice) because it was a work by Carl Orff I’d never heard or heard of, and except for his dreadful late opera Oedipus der Tyrann I am a big Orff fan; but as it turns out, this sounds absolutely nothing like his later work. This is from the period that Orff declared was dead and forgotten, “inferior” to his music from Carmina Burana on. Except that he was wrong about Gisei. This is a mini-masterpiece.

The music, clearly inspired by Debussy in general and Pelléas et Mélisande in particular, nevertheless has more of a German “sound” and color, particularly in the orchestration which owes a great deal to Wagner’s Parsifal. But then again, Debussy himself owed a great deal to Parsifal, which he heard at the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth, so this is to be expected. The point is that this is a very different Carl Orff: there are no repeated melodic fragments or ostinato rhythms here, but a floating melisma of sound, opaque though very creative in carrying the text of the drama—a story based on the Japanese bunraku/kabuki drama Terakoya, which translates as The Temple School. The plot involves the temple schoolteacher Genzo (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny) who instructs peasant boys and his own eight-year-old Kwan Shusai (soprano Kathryn Lewek) in geography. The secret, however, is that Kwan Shusai is not their biological son but but the progeny of the Chancellor of the Right, banished following an intrigue by his opponents in exile. The adherents of the Chancellor, however, have found Kwan, realizing that he is the last hope of the country as the heir of the banished leader. The traitorous samurai Matsuo (baritone Markus Brück), who entrusted Kwan Shusai to Genzo’s care, enters with the tyrant’s men and the Chamberlain Gemba (tenor Burkhard Ulrich), trying to locate and kill Kwan. Desparate to save their country and their ward, Genzo and his wife, Tonami (mezzo Ulrike Helzel), decide to sacrifice a new pupil who looks very much like him and arrived on the same day. Genzo presents the boy’s severed head to Matsuo, who claims to recognize Kwan Shusai…but it turns out that the mystery boy is Matsuo’s own son. He claimed to recognize the head as the son of the Chancellor in order to atone for his disloyalty to his country.

There are several other differences between Gisei and Pelléas. One, of course, is length: Pelléas runs about two and a half hours, Gisei only an hour. Pelléas rises to but one climax, when Golaud kills Pelléas, whereas there are several peaks in Gisei. Yet there is no mistaking the extraordinary quality of the music, particularly for a composer aged only 18 at the time (1913). Have you ever heard so great an opera written by an 18-year-old? I haven’t, either. Not even Mozart was this advanced in his musical thinking—and I am making allowances for the stylistic differences in classical music between 1774 (when Mozart was 18) and 1913. Bright and well-constructed as they are, none of Mozart’s music form age 18 has the depth of expression, the kind of feeling and intensity, of Gisei…certainly not La Finta Giardiniera, the opera he wrote at about the same age. No, this is not a criticism of Mozart, but meant to illustrate just how advanced Orff’s musical thinking was at an extraordinarily early age.

In addition to its high quality in its own right, Gisei – Der Opfer sheds new light on such a later work as Antigonae (1949), one of Orff’s great dramatic masterpieces. It boggles the mind to realize that Orff suppressed Gisei and refused to allow a performance in his lifetime, thus it did not premiere until 2010. I haven’t seen other opera houses rush to put it on, but they should.

As for the performance at hand, it is for the most part of a very high quality, particularly the conducting of Jacques Lacombe who, to my amazement, is the present-day conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Why to my amazement? Because I grew up in New Jersey at the time when Henry Lewis, one of the least talented conductors of my experience, was that orchestra’s music director. (At one concert I attended, Lewis absolutely butchered Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, pushing the orchestra so hard that they produced harsh sounds and one of the violinists snapped his strings. No kidding.) The singing, as is so often the case in modern recordings, is more of a mixed bag. McKinney and Brück both have slow vibratos, which translates into incipient wobbles, though they are not nearly as bad as Falk Struckmann or Kwangchul Youn. Mezzo Helzel is less fluttery and soprano Lewek has an excellent voice. All of them perform their roles with great feeling, which helps in an unfamiliar work like this, and the recorded sound is, thankfully, clear and forward, quite natural without the over-ambient goop that so many record companies pour over their product. This is not likely to become a repertoire piece, more’s the pity, thus I suspect that this may be the only recording we get of it, but it’s certainly fine enough to indicate how talented young Orff really was.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Alice Babs (1924-2014): An Appreciation

teenaged-alice-babs

When I was 20 years old (omigod, I can’t even imagine I was that young once!), I discovered Alice Babs on the Fantasy recording of Duke Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert. I was completely blown away. Here was a soprano with a three-octave range, a tone as pure as a mountain stream, and the ability to scat and improvise like a jazz horn. I had already long admired Ella Fitzgerald since I was a child, but what I heard from Babs was not only different but more impressive.

It turns out I wasn’t alone. Ellington said she was the most unique artist he knew, and that when she wasn’t available to sing in his Sacred Concerts he had to hire three different singers to take her place. When the great bandleader-composer died, the only wish he put in his will was to have Babs sing at his funeral at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York. Despite having an ocean between them, Babs flew over from Stockholm and fulfilled his request.

2nd Sacred ConcertHow good was Babs? I once played excerpts from the Second Sacred Concert—Almighty God, T.G.T.T. and Praise God and Dance—for an older friend of mine who was a devoted opera fan. He had heard every soprano at the Metropolitan from the days of Mabel Garrison to the era of Kathleen Battle, and was absolutely floored by Babs’ voice. Of course, he didn’t care much for the music, but I didn’t really expect him to understand what Ellington was doing.

But in the pre-digital download age, recordings by Babs were hard to come by. In addition to the Second Sacred Concert, I was only able to acquire one other disc, Far Away Star on the bluebell label, in the early years of CDs. Much later I came upon Swingtime Again, made by a 75-year-old Alice Babs who, astonishingly, still had the same voice.

Some of These DaysIt wasn’t until 2005 that I discovered “early Alice” on the internet—recordings she made between the ages of 15 (1939) and 23 (1947)—and two things jumped out at me. First, even as a youngster, working inside Sweden with little or no contact with American jazz musicians except through records, Babs managed to develop an intuitive feeling for swing, a highly developed sense of true jazz rhythm, and the ability to improvise like a jazz horn. And second, much to my astonishment, she didn’t have the extra high register! In fact, as my Alice Babs collection grew incrementally, the earliest I heard her launch her voice into the stratosphere was on a 1956 recording of the old Jim Lowe hit song, The Green Door. Because of this, I became very curious as to how and when she was able to develop her voice up an extra octave, but I never bothered to contact Alice because I thought it rude to bother an old woman (she was 81 at the time and pretty much retired). But years later, I heard a radio interview that she gave with an American talk show host around 1994, and she said that she studied voice seriously at the Royal Academy in Stockholm in the 1950s. So that’s how she expanded her range.

Babs sings MozartA little later, I ran across her classical recordings: songs from the notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach and Mozart’s famous motet, Exsultate Jubilate. Absolutely amazing! Not only could she sing the Mozart motet with perfect style and grace, but she also had a trill! Where did that come from? Still, the most impressive side of Babs’ output were still the jazz recordings and live performances. Eventually I acquired another live concert she did with Ellington in 1974 and, at long last, seven tracks from her most elusive studio album, made with Ellington on piano, a rhythm section, and French horns in 1963. Titled Serenade to Sweden, it was Serenade to Swedenonly issued on the Reprise label in Sweden, and later in Europe on the Telstar label, but never in the U.S. either on LP or CD.

More recordings followed, including the album she made circa 1960 with The Swe-Danes, the trio she formed with Swedish violinist-singer Svend Asmussen and Danish guitarist-singer Ulrik Neumann; and when I heard it, I realized that I had heard Alice Babs many years before that Second Sacred Concert. A 45-rpm single by the Swe-Danes, Scandinavian Shuffle, was a minor hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in the early ‘60s, and I remembered hearing it on the radio.

Scand ShuffleSo what was it that made Babs so unique? Cleo Laine, another singer I greatly admired, also had a three-octave range, and I loved her, too (even saw her in person once with husband Johnny Dankworth’s band). I saw and heard Ella in person in the late 1970s. Loved her, too. But there was just something special about Alice Babs: an extra kick to the rhythm, extra imagination in her improvisations, that set her apart from everyone else. Alice’s daughter, Titti Sjöblom, inherited her beautiful vocal tone and was a fine pop singer but not quite like her mother. Listen to the very young Alice swinging joyfully through Swing It, Magistern!, Diga Diga Doo, Some of These Days and I Double Dare You. In these, and so many other recordings, she showed she could hold back on the beat or push it forward, skip a word or a few notes to condense the musical structure or double up the tempo with on-rhythm scat phrases. Her sense of jazz “time” was simply extraordinary, and it was a skill that never left her. Hearing her joyful (and swinging) rendition of (I Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo, I couldn’t help but wonder what a huge star she might have been had she sung with Glenn Miller’s band. At 18 years old, she had the charm and dimples that sold so well in America along with the persona of a hip chick…a combination of Marion Hutton and Alice and WonderbandAnita O’Day.

In 1958, Babs made an LP with the big band of Arne Domnérus, which included American jazz trumpeter Benny Bailey, titled Alice and Wonderband. This, too, was an elusive item but I eventually managed to hear seven tracks from it. Her singing on this, with a purely jazz orchestra, was simply extraordinary, at times mixing wordless vocals in the upper stratosphere with the instruments as if she were a part of the band. This, it turns out, was the recording Ellington heard that absolutely flipped him out and made him determined to work with her. He made one offer but she hesitated since, at the time, she was still touring with the Swe-Danes, but by 1963 she was free to record with him and by 1968-69 available to sing in his Second and Third Sacred Concerts.

Hodges-BabsEllington was absolutely elated. Veteran alto saxist Johnny Hodges was more wary. He sat in the band with his usual impassive countenance, listening to her sing. After a particularly felicitous improvised passage that rose into the stratosphere, Hodges raised an eyebrow. Not a big gesture, to be sure, but to the savvy Ellington, who was well familiar with Hodges, he knew that this was his seal of approval. From that point on, she was accepted by the band. If you got past Johnny Hodges’ ice wall, you were in.

Babs and EllingtonAfter the Sacred Concerts, Babs’ career continued in Sweden. She also flew to London to sing with the Ellington band and made a few more recordings with him before he died. After Duke’s death, she gave a memorial concert in Sweden for him, sang a few more years, and then retired.

Retired for a while, but not forever. In the incredible late autumn of her career Swingtime Againcame Swingtime Again, A Church Blues for Alice and Don’t Be Blue, the latter recorded in 2001 when she was 77 years old. Amazingly, her voice remained intact: not just the pure tone and crystal-clear diction, not just the ability to swing and improvise, but also the extended high range. She had lost nothing.

You can explore as much or as little of Alice Babs as you like, but I warn you: exposure to Babs is habit forming. Once you start listening to her, you will never be the same again. I guarantee it.

— © Lynn René Bayley 2016

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The HIP Movement in Classical Music: Reality and Myth

straight tone

As we wend our way deeper into the 21st century, the Historically-Informed Practice (or HIP) movement has come to completely dominate the classical music world. We now not only get “historically informed” performances of Cavalli, Monteverdi, Byrd, Weelkes, Purcell, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Buxtehude, but historically-informed performances of Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi and even Mahler. One of the few composers they haven’t ruined yet is Wagner, and they probably won’t because his ghost would come back and write vituperative screeds against them!

But Wagner needn’t bother because I am going to rip them up one end and down the other for him. Get ready, folks, ‘cause here it comes.

Many years ago, in another lifetime, I spent a good six years researching the different methods of voice production used by classical singers from the dawn of opera in the early 17th century through the mid-20th century, and I discovered several interesting things, among them the facts that a) no matter how virtuosic and technically intricate the singing in the old days, the voices themselves were not very large but almost always had a piercing sound that could cut through the most reverberant room; b) some singers used vibrato and some didn’t—not only was there no hard and fast rule for such things, but no one was particularly encouraged or trained to have or not have vibrato in their voices; and c) orchestras, at least until the 19th century when such conductors as Carl Maria von Weber, Felix Mendelssohn, Hector Berlioz and Otto Nicolai raised the bar, were for the most part substandard and pretty miserable. What’s more, such composers as Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel and particularly poor J.S. Bach were continually fighting to get the “proper” size and quality forces with which to perform their works, and in many cases felt cheated that the number of players and singers were almost never up to the numbers they wanted. Moreover, this was as true of secular performances of opera as it was of such religious works as Handel’s Messiah (Handel believed that only once of all the times he conducted the work he had anything close to the proper amount of musicians) and Bach’s Passions (he always felt cheated out of the right forces by his employers at St. Thomas Church). And I learned many other things as well: that opera singers usually, not occasionally, departed from the written score to stick in trills, roulades, cadenzas and other such folderol at whim; that even Mozart of sainted memory always wanted larger and better orchestras than those he had to fight with when playing his concertos on the road; and that pitch—almost always thought of nowadays to have been around a half-tone lower than what we deal with today—fluctuated so wildly from city to city over a period of some 50 years that no one could determine what pitch was to be used until they landed in that locale. If you want a good laugh sometimes, take a look at Alexander John Ellis’ History of Musical Pitch. If you were an itinerant musician traveling Eastern and Western Europe during the period 1751-1809 (like Haydn, for instance), you wouldn’t know what to expect: Handel’s tuning fork in 1751 was supposedly set to A=422.5 while in 1783 Paris that of court tuner Pascal Taskin was set at 409; Mozart’s pitch in 1780 Vienna is supposed to have been A=421.6 (why the hell the .6?), but at around the same time the cathedral organ at Seville, Spain was tuned to A=419.6. But earlier on, in 1708, the organ at the Royal Chapel was tuned to 474.1 by Bernhardt Smith and old Austrian military band pitch was 460. In 1838 London the pitch was duly recorded as A=461, but the actual pitch of a flute in the orchestra that year was A=453.3. That must have been some wild bitonal orchestra, man! Meanwhile at the Opéra-Comique de Paris, pitch was set at A=427.6, this around the time (1829) when the standardized pitch of the Paris Opera was 440. But that was just the orchestral pitch; in that same year, the pitch of the Paris Opera’s rehearsal piano was A=425.5!!!

And more to the point, the central core of the HIP mindset and the one that dictates more than any other the character of performances, string players of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries DID NOT use straight tone exclusively, or even most of the time with only rare moments of vibrato for color. In addition, they often used very strong bow strokes which at close quarters could rattle the nerves. And both singers and string players used a lot of portamento. Please pay close attention to this quote from Francesco Geminiani’s treatise on violin playing:

Many gentlemen players on bow instruments are so exceeding fond of the tremolo, that they apply it wherever they possibly can. This grace has a resemblance to that wavering found given by two of the unisons of an organ, a little out of tune; or to the voice of one who is paralytic; a song from whom would be one continued tremolo from beginning to end… The proper stop [to place the finger] is a fixed point, from which the least deviation is erroneous: consequently the tremolo, which is a departure from that point, will not only confuse the harmony to the hearers who are near the band, but also enfeeble it to those at a distance.[1]

One of the recording I explored, and one of the very first HIP performances ever recorded, was August Wenzinger’s 1955 performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo using a small orchestra with straight tone in the strings. If you ever find it, try listening to it: it sounds like crap on a stick. The string intonation makes the opera sound bitonal. The only saving grace of the entire recording is a very young Fritz Wunderlich as Orfeo.

None of this fits in with the almost Fascist-like mindset that determines how HIP performances are given. In addition, certain other features—all of them unpleasant—have been added to their mythological construct of how early music “sounded” to contemporary audiences. Among the most prominent and irritating:

  • Uninflected playing and singing, what you might describe as a “flat affect.” Proponents of this bizarre cult use as an excuse that they are “letting the music speak for itself.”
  • Overly inflected playing and singing, with all kinds of little un-notated swells, choppy attacks on certain notes, and a purposely un-legato approach to music that was obviously meant to be played legato. (You may note that the first and second of these contradict each other, but such is the HIP religion that apparently differing cults are permissible as long as they adhere to the basic tenet of straight tone.)
  • Forcibly reduced instrumental and choral forces which, when combined with the insistence on straight tone, creates a sound that isn’t even human. It sounds exactly like a MIDI but, considering how addicted some modern listeners are to MIDIs, they don’t find it as objectionable as I do.
  • An elimination, regardless of the size of forces used, of emotional projection. Apparently the mindset is that since earlier musicians “always” used small forces and no vibrato, they couldn’t possibly have projected music emotionally, thus we have no right to do so.

As many musicologists (particularly Richard Taruskin and the late Joseph Kerman) and music critics have complained, the first problem with the HIP movement is that we only know so much about how music was produced way back when, and when we do read first-hand accounts they often conflict in the information they impart. I would also add one specific feature of musical performance that was a constant and not a variable up through the third decade of the 20th century, and that was the use of portamento. It was used often, particularly in singing and string playing; it was generally used broadly; and it was considered an important and cultured component of musical performance. But would any string player, string section or singer use portamento today? Of course not, because conductors like Felix Weingartner, Erich Kleiber, Arturo Toscanini and even Leopold Stokowski purged it from orchestral and operatic performances as a tradition not based on any provable intent by the composers. But if we want to be historically authentic, we should by all means use portamento often and regularly.

I think you can see where this is heading. The whole HIP construct is essentially a sand castle, held together by the force of imperious and closed-minded academics and scholars and forced down the throat of a gullible public who assume that they must be right because they know more than we do. But it just isn’t so for the most part. I shall soon explain some of the features of HIP performance that are right and good, but for the time being let us delve a bit further into this slag-heap of rubbish.

  1. Countertenors. If I hear one more goddamned countertenor singing a role that should by all means be done by a female mezzo or a male tenor, I think I’ll scream. The justification for this is that many male operatic roles were sung in the 18th century, and even into the early 19th, by castrati and since castrati don’t exist any more we have to use countertenors. But the castrati were really only popular in Italy, Germany, and to a lesser extent Great Britain. The French absolutely detested them, yet it is in French performances of today that you most often hear countertenors. The British had a comme ci – comme ca attitude towards them and eventually came to reject them. By the early 19th century when Giovanni Velluti, the last stage castrato, performed in England (in Meyerbeer’s Crociato in Egitto), Lord Mount Edgcumbe wrote that from his first sung notes he experienced “a shock of surprise, almost of disgust.” The Spanish evolved a very specialized and unique form of falsetto singing in which the upper register was projected with the force of a female soprano or alto, but such singers were mostly used in church music. Henry Purcell called his own voice a “counter-tenor” and wrote roles for them in his operas (i.e., Secrecy and Summer in The Fairy Queen), but contemporary evidence suggests that these voices, like Purcell’s own, were a form of a very high tenor who could reach into the alto range like Dennis Day or Russell Oberlin. Nowadays we have a few countertenors who can do this, among them Jochen Kowalski whose voice is hard and tight-sounding and Philippe Jaroussky whose voice is sweet and pleasing, but for the most part what we get is that awful hollow sound that reaches my ears like nails on a blackboard.
  2. You got the right keys, but the wrong keyboard. What is it with pianists who insist on playing Beethoven on instruments popular during Mozart’s childhood, or Brahms on instruments that Mendelssohn had to struggle with? Don’t they realize that keyboard construction and sound power increased by leaps and bounds during those decades? Have we forgotten how thrilled Beethoven was with each new advance in piano manufacture, even in his decades of deafness? Do you remember, umm, the HAMMERKLAVIER Sonata? Hellooooo?? But this hasn’t stopped pianists from playing Beethoven on the wrong instruments. Or Brahms. Recently one Philipp Vogler recorded Brahms’ 1879 and later Violin Sonatas on an 1847 Streicher piano. What? Walter Frisch, in the book Brahms and his World, states uncategorically that “Brahms favored the more technologically advanced instruments of his day”—in December 1865, in fact, he performed on a Steinway concert grand. So why did Vogler use an 1847 instrument? Because, when Brahms visited his friends Maria and Dr. Richard Felliger in 1889, where he made his only cylinder recordings, they owned an 1847 Streicher! Hey, hey, hey! This proves that Brahms loved the Streicher, so we’re going to ram it down your throat!
  3. Anemic-sounding harpsichords and organs. This is another bane of mine. The late Virgil Fox was the last unquestionably great organist to go down fighting against this idiocy to his dying day. His argument, which is borne out by historical fact, is that if Bach had access to larger and more colorful organs he would have gladly used one. Indeed, on his few journeys outside Leipzig Bach was absolutely delighted by organs that had unusual stops that could mimic the sounds of bells, carillons, and oboes. As for harpsichords, the modern mindset seems to be that the smaller, weaker, and more pathetic they sound the better, but such modern-day mavericks as Elizabeth Farr and Anna Paradiso have shown that larger-framed harpsichords with bold, colorful sounds did indeed exist in the old days and were often the instrument of preference for those lucky or wealthy enough to own them. Farr uses a huge harpsichord with 16-foot strings sounding an octave lower than 8-foot strings. Keith Hill, who reconstructed this instrument in our time, based it on a Flemish model originally built from the late 16th century onward by the Ruckers family. Incidentally, Flemish harpsichord builders were the first to make two-manual harpsichords as early as 1600, a fact which unfortunately contradicts the claims of historically-uninformed listeners who insist that such instruments are a modern aberration. The early version of the historically-informed crowd in the 1940s and ‘50s railed against Wanda Landowska’s use of a Pleyel concert piano-sized harpsichord solidly built so she could travel with it as an abomination, but even a cursory listen to Farr’s recordings on her family-sized harpsichord will prove that similar instruments existed in Bach’s time and before. Paradiso has told me that she fights almost constant battles against the HIP crowd by not only using a colorful-sounding harpsichord (not so large as Farr’s, however) but also by injecting the music with color, drama and a sweeping sense of phrasing. Which brings us to:
  4. Crappy phrasing. If I hear one more singer, soloist or orchestra play in such a manner that the music doesn’t flow I am going to go insane. THIS SIMPLY ISN’T MUSICAL! IT’S NONSENSE! Who told these people that it was OK to play this way, and why do they persist on ruining every piece they perform with their inanities? There isn’t a single surviving document from the 17th or 18th century that verifies or describes such phrasing…not one. It goes beyond reason that they persist in this nonsense. Yet they do…over and over and over and over again. Listen, for instance, to modern performances of Purcell’s famous Chaconne in G Minor by such groups as Il Giardino Armonico or the Purcell Quartet: despite absolutely no notation or suggestion from Purcell, the piece is taken at a ridiculously brisk tempo and each and every note is detached from the notes before and after it. What the hell??? This despite Richard Taruskin’s (and many others’) insistence that historically informed performances are radically inauthentic, shaped by “an ideal of fleet coolness and light that is wholly born of ironized 20th-century taste.” As Daniel Leech-Wilson wrote in Project Muse (February 2005), “Under Taruskin’s influence, a consensus seems to have emerged that historically-informed performance is as good as the musical results it produces, but that there’s no way beyond the obvious externals (instruments and editions) of showing that it’s historical. On the contrary, there are plenty of reasons to suppose that it is not.”
  5. Bizarre historical claims. The worst of these insist that Bach’s continuo accompaniments are often missing from his scores because he expected the performer to “improvise” his or her own—which they usually do with puerile and anemic creations that a first-year jazz student could surpass in a gig. But even as far back as 1906—yea, verily, in the Bad Old Days—it was Felix Weingartner (in On Conducting) who pointed out that common sense dictates that the reason he didn’t notate them was that he couldn’t conceive of anyone else playing the music other than himself! As Sherlock Holmes once famously said, when you remove all other posible explanations the one that is left, no matter how implausible, has to be the truth. Another one is that older composers orchestrated the way they did because that was the “sound” they wanted; but again we have Weingartner to thank (in his most famous book, On the Performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies) for explaining—again, using common sense—that Beethoven often had to “work around” the deficiencies of instruments in his day, particularly those valveless horns with their “lipped” false notes and weaker sound, in scoring many chords for the orchestra. Weingartner had no compunction about occasionally doubling winds or adding a few strings in order to offset the much stronger-sounding modern horns and trombones of his day, but he held the line at adding instruments not sanctioned by Beethoven. But as Taruskin noted in the watering down of the HIP orchestra to purposely sound anemic, this hasn’t stopped famous HIP conductors from forcing the strings to play with light bow strokes and that obnoxious straight tone and thus have the remaining orchestra similarly decrease its volume so that the natural horns can stand out—exactly the opposite and wrong solution.

Undoubtedly the most bizarre claim I’ve read in recent years comes from the well-respected conductor Sir Roger Norrington. In 2011 he claimed that since the Vienna Philharmonic was (in his opinion) the last major orchestra to continue using straight tone violins into the late 1930s, as evidenced (so he claims) by Bruno Walter’s 1938 live recording of the Mahler Ninth Symphony, that it is not only permissible but right to perform Mahler symphonies with straight tone! Well, I once owned that Walter Mahler Ninth, and I admit that the strings sound rather strange and strained, but I attribute that to the extraordinary tension of the occasion—the performance was given very shortly before the Nazis invaded Austria, and the VPO’s Jewish concertmaster, the great Arnold Rosé, knew he was going to be targeted for extinction—plus the fact that, for whatever reason, the performance was recorded (unusually for EMI) using inferior microphones. I questioned Norrington via e-mail if this meant that all of the early electrical recordings of the VPO conducted by Clemens Krauss, Issay Dobrowen, George Szell, Arturo Toscanini and other Walter performances (specifically, since we’re talking about Mahler, his 1936 Das Lied von der Erde) used straight tone, because those recordings clearly don’t show it, as anyone with a pair of ears can clearly hear. Not surprisingly, Norrington never answered me. I doubt that he had paid any attention to all those other recordings because they didn’t serve his agenda.

But there is far more evidence against the claims made by the HIP Mafia than there is in favor of it. You want to hear performances by violinists who probably sounded much like those of the 18th century? Try listening to the recordings, rare but listenable, of Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) and Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), particularly those of Bach’s music. It is fleet yet stylish; it has musicality; the violin sings while using some straight tone but more often than not a light (and I emphasize the word light) vibrato. Or, if you want better sound, try the output of Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947) whose playing, constantly alternating straight tone with vibrato and often using a generous portamento, was considered outré and anachronistic by the 1920s. (Violin pedagogue Carl Flesch detested Huberman and said so in print; Sir Thomas Beecham was quoted as saying of Huberman, “A great musician, a very fine musician…it’s a pity he can’t play the violin!”) In addition to the use of portamento, incidentally, there was another stylistic device used mostly by singers in the 18th and 19th centuries that had all but died out by the time recordings came along, and that was the grace note or accacciatura attacked from above, rather than from below, the principal note. You can hear this on recordings of the great Italian tenor Alessandro Bonci (1870-1940) and, in the recordings of the only castrato soprano to record, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), you can also hear something even more different, the accacciatura from an octave below. You want to give historically authentic performances? Start using devices like these—and if you don’t, just stop the whole charade once and for all.

There is also strong evidence that Baroque orchestras who used straight tone also used strong downbow strokes that rattled the nerves of their listeners (this in a 1791 report by Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Kapellmeister at the Berlin court, of a concert he had attended in 1785) that he appreciated hearing the strings from a distance because they weren’t as nasty-sounding. This was a highly influential tract, as it eventually led to these straight-toned violin sections playing at a softer volume than they did during the 18th century…yet one more move from the reality of that time. As far as the size of performing forces go, Johann Sebastian Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel said that his father always wanted more singers and musicians than he had, that the only reason he used such small groups was because his employers at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig wouldn’t give him the money. When C.P.E. Bach performed the Symbolum Niceum section of his father’s Mass in B Minor in 1786, he used a large orchestra and chorus, as (he said) his father always intended, but now we have to suffer through performances with small performing groups, punk instruments and choirs, just because J.S. Bach suffered through them? Give me a break. Maybe we should make the musicians also play by candlelight, wear powdered wigs, and come and go through the servants’ entrance.

Earlier in this article I promised to go over the few good things in the HIP movement, and so I shall. For one thing, it erased the popular affinity for lush, heavy performances of early music. If you want to hear a performance of Purcell’s Chaconne as wrong-headed as the HIP versions, for instance, listen to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s directed by Pinchas Zukerman. The tempo is right but the performance sounds like a funeral dirge because it’s just too heavy and soupy. Some (and I emphasize the word SOME) HIP performers get the balance between intent and execution better than others: excellent phrasing, terraced dynamics, and emotional projection. Canada’s Tafelmusik is one such organization, as is the CPE Bach Kammerochester. Jordi Savall’s 1980s performances of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos is absoltely superb, as are some of John Eliot Gardiner’s early performances of Bach, Monteverdi and Handel. One of the more interesting performers, because he started as one of the very early progenitors of early music performance before straight tone became a religion and has continued to the present day, is Helmuth Rilling. Rilling has constantly refined and reduced his forces yet refuses to cave in to the affectation for straight tone, and consistently gives interesting interpretations. I also like some of the modern recordings of early operas that walk the line between HIP affectation and honest emotion, such as Marc Minkowski’s recording of Gluck’s Armide, Giovanni Antonini’s recording of Bellini’s Norma, Giuliano Carella’s performance of Verdi’s Ernani and Antonino Fogliani’s superb rendition of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Each of these, using smaller voices than we’re used to but not lacking in emotional projection (and not using straight tone), have shed new light on these works and thereby given us a new way of hearing them. Likewise Dutch conductor Peter Dijkstra’s performance of the Bach St. Matthew Passion uses soloists like Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin and a chorus that sound like human beings, not like computerized sounds. All these, and others like them, are valuable additions to our understanding of the music. And, of course, the real innovator and pioneer of the whole movement in our lifetime (there were others in the 1910s and ‘20s, like the Dolmetsch Family and Bed Stad’s American Society of the Ancient Instruments) is Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Unlike nearly everyone who has followed since the “revolution” of the late 1970s instigated by Christopher Hogwood, Harnoncourt has always viewed the use of early instruments as a means to an end, not an end in itself, and for him that end is an emotionally affecting performance. Yes, there are several Harnoncourt performances in which the tempos are erratic and sometimes too slow, but his performances of Monteverdi’s L’Amento d’Arianna (with Cathy Berberian, scarcely a HIP soprano!), Haydn’s Armida, Mozart’s Horn Concertos (with Hermann Baumann) and Schubert’s complete Symphonies (with the Concertgebouw Orchestra) are watershed performances and, in my view, still benchmark recordings.

But for the most part, as you have seen, the HIP movement is a sham and a fraud. The so-called evidence they use is incomplete and apocryphal and, as I have shown, they purposely eliminate any performance style or quirk documented from the old days that does not serve their agenda. They seem hell bent on ruining older music to the point where the majority of listeners find it hateful and disgusting to listen to, all the while saying among themselves (and to whatever critics will print their nonsense) that it sounds so much better without emotion, with chopped phrasing and without dynamics shadings. There seems to be no end in sight, but thankfully there are numerous older recordings that display the music in a better light, going as far back in time as the 1920s—listen, for instance, to the surprisingly idiomatic 1928 recordings of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos made by Anthony Bernard and a small British orchestra or, if you’d like to hear how Beethoven String Quartets may have been played in Beethoven’s own time, try the elusive but fascinating recordings of the Rosé Quartet from the same period.

One final word. If you really want to know why the HIP movement is a sham, listen to Debussy and Prokofiev playing their own music, Richard Strauss conducting Don Quixote or Till Eulenspiegel, Maurice Ravel’s own recording of his Bolero or Rachmaninov’s performances of his own concertos. Not one performance given today replicates what these composers did with their own music; in fact, the Rachmaninov Concertos, some of the Debussy piano rolls and Prokofiev’s solo recordings are actually banned in music classes because they don’t follow the scores exactly! In Schoenberg’s own recording of Pierrot Lunaire the sprechstimme artist, Erika Stiedry-Wagner, sings several of the words on incorrect pitches—and Schoenberg had numerous takes of each song to choose from. The orchestra in the original premiere performance of Le Sacre du Printemps made numerous mistakes, so is this the way we should play the score? In the world premiere performance of The Rake’s Progress—conducted by the composer himself and actually recorded!—there are missed cues, flubbed notes, and passages where Stravinsky had to slow down the tempo to get the music right. None of Stravinsky’s own three recordings of his Sacre sound anything like one another in tempo or phrasing. And these are cases where we know what the composers did with their own music. So how can you tell me that what you’re doing—without a single recorded performance to use as a measuring stick—is right and true? Bottom line, you can’t. You’re full of hypothetical bullshit.

So why do they do it?

It’s a way for them to exert control over performance style and regulate it in such a way that it eliminates individuality. They don’t want any more brilliant mavericks like Huberman, Toscanini, Chaliapin, Callas, Glenn Gould or Virgil Fox to come along, upset the apple cart, and suddenly amass a large following that does not follow their approved, regulated, and standardized tenets of music-making. On the other hand, they do want stage productions of operas—even older operas that, musically, fit into this category—to be as modern, outré, perverted and bizarre as possible, even while the orchestra and singers are toeing the HIP line. The results are ludicrous and bizarre to say the least. A good example was the Zurich production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in which Papageno, in a cage, wore a black suit covered with birdshit and the Queen of the Night was some blind, mole-like creature who felt her way along a wall, all the while Nikolaus Harnoncourt was conducting the orchestra in proper HIP style. What exactly is the point of this? If you’re going to give us a strict, hemmed-in reading of the score following HIP guidelines, you should also insist on a strict 18th-century production with costumes and “stage machinery” that uses nothing invented after 1791. As a matter of fact, you should also have all the musicians wear clothing and powdered wigs of that period and have the stage and their music stands lit only by candlelight. (Technically, you should also have the musicians enter and leave by the servants’ entrance.) Why not? What you’re doing is an affectation and a sham.

Thank you!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

[1] Jerold, Beverly, Did Early String Players Use Continuous Vibrato? (The Strad, March 2005, reprinted in February 2015). http://www.thestrad.com/cpt-latests/early-sting-players-use-continuous-vibrato/

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Music from Clare and Brent Fischer

Pacific Jazz

PACIFIC JAZZ / Cherokee (Noble); Jumping Jacks (C. Fischer); Cotton Tail (Ellington); New Thing (B. Fischer); Passion (C. Fischer); Sad About Nothing Blues (B. Fischer); Mood Indigo (Ellington); Eleanor Rigby (Lennon-McCartney); Blues Parisien (C. Fischer); Son of a Dad (B. Fischer); I Loves You, Porgy (Gershwin-Hayward); All Out (Winter); Ornithardy (C. Fischer) / The Clare Fischer Big Band, dir. by Brent Fischer; Clare Fischer, keyboards (tracks 3, 7, 11) / CLAVO RECORDS (no number)

This album was mostly recorded by Brent Fischer while his father Clare was still alive. Brent’s father plays keyboards on Cotton Tail, Mood Indigo and I Loves You, Porgy, replaced by Quinn Johnson on tracks 1, 4-6, 8 and 12-13 and by Alan Steinberger on the others (2, 9, 10). The collective personnel of this big band shifts from track to track and is too massive to include in the header, but notable names include Steve Huffsteter, Carl Saunders and Ron Stout on trumpets and flugelhorns, Scott Whitfield and Andy Martin on trombones, Don Shelton and Gary Foster on flutes and alto saxes, and Sean Franz and Bob Sheppard on tenor saxes.

The CD opens with Clare’s arrangement of Cherokee, familiar to many jazz lovers from his own “Jazz Corps” CD of 1997, but here played with a bit more brass and bite. The constantly shifting meter draws the listener inward, where the oddly punching sound of bass trombone adds a piquant feel to the performance. Brent describes Jumping Jacks as a tune he heard his father play often at the piano when he was a child, but didn’t discover on sheet music until many years later. It’s a wonderful piece, with just a hint of an R&B beat to it mixed in with boppish licks and that “jumping” main melody, though the rhythm melts and softens a bit for Huffsteter’s trumpet solo, and even more in the second half of the piece. It almost sounds like a little suite, as the tempo and themes shift and morph every couple of choruses! The finale is especially interesting.

In the liner notes, Brent describes a moment when Clare was unexpectedly visited in the recording studio by Duke Ellington, whereupon he immediately began playing Duke’s tunes in his hippest style. Ellington came up when he was finished, put his hand on his shoulder, and said, “Now, that’s the way my music was meant to be played.” Clare’s arrangement of Cotton Tail may lack the kinetic energy and fire of Ellington’s original 1940 recording—the extended and harmonically complex introduction is certainly non-Ellingtonian—but it was Clare Fischer’s way of saying “thanks” to Duke while adding his own individual touch. Interestingly, Ben Webster’s solo is scored for two tenor saxes and baritone, which gives the piece a compositional rather than an improvisational feel to it…sort of like “Supersax plays Webster.” This is followed by a soft-grained chorus in irregular meter played by the flutes and electric piano (Clare Fischer), followed by an excellent single-note solo by Clare with bass underpinning in which he does not copy Ellington, then trumpet and trombone solos, the latter underscored by soft winds (a Clare Fischer specialty). The penultimate chorus is lifted, again, directly from the original Ellington record, but why not? You can’t improve on perfection.

Brent Fischer’s original New Thing has a bit of a jazz-funk beat to it, similar to the kind of “fusion” that existed before Miles Davis. (Think of Don Ellis or the Electric Flag.) Interest is kept up, however, through his mastery of form: neither the melodic line nor the harmony fits into the prescribed mold that one would expect from this sort of piece. Alex Budman’s alto solo and Stout’s flugelhorn are outstanding, bridged by a clarinet-choir interlude that is obviously a paean from Brent to his father’s love of clarinets.

Passion is unusual in that Clare Fischer wrote it in 1945 when only 17 years old. If you dispute that claim, you might want to ask Brent to let you hear his father playing it on a 78-rpm record. I alternately laugh and get angry when so-called musical “experts” tell us that so-and-so couldn’t possibly have written such sophisticated music at such an early age. Another example that comes to mind is Charles Mingus’s The Chill of Death. Passion isn’t nearly as complex as Chill, but it certainly has the type of sound that one would associate, back then, with the early Stan Kenton or Charles Mingus bands. Mingus worked exclusively on the West Coast when he was younger, and although he made only a few rare recordings during that period, who’s to say that young Clare Fischer didn’t hear him? Certain passages in this piece put me in mind of Mingus’s This Subdues My Passion.

Sad About Nothing Blues starts out, oddly, with the sound of a needle playing the opening of a 78-rpm record, but once the music starts the sonics are modern and clean, so it was obviously a bit of a joke. Brent says in the liner notes that neither he nor his father ever felt the blues were really sad; when Clare wanted to write something sad, he wrote a ballad; so this blues rocks with joyous abandon. Trumpeter Saunders and trombonist Scott Whitfield provide the laid-back, almost Bob Dorough-style vocals on this track (with Saunders backed on counterpoint by Whitfield in two choruses), and it is certainly the highlight of the piece.

Clare’s arrangement of Mood Indigo respects Ellington’s voicing and instrumental blend but adds a few touches via the contrabass clarinet. He also plays a conventional grand piano on this track, a rarity in his later years (he thought electric pianos were more consistent in pitch). There are, of course, some individual touches in Fischer’s scoring of the middle theme, and his own piano solo is more influenced in rhythm by Monk and in harmony by Horace Silver and Tristano while still paying homage to Ellington. (This makes sense in a way since Ellington was Monk’s primary influence as a pianist.) The whole piece has a compositional feel to it, even the final choruses which are played misterioso by the band sotto voce. Mood Indigo indeed.

I approached Eleanor Rigby with some trepidation. I well recall the original record and all the jazz-styled arrangements played by white big bands of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s who tried so hard to be hip. This version by Clare and Brent is better than most due to their superior command of voicing (i.e., mixing E minor and C7 chords together: note, particularly, the outstanding half-chorus for trombones just before the electric piano solo by Johnson) that lifts it above the usual level. But oh, those drums!

Blues Parisien, composed by Clare for one of his clarinet choir albums, was rescored by him here for conventional big band. Oddly this, too, has a 1950s sound (think of the Clifford Brown big band or some of the Shorty Rogers Giants recordings), but in a good way. Huffsteter plays an excellent solo on this one. Son of a Dad is described in the booklet in an unusual way. As a child, Brent used to lie under the piano with the family dog listening to Clare write music; years later, the position was reversed, with Brent composing at the piano while Clare lay underneath with the family cat. The difference was that Clare would throw out ideas for different voicing to his son, which the latter adopted. Once again it’s a rock-based piece but more intriguing than the normal such number due to its irregular thematic structure and harmonic base.

I Loves You, Porgy is all Clare Fischer, playing one of his favorite ballad numbers from Gershwin’s ersatz jazz opera. As in the case of Gil Evans’ treatment (with Miles Davis), Fischer has rescored it harmonically which makes all the difference in the world, giving richness and luster to what was originally just a pretty tune. The listener is all the richer for that experience.

All Out is one of the few pieces on this disc not written by either Fischer, but Brent’s arrangement of it is strongly in the Fischer tradition: rich and unusual chords, and ultimately a very satisfying treatment. The album concludes with Clare’s original Ornithardy, originally composed for French horns, low brass and woodwinds on his 1960s album Extensions. In this case, however, Brent didn’t do the honors: he found this new arrangement by his father in his music library and decided to use it as is. Sheppard takes the beautiful, rich-toned tenor solo. Some of the scoring in the latter section of the piece, high winds over low, reminded me a bit of the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band.

For an album that “took over 4 years to prepare and contains writing that spans 7 decades,” the music contained herein is remarkably consistent, and excellent. This is one fine album!

—© 2015 Lynn René Bayley

 

continuum

CONTINUUM / City by the Lake (C. Fischer); In the Beginning (C. Fischer); For Steve (C. Fischer); Step Up (B, Fischer); Coisa Numero Dois (Moacir Santos); Cal’s On (C. Fischer); Isfahan (Strayhorn); Man is No Damn Good (C. Fischer); Blue Requiem (C. Fischer); Stoltz (C. Fischer) / The Clare Fischer Big Band, dir. by Brent Fischer, incl. Carl Saunders, Steve Huffsteter, tp; Scott Whitfield, tb; Don Shelton, a-sax; Bill Reichenbach, bs-tb; Rob Verdi, contrabass sax/sopranino sax/slide sax; Alan Steinberger, p; Dave Stone, bs. / CLAVO RECORDS 884501597159

This disc differs slightly from Pacific Jazz in that all of the tracks were recorded when Clare Fischer was still alive. Of course, his son Brent was a trusted associate for many years before that sad event and he has served his father’s music well in the years since, thus he is the director of the big band on all of these tracks. The music is all in the quintessential Fischer style: hip, harmonically adventurous, and a bit laid-back, with creamy reed and brass blends and a relaxed but propulsive rhythm section. On this session the orchestra not only uses Steve Huffsteter, who was a mainstay of the Akiyoshi-Tabackin Big Band of the late 1970s-early ‘80s, but also bass trombonist Bill Reichenbach who anchored the Akiyoshi band’s brass section for a spell.

The disc begins with a relatively straightahead swinger, City By the Lake, in the kind of medium tempo that has virtually disappeared from most modern jazz. The notes describe it as “Alban Berg meets Duke Ellington,” but the Berg influence is not apparent until the last chorus starting about 4:30. Both the tempo and the harmonic interest pick up in the next track, In the Beginning, written by Clare Fischer for Hubert Laws. Here, after a strange introduction, the music becomes even stranger, putting me in mind of Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus in its attempt to portray the beginning of the universe in sound (but neither do it as well as Charles Ives in his Universe Symphony). As things coalesce, however, we return to a medium swing tempo. Lee Callet on baritone sax and Clare Fischer on piano (not just his solo, but the hip accompaniment he plays behind Callet!) are the standouts here, although Rob Verdi’s solo on the slide sax—a bizarre instrument made by the Swanee company (you can see and read about it at http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/Reviews/Saxes/Misc/swanee.htm)—has its own unique charm. Again the last chorus, beginning around 8:24, takes one into unusual melodic and harmonic realms.

But it is with For Steve, a piece written for Clare’s friend Steve Bohannon, that we take a leap off the proverbial musical cliff. It’s a strange, polytonal funeral dirge that lasts less than a minute and a half. Ironically, when the next selection, Step Up, began, I thought it was a continuation of the same piece as there was little silence between the tracks, although Step Up, though using ingenious half and whole steps in the melodic line, is a fairly straightahead uptempo blues that continues to use polytonality here and there. The underlying harmony, however, stays fairly conventional which allows the soloists to enjoy themselves without having to mold their work along the lines of the principal theme.

Coisa Numero Dois was composed by Clare Fischer’s friend and colleague Moacir Santos, but except for the Latin rhythm (quite gentle here) one could easily mistake it as Fischer’s own work. Although there is nothing particularly striking about the harmony, the underlying feeling of the whole piece just sounds unsettled and mysterious, and the band plays it with incredible feeling and a tremendous sense of mood. Brent Fischer indicates in the notes that this is his father’s doing via the arrangement. It doesn’t matter; this is a masterpiece. Even the soloists seems to recognize that they had to mold their work to the whole rather than take it too far afield. The incredible high wind and electric piano passage beginning at 6:50 is simply astounding—there is no other word for it—creating an otherworldly atmosphere that defies verbal description. It’s difficult to tell if Clare’s piano solo in the middle of this chorus is written or improvised (I would suspect written for the first break, but improvised in the second half), but it fits the surrounding material perfectly. At nearly 10 ½ minutes long, it is the second-lengthiest piece on the CD, but you never tire of listening to it…there’s just so much substance here.

Brent humorously describes the genesis of Cal’s On. It “existed as a single melody line on a piece of paper. For years as I was growing up it just sat there on Dad’s piano. I read through it and thought it was one of the most ingenious lines I had ever encountered. I asked him if he had chord changes to go with the line. He said yes, it was all worked out in his head. I then asked him to write down the changes before he forgot. More years passed by. Finally in frustration, I wrote in large letters at the top of the page, ‘WRITE DOWN THE CHORDS, DAMMIT!’” Apparently he remembered, because here it is, with the standout solo being Clare’s own on electric piano. It’s a medium uptempo swinger, and the typically quirky, Clare Fischer-like melody is one of those elusive things that remind you of some of his more interesting early works like Agogically So (written for and sung by the Hi-Lo’s). Just think of it as Jimmy Giuffre on acid.

I was very familiar with Billy Strayhorn’s Isfahan from the Duke Ellington Far East Suite…or, at least, I thought I was until I heard Clare’s arrangement here. The tempo is brighter than the original and the chords altered just enough that it sounds like an original composition based on Isfahan. A bit Stravinsky-ish in mood and feeling, this Isfahan sounds as much Russian as Middle Eastern. Interestingly, Ron Stout’s solo evokes more memories of Chet Baker than of any of Ellington’s (or Fischer’s) usual trumpet soloists.

Man is No Damn Good, clocking in at just a few seconds under 12 minutes, could have been a dull piece but is one of Clare Fischer’s masterpieces. After a slow and typically mysterious opening, the music jumps to attention in tempo but not in volume. There are echoes of Ives and Bartók here in addition to a bizarre quote from the baby slumber song Lullaby and Goodnight. This is a tone poem of epic, almost Mingus-like proportions, shifting tempo and mood seemingly at will (such as the sudden shift to a slow 3/4 at the seven-minute mark, or the “spacey” passage for winds and brass that follows) yet somehow retaining its integrity as a composition. At 8:06 we suddenly shift tempo from medium to slow for a chorale-like theme played by soft brass in the middle range: this could have been written by Brahms, at least until the point where high winds play a brisk, almost mocking passage above it. Eventually the tempo and volume pick up, only to be undermined by another soft piano solo by Clare leading to a very soft brass and reed passage.

Once again, there is little silence between this piece and the next one, titled Blue Requiem and written for drummer Jeff Porcaro, and once again the latter almost sounds like a continuation of the former, like two pieces of cloth cut from the same bolt only with slightly different angles on the pattern. The drumming heard is initially in a march beat as the orchestra plays rich, floating chords like hanging clouds in the sky. At one point (3:14 or so) the orchestra actually sounds like an organ. Our latest sound adventure ends with Stoltz, dedicated to the famed clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, an uptempo swing romp of the sort Stoltzman likes to play, in an arrangement that sounds very much like the Benny Goodman band during its Mel Powell-Mary Lou Williams days. Alex Budman plays a very fine clarinet solo while slightly missing the drive of both Stoltzman and Goodman. Interestingly, the latter part of this music slows down a shade in tempo and takes on an ominous quality, far less open and chipper than the beginning, but then suddenly we are back in the temp and mood of the opening chorus for the coda and ride-out.

This is a simply splendid CD, one of the finest yet produced of Clare Fischer’s music, and a must for the collection of any serious lover of orchestral jazz.

—© 2015 Lynn René Bayley

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