Shapiro’s Schubert a Labor of Love

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SHAPIRO PERFORMS SCHUBERT, Vol. 1 / Talks regarding Schubert’s accompaniments, horn sounds, aspects of performance and notation. Sonata in B, D. 575. Sonata in C, D. 840, “La Reliquie.” Sonata in a minor, D. 845. Sonata in D, D. 850. / Daniel Shapiro, piano / RPS Classics 0010241 (DVD)

SHAPIRO PERFORMS SCHUBERT, Vol. 2 / Sonata in A, D. 664. Sonata in a minor, D. 537. Sonata in G, D. 894. Sonata in c minor, D. 958. Hungarian Melody in b minor, D. 817 / Daniel Shapiro, piano / RPS Classics 0010242 (DVD)

SHAPIRO PERFORMS SCHUBERT, Vol. 3 / Sonata in a minor, D. 784. Sonata in A, D. 959. Sonata in B-flat, D. 960. Moment Musicaux No. 2 in A-flat, D. 780 / Daniel Shapiro, piano / RPS Classics 0010243 (DVD) All three DVDs available at Amazon.com and from the artist’s website (www.danielshapiropianist.com)

Also available on 5 conventional CDs from the artist’s website for $15 per disc, distributed as follows:
Vol. 1 – Sonatas in B (D. 575), A (D. 664) & c minor (D. 958), Moment Musicaux No. 2
Vol. 2 – Sonatas in a minor (D. 537) & D (D. 850)
Vol. 3 – Sonatas in a minor (D. 845) & G (D. 894)
Vol. 4 – Sonatas in C (D. 840) & A (D. 959)
Vol. 5 – Sonatas in a minor (D. 784) & B-flat Major (D. 960)

Daniel Shapiro is a pianist who specializes in music of the Romantic Era, specifically that of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, and also teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music. As a chamber musician, he has performed regularly with members of the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony and L.A. Philharmonic as well as with the Cavani, Mirò and Linden String Quartets, and has performed as piano soloist with the National Symphony, São Paulo State Symphony, Academy of London, Knoxville Symphony and Los Angeles Debut Orchestra. He was the top prize winner of a William Kapell competition as well as winner of the American Pianists’ Association Beethoven Fellowship Award.

This three-DVD/five-CD set includes 11 of Schubert’s 15 piano sonatas, and I believe that Shapiro was wise to eliminate the earliest ones on musical grounds. The first two sonatas are youthful works and in many ways truncated (like Beethoven’s minuscule Op. 49 sonatas) or, in the case of the D. 279, unfinished, as are the sonatas D. 557 (it has never been proven that the third movement published with this sonata, in E flat, is really the finale of the work) and 566. Since Schubert was moving towards an entirely new concept of the piano sonata, very different from Beethoven’s, hearing these early pieces, in my view, is more of a hindrance than a help. The earliest work presented here is the Sonata in a minor, D. 537, written in 1817 when Schubert was 20 years old.

His set of the Schubert sonatas, like his set of the 32 Beethoven sonatas, is quite obviously a labor of love. You can access his complete series of the Beethoven works for free on YouTube, but he has packaged and is selling the Schubert series. It’s a wise move for two reasons: 1) There simply aren’t that many extensive series of the Schubert sonatas out there, and 2) the DVDs include wonderful talks by Shapiro on the shape and sound of Schubert’s sonatas as well as aspects of the composer’s notation. Some of his examples are not from the sonatas: he also plays, for instance, the famous cello theme in the first movement of the String Quintet in C, the opening song of Winterreise as well as other works, to illustrate how Schubert seemed to be “receiving” music rather than “composing” it. One thing that strikes the listener immediately (it certainly struck me) is Shapiro’s remarkable sense of touch. In his hands, the piano seems less of a percussion instrument than one of softness and richness of sound; it almost strikes the ear as if the piano is playing itself. This is not, however, to imply that Shapiro cannot play with strength when called upon, simply that when he does play with strength, it sounds like his softer playing simply increased in volume. (I know this is a difficult concept to convey in words, but when you hear him play you’ll know what I mean.)

And this, as it turns out, is absolutely perfect for Schubert. His sonatas are not music that react well to strict, powerful performances, as those of Mozart and Beethoven do. Think of his String Quintet in C as a chamber work compared to, say, any of Beethoven’s string quartets or quintets. Beethoven at his most lyrical still has a strong rhythmic element (one critic said that you can often recall major Beethoven works strictly by beating out their rhythmic pattern without a melody), whereas even Schubert at his most dramatic always has a strong element of lyricism. This is particularly clear in the section where Shapiro discusses Schubert’s “dark side,” his premonitions of death or insanity, expressed via sharp shards of music in minor keys (perhaps the most famous examples being Erlkönig or the orchestral outbursts in the “Unfinished” Symphony). This fits in with what I’ve always read about Schubert, than he considered life a journey in which we, as wanderers, fumble about as we move from the bucolic to the violent, often without warning—a philosophy perhaps best summarized in his magnificent “Wanderer Fantasy.” Because of this, Shapiro believes that one must “play Schubert’s music with a sense of inevitability, and yet at the same time with a sense of imagination.”

These talks, then, and the musical illustrations played within them, indicate what we are going to hear in his performances of the sonatas. Gone are the surface excitement and tensile strength one heard in the Schubert sonata performances of Artur Schnabel, Clara Haskil and Sviatoslav Richter (the latter of which, for my taste, was usually too strong in his approach). The quicksilver playing of Haskil is a specific case in point. Note, here, the difference in timing between her performances of the D. 845 and D. 960 sonatas as compared to Shapiro’s:

Haskil Shapiro
Sonata D. 845, 1 7:52 9:46
Sonata D. 845, 2 7:28 12:26
Sonata D. 845, 3 4:54 7:30
Sonata D. 845, 4 4:17 4:58
Sonata D. 960, 1 13:15 15:09
Sonata D. 960, 2 7:31 11:26
Sonata D. 960, 3 3:36 4:21
Sonata D. 960, 4 7:42 8:32

Nor is this simply a matter of playing faster. Haskil, being Rumanian, shared with other Rumanian and Hungarian pianists (and conductors, and singers) a sense of musical urgency in performance—think of Dinu Lipatti, one of her closest friends, for instance, who even played Chopin with a wide-awake, less dreamy-eyed sense of style. The architecture of the music was what mattered, and it was her duty, as she saw it, to bring that structure to the fore. (Refer to my recent post on conductor Michael Gielen who, although Austrian and not Eastern European, took a similar approach to orchestral music, even in Schubert.) There is something to be said for both approaches, but to my ears Haskil rushed the Andante movements a bit too much, though her Scherzo and Rondo allegros were vivacious and wonderful. She also had a superb keyboard touch which allowed her to evoke feelings in the music even at brisker speeds.

Shapiro is more leisurely and ruminative. There is a considerable amount of “space” here and there between notes and chords; he doesn’t view these sonatas in a strictly structural manner, but more as sensatory discovery. Yet in some cases it seems to me that his longer timings are due to additional repeats being observed, not just a brisker pace. Still, it is clear that he makes more of a contrast between, for instance, the opening motif of the forst movement of D. 845 and its brisk main melody, and he returns to this slower pace for the transition figures. This gives an entirely different feel to the music, one that has urgency in places and a stop-and-smell-the-roses feeling in others.

The venue in which the sonatas were taped is obviously a church—one can see the huge organ pipes directly behind Shapiro’s piano—but it is not identified. Nonetheless, the sound is natural and clear with enough natural “space” around the piano to make the sustained chords sing. Watching Shapiro play, one gains the sense that he is completely immersed in the music. His body leans forward towards the soundboard of the piano, then leans back; he often shakes his head as he plays the stronger and busier figures. The camera takes in different angles but most of the time shows his hands on the keyboard, which is what most people are interested in seeing. Close-ups reveal his playing method, a from-the-top approach, sometimes raising the hands entirely off the piano but more often a deep-in-the-keys touch that gives his playing richness. (The camera seldom shows his feet, a rare exception being between 14:09 and 14:40 in the Sonata D. 575, so I could only gauge his pedaling effects by aural means.) Ordinarily I’m not a huge fan of watching classical performers (particularly soloists) on video, but Shapiro is nearly as interesting to watch play the piano as Shura Cherkassky was, so I enjoyed the experience tremendously.

This musical ebb-and-flow continues throughout his playing of all eleven sonatas, but to be honest, if one is emotionally engaged in the listening process, as I was, you can only take one sonata at a time. It’s almost too draining to watch and listen to any of the three DVDs complete in one sitting. And although one is aware of an underlying structure in these sonatas, what one takes away from them is their symphonic aspect, and this is, I think, what many people who don’t like the Schubert sonatas (including my younger self) don’t fully understand. These works are simply not as tightly bound or follow a straight-line trajectory as do the Beethoven sonatas. Nowhere in them are those on-the-seat-of-your-chair moments like the juggernaut movements in Beethoven, and Shapiro’s more diffuse approach to the music sometimes removes that juggernaut feeling anyway (as, for instance, in the Scherzos). This is not an entirely bad thing, just different. One can enjoy Karl Böhm conducting Schubert just as much as Michael Gielen.

Shapiro thus is able to give greater weight and a richer tone to such words as the somewhat brief sonatas D, 575 and 840, each roughly 20 minutes in length. Interestingly, he injects a syncopated feeling into the first movement of the latter, making it almost sound like a Latin rhythm, something I’ve never noticed in others’ playing of this work. His deep-keys touch continues to delight one as well as add a richness to the proceedings. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that his sense of tone color is almost as great as that of the great organists like Marie-Claire Alain or Virgil Fox. At times I almost imagined him jumping up from his Steinway and playing the sonatas on the organ behind it.

The more Shapiro moves into the later sonatas, the more his approach not only makes sense but enriches one’s absorption of the music. I’m sure that he spent countless hours working out exactly what tempos and phrasing he wanted to use in every movement in each of these works, but the end result is so engaging that it almost sounds spontaneous, as if he himself is making up these sonatas, phrase by phrase, as he plays them. And to be honest, one’s familiarity with later piano works of similar thematic contrast and complexity—I’m thinking, specifically, of the works of Alkan, late Scrabin and Debussy, Ives, Griffes and even Sorabji—help one absorb and appreciate what Schubert did here. As I say, his structure is always there but is often buried beneath those long phrases and contrasting themes. Think of the String Quintet and how much it sounds like a symphony…one might almost say the same thing of Brahms’ Piano Quartets. One can easily conceive nearly any of these piano sonatas played by an orchestra and presented as a symphony. One cannot say the same thing of Beethoven’s sonatas—they sound like sonatas and nothing but.

In the last three sonatas, I compared Shapiro’s playing with that of Craig Sheppard (Roméo Records 7283-4), a modern-day pianist who also takes generally brisk tempos in Schubert. More to the point, Sheppard prefers a leaner sound profile than Shapiro—what I would characterize as a “Beethoven sound” (and Sheppard’s complete Beethoven sonata cycle is one of the most interesting issued on CD). He, too, also prefers a tauter trajectory of the musical material, with less relaxation, pauses or rhetorical phrasing than Shapiro. One thing you immediately notice if you compare Shapiro to Sheppard is the former’s much greater sense of coloration: he is able to produce an almost infinite variety of shades and tones. No two of his soft chords sound alike, and neither do most of his forte attacks. His playing has so much variety in it that it almost sounds like a duo-piano recital, with two keyboardists of contrasting skills, somehow magically combined in one man with only ten fingers. Indeed, the more one listens to Shapiro’s Schubert the more one is convinced that this is, if not the only way to play these sonatas, surely the best way. Since these sonatas tend, for the most part, to be quite long (the shortest of them are the D. 664 at 16:17 and D. 537 at 18:36; most of them are well over a half-hour in length), listeners need to come to them with a long attention span. Listening in sound bites will not do for Schubert.

I could go on and on about these videos, but don’t think it would add to my overall impression. I recommend the videos over the audio CDs because the CDs omit his interesting talking points and the performance of the Hungarian Melody in b minor—also, the three DVDs are less expensive than the five CDs. These are remarkable performances, deeply felt and played with conviction and purpose. There is nothing in Shapiro’s approach that could be called errant or uninteresting; it all reveals a unanimity of purpose that conveys a mind that has worked on and absorbed these works to the fullest.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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First Installment of the “Michael Gielen Edition” a Winner

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MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION 1 / BACH: Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in CT min, BWV 849 / Michael Gielen, piano. Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft: Fragment from Cantata BWV 50 (with Berlin Radio Chorus). MOZART: Symphony No. 35 in D, “Haffner”; Two Minuets with Inserted Contradances; March in D, K. 249; 3 German Dances, K. 605; Il Trionfo della donne, K. 607; Symphony No. 30 on D; 6 German Dances, K. 509; Overtures to Die Zauberflöte & Così fan Tutte (Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra); Thamos, King of Egypt (Edda Moser, soprano; Julia Hamari, contralto; Werner Hollweg, tenor; Barry McDaniel, baritone; Stuttgart Opera Chorus; SWR Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble & Orchestra); Symphony No. 36, “Linz.” HAYDN: Symphonies Nos. 95 (Saarbrücken Radio SO), 99, 104 “London”. BEETHOVEN: Coriolanus Overture; Leonore Overture No. 1 (Saarbrücken Radio SO); Leonore Overtures Nos. 2 & 3; “Triple Concerto” for Violin, Piano, Cello & Orchestra (Edith Peinemann, violin; Jörg Demus, piano; Antonio Janigro, cello; Saarbrücken Radio SO). SCHUBERT: Die Zauberharfe Overture; Rosamunde Ballet—Andantino (Saarbrücken Radio SO); Rosamunde—Entr’acte 3, Andantino. Symphony No. 10 (arr. Newbould); Andante; Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden” (arr. Gielen-Mahler); Offertorium, “Intende voci” (Thomas Moser, tenor; Slovak Philharmonic Chorus); Mass No. 5 in A-flat Major, D. 678 (Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, contralto; Dominik Wortig, tenor; Rudolf Rosen, bass; SWR Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble) / All recordings with SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden und Freiburg, unless otherwise noted; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music SWR19007CD [6 CDs: 430:32]

The great Austrian conductor Michael Gielen (b. 1927) spent most of his career in Europe, and mostly in Germany, with one major exception: from 1980 to 1986, he was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, thus I was privileged to hear numerous concerts by him and come to appreciate his sober, clear-minded interpretations, lacking all fluff and sentimentality without sacrificing feeling. His very first concert, given on a Friday at noon, was Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, one of the least well-known of his works. I was fascinated, my ears riveted to what Gielen and the orchestra were doing, but the audience wasn’t staying with him. Afternoon classical concerts in Cincinnati, in those days especially, were heavily attended by the Little Old Lady Brigade and their Little Old Husbands, and at one point during the slow movement one of the Little Old Husbands—evidently bored to tears—suddenly blurted out, loudly, “It’s ten after one!”

Well, there was one guy who would never be a Michael Gielen fan…but, I soon found out, neither were many of the musicians in the orchestra. They hated him, in part because his readings of older classics were too severe for them and didn’t have enough gemüchtlich or “coziness” about them, and in part because he favored a dry sound in order to enhance clarity of inner voices. He also made them work hard to learn and perform a lot of modern music, and the specific CSO musicians of that period hated modern music. I’ll never forget one concert where he juxtaposed, piece by piece, movements from Schubert’s Rosamunde with Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra to illustrate the differences and similarities between the First and Second Vienna Schools. Again, I was fascinated by it, but neither the audience nor the orchestra liked it.

There were occasional moments when I questioned certain things Gielen did with music I knew, particularly the third movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” where he inserted a pause between the opening moto perpetuo section and the trio with its jolly horn tune. I double checked the score and it wasn’t in there; it was just the way Gielen felt the music. But I didn’t let this isolated moment impact my feeling about his overall performance, one of the most exciting “Eroicas” I’ve ever heard in my life—and the only live performance I ever heard taken at Beethoven’s proper score tempo. In my view, Gielen was a genius, and that impression of him has stayed with me through thick and thin.

In listening through the performances on this superb set, I enjoyed anew Gielen’s superb, clean-lined musicality and architectural approach to each score. In one respect he was like Toscanini in that he utterly respected the composer’s written directions and tried hard to bring out everything on the printed page with feeling (something that most modern conductors, also obsessed with score-accuracy, do not do). He was also a stickler for complete unity of section work. But unlike Toscanini, and similar conductors like Böhm and Rodzinski, Gielen seldom allowed moments of rubato or rallentando, and never, ever so much as a smidgen of portamento. His was, and remained, a completely post-modern style of conducting. In these respects, along with an even leaner sound profile, his performances were much closer to that of the great Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay than to Toscanini or Rodzinski, who were always trying to invest their performances with moments of relaxation to offset the severity of their forward propulsion.

Gielen BeethovenDoes this mean that Gielen’s work is unlikable? Not at all. I find it fascinating because it is so different from anyone else’s. This is one reason why I prize his set of the Beethoven Symphonies on the SWR label as the finest of all stereo or digital recordings. He gives you the cleanliness of sound and attack that you hear, for instance, from David Zinman, but there is an extra dimension of emotion and feeling in Gielen’s work that marks him as a genius and not merely a time-beater.

That being said, I’m sure many American (and British) music-lovers will be scratching their heads over Gielen’s interpretations of Mozart and Schubert. They are so very strict that they never deviate so much as a hairsbreadth one way or the other from the initial tempo he sets. I admit that I found some of them a bit too strict, particularly the 6 German Dances of Mozart, but by and large I was thrilled with the way Gielen builds music. He is, indeed, the supreme musical architect of our lifetime, and now that he can no longer conduct (due to failing eyesight), we are all the poorer for his not being among the active conductors of today. It is almost as if The Great Teacher laid down his curriculum, walked out of the classroom, and never returned. We are, however, left with these artifacts of his greatness, and they are fascinating for what they reveal about the music—Gielen always made it clear, in talking to Cincinnatians, that his performances were all about Composer X and not about Michael Gielen. And although I would have liked a bit more give-and-take here and there, it is revelatory to hear the underlying structure of all of this music revealed to us as for the first time.

There is some interest in Gielen’s crackling performance of Mozart’s early incidental music for Thamos, King of Egypt. There are very few recordings of it in existence: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, Jörg Faerber, Bernhard Klee, Leopold Hager, Carlo Maria Giulini and Bernhard Paumgartner (plus some excerpts recorded by others like Peter Maag), so it’s not as if we were overwhelmed with readings of this music. As usual, Gielen eschews such “historically informed” B.S. as straight-tone violins, yet still manages to suggest the more severe performance style of the 18th century with his lean sonorities and bright, wide-eyed tempos. The vocal soloists are superb, though most of the music is instrumental, and for young Mozart the musical quality is surprisingly high: listen, for instance, to the magnificent Interlude (track 9), with its amazingly daring key changes, or the first half of the following baritone solo with chorus, “Ihr Kinder des Staubes,” with its descending chromatics. This music sounds like rejected excerpts from Don Giovanni. I’ve since learned that Mozart spent seven years, on and off, working on this music, an unusually long period of gestation for this normally “write-it-and-run” composer. In 1994, Stanley Sadie of Gramophone raved about Gardiner’s “precise articulation, plenty of electricity in the rhythms, powerful accents and a wide dynamic range.” I can say exactly the same things of Gielen’s performance here.

The conductor’s readings of Haydn Symphonies are remarkably similar to those given by Toscanini with the NBC Symphony back in the 1940s, which is to say, austere but lively. They bring a certain resoluteness to the music often missing in others’ performances, such as those of Ivan Fischer, whose recordings I enjoy but because they have some Viennese swagger about them, a different view of the music from Gielen’s. Oddly, in the third movement of Symphony 95, the cello soloist sounds as if he is playing with straight tone.

Perhaps not too oddly, due to his lesser attention to rubato and rallentando, Gielen’s performances of Beethoven’s overtures have even more in common with Felix Weingartner’s electrical recordings than with Toscanini’s except for one thing, and that is the greater tensile strength of the overall flow of the performances and the stronger, more accurate attacks on marcato notes. Like his great set of Beethoven’s Symphonies, Gielen’s performances of the Coriolanus and all three Leonore Overtures have a certain grimness of determination that eschews “normal” German-Austrian tendencies to linger in certain passages. It’s particularly interesting to hear the Leonore Overture No. 2, so often played as an interlude in Act 2 of Fidelio with slower tempos and some rhetorical phrasing, played with such a straight-ahead style. It’s also particularly interesting to hear the Triple Concerto played with this much tension and energy, and the soloists are fine (particularly Janigro on cello), but I prefer Toscanini’s performance with the New York Philharmonic, which to me has more rhythmic lift and warmth.

In Schubert, Gielen is very close to Toscanini in approach, producing exactly the kind of swift but weighty and dramatic readings that gave Austrians coronary arrest but thrilled the rest of the world. He does not ignore the composer’s lyrical aspect, yet the slight overture to Die Zauberharfe contains unexpected dramatic turns of phrase, particularly in the opening Andante section, and Gielen does not let them pass unnoticed. This was yet another work I heard Gielen play with the Cincinnati Symphony, and like so many others it was a revelation to me. Likewise, his performances of the two extracts from Rosamunde recall his unusual Schubert-Webern juxtaposition of so many years ago.

The two unusual works here are, of course, Brian Newbould’s realization of the Andante movement from Schubert’s abandoned Symphony No. 10 and the Gielen-Mahler orchestration of Die Tod und das Mädchen. Normally I’m not a fan of such things, although in three isolated instances—Luciano Berio’s third act of Puccini’s Turandot, Larry Austin’s edition of Ives’ “Universe” Symphony, and Alexander Nemtin’s completion of Scriabin’s Mysterium—I like and agree with the completions. As it turns out, Newbould’s score of the Andante sound very Schubertian; apparently, enough original material existed to work from, unlike the last movement of the B minor symphony (“Unfinished”), of which nothing remains (many conductors perform the overture to Rosamunde as its last movement, which fits about as well as a cartoon picture of Eleanor Roosevelt as the head of the Venus de Milo). That being said, though it sounds Schubertian it is a long-winded dirge that doesn’t develop. I’m sure the composer, had he lived, would have revised it heavily before completion.

Despite my normally being opposed to orchestrations of string quartets (Toscanini’s version of the Beethoven Quartet No. 16, Op. 135, is one of my real bête noirs), some of this version of Death and the Maiden works pretty well. But then again, I’ve always liked the Joseph Joachim orchestration of Schubert’s Grand Duo for 2 Pianos. Perhaps it’s more the case that Schubert lends himself better to this sort of thing than Beethoven (or Brahms, whose Piano Quartet orchestrated by Schoenberg I also dislike). In addition, Gielen really conducts it with energy and passion, which I greatly appreciated.

The last disc contains some real Schubert oddities, the Offertorium: Intende Voci with tenor Thomas Moser in unfortunate voice (he wobbles and sounds flat) and the Mass No. 5 in A-flat with soprano Sibylla Rubens, alto Ingeborg Danz, tenor Dominik Wortig and bass Rudolf Rosen. Both works are well conducted, bringing out a real spine in Schubert’s often mellifluous scores, although portions of the Mass wander musically, not as focused in direction or development.

Many of these performances are issued here for the very first time: the Bach pieces, all of the Mozart except for the “Linz” Symphony, Haydn’s Symphony No. 95, all of the Beethoven and the Schubert Zauberharfe and Rosamunde music. There is one error in dating: Mozart’s 6 German Dances were recorded in 2013, not within the time-frame of 1967-2010 stated by SWR Music on the box. But no matter; this is clearly the work of a supreme musical mind.

Vol. 2 of this series, scheduled for release in June 2016, is going to be a 10-CD set of Bruckner’s Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (SWR Music 19014CD). If you are into Bruckner, I’m sure you’ll find it of interest. As for me, I’m holding out to see what Vol. 3 will bring. This one is remarkable in so many ways, and I also urge you to obtain his complete set of the Beethoven Symphonies on SWR Music.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Quincy Jones’ Orchestra Sizzles in Ludwigshafen, 1961

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QUINCY JONES AND HIS ORCHESTRA LIVE IN LUDWIGSHAFEN 1961 / Air Mail Special (Christian-Goodman-Hampton); G’Wan Train (Quincy Jones); Solitude (Ellington-Mills); Stolen Moments (Oliver Nelson); Lester Leaps In (Lester Young); Moanin’ (Bobby Timmons-Jon Hendricks); Summertime (George Gershwin-DuBose Heyward); I Remember Clifford (Benny Golson); Ghana (Ernie Wilkins); Banja Luka (Phil Woods); Caravan (Juan Tizol-Duke Ellington-Irving Mills); The Midnight Sun Will Never Set (Quincy Jones-Dorcas Cochran-Henri Salvador); Quincy Jones introduces the orchestra; The Birth of a Band (Quincy Jones) / Benny Bailey, Paul Cohen, Freddie Hubbard, Sixten Eriksson, tp; Julius Watkins, Fr-hn; David Baker, Curtis Fuller, Åke Persson, tb; Phil Woods, a-sax; Budd Johnson, t-sax; Joe Lopes, Eric Dixon, t-sax/fl; Sahib Shihab, a-sax/bar-sax; Les Spann, gt/fl; Patricia Bohn, pn; George “Bumblebee” Catlett, bass; Stu Martin, dm; Carlos “Patato” Valdes, congas / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-455 (mono, live: March 15, 1961)

Most people out there who know Quincy Jines’ name know him solely from his Hollywood work, which has occupied him since the early 1960s. Those who remember him as a real jazz musician are few, and generally hardcore fans. Some may recall that he got his start as an arranger for the stellar Lionel Hampton band with Clifford Brown in the trumpet section that toured France in 1953; others may know him from his 1956 album, This is How I Feel About Jazz (Impulse), but only a hardy few remember this 1961 big band which, with changes in personnel, played not only this great date in Ludwigshafen, Germany but also made a couple of studio albums and a live LP from Newport on July 3, 1961. The personnel, however, shifted after this European tour, as Jones found it impossible to continue to afford such big-name stars in each section. This particular concert has never been issued before in any format.

Ironically, the lineup given by SWR Jazzhaus is slightly wrong. They claim that Melba Liston is on trombone, but she is not; the third trombonist, after Curtis Fuller and Åke Persson, is David Taylor. Les Spann is credited as playing guitar only, but he also doubles on flute. When Jones introduces the band on track 13 there are several names mentioned that aren’t even noted, such as trumpeters Paul Cohen and Sixten Eriksson, French hornist Julius Watkins, saxists Budd Johnson and Joe Lopes, pianist Patricia Bohn and bassist George Catlett. But the total effect of this lineup on the music is absolutely galvanizing. Much has been made of Jones’ arranging skills, and he was indeed a quick worker who could turn out well-crafted scores at a moment’s notice (after his move to Hollywood, one of his projects was writing several arrangements quickly for the Count Basie band to play behind Frank Sinatra on the Hollywood Palace TV show), but in terms of voicing and texture he was fairly conventional. Aside from occasionally using a flute here or French horn there for color, his aesthetic was based on Count Basie’s “atomic band” of the 1950s. This doesn’t mean it was bad, only that it wasn’t terribly original.

But the joys of listening to this orchestra are not necessarily in the charts, good though they are, but in the scintillating solos taken by all concerned. There is scarcely a moment in this breathtaking concert that will not have you on the edge of your seat as Jones’ all-star lineup continually prod each other to extraordinary heights and build on each others’ solos. The old Charlie Christian-Benny Goodman classic Air Mail Special is taken at an atomic-age tempo, and so is George Gershwin’s Summertime, normally a ballad. Among the standout soloists here are trumpeters Freddie Hubbard (the busier solos) and Benny Bailey (the more sparse ones), hornist Watkins, trombonists Baker and Fuller, and saxists Woods, Johnson, Dixon and Shihab. This was probably the last band in which Sahib Shihab played before he struck out on his own and moved to Scandinavia, where he led a superb band of Danish musicians for several years (collectors also know him from his early work with Thelonious Monk and, just before joining Quincy, clarinetist Tony Scott). The entire band is truly on fire here, sounding both energized and relaxed at the same time, and the results are simply spectacular.

It’s interesting to hear full-band arrangements of some of these pieces that are normally known to jazz buffs as small-group vehicles, such as I Remember Clifford, Moanin’ and Stolen Moments. One of the few failures here, arrangement-wise, is his chart of Lester Young’s Lester Leaps In. It’s brilliant and explosive, but to my mind this isn’t the kind of piece that works well in a full-steam-ahead big band chart with blasting trumpets. A more intimate arrangement would have worked much better, in my view. But this is a rare artistic lapse in a set that sizzles from start to finish. The sound quality is a little on the dull side, so if you just turn up your treble control on your amp when playing it you’ll get better sound out of it.

This is a heck of a CD and a good sound picture of exciting jazz in the era just before it all splintered into several different directions including free-form and funk.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Fredrik Ullén’s Sorabji Project Continues

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Sorabji TRANSCENDENTAL STUDIES, Vol. 5 / No. 72: Canonica: Marcato; No. 73: Quasi Preludio-corale: Sonorità piena, morbida e dolcissima; No. 74: Ostinato: Secco; No. 75: Passacaglia: Largo; No. 76: Imitations: Presto assai; No. 77: Mouvement semblable e perpétuel: Scorrevole; No. 78: No title; No. 79: The inlaid line: Legatissimo il tema melodico; No. 80: La linea melodica: Mormorando sordamente; No. 81: The Suspensions: Lento quasi adagio e gravamente solenne; No. 82: Sordamente e oscuramente minaccioso; No. 83: Arpeggiated fourths / Fredrik Ullén, pianist / Bis 2223

Here is the latest installment in Fredrik Ullén’s ongoing project to record all 100 of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s Transcendental Studies or Etudes. It is as monumental in its own way, if not more so, than the recordings—rare as they are (only two of them so far)—of the same composer’s humungous blockbuster, the Opus Clavicembalisticum (one by John Ogden, which the composer did not like, and one by Geoffrey Douglas Madge, a pianist the composer liked very much indeed). Considering the rarity of live performances of Sorabji’s piano music and its extremely limited appeal to the average concertgoer (if, in fact, they even know of its existence…I didn’t until about six years ago), one asks the question, Is this a worthwhile project?

The question is rhetorical because, in a very large sense, Sorabji’s music is rhetorical, expressed in terms intended to impress listeners with its dazzle, its difficulty, its sheer abundance of notes and the manner in which they are ordered. It is not accidental that synonyms for the word rhetorical include “bombastic, grandiose, pompous and flowery,” all of which Sorabji’s music is, but of course no one would even want to play it if it didn’t have substance beneath the bombast, as is also the case of music by Charles-Valentin Alkan, Art Tatum, and to a less consistent extent, Franz Liszt. Roughly 30 years ago there was a flurry of recordings by a pianist-composer named Richard Nanes, who took out full-page ads on the back cover of each month’s Schwann Record Catalog. His music, too, was flowery and garrulous, but most critics who listened to it came to realize that it had little if any substance. Only many years later did we learn that Nanes’ full-time job was as the executive president and co-owner of the Nanes Finishing and Assembly Corporation of Newark, New Jersey, which is where he got all the money he needed to promote his records and his career. He died, virtually forgotten by the music business, in 2009.

But the story of Richard Nanes is not a distraction or a sideline to the subject at hand, because to many untrained ears his music was, and remains, extraordinary beautiful to listen to because it is conventionally “pretty.” Nanes could contrive any number of tonal, melodic themes and run them into the ground with repetition and rococo flourishes. To many listeners, there is much the same going on in the music of Alkan and Sorabji. In fact, there was never a point in history when Sorabji was well known or even particularly well liked, and this is true even today, but concentrated listening to his music reveals a wildly imaginative mind that was constantly thinking “outside the box.” Yes, there are extended passages and even whole pieces where he flaunts conventional music construction and seems to be going off on tangents, but more often than not there is a tremendous underlying feeling and structure in his music that simply cannot be ignored.

And the first two Studies or Etudes on this new CD are perfectly illustrative of what I mean. The first etude, No. 72, is all flashing keyboard runs and difficult two-handed interaction, all of which Ullén handles with almost carefree aplomb. He is a remarkable pianist in that no matter how confused or turgid the actual music is, he manages to make everything sound clear and well-ordered, and he does so here, but there is no escaping the fact that the piece itself is simply a brief musical explosion. Following this, however, is one of Sorabji’s quietest, calmest and most introverted etudes, No. 73 (Quasi Preludio-corale), which only opens up in terms of volume and energy at roughly the 11-minute mark. We may also note the vastly uneven timings of these 12 etudes: No. 76 barely over a minute, Nos. 77 and 78 about a minute and a half, Nos. 72 and 82 just a bit over two minutes. By contrast, etudes Nos. 74, 80, 81 and 83 are at about the “normal” length one thinks of etudes as being (four to five minutes), while No. 73 runs nearly 18 minutes and No. 75, the Passacaglia: Largo, running nearly a half hour. Sorabji, then, was a composer who wrote his music as long as he felt the inspiration to do so.

It should also be noted, for those who don’t know it, that although Sorabji performed some of his works in public, including his massive Opus Clavicembalisticum, he was not an accomplished virtuoso. He once commented, when someone complained that his own homemade recording of Gulistan had many errors in it, that he was not a pianist but that his own performances were intended to give an impression of how he wanted his pieces to go. From 1938 until 1976 he placed a ban on public performances of his music because he had heard a performance in 1936 that was far too slow and robbed the music of its momentum. Aesthetically speaking, Sorabji was most strongly influenced by three of the most harmonically advanced composers of the 1910s, Claude Debussy (particularly the late etudes, which developed irregular forms to an extreme), Ferruccio Busoni (whose Piano Concerto is still considered a massive and thorny work both for performers and listeners), and Alexander Scriabin (whose music leaned towards atonality and even, at times, serialism), despite his long friendship with British composer Peter Warlock (realname Philip Heseltine). In his later years, Sorabji admitted that the death of Busoni in 1924 and Heseltine’s suicide in 1930 hurt him very deeply indeed and may have contributed to his already hermitic nature.

But to return to the music at hand: the smaller pieces tend towards one mood, the larger ones towards several. Etude No. 74, only 4:22 long, sounds for all the world like one of Alkan’s pieces, while the huge No. 75 begins somewhat quietly but soon develops into a more complex and, one might say, congested vortex of sound. I believe that part of Sorabji’s aesthetic was to hypnotize the listener, to draw him or her into the musical vortex that was going on in his mind and was being transferred to paper. This is not necessarily a function of Western music, but it is often a function of Eastern mysticism, and as a Farsi Sorabji was probably combining East and West in his mind and in his compositions. Yet of course even the shorrter pieces are obscure in melody and geared towards this hypnotic state. When Sorabji performed his own Opus Clavicembalisticum in 1930, he was said to have been in a self-induced trance throughout and, at the end of the four hours it took to play it, drenched in sweat and in a weakened condition. You talk about music that takes a lot out of you!

The listener is brought up time and again by the sheer complexity of this music. It is almost too much to take in at one sitting, just as it is too much to listen—carefully—to Art Tatum play jazz more than 20 minutes in one sitting. Yet there is great value in this music, and not only in terms of its hypnotic effect. Sorabji pointed forward towards a new aesthetic that, in a sense, bypassed the listener—at least, the casual listener. Part of its complexity was also a wall to protect his music against being cheapened by mass appeal as well as to protect his fragile id against “popularity.” Those who were involved with him in his later years, among them Michael Habermann, found him to be the complete opposite of his music: warm, genial, generous with his time and unselfish in his unstinting praise of those he felt understood what he was doing. In short, Sorabji wanted to communicate himself through his music; he just didn’t want every casual classical listener, particularly those who think bel canto opera is high art or that Chopin is the begin-all and end-all of great piano music, access to his mind and heart. To reach Sorabji you had to climb the mountain of his music, and that is what Fredrik Ullén is doing in this magnificent series of recordings. You may not be one of those who responds positively to Sorabji’s aesthetic; it’s certainly not for everybody; but if you can dig it, it’s here for you at last.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Mark Murphy’s Last Live Recording a Gem

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MARK MURPHY LIVE IN ATHENS, GREECE FEATURING SPIROS EXARAS / My Funny Valentine (Rodgers-Hart); All Blues (Miles Davis-Oscar Brown, Jr.); On Green Dolphin Street (Kaper-Washington); Summertime (Gershwin-Heyward); Autumn Leaves (Kosma-Prevert-Mercer); When I Fall in Love (Young-Heyman-Wood)/My One and Only Love (Robert Melin); Bye Bye Blackbird (Henderson-Dixon); Miles (Mark Murphy); Milestones (Miles Davis); On the Red Clay (Freddie Hubbard-Mark Murphy); Inutil Paisagem/Dindi (Jobim-De Oliviera-Gilbert) / Mark Murphy, vocal; Spiros Exaras, electric guitar; Thomas Rueckert, piano; George Georgiadis, bass; Alex Drakos, drums / Harbinger HCD 3202 (live: Athens, 2008)

In the wake of pop icon Prince’s death many claims have been made for him, some reasonable and some not, but the most preposterous was that he was a jazz artist.

Prince? Jazz? To paraphrase Leslie Nielsen in Airplane!, “Shirley you jest.” Prince didn’t have a jazz bone in his body. He couldn’t have improvised a solo if you put a gun to his head. He was a famous and influential pop music figure, but that was it.

Now, Mark Murphy—now you’re talking. Murphy (1932-2015) was the male jazz singer ne plus ultra, nominated for jazz Grammies six times and winner of down beat’s award for best male jazz vocalist four times late in his career, 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2001. Yet he is barely known outside the jazz community, where he is worshipped as a god of the music. When he came to Cincinnati back in the ‘90s, he didn’t concertize in a large venue or charge exorbitant ticket prices. He sang at one of the coffeehouses in Over-the-Rhine, a small neighborhood venue.

So why isn’t he better known, a name up there with Louis Armstrong, Nat Cole, Mel Tormé or Jon Hendricks? Beats me. The best I can come up with was that Murphy never tried, or succeeded, in crossover appeal, and he never seemed to have a high-powered agent. After being discovered by Milt Gabler in 1956 and recording two albums for Decca, then moving to Los Angeles where he recorded two more for Capitol (none of which caught on with the public), Murphy signed with Riverside, a much smaller label that only recorded and released jazz. His first album for them, Rah!, was a major success and earned him the “New Star of the Year” award in down beat (please note: even they never noticed his previous four albums!). But promoters weren’t exactly beating his door down trying to book him, so in 1963 he moved to England where he worked as an actor for nine years, singing jazz on the side. The money he made from acting helped pay for much of his later career.

This CD is being touted by Harbinger Records as Murphy’s “last album.” It may well be his last live set, but it was certainly not his last album. After this 2008 concert in Athens, he recorded an independently produced CD, Never Let Me Go, with pianist Mischa Piatagorsky, and a limited edition EP/MP3 titled A Beautiful Friendship: Remembering Shirley Horn was released in 2013.

Yet surely this live concert will be a must-have item for Murphy fans. Backed by a sizzling quartet, none of whom are coasting, Murphy gives an absolutely astonishing performance with what is left of his voice. At age 76, the incipient unsteadiness one already heard in the 1959 Capitol LP is a full-fledged wobble, and he occasionally goes hoarse, but never, ever sags in pitch. Moreover, the musical risks he takes are simply astonishing. Listen to the opener, My Funny Valentine, and prepare to be amazed. Murphy finds more in this song than I’ve ever heard any jazz artist in my life, and this includes a number of great Chet Baker performances. He flies up into the stratosphere, dips into a deep baritone that he didn’t possess back in the 1970s, and generally twists Richard Rodgers’ tune into a jazz pretzel. And this is just the opener! If you think this was surprising, wait until you hear what he does to All Blues, On Green Dolphin Street, Summertime (possibly the most complex performance of this tune I’ve ever encountered), and the others. What Murphy can do with Autumn Leaves simply boggles the mind; not even Mel Tormé got this much out of the song, and Mel is one of my idols. Perhaps one of the most astonishing tracks is his rendition of the old chestnut Bye Bye Blackbird, in which one can hear, believe it or not, the influence of Art Tatum (whom Murphy always cited as one of his idols), and this scintillating invention continues into his original tune Miles as well as his own renditions (and lyrics) of Milestones and Freddie Hubbard’s On the Red Clay.

And if you think Murphy is in great form, listen to his back-up musicians. I have long complained over the years about too many jazz guitarists sounding as if they were trying to compete with Andres Segovia for underplaying their instrument, but Spiros Exaras is a gutsy player who does not pander by resorting to rock licks. Pianist Thomas Rueckert is equally brilliant, sometimes leading Murphy into interesting harmonic changes and sometimes following him. Bassist George Georgiadis underpins the whole mélange beautifully, and drummer Alex Drakos kicks things along. From start to finish, this is a brilliant set that will keep you coming back to re-listen again and again.

So please, folks, cut the nonsense on Prince being a “jazz artist” and leave the adult version of popular music to the adults like Mark Murphy. You’ll be much happier if you just admit that there’s a difference and that Murphy was quite possibly the best male jazz vocalist ever.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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David Starobin’s Ongoing Guitar Journey

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NEW MUSIC WITH GUITAR, Vol. 10 / Steps (Gregg Smith) / Rosalind Rees, soprano; David Starobin, guitar. Variations on a Theme by Carl Nielsen, “Underlige Aften lufte” (William Bland) / Starobin, guitar; Vassily Primakov, piano. Four Stevens (Michael Starobin) / Patrick Mason, baritone; Starobin, guitar. The Girl from Yerevan (Paul Chihara) / Starobin, guitar; Movses Pogossian, violin; Paul Coletti, viola. Oh, Mother (Paul Ruders) / Camille Zamora, soprano; Robert Belinić, guitar; Giovanni Andrea Zanon, Jee Yoon Kim, violins; Thomas Howerton, viola; Blake Anthony Johnson, cello; David Starobin, conductor / Bridge 9458

Guitarist David Starobin, who is also the founder of Bridge Records, is certainly one of the most adventurous of classical musicians. Since 1981 he has been recording his series of “New Music With Guitar,” first for LP (Vols. 1-3), then conventional CDs, and now as combination CDs/downloads/streaming audio. For those who wonder as to my own proclivities, yes, I take advantage of downloads and streaming but if I like the music I’ll burn it to a CD. I want to hear good music through a good audio system, and no one has yet developed (to my satisfaction) a purely computer-based audio system that delivers realistic sound compared to my amp and 3-foot-high Technics speakers.

But I digress. The music on Vol. 10, mostly recorded between 1995 (Four Stevens) and 2015 (Oh, Mother), also includes a selection—Steps—originally recorded and issued on LP by Turnabout in 1976, and as it turns out, this is the absolute gem of this collection. It was composed by Gregg Smith, the famed choral director who specializes in modern music and in fact was one of the late Robert Craft’s most trusted associates in many a performance and recording project. As it turns out, Smith is also a heck of a composer. Steps is based on one of Frank O’Hara’s wacky, surrealistic poems, and heaven knows we could use someone with his light spirit and free-associating sense of humor in these dark days! Steps alternates between tonal and atonal passages, the music coruscating in little jagged spikes of melody that perfectly mirror O’Hara’s poem. (My favorite lines: “Everyone’s taking their coat off, so they can show a ribcage to the rib-watchers!” and “The Pittsburgh Pirates shout…because they WOOOONNN!”) Starobin was very lucky to have a soprano who can sing modern music with a splendid voice, Rosalind Rees…and in the photo of her, she looks like a dead ringer for Elaine May in her mid-‘30s.

Perhaps because of its juxtaposition with Steps, I found Bland’s Variations on a Theme by Carl Nielsen a relatively weak piece. I say this with no sense of disparagement to Bland, whose music I am otherwise unfamiliar with, but simply my personal feeling about this specific piece. Perhaps it is because he builds his eight variations and a coda on a Nielsen song, and a fairly simple song at that, and the structure strikes me as derivative of Beethoven’s variation style without having Beethoven’s sense of adventure or invention, despite his use of more modern harmonies. (For an example of what I mean, listen to Beethoven’s imaginative and constantly-growing variants on the little operetta tune, “I am the tailor Kakadu.”) Mind you, it’s not a bad piece by any means, but I just find that it tends to drag on a bit too long, an impression bolstered by the fact that many of the variations are slow and dirge-like. It is, however, splendidly played by Starobin and pianist Vassily Primakov.

Indeed, Blands’s piece can be contrasted with the next selection, Four Stevens by Starobin’s brother, Michael. Here, too, we have songs, and a lyrical ones at that, but Michael Starobin has composed music that not only engages the mind but mirrors the text of each poem beautifully. I think you might say that simplicity is the key here, meaning that Starobin doesn’t try to do “too much” with each poem, yet he also varies his tempos more interestingly. Interestingly, I found his composition style in this specific set of songs very similar to that of some of the modren British songs that tenor Peter Pears recorded for Argo in the 1960s (i.e., Lennox Berkeley), which is not a bad thing. Note, too, how Starobin varies his textures, such as using a sparse backing and having the guitarist use percussion effects in “The Snow Man.” I was very much taken with these songs, and kudos to baritone Patrick Mason, yet another singer with a splendid voice. We’re on a roll here!

I’ve had occasion to praise Paul Chihara’s music previously, and I will do so again here. He has his own very personal style, sort of “modern lyrical” with astringent harmonic touches, yet music that continually touches the heart as well as the mind, and The Girl from Yerevan is no exception. In fact, once it gets going, it almost sounds like a tango, albeit a slow-moving one (the liner notes cite the influences of Armenian music and the bossa nova), the interesting melodic contour almost, but not quite, graspable by the ear…it keeps changing, just enough to force you to pay attention. Moreover, Chihara has his own unique sense of how to build” a composition using contrasting snippets in double time, sudden a capella passages for the two strings alone, a long pause before the guitar re-enters, and a quiet but discernible sense of humor. One thing that I really liked about this piece was the clever way Chihara uses descending chromatics and his way of suddenly transposing on a dime. The end result is unique, engaging, and interesting.

We close out this program with an aria from Poul Ruders’ chamber opera The Thirteenth Child, based on the Grimm Brothers’ tale of The Twelve Princes. Because this was taken from a fairy tale, there is a good chance that the opera is meant to appeal to children, at least children old enough to appreciate subtle music. The score is delicately crafted, melodic, and not too challenging tonally. Soprano Zamora has a bit of a flutter in her voice and unclear diction (too often the bane of modern singers) but by and large does a nice job with the music. It would be interesting to hear more of the opera, however; I’m not sure that taking this aria out of context does the score justice, although I was impressed by Ruders’ delicate writing for string quartet.

As usual, Starobin’s own playing is clean and beautifully articulated. All in all, an excellent addition to his ongoing series with at least three truly great pieces on it you’ll want to listen to again and again.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Eubie Blake’s Classic “Shuffle Along” Back Out on CD

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SHUFFLE ALONG / Shuffle Along Medley; Love Will Find a Way / Ivan Harold Browning, tenor; Eubie Blake, piano. Election Day (demo); I’m Just Simply Full of Jazz; Bandana Days; Mirandy & In Honeysuckle Time; Gypsy Blues; Shuffle Along (demo); If You’ve Never Been Vamped by a Brownskin; Oriental Blues; I’m Craving for That Kind of Love (demo); Low Down Blues; Ain’t You Comin’ Back to Maryland, Mary Ann?; Pickaninny Shoes / Noble Sissle, tenor; Eubie Blake, piano. Shuffle Along Medley; Baltimore Buzz & In Honeysuckle Time / Eubie Blake, piano. I’m Just Wild About Harry / Ruth Williams, soprano; Sissle, tenor; Blake, piano. Daddy, Won’t You Please Come Home? Gertrude Saunders, soprano; Tim Brymm’s Black Devil Orchestra (all songs by Eubie Blake / Noble Sissle). Election Day in Jimtown; Jimtown Fisticuffs; Fourth of July in Jimtown / Flournoy E. Miller, Aubrey Lyles, actors / Harbinger Records HCD 3204 (mono except for the two tracks with Browning/Blake)

This fascinating release combines original recordings made in the acoustic era by members of the Shuffle Along company in conjunction with later performances, primarily by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, who wrote all the music and lyrics. It is, of course, by no means perfect, but it is representative of what was considered a landmark show in the history of black theater and the first “jazz” musical to hit Broadway.

But first, some prehistory is necessary for us today to understand what Shuffle Along was all about without having a PC meltdown. Young people coming to the show for the first time will undoubtedly blow a gasket (or several gaskets) over the premise itself. Based on an older skit by Flournay Miller and Aubrey Lyles titled “The Mayor of Jimtown,” it’s filled with horrid racial stereotypes, but one must remember that this was the era when racial stereotypes were de rigeur in show business—and it was not confined to black Americans. “Greedy Sheeny Jews,” “Dumb Irishmen” and “Sneaky, Oily Italians,” all speaking broken English, were rife in the show business world of this time. Indeed, we often forget that even the now-revered Marx Brothers molded their characters on exactly these kind of stereotypes (believe it or not, Harpo’s original name in the act was “Patsy the Irishman,” his glaring red wig covered by an Irish-type hat), the difference being that as the act evolved, the Marxes revised their characters to subvert white middle-class society rather than be subservient to them or play the dolts.

The plot of Shuffle Along features two protagonists, played by Miller and Lyles, as owners of a grocery store who decide to run for mayor. Their deal is that whichever one wins will hire the other as Chief of Police. They both steal money from their own cash register to buy votes and hire the same private detective to catch the other doing the stealing. They finally resolve things in a rousing, humorous 20-minute fight scene. As they fight, their opponent for the mayoral position, Harry Walton, vows to end their corrupt regime, underscored by the song “I’m Just Wild about Harry.” Walton wins the election and the girl, running Sam and Steve out of town.When the show opened at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., in late March 1921, critics decried the appalling stereotypes but highly praised what was most important: the music, singing and dancing. The incredible “speed” dances given by the performers and soprano Gertrude Saunders’ powerful (if terribly unsubtle) voice bowled over theatergoers, as did the “jazzy” score of Blake and Sissle.

Singer and lyricist Sissle was originally a drum major and vocalist for Lieutenant Jim Europe’s “Hellfighters” 369th Infantry Band in World War I. He was present at the rehearsal in which Europe was stabbed in the neck by Herbert Wright, one of his drummers, which severed his jugular vein and caused his death, and during those months in the War he recalled Europe talking to him about his dream of creating all-black shows on Broadway and perhaps a “jazz symphony.” Of course, Europe, like many musicians of his time, had only a rudimentary idea what jazz really was. When they entered the service and went overseas, not even the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had yet made an appearance in New York. To them, jazz was what we now call “hot ragtime.”

Nevertheless, Shuffle Along remains a vitally important historical moment in the history of black entertainment. It was the first all-black show to have a wide appeal to white Shuffle Along chorus lineaudiences, first gaining attention at the Howard Theatre in Washington for two weeks, then moving to the 63rd Street Theater in New York City in May before racking up 504 performances(!) at the Cort Theater on 48th Street. The cast included several names that would become famous over the next few years such as Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills (who replaced Gertrude Saunders after the first year), Fredi Washington and Paul Robeson—none of whom recorded anything from the show!—and a very young Josephine Baker in the chorus line. The big mistake Sissle and Blake made was trying to revive the show, twice in fact, in 1932 and 1952. The second time, they only got four performances in before the show closed, but ironically RCA Victor had already rushed to record four songs from the show and issued them on LP!

This album contains only a few of the numbers issued back in 1975 on the New World label, which relied mostly on original recordings. Gone is the “overture,” which included the hit tunes Bandana Days and I’m Just Wild About Harry, Gertrude Saunders’ rendition of I’m Craving for That Kind of Love, and several others. There are several private recordings of Sissle and Blake performing numbers from the show, recorded in the 1950s and early ‘60s, although no recording dates, or information of any kind, is given in the booklet. One important note that should be made, and is often overlooked, is that the show’s score was orchestrated and arranged by Will H. Vodery, an accomplished musician with classical training who later in the 1920s helped tutor young Duke Ellington to the principles of composition.

The bottom line question, however, is whether or not Shuffle Along is a work of art of simply an entertainment that happened to luck out in its time. I would opt more for the latter, but with a caveat: although overall the music is not jazz, Blake as a pianist played a style of hot ragtime that was very close to it. Anyone familiar with his signature tune, the Charleston Rag, will know what I’m talking about; even his “hot” arrangement of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever still holds up today. Within the context of the show, Blake apparently played occasional hot choruses during performances, and you can hear this particularly in the later recordings where he breaks out of the ragtime mold. Thus it is the music itself that lives; we can forget the moronic and racist plot.

Sissle and BlakeAnd indeed, this is the virtue of hearing as many of the original recordings as possible. They capture an almost irrepressible energy force that is seldom heard in old records; the music jumps, cavorts and seduces all at the same time. Primary among the virtues of these recordings is the voice of Sissle himself, a high, bright tenor with superb diction, intonation and brio. With such a voice and his handsome good looks, Sissle could easily have become a superstar in the same vein as Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor had he not been black. Even more interestingly, Eubie Blake’s hot New York ragtime style is actually a lot closer to jazz (at least in rhythm if not in improvisation) than we may remember, particularly if you only heard him in his late years when he was the “old black darling” of TV and Broadway. Blake always maintained his enthusiasm of playing but the actual style, his continuity of phrasing, declined after the early 1960s.

As I write this, there is a new Shuffle Along scheduled to open on Broadway on April 28, but from what I’ve read about it, it is not the same show but a show about the show. Some of the original numbers are included, but not that many; a lot of new material has been inserted. We’ll have to wait and see what it sounds like.

index 1In the meantime, however, this CD is a pretty good indicator of what the show was like. One online critic complained about the juxtaposition of original recordings and later tapes made by Sissle and Blake in the 1950s (and two numbers, the Shuffle Along Medley and Love Will Find a Way, taped by Ivan Howard Browning and Eubie Blake in the early 1970s), claiming that hearing the modern recordings in context was “jarring.” I disagree to a point. Most of the Sissle-Blake tapes are extraordinarily lively, and in fact we hear in these some of Blake’s absolute best playing that was very, very close to the stride piano style of James P.Johnson. Yet I do miss some of those original recordings, not because I’m obsessed with old acoustic discs (I’m not) but because the flavor and energy in those original records is missing from most later recordings. Thus I would recommend the following additions and substitutions:

Add:
Bandana Days; I’m Just Wild About Harry / Eubie Blake and the Shuffle Along Orchestra (Recorded July 15, 1921)
Baltimore Buzz; In Honeysuckle Time / same as above
Gypsy Blues / Ladd’s Black Aces [Original Memphis Five] Phil Napoleon, tp; Miff Mole, tb; Jimmy Lytell, cl; John Cali, bj; Jimmy Durante, pn; Jack Roth, dm, here also featuring Loren McMurray on alto sax (1921).

Replace:
Track 5, Love Will Find a Way with the original recording featuring Sissle and Blake (June 1921)
Track 15, I’m Craving for That Kind of Love with the original recording by Gertrude Saunders and Tim Brymm’s Black Devil Orchestra (April 1921)

Gertrude Saunders was a highly unusual singer for Broadway music, then or now: a full-throated lyric-spinto operatic soprano. Her voice was somewhat steely and had a bit of unsteadiness to it, which makes the numbers she sings sound a bit too much for the music, but the sound she made was actually quite thrilling and, in my opinion, there has been nothing like it in jazz or blues since. I first heard her rendition of I’m Craving for That Kind of Love about 40 years ago on a Columbia LP compilation called The Sound of Harlem, Vol. 3 (CL-33), and I never, ever forgot it. Yes, at first listening it sounded horrid to me, but oddly enough, it grows on you! Florence Mills, who replaced Saunders after the first year, was said to have been far superior in these songs, but for whatever reason Mills never cut a single record before her shocking early death in 1927.

The recording of Gypsy Blues noted above is by an all-white band (and one, please note, with Jimmy Durante on piano!), but the performance has a much hotter, real jazz-like feel than some of the records from the show. And now I realize why it was so difficult for archivists to collect all the original cast recordings from Shuffle Along in one place: they were all made for different labels, both big and small. Victor, OKeh, Emerson, Pathé, etc. (not to mention Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along Medley made as a piano roll for QRS). To find them you had to be a real sleuth and/or know who recorded for what label to begin with (although the Eubie Blake/Shuffle Along Orchestra titles were Blake’s only recordings for Victor, so you had to know that too).

Blake Bandana DaysI'm Craving for That KindI'm Just Simply Full of Jazz

For the most part, what is here is really fascinating and engaging. Even some of the comedy routines are still pretty funny, such as the fight scene where one of the protagonists says to the other, “I thought you said you was a professional fighter?” “I is a professional fighter!” is the reply. “You IS? Then why ain’t you stoppin’ those punches?” “I is stopping them…all of them! You don’t see any of them getting past me, do you?”

All in all, then, a fascinating album that, despite its eclectic mixture of old and later recordings and lack of liner notes, represents an important milestone in the history of ragtime and early jazz.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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