Mark Kaplan Pierces the Heart of Bach

Mark_Kaplan_cover_large

J.S. BACH: Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin / Mark Kaplan, violinist / Bridge 9460A/B (2 CDs)

I’m almost ashamed to admit that this is the kind of recording I might have passed on for review had I still been writing for a major classical journal—not because I dislike the music, but on the contrary, because there are so many performances of these Sonatas and Partitas out there, and I’ve heard so many of them that I was afraid of Bach Overload. And, from the first notes of this new release, I was worried by the fact that Kaplan seemed to take these pieces at not merely a leisurely pace but a granitic one, almost like Otto Klemperer’s recording of the Bach St, Matthew Passion.

But like Klemperer’s Passion, Kaplan creates here an entire world of feeling and emotion. For him, these are obviously not just Bach pieces to be played but major, monumental structures to be explored and savored, note by note and phrase by phrase. By the time you finish just one complete Sonata, you are emotionally drained, but you realize there are two more sonatas and the three partitas yet left to hear.

It is difficult to describe in words exactly what Kaplan does with this music; an objective description really isn’t enough, but I will try. To begin with, he plays in a more modern style. Kaplan plays a 1685 Stradivarius called “The Marquis” after the Marchese Spinola whose family owned this instrument for generations, and although he does not use straight tone, he does employ a light, fast vibrato which gives the illusion of straight tone without sacrificing beauty of sound. More importantly, to my ears, is that he knows how to “build” each piece, using both its structure and its emotional message (to him) to convey something far, far deeper than what one sees in the naked music. It is as if every note, every phrase of these monumental works has something to say to Kaplan and, in turn, he has something to say to you about them.

It took me a while to figure out who Kaplan’s tone reminded me of. It reminds me of Isaac Stern, but Stern in a really fired-up mood. I have to say that I was never much of a Stern fan, not because he couldn’t play the violin well—he certainly could—but because I found most of his performances very generic-sounding. There is nothing generic about Kaplan; on the contrary, he is an individualist of the highest order.

When Kaplan played the entire Sonatas and Partitas over two evenings at Ostin Hall in Los Angeles in October 2000, at a time when he was on the faculty of UCLA, Los Angeles Times critic Richard S. Ginell praised him for his “near-perfect intonation, even in the most treacherous multiple-stopped chords; expressive rubatos in the slower dances; sufficiently graceful rhythm in others. He could dig trenchantly into the Sonata No. 2’s great Fuga, finding the climaxes and crunching them with satisfying, robust attacks.” This is perhaps a bit more of a “macho” description of what Kaplan does in this music than I would say, but it’s very close. In style, he seems to me to combine the best of the Italian and German approaches to violin playing in that his long-lined passages have extraordinary lyricism yet do not collapse under the weight of the slow pace he chooses, while the fast movements have the brightness of sound and that identifiable “lift” to the rhythm that the best Italian violinists can bring to this music.

Prior to hearing Kaplan’s recording, my benchmark performances in these works were the ones recorded by the great Dutch violinist Sigiswald Kuijken way back in 1981. They were, I believe, the very first recordings made of these works using straight tone, and Kuijken was able (as so few Historically-Informed violinists can do) to make the violin sing without sounding whiny. Going back and relistening to Kuijken’s performances after hearing Kaplan’s, I still find much to admire insofar as the unusual approach is concerned (there is, as I’ve said many times, no conclusive evidence that 18th-century violinists played with constant straight tone or even mostly with straight tone), but because he is using constant straight tone, Kuijken is physically incapable of achieving the kind of emotional impact that Kaplan brings to this music.

Now, I’m not saying that no straight-tone violinist can achieve anything close to what Kaplan gives us, but I’m not holding my breath, either. Regular readers of my reviews know my philosophy: it’s the musical approach, not the instrument or the technique used, that brings a piece of music to life. If you don’t really love the music and get deep inside it, all your audience is going to hear is a nice progression of notes, possibly played with a good legato and spiffy stops but not much more. I’ll take an artist—a real artist—like Kaplan over a more clinical approach any day of the week.

As I was preparing to upload this review online, I discovered that this is Kaplan’s second recording of these works. The first was apparently made for Mitch Miller Music (14630-2) Kaplan early Bachin 1991-92—an image is inserted here—but I’ve never heard it or even seen a review of it. (Kaplan also recorded Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Wieniawski’s Concerto No. 2, with Miller conducting, for the same label.) I can only imagine that he must have grown in this music over the years or he wouldn’t have insisted on re-recording it. Incidentally, this recording was made in 2011, so it apparently took a few years to get the nod for release.

As noted earlier, I purposely avoid most new recordings of these great works so I can’t say with any certitude that this recording is the best out there, but by way of comparison I also reviewed Rachel Barton Pine’s new version of them (Testament: Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Avie AV2360). Much as I’ve loved her in past recordings, her insistence on using straight tone in early music hamstrings her emotional projection. Her performances are more deeply felt than Kuijken’s, but every time you get the impression that she is digging into the score, all her instrument is capable of projecting is a shallower version of the emotion that Kaplan gives us in spades. One good example is the “Siciliana” of the first Sonata. Barton Pine plays it with superb balance and her patented clear tone, whereas Kaplan, who extends it more than a minute longer, is doing something entirely different. He is not playing music; he is communicating something deep and personal. Indeed, this is even true of that sonata’s concluding “Presto,” played at the same tempo by both violinists. Barton Pine has a certain swagger, she makes the music dance, but Kaplan views it as yet another way of communicating his inner feelings, building it phrase by phrase in a slow crescendo. This is not to say that Barton Pine’s recording is shallow. In comparison to many a HIP violinist, she has a unique sparkle regardless of playing method used, but compared to Kaplan it is like hearing Montserrat Caballé sing Massenet’s Élégie before turning to Feodor Chaliapin, who tears your heart out. There is good, and there is great. Both Kuijken’s and Barton Pine’s performances are ones you will listen to occasionally, but you’ll go back to Kaplan’s, in whole or part, much more often.

This is a great recording, plain and simple.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Huw V Williams’ Excellent Adventure

Huw V Williams

HON / Beryl; Skardu’s Missing; 06/01/14; Rotten Apple Boughs; Mugs; Retrogressive Shredfest; Slumps; Hon (Huw V Williams) / Laura Jurd, tp; Alam Nathoo, t-sax; Elliot Galvin, vib (on Mugs)/organ (on Hon)/acc/pn; Huw V Williams, bs; Pete Ibbetson, dm. / Glyn (Williams) / Huw Warren, pn; Williams, bs; Jim Black, dm. / Chaos Collection CC005. Available at Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon or directly from the artist at his website https://huwvwilliams.wordpress.com

This is the first CD by Huw V Williams, a young bassist-composer from Bangor, North Wales. Williams won the 2012 Yamaha Jazz Scholars Prize from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and has since made a name for himself playing in London, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Fellow Welsh musicians join him on this excursion, in which I hear influences of several jazz styles ranging from Charles Mingus to Arthur Blythe, with several stops in between.

Williams explains that “The word Hon means This in Welsh. I got the idea for the name from a poem by T.H. Parry Williams. The poem is about a love hate relationship with Wales, and I feel that in myself; Wales is my roots and my family, but its like you have to leave Wales to fulfill yourself.” Judging from this first outing, he is well on his way to doing just that. Each of the eight studio tracks is a carefully crafted gem, using contrasting moods and tempos with a variety of sound colors behind and around him. The stylistic versatility of his bandmates adds to this versatility, particularly in the odd use of an accordion on several tracks.

The brief, lyrical opening piece, Beryl, is a deception. This sounds as if it is going to be an album of relaxed jazz in the early Miles Davis mold, but it turns out to be anything but; in the very next track, Skardu’s Missing, the band kicks into second gear and takes off on a wild, wacky ride. Here is a piece in D minor that sounds very much, to me, like one of Willem Breuker’s quasi-latin-jazz-march pieces written for his Kollektief, and Williams’ little band jumps into it with much the same enthusiasm, reveling in those odd little luftpausen here and there that tease the ear, doubling back on snippets of the theme in such a way that they sound like a tape loop. At this point, it sounds as if Galvin has double-tracked himself, as one clearly hears a piano with strings being plucked in the background against an accordion solo. Jurd’s beautiful tone and wild musical imagination are up next, occasionally overblowing her instrument purposely as the “tack piano” effect continues in the background (by golly, it does sound like a tape loop!). Nathoo then picks up the theme on tenor sax while Jurd continues to deconstruct it, eventually playing only fragments until, eventually, the tempo begins to slow down in a bizarre sort of stutter-stop manner until the whole thing just ends on an unresolved note.

The next track was a bit of a mystery title for me originally. It is listed on the back of the CD cover (see illustration), and mentioned in Adrian Pallant’s online review (https://ap-reviews.com/2016/02/29/hon-huw-v-williams/) as 06/01/14, but listed on YouTube and  0007070835_10in John Fordham’s review in The Guardian as 77806. Williams himself e-mailed me to explain that the former title is the correct one, and that he is currently checking with the distributor to see if they can fix it online. The music itself is much more outré than the preceding tracks, in fact one of the most free-form things on the album. It almost sounds like Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz; I might even subtitle it Free Jazz, Jr. Even when a more “regular” pulse eventually arrives, it doesn’t remain really steady, but continues to fluctuate in a fluid manner—and once again, we hear that odd, piped-in sound of someone playing the strings of a piano with one’s fingers and, here and here, with light mallets. One of the more interesting things about this album is that, unlike Mingus’ bands, Williams is always audible but does not dominate the proceedings. In fact, he seems to take the position that his role is that of underpinning. As the composer of each piece, he clearly knows the structure from the ground up, but he steps back and allows the others to work in the foreground. Here Galvin switches to regular piano for his solo, but the odd tack-piano sound continues to weave its way along the right channel, providing a sort of surrealistic counterpoint to the proceedings. Nathoo’s sax solo here is a bevy of squawks and overblown notes, and once again it almost sounds as if the piece wraps up hurriedly.

Rotten Apple Boughs deceives the ear by beginning in a gentle, lyrical mood, sounding like a variant on Beryl (and perhaps it is), before moving into a theme reminiscent of Ornette’s Lonely Woman. More high-pitched trumpet squawks from Jurd interject themselves here as the piece then begins to deconstruct itself, falling into a rabbit-hole of jagged shards that occasionally play against that Lonely Woman-type melody. Then, at the 3:05 mark, a nice, relaxed ostinato beat is set up by the trumpet and tenor sax against long-held chords in the accordion, followed by a rare (for this album) bass solo by Williams, starting completely a Laura Jurdcappella before the drums tastefully support him. Eventually Nathoo returns on tenor, this time in a lyrical, almost plaintive mood. The music becomes more lyrical in character even as the background rhythm continues to churn and play against the top line. Jurd’s trumpet is again abrasive in quality as she pits herself against the tenor sax, eventually prompting him to join her in a few angry phrases, then the Lonely Woman theme returns for a ride-out. One thing is becoming quite clear: as good as everyone in this band is, Jurd is an astonishing and creative musician, a real sparkplug who makes every track work better every time she involves herself in the proceedings.

Mugs, on the other hand, is a rhythmically steady piece in E that almost sounds like a rock tune from the 1960s—almost, but not quite. Once again, Williams moves the music in the direction of deconstruction—that is the nest word I can use to describe what he does—it is something akin to taking apart a wind-up toy as it is operating, then watching it slowly disassemble itself. In this case, the motor rhythm also disassembles itself into a slower, weirder version of itself until Williams’ own bass picks the tempo back up again. Nathoo plays a fine solo over the rhythm section and Galvin’s accordion, then Jurd arrives with yet another scintillating solo. This ramps up the excitement level as well as the tempo as Mugs goes screaming off into the void…but not quite, as Gavin (now on vibes) plays the melody as the rest of the band chants wordlessly above him, then everyone joins in for a final, triumphant chorus before yet another abrupt ending.

In Retrogressive Shredfest, Williams opens the proceedings with a quirky line that acts as a basso continuo:

shredfestThe drums shift the accents on the beat, however, and before long his continuing bass line is the only constant one can hang on to. A dead stop, following which is a slow, free-form passage played by Jurd and Nathoo; then Galvin enters on piano, his sound quirkily “phased” from right to left channel and back again via technological tinkering with the controls, followed by Jurd and Nathoo again. Then a very quiet free-form passage, with Nathoo noodling in the left channel and Jurd, now muted, in the right, with interjections from bass and drums. This increases in volume and intensity, and eventually tempo, as Galvin, Williams and Ibbetson get in on the action before another ritard, a dead stop, then a sluggish, out-of-tempo passage leading back to Williams’ initial bass line which eventually just hits a wall.

Slumps sounds so much in the opening like one of the Ornette Coleman Quartet’s numbers that it shocked me a bit, but it alternates with a Thelonious Monk-ish theme in straight 4/4. Eventually this latter theme straightens out, sounding more like a cool-bop number from the 1950s but with continued double-time interjections of the Coleman-like motif. Nathoo plays a nifty sax solo that also sounds a bit retro over accordion, bass and drums, followed by one bar of the Coleman motif before Jurd takes off at a zippy tempo into the ether, combining bop and outside licks with aplomb. Everything she plays seems to both increase the listener’s attention and enhance what is going on around her. The tempo slows down for Galvin’s single-note accordion solo, which plays with the harmonic strangeness of the underlying bass lick in an interesting and curious way. Continued interweaving of these two themes then resumes, providing a strange ride-out, the final note being an octave slide upward into the snoidvoid.

The final studio track, Hon, opens with a quite different bass line: drummer Ibbetson playing the contrabass C on his bass drum, followed by higher Cs on the tom tom. Eventually we hear Williams playing bowed bass, very high up in its range, with Galvin on accordion and Jurd entering around him (eventually followed by Nathoo). The melodic line is indeed quirky and elusive, here suggestive of the early-1960s Mingus band at its most progressive (the band with Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy). The rhythm sounds regular but is not: if you try to do a beat count, you will find yourself one short each time around. This doesn’t seem to bother the band, however, as they weave their way around. We get a bit more studio trickery as Galvin plays an organ solo over his own sustained chords on accordion. Nathoo and Jurd extend and build on the opening melodic bit, creating something akin to a real melody, before eventually moving into a fade-out ending.

The bonus track, Glyn, comes from a live concert and features only a trio of Huw Warren (piano), Williams (bass) and Jim Black (drums). It is a very space-filled composition, mostly quiet and introspective, and although it is a very fine piece in its own way it doesn’t really fit the character of the other eight pieces. But then again, it is a bonus track and not part of the studio recording. Warren seems to me influenced by Jarrett and perhaps Bill Evans, but moreso Jarrett in that his chord positions aren’t as fluid or unusual as those Evans normally played. Nonetheless, his single-note solo, inventive and arresting, is certainly a highlight of this track. The relaxation of tempo, disappearance of the drums and lead-in to Williams’ superb bass solo, however, reminded me very strongly of the way Evans would lead into Scott LaFaro or Eddie Gomez.

All in all, then, Hon is a wonderful album, one of the finest debut jazz albums I’ve ever heard. I highly recommend it to all and sundry; this is modern jazz at its very best.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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King Oliver’s Last Will and Testament

King Oliver and his Orch

Many, many years ago, shortly after I met jazz critic Ralph Berton, I asked him about King Oliver’s famous Creole Jazz Band. The reason I asked him about them was not that I thought they were so terrific, but because I thought they sounded so bad on their records. Yes, yes, I know all about how Oliver and young Louis Armstrong improvised two-cornet breaks in thirds, to the amazement of other musicians, and I also loved clarinetist Johnny Dodds who was also in that band, but as a whole, as an entity, to me they simply did not swing. And I still don’t think they do. Listen to their records: the rhythm is mushy, and it’s not just the rhythm section (which, in addition to Baby Dodds on drums, had the drawback of Lil “Stone Hands” Hardin, certainly the least swinging of all black jazz pianists of her day). The ensembles sound unrhythmic and uninspired. They always sound as if they were feeling their way through a rehearsal of the pieces they played and not really getting into the music.

Ralph told me that they were MUCH hotter band in person, and ascribed their lack of spirit in the recording studio to the intimidation of white recording directors. So I asked him why Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington weren’t similarly intimidated, to which he answered, “Are you kidding? Jelly Roll had an ego the size of Detroit, and Ellington wasn’t too far behind. They weren’t going to let anyone intimidate them. But Oliver was, deep down, a nice Southern gentleman, one of the kindest, most low-key people in the world, and he was easier to intimidate.”

Well, that answer satisfied me for a while, but then later on I discovered the Dixie Syncopators, Oliver’s next band that he formed after Armstrong and Dodds left. And that band was everything the Creole Jazz Band wasn’t: hot, tight, relaxed and swinging.

Oliver Orch 2Eventually, I finally got around to the later recordings made by Oliver for the Victor (1929-30) and Brunswick (1928 and 1931) labels, when he was in residence at the Kentucky Club, and was absolutely bowled over. For here was a band based on New Orleans style that was clearly taking it several steps forward. The two-beat feel of New Orleans jazz was at times subjugated to a more streamlined 4/4 beat; and moreover, the beat the band played was by now far less “jerky” than you usually hear from 1920s bands, despite the continued presence of banjo and tuba in lieu of guitar and string bass. Listen to virtually any well known jazz orchestra of the late 1920s (except Duke Ellington, who was pretty much operating in an alternate universe), and what you hear is a rather “jerky” beat, over which hot and heavy soloists were continually trying to blow their brains out. Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Earl Hines, even Whiteman much of the time were all were stiff and jerky sounding. The same was true of Cab Calloway’s fledgling band that played the Cotton Club in the early ‘30s—but not so Oliver’s orchestra. They had a nice, rolling, loping beat that propelled the music without sounding klunky. And, more interestingly, they played first-class arrangements that still sound fresh and interesting, peppered with solos that likewise remain interesting nearly a century later. In short, this was a hell of a band. The only other contemporary orchestra that played in a style similar to theirs was that of white leader Isham Jones.

Rhythm Club StompTo a certain extent, you might give credit—some of it, anyway—to Panamanian pianist Luis Russell, who was in the band for an extended period of time and perhaps set its style. He is heard on a large number of these Oliver discs, and although (as Morton pointed out) he wasn’t really a great jazz pianist, he was a first-class musician and knew his stuff. His most famous contribution to the Oliver orchestra was undoubtedly his modal composition Call of the Freaks, but many of the arrangements bear the stamp of his style and I get the feeling that much of what followed after he left was built around the principles he laid down.

What makes the musical success and esprit de corps of this band so amazing is that it all Someday Sweetheartcame at a time when Oliver was becoming less and less able to play the cornet himself, and a time when he was not doing well either financially or with the public. He had already made one band career decision after first arriving in New York in 1927 by disbanding in order to pick up freelance work for himself, but encroaching gum disease (caused, in part, by his lifelong habit of chewing sugar cane) eventually led him to hire other trumpeters once he re-formed his orchestra: Bubber Miley (before he went to Ellington), Louis Metcalf, Henry “Red” Allen, and eventually his nephew (some said his wife Stella’s nephew) Dave Nelson. Nelson became his strongest aide-de-camp, a sterling soloist and a spiritual sparkplug for a band that struggled to find an audience.

Oliver finally landed a long-term contract playing in New York’s Kentucky Club for pretty decent money, but made another bad decision when he passed up the chance to go to the newer Cotton Club because they paid less. Oliver unfortunately failed to take the powerful Struggle Buggyradio broadcasts into account, something that Ellington, and his manager Irving Mills, did not overlook. The result was that Ellington’s fame grew while Oliver’s diminished. Later he was hired by the Savoy Ballroom before Chick Webb took up residence, but was unsatisfied with the pay. He tried to wangle more money out of management, but the end result was that he lost the job. Webb moved in as Oliver finally just gave up and moved back to Savannah, Georgia, where he died prematurely in 1938, a month before his 53rd birthday. He spent his last years working as a janitor, cleaning floors and toilets—unable to convince the people he worked with that he had once been a major jazz star with his own band and the discoverer of Louis Armstrong. After he left New York, Nelson took over the band, renaming it “The King’s Men,” but without the magical Oliver name it didn’t last. This, too, was a shame, because Nelson was a wonderful, incisive trumpeter and deserved better.

But you’d never guess any of this from just listening to the records. Not everything is a gem, of course—I found some titles, like You’re Just My Type, I’m Watching the Clock and Got Showboat ShuffleEverything, to be rather drippy—but I’m sure that at least part of Oliver’s audience liked this kind of music which is why he played and recorded it. For the most part, however, these recordings are something very little ‘20s jazz is: delightful to listen to. Two or three tracks in, and you don’t even really notice the banjo and tuba so much, except when the latter takes a break or a short solo. And the other musicians, as I noted, all sound wonderfully relaxed and inventive: not only Nelson (and Oliver on those rare occasions when he could still play) but trombonist Jimmy Archey (or J.C. Higginmotham on a few sides), clarinetist Hilton Jefferson, saxists Charlie Holmes and Charles Frazier, pianists Russell, Don Frye and Hank Duncan and even the occasional drum solos. Everyone sounds unfettered, relaxed and swinging.

Herewith are some of my favorite tracks, with links to listen to them:

New Orleans Shout (12/30/1929)
One More Time (4/15/1931)
Rhythm Club Stomp (3/18/1930)
Shake It and Break It (9/10/1930)
Four or Five Times (8/13/1928)
Sobbin’ Blues (11/18/1927)
Who’s Blue? (1/19/1931)
I Must Have It (3/18/1930)
Too Late (10/8/1929)
Call of the Freaks (2/1/1929)
Nelson Stomp (9/19/1930)
Every Tub (4/22/1927)
Papa De Da Da (1/9/1931)
Showboat Shuffle (4/22/1927)
Edna (4/10/1930)
When I Take My Sugar to Tea (4/15/1931)
Stingaree Blues (9/10/1930)
Struggle Buggy (1/28/1930)
I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby (2/18/1931)
The Trumpet’s Prayer (2/1/1929)
Stop Crying (1/9/1931)
Olga (5/22/1930)
Don’t You Think I Love You? (5/22/1930)

Enjoy!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Welitsch Was a Spitfire, But Borkh Was a Blowtorch

Borkh - Welitsch

VOCAL RECITAL: INGE BORKH, LJUBA WELITSCH / Rusalka: O lovely moon (Dvořák); Alceste: Divinites du Styx (in German) (Gluck); Cavalleria Rusticana: Voi lo sapete, o Mamma (Mascagni); Macbeth: La luce langue (Verdi); L’Enfant Prodigue: Air de Lia (Debussy) / Inge Borkh, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra; Anatoule Fistoulari, conductor / La Forza del Destino: Madre, pietosa vergine (Verdi); Un Ballo in Maschera: Ecco l’orrido campo (Verdi); Macbeth: Ambizioso spirto…Vieni, t’affretta (Verdi); Andrea Chenier: La mamma morta (Giordano); Adriana Lecouvreur: Io son l’umile (Cilea) / Borkh, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Rudolf Moralt, conductor / Oberon: Ozean, du ungeheuer! (Weber); Ah, perfido! (Beethoven); Salome: Ah! du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund kussen (Strauss) / Borkh, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic; Josef Krips, conductor / Queen of Spades: Ich muss am Fenster lehnen; Es geht auf Mitternacht (in German) (Tchaikovsky); Un Ballo in Maschera: Ma dall’arido stelo; Morrò, ma prima in grazia (Verdi); Ziguenerleben: Song and Czardas (Lehár); Die Lustige Witwe: Vilja Lied (Lehár); Die Dubarry: Ich schenk men Herz (Millöcker); Der Zarewitsch: Einer wird kommen (Lehár) / Ljuba Welitsch, soprano; Vienna State Opera Orchestra; Rudolf Moralt, conductor / Wien, Wien Nur du Allein (Sieczynski) / Welitsch, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Herbert von Karajan, conductor / Decca 28948202836

Here is a reissue pairing two famous sopranos of the late 1940s and 1950s, the German-born-of-Swedish-parentage Borkh and Bulgarian-born Welitsch. Both were very long-lived: Welitsch made it to 83 and Borkh, bless her, is still alive as of this writing (if you accept the 1917 birth year and not 1921, she’ll be 99 years old on May 26, 2016 if she makes it that far), but for whatever reason Welitsch remains a legend while poor Borkh is largely forgotten.

To listen to this dual recital, however, you’d think it was the other way around, for Welitsch, though possessing a pretty voice, sounds relatively contrived in everything she sings. Yes, she does all the right things, and although by the time she made this recital her volume of voice had decreased considerably from the 1940s, it is still steady as a rock and attractive to the ear, but absolutely nothing is sung “from the inside.” Listen, for instance, to her performance of the ubiquitous “Vilia lied” from Lehár’s Merry Widow. Even Eleanor Steber—who, in my view, is a vastly underrated soprano because she was a nasty bitch who sabotaged her own career—sang it with more inward feeling than this. In short, Welitsch, nice as she is, is Just A Voice. In person at the Met, she was well remembered for her spitfire Musetta in La Bohème, waving her arms around in Act 2 and exiting the stage after jumping on Alcindoro’s back, but that’s not acting. It’s low comedy.

Inge Borkh recital

Original LP cover of Borkh recital

Not so Borkh. From first note to last in this amazing recital—actually made up of two recitals recorded in the 1950s—she is, as they say in the business, a “live wire” in every way. She is so deeply connected to the characters she sings that it’s almost scary. The Maria Callas Cult loves to harp on what a great actress she was, but in several of Callas’ recordings (and some of the live performances) she’s just OK. Borkh, like Martha Mödl or Anita Cerquetti, seemed incapable of giving less than 110%. She will have you on the edge of your seat from first note to last of this amazing recital, in a fairly wide range of music ranging from Gluck to Strauss, German, French and Italian repertoire. She had an unusual voice: big yet controlled, with plenty of metal (or Squillo) up top, yet with an almost contralto-like low range to which she would plummet without a moment’s notice. It has a certain prettiness about it, but when you listened to Borkh sing, you didn’t hear Inge Borkh. You heard Leonora, Alceste, Santuzza, Lady Macbeth, etc.

Borkh as Clytemnestra in Iphigenie in Aulis

Borkh as Clytemnestra in Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Aulis”

So what happened to Borkh’s career? Apparently two things, one named Renata Tebaldi and the other named Birgit Nilsson. Almost all the operas in her repertoire were the specialty of one or the other. Not represented here are the Princess Turandot, Leonore in Fidelio or Strauss’ Elektra, all Nilsson specialties along with Salome and Lady Macbeth, and the only reason she got to record Turandot complete (1955) was that Nilsson hadn’t hit the big time yet. You listen to Borkh get deep into the other characters here—Santuzza, Leonora in Forza, Amelia, Maddalena, Adriana Lecouvreur—and the first thought that pops into your mind is, “Wow! Why wasn’t she on complete recordings of these operas for Decca?” And then the answer comes back: “Tebaldi.” Yet in listening to her singing here, it’s very easy to believe that she was initially an actress before she took up singing as a profession. She is an actor first and a “singer” second. One of the more interesting performances is Santuzza’s “Voi lo sapete,” which she phrases like a Russian singer. While listening to it I was struck by her similarity of phrasing, in Italian opera, to someone like Feodor Chaliapin. If you prefer the creamy voices of Zinka Milanov and Renée Fleming you might be disappointed by Borkh’s performance of “O lovely moon” from Rusalka, but for me, this is the definitive reading, full of passion and deep feeling if not the loveliest tone on earth.

Moreover, the conducting on the Borkh performances is absolutely terrific. One of the few recordings for which she is remembered is her RCA Victor (stereo) version of Salome’s final scene with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Fritz Reiner, but except that it’s in mono there’s nothing to dispel you from enjoying the one here with Krips. In fact, I would have to say that I’ve never heard either Krips nor Rudolf Moralt—who also conducts the Welitsch recital—dig in so deeply and give so much emotionally in their performances, and I credit this to Borkh’s electrifying presence. It’s as if the conductor and orchestra were also plugged into DC current while making these recordings, so intense is their participation.

It might be noted that the last Welitsch track is taken not from the Decca studio recording of Die Fledermaus made by Karajan, but from the live performance of December 31, 1960 in which Welitsch sang Wien, Wien Nur du Allein as part of the “gala party sequence.” Oddly enough, she sounded more relaxed there than she did in any of the studio recordings. But by and large, this is the Inge Borkh Show with the Inge Borkh Players, Cameo Appearance By Ljuba Welitsch.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Erwin Schulhoff’s Jazz-Based Piano Fantasies

Schulhoff Vol 3

Schulhoff PIANO WORKS, Vol. 3 / Suite Dansante en Jazz; 9 Kleine Reigen; Ostinato; 5 Etudes de Jazz. Confrey: Kitten on the Keys / Caroline Weichert, pianist / Grand Piano GP723

It was in 2003 that British pianist Kathryn Stott issued the first CD devoted entirely to the piano works of Erwin (sometimes Ervin) Schulhoff (1897-1942). Prior to that, there had been several discs on which a work or two by Schulhoff, mostly chamber and orchestral music, had been issued (the only all-Schulhoff CDs were the one of Symphonies Nos. 1-3 conducted by George Albrecht on CPO and two volumes of pieces played by the ever-adventurous Ebony Band on Channel Classics), very little of it suggesting the wild, jazz-influenced piano music that Stott unleashed on us. Now, here is Vol. 3 of a continuing series of Schulhoff’s piano music played by the extraordinary German pianist Caroline Weichert.

Weichert

Caroline Weichert

To say that Weichert has the full measure of Schulhoff’s quirky music would be an understatement. I have the highest respect for Stott, since her performances had almost nothing to be compared to and she gave them her all, but by and large her sense of rhythm was that of ragtime. While it is true that Schulhoff’s music was indeed based on ragtime, and a white, commercial form of early jazz that arose from ragtime, I must say that Weichert gives every piece that Stott herself recorded even more of a jazz swagger. Of course, this only includes (so far) the Suite Dansante en Jazz and the 5 Etudes de Jazz. Weichert’s series has yet to tackle the Piano Sonata No. 1, the Second Suite for Piano, the 11 Variations of 1921 or Hot Music: 10 Syncopated Etudes (1928), and Weichert’s present CD includes two piano works not jazz-influenced at all, the 9 Kleine Reigen and the six-part Ostinato. Not everything Schulhoff wrote was jazz-inflected, but it did run like a silver thread through most of his piano music from 1919 to around 1931. In Vol. 1 of her series, Weichert included the quirky, early 5 Pittoresken which includes a completely silent movement titled “In futurum” (thus beating John Cage to the punch by 40 years) and an extraordinarily delightful six-part suite titled Esquisses de Jazz.

Erwin Schulhoff

Erwin Schulhoff

I discussed Schulhoff in some detail in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz (Chapter III, pp. 47-48), explaining that although he based his concept of “jazz” on “hot dance music” of the time, and in fact never visited America where he could have heard actual, real, African-American jazz direct from the source—as did Darius Milhaud and Maurice Ravel—he made some startling inroads into the codification of jazz dance rhythms and a feeling of improvisation in music that was very thorough-composed and in places extraordinarily challenging for the pianist. The fifth of his 5 Etudes de Jazz, in fact, is titled “Toccata sur le shimmy ‘Kitten on the Keys’ de Zez Confrey,” is one of the most virtuosic and difficult pieces of its day, a real showpiece which both Stott and Weichert play with tremendous zest and a feeling of real discovery, but only Weichert also gives us Zez Confrey’s original piece, which I would wager that 99% of modern-day listeners have never heard. Kitten on the Keys was a tremendous hit in its day, but moreso in terms of sheet music sales than records; one must remember that, even as late as the early 1930s, recordings were meant to sell sheet music, not the other way around. It wasn’t really until the advent of the Swing Era and the coming of jukeboxes and radio DJs like Martin Block that records as such became paramount in importance in and of themselves, particularly

zez_confrey

Zez Confrey

jazz recordings where the improvisation was the composition. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Confrey only made one piano solo recording of his most famous composition, and that was for Edison, whose vertical-cut records could only be played on special phonographs designed for that type of record. As a result, most people either heard it played by their talented cousin or sibling on the keyboard from the sheet music or from Confrey’s orchestral recording for Victor (made May 18, 1922, and sounding like some idiotic silent comedy tune, complete with slap-tongue reeds, though Confrey does play a bit of it on the keyboard in between this nonsense). And yet—hold your breath as you read this—this was probably the recording that Schulhoff heard and which inspired his wild fantasy!

Indeed, as you look through the titles of the individual pieces within his “jazz” suites, you will find—in addition to such expected titles as “Charleston,” “Tempo di Fox,” “Jazz-Like,” “Tempo di Rag,” “Blues,” “Stomp” and “Shimmy-Jazz”—such incongruous (for jazz) titles as “Tango” (lots of tangos…apparently, Schulhoff didn’t hear much difference between jazz syncopation and tango syncopation, though they are worlds apart), “Boston” (I haven’t a clue what this refers to…there certainly wasn’t much real jazz heard from Boston until the Swing Era), “Waltz” (there wasn’t a single waltz in the entire jazz world until Fats Waller wrote his Jitterbug Waltz in the late ‘30s) and “Chansons” (apparently Schulhoff confused sultry French singers with cigarette butts dangling from their lips with the blues). Well, bless him, at least he tried, but to get an indication of just how Eurocentric his worldview was one should note the dedications of each of the five Etudes de Jazz—not one naming a real jazz musician. “Charleston” is for Zez Confrey, “Blues” for Paul Whiteman (yeah, man, there was one hip blues musician!), “Chanson” for Robert Stolz (the German operetta composer), “Tango” for Eduard Künnecke (another German operetta composer) and the “Toccata on ‘Kitten on the Keys’” for Alfred Baresel, the only name among the five involved with real jazz, although probably the least well-known today. Baresel was, in fact, one of the founders of the German jazz movement and the very first German music critic to take jazz seriously. His first book on jazz, published in 1926, was later on the Nazis’ banned book list as an example of “Degenerate Art.”

The other two works on this CD, the 9 Kleine Reigen and Ostinato, are charming, fully classical piano works in Schulhoff’s mature style, and it is interesting that Weichert plays them with a different “feel.” She is certainly a very clever and gifted musician who approaches her work with a rare combination of curiosity and seriousness. I noted that her performances of the Suite Dansante and 5 Etudes run longer than Stott’s, but in almost each case the individual movements have more of a jazz “swagger” at the slower tempos. My sole complaint of this recital was that I found her performance of Confrey’s Kitten on the Keys to be somewhat too slow, which hurts the music’s stated intention of imitating a kitten walking on the keys of a piano. (There’s a marvelous photo going viral right now that shows a cat walking across piano keys who says, “I don’t play piano…I play FORTE!”)

Breaking the music down to essentials, the jazz-based works often skitter along using a beat like this:

Schulhoff music

—which isn’t really a jazz beat per se, but a ragtime beat, and in fact a rather strict ragtime beat without much modification. Scott Joplin varied the beat far more than this in most of his classic rags, but to Schulhoff’s defense this was a typical beat played by many white, unswinging jazz bands, which were probably all Schulhoff heard. In fact—and I have no direct evidence on this but am going by my decades of knowledge and experience—I’d wager that most of the music Schulhoff heard and thought was “jazz” was probably played by German bands, many of which played exactly this rhythm in many of their 1920s recordings.

But Schulhoff’s innovations—and, in exchange, his contribution back to jazz—was never in rhythm but in harmonic movement. Looking over the first several bars of the “Charleston” from the 5 Etudes de Jazz, for instance, we clearly see a piece that begins generally in C major immediately altered via advanced chord positions and tone clusters, then shot in the fifth and sixth bars into an upper stratosphere that wasn’t even touched upon by any jazz pianist until the arrival of Art Tatum on the international scene in 1933, and then only sporadically. This type of harmonic language really didn’t come into jazz on a semi-regular basis until fairly late in the bebop era, i.e., in the late-1940s recordings of the Dave Brubeck Octet, or regularly until the late 1950s with the arrival of such avant-garde pianists as Martial Solal and Cecil Taylor—and Taylor never used this sort of harmonic language with the same sort of rigorous structural integrity that Schulhoff does here:

Charleston 1

Charleston 2

Charleston 3

Charleston 4

Schulhoff may also be viewed as a missing link (so to speak) between, say, the ragtime pianists and such jazz-classical composers as Alexander Tsfasman (1930s-1950s) and Nikolai Kapustin (1960s-present), and his music is fascinating and vital. I look forward to Weichert’s future entries in this Schulhoff series!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Luciano Berio’s Finale to “Turandot”

Poster_Turandot

Composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003), largely famous for his electronic music and his wild, outré vocal works composed for his first wife, mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, might seem to be the least likely suspect to complete Giacomo Puccini’s incomplete opera, Turandot. Yet it was Berio who was commissioned by Puccini’s publisher, Ricordi, to do so in 2001, and he responded with one of the finest, if not the finest, completions to a formerly unfinished opera ever penned.

But first, a bit of background. Puccini himself wrote the first 56 bars of music after the Timur-Calaf scene following the death of Liù, and a few brief sketches for the Turandot-Calaf duet based on the “Straniero, ascolta!” duet in Act 2, but not much more. He himself felt that he could not surpass the depth of feeling he achieved following the death of Liù, thus it was not until the last few weeks of his life that he pushed himself to write any more, spurred by his publisher Tito Ricordi. On his deathbed, Puccini said that he wanted two things: soprano Rosa Raisa to sing the role of Turandot in the premiere and, if a final scene was necessary, for composer Riccardo Zandonai, whose Francesca da Rimini and La Via Della Finestra he admired, to write it. His wish regarding Raisa was honored, but for whatever reason Ricordi detested Zandonai and instead commissioned Franco Alfano, who had already written the Eastern-setting opera The Legend of Sakuntala, to complete Puccini’s last opera.

What happened next was a series of musical disasters. Alfano, already suffering from an eye disease and in poor spirits, took up this job reluctantly. First he wrote a completely original finale, incorporating and joining the material left in Puccini’s sketches, which included 56 bars fully complete and scored. This version is now thought to be a “first draft,” but Alfano considered it his best attempt. The problem was that, by the time Puccini had gotten around to starting the finale, his style had changed and matured. Smitten by Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which he heard in person and praised, he wanted to modernize his style. He did so, but neither Ricordi nor Toscanini felt that the music fit what had come before (Toscanini called it “rubbish”), so he was ordered to try again. This time he also followed Puccini’s sketches but cut 110 bars of written but unscored music (an important error) at Ricordi’s insistence. He was unhappy with the result, and rushed into finishing it (the premiere was only four days off), but dutifully turned it in. This is the finale we most often hear nowadays, but this, too, was rejected by Toscanini, who ended the opera with the Calaf-Timur duet following the death of Liù. Toscanini stopped the performance, turned to the audience, and made his only public speech at a performance: “Here the master laid down his pen.” Needless to say, with a great deal of money invested in the project and the knowledge that no other opera company would produce an unfinished Puccini opera, the Alfano ending was incorporated into the published score and has been performed more or less ever since.

Among others who attempted to fix what Alfano had botched, American scholar Janet Maguire studied the sketches for 12 years (1976-1988) and completed a new final version. This version was not, however, taken up, much less examined. Then, in 2001, a new finale to Turandot was commissioned from Luciano Berio by the Festival de Musica de Gran Canaria. This, too, was based on sketches left by Puccini and officially recognized by Ricordi.

After performing it twice in 2001, Chailly conducted the Berio finale in his La Scala performances of May 2015 with Nina Stemme in the title role. The Italian newspaper Il Giornale called it “a calculated risk” since by and large, the Alfano version is still performed. To me that is the real calculated risk, since it so obviously degrades the work, but you know opera audiences. They are creatures of habit, even if it’s a bad habit like biting your nails or listening to a God-awful piece of music just because it’s “familiar.” British critic Andrew Clements, in The Guardian, said that Berio’s finale gave the opera “at last…the ending it deserves,” and it does. Indeed, Clements went further: “Alfano’s work, while long accepted as competent and uncontroversial, is essentially hack work, and fails to recognise the sheer variety of Puccini’s invention in his final years. Though rooted in the 19th-century Italian operatic tradition, Puccini incorporated elements from modernists such as Debussy and Stravinsky, whose progress he had monitored carefully since the 1900s. Both musically and in its subject matter Turandot is far removed the world of verismo in La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, and the fundamental problem with Alfano’s ending is that it lacks the eclecticism of the preceding two and a half acts.”

Berio’s finale, which runs four minutes longer than Alfano’s, is actually briefer in terms of sung text. Berio omitted any written text for which Puccini left no music, particularly the final choral hymn which Alfano crudely set to “Nessun dorma.” Following the initial exchange between Calaf and Turandot, the “Principessa di morta!” scene, Berio spins a two-minute orchestral fantasia of remarkable invention. Yes, the music strays a bit—but only a bit—from the harmonic world of Puccini, incorporating some elements of Debussy and Stravinsky, but Puccini was very fond of both composers and followed their careers closely. (He was also highly impressed by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire when he heard it in the early 1920s, and went up to the composer to discuss salient musical points with him.) One critic complained that Berio introduced a vibraphone, “an instrument that Puccini himself did not use,” but this writer is incorrect. It’s not a vibraphone, it’s a xylophone, and Puccini uses the xylophone throughout the work, including in the opening “Poplo di Pekino!” Yet it is the soft, quiet ending, with its suspended chords, that most convinces me that Berio did the right thing. Why on earth should an opera that essentially moves from slam-bang-crash moment to moment continue that way after the death of Liù and the reconciliation of Turandot and Calaf?

PucciniThe new finale—starting with Liù’s final aria, “Tu che di gel sei cinta”—was recorded and issued on the CD Puccini Discoveries (Decca 475320) along with such oddities as the Inno di Roma, Salva Regina, a five-minute Requiem, Vexilla Regis, Motetto per San Paolino, a string quartet scherzo, an apparently new version of the Act 2 prelude to Manon Lescaut, the cantata “Cessato il suon dell’armi” and a few other very brief pieces for chorus or orchestra. Until such a time as it is included in a complete recording of the opera, I urge every opera lover to acquire this disc if only for the Berio finale. Aside from Maria Fontosh’s somewhat edgy-sounding aria, it is very well sung, particularly the Calaf of Dario Volonté. Eva Urbanová’s Turandot is theatrically believable but vocally closer to Inge Borkh and Eva Marton than the more powerful laser-beam voices of Eva Turner or Birgit Nilsson. (Personal note: I saw Nilsson onstage only once, as Turandot, in a production at the Newark Opera in 1975. Placido Domingo was the Calaf and Licia Albanese, believe it or not, was Liù. Aside from the almost comical effect of Albanese clinging to Domingo’s cape as Calaf dragged her up and down the stage in Act 1, what I recall most was Nilsson, particularly because my seat was in the very first row, on the right, immediately next to the tympani. Between Nilsson’s air-raid-siren voice belting out “In questa reggia” and the thunderous whacks of the tymp, I had a splitting headache by the end of Act 2.) Nevertheless, the recorded performance is quite excellent, so much so that you can gauge for yourself just how effective Berio’s ending is. It is phenomenal.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Listen to the Berio finale of Turandot here.

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The Biggest Little Band in the Land

John Kirby Sextet

In 1937, one of the hottest and most active years of the Swing Era, all of the biggest and most famous bands played hot, heavy and loud. Benny Goodman. Count Basie. Jimmie Lunceford. Bunny Berigan. Chick Webb. All of them powerhouse bands with brilliant trumpet sections, heavy saxes and pounding drums. And then, out of nowhere, came a strange little sextet that sounded nothing like them—in fact, they didn’t sound like anyone else. Their music, though swinging, was soft, cool, low-key and technically intricate. This was the John Kirby Sextet.

Previously, Kirby had played trombone and then the bass, and with the latter instrument he had played for several years with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, but he was only really known to other musicians. The sextet he formed in 1937 was his own baby, his own creation, and it was something entirely different from anything else in the world. In fact, if you ever find original 78s by the Kirby band and play them, you’ll probably be scratching your head as I did the first time I heard them, wondering how cool jazz of the early 1950s came to be in the late 1930s.

The answer was something Kirby—a handsome but introverted and somewhat surly presence—rarely discussed. He wasn’t very open about his past to start with, probably because his childhood was so hard. Born out of wedlock as John Kirk in Winchester, Virginia in 1908, his mother Dolly gave him up for adoption. John was raised by the Rev. Washington Johnson and his wife, Nancy, and went to the Winchester Colored School where he learned to play the trombone. In later years, after his success, he told a reporter that Bach’s work “fascinated me as a kid” and that he learned to play music just as it was written. He married young, in August 1925, obviously a shotgun wedding since his wife gave birth to a baby daughter, Yvonne Constance, in December.

While working in New York in 1927, Kirby met the great trombonist Jimmy Harrison who persuaded him to switch to tuba. Kirby gigged with such groups as the Bill Brown, Charlie Sheets and John C. Sheets bands before joining Fletcher Henderson as a tuba player in 1929. After Henderson disbanded in 1934, Kirby continued to find work in New York both in night clubs and on record dates (including one notable session with Billie Holiday). Kirby prudently saved as much money as he could from these jobs and thus, in 1937, was able to form his own little band at the Onyx Club in New York. Initially, the band included trumpeter Frank Newton and alto saxist Pete Brown, fine musicians but rather too individualistic and extroverted for what Kirby had in mind.

John KirbyWhat he had in mind was a group in which the lead voices—trumpet, clarinet and alto sax—would play intricate lines either in unison or in three-part harmony, and in which the rhythm section would be quieter and less obtrusive than in most contemporary jazz bands. To this end he replaced Brown with alto saxist Russell Procope (1908-1981), a veteran reed player who had been gigging around New York for years, recording with Jelly Roll Morton and playing with Billy Freeman, Benny Carter, Chick Webb and Henderson. But his trumpet replacement was even more sensational, 18-year-old Charlie Shavers (1920-1971), a phenomenal virtuoso who could play rings around most “swing” trumpeters of his time as well as improvise in a blistering, fast-paced style that was an influence on Dizzy Gillespie.

Suddenly, Kirby found himself with a band so popular on 52nd Street that people started coming from miles around to hear him. He was so popular, in fact, that the club’s owner even paid them to rehearse! Kirby was briefly married to pop-jazz singer Maxine Sullivan, and the two of them produced a surprise smash hit with their jazz rendition of Loch Lomond (arranged by pianist Claude Thornhill). They also landed a recording contract with Brunswick, then with Vocalion, and finally with Columbia Records where they produced a string of hits, including Opus Five, The Turf, Jumpin’ in the Pump Room and the first recording of Shavers’ hit composition, Undecided. They were not the first jazz band to perform in formal dress—Duke Ellington beat them to the punch on that—but their natty onstage appearance greatly enhanced their commercial success.

Kirby Sextet 2

And therein lies the crux of the matter, their style, and their treatment by posterity. Had the Kirby Sextet’s intricate arrangements, which by the way appealed greatly to other musicians—Jelly Roll Morton, when he heard them in New York in 1939, became a huge fan—stayed within that fraternity, I’m sure that they would have been fêted down through the decades and lamented as unsung heroes who pioneered a remarkable new style of jazz that was at least a decade ahead of its time. But they had the misfortune to become media darlings of the time, praised and admired under the title “The biggest little band in the land,” and in conjunction with this Columbia encouraged them to record an almost endless string of uptempo jump tunes, assuming that this was the only facet of their style that appeared to people and therefore would be the only kind that would sell. Because of this, in the view of several jazz critics, the Kirby Sextet was simply a highly proficient entertainment unit. Gunther Schuller, in his book The Swing Era, demeaned them as a band that played simply for people’s amusement that “dried up and blew away,” and the annotator for the Smithsonian’s 2-LP reissue of Kirby recordings went even further, accusing them of “race treason.” To understand the mentality behind the latter comment is to understand the underlying, inherent racism of some so-called liberals’ view of jazz artists. In their mind, music played by black musicians has to be funky, down and dirty, bluesy, hot and heavy, etc. etc. etc. If it’s refined, dignified, even slightly introverted—all of which the Kirby band’s jazz was—it has to be counter to the principles of black culture.

Since this is not a blog on sociology, I will refrain from delving into this topic too deeply, but you really should check your own priorities and prejudices before accusing a serious black musician whose goal was something different, something that was not “outright jamming,” as an expression of musical principles as being guilty of race treason. So Kirby, Shavers, Procope et. al. were denying their blackness by playing music with tremendous intricacy (and, often, very tongue-in-cheek humor) instead of blowing their brains out? The annotator for the Smithsonian LP had high praise for the alternate (rejected) take of their Columbia recording of Sweet Georgia Brown, even though the highly intricate opening chorus (which sounds like a classical musician’s improvisation on the chords of the song) was played sloppily and out of synch, because the solos were “bursting with excitement.” True, they were; and in the issued take, the solos are indeed a shade tamer; but as a complete aesthetic experience, there is no comparison between them. Equally, critics of this ilk bitterly complained of their swing arrangements of classical themes. Opus Five, one of their big hits, was taken from Chopin (though if you compare it to the original Op. 5 of Chopin, you’ll find that they did a remarkable job of transformation), and there were also Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Mr. Haydn Gets Hip, By the Waters of Minnetonka and others. Yet perhaps one of their most remarkable transformations was that of Thomas Griselle’s lovely little Nocturne, which they played with consummate artistry.

Another facet of the Kirby band’s oeuvre that is rarely discussed was their repertoire of Mediterranean-tinged tunes. Early on there was Dusk on the Desert; later, the gifted jazz composer-arranger Lou Singer wrote several others for them, including Tunisian Trail. Pieces like these brought an entirely new sound color to jazz, a timbre even more exotic than that which Juan Tizol brought to the Ellington band through his Caravan and Pyramid. And then there were their modernized revampings of old “Dixieland” tunes like Original Dixieland One-Step and Royal Garden Blues, which the band turned on their ear with extraordinary arrangements that completely rewrote these pieces. And yes, the individual solos in these and many other recordings—best of all, for me, is a 1941 performance of Rehearsin’ for a Nervous Breakdown—were not only highly inventive and original in and of themselves, but if you listen carefully you will notice that each soloist picked up where the previous one left off.

By the end of 1941, the first personnel change was made when the wonderfully virtuosic but understated drummer O’Neill Spencer died of tuberculosis, the scourge of early-‘40s jazz. His replacement, Specs Powell, was a good musician but not quite as good as Spencer. But then came World War II, and Procope was drafted for a few years (Shavers was safe because he proved that he was the sole support of his mother). That was when a series of substitutes came into the band, among them George Johnson on alto sax. Around 1944 the JK 920sextet quietly expanded to a septet with the addition of none other than Ben Webster on tenor sax, later replaced himself by Budd Johnson. Many critics have complained that the group’s “delicate balance” was thus disturbed and that they weren’t the same, but truthfully, until 1946 when the band lost no less than three of its major stars—Shavers, who joined Tommy Dorsey, Procope who joined Duke Ellington, and pianist Billy Kyle, who jumped to Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars (Powell also left, replaced by Bill Beason)—yet they still sounded pretty good. Several of the recordings issued on the two-LP Inner City album, The Biggest Little Band in the Land, were in fact made with the expanded wartime group with George Johnson on alto, Webster on tenor and Powell on drums (Shavers on trumpet), and there is very little discernible loss in musical quality.

Kirby’s error was in not updating his sound after the war. By then, not only bebop, the new sensation in jazz, but also the progressive swing style of Boyd Raeburn, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, were exerting a strong influence on both jazz and popular music, with the whole scene blown up with the arrival of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1946. The Kirby Sextet, with its light, fleet aesthetic, could easily have moved into that style just as tenor Kirby memorial plaquesaxist Coleman Hawkins did, but Kirby stubbornly stuck to his old style and was thus deemed outdated. The ensuing loss of jobs led to depression and heavy drinking, which eventually led to Kirby’s early death at the age of 43. It was a stunning loss to jazz, though by the time he died both Kirby and his band had been kicked to the curb—a real pity.

The Kirby sextet certainly deserves to have their place in jazz history restored. I still recall the time I was a guest on Oscar Treadwell’s jazz radio show and played Kirby’s recording of Royal Garden Blues. The look of utter delight on Treadwell’s face, particularly when Shavers pulled the mute off his trumpet and blasted a Dizzy Gillespie-like solo out of thin air, said it all. This was a band to be reckoned with, not ridiculed and marginalized. I urge you to explore the Kirby Sextet’s music. The more you hear, the more you’ll fall in love with them.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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