Matt Wilson Honors His Wife in New Album

Wilson_Beginning of a Memory_Cover

MATT WILSON’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY: BEGINNING OF A MEMORY / WILSON: Score; Lester; Searchlight; Beginning of a Memory; Request Potato; How Ya Goin’?; Father of the Year; Getting Friendly; Orchids; No Outerwear; Potato Radio; Go Team Go!; 25 Years of Rootabagas; Feel the Sway; Schoolboy Thug; July Hymn. D’ANGELO: Andrew’s Ditty. WEBSTER: Wildwood Flower. RITCHIE: Endless Love / Terell Stafford, trumpet; Kirk Knuffke, cornet; Jeff Lederer, clarinet/alto sax/soprano sax; Joel Frahm, tenor sax/soprano sax; Andrew d’Angelo, alto sax/bass clarinet; Gary Versace, piano/organ/accordion; Larry Goldings, piano; Martin Wind, Paul Skivie, Yosuke Inoue, bass; Chris Lightcap, bass/el-bass; Matt Baltisaris, guitar/dobro; Matt Wilson, drums / Palmetto Records (no number, available at iTunes)

Sometimes it’s difficult to come to a new recording by a band that’s been around for several years, but which you’ve not heard before, and sometimes it doesn’t really matter. Yes, you’ve missed their earlier output and perhaps what they’re all about, but in a certain sense coming to their work fresh and without preconceptions can be enlightening, like discovering an iPhone (which I’ve never owned and don’t even know how they work) a decade or two after everyone else has had one.

Perhaps in this case it was a good idea anyway, because on this release, the first album Wilson made since his wife Felicia died of leukemia in 2014, he has reassembled all his previous bandmates from the Matt Wilson Quartet, Arts & Crafts and Christmas Tree-O (neither of which I’ve heard before, either). Judging from the style of both the compositions and the performances, Wilson’s group(s) seem to be an American version, so to speak, of the Willem Brueker Kollektief: highly eclectic in their combination of styles, some inside jazz, some outside jazz, a wide range of tempos and meters, and a very uninhibited feel to the whole enterprise.

Wilson proves that a creative band can take somewhat familiar materials, put them in a box, shake them up and pour them out as something both unfamiliar and clever. Every selection on this charming, sometimes humorous album strikes the ear gratefully. There are but a few rough edges to dispel listeners who don’t care much for squawking and squealing saxophones. In the end one comes away with tremendous admiration for these musicians’ abilities to just go with the flow and create interesting and diverse music, whether it be the asymmetric, edgy rhythms of Andrew d’Anglo’s Andrew’s Ditty (which does indeed contain a bit of outside playing) or the wistful, charming waltz of Wilson’s Beginning of a Memory. Flowers for Felicia is actually a medley of two pieces, Wilson’s Orchids and the old country classic Wildwood Flower, here played in an exquisitely beautiful manner by clarinetist Lederer at a surprisingly slow tempo. This track contains almost no improvisation through most of it save for pianist Goldings and another, almost sotto voce, solo by Wilson. Only at the five-minute mark does the band enter into a bit of collective improvisation, a style of jazz seldom indulged in by modern groups. It is a fairly straight reading, meant as a tribute to the leader’s late wife, and very touching in that respect.

But for that one really touching moment, however, this session is joyous and full of surprises. Wilson said that his wife really loved those numbers where the band played “pretty nutty,” and that sense of puckish humor informs a good portion of the album, particularly this performance of Schoolboy Thug. The press release accompanying this release states that none of the arrangements were written, although I suspect that there may have been lead sheets handed out. Apparently, these musicians’ familiarity with Wilson and his style was so complete that he could just let them play and not worry about the quality of the results.

matt_wilson_3Some of the pieces here are quite catchy, particularly No Outerwear which sounded to me like a contrafact of some earlier tunes (the opening sounds like the chords of Bye Bye Blues, the other melody has been running through my head, but alas, no title has yet surfaced). The album’s opener, Score, and Potato Radio are really no more than sound effects apparently piped in from a radio playing somewhere—more sound gags. The opening of the medley of Go Team / Endless Love is by far one of the wackiest pieces on the record, essentially outside playing by one of the tenor saxes in front of some out-of-tempo drumming by Wilson and shouts of “Go team!” and “Touchdown!” (We even hear a snippet of “Go Wisconsin,” as if the other references to football mania weren’t enough.) By contrast the second half, Lionel Ritchie’s Endless Love, is played as a slow and tender pizzicato bass solo that simply wanders off into the sunset. 25 Years of Rootabagas sounds suspiciously like an old-timey C&W tune, only jazzed up (and played on the accordion!) while Feel the Sway features bowed bass over two pizzicato basses in a semi-soul-jazz type of piece. The aforementioned Schoolboy Thug most definitely has a Willem Brueker feel about it, complete with screaming trumpet and odd, asymmetric breaks.

We end with the calm, quiet lyricism of July Hymn, a piece seemingly compiled of ideas from old Christian hymnals mixed with a bit of tongue-in-cheek jazzing. Here I was particularly impressed by the improvised interplay of trumpeter Stafford and cornetist Knuffke, who really make the tune work. Once again, and for the final time, we simply ride off into the sunset.

Beginning of a Memory is an excellent album. I’m sure that for Wilson, the project was very personal and perhaps somewhat cathartic, but I think his late wife would find it to be a fair representative of her husband’s musical personality: serious, quirky, tender and rambunctious. I certainly liked it.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Maria Granillo’s Simple But Elegant Music

Mousai front cover

MOUSAI: THE MUSIC OF MARIA GRANILLO / Mousai / ÓNIX Ensemble. Reflejo / Túumben Pax. Asaselo / Quinteto de Metales Alcalá. Las Hojas Secos / Teresa Navarro Agraz, soprano; Arturo Uruchurtu, pianist. Serpientes y Escaleras / Da Capo al Fine. Dos Danzas para un Principio / Metales; Coro de Cámera de la Facultdad de Música de la UNAM; Samuel Pascoe, director / Urtext JBCC262

In the modern-day classical world, aside from those innovative composers like Daniel Schnyder who turn to jazz for inspiration, contemporary compositions often break down into two categories: pretentious, edgy garbage (PEG) or boring, airy goop (BAG). Happily, the music of Maria Granillo (b. 1962) is neither of these. It is tonal, resolutely so—one will only occasionally hear out-of-tonality harmonies—lyrical, and attractive. Moreover, it is built of simple blocks of sound; and yet, it is remarkably attractive within its own frame of reference.

After her graduation from Mexico’s National University, Granillo took her graduate studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London and holds a Master’s Degree from the University of York and a Doctorate from the University of British Columbia, Canada. The liner notes for this CD tell us that in addition to “Latin-American resonances of her upbringing,” her music includes the recurrent themes of “natural phenomena, the human emotions, and Mythology from different traditions.” I also hear in her music the kind of simple but attractive “building blocks” that one also hears in the music of African-American composer Alonzo Levister. It is music that makes its best impression due to its very simplicity and lack of pretention. It is also, for the most part, music designed on a small scale, aimed to please the listener without unduly challenging him or her.

In the previous two paragraphs, then, one will find a technical description of her music, but this simplicity should not be confused with a lack of invention. Granillo may work in relatively simple forms and primary colors, but much of this music has substance, particularly her brief piece for women’s chorus, Reflejo. I was also very impressed by her brief cycle of songs based on three haikus of José Juan Tablada, titled Las Hojas Secas. Composed in 1989, it is the earliest piece on this album, yet so consistent is Granillo in her personal style that one cannot really tell the various ages of the different pieces on this disc. She seems to have had no “stages” as a composer, but apparently arrived in full bloom on the scene and has maintained her consistency throughout the decades.

It also helps greatly that the choral and solo soprano singing on this album are first-rate. I get so tired of hearing very fine modern music sung by defective voices that it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear the singing here, although in my opinion Teresa Navarro Agraz, who performs Las Hojas Secas, is a somewhat bland and unimaginative interpreter. I also enjoyed the odd little quartet for flute, oboe, cello and piano, Serpientes y Escaleras (composed 2012), which had an interesting development within its brief timeframe (6:41) including some uncharacteristic atonal cello “slides” up and down the strings. Like Levister’s music, Granillo’s pieces are very melodic, yet the melodies are elusive and not at all predictable or banal—another feature in their favor.

By and large, the recorded sound of each piece is very close-miked yet not abrasive. I really appreciate this naturalness of sound after listening to so many modern recordings engineered for maximum “aural goo,” with too much reverberance. All of the performances are quite fine and most are heartfelt, particularly Serpientes y Escaleras and the final work, 2 Danzas para un Principio, very imaginatively scored for two trumpets, trombone, horn, tuba, percussion and chorus. Here, particularly, I heard a very strong Mexican influence in the score, well realized and brought to fruition using a variety of devices such as a split chorus playing off one another in counterpoint and then having the percussionists play off each other (tympani against xylophone).

I found this to be a very pleasing CD, worth investigating for both the composer and her specific way of treating music.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Clotilde Rullaud Morphs Into “Madeleine et Salomon” on New CD

Rullaud CD cover

MADELEINE & SALOMON: A WOMAN’S JOURNEY / SIMONE, CUNEY: Image. MIMI & RICHARD FARINA: Swallow Song. TRADITIONAL: All the Pretty Horses. NICOLETTE, JOHNSON, WELLES: No Government/High School Drag. IAN: At Seventeen. MEEROPOL, HOLIDAY: Strange Fruit. GAYE,CLEVELAND,BENSON: Save the Children. RULLAUD, SAADA: Bain Libre 1 & 2; Le Jour Né de la Femme. RODGERS, HART: Little Girl Blue. BROWN: The End of Silence. JOPLIN: Mercedes Benz. STEPNEY, RUDOLPH: Les Fleurs. SIMONE: Four Women. PORTER, BAKER: Vous Faites Partie de Moi (I’ve Got You Under My Skin) / Clotilde Rullaud, vocal/flute; Alexandre Saada: piano/Fender Rhodes/clavinet/background vocals / Promiseland PL012

Clotilde Rullaud, the highly talented French jazz singer whose work I have praised in the past, here presents a different kind of concept album: a lonely voice, surveying scales and reciting fundamentally feminist lines, backed by pianist-singer Alexandre Saada. They have morphed themselves into “Madeleine et Salomon,” a strange, airy simulation of a coffeehouse duo. These performances are not conventional by any stretch of the imagination, but if I had to pinpoint a genre I would say that the album put me in mind of the more “arty” pop music of the late 1960s (Simon and Garfunkel, Harry Nilsson, Lauro Nyro—in fact, At Seventeen sounds very much like a Nilsson song), except with more Eastern European/Asian musical contours. Their reliance on minor modes and subtly twisting melodies has a sort of “chamber jazz” feeling about it, though there is not much present in the way of improvisation.

Nonetheless, it’s very good music. It has warmth without being cloying; it is lovely in a strange way without being conventionally “pretty.” By maintaining a low volume in both the singing and playing, this duo brings you into their world. It is not shallow or external music. It gives you the feeling of being stoned in a coffeehouse at one in the morning, mellowing out and listening to a small, strange group of musicians playing and singing in the corner. Is that really Rullaud singing the opening selection, Image? The voice is so low in pitch and tone, so androgynous in quality, that one is not sure. The second track, Richard and Mimi Farina’s Swallow Song, is given a treatment with piano accompaniment in constantly flowing eighth notes that almost links it to minimalism.

By the time you reach the third song, All the Pretty Horses—sung by Rullaud in a deep, sultry register I didn’t know she possessed—you are hooked. This is one of the warmest, most intimate performances I’ve ever heard, something so very personal that it almost feels like a caress on the ear.

No Government / High School Drag, on which one hears Rullaud sing solo above the driving, staccato bass notes on the piano, is one of the more rhythmically driving songs on the album. Dig the eerie whining of Rullaud’s overdubbed soprano voice in the background during the breaks, and another female voice reciting the beat poem from the ‘50s film High School Confidential: “Tomorrow is a drag, man, tomorrow is a king-sized drag.” Her phrasing in this sounds almost African-American in its looseness of meter. One hip French chick! Following this we return to the folk singers of the ’60s, specifically Janis Ian and her song At Seventeen. Again, in Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, Rullaud returns to her androgynous low range, whispering the painful lyrics.

I could go on like this regarding every track in this impressive album, but to be honest, the cumulative effect of just listening and being a part of the ambience they create is an integral part of one’s enjoyment of this album. Like all good concept albums, it is the total concept and not necessarily the individual tracks that impress. I think you’ll love this album as much as I do. To quote Nilsson:

Dreams are nothing more than wishes / And a wish is just a dream / You wish would come true.

This is the music of dreams.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Norman. Erwartung. Period.

Norman Oedipus Rex

STRAVINSKY: Œdipus Rex / Georges Wilson, narrator; Jessye Norman, soprano (Jocasta); Peter Schreier, tenor (Œdipus); Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone (Creon); Harry Peeters, bass (Tiresias); Robert Swensen, tenor (Shepherd); Michio Tatara, bass (Messenger); Shinyukai Choir; Saito Kinen Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa, conductor. SCHOENBERG: Erwartung / Jessye Norman, soprano; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; James Levine, conductor. Brettl-Lieder (8)/Jessye Norman, soprano; James Levine, piano; Mary Ann Archer, piccolo; Mark Gould, trumpet; Greg Zuber, snare drum / Deutsche Grammophon 0289 475 6395 2 DDD DM2

This is a recent re-release of a 2005 duo-CD compilation by DG of two Philips albums originally issued singly back in the early 1990s. How early? Well, consider this: Bryn Terfel, who sings Creon on this performance of Œdipus Rex, isn’t even mentioned on the original front cover, whereas two years later his name might even have been bigger than Jessye Norman’s.

The problems with this reissue packaging are essentially two. One, despite a certified platinum cast of singers, all in exceptional voice, this performance of Œdipus Rex never gets off the ground. Mostly this is due to Ozawa’s surprisingly sluggish conducting: not only in tempos, although they are on the slow side, but in lack of forward momentum, In addition, the recording is engineered oddly, so that every loud passage hurts one’s eardrums while every soft passage is almost inaudible. (I’m wondering if they used Herbert von Karajan’s engineers on this recording). As a result, a performance never really happens, despite the fact that the singers all give their best. It’s just a limp noodle. And two, this time around there are no texts or even physical CDs, just downloads.

Norman ErwartungSo why am I writing this review? Because of Jessye Norman’s Erwartung. I still vividly remember seeing her singing both this Schoenberg “monodrama” and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, with Samuel Ramey as the protagonist, on a Met telecast in January 1989. It was one of the supreme artistic highlights of my life. Never before had I been so riveted by a singer, particularly in music that I had heard previously (Erwartung) but had not been particularly impressed by (the Helga Pilarczyk recording with Robert Craft conducting on Columbia). Norman got so deeply under the skin of the words and music that it almost sent chills up my spine, and Levine’s conducting was equally perfect. I’m happy to say that the studio recording recaptures this magic fully. This is THE recording of Erwartung to own, no matter if you have other verisons of it. From moment to moment, Norman and Levine keep you on the edge of your seat, and her singing is as perfect technically as it is theatrically.

As for what happened to Norman’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the unfortunate answer is that she recorded it with the ice-cold conductor Pierre Boulez. Although she and baritone László Polgar sing well and expressively, Boulez keeps the temperature right around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. What a pity that she and Levine never did a record of it!

On both the original Philips issue and this DG reissue, Erwartung is coupled with Schoenberg’s eight Brettl-Lieder, cabaret songs he was paid to write in 1901. To say his heart wasn’t in them is putting it mildly. Only the first three have any melodic ingenuity or musical interest, the third, in fact, being the liveliest as Schoenberg added a piccolo, trumpet and snare drum to the piano accompaniment (Nachtwändler). The remaining five are not only uninteresting in melodic construction but repetitive to the point of annoyance. Norman does her level best to liven them up, but no matter how you slice it these last five songs are not the kind of things you’ll want to listen to more than once in your life.

So that brings us to the million-dollar question: is this reissue worth the money? If you don’t already own Norman’s Erwartung, the answer is hell yes! If you even remotely like early Schoenberg, you absolutely HAVE to have this recording. It’s that good. It’s an absolute miracle, and miracles in the recording world simply do not happen that often.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Stabinsky Stabilizes the Chaos of Shock Jazz

Stabinsky Free For One - COVER

FREE FOR ONE / STABINSKY: …After It’s Over; 31; Viral Infection; Gone Song; For Reel; Not Long Now/Long Now; Rapture; Once, But Again… / Ron Stabinsky, pianist / Hot Cup Records 151

Pianist Ron Stabinsky, a member of the “shock jazz” band Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDtK), here steps forward with a solo disc of improvised originals created and recorded in one day: January 9, 2015. Perhaps because he plays here as soloist and not as part of a band, or perhaps because of his extensive experience in playing classical concerts and accompanying community choirs, Stabinsky’s music has, to my ears, a more cohesive approach than the fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants style of his “parent band.”

Which isn’t to say that MOPDtK is not an excellent group within its genre, only that their style often employs a fly-apart view towards each piece performed, almost what one could call a “deconstructionist” view of music. Stabinsky, on his own, presents a more coherent view while working within the same general framework. In comparing the album that MOPDtK made with him (Mauch Chunk, Hot Cup Records) to one they previously did without him (Slippery Rock) as well as a live set from February 2012 at the Porgy & Bess nightclub, one hears how the pianist works within their framework. His innate gravity towards chording (and tonality) helps ground the ensemble in many places, and in those wild, “outside” solos taken by alto saxist Jon Irabagon, Stabinsky plays a bit outside himself yet also stays within himself—and this, in turn, has a beneficial effect on the group sound (i.e., Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe, West Bolivar with its quasi-bossa nova beat, or the rhythmically asymmetrical Obelisk, near the end of which Stabinsky plays repetitive keyboard flutters in imitation of Philip Glass’ minimalism).

A perfect example of Stabinsky’s solo art is Viral Infection, the one piece from the album made available for free preview streaming on SoundCloud. What sounds at first like a disconnect of his two hands, with the right playing a repeated four-note motif against a bass line that is “out of synch” with it, quickly develops into a further exploration of that same motif with Stabinsky working out melodic cells or fragments which he then fits into the surrounding material. By the one-minute mark we are already into a development section, so to speak, with the left hand now playing a repeated single-note motif, which quickly evolves into a two-handed exploration of single notes in both hands, then disintegrates into a few chords before Stabinsky moves into new melodic material. By the 3:30 mark, Viral Infections has moved into a nervous jangle of rhythmic cells played in the right hand, while the left moves against it in both single notes and occasional chords. Although this is in an entirely different style, his approach reminds me of Charles Mingus’ solo piano album: a composer working out compositions at the keyboard.

Ron_Stabinsky_photo_by_Ssirus PakzadStabinsky has a superb technique but, oddly enough, does not flaunt it as, for instance, Cecil Taylor did for so many years. Moreover, where Taylor only just gave listeners the skeleton of a piece, i.e. the girders and their connectors without the walls or floors, Stabinsky makes sure we “hear” the whole structure…eventually. It’s like telling a story by metaphor; and when each little story ends it does so abruptly. There are no tidy, neat wrap-ups to these quirky jazz fairy tales. …After It’s Over, the opening track, evinces the same sort of rhythmic quirkiness as Viral Infection; one might almost call it Monk on acid, or Monk meets Taylor, or something of the sort, except that Stabinsky’s fingering is smoother than Thelonious’ own, and when the ideas begin to flow they do so in an unbroken stream. Those listeners with extensive jazz collections and/or long memories may mentally compare Stabinsky’s work here with the jazz improvisations of Lennie Tristano. Schooled in classical music as well as bebop, Tristano synthesized the elements of Charlie Parker’s style (which he greatly admired…he was good friends with Bird for a time) into an almost polyphonic web. Stabinsky, perhaps unconsciously, is also synthesizing his jazz excursions into classical molds, but more modern and fluid ones. Interestingly, nearly all his work here is rhythmically daring, almost avant-garde, while his use of harmony—despite using unusual chord positions—is more conventionally tonal. If you listen, for instance, to Erroll Garner’s improvised introduction to Way Down Yonder in New Orleans on Too Marvelous for Words Vol. 3, you’ll hear something quite similar to the kind of work Stabinsky does here, except that he extends this brinksmanship throughout each piece.

By doing so, Stabinsky keeps the listener grounded. Those with big ears and a wealth of experience listening to both modern jazz and modern classical music will be able to keep up with each twist and turn in these eight works, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable. In each piece Stabinsky utilizes a different rhythm (quite virtuosic, almost Oscar Peterson-ish, in 31) while exploring and deconstructing whatever he has invented in the first chorus. Gone Song is very slow, almost a synthesis of Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral with Bartókian harmonies. At this slow a pace, the single-note left hand explorations almost sound like a “crawl” that is attempting to “catch up” with whatever the right is doing at each particular moment. Who knows? Perhaps it is! Around the three-minute mark, however, both hands are clearly in synch and the music gradually increases in volume as Stabinsky develops the piece via continuous rhythmic displacements; then, both volume and density ebb as he moves towards the end. For Reel almost sounds like Viral Infection on steroids, and here Stabinsky really does work up a sort of swing in the music—or, at least, it sounds that way to the ear as he continually pushes it forward…but this one comes to a crashing halt after only 1:06!

This is one thing I like about Stabinsky’s work: he only plays a piece as long as his imagination keeps things moving. If he runs out of ideas, he wraps the piece up and moves on to the next. Ever since the LP was invented and jazz musicians were allowed to extend their music beyond the three- or four-minute mark, it seemed as if garrulousness was the order of the day, and most jazz musicians simply didn’t have that much to say. Not Long Now/Long Now strikes the ear like a bit of jazz minimalism, one might say Philip Glass with crushed chords and more Monkish rhythmic quirks. Stabinsky also uses space interestingly in this one, pausing often around the four-minute mark to allow his ideas to coalesce…or perhaps it was a bit of breathing space for him until he could think of where to go next. But this is one of the longest pieces on the CD, so Stabinsky was evidently ruminating as he was creating. To most listeners there is no lack of invention, just those unusual pauses in the musical line. By the ten-minute mark, Stabinsky is happily evolving his musical line into new territory, apparently having found the musical cells he likes best and moving them around his mental chess board. The allusion to The Engulfed Cathedral recurs as he slows down even more for the quiet ending.

More of the same is heard in Rapture and the album’s closer, Once, But Again… which is actually the most lyrical piece on the album. One can only assume that Stabinsky’s presence in MOPDtK is beneficial to their often-rebellious attitude towards form; certainly, this debut solo album is mightily impressive in its own right.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Highs and Lows of DG’s Barber Songs Reissue

Barber songs

BARBER: A Slumber Song of the Madonna; Love’s Caution; Of That So Sweet Imprisonment; Strings in the Earth and Air; 4 Songs, Op. 13; 2 Songs, Op. 18; Nuovoletta; Hermit Songs, Op. 29 / Cheryl Studer, soprano; John Browning, pianist. There’s Nae Lark; Love at the Door; Serenader; Night Wanderer; The Beggar’s Song; In the Dark Pinewood; 3 Songs, Op. 2; 3 Songs, Op. 10; Mélodies Passagères, Op. 27; Despite and Still, Op. 41; 3 Songs, Op. 45 / Thomas Hampson, baritone; John Browning, pianist. Dover Beach / Thomas Hampson, baritone; Emerson String Quartet / Deutsche Grammophon 0289 435 8672 6 (available for download at

Samuel Barber, though composed in many forms, was at his best in smaller works. His symphonies are not part of the standard repertoire and his two operas, though occasionally revived (because most opera audiences like tonal goop even if it goes nowhere), are not big favorites. Yet in smaller frameworks—his shorter string quartets, the three Essays for Orchestra, his piano pieces, his mini-cantatas Knoxville Summer of 1915 and Andromache’s Farewell and in these wonderful songs—he was simply magnificent, the equal of any composer still writing in a tonal style so late in the 20th century.

Which brings us to this superb collection, originally recorded and issued in 1994. At that time, still the height of the CD era, it was packaged beautifully with a booklet containing all of the song lyrics. But then, possibly because it had a limited appeal, it disappeared from the catalog until it resurfaced in 2002. Here, it was still in physical form but with a really bad-looking cover and no booklet, no lyrics. Now we have the original cover restored but it’s not even available as physical CDs, only as digital downloads. Here you go, stupid consumer. Sam Barber’s songs. No frills. Download ‘em yourself, put ‘em on a jump stick or in the cloud for all we care. Oh, and don’t look for the song lyrics because we figure if you don’t care we don’t have to care either.

Real classy, DG.

Now, I’m not going to argue that every great recording ever made should be available on physical discs in an era when it seems as though the majority (but not an overwhelming majority) of classical music lovers seem to like listening through inferior computer speakers or, worse yet, those even cheaper-sounding ear buds on their Smart Phones, but for those of us who really love the music we simply aren’t going to put up with this kind of disrespect. Why should we? But of course, the big record corporations (and all of them are big corporations nowadays…the days of the small indie labels are virtually over) are only interested in profit margins, not providing a service, and let’s face it, issuing classical music is a service to the public. In the old days of physical LPs, and then in the earliest years of physical CDs, the costs (which were always fairly steep) of recording and issuing classical works were for the most part offset by the staggering high sales of pop effluvium. The Beatles paid for that Rudolf Kempe Strauss set you have or that John Ogden performance of the Busoni Piano Concerto (in fact, if you look through the original booklet of the latter, you’ll see John Lennon sitting in the control room with Ogden listening to the playback). The Rolling Stones paid for that Birgit Nilsson recording of Elektra you love so much or those great Dvořák Symphony recordings you just picked up by Istvan Kertesz. Jefferson Airplane and the Guess Who paid for those Arthur Rubinstein and classical symphony recordings you bought on RCA. Yes, there were a handful of artists who sold in large enough quantities that they paid for themselves—Maria Callas, Virgil Fox, Glenn Gould, Sir Georg Solti, Luciano Pavarotti—but for the most part, the classics always had to be subsidized, and once the market fell out in the late 1980s-early ‘90s, largely due to our education system that teaches kids that no “old music” is worth bothering with, not even jazz of the 1960s, there was even less of a market to pretend to placate.

And so we have these very precious pearls, some of Sam Barber’s very greatest music given some of the finest performances you will ever hear in your lifetime, strewn into the ether of the blogosphere like leftover scraps of food from dinner at the Rothschilds’. It is almost criminal, because this is certainly the finest and most moving music Barber ever wrote. Each song on this two-CD set is a precious jewel, and in the hands of these three exquisite artists (plus the Emerson String Quartet on Dover Beach) they glow not with the light of a harsh glare but with the warmth of a rising or setting sun.

There isn’t a weak song in the entire collection. From the earlier, previously unpublished songs through the late Op. 45, every piece is a jewel in its own right. As one goes through the entire collection, one becomes aware of the two singers’ individual strengths. Studer, with her 24-karat golden timbre and unique way of caressing a lyric line, brings out the words of each song like a master poetry reader. She is very “internal” in her interpretation of each word, each phrase, each song. She is the very muse of the poet. Hampson, though not at all brusque, takes a different approach. He acts out the lyrics of each song, presenting you with the character behind the words. It is not a large difference, but it is striking: one singer is the poet’s representative, the other represents the characters the poet is writing about. Both are valid, and they complement each other splendidly.

Interestingly, the songs are not altogether divided evenly: Studer gets 21 songs, Hampson 25, and most of Hampson’s songs are the longer ones, but it is a tribute to the strong impression each singer makes that it sounds as if they are splitting the album evenly.

The sound quality is virtually perfect: warm and contained, the piano apparently miked discretely from the singers, around whose voices we hear just a touch of natural ambience to give their upper notes shimmer as well as warmth. Both singers are still with us today, but neither can sing now with the kind of awe-inspiring tonal allure they display on this album. They were at the height of their powers in 1994. They had everything: beautiful voices, consummate musicianship, the ability to communicate and a manner of singing that was remarkably intimate for such large trained voices.

Their only deficiency was an occasional lack of clarity of diction, but this is not unusual among opera singers and particularly among sopranos once their voices ascend above the staff. (Of course, no one can understand Bruce Springsteen without a lyric sheet, either.) This is precisely the reason why I feel it important to have the words of these songs available to read as you listen, and this is why I am so angry at DG for their slovenly approach to this reissue.

But be of good cheer! I have scoured the internet for you, and have come up with the words to all of the poems/songs performed except one, The Queen’s Face on the Summery Coin, which apparently is unavailable online. If you click Barber song lyrics you can access the whole shebang as an Adobe PDF file for onscreen reading or download.

As for the recordings, well, yes, they are treasures and everyone who loves great art songs should have them.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Dunér’s “Dizzy” is a Whirlwind of Creativity

Every so often, one runs across a “jazz” album that defies description. Such was the case, a few years ago, with Sophie Dunér’s album of jazz vocals with string quartet, The City of My Soul, and such is the case of this new album for voice and solo jazz cello, The City of Dizzy. Dizzy, as it turns out, is not a reference to the great, famous trumpet player but to Dunér herself. But embedded in these nine glorious and heart-stopping performances are jewels of duo improvisation—and more importantly, stunning vocal excursions that almost defy verbal description. Thus I was eager to ask Dunér a few questions about the album’s genesis and her method of performance as a prelude to the review.

Sophie Duner

Art Music Lounge: Sophie, to put it in just a few words, this album is a killer. Nearly every track comes at you like an assault of rhythm in which the twists and turns of the music keep you on the edge of your seat. I have to begin by asking you…how on earth did you put these pieces together? The whole album almost sounds like a jam session.

Sophie Dunér: I compose a lot of music all the time. For this recording, I simply picked the compositions that have a certain personality, speed, rhythmic intensity and energy about them (that would fit in The City of Dizzy ;-). That’s all. And of course, making arrangements with the same philosophy as well. It’s sort of a “chemical process”—I choose what I need. I wanted a lot of angular stuff for this record. I enjoy singing angular melodies because it’s challenging, and I need that to feel I am alive when I sing. The lyrics also have a bit of a drama, and that goes well with the ups and downs in the melody! It was still a new experience as my tunes were “dressed up” by an intense cello (that also could improvise and supply me with many sounds and other craziness)! An instrument I never recorded with before, Jeremy Harman on cello.

How I put the pieces together—well—making an “order” of these 9 pieces has been for me like composing one entire piece. I am very concerned about how they contrast to each other; they’re all connected. Depending on what comes before and after each one of them makes them what they are individually as well.

AML: I noticed that you have seven originals bookended by two earlier jazz classics, Weird Nightmare and Blue in Green—very different kinds of tunes, one an edgy, borderline atonal song and the other a piece of modal jazz played by the Miles Davis group. How did these particular songs make their way into this grouping?

SD: Weird Nightmare, because of the melody. I love Mingus melodies in general. I’ve sung this tune on various gigs during the last few years, both with string orchestra as well as with upright bass only—and again, I love the melody. Blue in Green is a fantastic angular song which gives me plenty of room and time to use both my lower and upper registers, and “remaining” there for a while (as a big part of the tune was recorded in “rubato!”) But apart from these “selfish” reasons for me as a vocalist, they are highly spiritual and deep tunes…I feel something for them – they are not just “another couple of standards” to “squeeze into the repertoire”—so Yes, they are particularly chosen for a reason.

AML: How did you select Jeremy Harman for this project? He’s so extraordinarily versatile in his approach.

SD: I happened to meet Jeremy while he was on tour with the Sirius Quartet some years back in Germany. The following summer, there was an opportunity for me to perform at The PARMA Music Festival outside Boston. Initially, I wanted to bring the Sirius Quartet however, as it wasn’t possible, I asked Jeremy only as he was based in Boston. I was intrigued by the sounds he could produce with the cello—much of my compositions could be played in a quite complete way by only one person (that including the loops with the help of a small recording machine, counter lines, pedals, percussion, harmony, bass and not to forget – improvisation.) Also, he is stylistically very versatile which I need for my music.

AML: I hear so many different influences in your singing, jazz as well as flamenco style, but above all I am deeply impressed by the way you control your voice at all times. Did you ever take formal voice lessons? Your tonal placement just sounds so well trained to me.

SD:  Yes, I did study voice (jazz & classical as well as improvisation) at Berklee College of Music in Boston, from where I earned a Degree in Performance. I also studied with Hubert Mayer at The Stockhausen Music Courses in Germany during two summers. And I do have many different influences in my jazz singing. First of all, I’ve always listened more to instrumentalists than to singers. However, when it comes to jazz singers, I´ve especially listened to a lot of world music influenced (jazz) singers because I like their dynamics and the way they “attack,” rhythmically speaking. However, the “regular” jazz singers who have inspired me have been the ones with a “raw and honest” expression. I should also add that I have—during selected time periods in my singing life—been collaborating & invited to perform with many classical contemporary ensembles as well. And I have always been a big listener of a lot of contemporary music, with or without singers.

AML: I know this is going to sound like nitpicking, but I felt disappointed that the album only contained nine selections. Was there a problem in extending it by two or three more songs?

SD: Funny you say that! I was actually advised some years back not to have too many tracks on my CDs, hehe! And now you ask for more, I feel honored ;-)! I´d hope for people to hear the rest of my songs (which are LOADS, I write new music everyday!) if they come to my concerts!

AML: I’m curious to know how much, if any, rehearsal time or pre-planning went into these performances, or were they pretty much worked up on the spot in the recording studio?

SD: Possibly the final choice of “sounds” were decided when we were in the studio. Some (final) decisions about form and structure as well as the use of acoustic or/and electric cello was taken in the studio. Sometimes you actually need to do hear a bit of it recorded before actually knowing exactly what you want. Though when it comes to my compositions as such, I sent the arranged charts to Jeremy beforehand. We discussed them over Skype. And then we rehearsed the pieces during the day before the recording in Boston.The improvisational part was of course added on the spot in the studio.

AML: After hearing The City of My Soul, I wasn’t really prepared for what I heard on this album. I’m guessing that you have other directions in mind for future projects?

SD: Yes, I certainly do…;-) I am a “consumer” of the things I create and record; once I´m done, I´m done. I usually don´t record the same type of album over again. Though artistically, my music maintains a “red line” which always is my own, naturally. I like to quote the composer Louis Andriessen on this subject; “…when you are recognizable, that means you always write the same piece. I have a completely different attitude — I like to write pieces on subjects which I find interesting. That can be all kinds of different things.”

After all, isn´t that life…..? (essentially, the arts –  which is the same thing) – I wouldn’t imagine anyone feeling the same way everyday, creating the same idea over and over again (??)

AML: Sophie, thank you for your time. Everyone in the world needs to hear you!

Sophie Duner - the City of Dizzy

THE CITY OF DIZZY / MINGUS: Weird Nightmare. DUNÉR: Gossip. My Eternal Flame. Reharmonized Boyfriend. Addicted to Love. Purple Bossa. Rattle Snakes. The Express Train. DAVIS: Blue in Green / Sophie Dunér, vocal; Jeremy Harman, cello/el-cello / Sophie Productions (no number); available as download through CD Baby

From the very opening number on this album, which begins with soft but ominous cello tremolos played by Harman (who is a member of the Sirius Quartet), we are in a different world. When Dunér enters, her voice sultry yet also strong and dominating, we are in yet another world. This album, then, may be summed up as a true meeting of minds, one an instrument and one a voice yet both thinking in terms of pure improvisation.

Both performers take turns leading and following; the only moment one detects as a bit of studio trickery is when Dunér double-tracks herself for a few bars her and there in Gossip—and Harman likewise double-tracks himself, playing “cello ostinato” in the left channel and a high-range improvisation in the right. Both musicians quite evidently respect each other, giving each other complete freedom when it’s their turn to shine.

HarmanIt also helps that Harman is a jazz cellist unlike most others. To begin with, he has a solid classical background, and for another, he knows how to push the envelope when accompanying a singer like Dunér. This puts him in a different class from such past masters of jazz cello as Oscar Pettiford or Fred Katz, both of whom were superb improvisers (and Katz, also a great jazz composer) who did not accompany singers. I’ve also heard to a live set that she sang with Harman, which included some pieces from The City of My Soul, and the effect is quite shockingly different from the string quartet arrangements despite similar tempos. Harman’s playing has far more edge to it, and as a result Dunér pushes her voice more as an improvising instrument, picking up on some of the excursions that Harman leads her into (and out of).

As a songwriter, Dunér obviously likes Thelonious Monk—Gossip is clearly based on Well, You Needn’t—and Mingus. She has also told me that she loves Stravinsky, ragtime and flamenco music. It all shows in her style as well as in her music. If anything, the pieces she has written and recorded here are even more rhythmically propulsive than those in The City of My Soul with the Callino Quartet a few years ago (Big Round Records BR 8926), but it’s also possible that she was inspired and energized in this direction by Harman, who simply does not let up in his propulsive playing behind her. They are a perfect duo: listen to the way they push each other in My Eternal Flame. Harmonically, Dunér’s music is no more adventurous than that of Monk or Mingus, but that’s pretty adventurous by the standards of most female jazz singers, who never go much beyond Ellington or Harold Arlen. Even Dena de Rose or the great Sheila Jordan, who I place near the top of great women jazz vocalists, stay harmonically tonal. Dunér likes edgy melodic lines that follow the unusual chord positions; she isn’t afraid to launch the voice in either direction, up or down the scale, at a moment’s notice, occasionally using a growl or even a semi-yodel effect to emphasize her rhythmic vitality. Yet she also varies her melodic lines, adding B or C themes at whim whenever and wherever she likes. That Harman is able to follow her in all this is a tribute to his evidently high musicianship.

Sophie’s singing style resembles almost no one else’s except perhaps one: Lee Morse, the forgotten “red hot mama” of the 1920s, whose full belted style, complete with whoops and yodels, resembles hers. But that’s about it. When you use your voice like an instrument—really like an instrument—you’re not thinking in terms of “sounding nice” or maintaining a pleasant legato. You’re improvising like a jazz horn. Many such singers have claimed this distinction, but only a handful, Dunér, Mark Murphy and Anita O’Day among them, have ever really achieved this. To some ears, this kind of style is disconcerting because the voice is “all over the place” in terms of range. The improvised lines thus produced are not soothing. They are angular, but to me they are tremendously exciting and vital. There’s an elemental, animal excitement in everything Dunér sings that grabs you by the throat and pulls you out of complacency.

Perhaps it’s because she is working with a cellist, but it seems to me that Dunér’s voice has grown in richness and range since The City of My Soul. It has certainly grown in her assuredness of improvisation and in her English diction, which is far clearer here than on the earlier album. My only two regrets regarding this amazing recital are that, by ending on Blue in Green, she finishes the album on a modal ballad and not on an uptempo jazz piece, and that there are only nine tracks. The album is so good that I didn’t want it to end so quickly. Otherwise, this is a stupendous tour-de-force for both musicians, well worth hearing and owning.

Postscript: May 10, 2017 – Sophie has uploaded two thrilling live performances on YouTube with the O/Modernt Chamber Orchestra. The first is an expanded version of her string quartet arrangement of Hey, Doctor from City of My Soul. The second is a splendid orchestral arrangement of Mingus’ Weird Nightmare, done by the O/Modernt Orchestra’s violinist. Click on the titles to hear them!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of jazz and classical music