Wolfgang Fuses Jazz, Classical and Contemplation

Passing Though0001

PASSING THROUGH: GROOVE-ORIENTED CHAMBER MUSIC, Vol. 3 / WOLFGANG: Flurry / Judith Farmer, bassoon; Nic Gerpe, piano. String Theory / New Hollywood String Quartet. Passing Through / Jennifer Johnson, oboe; Judith Farmer, bassoon. New England Travelogue / Eclipse Quartet; Joanne Pearce Martin, piano. Trilogy / Jennifer Johnson, oboe; Judith Farmer, bassoon; Robert Thies, piano / Albany TROY1624

Every so often, a recording comes along that is really off the beaten path…so far off, in fact, that it seems to create its own genre. Such is this recording of music by Gernot Wolfgang, a former jazz guitarist-turned-composer who is fascinated by the use of jazz and rock elements in classical compositions.

Oh, you’ve heard this all before? Well, not really, because Wolfgang’s music is not just jazz music with a little more form, or classical music that swings. He has found a way to completely blend the two types of music in such a way that there is no real delineation between them. In other words, his music conforms to the highest standards of classical composition—and I do mean the highest standards, not just the kind of generic “shock” or “ambient” music that passes for classical nowadays. His music not only has really interesting themes but also interesting development along traditional classical lines, yet none of it sounds traditional. While it is true that there are some very gifted contemporary composers who do similar things, among them Charles Ruggiero and Daniel Schnyder, Wolfgang is still unique in his own sound world. If I was forced to compare him to any older composer, it would be, believe it or not, Debussy, because his music often takes on forms that are elusive to the casual listener and subtle in expression yet always rigorously logical and well constructed.

In his liner notes Wolfgang explains that “The groove-oriented passages (and, in some of the pieces, entire movements) are counterbalanced by extended slow and contemplative music. Te grooves themselves are frequently spelled out directly. In other instances they are inferred, sometimes implying additional, non-audible rhythmic elements.”

Thus he has created a sound-world in which one enters and leaves jazz influence as other composers have used indigenous folk music (à la Bartók, Kodály or Prokofiev). In listening to the last movement of his string quartet, String Theory, one is put in mind of the Turtle Island String Quartet whose founder, violinist David Balakrishnan, was as much influenced by bluegrass music as jazz, and in the opening movement (“Bounce”) of his oboe-bassoon duet Passing Through, I was reminded of Daniel Schnyder’s wonderful piece for wind trio, Baroquelochness, but these were very rare instances of my detecting any outside influence. For the most past, Wolfgang is his own man. If his sense of humor is subtler that that of Schnyder, his sense of construction is sometimes more rigorous. He seems to think in terms of the musical construction first and the “groove” elements second, which is fine. That’s the way it should be. If your intent is to create a jazz-classical work and the development is hung up on the rhythm and not on variations of the principal theme or secondary themes, you’re not composing anything substantial, and this music is certainly substantial.

String TheoryIndeed, it is in the “contemplative music” on this CD that I hear something that makes this music, for me, stand out above the fray. These slow movements are not only well constructed but also have a sense of reflection or melancholy that penetrates deeper emotionally than most such music does. (One other jazz-classical composer who comes close to this sort of blending is Laurie Altman.) In fact, as you let the CD play and just listen, you will be struck by this contemplative quality despite his allusions to or outright use of jazz rhythm.

That being said, it must have been somewhat difficult for Wolfgang to find exactly the right musicians to play his music with the right feel—not because there aren’t enough well-trained classical players out there, but because most well-trained classical players couldn’t swing if you put a gun to their head. Remember how many years it took Yehudi Menuhin to finally be able to loosen up a little and fall in with what Stéphane Grappelli was playing? Same thing here. As much as I liked the playing style and blend of the New Hollywood String Quartet, for instance, I didn’t get the sense that they were as much in the music’s spirit as the Eclipse Quartet in New England Travelogue, and I don’t really feel that either quartet is quite as good at this sort of music as the Turtle Island or Sirius Quartets. It’s a matter of degree of groove, you see, not necessarily if the notes are played correctly. And, of course, there are things these two quartets do exceptionally well, i.e. the slow movement (“Vermont Magic”) of New England Travelogue which suspends time and just hangs in the air like a floating cloud of sound (also one of the few times Wolfgang employs very close, almost atonal harmonies), so I’m not trying to be hyper-critical, just explaining, you might say, the “degree of groove” they are able to generate. Listen, for instance, to “Inman Square” from the same quintet. The musicians capture well the feeling of a New England hoedown, but once the pure jazz element enters the picture they just aren’t as uninhibited as, say, Trio Arbós in their exceptional recording of Nikolai Kapustin’s music.

And yet the music is excellent, remains excellent despite these small nitpicks, and impresses constantly with its mastery of form. Moreover, when you have a performer who does get the rhythm exactly right, such as bassoonist Judith Farmer (who is co-producer of this album) and pianist Robert Thies (in Trilogy), the effect is magical. The notes lift themselves off the printed page and come to life, and when they do the listener is caught up in their spell. The sound quality is for the most part warm and rich, with none of the overdone ambience or reverb you hear on too many classical albums nowadays. I felt a little more space could have been placed between the different pieces on the CD (there seems to be almost no pause between the last movement of Passing Through and the first movement of New England Travelogue), but other than that this is a beautiful and deeply moving listening experience.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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