Scott Wheeler’s Kaleidoscopic Piano Vignettes

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WHEELER: Alphabet Dance; Birthday Card for Tony; Pseudo-Rag: GS; Bleecker Study; Cowley Meditation; Cliff Walk; Life Study; Epithalamion; Morningside; By the Sea; Calamity Rag; Midnight Bells; Firefly Lullaby; Study in Concord; Stone South; The Fifth of July; Flow Chart; Arietta; Shimmer; To His Music; Portrait of Steve; Pastorale; Cookie Waltz and Gallop; Sketching; Island Lullaby; Green Geese; Free Ranging / Donald Berman, pianist / Bridge 9463

Sometimes, but not often, great delights come in small containers. Here we have 27 short piano works by American composer Scott Wheeler (b. 1952), a faculty member of Emerson College in Boston and co-founder of the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble. This was the first time I had ever heard any of his music, but pianist Donald Berman, known for his playing of modernistic American composers (his previous CDs include The Unknown Ives and The Uncovered Ruggles), has chosen well in presenting several sides of this interesting and at times delightful composer.

By and large, Wheeler appears to work within the parameters of modern music without embracing serialism. But that is almost too broad a definition of this music, which really runs the gamut of styles including neo-classicism, a bit of minimalism, and more than a bit of jazz-classical hybrids. These latter pieces also include ragtime, such as Pseudo-Rag: GS, described as a “grid piece, 60 measures for the 60th birthday of Gunther Schuller,” using the composer’s initials as G and E-flat and alluding to Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer as “a nod to Gunther’s advocacy of Joplin and ragtime,” but ending with a major third as an allusion to “the Beatles song ‘When I’m 64,’ which is also perhaps something of a ragtime piece.” This tells you how Wheeler’s discursive mind works, thus when he tells you that Midnight Bells was suggested by Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight you don’t need him to say that in order to hear the Monk influence, yet he morphs it in such a way to simply suggest Monk without really evoking that specific tune.

Other rag or jazz-influenced pieces on the album are Calamity Rag, which sounds so much like Scott Joplin that you’d swear you’ve heard it before, and particularly Cliff Walk, which sounds like something James P. Johnson would have written. But please don’t think that, although I loved these pieces, that they are entirely typical of Wheeler’s output or the only pieces of interest on this fascinating CD. On the contrary, nearly every piece grabs the listener’s attention one way or another, all of them fascinating and none of them banal. Wheeler is a composer who knows how to use his musical materials in such a way that he grabs and holds your attention, whether the piece in question is barely a minute and a half long or close to four minutes. The only really lengthy piece on this album is Flow Chart, clocking in at 11:12. This one pays homage to minimalism while breaking its principal rule, which is the endless repetition of a single idea or rhythmic motif. Wheeler varies both the rhythm and the phrase-lengths in this piece while maintaining fairly simple melodic cells of just a few notes, yet somehow keeps his idea going. It’s a little like watching those little wooden balls on strings clacking back and forth, moving other little wooden balls with them in ever-changing patterns. Really fascinating stuff!

As the gently lyrical Arietta began, I mused on Wheeler’s own liner notes in which he says that “The piano is the instrument I play, sometimes in public, though hardly at all as a virtuoso.” Arietta is not a virtuoso piece, but it is memorable and attractive, and so too, in its own quirky way, is Shimmer, described by the composer as “a portrait of physician and visual artist Peter Stringham.” Somehow I feel that Stringham’s visual art was more of an inspiration than his doctoring abilities. Other portraits then follow in order: To His Music, a bitonal piece composed for Wheeler’s teacher Malcolm Peyton, Portrait of Steve a memorial for his friend Dr Stephen Malawista, Pastorale a portrait of Evansville arts patron Sara Davies, Cookie Waltz and Gallop a portrait of Elizabeth Cranstoun as a child and Sketching a portrait of artist Shane Crabtree “who was herself at work through the sitting.” Every so often, American popular tunes and ragtime references continue to sneak into Wheeler’s work, such as the allusion to Me and My Shadow in Portrait of Steve. These portraits are quintessential Americana, musical descendants of Barber, Copland and Rorem in general form and style.

No question about it, this is a surprising and delightful album, one that you will particularly enjoy on a Sunday morning. Berman’s playing is warm and inviting, which enhances the appeal of these fine short works.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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