Sonny Turns 86

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Rollins on stage during Barcelona Jazz Festival, November 3, 2010 (Photo by Jordi Vidal/Redferns)

Has the world forgotten Sonny Rollins? In jazz it always seems that the focus is on the new and up-to-date. Henry “Red” Allen, Pee Wee Russell and Coleman Hawkins managed to stay relevant by keeping up to date on the latest trends in jazz; the early avant-gardists like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry kept pushing the envelope as they aged while retaining elements of what made them different to start with. But Sonny Rollins, who was considered in the jazz Zeitgeist from the mid-1950s through at least the late 1960s, somehow became an icon without going much further, like Bill Evans or Lee Konitz.

What jazz aficionado doesn’t have his Saxophone Colossus? Or The Bridge? Or at least a couple of his great RCA Victor albums of the 1960s, when he pushed the envelope and expanded on the solo saxophone lexicon with astounding, extended a cappella solos? Rollins was so good that it was almost scary; only late-period Hawk and Coltrane were really on his level, or close to it. Everyone else was playing some form of bebop or squealing nonsense through their horn.

This is going to sound crazy, but I’ve always felt that the three great legends of jazz—Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker and Coltrane—achieved that distinction by dying young. Coltrane made it the furthest, to age 40, and he was the only one of the three who was not self-destructive; he just had the misfortune to have bad genes and his body gave out at the wrong time. Yet a lot of jazz fans either seem to forget or gloss over the fact that in his last two years, Coltrane went so far off the deep end that no one else was following him there. His “sheets of sound” had become confused knots of sound, with no cohesion or meaning in them, and Beiderbecke’s last two years were so spotty that his colleagues couldn’t even be sure if he’d show up for recording dates or, if he did, if he wouldn’t be sitting in a dark corner of the studio, talking under his breath, asking his cornet not to fail him because his brain was fried. Parker has some deterioration of quality towards the end, but not as bad as the other two, and in my view he was the most original and innovative of the three. But why weren’t other great pioneers of jazz considered legends? Why not Earl Hines, a man who so revolutionized jazz piano that it took more than a decade for someone else (Art Tatum) to catch up to him? And why not Tatum, the greatest soloist in the history of jazz? Or Joe Venuti, Lester Young, Ken Kersey (one of the most original jazz pianists I’ve ever heard in my life), Charlie Christian, or Thelonious Monk? Possibly because, except for Christian, none of them died before they were 40. There’s something to be said for dying young in the jazz world, particularly if you have a load of talent.

But to return to Rollins: he was actually the one who pioneered the flat, vibratoless yet powerful sound on the tenor sax that we now associate with modern players of that instrument. He was also a relentless pursuer of high quality in his performances, extremely self-critical, thoughtful and yet always one who played from the heart as well as from the mind. Gunther Schuller once broke down and analyzed Rollins’ solo on Blue Seven in 1958 (sonny rollins and challenge of thematic improv), but Rollins didn’t like the article; he thought it was fine so far as it went in terms of notation, but missed the emotional point of his playing. And, as in the case of late-period Coltrane, some jazz critics bristled against Rollins’ half-hour-long a cappella solos. Personally, I like several of them. I think they are real manifestations of genius, but I hold in reserve my right to criticize parts of them because, after all, when one is opening several different doors at the same time, not all of them lead to a clear route or an exit.

Above all else, Sonny Rollins is a very human jazz improviser. By that I mean, whenever and whatever he plays is completely him, without filters, without artifice. Who can ever forget the time he was in the midst of one of his long solos when he inadvertently walked off the stage, breaking his leg—and yet kept on playing? It wasn’t just a show of macho-ism. It wasn’t egotism. Sonny just really wanted to finish that solo because he wasn’t finished yet!!

One could go on and on ad infinitum about Rollins and his commitment to music, and it’s a shame that he has somehow been shuffled out of the deck in favor of hot young bucks who also play tenor. Among the many treasures I have by Rollins in my collection, two of my favorites are the albums he made during his brief tenure as Harold Land’s successor in the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. I don’t think Sonny ever sounded more utterly joyous than when he was playing with Brownie, who he idolized. Rollins was personally devastated by Brown’s death, so much so that he couldn’t bring himself to play with another trumpeter for a few years, and when the live set recorded at the Bee Hive was released on LP in the early 1970s, Rollins couldn’t even bring himself to listen to it. That’s how deeply this man feels about his music and his friends.

You may find other saxists besides Sonny Rollins whose playing you like more, but you’ll newcombenever find one whose playing is more committed, more real, more human. Sonny Rollins is one of jazz’s great gentlemen in both the general and specific definitions of that word. I’m not generally the kind of woman who celebrates artists’ birthdays—I don’t even celebrate my own, so why should I?—but in this case I wish a very happy birthday to “Newk,” as he was known (due to his close resemblance to the great Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe), because he has, and will always have, a very special place in my heart.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Sheila Jordan on Life, Music and Art

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If you were to ask the average music listener who is not a jazz aficionado to name the three or four best female jazz vocalists of all time, you’d probably get Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day or possibly Diane Krall as your answers; but ask anyone who is really into the music, and one of the first names that will come up is Sheila Jordan. The almost incredible career and stamina of this amazing octogenarian continues to startle the music world as she has done since she first appeared on the scene in the 1950s.

But the reasons why Jordan is vastly under-appreciated by the public at large have as much to do with her artistic vision and individualism as with her remarkably understated way of singing. Sheila has never really sought popular acclaim at any stage in her career; she resisted recording until she was 34 years old, appearing on one startling track (You Are My Sunshine) of George Russell’s superb 1962 album, The Outer View, and even after her singing attracted raves from the critics she was stubborn about recording with only piano and bass and, later, with bass alone. She has consistently resisted pressure to sing with bands of almost any size, particularly big bands; the closest she has come to singing with a “full band,” to my knowledge, was her 75th birthday concert with trumpeter Paolo Fredu and Serge Forté’s piano trio, and three tracks on a 2005 studio session with German singer Sabine Kühlich on which the piano trio was enhanced by tenor saxist Hubert Winter. Because of her strict rules about who and where she will sing, Jordan has become a living legend among musicians but scarcely a popular favorite.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the first time I heard, or heard of, Sheila Jordan was in the mid-1970s, watching a PBS documentary about jazz singers. Suddenly, in the midst of the show, a diminutive, dark-haired woman sporting a bob hairdo with a flower in it appeared at a microphone, singing in a way I’d never heard before. The voice was so soft that at times it was almost a whisper, but my God, what style! She could scat like Ella, sing vocalese like O’Day, or just sing the lyrics and the tune “straight” while still swinging and bending notes like a jazz horn. She was probably close to 50 years old at the time, but her voice had an amazingly youthful, girlish sweetness which she has retained to this day, and the overall impression was of a real musician singing jazz. What I mean by that is that Sheila Jordan, unlike anyone else I’ve ever heard, sounds like she also plays an instrument (like, say, Dena DeRose or Chloe Feoranzo) but she doesn’t. She was just able to absorb everything she heard from her youthful idols, particularly alto saxist Charlie Parker, and transform it in her mind into jazz singing.

What led to this interview was a group e-mail that my friend, pianist Jack Reilly, sent around with a link to a YouTube video of Bill Evans playing Without a Song. Sheila wrote back, in part, that “There isn’t a word to describe Bill’s playing. He’s beyond all words. Thanks Thanks Thanks and Thanks again.” She hit “Reply All.” I was so startled so see her name in my Inbox that I clicked “Reply” and told her how wonderful I thought she was. And so here we are.

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Art Music Lounge: I’m going to try to ask questions that you haven’t been asked a million times before, but I’m sure I’ll slip up a little. To begin with, you often talk about how you were impressed by Charlie Parker at age 17. Did you first hear him in your native Detroit?And before you heard him, who were the jazz musicians you liked the most?

Sheila Jordan: I heard Bird on a jukebox when I was in high school and was hooked on his music from that point on. I was aware of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but wasn’t thrown a huge jazz loop until I heard Bird.  I didn’t hear or don’t remember hearing anyone that impressed me as deeply as Bird.

AML: When I listen to you sing, I surely do hear echoes of Bird, but I also hear a deep harmonic sense based on piano chords. Were there any specific pianists whose work you studied and learned from?

SJ: I studied with the great Lennie Tristano for a couple of years but not piano, just improvisation which I was already doing but he freed me up a lot. Singing with him was a big challenge at my lessons.  It made me listen real closely to the chords.

AML: After Bird’s death, did you ever sing with, or consider singing with, Sonny Stitt or Phil Woods? Their styles were so close to Parker’s, I would think you would feel right at home with them.

SJ: I didn’t really sing with Bird.  I just would sit in and do a tune or two when he asked me to. I never worked a gig with him.   …. the only horn player I ever had the pleasure of working with was  Roswell Rudd, a wonderful trombone player. We even recorded something quite a few years back.

03-sheilaAML: I’ve heard you say in an interview that women who went to jazz clubs, particularly white women, were reviled and “called all sorts of names” back then, but surely men who went to see jazz played live, even white men, brought dates with them. Were they all treated that badly, or only those women who tried to perform jazz?

SJ: Not women who were with dates or white men. I got name called by white guys because I was hanging out with black musicians trying to learn the music and I sang with two great scat singers who helped me with my scatting.  We had a group together in Detroit in the early ’50’s.  I learned a lot from these two gentlemen. They were my friends and like brothers. White guys always thought if they saw a white woman with a black man it had to be a sex thing which was not the case at all most times.

AML: Did you know Nica (Baroness Pannonica von Königswarter) at all? I’ve always felt that she probably suffered the most from discrimination because she was European royalty and not just a regular working class American woman. When I read her biography I was deeply saddened by the ending; her family has confiscated all the hundreds of hours of jam sessions she recorded in her apartment and won’t let them be released. They’d just as soon that the world simply forget about her.

SJ: No, I didn’t really know her. She mostly hung with the male musicians.  I remember one time after a concert that my late husband Duke Jordan was playing at she made the statement in front of me and Duke…. “Come by the pad Duke because I’m having a party for the musicians after you take your ole lady home.”  Needless to say Duke did not attend that party.

AML: Speaking of pianists, I’ve always wondered if you enjoyed, from a professional standpoint, working with your first husband Duke Jordan. I’ve always liked his playing myself.

SJ: I didn’t work with Duke really. Only when Bird would ask me to sing a tune or two with his group. Duke happened to be the piano player but we didn’t work together nor do any music together so to speak.

AML: To refer back to your email about Bill Evans, I’m just wondering if you ever had the chance to work with him?

SJ: No, but I did sit in with him one time at Trudy Heller’s in the Village. He was playing at her club which I think was named after her and I came in to hear him and he invited me to sit in and do a tune or two.

AML: When you first became famous in the jazz world and were pressured to record with jazz orchestras, how did you manage to resist that and still have a career? Were you your own manager at the time, or did you have a manager who agreed with your insistence on working only with bass or bass and drums, or what?

SJ: I was never pressured to record or work with any jazz orchestra. I kept a day job ‘til I was 58 working in an office but sang in a little club in the Village called the Page 3 a couple of nites a week. I also took vacation days to travel and do music sometimes too. I always found a place or way to sing even tho I had to keep a day job. I didn’t or don’t do the music to become famous. I do the music to keep it alive and teach it to the younger generation. I don’t have a manager or agent so to speak. Most of my gigs I get thru jazz musicians or word of mouth.

AML: I have to admit that I am curious as to how you managed your career considering that your appeal has always been primarily to musicians, critics and hard-core fans. Have you had lean years, or lean periods, professionally speaking? And, if so, how did you weather those periods?

SJ: As I state above, I had a little kid to support and I supported her by myself therefore I always kept a day job but found places to release my musical urge. I don’t think of what I do or did as a career. I think of it as a calling and my calling is to keep it alive thru performances and teaching it to the younger generation.

AML: One of the most interesting features of your singing, to me, has always been that unusual combination of soft intimacy and joyous swinging. It’s a very rare quality that I can’t remember hearing in most other singers…in fact, the only predecessor you seem to have had in terms of a light, sweet voice and a quiet delivery was an obscure singer who mysteriously disappeared without a trace in 1956, Marcy Lutes, though Lutes didn’t improvise like you. Were there any singers who influenced you at all, either in terms of the lightness of delivery or style?

SJ: Only Lady Day. I was more of an instrumentalist freak. That’s who I listened to growing up.  I always sang tho even as a little kid.

AML: What did you think of Jackie Cain? I always loved her boppish scat performances.

SJ: I loved her singing, especially what she and Roy Krall did together. I don’t remember ever hearing her actually scat but their arrangements and harmonies were incredible! It was a great duo.

04-one-for-juniorAML: One of my all-time favorite of your recordings is the album you made with Mark Murphy, One For Junior. He’s another singer, I have to admit, who I discovered somewhat late in his career…another singer who appealed primarily to musicians and flew under the public’s radar. Were there any other singers you’ve performed with who you feel were on that high of a level?

SJ: Mark was very special and it was a joy to record with him. It was Joe Fields from High Note records who approached us to record together. Mark was a very very close friend of mine and we spent many years having a close friendship. We did a couple of Jazz Operas for George Gruntz and I think that started us thinking of the possibility of recording something together. It was good timing on Joe Field’s part.

AML: And now I simply must ask you the million-dollar question: how on earth have you managed to preserve your sweet vocal quality for so many decades? That’s one of those things that generally goes with age, regardless of how much you keep yourself in good condition, but I keep listening to you and the basic timbre of your voice has darkened only slightly since the 1970s!

SJ: Thank you so much my dear for such a lovely compliment! I don’t think about it and I don’t strain or misuse my voice. I do however do a twice a day steaming with my steamer and I now do exercises which I got from a wonderful speech therapist. I also have an incredible throat doctor who I see twice a year just to check on the vocal chords. It’s strange because I really don’t do anything special or eat special foods. Maybe it’s my Native American background ha ha … My three generation was royalty. She was Queen Aliquippa of the Seneca Nation….

AML: This may seem like a silly question, but do you feel that you’ve accomplished everything you wanted to in your career? Or, even now, is there anything you’d like to do that you haven’t already done?

SJ: It’s not a silly question at all. I am always striving to learn more music. I love my string quartet project and would love to be able to do that more. I don’t feel I will ever accomplish all I want to. I would love to be able to have more time to compose. I have millions of melodies in my head but they disappear quickly if I don’t record them which I rarely do, therefore they’re lost.

AML: Who are your own favorite jazz singers? I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked you that before!

02-from-the-heartSJ: I don’t remember if anyone ever asked me that question. I would say the singer for me was Billie Holiday. Her emotion and phrasing. She didn’t have an outstanding voice like Sarah but it’s what she did with it. I think Ella Fitzgerald is the greatest scat singer who ever lived. This is of course my opinion.

AML: To wrap things up, is there anything you’d like to share with my readers about jazz singing, the state of modern jazz today (lots of rock beats, ambient jazz and hip-hop) or any other musical matters?

SJ: No, not really. Just don’t give up the music. Keep it alive and if you play it or sing it. Keep doing it. Dedication always pays off in some form and I found that out ….

AML: Thank you so much for your time! I’m sure my readers will love this!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Beekman’s Well-Crafted New CD

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BEEKMAN VOL. 2 / RECABARREN: Canción al Licor del Ave. NASSER: Moved By Clouds; Something Unsettled; Intro to Verdict’s Out; Verdict’s Out. MENARES: En Otro Lugar; Perdón. VASQUEZ: Recovered; Farewell / Beekman: Kyle Nasser, s-sax/t-sax; Yago Vasquez, pn/el-pn; Pablo Menares, bs; Rodrigo Recabarren, dm. / Ropeadope Records RAD-317

Beekman, I have learned, is a Brooklyn-based collective quartet whose members met in Brooklyn in 2012. They pride themselves on the eclecticism of their compositions, which combine jazz with classical, Latin and (not for me) rock influences. This is their second album, the first being issued on the Chilean label Discos Pendiente, and is scheduled for release in October.

The album gets off to a lovely start with the slow and elegant Canción al Licor del Ave by drummer Recabarren. It’s a typical drummer’s tune in that it revels in off-beats and polyrhythms, several of them generated from the drum kit, but is unusual in its use of a lyrical melody that is not specifically Latin. What I found fascinating in this piece was the way Nasser always manages to retain at least a portion of the melody in his improvisations: a modern-day version, you might say, of the old New Orleans motto, “Keep the melody going.” In addition, he becomes quite busy around the four-minute mark yet never quite goes into that sort of hard, squealing sound of which modern jazz saxists are so enamored.

Nasser’s Moved by Clouds retains a basic 4 yet divides it up irregularly in its use of quarter and eight notes. By now I had become aware of the rhythm section’s wonderful ability to function as a unit as in the old big bands, i.e., that wonderful interlocking sound of piano-bass-drums, although here it lacks the binding sound of a guitar. Vasquez’ solo tends to develop the theme in a modal manner, which in turn leads back to Nasser’s tenor which now plays above Vasquez’ chording while the bass and drums continue to function as a single unit. This creates a whirling sort of polyphony that I found most intriguing and extremely well developed from the opening theme. This is a band that obviously hears each other well without abandoning a tight, swinging ensemble.

Beekman also defies expectations with Menares’ En Otro Lugar, a piece that opens very gently with solo piano and sounds as if it were composed by the pianist, with rich, moving chords and and elegant line. This was a piece that, to me, harked back to the 1960s…except for the fact that the melody does not have any hooks, it could have been a piece written by Antonio Carlos Jobim for Stan Getz. The composer’s solo is absolutely exquisite: I can’t recall hearing a more efficient modern solo in terms of not wasting a single note or a more classical structure in what is being played than here. And when Nasser returns, Menares continues playing in the same vein behind him, although simplifying his lines.

Something Unsettled finds Nasser playing a good Lee Konitz imitation at the outset. This is a track in which a rock beat intrudes early on, but it lets up and becomes more diffuse in varying sections. Vasquez is heard on electric piano in this one, and I found it interesting to hear him explore much more single-line playing than on the conventional piano, letting the bass provide all the harmony. Indeed, I would say that one of Beekman’s most likeable traits as a quartet is its ability to always sound relaxed at any tempo, which allows the music to flow naturally without any sense of forcing. In his main solo, Nasser switches to soprano sax while still retaining that wonderful sense of exploration without squalling or screaming. I think I heard just a touch of Eric Dolphy in his playing here.

Nasser switches once again, this time to tenor, for the a cappella introduction to his own piece, Verdict’s Out. I’m not entirely sure why this was separated from the main body of the piece in its own track; the piano into to En Otro Lugar was nearly as long, and it was part of the same band. Nonetheless, it’s a fine piece, with Vasquez’ light, airy, John Lewis-style piano particularly elegant in its subtle gradations of touch and volume. Recabarren’s drumming, at one point, almost sounds like military marching beats—an interesting touch.

Recovered is an elusive tune in terms of both rhythm and melody, a slippery elm of a piece that finds Nasser back on soprano. This time, however, he explores a much more detaché style of playing, at least in his first full chorus, exploring the tune’s quirky modes before branching out in a more exploratory solo. During Vasquez’ equally busy solo the rhythm almost, but not quite, coalesces into a more conventional 4, but it keeps running off the rails and at times increases in speed. Interesting. But so is Perdon, a piece that sounds so out-of-tempo for the first minute and a half that one wonders if it will ever coalesce into a tune with form. Well, it never quite does, but that doesn’t mean the journey isn’t worth taking! All things seem possible, musically, with this talented quartet. Vasquez settles the rhythm down for short stretches while he is playing, but then lets it slip away again when he is finished.

Ironically the final piece on this disc—Farewell—has an almost typically Americana kind of sound to it, a bit like Shenandoah. Once again there is a definite 4 pulse but it is consistently being played around with and broken up in unusual ways by the rhythm section. Both Nasser and Vasquez are meditative in their solos, playing sparsely and lyrically.

Beekman Vol. 2 is a fascinating album, low-key in temperament but continually interesting!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Leonhardt Creates Magic at the Keyboard

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BACH BULL BYRD GIBBONS HASSLER PACHELBEL RITTER STROGERS / HASSLER: Canzon. STROGERS: Fantasia, FVB 1. BYRD: Corranto; Queens Alman; Ground. BULL: Bull’s Goodnight. GIBBONS: Fantasia, MB 11. PACHELBEL: Fantasia; Toccata in G. J.C. BACH: Praeludium. RITTER: Allemanda in Discessum Caroli XI Regis Sueciæ. J.S. BACH*: Fantasia, BWV 1121; Aria Variata, BWV 989; Partite Sopra, “O Gott, du Frommer Gott,” BWV 767 / Gustav Leonhardt, clavirorganum/*harpsichord / Alpha 317

This reissue of recordings made in 1995 (J.S. Bach) and 2001 (the others) capture perfectly the exquisite qualities that the late Gustav Leonhardt brought to his many keyboard performances: an organic view of the music, elegance, and deep feeling all rolled into one. He was, in my view, the unquestioned giant of early keyboard music in an era that seemed to be overflowing with such musicians.

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Claviorganum at the Museum of Music in Barcelona

The bulk of this album was recorded on the claviorganum, also known as the clavecin, combined the qualities of a harpsichord with an organ, an instrument that was particularly popular in England in the 18th century. Leonhardt brings out the very best in the instrument, combining the singing qualities of the organ portion with the snappy plucking of the harpsichord part to produce music that is at once elegant and charming. He had such a miraculous touch at the instrument that, until we reach Orlando Gibbons’ Fantasia in band 7, which is played almost exclusively on the “organ side” of the instrument, only the most careful listeners will be aware that the sustaining sound we hear in the first six tracks stem from the same source. In the eighth track, Pachelbel’s Fantasia (thank God we don’t get the overplayed Canon!), he almost completely ignores the organ side of the instrument to provide us with almost a pure harpsichord sound.

Perhaps the only drawback to this CD is that so many pieces here are of a slow and meditative nature, which tends to wear on the listener after a while, but this may not be Leonhardt’s fault but rather that of the programmer of the CD. Certainly, insofar as the performance quality goes there is nothing to complain of. This is a wonderful disc for meditation since Leonhardt is so completely into the music that he creates a lovely aura for such activity almost without trying to. Well recommended, particularly for admirers of this wonderful musician.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Nikolayeva Combined Clarity and Fervor

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TATYANA NIKOLAYEVA: THE 1989 HERODES ATTICUS ODEON RECITAL / BACH: A Musical Offering – Ricerar à 3; French Suite No. 4 in E-flat. SCHUMANN: Symphonic Etudes. RAVEL: Miroirs, Nos. 2 & 3. SCRIABIN: Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9. Poème Tragique. BORODIN: Petite Suite: I. In the Monastery. MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at anExhibition: Ballet of the Chicksin Their Shells. PROKOFIEV: 10 Pieces: No. 7, Prelude / Tatyana Nikolayeva, pianist / First Hand Records FHR46 (live: Athens, 1989)

Unlike many of her male Soviet colleagues, Tatyana Nikolayeva (1924-1993) didn’t make a name for herself outside her home country until the very last years of the Soviet Union, and then she only had a scant nine years to do so as performer and competition judge. Within her home country, however, she was considered a towering figure, particularly in the music of Bach and Shostakovich. This particular recital, which has never surfaced on records before, finds the formidable sexagenarian at her very best, playing strongly structured performances of Bach, Schumann, Ravel and four Russians whose work spans a century and a half.

What comes through most clearly in her playing is just that: clarity. Nikolayeva was first and foremost a mistress of musical architecture, thus one will listen in vain for heavily Romantic overtones in Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. In its place we have what I would define as a true symphonic construction, emphasizing the music’s clarity and form without, I may add, sacrificing real feeling. Nikolayeva, like her predecessor Maria Yudina, emphasized a crisp, clear style of playing, each note emerging as pure as a drop of water in a mountain stream, and this is evident throughout this wonderful recital.

I could go on and on about this recording and her style of playing, a style that simply does not exist in today’s classical music world. Pianists nowadays are far too eager to pursue speed for its own sake and forsake even the pretense of interpretation, whereas for a musician of Nikolayeva’s temperament structure and feeling went hand in hand. A perfect example of this is Ravel’s Miroirs, which has far greater clarity than one normally hears in his music or in this piece, or the early Scriabin pieces which were related in mood and form to Chopin. Her repeated chords, for example, are crisp and a bit dry, with none of the Romantic style most pianists impart to them.

One of the great delights of this recital is the exceptional recorded sound, so realistic and clear that it could easily have been recorded in a studio. A wonderful release.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Abrazo: The Havana Sessions Produce Fine Music

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ABRAZO: THE HAVANA SESSIONS / MILLER: Hot Miami Nights*; On an Autumn Day*. BOWYER: Bugs & Gas*. BECK: Jazz Instrumental Suite (arr. Ceruto)+; Jazz Vocal Suite (arr. Ceruto)+. BOURLAND: Alarcón Madrigals, Book 3#. CAROLLO: Burlesque%. BRANDMAN: Wamr Winds in Havana@. MOBLEY: Coloring With Water^. MURRAY: After the Fall~ / *Big Band, cond. by Joaquín Betancourt: Lázaro Oviedo, Tommy Laurent Garcia, Alberto Mesa, Julio Rigal, tpt; Yoandy Argudin, Diana Saiz, Osley Partridge, Ivanovi Garzón “El Pipi,” tbn; Yuniet Lombida Prieto, Javier Zaiba, a-sax; Michel Herrera, Osmel Cuellar, t-sax; Evaristo Denis, bar-sax; Raúl “El Chino” Verdecia, classical gt; Lázaro “El Fino” Rivera, bass; Emilio Morales, pn; Enrique Piá, dm; Bernardo Bolaños, congas / +Yasek Manzano, tpt; Yoandy Argudin, tbn; Carlos Miyares, t-sax; Rolando Luna, pn; Lazaro Rivero, bs; Oliver Valdez, dm; Mary Paz, congas; Will Dailey, vocal / #Vocal Luna, Wilmia Vernier Quiñones, conductor / %Fadev Sanjudo Rodriguez, tpt; Merlyn de la Caridad Corona Pérez, gt / @Leonardo Jiménez, s-sax; Yuniet Lombida Prieto, a-sax; Aliet Gonzales, t-sax; Javier Zalba, bar-sax; Andres Coayo, perc / ^Fadev Sanjudo Rodriguez, tpt; Maricel Gonzalez Valdés, tbn; Susana Venero Martin, Fr-hn / ~Schola Cantorum Corolina, Alina Orraca, conductor / Ansonica Records AR0001 (2 CDs) available on Amazon, iTunes

This album was recorded, with great enthusiasm, in the wake of the United States’ naturalization of relations with Communist Cuba. I shall refrain from commentary on the political ramifications thereof and stick to a description of the music. In its physical form the album is on two discs, but these two CDs contain music of varying and, to an extent, almost opposite forms, the first being primarily jazz and the second largely classical works.

The first two selections, written by Timothy Lee Miller, are the most conventional in form. This is Latin jazz of the sort that we have been hearing since the 1950s. The tunes are pleasant but relatively uninteresting; on the other hand, the solos are simply terrific, and thus are the raison d’être for their presence here. The third track, Don Bowyer’s Bugs & Gas, is rather more interesting in texture and form, more like a modal piece with Latin rhythm. It was commissioned in honor of Don Spina, who retired from a career spent decommissioning biological and chemical weapons, called “bugs and gas” by those in the field. Ironically, in this piece one of the soloists, the trumpeter, does not play within the structure of the tune but rather just runs changes and flurries of notes.

We then reach the two suites by pianist Bunny Beck, one of the more interesting and intrepid of women jazz composers nowadays. In the instrumental suite she creates long lines that develop and occasionally interlock, with interspersed solos, and her style is all her own—I couldn’t think of one jazz composer who writes just like she does—and the soloists are all listening to the developing structure and thus provide interesting music that adds to the pieces rather than disrupting them. One particular device that I noted here was the use of trumpet triplets against the continuing Latin rhythm, which Beck told me was the contribution of arranger Juan Manuel Ceruto. Interestingly, she turns over the piano duties here to Cuban musician Rolando Luna rather than herself (none of the composers play here in their own works), and it is in this underlying piano part that some of the more interesting music is found, a sort of Latin basso continuo except when he takes a solo. In the vocal suite the band is aided by singer Will Dailey, whose voice was dubbed in at a later session (according to the liner notes). To be honest, the lyrics aren’t particularly interesting, but what is interesting is the manner in which Beck uses the voice as an instrument in the ensemble. Dailey’s singing put me in mind, a bit, of Bob Dorough’s with its light, non-vibrato sort of delivery. The music itself os an outgrowth and continuation of the instrumental suite, here using the voice to sing the triplets above the rhythm while the trumpets, when they do play, explore other rhythms.

Disc 2, as noted earlier, is an entirely different animal, starting with Roger Bourland’s Alarcón Madrigals, Book 3, commissioned by the Los Angeles women’s chorus Vox Femina in 2006. This is extraordinary a cappella music, evoking early music yet in a modern vein, sung fairly well by Vocal Luna. Alas, the lyrics are not provided in the CD notes or the online notes, but I was finally able to dig them up on Bourland’s own website here.

John A. Carollo’s Burlesque is an entirely different animal, a rather curious five-part trumpet-guitar duo employing some jazz techniques, particularly in the trumpet part (tremolos or “flaps” and muted passages) and spiky harmonies in the acoustic guitar writing. I was really impressed by the superb control that trumpeter Fadev Sanjudo Rodriguez had of his instrument; this is deceptive music that sounds much easier to play than it really is, particularly in the graded dynamics, and Rodriguez did a superb job. The extended online notes tell us that this piece “is a story about a woman, Rosa, who learns about music from a guitarist and a trumpeter, Luca.” I found it interesting that Carollo has primarily written for the piano; except for the fact that the two parts here dovetail well, I wouldn’t have suspected that he had not previously written for this combination of instruments!

Margaret Brandman, who has written both jazz and classical pieces, here contributes the brief, four-part suite Warm Winds in Havana for a chorus of four saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) with percussion. Here’s a piece that bridges the gap between jazz and classical in the most complete way, wedding an unmistakable Latin beat in both the percussion and the sax quartet with strict compositional form. Each of the four pieces in the suite is less than two minutes, the first being barely a minute and a half, but Brandman says everything she wants to say without making the listener feel short-changed. Oddly the second piece, titled “Sauda del sol” or “Sunrise,” put me in mind of some of the saxophone writing one heard from Pete Rugolo during the Stan Kenton band’s heavy Latin period, and “Danza del día” (“Dance of the day”) dispenses with the percussion to produce a light, lovely, skimming sort of swing generated entirely by the reeds within a framework of a tune that barely develops harmonically, creating a hypnotic effect.

Coloring With Water was provided by Michael Murray who, the notes tell us, has written “orchestral, band, chamber, choral, and electronic music, and frequently collaborates with dancer Tina Mullone, working to break down the barrier between dancer and musician.” This is an unaccompanied piece for trumpet, trombone and French horn that skips and dances, the Latin rhythm being somewhat subjugated and at times broken up into little jabs of a beat (at one point disrupted entirely into a sort of back-beat counterpoint!) as the three instruments play, generally with the trumpet and horn in thirds against the trombone.

The second disc, and the album, ends with Michael Murray’s After the Fall, one of a seemingly endless stream of compositions commemorating 9/11 and its aftermath. The music here is, understandably, subdued and elegiac in character, sung by an a cappella choir. Schola Cantorum Corolina is a superb group, rich and full in tone while paying great attention to dynamics shadings, giving us a moving performance. As a composition I found it interesting if not particularly original in form, moving in its own way.

Despite the compositional weakness of the first two tracks, this is the kind of album I always enjoy, one which combines jazz and classical pieces side-by-side to produce an interesting and challenging aural experience. I recommend it!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Biondi Makes Magic of Telemann

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Poor Telemann! A nice guy, almost completely self-taught as a musician and composer, good friend of both Bach and Handel, he wrote more music than either of his two friends and yet is scarcely as well known. Oh, everyone knows his name, but the music always seems to get shoved aside because it wasn’t as intricate as that of his first friend or as popular as that of his second.

Fabio Biondi tries to set things straight, just a bit, with the release of this effervescent album of violin fantasias which becomes available on September 16. Once again, however, these works are overshadowed, in this case by the Solo Sonatas and Partitas for Violin written by Bach 15 years earlier (1720). Add that to the fact that Telemann, who was almost always broke, was trying desperately to appeal to amateur violinists rather than professionals in order to sell more copies of his music, and you have a lot of academics turning their nose up at these charming, delightful pieces.

Biondi proves how well they can sound when played by someone who has a splendid technique and the effervescent energy they need to make their impact. He plays here a Ferdinando Gagliano violin from the 18th century, and yes, he plays with straight tone, but as I’ve said for years, it’s not the tool or the specific technique of playing that makes a great musician, it’s what he or she does with the music. Or, to be more colloquial, “Tain’t what ‘cha do, it’s the way how ‘cha do it, that’s what gets results.” There are musicians—hundreds of them—who play with straight tone and also a “flat affect” emotionally speaking. They do not use dynamics shadings; they don’t know how to play legato; they don’t make the music sing. None of this has anything to do with “authentic style,” it’s just a load of bull. Biondi understands this, which is why his orchestra, Europa Galante, is one of the greatest in the early music field, and he completely “gets it” when it comes to playing 18th-century music like this on the violin.

This is certainly not the first recording of these works, but the performances are so good that one is immediately captivated by his playing. Biondi has the same kind of effervescence that one heard in the Baroque playing of Yehudi Menuhin, who did not use straight tone; of Bronislaw Huberman, who alternated between straight tone and vibrato; and of of Amandine Beyer who, like Biondi, uses straight tone almost exclusively. What do they have in common?? They were (or are) all great musicians, which as I say, makes the tools used to communicate the music secondary to the feeling they project.

One of the traps that many modern-day straight-toners fall into, as my reviewing colleague Jerry Dubins has pointed out, is that they play so fast that the music gets lost. Yes, each note is sounded individually, but when they’re run together like Pacman gobbling up little balls at 90 miles an hour, you lose articulation. It almost becomes a blur in the listener’s mind and ear; the note sequences make no musical sense. They’re just ordered noise.

As to the music, it is interesting and actually pretty technical for “amateur” violinists to play, if not as complex in terms of the double stops and other technical difficulties in the Bach pieces. There are also not as many inner voices for the soloist to bring out. Yet none of this prepares the listener for the interesting turns of phrase and delightful variations that Telemann came up with. Take away the fact that this music is resolutely tonal and does not explore much in the way of “outside” harmonies, and this music would be the pride of any modern-day composer. All of the 12 Fantasias are different; not one of them sounds like any of the others. Telemann’s talent for musical invention is, however, more fully appreciated if one listens to a few of them at a time instead of, as I did for review purposes, all dozen at once. It is much easier to savor this music a few pieces at a time than to swallow the whole of it in one gulp.

Although I’ve been a fan of Biondi’s Europa Galante for several years now, this was the first time I’ve ever heard Biondi play solo violin for any extended period of time. I will certainly be looking out for any future releases he cares to record.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Escher Quartet’s Scintillating Mendelssohn

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MENDELSSOHN: String Quartets Nos. 5 & 6; Capriccio in E min., Op. 81 No. 3; Fugue in E-flat, Op. 81 No. 4 / Escher String Quartet / Bis 2160 (SACD)

This is the third and final CD of the Escher String Quartet’s series of the complete Mendelssohn Quartets, which includes the unnumbered E-flat Major quartet on the first disc and, here, the Capriccio in E minor and Fugue in E-flat major, which together make a sort of quartet of their own. At first hearing, in the opening “Allegro vivace” of Quartet No. 5, I was just a bit worried about how they would respond to the slow movement of this work and, more importantly, to the tragedy that Mendelssohn wrote into the Sixth Quartet, but I shouldn’t have worried. The Eschers have taken painstaking care to ensure that they can differentiate between the surface writing of the fifth quartet and the almost biting pain written into the sixth. True, in both quartets they play with that fast and straightforward style that has become de rigeur among string quartets ever since the Alban Berg Quartet made it fashionable in the 1970s (although, for those of us with long enough memories, it was really th Heifetz-Piatagorsky Quartet of the 1960s that pioneered this style), but at least they always play with commitment and, thank goodness, they don’t play with that awful straight tone that ruins so many modern recordings.

My only wish would have been for a few moments of rubato to offset their headlong rush in the first movement of the latter quartet; towards the end, their playing was almost, but not quite, on a pace to win the Indianapolis 500 (“And there goes car number three, four, five…a wreck! A wreck, and the car is spinning out of control, up to the fence, around the fence, I hope he doesn’t hit that fence…he hit it!”). Their tempo for the second-movement “Allegro assai” was but a shade slower than the opening “Allegro vivace,” but once again, when they came to the “Adagio,” they not only relaxed their taut style but actually introduced moments of relaxation and portamento, which helped them produce a moving performance.

I was particularly impressed not by their unanimity of musical thought—all great string quartets reach that goal in practice sessions—but rather by their unanimity of sound. In some string quartets I’ve heard, one of the four instruments seems to have a lusher tone or slightly stronger bow attack that makes them stand out, just a bit, from the others, but the Eschers have achieved a near-perfect sound balance, and that in itself is difficult. Each of them uses a fast, tight vibrato, and each of them has a somewhat bright sound profile, which makes their success in the slow movements all the more impressive. More interestingly was the way in which they have perfected a “group nuance” whenever such is called for; they almost breathe together and can shade and color a note or phrase, when they choose to do so, on a dime. This was especially apparent in the last movement of the Quartet No. 6, one of Mendelssohn’s most pained and tragic utterances, albeit one written at a fast tempo.For once, the Eschers understood the nature of the music’s meaning and did not try to beat out Dale Earnhardt Jr. for an inside position on the track. Their stabbing attacks fully bring out the depth of pain that Mendelssohn felt for his beloved sister Fanny when he wrote this quartet, and it shows.

I was generally very impressed with this CD. I can’t project whether or not the Eschers would be as successful in the quartets of Beethoven or Brahms as they are here, in the more classically-styled music of Mendelssohn, but this is certainly one of the best recordings of these works.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Belcea Quartet Digs Brahms!

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BRAHMS: String Quartets Nos. 1-3; Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34* / Belcea Quartet; *Till Fellner, pianist / Alpha 248

After the Alexander String Quartet, my favorite such group is the Belcea Quartet, headquartered in London where its leader, Corina Belcea, was the winner of the 1991 Yehudi Menuhin prize and actually studied under Menuhin himself. Their set of the complete Beethoven Quartets are almost as good as those of Alexander, but not quite enough for me to make them my number one choice. In the Brahms Quartets, which so far Alexander has not yet recorded (although they have recorded the Brahms String Quintets with violist Toby Appel, and they are fabulous!), I would at this juncture have to place Belcea’s recordings at the very top.

Like so many modern quartets, they play with a taut, linear style, but as those who have studied some of Brahms’ favorite musicians realize, this is not incorrect style in performing his scores. Brahms’ favorite conductors of his symphonies, for instance, were Fritz Steinbach and Felix Weingartner, who played them in a taut, driving fashion, and not such “wandering strays” as Hans von Bülow or Felix Mottl. What sets the Belcea Quartet aside from so many similar groups, however, is their willingness to shade and color the music with a greater range of dynamics than you normally hear. As a for-instance, I began playing this set of Brahms right after reviewing the Mendelssohn Quartets Nos. 5 & 6 by the Escher String Quartet. As good as the Eschers were, there were several moments—particularly in the fast movements—where I wished for just a bit of relaxation from the metronomic tempo they set. Here, in these Brahms performances, Belcea gives you just that, and right from the opening “Allegro” of the Quartet No. 1.

What distinguishes the Alexander Quartet from the Belcea, in my view, is a greater exploration of tone color and warmth. But of course this is a very subjective thing, and not to everyone’s liking. Of course, part of this may have something to do with the recorded sound: the microphones used, their placement, even the acoustics of the room in which they are recorded. All these things play a part in our emotional reaction to their recordings, and there were several moments in Belcea’s Beethoven cycle where I felt it was exactly that, a slightly cooler sound, that separated their performances from those of Alexander’s.

There are many critics and musicians who feel that comparisons are odious and often unfair, but I’m not one of them. You have to understand how many string quartet recordings I’ve heard in my life, from the 1920s products of the Rosé, Léner, Amar, Pro Arte and early Budapest Quartets right up to the present, and how not just different musical approaches but different techniques, instrumental sounds and recording acoustics affect these performances. On the other hand, I will say right away that a warmer sound does not always help all string quartets musically. The Juilliard Quartet’s 1960s recordings of the complete Beethoven series had wonderfully rich, warm sound, yet their style was too linear, with almost no noticeable features of dynamics changes and a somewhat tough and tight in their playing. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel that a little more warmth in the sound quality of these recordings would have improved my emotional reaction to Belcea’s approach, as it has done in the Alexander’s recordings of the Quintets. A perfect example is the third movement of the Quartet No. 1, where their playing is stunning in its almost infinitesimal command of light and shade, with every possible light in the spectrum in between. The recorded sound, though reflecting all of these shifts perfectly, still sounds a little too cool in the end. Thus I have to mitigate my wholehearted approval of Belcea’s playing style, which is often near perfection, with Alpha Records’ clinical sound.

But Alpha has promoted Belcea unstintingly, allowed them the opportunity to record what they want, thus I can’t say anything negative about them. The listener must simply understand that any criticism I make of the sonics does not extend to what is surely some of the best string quartet playing in this or any other century. To illustrate what I mean, consider the criticism so often leveled against Brahms, that his music sounds too carefully planned and organized, that there is seldom as much spontaneity or inspiration in the music as there is in Beethoven. This is certainly true as it is true of Mozart’s quartets, but a superior group of performers can overcome this “deficiency,” if such it is, if they approach the music completely from the inside. This is what Belcea does, bringing not just an intensity to their performances (nearly all of today’s taut-but-exciting quartets can do the same) but also surprising moments of tenderness, sadness, joy and elation. One continues listening as they progress through these works, no matter how familiar they are, in order to hear just these sort of details emerge with surprising emotional commitment. And Belcea almost never disappoints.

By the way, in support of what I said earlier regarding musical style in Brahms, it was Wilhelm Furtwängler who insisted that J.S. Bach was an early Romantic but that Brahms was a classicist. How about that, huh? That being said, I found it interesting that there were even more Romantic touches in Belcea’s performance, with pianist Till Fellner, of the Quintet in F minor. Also, to my ears, an even higher degree of passion. They really take this music by the throat and shake it up, which is all to the good; this almost sounds like an Alexander Quartet performance. Interestingly, Fellner himself plays with a crisp modern style, nuanced in places but not quite as Romantic in feel as the string players; they sort of lead him rather than vice-versa. Nevertheless, it’s a great performance, the best I’ve yet heard of this piece. They almost make it sound like a Beethoven piano quintet, and that’s saying something. In some ways this is the highlight of this set, powerful and moving.

You absolutely can’t go wrong obtaining this set. These are performances that not only impress you at first hearing but also stay with you long after the last notes have died away. Bravo, Belcea!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Mili Bermejo Does a Latino Sheila Jordan

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ARTE DEL DUO / BERMEJO: Los Que se Aman; La Casa de Árbol; Cosecha; No Dejo de Quererte. MODIRZADEH: La Orilas del Mar. QUINTERO: Equipaje. DRIGUEZ: Tres Voces Heroica. BERMEJO-VILLARRUTIA: Décima Muerte I & II. LeGRAND-GURRIA: The Windmills of Your Mind. RADA: Candombe para Gardel. OVSEPIAN-AYVAZIAN: End of the Beginning. DISCÉPOLO: Cambalache / Mili Bermejo, vocal; Dan Greenspan, bass / Ediciones Pentagrama PPCD-707

Here’s an intimate, interesting set featuring just voice and bass in the manner of so many Sheila Jordan sets (including quite a few with Harvie Swartz), the main differences being that Mili Bermejo is more of a mezzo than a soprano and that she sings mostly in Spanish (End of the Beginning is sung in rather unintelligible English). This even extends to Michel Legrand’s famous ’60 tune The Windmills of Your Mind, set here to Spanish .lyrics by Manuel Gurria in an arrangement by Vardan Ovsepian.

Perhaps another difference, at least to my ears, is that for the most part Bermejo sings the tunes straight, with minimal improvisation, whereas with Sheila Jordan improvisation is her raison d’être. What is very interesting, however, is the way Greenspan follows her as she sings these melodies, sometimes doubling the tune but more often than not providing harmonic underpinning that moves at the same rate of speed as the lyrics. It’s a particularly interesting style and it works very well, particularly since Greenspan is really a fabulous bassist, with not only a facile mind and great “chops” but also a particularly full, beautiful tone. Before the first two numbers are completed, you will be under their spell, in part because of the warm, beautiful and natural recording acoustic. You almost feel as if you are in a coffeehouse or small restaurant listening to them.

After hearing them perform, I wasn’t surprised to read the accompanying promo sheet and learn that Greenspan was a classically trained cellist before he became a jazz bassist. I really don’t care about their “Themes of political liberation (capitalism is the greatest form of political liberation invented by mankind), environmental responsibility (so they mulch food scraps and rake their leaves? so do I) and interpersonal commitment (OK, so they love each other)” because it doesn’t relate at all to their music-making. Music is music, and theirs is particularly good in and of itself. Don’t get so hung up in politics, folks. What interests me more than their political correctness is the way they interact as musicians, and specifically how the warmth of Bermejo’s voice often matches the warmth of Greenspan’s bass. In the special arrangement of The Windmills of Your Mind, Greenspan plays a continual stream of triplets behind her singing, creating a sort of windmill effect, and in Cosecha he plays counterpoint to her vocal in a fascinating manner. That, to me, reflects their interpersonal commitment as artists.

To a certain extent, however, I found my ears gravitating more towards Greenspan’s bass because he is simply a much more interesting musician, more of an improviser and thus the “key” to the success of this album. He never intrudes on or overpowers Bermejo’s singing and they complement each other beautifully, but she is the dressing on his very complex mixed salad (particularly on the last track, Cambalache, where Greenspan is simply fabulous). Nevertheless, she has a good sense of “time” and fits him like a hand in a velvet glove. In all, then, a fascinating, intimate album of unusual pieces, well performed.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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