JANUS / SANDERS: Sigma. R.P.D. STROSDAHL: Allemande. Mazurka. Janus. SANDERS-STROSDAHL: Be-Bop Tune. MONK: Thelonious. ROBISON: Old Folks. MACHAUT: Rose, Liz, Printemps, Verdure. MESSIAEN: Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jesus (selections). CARMICHAEL: Stardust. COUPERIN: Les Amusemens / Nick Sanders, pianist; Logan Strosdahl, a-sax/t-sax / Sunnyside Records SSC1469
This duo recording by saxist Logan Strosdahl and pianist Nick Sanders explores a number of jazz and classical-jazz avenues, from the bop-tinged Sigma to such old standards as Stardust and Old Folks, including their takes on Guillaume Machaut, Olivier Messiaen and François Couperin along the way (and Sanders’ Allemande sounds like an old classical piece. We even get Thelonious Monk’s self-titled theme song as an added bonus.
The interest in this album is not so much the interaction of the two musicians, although that is certainly interesting in and of itself, so much as their approach to music, combining the old and the new. And by this I don’t just mean Couperin wedded to Monk, but their styles of improvisation. In Thelonious, for instance, pianist Sanders almost gives this tune an early rock-n-roll kick, eschewing the composer’s own flat-fingered approach to the keyboard, and by and large saxist Strosdahl is very much a traditionalist, stylistically speaking (despite a few moments of outside excursion). Sanders’ R.P.D., for instance, almost sounds more like a Monk piece than their version of Thelonious, but there’s also a sad lament quality about it that reminds me of classical strains as well.
One of the more interesting qualities of this recording is the unusually warm acoustic. In an era where it seems that both jazz and classical record producers are hell-bent on swathing the music with ambience—often, too much ambience—this recording is engineered like a jazz record from the 1960s, with both piano and saxophone close-miked and put in a very warm space. The illusion it creates when played on really good speakers is that of being in the room with them, which I liked very much. I was also struck by the strong classical bias of Strosdahl’s writing, not just in Allemande but also in Mazurka. In Old Folks, a song that Charlie Parker recorded with a vocal group (very weird for its time!), the saxist seems to be paying homage to Bird, yet even within that context some of his playing leans towards the classical. And pianist Sanders, despite his generally steady rhythms, always seems to come up with strange passages that don’t quite sound part of the surrounding material and yet still manage to make sense. In the latter part of Old Folks, in addition to playing some Bird-like licks, Strosdahl also satirizes the tune (and the lyrics, if you know them) by playing quirky “infirm” passages.
I felt that, in its own way, Be-Bop Tune was one of the most humorous performances on this set, played in a way that added divergent quirks to its otherwise straightforward melody. Here I felt that the duo was at their most interactive, with both pianist and saxist spurring each other on via licks and turns of phrase that they picked up from each other as it went along. Generally speaking, it sounded to me as if the duo utilized classical techniques in virtually everything they played, whether it was their interpretation of Guillaume Machaut or Olivier Messiaen or their own compositions. I don’t just refer to the classicalized structure of Strosdahl’s music, but their general approach per se. I would daresay that the majority of jazz critics have no frame of reference for classical music or what it means and how it is constructed; they simply tend to think of jazz as “freedom,” “instant improvisation” from the top of one’s head and classical as “tightly structured” and allowing no improvisation. Yet throughout its history, classical music has to some extent relied on the way different performers “feel” rhythm, which in itself is a tightening or loosening of that form. It is only in the 20th century that any deviation from the printed score was considered bad or incorrect; in our time, classical musicians are once again learning to improvise, in part because the fusion of jazz and classical music—as I pointed out in my book—is really the only bright future that either form of music has. Everything else has been played out, but the “jazzical moods” that Charles Mingus created and fought for are an arrow to the future. Sanders and Strosdahl seem to have grasped that.
Thus in a piece like Strosdahl’s Janus which, by virtue of its jazz rhythm, one would argue IS jazz, there is as much structure and form involved as in his more “classical sounding” Allemande and Mazurka. I bring this out in order to point the listener towards signposts in the music. Even if it was improvised into being, for instance, the sax solo in the midst of Janus follows certain laws of classical construction, a series of variations on the initial theme, while Sanders’ piano solo combines a “ground bass” in the left hand with improvisation in the right.
I believe I read once that Stardust is the most-recorded song in history. If it isn’t, it’s a close second to whatever is in the #1 slot. The duo takes it at a very relaxed ballad tempo, with Strosdahl channeling his inner Ben Webster, trying his best to simulate the warm, breathy quality that Webster brought to most of his later work on records. Towards the end of the first chorus he also employs a little Johnny Hodges-like upward portamento. Sanders stays fairly close within the harmonic base of the tune, which suits it. The finale of this recital is François Couperin’s Les Amusemens, and once again they give it a “jazzical” treatment, staying within the parameters of the score while adding more syncopated rhythmic inflections. (It reminded me a bit of the time I saw George Shearing play the Bach Keyboard Concerto No. 1 with the Cincinnati Symphony.) It’s an excellent wrap-up to this fine recital.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley