Dyad Takes Opera to the Jazz Clubs

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DYAD PLAYS JAZZ ARIAS / MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro: Finch’ han dal vino*. BIZET: Carmen: Habanera; Seguidilla. MASSENET: Thaïs: Mediation. BARBER: Vanessa: Do not utter a word+. DELIBES: Lakmé: Flower Duet#. VERDI: Otello: Dio, mi potevi scagliar# / Dyad (Lou Caimano, a-sax; Eric Olsen, pno); Randy Brecker, *tpt/+fl-hn; #Ted Nash, t-sax / Ringwood Records RR3 (available at CD Baby)

Alto saxist Lou Caimano and pianist Eric Olsen, who call themselves Dyad, have apparently made a specialty of transforming operatic arias into jazz numbers. Their first CD was Dyad Plays Puccini, and now they have followed it up with a second disc incorporating Mozart, Bizet, Massenet, Barber, Delibes and Verdi. It requires a particular musical sensibility to make these kind of transformations work: the easy path would be to simply have some background group, preferably of strings, play the arias straight while some jazz musician improvises over the tunes in the foreground. Saxist Joe Lovano managed to skirt this sort of low-taste enterprise in his remarkable and somewhat overlooked album, Viva Caruso, by employing the excellent arranger Byron Olson to do much of the work for him. Olson, for those who don’t recall, was the maestro behind the surprise CDs of the early 1990s, Sketches of Miles and Sketches of Coltrane (see my description of all three albums in From Baroque to Bop and Beyond).

Caimano and Eric Olsen (no relation to Byron), however, have done all the work themselves, and it does them great credit to note how successful these transformations are. I say that because it is always more difficult to pull this kind of enterprise off when you only have two or three “voices” to work with. For better or worse, operatic arias are fairly complex beasts; in addition to the lead line, which is what the singer performs, there is generally something of interest going on in the orchestral accompaniment. Of the arias transformed on this disc, this particularly applies to the music of Mozart, Massenet and Verdi (“Dio mi potevi scagliar” from Otello). The Carmen arias of Bizet have rum-tum-tum accompaniments, fairly simple, and Barber’s Vanessa aria is accompanied in a pleasant but somewhat formulaic manner. Dyad has circumvented the texture of the original accompaniments by introducing counterpoint and moving figures in both the bass and top line, then putting them together to make an entirely new construct based on the originals but not sounding too close for comfort.

Those listeners familiar with the original music (probably not many among jazz audiences) will be able to spot the various shifts of rhythm and harmony that Dyad put into this project. “Finch’ han dal vino” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, for instance, is given a Latin beat which means that note placement in the original aria is shifted around as well as underlying chords. One of two guest musicians on this record, trumpeter Randy Brecker, is at his very best here, playing a most inspired and inspiring improvisation that ends in a glorious shake in the high range. Pianist Olsen follows with a single-note solo that takes the music even further afield. By this time it has become obvious that Dyad, although having a great love for the music they are improvising on, nevertheless recognizes that they have to take it a bit outside in order to avoid staleness or predictability of musical thought. As Olsen shifts into accompanying mode and Caimano wails on alto sax, you also realize that despite the well-planned arrangements they don’t mind flying by the seat of their pants.

Olsen’s piano introduction to the “Habanera” from Carmen is so original that unless you were looking at the CD cover you wouldn’t know what aria they were going into, and here they shift the beat with double-time interjections while the altered chord positions allow for some nifty chromatic movement within the piece. While listening to Olsen’s playing I thought variously of Vince Guaraldi (his double-time accompaniment to Caimano’s solo), Dave Brubeck (those chunky chords) and McCoy Tyner, very different stylists whose work seemed to somehow underlie some of the things he played. By and large, it seemed to me that Caimano was the more spontaneous player while Olsen was the more thoughtful and controlled. This doesn’t mean that Olsen is predictable, only that an internal sense of order permeates everything he does whereas Caimano steps off the edge of the cliff and hang-glides a lot more often. The sweet thing about this is that they balance each other perfectly.

As the CD progresses, in fact, the creativity of their re-imagining becomes ever more apparent. When the “Meditation” from Thaïs started up, with its bouncy tempo and Bill Evans-inspired chord changes, I scarcely recognized it. In Dyad’s hands it becomes an almost purely jazz piece, as if the duo had created an entirely new tune while inadvertently quoting bits of Massenet’s music. I should point out that Caimano’s alto playing is some of the most unusual you will ever hear in that he not only maintains a pure, almost tubular sound with no vibrato, but emphasizes the upper range of the instrument, at times sounding so much like a soprano sax that it took me aback. He sounds a bit like Johnny Hodges on steroids: the same sort of pure tone with far more “edge” and risk-taking.

I was a little surprised to hear their version of the “Seguidilla” from Carmen, only because the opening sticks closer to the original in rhythm and harmony than any of the others thus far on the CD. But fear not, once they get into the improvised part of the music they shift components of the music and take risks. Olsen injects some chromatic ladder-climbing in his solo in addition to swirling figures, setting up Caimano beautifully for his re-entrance. The recorded sound is perfect for them, too, generally crisp and clear yet with enough natural room ambience as to not make them sound too “edgy.” “Do not utter a word” from Barber’s Vanessa, an amorphous aria and not one that lends itself well to transformation, is actually improved by Dyad’s rewriting and greatly enhanced by the imaginative contributions of Olsen on piano and Brecker, this time on flugelhorn. I found it interesting that they would select an aria largely unknown or, at best, disliked by most opera buffs, but I assume the more “open” melodic structure allowed them to take greater liberties with it than they would with, say, Jocasta’s aria from Oedipus Rex. In the last section of the piece, the trio completely changes both tempo and rhythm to interesting effect.

On the last two selections, the “Flower duet” from Delibes’ Lakmé and “Dio, mi potevi scagliar” from Verdi’s Otello, Dyad is joined by tenor saxist Ted Nash, which allowed them to work out some tasteful saxophone duets. Following a fairly straight statement of the melody, Nash takes off on his own solo flight while Olsen underpins him. Nash is somewhat more conservative than Caimano, his playing informed largely by interesting rhythmic shifts rather than daring harmonic flights, but he balances the players of Dyad quite well. Olsen is particularly creative in his solo here, spinning out some truly interesting figures with aplomb, following which Caimano employs some swirling figures of his own. There’s one particularly nice passage in which Olsen’s solo bass note “walking” perfectly complements the figures Caimano is playing above him. In the ride-out, the rhythm shifts once again into a sort of funky “Blue Note soul” groove!

I was perhaps most wary of what they would do to the Otello aria, since this is not so much a piece to be sung for applause as a tense dramatic moment in Verdi’s masterpiece. Dyad was careful not to make the allusion to the original too close, which was wise, but rather—as in the case of the “Meditation”—to invent a jazz piece that somewhat resembles Verdi’s scene rather that just “do an improv” on the aria proper. It made a terrific closing number to the album, however, because the dark, minor-key chords of the piece lent themselves well to some of the most soulful playing of both Nash and Caimano. Olsen ramped up the tempo ever so slightly in the middle and hammered out double-time bass notes and chords to spur the saxists on. Thus the music as played took on a life, and an identity, of its own, inspired by but not directly related to Verdi’s music. Note, for instance, the shifting chords and rhythms towards the end, which lift it out of the “jazz-classical” mold and move it more towards Gospel music!

In toto, then, a terrifically creative album, one that simply cannot be fully appreciated or savored in just one listening. There is, literally, so much going on here that you need to listen two or three times at least. What a great album!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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