Agranovich Dominates Schumann’s “Carnaval”


SCHUMANN: Carnaval. Fantasie in C, Op. 17 / Sophia Agranovich, pianist / Centaur CRC-3504

Sometimes, a review need not be long and detailed in order to convey what a performance says about the music. Such is the case with this new release from pianist Sophia Agranovich, whom I have interviewed in the past. I know just enough about her to realize that she generally detests studio recording—it makes her nervous and edgy, not an uncommon thing for artists—but also that she is often a bit nervous at the beginning of her live concerts. Nevertheless, these performances of two of Schumann’s most famous piano works (due out next month) are just so good, and so unusual, that it almost boggles the mind.

Those who are familiar with Agranovich’s playing need not be told that she only knows one way to play music, and that’s full-bore emotionally. She hasn’t earned the nickname “the tigress of the keyboard” without reason, and for those who wonder why I like her playing and not Martha Argerich’s, this CD is Exhibit A. Argerich has a spectacular technique and plays with tremendous energy, but energy does not (in her case) generally translate into an interpretation. In Agranovich’s case, it does, very much indeed. Even if you have a dozen other recordings of Carnaval or the Fantasie, you need to have this one as well, because it will overshadow most of them. Agranovich plays it as if her life depends on it. Every note, every phrase is alive with feeling and meaning; you cannot listen to this CD impassively. I was so swept up by her performance that I listened to it all the way through without comparing it to anyone else’s, but afterwards I put on Alexander Kobrin’s very fine performance of Carnaval (Centaur CRC-3365) and was absolutely astonished by the differences. Aside from the fact that Agranovich omits the very brief “Sphinxes,” which was not intended for performance and is generally left out, I just couldn’t get over the differences between the two performances. Kobrin sounded good but colorless; he phrased very well but missed things that she captured, Schumann’s unexpected changes of mood and color. There are moments where she played with what I would call a “skipping” motion, i.e., the rhythm is a bit punchy and jumpy, but in place of the type of phrasing one normally hears (and which Kobrin gives) I felt as if Schumann was communicating with me. It almost sounded as if she were the composer inventing the music at the keyboard.

You keep listening for what happens next.

Part of the reason for the disc’s success is its almost astounding presence and clarity. The sound is so immediate that from the first note you feel as if Sophia is in your living room playing for you. Engineer Joseph DeVico has managed to capture every nuance and every touch with perfect clarity. When she depresses a key, you can almost feel it in your bones. You can hear her pedaling, even to the extent of that “woody” sound a pianist gets (and feels) when the damper or sustain pedal is depressed while in the midst of a busy passage. No, none of this is distracting; on the contrary, it pulls you the listener further into the heart of what she is doing musically. Just think it it as a sort of hyper-realistic Welte Piano Roll if you will. Having seen Agranovich play Chopin on TV, I can also imagine her powerful hands and arms swooping over the keyboard like two mother hawks harvesting food for their hatchlings. This is not an unfair analogy. I’ve long felt that, to Agranovich, music is food for her soul, and that she would perish without it.

As the last phrases and notes of the “Langsam getrangen. Durchweg leise zu halten” of the Fantasie faded out of earshot, I almost expected to hear an audience burst into applause. Except there was none. But it’s that kind of recording…you almost feel like jumping up and applauding your heart out at the end. Enough said.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Baker’s Final Testament: The Art of Jazz Solos


BASICALLY BAKER, Vol. 2 / BAKER: The Harlem Pipes. The Georgia Peach. Walt’s Barbershop. Soft Summer Rain. Black Thursday. Shima 13. Honesty. 25th & Martindale. Kirsten’s First Song. Terrible T. GILLESIE-PAPPILARDI: Bebop / Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra: Tony Kadleck, Randy Brecker, Scott Belck, Graham Breedlove, Jeff Conrad, Mark Buselli, Pat Harbison, tpt; Tim Coffman, Freddie Mendoza, Brennan Johns, tbn; Rich Dole, bs-tbn; Celeste Holler-Seraphinoff, horn; Luke Gillespie, pno; Mitch Shiner, vib; Monika Herzig, celeste; David Stryker, gtr; Dan Perantoni, tuba; Jeremy Allen, bs; Steve Houghton, dm / Patois Records (no number provided)

David Baker, who died in March of this year at age 84, was one of the real good guys in the jazz world: not just a performer (early on) and composer, but also an educator and enthusiast. He didn’t just teach others how to play jazz, but also how to love it. This 2-CD set, Basically Baker Vol. 2, is the follow-up to his 2007 album Basically Baker Vol. 1¸which Patois Records plans to reissue as a bookend to this new release.

Baker, a professor at Indiana University and founder of its Jazz Studies program, was a native Hoosier, born in Indianapolis and going to Crispus Attucks High School. He initially soaked up the swing culture of his youth—Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, etc.—but once bebop came around in the late 1940s he was hooked. Baker often sneaked into clubs along Indiana Avenue because he was underage to soak up the music and the atmosphere. After coming to IU in 1966, Baker founded the University’s jazz program, where he mentored such musicians as Luke Gillespie, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine, Jim Beard, Chris Botti, Jeff Hamilton, and jazz education mogul Jamey Aebersold.

Although Baker played trombone on George Russell’s Ezz-thetics album—the last time he would do so due to a facial injury that impaired his ability to play (he later switched to the cello!)—he was never really into the modern jazz or free-form revolutions of the 1960s and ‘70s. Trumpet student Luke Gillespie, visiting Baker’s office in 1978, saw a copy of the Miles Davis LP Kind of Blue on the turntable, a copy so worn and scratched that the grooves were almost worn white. Gillespie commented to Baker that he had “gotten a lot of mileage out of this record,” to which Baker replied, “Yeah, that’s my seventh copy.” And that’s where Baker’s musical adventurism ended, with the late-‘50s modal jazz of Miles Davis.

Thus listeners coming to this album, and this music, should not look for anything post-Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus in his style. Indeed, even the voicings of the orchestra are in the mold of 1950s and early-’60 bands like the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. There are some features of interest in some of these compositions, such as the introductions to The Harlem Pipes and Walt’s Barbershop, the jazz fugue in the middle of the latter and the final chorus of The Georgia Peach. Baker was by no means a stodgy writer-arranger; he knew too much about music to be dull or routine; he just avoided the modern trends of his time.

But the real glory of this album is in the solos; they are the story, they tell the story, and they are meaty and consistently interesting. The promo material accompanying this release makes a fuss of the two big-name guest artists on this album, trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist David Stryker, but honestly all of the soloists are very, very good.

And this, perhaps, was Baker’s greatest achievement, in training soloists who listened hard to the music and could consistently play interesting and well-structured solos. Although I love a lot of the new jazz that’s out there (my reviews are proof enough of that, I think), my readers will have noticed that I occasionally chastise the soloists within these modern concepts of not really listening to each other or the surrounding framework, playing solos that are coherent. The constant push for novelty sometimes comes with its own price.

Moreover, the bigger name soloists do not overshadow the others, and that in itself is interesting. I was absolutely thrilled, in fact, by the playing of trumpeters Pat Harbison and Graham Breedlove, trombonist Freddie Mendoza and saxists Ned Boyd, Rob Dixon and Bill Sears, and I do not wish to slight the others. Mark Buselli’s plunger-muted trumpet solo on Black Thursday is one of the highlights of the album. I just wish, for my own personal pleasure, that the scores had been more modern and explorative, at least on the high level set by the late Clare Fischer, for instance, or Rod Levitt and, yes, George Russell.

Nevertheless, if you want a good, straightahead jazz album that is sure to give you pleasure from what the soloists are saying, Basically Baker Vol. 2 is for you. They are an object lesson on how to think within your framework and give your very best.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Biller’s B-Minor Mass Unusual, Impassioned


TRADITIONAL: Introitus: Hymnus auf das Pfingsfest – Spiritum sancti gratia. Intonation zum Gloria-Gloria in excelsis Deo (2 versions). Praefatio. J.S. BACH: Mass in B Minor / Ruth Holton, soprano; Matthias Rexroth, countertenor; Christoph Genz, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; Leipzig St. Thomas Choir; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Georg Christoph Biller, conductor / Philips 28946594926 (live: Leipzig, July 28, 2000)

This performance, issued on a EuroArts DVD in 2006, is unusual in three ways. First, and perhaps most interestingly, conductor Biller chose to present this in a “liturgical style,” possibly following a tradition that Bach himself had to follow in Leipzig. I’ve read enough complaints written by Bach that his stingy employers didn’t like him writing so many long, original works for the services, but wanted more traditional hymns, so maybe there’s a precedent—maybe. Anyway, Biller prefaces the entire work with an Introitus, then inserts two versions of an Intonation–Gloria, one before Bach’s own Gloria and the other between Cum sancto spiritu and the Credo, and a Praefatio before the Sanctus. I found it a bit of a distraction, though it does point up just how great this Mass really is, how superior the music is.

The second unusual aspect—at least to me—is the use of a countertenor, a species of whiny falsetto singing that never existed in Leipzig or, for that matter, in Bach’s lifetime, in place of a conventional mezzo-soprano. And the third, of course, is the fact that the Leipzig St. Thomas Choir consists solely of boys, which of course is historically accurate.

I had no qualms whatever about the boys’ choir. This is, in fact, Biller’s second recording of the Mass with this choir, the first issued several years ago by Rondeau Productions. My impression of that performance, which used a second soprano (Susanne Krumbiegel) as well as a female contralto (Elisabeth Wilke), was that it was good but just a bit too lightweight for the music, an impression exacerbated by the overly-resonant sonics. On this Decca release, there is natural reverberance from the church in which it was performed, but the ambience sounds natural and the boys’ voices are miked much more closely. Moreover, I find that in this performance the orchestra is also miked better and plays with more energy. I still find the tempo of the opening Kyrie Eleison a shade too fast for my taste—I prefer Helmuth Rilling’s somewhat statelier pace—but there is no questioning the heartfelt performance given by the choir and orchestra. My real issue is with the unpleasantly queer-sounding, hooty voice and imprecise trills of countertenor Matthias Rexroth. I guess he’s OK but he’s no Russell Oberlin, Randall K. Wong or Philippe Jaroussky, the three greatest countertenors in the history of that unusual vocal category. Long before Laudamus te was finished, I wished he would have stuck his head in a large meat grinder and turned it up on high. Yeah, he irritated me that much.

By and large, however, I really liked this performance, particularly the choruses which are literally bursting at the seams with energy and love. I also very much liked the perky reading of “Domine Deus” as sung by Holton and Genz with a particularly wonderful-sounding flautist and basso Mertens’ “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” here sung with an actual French horn and not a substitute instrument like a trombone or something, as Rilling, Schreier and other conductors sometimes use.

If you choose to get this recording as a download, however, I urge you to download all of the music with contralto from Biller’s earlier Rondeau recording and substitute it for Rexroth. He’s that bad. Otherwise, this is certainly one of the best performances of the B Minor Mass you are ever likely to hear.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Sanders and Strosdahl Explore “Jazzical Moods”


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

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Franz Schmidt’s Clarinet Quintet Unusual, Enticing


SCHMIDT: Quintet in A for Piano Left Hand, Clarinet & Strings / Linos Ensemble: Konstanze Eickhorst, pianist; Rainer Műller von Recum, clarinetist; Winfried Rademacher, violinist; Matthias Buchholz, violist; Mario Blaumer, cellist / CPO 555 026-2

Paul Wittgenstein had to be the luckiest one-handed pianist in the history of the world. After losing his right arm in World War I, a bevy of famous composers wrote pieces specifically for him, the most famous being Ravel’s Concerto for Piano Left Hand. This massive quintet by Franz Schmidt—it runs nearly 64 minutes!—was one of the composer’s last works, and one in which the piano part, interesting as it is, is only a portion of the overall fabric of the music.

Schmidt was a late Romantic composer and remained one until his death in 1939, but he was a pretty good one. This Quintet was his third work composed for Wittgenstein, completed at the end of June 1938, and in October of that year he wrote a fourth piece for the pianist, a Toccata for Piano Left Hand before dying in February 1939. Interestingly, Schmidt didn’t want this Quintet published during his lifetime, saying “I want to avoid the impression that it is as if I were engaging in polemics against prevailing circumstances in order to situate my teaching activity in a better light.”

The very opening of the first movement, with its pizzicato strings, sounds odd enough to promise something more than Romanticism, and once the music develops there are quite a few chromatic passages—particularly between the seven and ten minute mark—that add interest. There is something charming and appealing about it; my sole complaint was in the cold, thin quality of the string sound and the over-reverberant quality of the recording itself. There is always the chance that the latter colored the former; I have known such things to happen; but in the back of my mind, I kept thinking that the string players’ lean sound profile, with very little vibrato, did not help add richness and body to the sound.

Nevertheless, the players perform this music with interest and commitment. They obviously relished the chance to record this piece, with its unusual harmonic movement, and thus give us an excellent representation of how the work is meant to sound. The longest exposed passage for the pianist is the second movement Intermezzo, a relaxed, nocturne-like piece that doesn’t really seem to be part of the quintet, which resumes in the quirky and amusing third-movement Scherzo. Here the playful chromatics of the first movement takes on an almost grotesque character, certainly a playful one, with the violin skittering above the other instruments, the clarinet first filling in chords before making its own commentary to the proceedings while the piano plays continuous double-time single notes beneath them. There is a surprisingly lyrical episode in the midst of this musical chaos, where the uptempo 3/8 of the previous section relaxes into an almost Viennese-like waltz. Then, at the nine-minute mark, the music not only resumes its madcap former pace but also does so with a sudden upward burst of chromatic movement similar to the “Wasser ist blut” scene from Berg’s Wozzeck.

Annotator Eckhardt van der Hoogen correctly states that Schmidt’s music has “only one defect to its detriment – our own lack of patience.” He quotes fellow-composer Joseph Marx, who said that “The man can wait and his music, too.” You had better have time set aside for listening to Schmidt; his is not music-on-the-run, but clearly constructed in such a way that constant attention must be paid to the progression of the tones. The notion of music in “sound bites” would have been completely foreign to him, and nowhere is this more evident than in the dolorous yet fascinating 15-minute Adagio in which the strings dominate the proceedings for much of the time, the clarinet only heard prominently in certain passages. Interesting, too, that in this slow movement the piano acts almost solely as accompaniment, not really interacting with the other four instruments as much as it did in the first and third movements. At the 14-minute mark, there is an amazing passage where the top four instruments shift the tonality, via upwards chromatic changes, from B major to G major, where they suspend a chord while the piano plays a filigree around them.

The last movement is an almost 13-minute set of variations on a theme by Joseph Labor. The initial tune is played up to 3:41 exclusively by the piano, whereupon the tempo increases and the other four instruments enter, immediately creating a more bucolic mood. There’s a little touch of Mahler in the string and clarinet trills at one point, but it is fleeting; the minor-key variation almost recalls Schubert in one of his darker moods (think of Death and the Maiden), albeit with more forward momentum in the rhythm. Then we get a variant in F major, now led by the piano with the others dropping notes in here and there for color, and a livelier, almost scherzo-like episode in A major. Schmidt was nothing if not resourceful in the way he composed.

This is an interesting and lively piece with some remarkable passages in it, certainly better than the average post-Romantic work of its time. To a certain extent, its harmonic setting sounds more French than German, yet the construction is more Teutonic than Saxon. An interesting work!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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More Wacky Music From Gudmundsen-Holmgreen


GREEN GROUND / GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN: No Ground (String Quartet No. 11)*. Green (To the greenwood must we go)+. No Ground Green*+. New Ground (String Quartet No. 10)*. New Ground Green*+ / *Kronos Quartet; +Theater of Voices, dir. Paul Hillier / Dacapo 8.226153

Here is another album from Dacapo of the music of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, whose Incontri I reviewed earlier this month. This time it’s a series of pieces, all composed in 2011, for string quartet, vocal quartet, or a combination of both.

The Kronos Quartet first came to prominence in the late 1970s by pioneering a sort of music that lay halfway between jazz and classical, sometimes giving classicalized performances of jazz works per se as in the case of Charles Mingus’ Myself When I Am Real. I was never very comfortable with their sense of rhythm, however; it always sounded a bit too square and stiff for me, which is why I wholeheartedly embraced the Turtle Island String Quartet when they came around in the early 1980s.That being said, there is a certain jazz-like feeling in the way they play Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s string quartets here. Since the composer wrote these two quartets, and one previously, for the Kronos Quartet, I assume that he liked the way they played his music. It is typically angular, asymmetrical and formally “unbalanced” music, creating moods while thumbing its nose at classical form. As with the orchestral works in Incontri, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen combines the abrasive with the absurd. Just think of it as modern-day Dada, a sort of higher-level P.D.Q. Bach.

Trying to describe the opening quartet in words—or any of his music in words—is inevitably going to fail because the music takes so many unexpected turns and practically none of them fit a verbal narrative. This is even true of the one “purely” vocal piece, Green (To the greenwood we must go), in which a quartet of voices sing wordless vowel sounds while several percussion instruments hammer away happily in the background, almost oblivious to anything they are singing. And yet this music is tonal, if only just barely so, and has a melodic form. With Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music, you just have to go with the flow. In the latter section of Green, the four-part writing almost sounds like the Norman Luboff Choir in reductio.

And I’m sure one will notice, in the header, the comical string of titles of these works which, when read together in sequence, produce a tongue-twister: No Ground – Green – No Ground Green – New Ground – New Ground Green. It’s all part of the nuttiness that was going on in the composer’s head. It’s almost as if some lively, drunken brain cells broke free of his frontal lobes, went out and get stoned, then came home and directed his musical writing. I’m not knocking it, mind you, just trying to describe it. It’s way different from the average bear.

Moreover, he seems to have written these pieces sequentially, since No Ground Green picks up where Green leaves off, extending the writing now to include the string quartet with the voices and percussion in a multi-movement work. The Norman Luboff Choir meets a Bartók string quartet and Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter. Or something like that. As I said in my earlier review of his music, it’s amazing that he manages to make these disparate elements jell together—and also that he makes you smile and sometimes laugh. It’s all part of his musical “happening.”

The next quartet, New Ground, begins like an old madrigal but has what I would describe as “drunken interludes” played by the strings. One of the succeeding movements sounds like a funky hoedown, but as it wends its way along, you begin to notice a familiar tune coming to the fore. By golly, it’s the Pachelbel Kanon, with “an extra bar and a little chromatic detour on its way home.” This wacky Baroque mood is extended into the last piece, New Ground Green, in which the four voices are again backed by the string quartet. A few happy war whoops from the singers push the quartet—and the percussion—over the finish line.

This is a wonderfully imaginative recording, albeit one that’s pretty far off from center. I dare you to play it, loudly, at your next fancy-delancy Sunday brunch!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Sanchez and Smith In the Twine Forest


TWINE FOREST / SANCHEZ: Cones of Chrome. Veinular Rub. Retinal Sand. Echolocation. Light Black Birds. Twine Forest. In the Falls Of. Ultimate Causes / Angelica Sanchez, pianist; Wadada Leo Smith, trumpeter / Clean Feed Records CF287, download for 40¢ here

After having reviewed Wadada Leo Smith’s new recording, America’s National Parks, I started exploring some of his other recent albums and ran across this one, made in 2013. Here he works in tandem with Angelica Sanchez, the pianist for his Organic Ensemble at the time. This was her fifth album, and it is clearly a winner.

Interestingly, I listened to this album immediately after reviewing Anna Webber’s Binary CD, and there is a great deal in common between them, mostly in the free rhythmic pulse and ambiguous harmonic base, but oddly enough I found that the individual pieces on Twine Forest coalesced more into real pieces and were not so much blueprints that were paginated incorrectly. Yes, there is a time and place for Webber’s crazy-quilt style of modern jazz, but as someone who prefers an orderly progression, this music pleased me more. I’m sure that there is very little here that was written out and quite a bit that is improvised, but what emerges are truly brilliant and interesting pieces, even when, as in Retinal Sand, the opening trumpet playing sounds like nothing so much as fragmented bleeps and bloops of sound. I think you can ascribe it to the fact that Smith is primarily a composer despite his trumpet prowess, thus he always thinks in terms of where the music is going even when he’s winging it.

Sanchez sometimes seems willing to follow Smith’s patterns even when her own playing is highly imaginative. In Retinal Sand this includes playing the strings of the piano as well as the keys. I also think it helps that the music stays grounded, for long stretches, in A major, moving to A-flat. Sometimes having a frame of reference to work with helps the listener follow what’s going on in otherwise free-form music. Even someone like Ornette Coleman, who often worked in bitonal environments, generally had frames of reference within his music. Veinular Rub, which opens in E major, features a generally lyric approach to free jazz, with Smith holding long notes on muted trumpet while Sanchez plays interesting figures around him, occasionally interjecting an occasional contrabass low E on the keyboard. Eventually she stays down in the low bass range, then shifts the key to E-flat for a more lyrical solo. Smith plays more wildly here, eventually spitting and breathing notes out of his horn, as Sanchez sounds as if she is brushing the strings of the piano with her fingernails!

Echolocation lives up to its title, with Smith (again) playing apparently dislocated notes on his horn while Sanchez provides the chording. This quickly morphs into a somewhat more melodic pattern on trumpet while Sanchez meanders a bit in E-flat, then establishes G as the key for a more lyrical, less staccato Smith solo. Here is where the echo effects again come in, with Sanchez plucking single strings on her instrument to bounce off Smith’s open horn solo. This actually becomes a very beautiful track, one of the most lyrical I’ve yet heard within the free jazz style.

Light Black Birds begins with Sanchez playing one of the most fragmented themes on this set, decidedly modal in harmony and sounding like an out-take from George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age. Smith, on the other hand, enters in a decidedly melodic vein, establishing E-flat as the home key and staying there for some time, with Sanchez producing rich chords around Smith’s still lyrical but more harmonically adventurous solo. Then the rhythm picks up, initially in the keyboard, before ending quietly on an unresolved chord.

Twine Forest is perhaps the most difficult and fragmented piece on this recital to follow, but since both musicians are old hands at tying loose ends together and making something constructive of them, following their musical conversation—it’s not really a chase chorus in the traditional sense—one eventually finds a path through their musical maze. Smith employs some interesting “buzzing” on the mouthpiece at one point, and somehow makes it fit in, as he does a little later on with some lip vibrato. One thing that intrigued me is how the two musicians even found places to stop and start together in synch with each other. Eventually this “twine forest” becomes smooth and clear, riding off into the sunset.

In the Falls Of begins with a lyrical motif played by Smith and somewhat busier figures played by Sanchez, single-note style, beneath him. This dialogue continues for some time, making this the quietest and most lyrical track on the album. Indeed, by the 3:20 mark the music has become so calm as to barely move across one’s mind like slow ripples in a lake. Oddly enough the last track, Ultimate Causes, sounds at first like an extension of the previous one, as if the two compositions were composed at roughly the same time from similar material. The difference is that the latter piece becomes much busier, with both Smith and Sanchez working out multiple figures and rhythms individually and together, somehow managing, once again, to make it coalesce into a whole. This is even true in the latter section of the piece when the playing becomes quite agitated, before falling back into a relaxed tempo with an almost quasi-Spanish-sounding motif.

This is a simply remarkable album and one that I recommend highly.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Anna Webber’s Wild Musical Devolutions


BINARY / WEBBER: Rectangles 2. Impulse Purchase. Rectangles 3a. Rectangles 1b. Underhelmed. Tug O’ War. Rectangles 3b. Binary. Meme. Disintegrate. Rectangles 3c. Rectangles 1a / Simple Trio: Anna Webber, t-sax/fl; Matt Mitchell, pno; John Hollenbeck, dm / Skirl Records 33 (available October 25)

Anna Kristin Webber, born in British Columbia but now living in Brooklyn, has no real biographical information available on her website or in her publicity blurbs. All I know is that “her detail-rich writing recalls the work of elders as disparate as Tim Berne and Henry Threadgill” (Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader) and that each piece on this album began “with a small melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, or purely conceptual starting point. The five ‘Rectangles’ tracks on the album come from the YouTube test channel ‘WebDriver Torso,’ which features ten-second videos of red and blue rectangles set to high-pitched, microtonal sounds” (from her promo blurb).

Whatever their inspiration, the Rectangles pieces are odd, irregular-meter pieces with a distinctly Monk-ish flavor about them, and they pop up between the larger pieces on this album, not so much as a sort of glue as a sort of “intermission feature”—go to the rest room or grab your popcorn while the band is playing these wacky interludes. As a soloist, Webber has a light tone, almost a bit breathy in quality, but her improvisations are not so far out as a great many of her male peers in the avant-garde jazz scene. In Impulse Purchase, pianist Mitchell sprinkles chords through the performance, shifting to single bass notes during Webber’s second solo as drummer Hollenbeck gets into the act. I realize that these pieces are credited to Webber as composer, but in a very real sense, i.e. the way the music strikes the listener, there doesn’t seem to be anything much “composed” in Impulse Purchase but rather merely a series of impromptu phrases thrown out into the ether while they kind of follow each other. Sometimes they get out of their musical mazes; other times, they don’t, so they just stop dead and take another route. Yet it’s an interesting excursion, occasionally using licks and rhythms borrowed from the avant-garde jazz scene of the mid-1960s…this could be an old ESP-Disk. Everything old is new again!

I find it a stretch, however, to associate Webber’s music with that of Henry Threadgill, and for the most part layering is an essential feature of his band’s performances, particularly the overlaying of one rhythm on top of another. Here. Webber and Mitchell—and Hollenbeck, when he is playing—tend to move in the same direction and the same rhythm, elusive as that may be. Again, not a criticism, just an observation. In the middle of Impulse Purchase, for instance, there is an extended lyrical passage where the music becomes ethereal and a bit delicate, and this turns out to be one of the more coherent sections on the album. After Webber’s sax solo, Mitchell takes over, and it sounds as if Hollenbeck is playing lightly on some sort of percussion, possibly just “edging” the cymbals with his sticks to create an almost Chinese percussion effect. Here, it is the pianist who leads the music, and he takes them into rapid, almost Baroque excursions, on which the saxist and drummer eventually overlay an almost R&B-type rhythm. Kooky!

Rectangles 3a sounds like a tape loop of the same rhythmic cell played repeatedly for a minute and a half…time to hit the fridge for a soda. Rectangles 1b consists of light chimes being played (probably by Hollenbeck, since the drums are heard simultaneously) while Webber produces some light spit through her mouthpiece, then begins blowing harder, producing round-robin chromatic triplets in the manner of Coltrane before indulging in some honking and squawking sounds. I tell you, you just can’t beat the old tunes when it comes to good-time fun!

Underhelmed (yes, the spelling is correct, it is not “Underwhelmed”) sounds a bit more like Threadgill than Impulse Purchase, but rhythmically it still sounds like skewed Monk. This is also a somewhat more coherent piece, with the different sections being tied together thematically and thus sounding more like developments of a theme, though the “theme” essentially consists of just three or four notes played repeatedly in different rhythmic patterns. Again, Hollenbeck’s piano is the glue of this collage. Tug O’ War finds Webber on flute instead of tenor sax, in a piece that sounds like the works of your cuckoo clock having some severe problems keeping time. The quirky rhythmic cell slows down in a quirky way, it stutters through for a bit, readjusts itself and somehow takes a licking and keeps on ticking. (Just to show you how strangely my mind works, I was flashing on the old Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca routine about the Bavarian town clock with the moving figures that get all screwed up in their actions as the mainspring wears down and falls apart.) A strange flute-piano duet at the three-minute mark evolves into a trio as the rhythm completely disintegrates into even smaller cells. At times the piano part sounded like my cat walking across my keyboard. (Honestly, I even looked over my shoulder to see if she was on it!) The suggestion of clockwork returns with a triplet figure played by flute and piano, and once again the stutter-step rhythm comes to the fore.

The Devo-like Rectangles 3b follows, after which we hear the title track, Binary. This begins, oddly enough, with soft piano playing, almost in a lyrical vein and in the lower register. Webber plays soft, breathy figures on the tenor sax’s upper register, still in a somewhat lyrical vein though becoming increasingly agitated as the tempo doubles and quadruples. Eventually Webber’s tone becomes more solid and the drums enter, at which point they seem to give up all pretense of following a steady pulse and begin their (by now) familiar deconstruction, including much outside squealing by Webber. Interestingly, Meme almost sounds like one of the Rectangle pieces, out-of-rhythm single-note piano figures with Webber’s flute playing obbligato above it while Hollenbeck intersperses paradiddles on the drums…then it stops in the middle of nowhere.

Strangely, Disintegrate is less amorphous in rhythm than some of the other pieces on this album, but disintegrate it certainly does…though only in stages. Interestingly, at first Rectangles 3c sounded like an extension of Disintegrate. The final track, Rectangles 1c, is the longest of these pieces at three and a half minutes, and to be perfectly honest with you I though that this music “disintegrated” much more than Disintegrate.

The bottom line? I found Binary to be an uneven ride but a fascinating one. Except for the Rectangles pieces, you never quite know where you’re going, and when you got there you didn’t always know where you were, but it’s music like this that stretches the mind and allows it to process and define for itself what is and isn’t valid in musical art. In other words, Binary is a set of intellectual challenges, and I think that every listener will take something different away from it. All I can do is tell you what I took away from it. Mileage may vary!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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In the annals of American jazz, there are but three musicians who have somehow earned the mantle of “legendary”: Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. I previously wrote an article on this blog begging the question as to why guitarist Eddie Lang doesn’t fit into that category, and now I am asking about another guitarist, although this one is a legend in Europe—in fact, the primary legend in Continental jazz.

Jean “Django” Reinhardt, born in Liberchies, Belgium on January 23, 1910, became such a legend even during his lifetime that his public admirers always wanted to know his latest moves, even when the man himself wanted solitude. Like so many extremely talented child prodigies, Reinhardt was spoiled to the point where he came to believe that the world revolved around him, thus when he became an adult and developed musical skills far beyond those of most mortal men of his time, he expected worldwide fame and fortune to befall him without any effort on his part. When he became disillusioned of this, it hurt his feelings so much that all he wanted to do was crawl into a hole and hide from the world. His long-time musical partner, violinist Stéphane Grappelli, called him “a petulant child,” but it went much deeper than that, and to a certain extent I understand why he felt so hurt.

The story of Django—whose name, by the way, has two completely different pronunciations, “Jango Rine-heart” in English and “Zhangoo Reynard” in French—is so well known as to be redundant in its telling. He was, as I say, a child prodigy who by age 10 was playing the violin, banjo and guitar at a high technical level, but who was totally immersed in French musette music and gypsy culture; at age 18, already married, he accidentally knocked over a candle in his caravan trailer, which set fire to celluloid flowers his wife had made, and was so severely burned that the doctors wanted to amputate his left hand, but Django refused despite the fact that his ring finger and pinky on that hand were permanently welded together in a useless lump of flesh; and how he managed to devise an entirely new technique of guitar playing using only the first two fingers of his left hand to produce dazzling fast runs up and down the fingerboard, playing with such speed and accuracy that it left all other guitarists in the dust. All of this is true, and as a sidelight I find it interesting to point out that the two most unique and influential jazz musicians of the 1930s and ‘40s, Reinhardt and Art Tatum, both used a two-finger technique to play their instruments in a way that able-bodied guitarists and pianists could not.

We also know that it was while he was recovering from his injuries, which took a full year, that his friend Émile Savitry tried to cheer him up by playing him jazz recordings from his collection. The ones that impressed young Reinhardt the most were those by Louis Armstrong, who he always cited as his idol, and the duo recordings of violinist Joe Venuti and his childhood friend, guitarist Eddie Lang. In Django’s mind, the image of a jazz band employing violin, guitars and string bass emerged, but it would be a few years before he was able to bring this idea to fruition.

Since I’m not really trying to write a detailed biography of Reinhardt, I would rather skip over the details of the founding of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France and their tremendous impact on European jazz and instead focus on what Reinhardt actually played on his guitar and why it was so revolutionary. Sheer speed, though impressive, would not have been enough to make him a legend. The guitar world is full of such “dazzlers,” from Snoozer Quinn in the 1920s to John McLaughlin in the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s what you play on the guitar that makes you great, not how fast you play it, and in this respect Django had a great deal to offer. Despite the fact that he was largely self-taught and could neither read nor write music, Django’s ear was so acute that he could absorb music like a sponge, and what he absorbed from Armstrong, Venuti and Lang, and all the other jazz musicians he would subsequently hear, was a full grasp of harmonics and how to use them. When one listens to the Hot Club Quintet recordings, even the early ones, one occasionally hears a familiar song being played with a few “wrong” chords according to the sheet music. But Django wasn’t reading the sheet music, and yes, he did know how the tune was played by others. As Grappelli put it, “He would adapt a song according to his lights.” Sometimes Reinhardt’s altered chords simplified the progression, sometimes it made it more chromatic, but in his mind it was done in order for him to be able to “fly” over the changes once he got to his solo.

Listening to those solos, one heard an audacious harmonic sense. Reinhardt was the first jazz musician after Earl Hines and Art Tatum to play extended chords, at least up as far as the 9th of a chord, as well as diminished and augmented chords. Some of this he picked up from other musicians, but much of it came from his own mind. This is what baffled and thrilled early audiences who heard him, on or off records, and this is what led many American critics—either out of spite or jealousy, I’m not sure which—to proclaim that Reinhardt was a “classical” guitarist and not a “real” jazz artist. They heard the exceptionally clean finger manipulation, and the way he did his picking very close to the sound hole, and ascribed this technique to classical training, which was far from the truth. Moreover, when I say “picking” I do not mean with a plastic pick. Django never used such a thing in his acoustic guitar days. All of the photos and film clips of him reveal him, and his cohorts (his brother Joseph and cousin Eugene Vees on rhythm guitars), “picking” the guitar with his fingernails. Django was also the first jazz guitarist to develop the “scrub,” which was to move the hand further up towards the top of the sound hole and literally scrub the strings with his calloused fingers. None of these techniques were used by American guitarists, then or later, for the most part.

Three American guitarists who Reinhardt clearly influenced were Junior Barnard, Charlie Christian and Oscar Moore. Moore’s name is only known to aficionados of the first Nat King Cole Trio, where despite his outstanding solos he took a back seat to the leader, and Barnard is barely known at all because he was a “country swing” guitarist with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, but both contributed much to the evolving use of the guitar, particularly Barnard when he switched to electric guitar and began playing wild, bluesy, out-of-phase solos that were to heavily influence the new “rockabilly” and R&B guitarists of the 1950s. But Christian became a legend in his own right, mostly by dying young of tuberculosis, and he is rightly recognized as the pioneer of the electric guitar in jazz. Christian was never quite as fast on the fingerboard as Moore, and certainly not as fast as Reinhardt, but his playing had a wonderful sense of construction and something Reinhardt never possessed, a feeling for the blues. (Incidentally, I’ve always found it fascinating that Christian and Barnard were childhood friends in Oklahoma and often played together as kids.)

But to return to Reinhardt, he and some of his cohorts played and recorded with some outstanding American jazz talent in pre-War France. These included such talented expatriates as trumpeter-saxist Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and fellow trumpeter Arthur Briggs, and even more famous visiting stars as saxists Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins. In 1938, while the Duke Ellington band was touring France, a clutch of his best hot musicians made some excellent recordings with Reinhardt on guitar. Duke would not forget his harmonically sophisticated and rhythmically buoyant performances.


Django in 1939, his crippled left hand clearly visible.

The Hot Club Quintet with Grappelli on violin came to a halt in 1940 when the Nazis invaded France. Grappelli was in England at the time, and decided to just play it safe and stay there for the duration of the war. Django formed a new Hot Club Quintet, this time with a clarinetist, Hubert Rostaing, and a drummer—Pierre Fouad, nephew of the King of Egypt! As both a jazz musician and a gypsy, Reinhardt’s life would clearly have been in jeopardy had not the Nazi officer assigned to that sector of Paris not been a jazz fan! He secretly protected Reinhardt as long as he could, and when he could do so no longer the guitarist disappeared. Not knowing where he was, rumors of his death made it to the newspapers until it was discovered that he had fled to Casablanca and was quite happy and secure there. Interestingly, he made it back to Paris in early 1945, before D-Day, where he participated in a recording session with some of the best jazz musicians from Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band: trumpeter Bernie Privin, clarinetist and tenor saxist Peanuts Hucko, pianist Mel Powell and drummer Ray McKinley. He also played on broadcasts, and made records with, Lonnie Wilfong’s Army Air Transport Command Band, a scrappy but hot aggregation that played the blues and meant it. Wilfong didn’t so much find Reinhardt as vice-versa; the guitarist just showed up one day while they were rehearsing and asked if he could sit in. They ended up playing a jam session into the wee hours which messed up their reveille the next morning, but they didn’t care. They were in musical heaven.

Astaire & Reinhardt Nov 1944

Fred Astaire & Django in Paris, November 1944

Always keeping his ears open, Django picked up some of the new, boppish-tinged tunes that the Air Transport Command band was playing, but was still playing acoustic guitar. In 1946 he finally came to America, accepting an invitation from Duke Ellington to play with his band. In his mind, Django envisioned that he would become a Hollywood star like his idol Armstrong, not realizing that this was the product of clever management by Louis’ representative, Joe Glaser. He never realized that Armstrong was a movie star because of his effervescent personality, and that the trumpet playing was merely an adjunct to that. Since his own proclivity offstage was to disappear and play cards, shoot pool and drink with his gypsy buddies, he wasn’t exactly the clean-cut image Hollywood wanted to project. And that’s exactly what he did when the Ellington band hit the stage in Chicago and Django was nowhere in sight. He hadn’t even bothered to bring his treasured instrument with him because he believed that American guitar manufacturers would be falling all over themselves offering him first-class instruments for free. It didn’t happen; Ellington had to send someone out to scour the bars in Chicago to find Reinhardt shooting pool with some gypsies, drag him to the stage and hand him an electric guitar to play, which he had never touched in his life.

Although the American trip ended up a semi-disaster, Reinhardt fell in love with the electric guitar and went back to France determined to play it from then on. Also during his U.S. sojourn, he managed to hear some of the bebop being played by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and this too became part of his musical lexicon. Critics have decried Reinhardt’s early electric guitar recordings because, rather than play with a light touch knowing the amplifier would ramp up the volume for you, he continued to attack the strings as he did on his acoustic instrument, playing his fast-paced solos with hard finger strokes and using scrubs with his right hand, but I find these recordings extremely exciting despite the occasional distortion.

And this is where the majority of jazz fans leave off the Django Reinhardt story. They are so much in love with his pre-War acoustic playing with the Hot Club Quintet that they ignore the hundred or so magnificent performances he left us on electric guitar. (Some jazz buffs and jazz musicians, in fact, don’t even know that Django played electric guitar.) His harmonic language even more sophisticated, his drive and energy undimmed, he eventually moved into the modern jazz circles of Paris, playing with musicians who were in the vanguard of the new music like trumpeter Roger Guerin, pianist Martial Solal, vibes player “Fats” Sadi Lallemand, bassist Pierre Michelot and drummer Pierre Lemarchand. In fact, many of his later remakes of his old tunes, such as Nuages and Belleville, are markedly superior to the ones he made with either Grappelli or Rostaing. But he was no longer entirely unique; he was a great modern jazz musician playing in the company of other great modern musicians. His name still drew crowds, but not like before, and he wasn’t happy about it. He retreated to a cottage in the country where he spent much of his time painting or fly fishing. At the time of his premature death on May 16, 1953, at age 43, he hadn’t played publicly in two months, yet his funeral filled the streets of Paris with thousands of mourners. They may not have been happy about his more recent style, but they hadn’t forgotten how great or unique he was.

Ironically, his popularity had slipped among American musicians as well, largely because they were jealous that he kept up with the latest trends and could still outplay them. As Grappelli put it, “There were not a few guitarists in the world who were glad he was dead.” Then, in the early 1970s, Paul Simon recruited Grappelli to play a Django-like violin-guitar duet with him on his recording of Hobo’s Blues, and suddenly the Hot Club Quintet sound became popular again. Woody Allen mentioned him in Stardust Memories; several TV ads suddenly had a guitar and acoustic guitar swinging music in the background; and, in the early 1980s, American guitarist Frank Vignola finally unlock3ed the secret of Django’s style and formed the New Hot Club Quintet. Thirty years after his death, Django Reinhardt was finally hip and in style.

Yet there is still so much to hear in his recordings, particularly his many jazz recordings, that extended exposure to Reinhardt is still a “wow” experience. Playing such as his never goes out of date, only the perceptions of others who wish to simplify what he did and accomplished and ignore the astonishing creativity and sophistication of his music.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Absurdist Musical Art


GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN: Mirror II for Orchestra. Symphony, Antiphony. Incontri / BBC Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Dausgaard, conductor / Dacapo 8.226120

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, who died this past June 27 at the age of 83, had a lifelong fascination with the absurd, but unlike his American counterpart John Cage he didn’t pretend to be otherwise in the hopes of deluding critics and listeners into taking his music seriously. He liked being absurd; it was who we was. “I have created some of the ugliest works ever made in Denmark,” he said in 2006; “I have succeeded in making both professionals and laymen cringe.” Oh, would that Cage were half as honest!

But if his music is so “ugly” and “absurd” that it makes people cringe, why is it still being played and recorded? What was its point? The answer comes in the listening. It is absurd, yes, but it is absurd in a humorous way, and it is fascinating in texture as well as interesting. Andrew Mellor, who wrote the liner notes for this release, put it this way: “He has purposefully devised his own systems of limited means, as the three works on this recording demonstrate with an imagination that is truly unlimited.” Or, as Ursula Andkjær Olsen put it in an online article, “In the great majority of his works, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen cultivated a quite special precise ambivalence which allows his music to snarl at itself, to tell itself to shut up, even if it nevertheless sounds and is present. His musical world contains many contradictory phenomena… simplicity and clarity in motifs and structures combined with an anarchistic antipathy to large-scale ‘rounded’ forms.”

Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music, above all else, is impressionistic. It creates moods, and that is something that John Cage did not and could not do. Cage’s absurdities were so much “in your face” that there were only two reactions you could have to them: recognize the absurdity and laugh at them or, what normally happened in the Halls of Academe, have Learned Professors pull on their chins and opine that this was music too deep to be understood, which was Cage’s intent. For better or worse, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen never tried to con anyone.

Thus in Mirror II, what we hear is the slow progression of sounds, not necessarily with a lot of space between the notes but rather with a legato feel to the music, sparse though it is. Occasional long-held brass notes—mostly on E-flat and the C below—are heard amidst a sprinkle of percussion instruments while tuba and string basses sustain a cavernous contrabass E-flat underneath. Eventually, the horn begins playing a slow-moving, dolorous melody, but soon gives up and falls back to the repeated E-flats and Cs. A clarinet, however, decides to go off on its own melody, with the horn adding sparse commentary.

But is the sound file I downloaded pitched incorrectly? In the liner notes, Mellor insists that Mirrors II “only allows itself use of notes from two symmetrical outward sequences emerging from a central axis (the D above middle C), 21 pitches in all.” Yet my pitch pipe clearly says E-flat. It’s an old pitch pipe, but it’s never failed me in 35 years. And it’s not just my description of the music that Mellor hears; he obviously has fallen into the Learned Professor chin-pulling mode that has so screwed up normal people’s enjoyment and understanding of classical music. Quoth Mr. Mellor: “If the works on this disc represent a journey to complete chromatic freedom, Mirror II is the most incarcerated… The tone grid itself describes a journey from chromaticism to the diatonic, pentatonic and the triad. Melodic material can effectively only arise from the middle of the spectrum where there are variably spaced notes.” Say what? This is inflated B.S.

Mirrors II becomes far busier and less floating in the subsequent sections; in fact, by the time we reach parts III through V, we are in the midst of a boiler factory. (Some of it put me in mind of Raymond Scott’s wacky tune Powerhouse, in mood if not in actual notes and form.) A descending trombone lick, borrowed from Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, repeats itself in section IV; in section V we reach the “powerhouse” itself, with machine-like “chunking” sounds in the percussion combined with growling trumpets. In section VI, the chunking percussion slows down but does not lessen in volume; the orchestra, however, does quiet down, eventually leading to a percussion-less violin solo with the trombone lick occasionally coming up in the background. Welcome to the “absurd” sound world of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen!

The 1977 Symphony, Antiphony, written as a Prelude followed by six movements, uses a slightly wider range of notes but clearly inhabits the same sound world and even the same use of instruments, beginning with piano and percussion before the winds and strings begin scurrying across the soundscape. I liked the way Gudmundsen-Holmgreen introduced syncopation in the Prelude, so much so that it almost acquires a feeling of jazz “swing” in the first movement. The first movement (which follows the Prelude) begin very quietly, with a solo violin playing a fast passage with the edge of the bow on the strings, in an almost minimalist vein. The other violins pick up this motif as the splashy percussion comes barging into the picture; violas play pizzicato while brasses smear notes in the background. This work is, clearly, meant to not only be absurd but to make the listener laugh at its absurdity. A slap-bass is heard in the second movement, along with an Italian-sounding mandolin playing fast picked notes. The whole thing almost sounds like Leif Segerstam after a busy evening of drinking. In the third movement, the piano dominates, clearly paying tribute to Stravinsky’s Ragtime while the orchestra has merry fun around it. The percussion, by this time, is going bonkers, creating its own rhythm independently of the rest of the orchestra. Get into the kitchen and rattle those pots and pans! If you can’t laugh at this music, you have no sense of humor. This is Spike Jones or Peter Schickele on steroids. But I’m sure the Learned Academics would be sitting in the audience, pulling on their chins, and asking themselves, “But what does it all mean?” (“It don’t mean shee-it,” quoth Mr. Natural.)

In the fifth movement, everything quiets down and we are left with the solo piano picking out a few forlorn notes…the hangover over the party, I think. Eventually we hear a high violin whining drone notes to complement the piano. The last movement is probably the strangest because it sounds…normal. Violins play a lovely melody, interrupted occasionally (but not often) by a sudden outburst of volume. Then, as suddenly as it stopped, the strange sounds begin again, the slapping percussion and the growling brass, but not as loudly. The strings are trying to take over the proceedings, but the nutty sounds of the previous movements have woken up from their drunken stupor and are getting one last lick in. The Italian-sounding mandolin also returns. A few horn beeps, simulating car horns, complement the crackling percussion. Low strings now begin to play in an edgy manner; the melody set up at the beginning keeps trying to re-establish itself, but to no avail. Like it or not, the absurdity wins out.

Incontri comes from a live performance given at the 2012 BBC Proms in the presence of the composer. I’m not sure if that means anything to anybody, but I pass it along for what it’s worth. Here is a work that is chromatic from start to finish, sounding like some of Segerstam’s more serious works. (I wonder if Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was influenced in any way by the Finnish composer? It sounds a bit like it to me.) The composer wrote, as a preface to the score, that “In a forest, different kinds of birds continue their territorial song without yielding or altering their signals.” So think of this as Bird Wars or something very much like it, augmented by sinister-sounding brass and strings. A bit of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain makes its way into the string writing; these are some MEAN mother birds, let me tell you! Not only aren’t they yielding to each other, they’re fighting for turf. The writing for trumpets later on in the score used chromatics, triplets, and growling. Some of the syncopations here reminded me of the Sharks and the Jets fighting in West Side Story. A Gene Krupa-like drum solo erupts, shutting out the rest of the orchestra for a while.

The strings come back, playing agitated figures; the clarinets are all a-flutter; the percussion bangs away. Then suddenly, calm engulfs the scene. Have the birds succeeded in killing each other? No, they just retreated in order to regroup. And here they come again, bashing their beaks against each other, fighting for their piece of turf…yet the piece ends quietly once again. I’ll bet you the ravens won. Ravens usually win because they’re bigger and stronger than other birds.

Thus we come to the end of this particular journey into the world of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. It’s certainly different, to say the least!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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