Masters Channels Mingus and Mulligan

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BLUE SKYLIGHT / MINGUS: Monk, Bunk and Vice-Versa.1 So Long, Eric.1 Peggy’s Blue Skylight.1 Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.1 Eclipse.1 MULLIGAN: Out Back of the Barn.2 Wallflower.2 Strayhorn 2.2 Apple Core.2 Birds of a Feather.2 Motel 2 / The Mark Masters Ensemble: Gary Foster, a-sax; 1Ron Stout, tpt; 1Les Benedict, tbn; Jerry Pinter, t-sax/s-sax; 2Gene Cipriano, t-sax; 2Adam Schroeder, bar-sax; Ed Czach, pn; Putter Smith, bs; Kendall Kay, dm / Capri Records (no number)

Although this is my first exposure to jazz arranger-composer Mark Masters, this is scarcely his first project, having already re-imagined Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in a manner entirely different from that of Gil Evans (among others). Yet it does put the focus on two of jazz’s most gifted arrangers, one of whom is undoubtedly the music’s gretaest composer. The one thing that both Gerry Mulligan and Charles Mingus had in common was an arranging style peculiarly their own and a way of voicing that was rooted in low reed instruments (baritone and bass saxes and, in Mingus’ case, the string bass and bass clarinet as well).

Although I am well familiar with every Mingus piece on this album, having written a monograph on Mingus as man, bassist and composer that was killed just before publication 16 years ago, I admit to not knowing any of the Mulligan pieces on this disc except for Apple Core, Motel (the quartet version from 1953) and Birds of a Feather. My knowledge of Mulligan’s scores for groups larger than a quartet are fairly limited to the ones he wrote for Claude Thornhill, Gene Krupa, the Miles Davis Nonet, Stan Kenton and his own 1960 big band, which means that I know his style and working methods but just not these specific tunes.

One thing that struck me about the opening piece, Monk, Bunk and Vice-Versa, is how much the score sounded like the session Mingus did with Lionel Hampton in 1977 (the last time he played bass before ALS crippled and eventually killed him), in which he put aside his own very distinctive scoring habits and instead did a bit of “streamlining.” Here, although the arrangement is colorful, it lacks some of the edge and bite one heard in the version he included in the Epitaph score. This is not a criticism but merely an observation; as it so happens, I actually like the arrangements he did for Hampton of his own pieces. They have a wonderfully fresh, happy, “jumpy” feel about them, as does this performance, and Masters finds a way to dovetail the solos into the composition with fine style.

Interestingly, Masters also changes Mulligan’s normal colors in the arrangements of his material. As a baritone saxist, Gerry always emphasized the low-end saxes and rode the tune on the beat with a certain jovial bounce in the rhythm (his live-in lover, actress Judy Holliday, used to refer to it as a “happy Irish laugh”). Here, Masters focuses more on mid-range reeds, even using a soprano at times in the lead. It’s a different way of looking at the music, just as in the case of his Mingus transcriptions, but oddly enough I kind of missed that “bop-bada-bop-bada-bop-bada-bada-bada” rolling beat that Mulligan used so often and so well.

As it so happens, So Long, Eric was one of the pieces that Mingus rearranged for the Lionel Hampton ensemble in 1977, so I was—I thought—prepared for what Masters would do here. But I was wrong! He has so rewritten the piece that I didn’t even recognize it when it started. It comes across as an entirely different tune, in part because he took the familiar lick that opens and dominates the first 8 bars of the original and cut it down to just a bar or two.

Since I wasn’t familiar with most of these Mulligan pieces, I went to YouTube to hear the original recordings and make comparisons. Wallflower is not one of his more complex pieces, but a ballad which he plays softly himself on the baritone sax with rhythm section. The way Masters has rearranged it, the theme is stated by piano (in the same key—F major—and tempo), with soft sax chording coming in behind and then taking over the theme statement, with variations. I actually liked this better than Mulligan’s original; it had more richness to it. Putter Smith plays a gorgeous bass solo here, followed in turn by Gary Foster on alto. When Czach returns, it is for a chorus of piano trio. The saxes provide a nice cushion again for the rideout.

Peggy’s Blue Skylight is the closest in feel here to Mingus’ original, partly due to the similar tempo and the excellent bass licks and solo by Smith. Following a brief tenor solo by Pinter, the sax section break also sounds somewhat Mingus-esque. The composer would have been quite proud of Smith’s eight-bar solo in the middle, as well as of the way Masters scores the saxes in round-robin fashion, playing a brief canon in support of the theme.

Strayhorn 2, like its predecessor Song for Strayhorn, was another of Mulligan’s ballads, which in this case makes sense because Billy Strayhorn wrote so many of them. Here Masters gives us a sound very close to the original, assigning the theme (and variants) to baritone saxist Schroeder over solo piano. A lonesome sound for a lonesome song.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love was one of Mingus’ favorites of his own compositions, recording it twice in the early 1970s. It’s also atypical of his output in that he purposely aimed for an Ellingtonian rather than a Mingus-ese sound in its melodic structure and scoring. Masters again pares down the ensemble, assigning Pinter the melody over piano trio with occasional interjections and breaks by a small contingent of horns. And once again, Smith’s bass makes its presence felt. Benedict also contributes a very nice, Lawrence Brown-styled trombone solo.

Mulligan apparently recorded Apple Core a few times, including once with Lionel Hampton, but the version I’m familiar with is his Concert Band arrangement of 1960. It’s one of his most driving pieces, a minor-key tune that reminds me of another song that I’m going crazy trying to put my finger on (no, it’s not Charlie Parker’s Scrapple From the Apple). Masters halves the tempo and scores the opening theme in the style of Woody Herman’s Four Brothers. It’s nice, and certainly different, but in this case I liked Mulligan’s original concept better. I was, however, very much taken with Pinter’s tenor solo, one of his best on this record, and Foster contributes another nice turn on alto, as does Smith on bass (who is this guy? He’s great!).

One of the most remarkable creations on this album is Masters’ completely rewritten version of Mingus’ Eclipse. This was a song originally written in the early 1950s for Billie Holiday, who appreciated the gesture but never did ding it because of its difficult key changes in the bridge (Billie was a sweet person but she didn’t have the most subtle ear). An extended introduction that has nothing to do with the piece is played by Pinter; we don’t hear the actual tune until Benedict enters on trombone, playing muted. After another nice but brief solo by Smith on bass, there’s some very nice arranging of the tune’s B theme for the reeds, then Benedict provides the ride-out.

Birds of a Feather was one of the pieces Mulligan wrote for the Gene Krupa orchestra in the late 1940s. Too many jazz fans neglect this period of Krupa’s career or forget just how good his own band was. In this instance, Masters reduces the orchestration (no trumpets or trombones) but increases the tempo. Here we get Gene Cipriano on tenor instead of Pinter, giving us a very nice, quasi-Stan-Getz solo with his own licks. Smith again dominates his solo on bass.

Motel was apparently a tune that Mulligan recorded with a large band that was not a permanent group, like his Concert Jazz Band, but rather a one-shot group of all-stars including Lee Konitz, Hal McKusick, Charlie Rouse, Jerry Lloyd, Bob Brookmeyer, Frank Rehak, Joe Benjamin, etc. Masters’ arrangement, however, harks back to the original Mulligan-Chet Baker quartet version of 1953 (the one I know), with much of it dominated by Schroder’s baritone. He does, however, throw in a few nice ensemble licks…but so short!

All in all, a very nice trip down jazz’s memory lane, refiltered through the mind of another talented arranger. Worth hearing, particularly for the outstanding work of the soloists!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Korstick Digs Into Ginastera

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GINASTERA: Danzas Argentinas. Milonga. Tres Piezas. Malambo. Pequeño Danza. Piezas Infantiles. Doce Preludios Americanos. Suite de Danzas Criollas. Rondó Sobre Temas Infantiles Argentinos. Toccata. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 3 / Michael Korstick, pianist / CPO 555 069-2

Michael Korstick has rapidly become one of my favorite living pianists, not only because of his pace-setting recording of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas (the best modern recording by a long shot) but also because of his beautifully-chiseled Debussy and passionate Milhaud, and now he has turned his considerable talent to the music of Alberto Ginastera.

Korstick’s familiar attributes of exemplary musicianship, sharp attacks and sensitive phrasing are apparent. There are only a handful of modern pianists who come close to him in these respects, and fewer still who can immediately identify with the music the way he does. Whenever I review a new Korstick CD, I am always swept away by his passion for whatever he plays; I never have to worry whether or not he will introduce some tasteless distortions of phrase; and thus in the end I have branded him as one of those very few “untouchables” out there who never, ever disappoint. One might not think that a German-born pianist who generally specializes in Beethoven would be right for the Argentinian aesthetic of Ginastera, but adapt he does, even to the point of caressing the pulse of the Milonga in a sensuous manner. He also carries this sensitivity over to the opening “Cuyana” of the Tres Piezas, Op. 6, and finds exactly the right mood and feel for the succeeding “Nortena.” This is piano artistry on a very high level, and I find it virtually impossible to “criticize” Korstick because he’s just so damn good.

As we move on to some of the more animated pieces—the Criolla, Malambo, Pequeño Danza, etc.—we begin to appreciate the genius that Ginastera was able to pack into even short pieces. His imagination seemed always fertile, his aesthetic rooted in a headlong rush of ideas. If a strange chord or not combination seemed to be in his path, so be it. I’m not sure that the composer thought too long or too hard about which chord positions to use in his music, but merely “ran into” them as freight train flattens everything in its path. Sometimes, pure instinct surpasses long contemplation, but of course I could be wrong. So many of Beethoven’s pieces have the same feeling, yet we know from his handwritten scores that he sweated, strained, cursed, swore, crossed out and re-crossed out as he composed, but in the end whatever emerged usually sounded fully organic. Perhaps my instincts about Ginastera stem from the fact that he was Latino, and Latin folks tend to be high energy and with a temperament in the now.

The 12 American Preludes, for instance, have almost nothing to do with North America. These are mostly South American music, with such titles as “Para los acentos,” “Vidala,” “Danza criolla” and “En el 1er, modo pentafono menor,” but there are also four “Homage” pieces and one of them is dedicated to Aaron Copland. But does it sound like Copland? Not at all! It’s a headlong rush through typical Ginastera-like rhythms and clashing chords, played virtuosically in sixteenths throughout its short (53-second) span.

Perhaps, however, Ginastera was a bit too clever for his own good, because unlike many of his orchestral pieces, many of these short piano works tend to sound alike. This is no criticism of Korstick’s approach, which is fine. It’s the music itself. Working in short forms based on Latin dance rhythms, Ginastera simply repeated not only tempos but actual figures a bit too often. Of course, he probably never expected that some day people would play or record all of these pieces in sequence, to be listened to in one long sitting, but it does show that he had his own personal working patterns and that he often relied on tried-and-true techniques to put his music together. Even a fairly imaginative piece like the Rondo sobre temas infantiles Argentinas, with its contrasting sections, tends to sound like three of his shorter pieces fused together. Thus, as the CD progressed, I found my mind wandering despite the music’s surface excitement. As Lewis Carroll once said, it’s too much of a muchness!

Indeed, I found myself surprised to realize that the Piano Sonata No. 1 had actually started because it sounded virtually the same to a dozen or more earlier pieces. This was, I think, his weakness. In his ballets and concertos, he presented us with tremendous variety of sound and color, but in his piano music—and this CD includes all of it except for the Piano Sonata No. 2—the ideas run together so much that you keep experiencing a feeling of déjà vu. The ideas run together so much that you keep experiencing a feeling of déjà vu. The ideas run together so much that you keep experiencing a feeling of déjà vu.

Thus, in the end, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. Recommend or not recommend? I love Ginastera in general, and I greatly admire Korstick, but although one hears a certain amount of creativity in this music it is repetitive creativity. I say, decide for yourself.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Oxman’s East of the Village from East of the Rockies

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EAST OF THE VILLAGE / STYNE: Bye Bye Baby. MOBLEY: East of the Village. VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: Deep in a Dream. HANLEY (arr. OXMAN): Breeze (Blow My Baby Back to Me). REID: A Vaunt Guard. AHLERT-TURK: Walkin’ My Baby Back Home. JENKINS: The Shorter Route. BERNSTEIN: Lucky to Be Me. OXMAN: Brothers, Michel and Jean-Marc. G. & I. GERSHWIN: I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck / Keith Oxman, t-sax; Jeff Jenkins, Hammond B3 org; Todd Reid, dm / Capri Records (no number)

Keith Oxman’s trio harks back to the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when tenor sax-with-organ combos mushroomed around the country. I was never a huge fan of the genre myself, but I have to admit that Oxman’s Denver-based group plays with a tremendous amount of brio. In addition, both he and Hammond B3 player Jeff Jenkins are highly imaginative soloists.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s Jenkins’ amazingly buoyant organ playing that really makes this trio. He keeps the tone light, never getting bogged down in the kind of heavy, thick organ sound that afflicted so many such groups in the old days. Moreover, his solos fairly burst with fresh and original ideas; he isn’t afraid to play a bit “outside” the changes, and he often steals the show from the leader, particularly in the opening number, Jule Styne’s Bye Bye Baby. Oxman has a fine tone and swings hard, but by and large he’s feeding off Jenkins, not the other way around.

Oxman is heard to good advantage, however, in Hank Mobley’s hard-bop tune East of the Village, playing double-time runs with a nice hard tone reminiscent of Sonny Stitt. I was not surprised to learn that Jenkins normally plays piano, as he takes a very pianistic approach to the organ. Perhaps ironically, however, I think that his playing here on the organ actually makes his improvisations sound more dramatic. There’s a certain explosive quality in his playing that just commands your attention every time he solos. Todd Reid is a very capable drummer, more fluid and flexible in rhythm than one normally hears in trios like this.

Perhaps because this is a pretty bouncy trio, they lack the usual morose quality that so many such groups bring to ballads. The late jazz critic Ralph Berton used to tell me he detested hearing ballads because they were also so sappy. Not so here. Oxman’s playing in Jimmy van Heusen’s Deep in a Dream is warm but not sappy. He maintains a firmness of tone even at a slower tempo, and in fact he seems particularly inspired in his double-time runs during his first extended solo. Interestingly, Jenkins’ solo on this tune is not merely understated but extremely quiet, almost a bit eerie in feeling.

Hanley’s Breeze has a nice, jaunty feel about it that makes you smile. By this point I started to realize that double-time runs are where the saxist throws in some of his best ideas, though he does temper them here with some nice bent blues notes. On the other hand, Reid’s original A Vaunt Guard is the most original piece played here, starting out with an ominous, disjointed-sounding series of minor-key licks before moving into an equally edgy, fragmented tenor solo by Oxman. There’s a certain Bird-like quality to the music here, though played on tenor instead of alto; a very dramatic tune, with the composer continually pushing things from the drum kit. Oxman really pushes himself here, and for once Jenkins stays silent until his own solo, typically fresh and amazing in construction while retaining the ominous quality of the piece.

Walkin’ My Baby Back Home is one of only two really well-known songs on this set, but I wonder how many people realize that this pre-jazz-era oldie might never have been a jazz standard if it hadn’t been for Nat “King” Cole’s superb recording of it. As A Vaunt Guard wa dense, busy and dark-sounding, Walkin’ My Baby is light as a feather, uncluttered and light. The Shorter Route also takes a light weight approach; this is the kind of jazz that one can listen to while conversing with friends in a club. Possibly the least interesting tune in this set, Leonard Bernstein’s Lucky to Be Me just sort of meanders along, although Oxman’s solo is superb, completely restructuring the banal melody to make something interesting out of it. Here, Jenkins is in an unusual mood, being both pensive and playful. Oxman’s original, Brothers, Michael and Jean-Marc, is another one of those peppy tunes with conventional changes that comes to life during the improvised solos. Jenkins is again terrific here, moving from a quasi-Latin feel to wonderfully broken-rhythm licks and inventive triplet and sixteenth-note runs.

The closer is another standard, George Gershwin’s I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck. Oxman apparently thinks this tune isn’t very well known, but I’m not so sure about that; it’s been one of my favorite Gershwin tunes since I was 16 years old ( a long time ago). Jenkins’ organ jumps and skips its way through some incredible ideas, Oxman following with some nice swingy phrases. Thus we close out this essentially jaunty set by the Keith Oxman Trio, a fine ride with some delightful surprises along the way.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Asmussen Took a Lickin’ and Kept on Tickin’

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THE INCOMPARABLE FIDDLER: SVEND ASMUSSEN / Medley: McHUGH-FIELDS: On the Sunny Side of the Street; CARMICHAEL: Georgie on My Mind; NOBLE: Goodnight, Sweetheart.1,8 Medley: BROOKS: Some of These Days; YOUNG-HARRIS: Sweet Sue; McHUGH-FIELDS: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love; SCHOENBERGER: Whispering.1,8 JACOBS: The Booglie Wooglie Piggy.1,12 ASMUSSEN: Hanne Vent På Mig.1 Svend’s Riff.2,10,12 Fiddler in Rio.2,13 Svend’s Blues.2,13 Take Off Blues. So Sorry.3,11 Twins.3,11 DAVIS-MITCHELL: You Are My Sunshine.1 Medley: G & I GERSHWIN: I Got Rhythm; Bess, You Is My Woman Now.1 Medley: Liza; It Ain’t Necessarily So; Oh Lady Be Good.1 NOBLE: Cherokee.1 McHUGH-FIELDS: Exactly Like You.9,12 WARFIELD-WILLIAMS: Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?9,12 ELLINGTON-MILLS: It Don’t Mean a Thing (2 tks: 1,9,12 27,11,14). HANIGHAN-MERCER: My Old Man.9,12 KALMAR-RUBY: Three Little Words.1,12 STEPT-GREEN: That’s My Weakness Now.1,12 REDMAN-FOWLER: How Am I Doin’ Hey Hey?1,12 CAHN-CHAPLIN: Rhythm is Our Business.2,10,12 WEEMS-CAVANAUGH: Panhandle Pete.2,10,12 DeLUGG-HILLIARD: Be My Life’s Companion.2,10,12 G & I GERSHWIN: Someone to Watch Over Me (3 vers: 1,2,10,12 2,3 3). Oh, Lady Be Good.4,5 I Loves You, Porgy.15 BROOKS: Darktown Strutters’ Ball.2,10,12 CASUCCI-BRAMMER: Schöner Gigolo (Just a Gigolo) (2 tks: 1,2,10,12 2). ELLINGTON: Ellington’s Mood (Medley including The Mooche & Mood Indigo).2,10,12 Cotton Tail.2,10,12 Satin Doll (2 vers: 1,3,11 23). The “C” Jam Blues (2 vers: 1,4,5 27,11,14). The Mooche. Prelude to a Kiss. HERBERT-DUBIN: Indian Summer.2,10,12 LAYTON-CREAMER: After You’ve Gone.2,10,12 SHAY-GOODWIN-FISHER: When You’re Smiling.2,10,12 HUDSON-DeLANGE-MILLS: Moonglow.2,13 BLAND: Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.2,13 WARREN-MERCER: Jeepers Creepers.2,13 HUBBELL-GOLDEN: Poor Butterfly.2,13 MILLS: At a Georgia Camp Meeting.2,13 YOUMANS-ROBIN-GREY: Hallelujah.1 WALLER-RAZAF: Honeysuckle Rose (2 vers: 1,1 23). LANE-FREED: How About You?1 DELANEY: Jazz Me Blues.1 THIELEMANS: Blue Lady.3,11 GRAPPELLI: Love is Back.3,11 POWELL: Parisian Thoroughfare.3,11 KAHN-CAESAR: Crazy Rhythm.3 TIZOL: Caravan.4,5 SMITH: Timme’s Blues.4,5 REINHARDT-GRAPPELLI: Minor Swing.6,11 BERNIE-CASEY-PINKARD: Sweet Georgia Brown.6,11 GILLESPIE: Groovin’ High.6,11 BAER-FRIEND: June Night (2 vers: 1,6,11 27,11,14). GIBBS-GREY-WOOD: Runnin’ Wild. 15 HENDERSON-DIXON: Bye Bye Blackbird.15 F. HENDERSON: Wrappin’ it Up.15 RICHARDSON: Groove Merchant. FISCHER: Latino. LUMBYE: Columbine Polka Mazurka. GILLESPIE-PAPPILARDI: A Night in Tunisia. HENRIKSSON: Lapp Nils Polska.7,11,14 ADOLPHSON: Trubbel.7,11,14 ROLLINS: Pent-Up House7,11,14 / Svend Asmussen, vln with assorted musicians including 1Ulrik Neumann, gtr; 2Max Leth, pn/vib; 3Stéphane Grappelli, 4Stuff Smith, vln; 5Jørgen Borch, 6Georges Arvanitas, 7Kenny Drew, pn; 8Niels Foss, 9Johan Poulsen, 10Poul Gregersen, 11Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, 15Jesper Lundgaard, bass; 15Jacob Fischer, gt; 12Erik Frederiksen, 13Preben Oxbøl, 14Charles Saudrais, 14Ed Thigpen, 15Aage Tanggaard, dr / Storyville 108 8618 (5 CDs & 1 DVD)

Svend Asmussed made it to the age of 100 last year, but fate wasn’t kind enough to extend it. On February 7, 2017, three weeks shy of his 101st birthday, the famous fiddler passed away. Yet he was still playing in public until 2010, at the age of 94, when he got a blood clot that caused partial paralysis (though he still occasionally played privately until his passing).

The “fiddler Viking” was well known in continental Europe, and possibly in England as well, but here in the U.S. he wasn’t as well known as Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith or Stéphane Grappelli until the late 1960s when his albums started showing up through the Peters International catalog. This is a shame, as these performances clearly prove he was at least Grappelli’s equal in terms of both technique and swing.

This set covers a large portion of his career, from his first discs in 1937 to 1996. Like most jazz violinists who emerged during the Swing Era, Asmussen never quite ventured much beyond the styles of his youth. He wasn’t much of a bop player and never embraced any newer jazz post-bop, but within his parameters he was interesting and fun to listen to. He was also on the professional music scene almost as early as his French counterpart Grappelli, making his debut in 1933, although his first recordings weren’t made until four years later. In 1939 Grappelli and Asmussen met for the first time; in a fit of pique, Django Reinhardt insisted that he and Asmussen switch instruments and Grappelli play piano. Well, Reinhardt could play the violin quite well and Grappelli was a fairly decent pianist, but Asmussen wasn’t very good on guitar so the session came to nothing.

Other jazz critics have taken Asmussen’s swing band to task for playing such “embarrassingly dated and eminently forgettable items as ‘The Booglie Wooglie Piggy,’” but I don’t see why they would think that. As it so happens, The Booglie Wooglie Piggy was a fairly big hit for Glenn Miller, it has a nice “hook,” and in fact is a far superior song to such ephemera as Kay Kyser’s Three Little Fishies or that sterling gem Ella Fitzgerald sang with Chick Webb, Chew Chew Chew Your Bubble Gum. The Swing Era was a period in which art and commerce frequently stepped on each other’s toes, and to decry Asmussen’s wanting to cover a hit record of the time seems a bit jejune to me. For that matter, I find Rhythm is Our Business and Panhandle Pete no better or worse as songs. So there!

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Asmussen with Benny Goodman in 1950

The main thing is what you do with the material, not necessarily what the material is. I thought Fats Waller had proved that point 85 years ago. One of the things that impressed me about Asmussen’s recordings is that, like his work with the Swe-Danes (1959-1963), he had that rare knack of making you smile and bounce along with the music. In fact, on many tracks in the first two CDs there is as much if not more singing than violin-playing, and even as far back as 1937 Asmussen’s English pronunciation is astonishingly good, even better than that of Alice Babs in the late ‘30s-early ‘40s, and her English was quite good indeed for a young girl performing in Scandinavia. But of course, Asmussen was seven years older than Babs and apparently got out of Denmark several times before the Nazi invasion.

These early recordings, in addition to being a lot of fun, are also wonderfully relaxed in feel. You get the impression that you’re listening to a rehearsal of the band rather than a performance, where they try some different things and goof around in addition to playing some really fine music like the Ellington medley. It’s a much more casual approach to jazz than most Americans are used to; the only parallels among recordings of the 1930s and ‘40s are those made by Billy Banks with Henry “Red” Allen and Pee Wee Russell or the various Lionel Hampton jam session discs for Victor, but the Asmussen band was even more relaxed than that, and continued playing in this vein as late as the 1950s. Also, in 1953 they was still playing older material like Panhandle Pete, Darktown Strutters’ Ball, Just a Gigolo, Indian Summer, After You’ve Gone and When You’re Smiling. Without a genius like Django Reinhardt to prod him, Asmussen only occasionally played “outside” chord changes in his improvisations, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Enjoyment trumps creativity here. I also liked the fact that his band used the same kind of shuffle rhythm later patented by Louis Prima and Keely Smith.

For obvious reasons, the Swe-Danes period is entirely omitted here. I understand why: they were so incredibly popular that everyone in the world knew their recordings—even here in the U.S., tunes like Scandinavian Shuffle and At a Georgia Camp Meeting hit the Billboard charts (I remember hearing them as a nine-year-old and loving them without having the faintest idea that two of the three were Alice Babs and Svend Asmussen)—but in a way it’s a shame because some of their work, like Organ Grinder’s Swing and Swe-Danes Symphony, were remarkably witty, hip, tongue-in-cheek creations. As a sidelight, I’d say it’s no real surprise that Asmussen and Babs got together: they both loved jazz and had exuberant, outgoing personalities that meshed perfectly. If you watch some of the old TV clips of the Swe-Danes on YouTube, you’ll see that, if anything, the violinist was even more of a comic and showman than Babs!

On CD 3 we hear 1964-65 performances with Grappelli and Asmussen, now playing a tenor violin tuned an octave lower. Once again there is that wonderful relaxed feeling that imbued so many of the earlier recordings, but the added push from the French violinist made the Dane up his game a little. The treble on these recordings is somewhat dull and the bass rather tubby, so you may want to adjust your tuner somewhat. What I found interesting was the way Grappelli played double-time chiraroscuro figures around Asmussen’s lines while the rhythm section retained the same relaxed swing heard in the previous two discs. Surely, the most fascinating and creative track is Grappelli’s Love is Back, a minor-key tune that starts out with the two violinists playing Bach-like counterpoint for a full chorus. When Asmussen enters with his solo, he is surprisingly bluesy, much more so than in any of his prior recordings on this set. The final chorus returns to the counterpoint for the rideout. Although taken at a much slower tempo, there is also some interesting interplay between them on Someone to Watch Over Me. Overall, this was a friendlier and more laid-back exchange than the album Grappelli made with Joe Venuti, where the gloves were off and the challenge was on from the first note.

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Asmussen swings while Stuff Smith sings, 1966

By and large, the rhythm sections on most of these tracks, even the ones with Grappelli, are competent but unexceptional. That streak ends in the remarkable session with Stuff Smith on CD 4 from 1966, a year before Smith’s death. Here, a truly “springy” section of pianist Jørgen Borch, bassist Eril Mølbak and drummer Bjarne Rostvold kick the rhythm righteously behind the two violinists. Smith was a very different kind of violinist from Venuti, Grappelli, Asmussen or Eddie South. He played in a slightly rough, country-fiddle sort of way, as did Ray Nance to a lesser extent, and he is on fire in this live session which spurs Asmussen on to some of his most aggressive playing. The two of them are clearly having fun; this was the first time I had ever heard Stuff as a singer. He had a typically bluesy voice but, like so many singing jazz musicians, impeccable timing and swing. In short, he had style. Asmussen seems to be enjoying him as much as the audience, so much so that he often takes a back seat and lets Smith steal the show. Caravan is a particular standout, although Smith is on fire in Timme’s Blues and Asmussen really flies on Oh, Lady Be Good, on which they also perform a scat duet. On the second half of this CD we jump ahead to 1985 and a quartet including the fine pianist Georges Arvanitas and drummer Charles Saudrais. Amazingly, there is no deterioration in Asmussen’s playing; he is as joyful and swinging as ever, tossing in a quote from the opening of Mozart’s 40th Symphony in Minor Swing. He also seems to be having fun playing off the microphone reverb, particularly in the a cappella performance of Sweet Georgia Brown. Typically of Asmussen, he plays Dizzy Gillespie’s contrafact Groovin’ High with a swing rather than a bop beat, morphing into Whispering—the tune on which it was based—immediately after the opening chorus. Arvanitas’ piano solo sort of vacillates between the two. Later on, the violinist and pianist play an exquisite chase chorus.

On CD 5 we hear an 80-year-old Asmussen playing with bassist Jesper Lundgaard, guitarist Jacob Fischer and drummer Aage Tanggaard. Asmussen’s musical imagination is as fine if

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Jacob Fischer

not better than ever, but his advancing age is somewhat evident in his bowing in Runnin’ Wild. Occasional notes are weaker than before, and a few of the highest ones sound a bit edgy and just a shade flat, although he warms up rather well halfway through Bye Bye Blackbird. I was very impressed with this rhythm section too, particularly guitarist Fischer who, if not quite Django, is at least as driving and exciting as Charlie Byrd was. What a pleasure to hear a jazz guitarist who doesn’t subscribe to the wimpy, soft-grained Jim Hall-Joe Pass style, which has become omnipresent in jazz! According to Wikipedia, Fischer, born in 1967, is self-taught and was initially inspired by Django, B.B. King and Wes Montgomery, which makes sense. I almost wish that Asmussen had participated in Alice Babs’ comeback recording session in 1998…she still sounded fresh-voiced and fabulous, and the two of them could have invented some violin-vocal duos as chase choruses. Lundgaard contributes some really fine solos on Take Off Blues and Wrappin’ it Up. Undoubtedly the oddest piece in this set is H.C. Lumbye’s Colunbine Polka Mazurka; and believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a jazz mazurka! After two Ellington standards (although I’m not really sure that The Mooche, on which Fischer plays some excellent bottleneck guitar, was standard for anyone but Duke himself), the set wraps up with a very relaxed version of A Night in Tunisia.

I should also mention that Storyville has issued an even later album of Asmussen’s work, Still Fiddling (1014252), which dates from 1999 with the same supporting trio as above. Here, in the controlled environment of a recording studio, Asmussen’s pitch and bow control are just fine, and his playing (along with Fischer’s) is as good as the 1996 album in this set, which includes such odd tunes as Silly Shuffle, Shalom Elechem and My Yiddische Momme!

The DVD backs up a decade, to 1986 when Asmussen was a mere stripling of 70. Filmed in concert at Club Montmartre, Copenhagen, he is accompanied by a truly first-rate rhythm section of pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Ed Thigpen. I was especially surprised to see the drummer, whom I had never seen play before, a veteran of the late bop era who had played with Oscar Peterson and Lennie Tristano, among others, but aside from the leader the star of the show is Drew, who is in sparkling form. What’s interesting is to watch how loose and laid-back Asmussen is at all times: he was a lot like Fats Waller and Jack Teagarden in this respect. When he plays pizzicato, he actually strums the strings with the thumb of his right hand, playing the violin like a mandolin.

All in all, this is a splendid souvenir of the fiddler Viking’s great career. A few of the CDs are short on time (41-47 minutes), but the overall quality of his work is unquestioned.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Jiří Kylián: The Master Choreographer

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Writing a retrospective on a ballet choreographer can be a tricky thing if that choreographer is still active, but Jiří Kylián has achieved a “living legend” status once given to such figures as Leonid Massine, Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine and Roland Petit. In his case, the reasons for this are not a large body of work that is consistent in its style and vision, but rather a body of work that is, and remains, diverse and surprising.

Much of this has to do with Kylián’s first love, which was the circus. For whatever reason, he found himself unable to become a circus acrobat but instead trained as a classical dancer. He was good enough to find work but in his own mind never good enough to do what he wanted to do with his body, so he found other dancers who had skills superior to his own and began working as a choreographer.

kylian0003Kylián’s work is extraordinarily diverse, incredibly physical and deeply human all at the same time, and in his most recently-issued DVD, Forgotten Memories, he sits down for a rare in-depth interview about his own creative work. I must say right off that although I received a copy of this DVD for review I was unablt to watch it because all they had left for distribution was a Blu-Ray disc, and I don’t have a Blu-Ray player, but fortunately the enclosed booklet was exceptionally detailed and included several revealing quotes from Kylián. In addition, I have two regular DVDs of his work to judge from, Hans Hulscher’s 1991 film The Choreographer (Arthaus Musik 102 212) and Car Men (Arthaus Musik 109278), and in addition I have watched online such Kylián choreographies as Birth-Day, which is as wacky and funny as Car Men, and the very profound Petit Mort.

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Petit Mort

The amazing quality of Kylián’s work is that he was one of the first modern choreographers to combine classic ballet moves with the kind of dance that was being created by such experimental groups as Mummenschanz, Pilobolus and Cirque du Soleil. Kylián has repeatedly said that his primary goal as a choreographer is the desire to explore “what it is to be human – our mixture of spirituality and physicality, truth and masquerade, our dazzling existence as a combination of strength, power, emotion and transience – as well as part of society, the cosmos and the circle of life.” Pretty profound thoughts.

kylian0002Essentially, Kylián’s ballets are divided by this emphasis on either the comic or the symbolic. What is interesting to me is that he often dovetails deeper and darker feelings into his funniest and silliest ballets. Car Men, produced in 2006, is perhaps the most famous example. Filmed at a coal mine in the Czech Republic, an extraordinarily barren landscape that promised absolutely nothing, Kylián invented a ballet on the spot. Using junky old car parts, he created a comic masterpiece in which Sabine Kupferberg, his life partner, portrayed the eternal temptress Carmen as a junkyard vamp who gets run over by speeding vehicles and teases Don José while constantly flirting with the “toreador”—a scruffy-looking guy who smokes cigars and wiggles his eyebrows (and a few props) to show his pleasure in seeing her. The dark side comes from a mysterious black sedan who approaches Carmen in the dead of night, stopping just a foot or two from her body as she contemplates who or what could be the mysterious driver and what his or its designs on her are. It’s Kylián’s way of mixing comic farce on the level of the Keystone Kops with something more tragic—and more human.

Kylián’s fascination with and deep knowledge of music is one of the keys to his work, just as it was to Balanchine, but whereas Balanchine’s ballets were nearly always abstract (a rare exception was his setting for Mikhail Baryshnikov of Prokofiev’s The Prodigal Son), Kylián’s work nearly always connects to some emotion or emotions. A perfect example of his setting of Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, from as far back as 1975 (filmed in 1983). The ancient Breton legend was of a submerged cathedral in the city of Ys, but Kylián reduced it to the conflict between self-imposed rules and laws and the constant urge to defy them.

And yes, his choreography calls for some of the most exceptional flexibility one can demand of the human body. This, too, he remarked on in the interview: “Dancers and choreographers are very fragile…very breakable and – we are an endangered species. Because we have decided that we will declare our body as a work of art. And it takes a lot of courage to actually open up and show yourself ‘naked.’”

Among his more famous ballets are Bella Figura, Gods and Dogs, Vanishing Twin, Petite Mort, Symphony of Psalms and Silent Cries, the latter a solo tour-de-force danced by Kupferberg. In this, Kylián used Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune. the same music that Vaclav Nijinsky used for his own ballet on that theme back in the 1910s, but here the dancer is half-hidden and trapped behind a dirty pane of glass, pressing her to reach inside herself to express her own humanity. She has become his muse, similar to the way Margot Fonteyn was Ashton’s muse for two decades. But of course other dancers have worked with Kylián over the long span of his career, and several of them have high praise for his artistry. Manuel Legris, now director of the Vienna State Opera Ballet, called Kylián “one of the greatest choreographers in existence, on account of his boundless imagination…He was always a source of inspiration for me during my career as a dancer with the Paris Opéra…He develops highly personal things.”

Kylián keeps you riveted on what is going on onstage, but he uses space in a highly personal way. Most previous choreographers in classical ballet were almost obsessed with “filling space” in a symmetrical way. Kylián often plays with both symmetry and perspective. His dancers complement each others’ moves, but can also blend together as one—a technique borrowed from Mummenschanz and Pilobolus.

Kylián retired from the Netherlands Dance Theater in 1999 in order to go freelance and pursue projects on his own, yet remained the ensemble’s artistic advisor and house choreographer for another decade. As the filmed interview reveals, Kylián is relatively shy when talking about his work because he doesn’t really like talking about himself, and because he puts so much of himself into his ballets he remains for many a shadowy figure. A paradox. But to be honest, most great choreographers don’t really like to talk about themselves. Ashton didn’t, and neither does Petit. If you really are a great and dedicated artist, you never really feel that you’ve accomplished what you want to do. In all his life, Ashton only praised two of his works—two among dozens. The great artist knows that he has come close to his goal, but never quite achieves perfection, and it is that striving for perfection that keeps them going.

These are highly recommended to all lovers of dance.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Fernández Explores the Evolution of Scriabin’s Preludes

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SCRIABIN: Complete Preludes: Op. 2 No. 2; Op. 9 No. 1; 24 Preludes Op. 11; 6 Preludes Op. 13; Preludes Opp. 15-17; 4 Preludes Op. 22; 2 Preludes Op. 27; 4 Preludes Op. 31, Op. 33; 3 Preludes Op. 35; 4 Preludes Opp. 37, 39, 48; Op. 49 No. 2; Op. 51 No. 2; Op. 56 No. 1; Op. 59 No. 2; 2 Preludes Op. 67; 5 Preludes Op. 74 / Eduardo Fernández, pianist / Orpheus 8436564933485, available at CD Baby, iTunes and Amazon.co.uk

Alexander Scriabin’s Preludes, which span the whole of his compositional output, were of course never meant to be heard complete in one sitting as they are here in this handsomely-packaged 2-CD set. Some of them, as Stefano Russomanno points out in the liner notes, were portions of suites and sometimes the “Prelude” did not actually lead off as the first piece. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to hear the whole series as they evolved in his mind.

Scriabin’s position in music history is still a rather odd and uncomfortable fit. He started out as a fanatic devotee of Chopin, even to the point of sleeping with the Polish composer’s scores under his pillow, and it is clear in his music through about 1894 that he was trying very hard to be Frydryk Chopin, Jr. He succeeded so well that in a blindfold test most classical listeners would probably guess Chopin as the composer of most of these Preludes, and even some of the early Sonatas (although the latter would be harder to palm off, since most people know that Chopin only wrote two published sonatas, Nos. 2 and 3). But the language and the mood are strictly Chopinesque, and this is how Eduardo Fernández plays these works here. The faster Preludes—and there aren’t too many—receive a wonderfully direct, almost muscular approach with superb phrasing and articulation, which is how I remember his recording of Albéniz’ Iberia. The slow Preludes, on the other hand, are played very slowly, the music made to float and waft through the mind like clouds on a lazy summer’s day. It’s a way of exploring, and somewhat explaining, Scriabin’s obsession with this form as a person who saw music in colors and, in fact, created an elaborate chart assigning specific colors to exact tones in the diatonic scale.

I am not a person who hears music in colors. I can get a feel for music being coloristic, which is not the same thing, but I don’t hear specific notes as being blue or burnt orange. Some people have this gift. I just happen not to be one of them. Therefore I listen to music for different things such as warmth (again, not the same as colors), a feeling that the music is well-bound musically structurally, and judicious use of dynamics. Fernández provides most of these things, which made me very pleased with his performances in general. In some of the “Lento” Preludes, particularly the early ones, I felt that structure was left to dissipate in lieu of mood and (yes) color. This is probably a legitimate way of playing them, however, since mood and color were so much a part of Scriabin’s sound world. Sumptuousness and sensuousness were as important to him as the all-out explosions of orchestral ecstasy one finds in his symphonies and tone poems; and, of course, the piano was his instrument and therefore his most personal means of expression. Many times in the course of his scores one finds directions pointing towards these qualities. He sought, as Russomanno put it, “the expression of a voluptuous and uncertain lyricism,” occasionally indicated by such specific markings as “Misterioso,” “Affettuoso, “Appassionata,” “Andante doloroso,” “Patetico,” “Vagamente” and “Languido.”

Once one accepts the fact that these are probably valid readings of the scores, one begins to realize how much thought and hard work Fernández put into his performances. He tried to enter into the mind of Scriabin at the point of creation, following his musical thoughts—and vision of colors—as he put these miniatures together. Suddenly, all the floated notes and little luftpausen make sense. The slow Preludes took their time evolving while the fast ones rushed through his mind as, so to speak, a stream of colors.

Indeed, as the series goes on—by the time you reach, for instance, the 5 Preludes, Op. 16 of 1894-95—you can tell that Scriabin’s approach to composition in general and the Preludes in particular is changing. There is less floating, even in the slow pieces, and tighter construction. By this time, Scriabin was groping around less and more sure of himself and what colors he wanted to explore in each piece. There is a cetain consistency of approach in the way Fernández plays these works, which ties them to the earlier Preludes, but the changes are apparent to the attentive listener.

Changing over from CD 1 to CD 2 is almost like entering a different world. Here, in the Op. 17 Preludes of 1895-96, the mature Scriabin makes his appearance in full bloom. Despite the continuance of slow tempi, no one would confuse these pieces for Chopin. They clearly belong to a different world, and you can feel the shift in Fernández’ playing. The Prelude No. 5 in this set (“Presto”) has the feel of Scriabin’s mid-period sonatas, not merely muscular but with a certain ambiguity to the harmonic base. By 1903 you start hearing the extended and diminished chords that became a hallmark of Scriabin’s mature style. None of this music could be confused for Chopin except, perhaps, in mood. In the Op. 35, No. 2 Prelude, we briefly hear the notes of Wagner’s “Tristan chord.”

By 1905 all thoughts of Chopin are gone. This is mature Scriabin and it shows, the music working through chromatic lines backed by unusual chord positions. I don’t think Scriabin had much idea what was happening in Germany at the time—he led a fairly isolated life in Russia—but within his own sphere he was clearly the most advanced composer of his day. Aaron Copland later wondered why he didn’t just abandon the tonal system entirely, as Schoenberg did in Germany, but I don’t think he really wanted to do that. He wanted to modify the existing scale and chord system, but not overthrow it because without some richness in the chords he wouldn’t have had his colors. In the Preludes of 1912 and after, we hear his “mystic chord” based on a superimposition of fourths, whose purpose was to blur the gap between melodic and harmonic content. Had Scriabin lived longer he might have found a way to incorporate some principles of atonalism into his music, but I think he’d only have used them as a bridge between more harmonically developed sections. His goal was to unite all harmony, not to refute it.

Fernández gives us the full measure of these Preludes, consistent in his vision from start to finish. You can stream this recording on Spotify or Deezer, or you can purchase the whole album as a download at CD Baby or iTunes, but I strongly urge you to buy the physical CDs at Amazon.co.uk. Why? Not just because the deluxe packaging is so attractive, which it is, but because these recordings are engineered in such a way that when you play them on a good system, the piano seems to be right in the room with you. It has that much presence, and you’re going to lose that if you stick to digital downloads.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Alma Mahler’s Songs Given Life by Kroeger and Lonero

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A. MAHLER: 5 Lieder: Die stille Stadt; In meines Vaters Garten; Laue Sommernacht; Bei dir ist es traut; Ich wandle unter Blumen. 4 Lieder: Licht in her Nacht; Waldseligkeit’ Ansturm; Erntelied. 5 Gesange: Hymne; Ekstase; Der Erkennende; Lobgesang; Hymne an die Nacht. MONTANARO: Canto di Penelope / Catharina Kroeger, soprano; Monica Lonero, pianist / Brilliant Classics 95469

Alma Schindler-Mahler-Werfel-Gropius, extraordinarily talented, beautiful, and as randy as a cat in heat, was one of the most admired and reviled women in Western Europe. She was admired for her beauty, intelligence, and the fact that she managed to land three of the greatest geniuses of her time as husbands, but reviled for her guttersnipe sexual habits and essentially cold personality. When she died, satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song about her:

Alma, tell us,
All modern women are jealous;
For the ducks always envy the swans
Who get Gustav and Walter and Franz!

Listening to the songs on this album, it’s easy to hear what Gustav Mahler saw in her. Her music was, like his, in that late-Romantic-bordering-on-modern style, essentially tonal yet with several unexpected turns of harmony, yet they don’t really sound like Mahler’s music at all. Rather, they sound like Brahms if Brahms had lived another decade and been influenced by some of the newer, more experimental music around him. They are generally more melodic than Gustav’s lieder, but her aesthetic took a different course. Whereas Gustav let the melody lead the harmony, Alma made the harmony lead the melody writing. This makes her songs a bit less memorable than her future husband’s Songs of a Wayfarer or Des Knaben Wundrhorn, yet no less remarkable for their individuality and ingenuity.

In Ansturm, for instance, Alma begins with sharply-attacked piano chords, which then lead into the typically ambiguous melody, which is then developed as if it were a string quartet movement, the audacious piano part changing not only the base key but also chord positions within those keys, and the melody tags along behind. And all of this in a compact one minute and 41 seconds!

alma-mahlerThe interesting thing about these songs is that, when Gustav Mahler married Alma, he made her completely give up her musical career: “There is room for only one composer in this marriage,” he told her. She obeyed for a while but, as the dates on these songs prove, not for long. The first group of songs was composed in 1910, when Mahler was still alive, and the last group in 1924, 13 years after her husband’s death. Curiously, only one of her songs, Der Erkennende or Recognition, is based on the poetry of one of her famous husbands, Franz Werfel. Maybe she was having affairs with some of the other poets whose work she used. Who knows?

It’s also quite good that soprano Catharine Kroeger has a very pretty, if light, soprano voice, and that she at least sings with energy and enthusiasm if not with much interpretive insight. In other words, she brings the music to life in an energetic way without really getting too deeply under the skin of the lyrics.

And then, when the songs are done, there is something completely different: an extended Song of Penelope by modern composer Patrizia Montanaro (b. 1956). This is music in the mold of someone like Ghedini, modern Italian music using advanced harmonies yet still retaining a lyrical flow and a recognizable melodic structure. Montanaro is one of those composers for whom the melody and harmony move together, with neither very obviously leading the other. She seems, rather, to be trying to convey the expression of the words through music, thus whatever shape the melody and harmony take are dependent upon the mood. The text was written by Rosaria Lo Russo and seems but loosely based on the legend of Penelope from ancient times, expressing some of her inner turmoil and anger at Odysseus’ return after 20 years of absence. Here’s a bit of it:

I peel off this rind that’s holding me in
and I skip and jump
in your squares I play hopscotch
trying not to step on a line
trying not to get myself jinxed
by overstepping my chaste commitments
For twenty years I’ve been crossing myself
and packing your things away for safekeeping
in a rind of composure, a rind of displeasure
and the maid at my heels seals up the preserves.

As the character’s silent mental conversation with herself continues and the moods skip and jump around, so too does the melodic line. It’s not a piece for everyone, but I found it extraordinarily interesting…sort of like an Italian version of La Voix Humaine.

All in all, a surprising and refreshing release. If you enjoy late-period German Romantics, you need to get this.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Tucker’s Great “La Juive” Reissued At Last

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HALEVY: La Juive (Highlights) / Richard Tucker, tenor (Elezear); Martina Arroyo, soprano (Rachel); Juan Sabaté, tenor (Prince Leopold); Anna Moffo, soprano (Princess Eudoxie); Lesley Fyson, baritone (Ruggiero); Bonaldo Gioatti, bass (Cardinal de Brogni); Ambrosian Opera Chorus; New Philharmonia Orchestra; Antonio de Almeida, conductor / RCA Red Seal/Sony Opera 886446206530

Poor Ed Rosen! The famous New York City-area opera maven, “pirate” live performance issuer, friend of Richard Tucker and his family, died on December 21, 2016, just a few weeks before this legendary recording was finally reissued after languishing in the vaults for 40 years. Did I say 40? Yes, I did. After it was cut from the RCA Victor catalog around 1977 as an LP, it never resurfaced, either as an LP or as a CD issue, until just now. Even after Dick Tucker’s death, the fates laughed at and mocked him and his Elezear.

Of course, there’s a back story to this recording. Nearing age 60, Tuckers really wanted to perform this at the Metropolitan Opera, just as Caruso had done near the end of his Met career. But Rudolf Bing detested Ja Juive, calling it a boring opera, so as long as he was there, no Juive. In 1972 Bing retired; his chosen successor, Goeran Gentele, tragically drowned before taking the helm, and thus the new general manager was Schuyler Chapin, whose two main assets were begging for money and then not spending much of it on new productions. I still recall the “production” he mounted for Montserrat Caballé in Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani: Two big round cylinders with a staircase on an otherwise blank, dark stage. Those of us who went to see the production referred to it as the “Esso tank Vespri.” (For those of you who don’t know, Esso was the early name for Exxon Oil.) But surprisingly, Chapin was open to the idea of Tucker singing La Juive. He just wanted to see if it would draw an audience before he committed to it.

So Tucker approached RCA Victor with the idea of recording it. If the recording did well enough, he reasoned, Chapin might give him the production. RCA initially agreed to do so if he could actually perform it somewhere and drum up some business. Thus, in March 1973, Tucker and conductor Anton Guadagno slapped together a hastily-rehearsed, stripped-down version of the opera (a little over two hours, roughly half the length of the full score) in a concert performance in London’s Royal Festival Hall. The supporting cast was good but not great (Yasuko Hayashi sang Rachel and David Gwynne was Brogni); Guadagno didn’t conduct at his best; and to compensate, Tucker oversang and over-emoted. It got pretty good reviews anyway, so RCA agreed to record it.

But once again, I Vespri Siciliani got in the way. Victor committed to recording the opera complete with Martina Arroyo, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes and conductor James Levine, and like Juive, it was a four-LP package. The cost overruns from Vespri made the RCA brass think twice about following it up with a complete Juive, which would also run four LPs. As Tucker later told a disappointed fan who asked him to sign a copy of this single LP of highlights, RCA thought about recording a two-LP version of the the chopped-down version Tucker had sung in London, but then just agreed to this 49-minute single disc of highlights.

Listening to the recording when I first purchased it on LP, I was absolutely swept away. I got the impression that La Juive was one of the most interesting and exciting French grand operas ever written. Why? Because every single singer on this recording, and conductor de Almeida, perform it at white heat. They’re all in good voice, they all suit their roles, and they pour their hearts out without slopping the music or over-emoting. If you live to be 100, you will NEVER hear a La Juive as great as this one. Not ever. Even Martina Arroyo, the possessor of a drop-dead gorgeous voice who only seldom gave much emotion in performance, is keyed up to a fever pitch in her duet, “Lorsqu’a toi je me suis donnée” with a superb second tenor I’ve never hear of before or since, Juan Sabaté. Anna Moffo was a bit past her prime by the time this recording was made—she really had to be recorded close to the microphone in order to be heard below the staff—but she still sings the “Bolero” with fine intonation and great intensity. Basso Bonaldo Gioatti is at his best as Cardinal de Brogni, and Arroyo is also on fire in her duet with Eudoxie (Moffo), “Ah, que ma voix plaintive”—as is conductor de Almeida.

Yet this is still primarily Tucker’s show, and it’s a crying shame that RCA didn’t record the confrontation scene between Elezear and Brogni that immediately precedes “Rachel, quand du Seigneur.” Happily, they did record that aria complete, including the recitative “Va prononcer,” and they also recorded the famous Passover Scene. Seldom did the great tenor give so much of himself without over-emoting as he does here, and for one of the few times in his career his voice was recorded perfectly so that the brightness of his upper register could be heard. (For whatever reason, many of Tucker’s commercial recordings, particularly his early RCA opera recordings like La Traviata and La Bohème with Moffo and Madama Butterfly with Leontyne Price, made his voice sound dull and gray in the upper range, which is absolutely was not.)

An epilogue: the album sold like hotcakes, particularly in the New York area, so well in fact that RCA began to rethink its position and planned to record it complete (I would hope with the same cast and conductor). Even more surprisingly, Chapin called Tucker on January 1, 1975 and told him that he was going to approve a production of La Juive for the following season. Sadly, Tucker suddenly died of a heart attack a week later, January 8, 1975, at age 61, while on a concert tour with his friend and colleague, baritone Robert Merrill. Without Tucker, there would be no complete Juive, of course, and disappointed fans, having already sent this LP through two pressings, didn’t need to replace it, so by 1977 or ’78 it quietly went out of print, never to be seen again until this year. Yet another reason to hate record companies.

We who bought this album back in the mid-‘70s bitterly regretted what was missing then, and we can do the same today, but thank goodness this classic recording—I’d even call it a benchmark for this opera—is out on CD at last. Get down on your knees and bow to its unchallenged greatness; you shall never hear its like again.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Jihye Lee: A Name to Watch in Jazz

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APRIL / LEE: April Wind. Sewol Ho.* Deep Blue Sea. Whirlwind. Guilty. You Are Here (Every Time I Think of You) / Jihye Lee Big Band: Bijon Watson, Jeff Claassen, Rich Givens, Greg Hopkins, tp; Sean Jones, fl-hn; Jeff Galindo, Rick Stepton, Artie Montenaro, tbn; Peter Cirelli, bs-tbn; Elzbieta Brandys, fl; Shannon LeClaire, a-sax/cl/fl; Rick Di Muzio, t-sax/s-sax/cl; Bob Patton, t-sax/cl; Ben Whiting, bar-sax/bs-cl; Bruce Bartlett, gtr; Alain Mallet, *Jiri Nedoma, pn; John Lockwood, bs; Mark Walker, dm; Ricardo Monzon, perc / Private label, no number, available for sale at http://jihyemusic.com

Jihaye Lee is a Korean-born jazz composer and arranger of original and amazing talents. Some of the music on this album was inspired in part by the tragic sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol in 2014, which Lee watched on television while studying at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She had already written April Wind and Deep Blue Sea before the tragedy, but afterwards she decided to make them part of a suite in tribute to the lives lost in the accident.

Beyond the inspiration for the works is the actual music, a phenomenal use of a jazz big band in intimate scoring and unusual wind and brass blends, and occasionally, as in the opening track, her own voice as an instrument within the ensemble. Lee’s music, like so much great modern jazz, follows a complex pulse, but what makes it unusual is her long-lined melodies and the unusual timbres used in her scoring. A number of older models went through my mind as I listened to her scores, i.e. Gil Evans, Allyn Ferguson and Toshiko Akiyoshi, even a bit of Paul Lavalle (does anyone out there remember that Lavalle wrote some highly advanced woodwind jazz scores in the early-to-mid 1940s?), but in the end it was Lee’s own unique personality that came through. Her music is characterized by an “open” sound, which in itself makes it different from the sometimes quite complex writing of Lavalle and Akiyoshi, as well as a long view towards the structure of each piece rather than conceiving it in a series of unfolding ensemble and solo statements.

It is music that requires the listener to have an attention span. April Wind, at 11 minutes, unfolds in such a manner that each chorus builds on and adds to the one previous. It is music that hovers around the keys of F and D but never quite arrives there, since the underlying harmony is constantly in flux, shifting with the top line. The solos all seem to be an organic part of the whole.

Likewise, in Sewol Ho, a soft bass opening leads to muted trumpet figures over the piano, with the flutes and clarinets playing above and around them. This is the most obvious of her tributes to the sunken ferry, using cymbal washes to represent the crash of waves against the boat. Despite similarly slow tempos, there is an urgency and sense of danger felt in the music; I found it interesting that Lee very seldom uses saxophones in her ensemble mixtures, preferring to emphasize the higher timbres. After an orchestral “scream” at 4:45, the rhythmic pulse falls away to create a feeling of confusion. Solo trumpet and trombone weave around each other as the rhythm becomes increasingly more agitated, reflecting the sense of confusion and horror as the innocent victims of this tragedy sank to their deaths. Odd clarinet figures are heard next, blending with one of the trumpets to simulate the accident. Eventually the full trumpet section opens up in long lines, followed by a clarinet duo. The other clarinets eventually enter, weaving figures around them, as the music heads towards its conclusion.

Deep Blue Sea starts out with some of the loveliest wind writing I’ve heard in ages: delicate, almost ethereal, with trumpets mixed in for flavor before we hear the rhythm section playing beneath Lee’s wordless voice and one of the reeds. The whole piece opens up like a flower to the morning sun, slowly yet beautifully. After a sunrise of orchestral sound, a lovely tenor solo is heard, after which the brasses come up behind him and open up the volume, eventually dominating the soundscape. This is the most Akiyoshi-like of Lee’s scores on this album.

In Whirlwind, Lee was trying to convey the chaos of the ferry’s sinking and its aftermath. Oddly, the opening beat, though asymmetric, had a certain Latin feel to it, emphasized by what sounded a bit like Latin percussion in the background. Taken strictly as music, this is a powerful yet spacey piece which alternates between soft, almost submissive reeds and loud, aggressive brass, with interludes by piano and tenor sax. The central section of Guilty, on the other hand, centers around a fascinating alto sax and guitar interplay in which the two instruments play off of each other both rhythmically and melodically. Stop-chords by the brass lead into a somewhat aggressive, stomping rhythm with the trumpets and clarinets playing aggressively above it.

You Are Here (Every Time I Think of You) has the most classical-sounding opening, played by the flutes and clarinets, before leading into a tender melody played by Sean Jones on flugelhorn. Indeed, soft winds and flugelhorn tend to dominate this track, meant to depict sympathy for the families of the victims.

Overall, April is a superb debut CD for Lee and her band, and I would surely look forward to hearing her further musical explorations.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Bird’s Washington Concerts Reissued

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WASHINGTON CONCERTS: CHARLIE PARKER WITH QUARTET & THE ORCHESTRA / SWIFT-JAMES: Fine and Dandy.* LINK-STRACHEY: These Foolish Things.* POTTS: Light Green.* Willis.* RODGERS-HART: Thou Swell.* McHUGH-FIELDS: Don’t Blame Me.* Medley: DIETZ-SCHWARTZ: Something to Remember You By; RODGERS-HART: Blue Room.* MULLIGAN: Roundhouse.* PARKER-HARRIS: Ornithology.# GREEN: Out of Nowhere.# PARKER: Cool Blues.# Scrapple From the Apple.+ PARKER-GILLESPIE: Anthropology.# Medley: GREEN: Out of Nowhere; PARKER: Now’s the Time.+ Red Rodney interview with Bruce Lundvall / Charlie Parker, alto sax with *The Orchestra: Bob Carey, Charlie Walp, Ed Leddy, Marky Markowitz, tp; Dan Spiker, Earl Swope, Rob Swope, tb; Jim Riley, a-sax; Angelo Tompros, Ben Lary, Jim Parker, t-sax; Jack Nimitz, bar-sax; Jack Holliday, pn; Mert Oliver, bs; Joe Timer, dm. #Holliday, pn; Franklin Skeete, bs; Max Roach, dm. +Charlie Byrd, gt; Walp, tp; Kai Winding, tb; Zoot Sims, t-sax; Bill Shanahan, pn; Oliver, bs; Don Lamond, dm / Blue Note 7243 5 22626 5 6 (live: Washington, D.C., *February 22, 1953; #March 8, 1953; +October 18, 1952. Red Rodney interview from 1982)

This unusual Bird album is a compendium. The eight tracks with “The Orchestra,” apparently a Washington, D.C. jazz band, were originally issued as an LP in 1982 on the short-lived Elektra/Musician label. Then, in 2001, the album was reissued on CD with the additional five small-group performances you see here and the brief interview with trumpeter Red Rodney. After being out of print for a few years, Blue Note has decided to bring it back.

This is simply extraordinary Parker, at the height of his powers, which is—as most jazz fans know—somewhat surprising for this stage of his career, when his inspiration ran rather hit-and-miss. Although The Orchestra has a good, solid sound and gets the bop rhythm right, there is very little to distinguish them as a jazz orchestra on this particular outing; they are merely a backdrop to Bird, albeit a very good backdrop. Parker plays some truly excellent solos, beautifully constructed and interesting from start to finish. He is ready every single time the spotlight is on him, and there is a special joy in hearing a live set with Bird so well recorded. Too often we get stuck with high inspiration and really low fidelity, possibly the worst case of all being the infamous “Bird at St. Nick’s” album, but here the tracks all sound professionally set down on tape, which is all to the good.

The small group performances are even more inspired, but here we have some roughness of sound, particularly in Parker’s alto sax, while the rhythm section sounds tubby and dull. Yet these performances are, if anything, even hotter and more inventive—including some very humorous turns of phrase—than the ones with The Orchestra. Drummer Max Roach really gets into it on Cool Blues, propelling the altoist with an extra kick, and this version of Anthropology, despite the rough sound, is one of Parker’s greatest moments. He plays it at an absolutely blistering pace, but speed is not everything; his solo is so full of original ideas that a clever composer could easily create at least five different pieces built around certain phrases that he plays. Only at one point does he insert one of his patented licks; the rest is pure invention. If I were asked to play only one record to show someone how great Charlie Parker was, I think this would be it. He is on fire, he plays like an inspired madman, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I should also point out, as few reviewers have, that pianist Jack Holliday (a member of The Orchestra) also plays his heart out here. It certainly couldn’t have been comfortable for him to follow Bird at this high a level, but his solo is more than credible and I give him high marks for at least trying. (Could you have come up with something as good?)

Scrapple From the Apple is also highly inventive if lacking in the sheer muscularity of his Anthropology solo. What I always find so amazing about Bird is not the rapid-fire sixteenths but the way he dovetails his phrases. As in the case of Django Reinhardt, one of the few jazz musicians of that time on his level, it’s not just the speed of his playing that impresses but the high quality of the content. Here, for instance, Charlie Byrd, a really fine guitarist, plays the middle chorus, but Byrd isn’t close to Parker’s level of invention. Oh, how I wish Django had been stateside at the time and sat in! Pianist Bill Shanahan, a name unknown to me, plays a really fine solo on Out of Nowhere. After what sounds like a cadenza before the closing couple of bars, Parker suddenly ramps up the tempo and launches into a splendid version of Now’s The Time. Trombonist Kai Winding makes a surprise appearance on this tune only. His solo fits in beautifully by trying not to be Bird. Yet another surprise is a multi-chorus cameo from Zoot Sims, who likewise plays in eighths rather than sixteenths and contributes a really nice solo; Winding comes back in when he’s done for another go-round while Parker and Zoot play some really nice riffs behind him. This is a rare example of the kind of invention that Parker probably came up with regularly when working with slightly larger groups, and it shows how well he could fill in behind another soloist. Charlie Walp, another member of The Orchestra, contributes a really fine trumpet solo, now with Winding joining the two saxists behind him. Call me crazy, but this is one of my new all-time favorite Parker tracks.

I’m not quite sure why producer Bruce Lundvall chose to interview Red Rodney for the original LP issue, but he tells us exactly what I mentioned above, that Parker could just fall into any musical setting without much or any rehearsal and produce pure genius. One of the more amusing stories here was his getting his plastic saxophone, which he played on and off as he needed money and so kept pawning his brass Selmer. “I think he could have played a tomato can and made it sound great,” Rodney tells us, “and he was really a shy, humble person, and he was thoughtful and considerate of other people.”

Just about the only negative I have of this album is that the cover illustrations look only vaguely like Charlie Parker. Other than that, this is one of the indispensable “live” Bird albums.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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