Minnaar’s Surprisingly Passionate Fauré

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FAURÉ: Nocturnes: No. 1 in e-flat min.; No. 7 in c-sharp min.; No. 13 in b min. Barcarolles: No. 3 in G-flat; No. 12 in E-flat. Thème et Variations en c-sharp min. Impromptu No. 5 in f-sharp min. 9 Préludes, Op. 103. Romance sans Paroles in A-flat, Op. 17 No. 3 / Hannes Minnaar, pianist / Challenge Classics CC72731 (CD & DVD: the DVD contains the same program as the CD plus a concert registration)

I have to be honest: I didn’t approach listening to this album with a high degree of expectation, not because I didn’t like the music of Gabriel Fauré but because I didn’t know the playing of pianist Hannes Minnaar at all and thus didn’t expect much. Why? Not because I was pre-judging Minnaar but because I know from long and bitter experience that too many modern pianists come to the music of late Romantics with a completely Objectivist approach, which generally means brisk tempi and clean playing but absolutely no feeling. Or, which is worse, they come to it with a desire to be too mooshy-gooshy romantic, which absolutely kills the music.

For me, Fauré was one of those unusual late Romantics whose music cries out for a rare balance of feeling and coolness. His famous Requiem is perhaps the most noted example of his art, and it, too, seldom receives the kind of performances it deserves. But pianist Minnaar, as it turns out, is a gem of an artist. He understands Fauré’s unusual aesthetic to the hilt; he knows how to balance the cleanliness of his digital articulation with a combination of delicacy and straightforwardness, how to introduce subtle moments of rubato and when not to, and in the end he produces a very satisfying recital of this composer’s piano music.

Yes, there were a few moments when I wished Minnaar would have pulled back a bit on the headlong tempo and give a shade more relaxation to the music, but not many. For the most part he maintains a firm grasp on the music’s structure, and that in itself compensates for much in the way of its unfolding structure. A good example of both things is his performance of the Barcarolle No. 3. Minnaar keeps everything in control and reveals the music’s underlying structure splendidly, yet at times I wished he would have relaxed just a bit on the tempo to provide a more barcarolle-like feeling. Still, what one hears is valid and there are indeed subtle touches here and there that let you know that Minnaar is indeed thinking about the music he plays.

A perfect example of what I mean is the Thème et Variations en c-sharp minor that immediately follows the Barcarolle. Here, Minnaar shows us why he is so well suited to playing his music, alternating his straightforward and poetic styles in turn as the music demands. Were he to play the entire series of variations as he played the dreamy opening theme, we would quickly lose interest, but he keeps us involved by keeping himself involved. Interestingly, the pianist almost draws out a Russian feeling in the sixth variation, marked “Molto più moderato.” Minnaar also has plenty of sensitivity for the Nocturnes, which are exquisitely fashioned as if cut delicately out of lace. There are also a few hints of Debussy in this piece.

The Nine Preludes of 1910-11 show that the mature Fauré was virtually unchanged in either form or harmonic use, but they are charming pieces, well played. The Nocturne in B minor is a very late piece (1921) and less dreamy than the earlier Nocturne on this disc. Minnaar’s recital ends with the Romance sans paroles, a charming salon-type piece.

This is a fine representation of Fauré’s piano music for those who like it, and I recommend it as such.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Kletzki’s & Marek’s Symphonies Come to Life

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KLETZKI: Symphony No. 2, Op. 18.* MAREK: Sinfonia Brevis, Op. 28 / Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; *Mariusz Godlewski, baritone; Thomas Rösner, conductor / Musiques Suisses MGBCD6289

Czesław Marek (1891-1985) and Paul Kletzki (1900-1973) , born nine years apart, came from different parts of Poland—Kletzki in the Czarist or “Russian” sector and Marek in the Austrian section—but moved to Warsaw by the mid-1920s and were friendly rivals. Marek studied piano in Vienna with Theodor Leschetizky and composition with Karl Weigl and Hans Pfitzer, while Kletzki, born in Łódz, studied philosophy (not music) at the University of Warsaw before moving to Berlin in 1921, where he switched to music.

Both were considered fine composers of that time. I found it interesting to note on Wikipedia that Kletzki’s music was championed during the 1920s by both Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler, and in fact the latter invited him to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in 1925, so Kletzki was already getting his feet wet as a conductor that far back. Of course, he had to flee Nazi Germany in 1933 because he was Jewish. He lived in Italy for a time, but when Mussolini began ramping up his anti-Semitism he moved to Switzerland. By 1942 he gave up composing, citing the stress and depression of the world situation for killing his muse, and after the war he emerged as one of the finest conductors of his time.

Marek, it turns out, was particularly noted for this one-movement Sinfonia, Op. 28, for large orchestra, which won first prize in the Polish section of the 1928 International Columbia Graphophone Competition celebrating the centenary of Schubert’s death. (Kurt Atterberg won the prize in the Western European segment of the competition.) Interestingly, though Marek was older than Kletzki, he, too abandoned composition, at age 43. Thus I was interested to hear the music of both composers.

Kletzki’s Symphony, ostensibly in G minor, does not sound it, but rather its long (18:40) first movement rambles along in a jocular bitonal way. This movement is interesting and obviously well written, but to my ears it tends to repeat its motifs a bit too much, at least until 15:12 when the tempo slows down and a more lyrical theme in E-flat major is heard. Even so, you can hear why both Furtwängler and Toscanini liked his music: it’s modern but also rather lyrical and sounds more like Nielsen than Mahler, whose symphonies both conductors detested. This is especially evident in the soaring, lyrical second movement, which despite its occasional “close chords” retains its basic tonality, cleverly shifting from G-flat to G major. It is also rigorously structured, much more so than the music of many other conductor-composers like Bruno Walter, Felix Weingartner and Furtwängler himself. The second movement also contains a brief but well-written fugue and a nice canon for strings. Another unusual feature of this symphony is the third movement, which is an “Andante con moto” rather than the expected “Scherzo,” yet still jogs along at a rather jocular pace with a quirky theme in triplets for the strings. The last movement, marked “Pesante,” actually begins slowly, with a pensive and slightly edgy melody played by violas and cellos, then moving to the winds for further exploration. Then—surprise!—we hear a

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Karl Stamm

baritone singing, more in the style of Strauss than Mahler, although there are some clearly Mahlerian touches in the orchestral writing (though not like Das Lied von der Erde). This is by far the most striking and original movement in the entire symphony, and to a certain extent it almost doesn’t seem to fit with the first three movements, just as the last movement of Beethoven’s Eroica doesn’t really fit with the first three. Yet it is an extremely interesting piece taken on its own terms, and I found myself drawn to it. The text, by poet Karl Stamm who died at age 29 after contracting the Spanish flu, translates into English as follows:

Sleep, sleep, o world!
Silently the night approaches,
All longing is silent
And fulfills the time.
Sleep, sleep, o man!
What do you cry out of the dreams?
Soul, do not be afraid!
Behold, I bear the worlds,
In me glows your pain,
So, with all grown together,
I approach the Creator.

Listen: the Eternal is good
If we do not recognize him.
Faith: when we burn,
He burns his own blood!
(You quietly smile,
Think 🙂 what would be a god,
Who are created to torment,
To suffer unhappy need? …
No, he created happiness!
(Without Peace and Rest,
Without joy and splendor
Then God would not be God either.)

Sleep, sleep, o world!
Everything is longing.
Still is every mouth,
Fills the time.

By contrast, Marek’s large (28 minute) one-movement symphony unfolds in large, dramatic waves of sound, unfolding and sweeping all before them. It’s definitely post-Romantic, yet it retains a certain element of Strauss about it if not the language or syntax of Strauss. Unlike Kletzki, who tended to ramble a bit, Marek has a completely clear vision of where this music is going and how to get there. There is scarcely a wasted note or gesture in the entire symphony; his musical ideas are taut and completely under control, yet at the same time fresh and surprising. His orchestration, too, is unusual, tending towards very lean sonorities with very little “fat” in the scoring. In this respect he almost seems to be a bridge between Sibelius and Roy Harris, if you catch my meaning. It’s very easy to hear why this work won a prize; it’s an undiscovered gem, a true work of genius. Around 10:30 the volume increases, the tempo changes and we get a “punchy” section with brass and percussion that is quite dramatic—yet again, it all fits into the overall scheme of things. By the 17-minute mark the music becomes decidedly Romantic in spirit but not entirely in construction; this is the slow middle section, lyrical but not sappy.

Eventually drama returns, and when it does it is powerful indeed, almost with a hint of military fury in its forward stomp and drive. Conductor Rösner really has his forces worked up into a frenzy here, and appropriately so; this is tremendously dramatic music, grabbing the listener by the collar and not letting go. Great stuff! Later, we reach a dark, quiet section dominated by low winds (what sounds to me like a bass clarinet) with soft tremolo strings playing high above.

For their time and place, these are excellent symphonies well worth hearing, although neither composer comes close to the imagination and mysticism of Karol Szymanowski. These are the world premiere recordings of both symphonies, and conductor Thomas Rösner does a fine job with them, imbuing both with energy and spirit. The Polish National Radio Symphony plays extremely well for him, not missing a single nicety of expression or turn of phrase as the music goes along. In addition, the sonics are relatively natural, with excellent clarity as well as a bit of space around the instruments.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Mulligan’s Great Early Arrangements in Stereo

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GENE KRUPA PLAYS GERRY MULLIGAN ARRANGEMENTS / MULLIGAN: Bird House (2 tks). Mulligan Stew. The Way of All Flesh. Birds of a Feather. DAVIS-CONRAD-ROBINSON: Margie (2 tks). PORTER: Begin the Beguine (2 tks). PINKARD-MITCHELL-ALEXANDER: Sugar. KRUPA-MULLIGAN: Disc Jockey Jump (2 tks). YOUMANS-CAESAR-GREY: Sometimes I’m Happy. HAMILTON-LEWIS; How High the Moon (2 tks). AYER-GRAY: If You Were the Only Girl in the World. PARKER: Yardbird Suite. MacDONALD-HANLEY: Indiana / Al DeRisi, Al Stewart (3), Doc Severinsen, Ernie Royal, Marky Markowitz (tracks 4-11), tpt; Billy Byers (tracks 1-3, 12), Eddie Bert (tracks 1-3, 12), Jimmy Cleveland, Kai Winding, Urbie Green (tracks 4-11), Willie Dennis (tracks 4-11), tbn; Phil Woods, Sam Marowitz, a-sax; Ed Wasserman, Frank Socolow, t-sax; Danny Bank, bar-sax; Hank Jones, pn; Barry Galraith, gt; James Gannon, bs; Gene Krupa, dm / Verve 8195063 or available for free streaming on YouTube: Sometimes I’m Happy, others here.

After listening to Mark Masters’ rearrangements of pieces by Mingus and Mulligan, I was in the mood to re-listen to some of the latter’s early arrangements for the great post-War Gene Krupa band. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that the great drummer had re-recorded a clutch of them in stereo for Norman Granz’s Verve label in 1958 and, moreover, that the assembled band was comprised of some of the very best musicians of the day!

Needless to say, my enthusiasm was not dimmed by the actual listening experience. Say what you will about many modern jazz arrangers and composers, and I’ll say a lot of nice things about them, but the freshness of concept that existed in what I refer to as the “progressive swing” period (1945-49) remains as fresh and vital today as it did then. All of these arrangers, bursting with new ideas and excited to try them out, provided us with some of the most innovative big band music of all time: George Handy, Eddie Finckel, Gil Evans, Tadd Dameron, Gil Fuller, Eddie Sauter and Mulligan, each with his own distinctive voice and way of voicing instruments combined with harmonic daring and a way of “filling space” that many of our modern arrangers could learn from.

It’s amazing how many of the pieces here were dedicated to Bird, or Charlie Parker, even when the basic rhythmic concept was still swing and not bop. He was already a very potent force in the jazz world c. 1946, and it shows. I was also pleasantly surprised by the way young Mulligan (he was only 16 when he first joined Krupa!) came up with innovative introductions and counter-melodies to even some of the most well-worn or banal tunes on this set, such as Indiana, Sometimes I’m Happy, Begin the Beguine, Margie and Sugar. These arrangements still sound fresh and different today, with voice leadings and altered chords that were quite daring back then.

In addition to all this, we are graced with solos by some of the very greatest musicians of the 1950s, all in their prime. For those who don’t know, trombonist Eddie Bert was a veteran of Red Norvo’s early-1940s band as well as Charles Mingus’ 1955 Jazz Workshop group, and saxist Frankie Socolow was a mainstay of the 1940s Boyd Raeburn band. Trombonist Willie Dennis also played briefly with Mingus. This was quite a band!

The extra track from this session, Indiana, and all of the alternate takes are, for some reason, only in mono sound, but very fine mono sound. But that should not deter you from exploring and acquiring this recording. This is big-band jazz of a very high order, one of several testaments to the exploratory nature of Gene Krupa’s quest for creative jazz. I’m sure there are still many people who think that Krupa left Benny Goodman over salary squabbles, but I don’t see it that way. In fact, one could argue that both Krupa and Harry James left the Goodman band because they had a different concept of jazz and were getting tired of the Fletcher Henderson sound. Of course, neither one could have foreseen when they left in 1938 that Benny would completely revamp his orchestra with those innovative Eddie Sauter and Mel Powell arrangements in 1940, but only Krupa would probably have been happy in that environment. James wanted more of a combination of Count Basie drive with schmaltzy string arrangements. Krupa almost immediately made his own band sound modern with such tunes as Let Me Off Uptown and just kept on going with Anita O’Day and Roy Eldridge riding the wave with him until Mulligan came around in 1946.

I can’t say enough about this album but don’t want to spoil all the surprises for you. Just dig in, and enjoy!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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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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