Alex Goodman Surprises on New Release

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SECOND ACT / GOODMAN: Questions. The First Break. Departure. Losing Cool Introduction. Losing Cool.* Empty.* Heightened.* Sharon. Welcome to New York. Apprehension.* Acrobat* / Alex Goodman, gtr; Matt Marantz, t-sax; Eden Ladin, pno/el-Rhodes; Rick Rosato, bs; Jimmy McBride, dm; *Felicity Williams, Alex Samaras, voc / Lyte Records LR040

My sources who send me jazz CDs to review know that I generally stay clear of jazz guitarists. It’s that that I find their playing musically uninteresting, but that I normally find them emotionally uninteresting. Ever since Charlie Byrd hung up his instrument, we’ve been inundated with jazz guitarists who have no heart and no soul in their playing. Everything is low-key and soft to the point of being innocuous. Where are our modern-day Frank Vignolas? And why is Vignola the lone wolf in a sea of boring jazz guitarists?

No one could ever call Alex Goodman boring. He plays with a rhythmic lift and shifting dynamics that make one sit up and take notice. And his band plays the same way. This album, due out June 23, is straightahead jazz but very fine jazz nonetheless. His compositions have an interesting form and structure, they are attractive, and his extremely talented band plays them with GUTS. So too does Goodman, and he achieves this without resorting to the lamest of fallbacks, a rock beat. He’s a jazz cat, and a good one.

Just listen to the way the band tears into the opening number here, Questions, and particularly how Goodman comes charging in for his solo. This is no musical wimp! He knows what he wants to say, and says it without compromise or effete playing. The First Break has a quirky, asymmetrical tempo, led by a charging Jimmy McBride on drums, with Goodman and Marantz playing the opening theme in unison. I noticed while listening that Goodman’s guitar seems to have been recorded in a discrete space from the rest of the band, with a bit more reverb around his instrument. I wasn’t particularly happy with it, but by and large it wasn’t terribly annoying either. His second chorus skips around the music with a deftness and drive I haven’t heard since Charlie Byrd. Departure is a real hard-rhythmed piece, starting out almost like something by Lennie Tristano, in which the full band contributes mightily; and even in the relatively low-key Losing Cool Introduction, played solo by Goodman, the guitarist maintains a strong musical profile, sounding quite a bit like the legendary Django Reinhardt in his use of hard downstrokes of the pick. When the tune proper arrives, the band plays a repeated riff by was of introduction, giving way to an excellent solo by Ladin. The band really enjoys this one!

I was less happy with Empty, however, because of its strong rock beat. I don’t like rock or fusion, although this was one of a handful of tracks on the album using the wordless vocals of Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras as color in the band. Halfway through, I just couldn’t take any more of it so I skipped ahead to Heightened. This, by contrast, was a wonderful piece, atmospheric and moody, and Goodman deftly weaves the voices of Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras into the texture. This almost had a “Twilight Zone”-type feel to it, particularly in the beginning, before breaking out into a joyously swinging piece. At 3:20, we get a wonderful break played by Marantz and Goodman with Williams’ voice swinging in the background. Goodman really flies on this one!

Sharon begins as a ballad but quickly moves into a quasi-rock beat, not as aggressively as Empty but, still, rock. This is one of the tunes on which Ladin plays an electronic Rhodes clavichord, to good effect, and Marantz really swings hard on this one. When Goodman enters, the tempo halves and he plays a remarkably soulful solo, imaginative and tasteful.

Welcome to New York is a really odd piece, with a multi-tonal melodic line that’s all over the place in its first eight bars—if you can properly call it a melody. It’s more a sequence of notes that happen to follow each other in a prescribed rhythm. When Goodman finally enters, it settles down in C, yet allows the guitarist to play around the tonality in an intriguing way, as does Ladin on the Rhodes. The rhythm, too, is loose and ambiguous, albeit inflected with a quasi-Latin-rock beat. I found it amusing that, after so much harmonic dalliance, the piece ended with a very definite C chord played by the whole band!

Apprehension follows, another amorphous melody though not quite as strange as the previous piece. The vocalists are fairly clear singing the opening line behind the instruments, and Marantz takes one of his most relaxed and creative solos on this one, eventually using double-time licks in a particularly interesting manner. Goodman, by contrast, plays more with the rhythm than the harmony in his solo, finding strange interstices in which to play some very creative lines while the singers wail in the background. This one ends on an unresolved chord.

The set closes with Acrobat, a ballad that begins in a free tempo with cymbal washes and piano arpeggios backing Goodman’s lovely guitar playing. We then move into 3 for Marantz’ solo with the vocalists behind him, later shifting to a more asymmetric beat before Ladin enters on electronic keyboard. The rhythm changes once more (possibly the reason for the piece’s title!) to a more conventional slow 4 as Goodman plays a plaintive solo.

Second Act is overall a splendid recording and a fine example of a modern band and guitarist who aren’t afraid to let go emotionally. I look forward to Goodman’s future work.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Mari Nobre’s “Live and Alive” a Hip Album

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LIVE AND ALIVE / JOBIM: Chega de Saudade. Retrato em Branco e Preto. Corocovado. GOLSON: Whisper Not. GERSHWIN: Fascinating Rhythm. NOBRE-LOCKWOOD: Linda. YOUNG-HEYMAN: When I Fall in Love. COHEN: Dance Me to the End of Love. DOMINGUEZ: Frenesi / Mari Nobre, voc; Leo Nobre, bs; Justo Almario, t-sax/fl; Angelo Metz, acoustic/electric gtr; Daniel Szabo, pn; Sandro Feliciano, dm / Chrome Records (no number) available at CD Baby (live: Los Angeles, Jan Popper Theater, May 27, 2016)

This CD came to me for review, perhaps, a few months too early. In my mind, anyway, good Latin jazz like this is perfect for summertime listening…a tall, sweaty glass of iced tea with lemon, or maybe a whiskey sour, sitting with your shoes off, grooving and moving to the music.

None of the pieces here are particularly challenging to the mind, but the arrangements are cleverly written (by Nobre’s husband-bassist Leo Nobre and Jovino Santos) and the band really swings. More interestingly, the engineers for this session—Nobre and Jeff Lesh—have somehow managed to capture the warmth and ambience of the Jan Popper Theatre on the campus of UCLA where this session was recorded. This makes it one of only two such records in my collection, the other being the Nash Ensemble’s fantastic recording of Debussy chamber works on Virgin Classics.

Nobre’s voice is a wonderful mixture of honey and brass. She can caress a line the way Lorraine Feather does, then ramp it up and belt out a bit like Dena DeRose or Diane Krall. And she always swings. She has the kind of jazz chops that come along all too rarely, the ability to sound hip even when riding the beat in a relaxed manner.

I was also very impressed by the playing of saxist-flautist Justo Almario. He stays within the harmonic parameters of each song, yet manages to infuse every phrase with energy and drive and improvise in a coherent and creative pattern. I found their version of Benny Golson’s Whisper Not particularly interesting; the turn it into a medium-tempo swing piece, rather different from its original form, and make it work. Generally speaking, however, his flute work came behind Nobre’s voice as a form of obbligato, as for instance in Jobim’s Retrato em Brance e Preto. A thought came to me: if Stan Getz had Nobre as his vocalist on those classic Jobim recordings of the early 1960s, he might never have complained of the singing as he did of “voiceless” Astrid Gilberto. Just listen, for instance, to the way she wails through her wordless chorus on Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm. Those are some pretty good vocal chops.

I particularly liked their arrangement of Jobim’s overly-familiar Corcovado (a.k.a Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars). Nobre slows down the tempo and caresses the notes rather than emphasizing the rhythm, almost transforming it into an entirely new piece. Guitarist Angelo Metz has a nice if brief solo on this one, as does pianist Daniel Szabo, and when Nobre returns she sings a chorus in perfect synch with Almario sax. Yes, I know these sort of things are planned in advance, but I’m always fond of them when they’re done well, as it is here.

Nobre’s original tune, Linda, is a medium-uptempo samba with a nice groove. This is the kind of Latin music I love, hip and swinging, and even at this quicker tempo Nobre manages to convey warmth in her singing. Her set ends with three established classics, When I Fall in Love, Dance Me to the End of Love and Frenesi, and Nobre does not disappoint. Her performance of the first put me in mind of Nat “King” Cole’s famous recording, except with a bit more of a Latin jazz push to the beat; her only accompanist here is Szabo, who moves deftly from sensitive accompanist to Nat Cole-like improvisation in his solo chorus. Leonard Cohen’s most famous song is, like Whisper Not, turned into a medium-tempo swing tune, with Nobre adding some deft, hip twists to the familiar melody. Hubby Nobre’s bass solo is also very tasteful.

Frenesi is yet another example of how Nobre and her band rearrange familiar tunes. She starts out by singing the rarely-heard introductory verse slowly and out-of-tempo, then launches into the more familiar chorus with a samba beat. What a terrific finish to a great set!

If you like Latin jazz, this is one album you simply won’t want to miss.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Tina Raymond’s “Left Right Left” a Wild Ride

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LEFT RIGHT LEFT / GUTHRIE: Pastures of Plenty. HOWE: Battle Hymn of the Republic. WARD: America. MILLS-GUTHRIE: Union Maid. MITCHELL: The Fiddle and the Drum. J.W. JOHNSON: Lift Every Voice and Sing. SMITH: Xxmas in Baghdad. White Flight. BAEZ: Saigon Bride. TRADITIONAL, arr. SEEGER-HAYS: If I Had a Hammer / Art Lande, pn; Putter Smith, bs; Tina Raymond, dm / Orenda 0039

I do not normally politicize my reviews; on the contrary, I try as much as possible to stay away from politics. But the proposition voiced by Tina Raymond in the booklet for this CD comes closer to reality than most anything else the left or the media has said since the November 8 election, thus I would like to quote some of what she says before reviewing the music and comment on it.

Raymond: I like to think there was a recognition of the value of both sides, an understanding that left and right are necessarily attached to the same animal.

This is what America has forgotten. We are one animal, and, when he pull away from one another, we are ripping this creature apart.

Since the country’s coasts are predominantly left-leaning and much of its central states are right-leaning, together we are LEFT RIGHT LEFT.

Many of us feel disillusioned, and so we have found ways to voice our opinions in protest. It is tumultuous, but it is also momentous. We are all trying to march forward in our own way, placing one foot in front of the other and chanting, “LEFT RIGHT LEFT.”

Me: You are correct. And no one wants to heal this country more than I do or, believe it or not, more than President Trump. But the opposition from the left post-election has been nothing short of insane, meaning completely divorced from reality, and all of the violence is being initiated by leftist groups.

I was bitterly disappointed when Barack Obama became president, but I had to face reality. I wished him well and hoped he could do something to fix things. I rooted for him when he passed his Stimulus Package, but was perplexed when it didn’t Stimulate anything but the pockets of high-powered union bosses. I didn’t riot in the streets. I didn’t hit Obama supporters with bricks, rocks or bike locks. And neither did anyone else on our side.

If you want to heal, please do the country a favor. Step back, take a deep breath, and give him at least two full years to fix things. I’m disappointed on a couple of key issues myself, but these are issues that he needs the Congress to help him implement, and let’s face it, the Republican Party is just as corrupt and non-helpful to regular working people as the Democratic Party. They are both in the pockets of the same Power Elites. So just rope in Antifa and the Women’s March with their hate-filled riots and rhetoric and let stuff happen. OK?

And now, back to our regular review.

Raymond and her talented group have some fun with the familiar pieces in this album, for instance playing in what sounds like a 7/4 rhythm in Woody Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty and skewering the harmony in Battle Hymn of the Republic (which also includes, wittily, a moment or two of purposely out-of-tune playing by Art Lande and a snippet of The Star-Spangled Banner). It’s the kind of musical humor one almost never hears nowadays except from drummer Matt Wilson’s bands or Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Although she is the nominal leader of the group, Raymond does not assert her presence as strongly as many another modern drummer I’ve heard; rather, she plays with just enough of a push, mostly from her creative use of cymbals and tasteful snare interjections to create an undulating pulse beneath the outstanding playing of pianist Lande and bassist Putter Smith. The latter, in fact, almost sounds like an extension of Raymond’s drums, so closely do they follow and complement each other.

Indeed, as the CD progressed I found myself more and more engrossed in what this talented trio was doing. It’s a sort of musical brinksmanship that’s not really showing off but rather a way of teasing the ear to draw the listener further into their musical imaginations. True to form, America is also rearranged, here using an almost calypso-style beat (albeit one with shifts in the stresses within each bar) and some modal harmonies borrowed from Bill Evans. Smith’s bass solos tend towards the melodic and linear, as well as helping the lay listener by generally staying within the parameters of tonal harmony. Listening to the manner in which Raymond plays drums, I almost got the impression that she was like a schoolteacher reining in her brilliant but “wayward” pupil (Lande).

Guthrie’s second tune on this disc, the well-known Union Maid (of which he only wrote the lyrics; the melody was a 1907 song by Kerry Mills about an Indian girl named Red Wing), is brought way down in tempo, played as a wistful ballad. This is a “union maid” who doesn’t seem to have any fight left in her; she’s sitting on the sidelines, wistful and missing the old days when she could go out and raise a little hell. Or maybe Raymond and her group had the story of Red Wing in mind?

Red WingThere once was an Indian maid,
A shy little prairie maid,
Who sang a lay, a love song gay,
As on the plain she’d while away the day;

She loved a warrior bold,
This shy little maid of old,
But brave and gay, he rode one day
To battle far away.

Similarly, Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum is so completely rewritten that I think even the song’s composer would have a hard time recognizing it. I know I did until I looked at the contents of the CD! It is, in fact, so deconstructed that it almost sounds like an avant-garde piece of free jazz, with Smith playing bowed bass, Lande interjecting atonal arpeggios and single-note melodic lines, and Raymond buoying the whole with her tasteful snare drum interjections. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a masterpiece of musical invention, and I strongly urge many a so-called “serious” composer nowadays to study its construction and development. I didn’t want it to end.

By contrast, James Weldon Johnson’s Life Every Voice and Sing emerges as a jazz waltz, its melody instantly recognizable. But this doesn’t mean that the trio’s treatment of it isn’t creative. On the contrary, they have a great deal of fun with it. As I was listening to it, my mind flashed on some of those wonderful interludes that the late Leon Russell used to play during his concerts, or the “bumper” music that G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live band played in the late 1970s-early ‘80s. Listen, for instance, to Lande’s gospel-flavored playing following Smith’s bass solo for an example of what I mean.

The first of Smith’s two originals, Xxmas in Baghdad (yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the album cover & booklet), has a strange bitonal feel at the beginning, thanks to the soft crushed chords underlying its opening lick. This quickly evaporates into gentle piano sprinkles over Smith’s bass solo, which in turn is deftly and sensitively accompanied by Raymond’s drums. Indeed, I can’t really say that this music really ever coalesces into a tune in the conventional sense of the word; it’s a story told by allegory.

Another remarkable transformation occurs in Joan Baez’ Saigon Bride, which starts with Smith playing a walking bass while Lande plays the strings of the piano. Incidentally, I should point out that most of these songs’ remarkable and stunning arrangements were written by Raymond herself, for which she deserves tremendous credit. As jazz composer-arranger Byron Olson once wrote to me, “arranging is composing,” and this was as true of the kind of work Gil Evans, Tony Scott and Charles Mingus did with older tunes as what Raymond does here. Once again, the mood is quiet and contemplative but the musical intricacy is astonishing. Only about a third of the way through the piece do we recognize, briefly, the melody of the original song; the rest is continual creativity on the part of the trio.

Smith’s second tune, White Flight, bears a slight resemblance to Bill Evans’ T.T.T.T. (Twelve Tone Tune Two), though he does not employ a strict 12-tone technique. Rather, after a somewhat plaintive opening, it develops into an uptempo swinger, and here Raymond shows what an excellent and creative drummer she is, playing a really terrific solo with a variety of rhythms. Here, too, bassist Smith plays one of his most harmonically adventurous solos, going outside the tune’s changes and exploring new nooks within its framework. The deceptive simplicity of Lande’s playing fools the ear into thinking he is staying within the confines of basic tonality when in fact he is not.

The CD concludes with a witty, gospel-jazz treatment of Pete Seeger’s and Lee Hays’ famous If I Had a Hammer. Here the melody is instantly recognizable despite the swinging beat; it almost sounds like a genial, relaxed ride-out to what is clearly a complex and thoughtful concept album. There is so much more I could say about virtually every track on this disc; it is simply wonderful, and I think you’ll find it as delightful as I did!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Kazakh String Quartet Impresses With Intense Music

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SAGYRBAYULY: Adai (arr. Uzembayeva). ZHUBANOVA: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. TOLEGEN: Saltanat (arr. Shildebayev). ZHAIYM: String Quartet No. 1. QAZANGAPULY: Kos Besar (arr. Arman). ABDIMOMYN: Yerke Sylkym (arr. Uzembayeva) / Kazekh State String Quartet / Divox CDX-21501-6

Here’s something different: an album of music composed by Kazakhstan musicians over a period of almost 200 years, starting with famed 19th-century folk musician and dombra player Kurmangasy Sagyrbayuly, whose Adai will perk you up and grab your attention. Evidently composed for the dombra, it is arranged here for string quartet and playing with considerable verve by the Kazekh State String Quartet.

Yet even the more formal compositions of Gaziza Zhubanova (1927-1993), a People’s Artist of the USSR, has much of the same rhythmic verve and harmonic modality, only tidied up and presented in formal dress. In addition to the two string quartets presented here, she also wrote three operas, symphonies and concertos, four ballets, six oratorios, five cantatas and more than 30 chamber works. I was particularly struck by her ability to create moods even within the context of her formal structures, at times leaning towards folk melodies and at others towards a strict musical development. This is particularly evident in the slow movement of the first quartet, where Zhubanova employs a repeated sequence of pizzicato chords by the two violins while the cello and viola weave a spell in the foreground, sometimes playing apposite lines and sometimes combining with each other, after which the violins join the fray and the music picks up in both tempo and intensity, almost going “outside” the established tonality as jazz musicians like to put it. A bit later it’s the viola and second violin which play the pizzicato chords while the first violin and cello play against each other some three octaves apart. In the last movement, very terse at only 2:20, she pushed the envelope even further with astringent chords and choppy, almost abrasive rhythms, yet maintains a cohesive discourse.

Our next composer, Mombekov Tolegan (1918-1997), was also a virtuoso dombra player, and the composition presented here, Saltanat, is also arranged for string quartet. This piece, though quieter and less energetic than Adai, still retains its folk-like harmonies and melodic shape; the piece is played almost completely in pizzicato.

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Two views of a dombra

Arman Zhaiym is the youngest composer presented here, having been born in 1983. He graduated at age 18 and entered the Kazakh National Conservatory the same year; he has already written more than 100 works in different genres. Needless to say, his string quartet is thoroughly modern in outlook and harmony, using far more atonality and close chords than his predecessors, yet it, too, maintains a high energy level based on traditional Kazakh folk rhythms. The first movement, in particular, has a savage intensity that must be heard to be fully appreciated, though it later morphs into a hypnotic sing-song pattern at a slower tempo, ending with weird, soft flutters in the strings’ upper range. The lively yet edgy second movement could easily be mistaken for a folk dance in energy if not in its form—though it, too, morphs into a quieter piece roughly halfway through. The third movement, nominally a scherzo, has nothing light or jolly about it but is rather the most consistently savage movement of them all, while the fourth, marked “Doloroso,” maintains its sorrowful mood from start to finish. It’s an unusual but emotionally powerful ending for this strange work.

Following Zhaiym we plunge backwards in time to the Kos Besar of Tattimbet Qazangapuly (or Kazangapuly, as it is sometimes spelled, 1815-1862). He was a diplomat and the head of a Kazakh state, a native kuishi composer and yet another dombra player. His piece is in a gentle, relaxed medium tempo, sounding equally folk-like and perhaps also a bit repetitive in musical material.

Zhubanova’s second string quartet begins more moodily than the first, with soft but abrasive chords emphasizing an edginess in the tone of the quartet’s instruments before moving out into equally mysterious but more lyrical passages. In the first movement she also used quiet pauses as a way of building tension. Indeed, the whole of this long movement (11:43) seems to me comprised of varying episodes of sound rather than a cohesive message; Zhubanova seems to be telling her story in allegory rather than in a linear fashion, although in the latter stages of his movement the strings do maintain a sustained and intense mood using long-held notes. By contrast the second movement, though 5:15 long, seems almost like a brief episode by comparison, yet here Zhubanova used an even wider array of string techniques to create a slithering world of modal glissando and portamento passages interspersed with on-the-edge bowing to create an emotional rift. And once again, she used space between sections of the movement to create suspense and heighten tension. This movement, despite beginning with edgy, rapid passages, also shifts gears into slow, moody music like the quartet of Arman Zhaiym. It closes out with a flurry of strange-sounding, soft string tremolos.

The recital closes out with Yerke Sylkym, another dombra piece transcribed for string quartet, by Zheldibaev Abdimomyn (1934 – ), who has written more than 70 works for Kazakh national instruments. Like the opening number, this one is also a peppy piece, played in G minor.

Overall, this was a pleasant and unexpected surprise for me, and I daresay that those of you who enjoy unusual Eastern European music will find it as satisfying as I did!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Reassessing Massenet’s “Le Cid”

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MASSENET: Le Cid / Theodor Hodges, baritone (Don Alonzo); Paul Plishka, bass (Don Diègue); Grace Bumbry, soprano (Chimène); Placido Domingo, tenor (Rodrigue/Le Cid); Jake Gardner, baritone (King Alfonso VI); Eleanor Bergquist, soprano (L’Infante); Arnold Voketaitis, bass (Count Gormaz); Clinton Ingram, tenor (Don Arias); Peter Lightfoot, bass (L’Envoye Maure); John Adams, bass (St. Jacques); Byrne Camp Chorale; Opera Orchestra of New York; Eve Queler, conductor / Sony Classical 888880973313 (Live: Carnegie Hall, New York, March 1976)

How many of you reading this, or people you know, own this recording and/or love this opera? Very few, I’ll bet. Yet this opera, and specifically this performance, are so good that once you hear them you may be wondering why on earth people still listen to Massenet’s far more rubbishy operas, such as Esclarmonde, Thaïs or Don Quixote, or even the terribly long and very uneven Manon, and not Le Cid. Yet its continued unpopularity is stunning. Although revived in 2014 for Roberto Alagna and infrequently performed nowadays, it is still considered an oddity, a rarity, and—this is what irritates me—“inferior” Massenet.

Witness, for instance, this excerpt from the Gramophone review when this recording was reissued on CD in 1990. Yes, the reviewer gives faint praise to the opera’s construction (more on that in a bit), but it is largely negative:

To an extent, the composer is out of his element, and his score often resorts to what LS in his original review called “empty gestures”: there’s a ready-made musical language, as in a film score, in which a certain kind of chord or orchestration indicates a moment of high tension, and so forth. Yet for all that, it does survive as an opera worth reviving from time to time—as a whole, that is, and not just in the famous (or once-famous) ‘bits’.

And what are those “bits”? Why, largely the ballet music, which is unquestionably among the greatest and most popular every written (despite no other commercial recording of the complete opera, there are multiple versions of the ballet music, although mostly without the chorus in the “Navarraise”) and the famous arias for Chimène and Rodrigue (Le Cid). You’d think this opera was as unpopular as Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, although when you scratch beneath the surface you might find that L’Africaine (if and when people actually hear it) is not really that unpopular either.

When you listen to the complete Le Cid…well, at least when I listened to the complete opera…I was blown away. Yes, there is a live performance of this opera given in Washington in the early 1980s, also featuring Domingo as Le Cid, with more exciting conducting by one Emmanuel Villaume, but the Chimène and Don Diègue are not particularly good singers. Moreover, as the opera picks up steam Eve Queler’s conducting is as good as any I have heard in any given scene, even when comparing her to the old 1901 Mapleson cylinder excerpts featuring the lead role’s creator, Jean de Reszke. (The other big name singers in the original cast were Jean de Reszke’s younger brother Edouard, the resonant baritone Léon Melchissidec, elegant basso Pol Plançon and a name completely forgotten today, Fidès Devriès. as Chimène.)

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Original LP cover

Yes, Le Cid is a “pageant opera,” written for a special occasion, as was Verdi’s Aida. Yes, it is evident that, in writing such a work  (which was not his regular style). Massenet closely studied the grand operas of both Meyerbeer and Verdi (both Aida and Don Carlo). But the final product, although using techniques and structure from those earlier works, was by no means derivative or unoriginal. Not a single note in Le Cid sounds like Meyerbeer or Verdi; it all sounds like Massenet and only like Massenet; but the music has so much more vigor, drive and excitement in it that it sounds like Massenet on steroids.

The “crowd scenes,” composed for the chorus, is one such indication. Both Meyerbeer and Verdi were masters of choral writing, and this something that Massenet was not that heavily involved in, thus when he approached Le Cid he had to extend his technique in that specific kind of composition, but I would argue that the choral writing in Le Cid is Massenet’s finest. He also showed that, like Verdi but unlike Meyerbeer, who often inflated his crowd scenes for visual effect, Massenet knew how to write such scenes with deft, quick strokes. “O noble lame,” the scene celebrating Rodrigue’s knighthood, comes and goes in almost no time at all. Meyerbeer would sure have made this a ten-minute extravaganza.

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Bombry, Domingo, Queler and Plishka after the 1976 performance

Another striking resemblance yet difference comes in the third act, which is structured almost exactly the same as the first scene of Act IV of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. We have an introduction, a soprano aria, and then a long soprano-tenor duet, in fact the dramatic centerpiece of the opera. I fully admit that Meyerbeer’s soprano-tenor duet is one of the most masterful things he ever composed and that Massenet didn’t quite hit the same heights in his duet; yet the music is both melodically and dramatically interesting, and the mere fact that he avoided any resemblance to the similar duets in Huguenots and Don Carlo tells you that he understood the basic nature and function of such a piece from a dramatic standpoint, and he delivers with one of his own best duets ever.

Unless you’ve heard the complete opera, you also don’t know how Rodrigue’s famous aria, “O souverain, o juge, o pêre,” really goes. In the context of the opera, towards the end, the tenor sings one repeated note in his phrase while a choir of celestial angels and the voice of St. Jacques are heard intertwining around him. Another masterstroke, and one the majority of opera lovers have never heard.

As for the performance, it is splendid. The little-known singers who fill the roles of King Alfonso, Count Gormaz, the Infante and Don Arias all had wonderful voices and outstanding thespian skills. Grace Bumbry, here at the beginning of her soprano years, was still in full control of her upper range, which here surprisingly resembles that of Martina Arroyo. I am not a big fan of Placido Domingo, generally finding his voice to be tight, dry and strained on the top, and so I will not say that his singing here is ideal (by rights, this role should have been sung by Jon Vickers, whose large, warm voice had some resemblance to that of Jean de Reszke), but he gives it his all and surprisingly manages a few moments of tenderness atypical of him. It is certainly better sung than the performance by Roberto Alagna on YouTube. Paul Plishka’s huge bass voice always sounded a bit loose in vibrato on radio and recordings, whereas in person it was as steady as a rock until it fell apart in the late 1980s, and he is splendid here. And as noted earlier, once past the overture and first scene, Queler’s conducting is terribly exciting and enlivening.

quelerOperFrankfurt-HRAll in all, then, this is a work that deserves to be performed much more often. But I noted that the last performance in France before 2015 was in 1919, right after World War I, and this was also generally the era in which Meyerbeer’s operas lost steam and fell out of the standard repertoire. Public taste for large-scale Grand Opera pageants simply changed during that period, but nowadays I don’t see any reason why both L’Africaine and Le Cid shouldn’t be getting first-rate performances by the best singers and conductors. They certainly deserve it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Ehnes Plays Beautiful Bach

Ehnes Bach

BACH: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006 / James Ehnes, violinist / Analekta AN28772-3

Recently, I previewed a new recording of the Bach Violin Sonatas and Partitas by a different violinist on another label. The performances were heartfelt and interesting, but the violinist in question insisted on using the historically unproved “straight tone” that is the new religion of musical academia, and thus the performances didn’t move me. I told the person who offered me the recording that although I would give this recording a good review, I would constantly be comparing him unfavorably to Mark Kaplan in his magnificent recording last year on Bridge.

Listening to the opening “Adagio” of the first sonata on this recording, I almost had the same reaction. It wasn’t that Ehnes’ playing wasn’t good—it most certainly was—but it didn’t strike me as exceptional. But as soon as he started in on the succeeding “Fugue: Allegro,” the emotional impact of the performance picked up several notches and I was hooked. I just had to hear what he did with the rest of the series.

By and large, I would say that Ehnes’ performances here are just as intense as those of Kaplan and the great Amandine Beyer (on Zig Zag Territoires), the only straight-tone violinist whose work I put on the same high level. That is a considerable achievement in a field where even so fine a player as Rachel Barton Pine falls short of that exalted level. If I still prefer Kaplan and Beyer, it is because their work is simply more imaginative and their tempos more flexible and buoyant. Ehnes maintains a steady tempo throughout each movement of each sonata and partita, only showing the very slightest use of rubato here and there by placing a slight bit of stress and a slightly elongated note within his phrases, but this in itself places him above the straight-toned violinist I chose not to review. Like Kaplan and Beyer, Ehnes sounds as if every note of every phrase means something to him. He achieves a direct emotional connection with the music that is refreshing and valuable in a crowded field of recordings going all the way back to Nathan Milstein.

Listen, for instance, to the slightly more pronounced rubato in the final phrase of the first partita’s “Allemande.” It’s almost as if Ehnes can’t bear to let the music go; he wants so badly to let it linger in the mind as he closes the movement out. Little touches like this are common in his readings, and they are what separates him from the violinist whose work I passed for review.

It’s a matter, I would say, of sincerity over mere intention. Perhaps some of my readers are old enough to remember It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! and Linus’ deeply-held belief that only a pumpkin patch that is the most sincere will be graced by a visit from the Great Pumpkin. Sincerity is one of those intangibles in every performance, and it goes beyond mere energy and pep. It is the reason I love the playing of super-virtuosos György Cziffra and Sviatoslav Richter but dislike, for the most part, the playing of Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich. Of course, millions of people can’t hear the difference, otherwise no one would buy Horowitz or Argerich recordings, and I can’t put it exactly into words for you. You just have to believe me when I say I hear the difference.

So does this Ehnes recording supplant the Kaplan or Beyer versions? Certainly not. They are unique in a different way. But it is equally interesting because he so obviously loves this music. Like most violinists who approach these monumental works, he has given them a great deal of thought, but unlike a great many of his peers he is able to deliver his own personal vision of that music.

Indeed, for those who may dislike the extra detail that Kaplan and Beyer put into their recordings, Ehnes represents a fine middle ground. He is the one you can turn to for a fine reading that is not too highly individual, just as one can turn to Zuill Bailey’s recording of the Bach Cello Suites if one is dissatisfied with Yehuda Hanani. I personally like the extra detailing of Kaplan and Beyer, but I could live with Ehnes if their recordings did not exist.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Lefkowitz-Brown Jumps in New Album

Chad Lefkowitz-Brown Onward Cover

ONWARD / LEFKOWITZ-BROWN: Onward. Franklin Street.* Deviation. Blues for Randy.* Impetuous. WONDER: Isn’t She Lovely? COLTRANE: Giant Steps. CARMICHAEL: The Nearness of You. PORTER: All of You / Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, t-sax; Steven Feifke, pn; Raviv Markovitz, bs; Jimmy MacBride, dm; *Randy Brecker, tpt / Scholz Productions (no number)

This is the second CD release by tenor saxist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and his quartet, with two of the tracks featuring guest artist Randy Brecker on trumpet. Lefkowitz-Brown attended the Brubeck Institute where he was able to play regularly with the school’s namesake, the late Dave Brubeck. He has also played with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, drummer Matt Wilson and David Sanchez.

The opening tune, Onward, comes at you like a jazz freight train. Lefkowitz-Brown is very obviously a fan of hard-bop tenor saxists; his tone is bright, lean and mean. His improvising style is also in a similar vein; there’s a bit of Harold Land, some Sonny Rollins and a touch of Coltrane in his playing. He enjoys running changes in a scalar fashion, occasionally tossing in some of Trane’s “sheets of sound” to break things up. Pianist Steven Feifke is also a strong player who attacks the keyboard aggressively yet with unbounded ecstasy. Bassist Markovitz is a steady force underpinning the goings-on, while drummer MacBride plays with the rhythm as the others keep to a steady forward beat.

The quartet also takes charge in their rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t she Lovely?, despite its overlaying of 3/4 in places. The simple tune is worked over in splendid fashion, here featuring Feifke in a more relaxed, almost pensive mood. When Lefkowitz-Brown returns, he ups the emotional level once again, but relaxes towards the end, allowing Feifke to play a repeated walking lick in the bass range of the piano which then leads to a final flourish from the saxist.

Lefkowitz-Brown’s original Franklin Street is a relaxed piece, one of two tracks featuring the great Randy Brecker on trumpet. And, wonder of wonders, Brecker is not just “tacked on” as a soloist but worked into the arrangement of the opening theme, playing in thirds with the saxist. Moreover, he is given the honor of being first up to solo, and his playing is as beautiful and well-organized as ever. An interesting moment occurs when Lefkowitz-Brown first enters: the bassist follows him underneath note for note and rhythm for rhythm. As expected, the saxist again ramps up the emotional feel of the piece, only to have it fall back to relaxation again when Feifke enters. Coltrane’s Giant Steps is almost a predictable success for Lefkowitz-Brown, but the surprise is that his version “jumps” more than the original. At one point, early on, Feifke cleverly plays walking single-note triplets to the saxist’s top line (a trick he repeats near the end). The pianist is unusually loose and febrile in his solo here, playing tight, well-ordered lines, and MacBride has a fine drum solo.

I’m always interested to hear modern jazz bands of any size approach old standards, just to see what they do with them. In the first instance here, Hoagy Carmichael’s lovely The Nearness of You, Lefkowitz-Brown completely respects both the melody and the mood, taking it at a romantic tempo very close to Glenn Miller’s famous recording of it. Here, too, his tenor takes on a bit more warmth, not quite on the same level as Hawk or Ben Webster but mellifluous and soft-grained nonetheless. The former mood resumes with Deviation, which sounds so much like a hard bop tune from the 1950s that I was a bit surprised to learn it was another original.

The other tune with Randy Brecker, appropriately titled Blues for Randy, is a funky-groove sort of piece, not too dissimilar to the kind of fusion the trumpeter played back in the 1970s with his late brother Michael. Both horn soloists seem to love this groove, jumping into it feet first and taking to it like ducks to water. Brecker, especially, almost sounds like a cooped-up boxer finally being allowed to spar in the ring, flying all over the place as he did 40 years ago. Bravo, Randy!

The final original piece here, Impetuous, is surprisingly relaxed and lyrical, almost in a bossa-nova beat and in fact feeling very much like one of the Jobim tunes that Stan Getz recorded in the early ‘60s. Lefkowitz-Brown, of course, has his own approach to this sort of piece and doesn’t even remotely try to resemble Getz. His playing is more angular in form and certainly more aggressive in tone. Feifke’s piano solo meanders a bit but pulls itself together in the second chorus for some outstanding improvisation. Lefkowitz-Brown tosses in a few tenor honks in the last chorus.

Unlike their treatment of The Nearness of You, the quartet takes on Cole Porter’s All of You in straightahead jazz style, full steam ahead, and makes the music really jump. The leader is especially good here, pushing and pulling back on the beat as he wends his way through the changes, and Feifke sounds very playful in his solo turn, eschewing complexity for relaxed, simple fun. It’s a good rideout to a generally splendid album.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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