Fumio Yasuda Digs Satie!

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MUSIQUE D’ENTRACTE / SATIE: Les 3 valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté: No. 2. Son binocle. Pièces froides: No. 2. Danses de travers. Caresse. Cinema: entr’acte symphonique de Relache. Messe des pauvres: Dixit domine. Sports et divertissements: XVII. Le Tango perpetual. Relâche, Act I: Danse des Hommes – Danse de la Femme. Pièces froides: No. 1. Airs à faire fuir. Avant-Dernières pensées: III. Méditation. Tendrement. Le fils des étoiles: Prélude du premier acte – La vocation. Messe des pauvres: Prière pour le salut de mon âme. Vexations (all arr. by Yasuda) / Fumio Yasuda, pianist; Joachim Badenhorst, clarinetist/bass clarinetist/saxophonist; Julie Läderach, cellist/speaker / Winter & Winter 910241-2

Here’s something different in the normal run of Erik Satie recordings: a clutch of some of the composer’s lesser-known pieces, arranged for a trio of piano, clarinet or saxophone and cello. Just about the only ones I was pretty familiar with prior to hearing his set were the excerpts from Pièces froides and Sports et divertissements and Caresse. Recorded in Bordeaux in October 2016 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Satie’s birth, apparently far away from the murders, rapes and bombings that have plagued France for some years now, Yasuda and his trio were able to find a safe space to indulge themselves in what Satie liked to call “Musique d’ameublement” (which translates roughly as “Music as furniture” or “Musical furniture”). Satie wanted these pieces to “fit into a room” the same as tables or chairs, to be part of the overall ambience, observed but not paid attention to. It’s a style that goes beyond what our modern-day “ambient music” composers create.

A couple of things that struck me in these performances were the generally firm attack and no-nonsense approach of Yasuda and the gentle, almost flute-like playing of Badenhorst. I’ve become so used to pianists with soft-grained, almost dreamy styles playing Satie that it was a bit of a shock at first to hear his style, but it works because of the soft-grained quality of the clarinet and cello. In a piece like Cinema: entr’acte symphonique de Relache, where the tempo was faster and the dynamics louder, the stronger attack of Yasuda made perfect sense. (I should also note here that when the clarinet first entered with a mewling sort of whine, my cat Fluffy woke up and stared at the speakers…she thought it was another cat!) Although I’m normally opposed to transcriptions—90% of them sound junky to me and don’t really do the music any favors—these arrangements by Yasuda were just so imaginative and weird in their own Satie-like way that I fell in love with them. And that’s saying something!

In a piece like Messe des pauvres, Yasuda’s playing does take on a gentler perspective, but even here his attack is crisp, avoiding the use of pedal or warmth. This may sound like a negative to some readers, but as I say, I liked it. On this track, too, we hear Badenhorst playing bass clarinet; in Le Tango perpetuel from Sports et divertissements we hear Yasuda playing a prepared piano that sounds a bit like a tangent piano or harpsipiano, while Läderach speaks a few lines and Badenhorst squawks and toots on an alto sax. Läderach later contributes a pizzicato solo that sounds much like a jazz musician slapping his bass. The whimsical, nutty side of Satie is most definitely brought out here!

Yasada’s playing in Danse des Hommes – Danse de la Femme sounds partly imrovised to me, and Badenhorst’s clarinet definitely falls into the Benny Goodman school of bending the rhythm. Come to think of it, Goodman would have had a ball playing some of these scores! There’s also something in the way Yasuda plays the rhythms and notes of the Meditation from Avant-Dernières pensées that reminds one of a jazz performance, and on this track Badenhorst is back on alto sax, playing in an acceptable Lee Konitz mold. At the beginning of Tendrement, Yasuda’s playing sounds for all the world like the late Bill Evans. I swear it! He has Evans’ phrasing absolutely down pat…yet the music is still Satie. In the second half, the piece becomes a gentle French waltz for piano and clarinet, the latter playing in his lower or chalumeau register.

Les filles des étoiles is the strangest performance on the album, starting with what sounds like small waves or splashing water, the piano playing crushed chords and the clarinet sounding like a wounded sea gull. I’m not sure that even Satie himself would recognize this one, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. More strange sounds in the excerpt from Messe des pauvres, including the cello opening, bowed in its extreme low range, then having the cello and clarinet play in unison after the first piano statement. Later in the piece, both piano and cello dwell in the sonic basement yet again, producing sounds reminiscent of Debussy’s The Engulfed Cathedral (ironically, Debussy was one of the few “legitimate” composers of his time who actually liked and understood Satie). Badenhorst, now back on alto, comes into the fray playing lines that, again, sound improvised at times, particularly when he increases the volume and intensity, playing what jazz musicians refer to as “outside” music (outside the underlying harmony).

Musique d’Entracte is definitely an album that falls between the cracks of classical and jazz. Fumio Yasuda leads the listener there slowly but surely, through a series of performances that begin in the classical vein but gradually morph into something much odder and stranger. Nothing could be further from Satie’s original score, for instance, than the closer, Vexations, with its toy-piano-sounding chords played by Yasuda and the equally odd-sounding contributions of Badenhorst on clarinet and bass clarinet. We started very much in the center of Erik Satie’s musical mind but ended up squarely in Yasuda’s. Very highly recommended for those listeners who don’t mind taking musical chances!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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