Surprising New Recording of Saint-Saëns’ Rare Opera


SAINT-SAËNS: Proserpine / Veronique Gens, soprano (Proserpine); Marie-Adeline Henry, soprano (Angiola); Frédéric Antoun, tenor (Sabatino); Andrew Foster-Williams, baritone (Squarocca); Jean Teitgen, bass (Renzo); Mathias Vidal, tenor (Orlando); Philippe-Nicolas Martin, baritone (Ercole); Artavazd Sargsyan, tenor (Filippo/Gil); Clémence Tilquin, soprano (Une religieuse); Flemish Radio Choir; Munich Radio Orchestra; Ulf Schirmer, conductor / Ediciones Singulaires ES1027 (live: Munich, October 7 & 9, 2016)

Camille Saint-Saëns is largely known in the opera world for his masterpiece, Samson et Dalila, but of course he wrote other operas, among them Henry VIII, Ascanio, L’Ancêtre, Déjanire, Phryné, Frédégonde, Les Barbares and Hélène, of which only the first-named has held the boards on even a semi-regular basis. The same is true of Proserpine (the title of which I initially misread as Prosperine, evidently confusing her with a character in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

Saint-Saëns claimed this was the most Wagnerian of his operas, but my reaction to the score was that it sounded like a much better-written Manon or Adriana Lecouvreur. The music is generally lightweight in character, the voices bouncing around in pointillistic counterpoint like bubbles in a glass of champagne. Moreover the plot, which concerns a courtesan named after a goddess, is as complicated and busy as anything in the opéra-comique genre. At just 95 minutes long, it is also an awkward length to stage. It’s a bit too long to pair with another one-acter and too short to stage alone.

A friend of mine once remarked that some of these unusual operas I’ve written about have plots so convoluted that they make Il Trovatore look like plain sailing. Such is the case with Proserpine. The Italian courtesan (yes, she’s Italian) is giving a grand feast in her palazzo, disappointed that Sabatino, who she is in love with, hasn’t come. But of course he shows up eventually with his pal Renzo, whose sister Angiola he plans to marry on one condition: that he get over his passion for Proserpine by finally getting her in the sack. But typical of women “in those days,” she pretends she doesn’t love him madly and, as a high-ticket whore, offers to give him her body but not her soul.

But this is where, as they used to say, “the plot thickens,” and boy does it get thick. First we are introduced to Squarocca, a jewel thief who has just been caught at her party pilfering the pearls; Proserpine drags him before her, giving him a choice between prison and the orgy. I’ll let you decide which one he picks. Learning that Sabatino is about to be married, she forces Squarocca to do her bidding. Meanwhile, Angiola is cooling her heels at a convent in Turin. Her brother Renzo is announced along with “a sinner,” who turns out to be Sabatino, having triumphed over the lure of hell by fornicating with Proserpine. (Perhaps this is the part Saint-Saëns thought was most like Wagner, as the plot device is remarkably similar to that of Tannhäuser.) The conversation between Angiola and Sabatino is broken by the arrival of a group of pilgrims (again, something like Tannhäuser). Don’t ask me why, but Squarocca is hidden among the pilgrims, and he worries about telling Proserpine how beautiful Angiola is because she might get horribly jealous.

In Act Three, gypsies are dancing a tarantella in the mountains where Proserpine, disguised as one of them, greets Squarocca to give his report. Naturally, she is furious at the news, but the now-loyal Squarocca has tampered with the harness on the carriage in which Renzo and Angiola are traveling so that it breaks down (conveniently) right near the gypsy camp. Proserpine calls on the goddess whose name she bears to punish them while Squarocca, for no apparent reason, strikes up a drunkard’s song in which the travelers—having duly broken down their carriage—join in and come to spend the night. Proserpine pretends to tell Angiola’s future.

In the last act Sabatino, in his apartment, looks forward to the marriage that will purify his soul, but of course Proserpine shows up ahead of Angiola. Thowing herself at her feet, she admits that she has always loved him and begs for his heart, but he tells her nothing doing. Proserpine hides herself to witness the scene when Angiola finally arrives; finally, unable to stand any more, she rushes out and tries to stab Angiola with a stiletto (they don’t say whether or not it was a stiletto heel of her shoe). Sabatino wards off the blow, however, upon which Proserpine stabs herself and dies, blessing the couple on their happy union. The End.

For the most part the singing is good but not always great. Of course Veronique Gens, in the title role, is exquisite, and tenor Frédéric Antoun, as Sabatino, has a lovely French tenor tone if a slightly loose vibrato. Basso Jean Tietgen, as Renzo, also has a bit of a flutter in the voice. Andrew Foster-Williams, as Squarocca, has a wobble you could drive s truck through. I can’t really say that any of them project a character per se, but this is very much in the “true” French style of opera singing popular in Saint-Saëns day (see my article on the “death” of “true” French style). There are some ariosos for the singers, but by and large this is an ensemble opera featuring ensemble singing. I was particularly struck by the truly lovely trio in Act Two featuring Angiola, Sabatino and Renzo, which morphs into an even greater quintet with chorus. The confrontation scene between Proserpine and Angiola (sung splendidly by Marie-Adeline Henry) at the end of Act Three will stand your hair on end.

Proserpine picThe bottom line? The music of Proserpine far exceeds the plot in quality. Of course the same thing is true of the afore-mentioned Il Trovatore and several other operas in the standard repertoire. Unfortunately the plot, in addition to being convoluted, has even less relevance to modern audiences than La Traviata, which is also about a courtesan in love with one of her conquests. I noted that the performances from which the recording was made were given in concert and not onstage. That was a wise decision. Proserpine possibly does deserve a revival in concert now and then, but once you read through the convoluted and dated plot you realize that it would just take too much time and energy to mount this thing on the stage, and from a dramatic angle it just isn’t worth it. Thus having it on a recording like this is probably the best thing, as is the case of Chabrier’s Le Roi Malgre Lui, undoubtedly the greatest operatic music ever written for a plot so twisted that even the composer hated it!

Thus, despite Foster-Williams’ horrid wobble, I recommend it on musical grounds. Conductor Ulf Schirmer, whose work I have praised in the past, keeps a firm grip on the magical, ever-morphing score, bringing out its full colors and rhythms with deftness and precision. Just think of it as a sort of symphonic treatment of the story with voices, and you’ll enjoy it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Vadim Neselovskyi Makes His Trio Debut


GET UP AND GO / NESELOVSKYI: On a Bicycle. Winter. San Felio. Station Taiga.* Who Is It? Krai. Interlude I. Prelude for Vibes. Get Up and Go. Interlude II. Almost December* / Vadim Neselovskyi Trio: Neselovskyi, pn/melodica; Dan Loomis, bs; Ronen Itzik, dm/perc. Guest: *Sara Serpia, voc / BluJazz BJ3449

This CD, available May 19, is the debut recording of the Vadim Neselovskyi Trio. A native Ukrainian, Neselovskyi left more than 20 years ago but always feels a spiritual bond with his native land every time he performs there. This CD makes emotional allusions to the political turmoil his country currently faces.

I’m not a fan of politicized art because it dates the art and lessens its impact for listeners who have not experienced or felt the emotions of the creator. I am a firm believer that music and painting are not so much representational arts of political uphevals so much as expressions of the creators’ feelings, regardless of political turmoil. Beethoven’s Vienna was under and almost constant siege and in fact caused the composer great discomfort, but he didn’t write a Bombs Are Falling Symphony. He wrote about his own inner state of being. And in many of these pieces, I felt that Neselovskyi did the same.

Neselovskyi can play very fast despite the fact that his articulation—the separation of notes in fast passages—is not always even. Nonetheless, what I hear is a composer sitting at the keyboard and communicating with us, which in many ways is rarer and more valuable. On a Bicycle sets up a spinning double-time figure in the piano’s mid-range, with his right hand playing complementary figures in the upper register. The piece often breaks off in its discourse as Neselovskyi makes pauses, changes direction or allows his bassist to take over for a few bars. Eventually, the music becomes louder and busier as Neselovskyi brings the piece to fruition before simply stopping the spinning figure in the midst of a phrase.

Winter is a quiet, ruminative piece, almost classical in design. Bassist Dan Loomis plays bowed here, contributing to the mood with a sumptuous solo that defines the melody. When he finishes, cymbal washes are heard behind the leader as he continues the theme and plays variants on it. San Felio also begins with spinning figures, but quickly morphs into a fast-paced but straightahead swinger with a few Vince Guaraldi overtones. Much of this piece, however, seemed to stay in one place a bit too long before changing and moving on.

Station Taiga, another ballad, features the lovely, wordless vocal of Portuguese singer Sara Serpia. This piece has a strong Eastern sound about its melody, with that minor-key sort of sadness that only such music plays up to such a degree. Except for the leader’s background figures, most of this sounds through-composed and not improvised. At about the 5:05 mark, the leader overdubs himself playing the melodica for a fluttery, improvised solo.

Who Is It? returns us once again to Neselovskyi’s favorite sort of rhythm, fast with double-time riffs. Here, however, the melody line is more obscure and ambiguous, which ironically lends itself better to his form of improvisation. The contributions of Loomis and Itzik figure strongly into the overall sound picture here. Krai, which Neselovskyi states in the notes uses quotes from the Russian Orthodox prayer service, follows next, and here he seamlessly combines elements of jazz and classical music in a splendid piano solo. Snippets of Russian folk song also come and go in this piece.

Interlude I is a bass solo in E in which Loomis plays against his own plucked ground bass. This is followed by Prelude for Vibes, which is an adaptation of Next Generation’s title track composed with Gary Burton in mind. This piece features, by far, Neselovskyi’s most creative and fascinating solo on the album as well as one of Loomis’ finest moments. Surprisingly, Get Up and Go begins as a ballad, using his patented rolling bass line to transform it into something livelier. Once again, the music seems knitted together of various themes related by key and tempo rather than a continuously evolving composition. Neselovskyi plays an extremely energetic chorus which then leads into his own overdubbed melodica solo. The wrap-up is intense and energetic.

Interlude II involves the whole trio, playing an amorphous, out-of-tempo piece that sounds much like free jazz for a minute and a half. This in turn leads into the last tune on the album, Almost December, another slow mood piece, this time also featuring Serpia on vocal.

Get Up and Go is an interesting album with some very strong moments. I’m curious to see how Neselovskyi’s talent develops in the future! In the meantime, you can watch as well as listen to the trio on their YouTube video of a set from the 2017 Jazzahead festival.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Fumio Yasuda Digs Satie!


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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Ullmann’s Piano Works Released by Capriccio


ULLMANN: Piano Concerto, Op. 25.* Piano Sonata No. 7. Variations and Double Fugue on a Theme of Arnold Schoenberg / Moritz Ernst, pianist; *Dortmunder Philharmoniker; *Gabriel Feltz, conductor / Capriccio C5294

Of all the Jewish composers murdered by the Nazis, the name of Viktor Ullmann is the one most often mentioned as the greatest tragedy, with good reason: his music, even up to and including his anti-Nazi opera The Emperor of Atlantis, is startlingly original and dramatic. This new CD, the second by Capriccio of his music (the first included his Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, Don Quixote Dances the Fandango, and 6 lieder), is proof enough of that statement. From its very first notes, the Piano Concerto will grab your attention like a speeding train hurtling down upon you.

Yes, Ullmann does have his tender moments—there are even a few in the tempestuous first movement of this concerto—but drama and angst were certainly uppermost in his musical thoughts. Of course, there was good reason for angst when he wrote the concerto (1939), but not everyone was stimulated to such creative heights. Ullmann’s music is bitonal but not atonal; it bears a stronger kinship to the works of Roy Harris or early Hindemith than to those of Stravinsky or Schoenberg, despite the use of a Schoenberg theme in the Variations and Double Fugue; but his sense of structure is always uppermost in everything he wrote.

The performance of the concerto is absolutely first-rate, thanks in large measure to the powerful conducting of Gabriel Feltz. Pianist Moritz Ernst plays with sensitivity and a wonderful lyric line, but there were a few moments when I wished he were more dynamic. The orchestra is splendidly recorded to boot: listen to the richness of the basses in the slow movement. The only real disappointment is the ending, which sounded formulaic and too conveniently tacked on for me.

In the sonata, we hear Ullmann conversing, as it were, with himself. The work is ruminative, moving from section to section and tempo to tempo like a hiker going through the woods and stopping every so often to admire the flora and fauna. Indeed, so sparse is some of the writing here that it almost sounds as if the composer were actually sitting at the piano, improvising music into being for you. Again, the harmonic base is spiky if still essentially tonal, and Ernst does a nice job of playing the brisk staccato rhythms.

Considering the year in which he wrote it—1944—you’d think the music would be much darker and less whimsical in places than it is, but perhaps for Ullmann composing this sonata was a mental and emotional “vacation” for him from the grim realities of his life. One of the more interesting things about both concerto and sonata is the fact that Ullmann used linked movements, and they flow so easily and naturally into one another that there is no real discernible break or shift of mood to the listener. This piano sonata, for instance, is in five movements, but only when Ernst pauses between the third and fourth movements does the listener notice a specific shift. Comparing his performance of this sonata to that of Christophe Sirodeau on the complete set of Ullmann piano sonatas (Bis 2116), one finds the latter pianist brisker and a bit more percussive in approach in every movement but the last, which is taken a full minute slower. Score tempo or artistic choice? Having never seen the music for this sonata, I can’t say, but the Sirodeau performance is effective despite his being absolutely swamped in extraneous echo and reverb, sadly a hallmark of too many Bis recordings nowadays. Nonetheless, the Sirodeau set is highly recommended for its inclusion of all of Ullmann’s piano music.

Ernst plays the Schoenberg Variations very well indeed. This is earlier Ullmann, composed in 1925 and revised in 1934. Once again, there is a surprising amount of space in the music, at least until one reaches the more complex variations where a “walking bass” line is established under the right-hand part of the score.

All in all, a fine recording of this music, but if you have the Sirodeau set and Gerd Albrecht’s album which includes the Piano Concerto with Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (Orfeo C366951A) you may not need it. They’re very good performances but not so individual as to be indispensable.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rebecca Hennnessy Makes a Strong Debut Disc


TWO CALLS / HENNESSY: Red Herring. Horn Lake. Kings County Sheriff. Lagoon. Two Calls. Snag. Birds for Free. Mutterings. Why Are You So Sad, Booker Little? / Rebecca Hennessy’s FOG Brass Band: Hennessy, tpt; Tom Richards, tb; Jay Burr, tuba; Don Scott, gtr; Tania Gill, pn; Nico Dann, dm / no label or number, available as downloads from CD Baby or

Rebecca Hennessy, a trumpeter-composer from Toronto, here makes her recording debut on an album due out May 19. The promo sheet accompanying this release likens her writing to the “traditions of New Orleans party brass bands, Balkan folk music, country blues and high energy jazz-rock.” I can always live without the latter, but the album is indeed fascinating in many ways.

This is immediately evident in the opening track, Red Herring, the quirky melody and irregular beat of which resembles some of Henry Threadgill’s work. In this piece, Hennessy’s writing combines rhythmic licks with constantly shifting harmony, presenting us with an interesting “concept” piece. Without a specific set of chords to improvise on, however, only Hennessy herself really sounds comfortable in this piece. Trombonist Tom Richards, who comes up first, plays well but somewhat tentatively as he feels his way through the piece. I didn’t care for Don Scott’s distorted electric guitar solo, however, which reminded me of an old Frank Zappa joke: “How are the amps?” “Just fine, man. The distortion and feedback blend perfectly.”

Horn Lake, on the other hand, is a mood piece, built around a sustained, floating B. Despite its basic idea, the music is not just background fluff, but a fairly substantive piece using the horns in both chordal patterns and canon figures. Hennessy has evidently studied jazz orchestration thoroughly; her sense of timbral blends is spot-on, dovetailing the sounds of the instruments into the overall texture of the composition. The band falls away to allow pianist Tania Gill to play a moody solo, followed by what sounds like Hennessy playing in the trumpet’s lower range, to beautiful effect. This is followed by a polyphonic passage for the horns, which in turn morphs into a medium-up tune with a quasi-Latin beat, albeit in irrgular rhythm (it sounds like 5/4 to me, but I could be wrong). This is primarily a through-composed piece, and a very fine one at that. Based on this track alone, I foresee a very good future for Hennessy as a jazz writer.

Interestingly, the band just sort of morphs into Kings County Sheriff, another broken-rhythm piece but this time one with klezmer-sounding harmonies. This time, Scott’s guitar solo displayed more jazz and less rock, which was just fine by me, though towards the end he got carried away. Hennessy’s trumpet solo is again pitched mostly in the low range, and quite effective at that, while Nico Dann plays a marvelously creative if understated drum solo. The tempo doubles when he’s finished for the quick coda.

Lagoon is another slow piece but not a ballad, starting out with a nice syncopated tuba figure by Jay Burr. The melody line soon shifts into something that sounds skewered, as if the band were drunk while playing it. Hennessy’s solo again makes “the crooked straight and the rough places plain,” so to speak, and for once Scott pushes his blues-rock proclivities into the background, playing a slide guitar solo with some humorous references. Burr, too, has a fine solo, also tongue-in-cheek in places. Two Calls begins with bird calls before the piano, guitar and tuba play an opening lick, leading to Burr playing a jump tune in bitonal harmony. This, however, turns out to be the underlying ground bass and not the melody proper, which is played by the trumpet, trombone and guitar, a quixotic series of broken figures. When Richards enters with his trombone solo, it almost sounds as if that is the melody of the piece.

Snag is a jazz-fusion kind of piece, but one with a catchy melody and, for once, a regular beat that is relatively easy to follow. It almost sounds like the kind of piece that the Dirty Dozen Brass Band would have played…possibly her inspiration. Richards plays one of his best solos on this one, really creating a nice improvised composition, and he in turn is followed by Gill on what sounds like a tack piano. Birds for Free has a beat that sounds like Caribbean music, only mixed in with a jazz rhythm here and there. Oddly, I even heard what sounded to me a bit like Hawaiian music…Don Ho meets Harry Belafonte? Something like that! (The late jazz pianist Bobby Enriquez once told me of the years he spent in Don Ho’s band: “I tell you, I hear Tiny Bubbles in my sleep!”) Eventually the music becomes more skewed, as if the band had lost its way rhythmically, with Gill’s piano solo trying to pull things back together.

Mutterings is another slow piece and yet another mood. This one is less reflective, sounding a bit like Mingus’ Peggy’s Blue Skylight, and is also more of an ensemble composition with solo fills. Eventually, a 3-against-4 rhythm is set up with the piano bass line playing three to a bar while the ensemble plays in 4. This is another of Hennessy’s finer pieces. The set ends with a tribute to the late jazz trumpeter Booker Little, who died unexpectedly of uremia at age 23. I understood the slow, tragic feeling of the piece, but in a way it was counter to the ebullient, uptempo music that had made Little famous. Nonetheless, it’s a fine composition in its own right, although kind of a sad way to end this interesting album.

Two Calls is one of the most auspicious debut jazz albums I’ve heard in a long time, and surely points to a good future for Rebecca Hennessy.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Armstrong Swings in Scandinavia

front cover

LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN SCANDINAVIA, Vol. 1 / GREEN-HEYMAN: I Cover the Waterfront.1 AKST-LEWIS-YOUNG: Dinah.1 LaROCCA-SHIELDS: Tiger Rag.1 SCHWARTZ-JEROME: Chinatown My Chinatown.1 THEARD: You Rascal You.1 McHUGH-FIELDS: On the Sunny Side of the Street.1 BOWMAN-SUMNER: 12th Street Rag.2 ARMSTRONG: Steak Face.2 RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.3 HANLEY-MacDONALD: Indiana.3 KALMAR-RUBY-HAMMERSTEIN: A Kiss to Build a Dream On.3 LAYTON-CREAMER: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.3 After You’ve Gone.3 LOMBARDO-GREEN-KAHN: Coquette.3 ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN: Lover, Come Back to Me.3 BENJAMIN-WEISS: Can Anyone Explain? 3 BERLIN: Russian Lullaby.3 HANDY: Bugle Blues/Ole Miss3 / Louis Armstrong, tpt/voc acc. by 1Charles S. Johnson, tp; Lionel Guimersee, tb; Peter DeConga, Harry Tyne, Fletcher Allen, reeds; Justo Barreño, pn; German Araco, bs; Oliver Tines, dm. 2Barney Bigard, cl; Jack Teagarden, tb; Earl Hines, pn; Arvell Shaw, bs; Cozy Cole, dm. 3Bob McCracken, cl; Trummy Young, tb; Marty Napoleon, pn; Shaw, bs; Cole, dm; Velma Middleton, voc. / Storyville 101 8348 (live: 1October 21, 26, 1933; 2October 5, 1949; 3October 4, 1952)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN SCANDINAVIA, Vol. 2 / RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South (2 vers).1,3 HARDY: New Orleans Function.1 JOHNSON-BURKE: Pennies From Heaven.1 MARES-ROPPOLO-BRUNIES-POLLACK: Tin Roof Blues.1 ORY: Muskrat Ramble.1 S. WILLIAMS: Basin Street Blues.1 ARMSTRONG-MIDDLETON: Big Daddy Blues.1 BERLIN: You’re Just in Love.1 WEBB-SAMPSON-RAZAF: Stompin’ At the Savoy.1 McHUGH-FIELDS: On the Sunny Side of the Street.2 PIRON-C. WILLIAMS: High Society.2 HANLEY-McDONALD: Indiana.3 REID-LANGLER: The Gypsy.3 ARMSTRONG-KYLE: Pretty Little Missy.3 LIL ARMSTRONG: Struttin’ With Some Barbecue3 / Louis Armstrong, tpt/voc acc. by 1Bob McCracken, cl; Trummy Young, tb; Marty Napoleon, pn; Arvell Shaw, bs; Cozy Cole, dm; Velma Middleton, voc. 2,3Young, tb; Edmond Hall, cl; Billy Kyle, pn; Shaw, bs; Barrett Deems, dm. / Storyville 101 8349 (live: 1October 5, 1952; 2September 9, 1952; 3October 2, 1955)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN SCANDINAVIA, Vol. 3 / TRADITIONAL: When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.1 S. WILLIAMS: Basin Street Blues.1 MARES-ROPPOLO-BRUNIES-POLLACK: Tin Roof Blues.1 BERNIE-PINKARD-CASEY: Sweet Georgia Brown.1 HANDY: St. Louis Blues.1 RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South (4 vers).1,2 KALMAR-RUBY-HAMMERSTEIN: A Kiss to Build a Dream On.1 HANLEY-McDONALD: Indiana.2 SANDERS-COCHRAN: I Get Ideas.2 Medley: LAWRENCE-GROSS: Tenderly/RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: You’ll Never Walk Alone.2 FRANTZEN: The Faithful Husar.2 KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: Old Man River.2 WEILL-BRECHT: Mack the Knife.2 LAYTON-CREAMER: After You’ve Gone.2 HANDY: Ole Miss2 / Louis Armstrong, tpt/voc acc. by 1Edmond Hall, cl; Trummy Young, tb; Billy Kyle, pn; Arvell Shaw, bs; Barrett Deems, dm; Velma Middleton, voc. 2Peanuts Hucko, cl; Young, tb; Kyle, pn; Mort Herbert, bs; Danny Barcelona, dm. / Storyville 101 8350 (live: 1October 2 & 13, 1955; 2January 16, 1959)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN SCANDINAVIA, Vol. 4 / S. WILLIAMS: Basin Street Blues.1 LaROCCA-SHIELDS: Tiger Rag (+ 4 encores).1 PORTER: Now You Has Jazz.1 BERRY-RAZAF: Christopher Columbus.1 Medley: WALLER-RAZAF: Black and Blue/ALTER-DeLANGE: Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?1 TRADITIONAL: My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.1 WILSON-PORTER-LEVY: Kokomo.1 LIL ARMSTRONG: Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.1 C. & S. WILLIAMS: Royal Garden Blues.1 TRADITIONAL: When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.1 WEILL-BRECHT: Mack the Knife.2 ARMSTRONG: Back O’ Town Blues.2 HANDY: Ole Miss.2 PRIMROSE: St. James Infirmary.2 KENDER-EBB: Cabaret.2 RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: You’ll Never Walk Alone2 / Louis Armstrong, tpt/voc acc. by 1Hucko, cl; Young, tb; Kyle, pn; Herbert, bs; Barcelona, dm; Middleton, voc. 2Joe Muranyi, cl; Tyree Glenn, tb; Marty Napoleon, pn; Buddy Catlett, bs; Barcelona, dm / Storyville 101 8351 (live: 1January 21-22, 1959; 2July 25, 1967)

Complete set: Storyville SVL1088602

This four-CD extravaganza, though duplicating much of the same material found in other Armstrong studio recordings and live performances of the 1950s and ‘60s, is far superior in performance quality throughout most of it. For whatever reason, Louis Armstrong was always looser and more creative in Europe than he was on his marathon cross-country tours of America. I think perhaps the sheer volume and number of stops on his U.S. tours wore Armstrong down once he passed 50 years of age. The spirit was more than willing—no one had a more unflagging spirit than he did—but the flesh was pooped out.

Perhaps another reason was the fact that his appearances in America were frequent and his repertoire had become limited and stodgy by the early 1950s. He no longer cared to learn new tunes unless they were melodic, tuneful and bouncy. He had no intellectual curiosity in new jazz trends. This was the reason why Edmond Hall, the most original and gifted of all the clarinetists who played with him, went to Joe Glaser one day and simply resigned from the band. As he told Glaser, to him jazz was more than just the same 20 songs played over and over and over again ad infinitum. He wanted more variety and a chance to stretch himself out. Ironically, his leaving the Armstrong band was pretty much the end of his major career. Audiences and booking agents associated him with Armstrong’s trad jazz and wouldn’t give him the opportunity he wanted to stretch out. Hall died broke in the late 1960s while Armstrong just kept on truckin’. Moral: it might have been a good decision for Hall morally, but he committed professional suicide by leaving Satchmo.

But to back up a bit: from his first appearance on records under his own name in 1925-26 through the early 1940s, Armstrong was far and away the most powerful, innovative and swinging of jazz trumpeters. He had to go through a period of beating back some stiff competitors, among them Jabbo Smith, Lee Collins, Bix Beiderbecke and Bubber Miley (Freddie Keppard also thought he was competition for Louis, but he never did swing as hard), but Smith disappeared from the New York scene by 1930, Collins went back to New Orleans and stayed there, and both Beiderbecke and Miley were dead by 1932. In their wake were more names to contend with, and these were more formidable because they had based their styles on his: Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Red Allen, Taft Jordan and Bunny Berigan. Louis took care of the first two by hiring Allen as the lead trumpet for his big band and having his manager, Joe Glaser, represent Hot Lips Page. There was no way Glaser was going to let Page overshadow his biggest cash cow. Berigan, who Armstrong always said was his most formidable rival, drank himself out of the picture by 1939. By that point, however, we had more modern trumpeters like Roy Eldridge, Harry James, Howard McGhee and Dizzy Gillespie whose work pointed towards an entirely new style.

Like so many New Orleans-born musicians, Armstrong had a sentimental streak a mile wide and a proclivity to believe that New Orleans jazz was the hottest and best. This was the primary reason he broke up his big band in 1946 and started his sextet “the All Stars,” with which he performed for the rest of his life, and likewise pared down his repertoire to roughly 20-25 songs. By that time, of course, the “trad jazz revolution” was well and truly underway. The revivals of such musicians as Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet and Jimmie Noone brought attention to the older generation of New Orleans players. Eddie Condon’s small Chicago-jazz septets were well established at Nick’s in New York City, and such newly-minted small groups as Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band were drawing large crowds on the West Coast. There was a definite battle between the beboppers and the traditionalists, who the boppers called “moldy figs,” and for better or worse Armstrong fit—uncomfortably—into the moldy fig camp.

Yet there was an important artistic difference, and only a handful of jazz critics have brought this up in a significant way. Even back in the 1920s, on his “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” recordings, Armstrong completely broke the mold of the classic jazz ensemble, where the trumpet would play lead but not dominate, the clarinet would play a counter-lead, and the trombone would contribute fills and breaks. In Armstrong’s groups, HE was always the dominant force, and his rhythmic concept was so revolutionary that he single-handedly invented what came to be known as “Swing.” This was not, as many incorrectly assume, strictly a large-band concept of jazz. In fact, as the first six tracks on CD 1 of this set makes clear, Armstrong’s own big bands did not interact with him as, say, Benny Goodman’s or Earl Hines’ did with them. They were primarily a backdrop to his solo playing, and this is the way he treated his Hot Five and Hot Seven—as supporting musicians.

As I’ve said, Armstrong was the first and most original swing musician of his day, and this primarily meant his concept of jazz “time.” If you listen closely to a good cross-section of his work, you’ll notice that, unlike Beiderbecke whose work was based on the harmonic changes of a song, Armstrong’s pulled the rhythm apart like taffy. A sentimental man who loved the Romantic classics (his warm-up piece was the “Intermezzo” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana), he would throw quotes from Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies into his solos. By the time he first experimented with a small group again in 1940, a Decca recording session with Bechet on soprano sax, it was clear that the rhythm was playing 4/4 swing time and not the normal 2/4 “Dixieland” beat, and this is the style he brought to his All Stars in 1947.

Louis was fortunate to have a fine clarinetist in his first group, Barney Bigard, as well as two bona-fide jazz geniuses, trombonist Jack Teagarden and pianist Earl Hines, both of whom had played with him in the late 1920s, Hines on a regular basis as part of his later Hot Five. Ironically, in this later band Hines was relegated to short solos and beating out the rhythm; he did not interact with Armstrong on chase choruses as he had in the earlier band. This led to dissatisfaction on his part and leaving the group in 1952, when he was replaced by Marty Napoleon. Ironically, Napoleon was given more solo spots than Hines had received, leading to accusations from critics that either Armstrong or his manager, Joe Glaser, feared the competition Hines could provide him.

v1 p01On this set, the first “classic” All Stars lineup plays only two numbers, 12th Street Rag and Steak Face. In the former, Teagarden is obviously poking fun at the limited “tailgate” trombonists of the early era like Kid Ory, playing purposely corny in his solo and including a lick from Silver Threads Among the Gold. Steak Face was one of Armstrong’s original contributions, and he plays mightily on it. The opening six tracks from October 1933 demonstrate the last vestiges of Armstrong the virtuoso. This was a period when his thing was to hit as many high Cs in a chorus as he possibly could, to the expense of cohesive creation. It stopped in 1934 when Armstrong split his lip and it took him nearly a year to recover. From that point on, his playing became a bit less flashy but more artistic.

The three musicians whose work on this set is more interesting and enjoyable than on most of the group’s commercial records are trombonist Trummy Young, who replaced Teagarden, bassist Arvell Shaw and vocalist Velma Middleton. I never thought too much of Young years ago, but hearing him in these live concert settings I realize that he was really a very fine jazz trombonist of the swing school—not quite on the exalted level of Lawrence Brown, but certainly better than one remembered. Shaw takes some really outstanding solos on these tracks, and although he wouldn’t have given Oscar Pettiford or Charles Mingus (who actually played with Armstrong’s big band for one year) a run for their money, he does some truly outstanding work here.

As for Middleton, I never cared for her much on other records, particularly when she tried to sing ballads like I Cried for You, but in the rhythmic songs on this set she is really terrific: relaxed, swinging, sounding much like a female Armstrong. Just listen to the way she and Louis interact on You’re Just in Love (a much better performance than their studio recording) or the way she sings Big Daddy Blues. She came to a sad end; while on a tour with the band in early 1961, in Sierra Leone, she suffered a stroke and was sent to the hospital where she died a few days later. She was only 43 years old.

v2 p01By this time the second great All Stars combination was playing, the one with Edmond Hall on clarinet and the vastly underrated Billy Kyle, the former sparkplug of the John Kirby Sextet, on piano. Louis and company are really loose in most of these performances. In Pretty Little Missy, they throw in a quote from a popular tune of the time, Hot Toddy. When introducing Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, the most famous jazz tune written by his second wife Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis fibs to the audience that he wrote it. And when Middleton asks him, “Louie, have you ever been in love?” he answers, “I’ve been married four times! And I’m workin’ on number five right now!” After laughter from the audience, he continues, “Unfortunately number five went back to her husband, so I’m back with number four!”

The only down moments in the first three discs come in the first four tracks of CD 2. For whatever reason, Armstrong sounds tired and uninterested in the proceedings, though his band (and especially trombonist Young) are fully in the spirit. Louis only comes back to life when playing Muskrat Ramble, and from then on he’s fine. But you really need to have the first three volumes because of the terrific playing of the Edmond Hall-Billy Kyle version of the band.

v3 p01By the end of CD 3 and beginning of CD 4 we’re into the post-Ed Hall/Arvell Shaw band. At first Armstrong’s replacements were fortuitous: Michael “Peanuts” Hucko, a veteran musician who had been the lead clarinetist in Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band, replaced Hall on clarinet, and although his style was quite different—very much in the Benny Goodman mold—he was a superb improviser. The vastly underrated Danny Barcelona was a sparkplug of a drummer, Billy Kyle was still on piano, and 1959 was probably Armstrong’s last really great year as a trumpeter. Decades of blowing out his lip in shallow mouthpieces had, quite simply, taken their toll on him. By the early 1950s he was cutting the scar tissue off his lip with a razor blade in his hotel or dressing room. These versions of After You’ve Gone, Ole Miss and Tiger Rag rival almost anything he did in the 1930s and ‘40s; in fact, his playing is far more kinetic here than it was in the 1952 session. Although replacement bassist Mort Herbert wasn’t quite as fine as Shaw, he plays a nice walking line behind the band on Basin Street Blues, where Louis was still able to uncork a couple of nice high Ds, and he also plays some very tasteful solos on his showcase tune, Christopher Columbus. The band tears through Tiger Rag with a boogie-styled shuffle beat, quite different from the way Satchmo played it in 1933, and they keep it going for nine and a half minutes! You’ve absolutely got to hear how Hucko keeps prodding Armstrong to greater and greater heights on the encores of this tune! After it finishes, Louis addresses the audience: “As the audience goes nuts, we go nuts too!”

v4They do a pleasant enough job on Now You Has Jazz, though it’s not as good as the versions he did with Bing Crosby, but it’s funny when Trummy Young sings some of Bing’s lines and Louis introduces him as “Bing Crosby in Technicolor.” The band also tears through a Latin-beat song called Kokomo that I’ve never heard before in my life. Where did this one come from? I was a bit stunned to hear Middleton sing on this one: her voice had become much coarser and less flexible than it was just four years earlier, though she does swing hard. She also sounds somewhat hard of tone on Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, but this is a rare chance to hear the seldom-sung lyrics. Ironically, this version of Royal Garden Blues lacks some of the creativity of earlier versions, though the band does swing hard (and Kyle plays a helluva solo). On the other hand, Louis really tears into Saints with unbelievable drive and imagination, and keeps it up through to the end.

The last six tracks come from Satchmo’s late period, when his trumpet playing had become spotty, his breath and lip control just fair. Wynton Marsalis loves late Armstrong, saying that he played with more subtlety than in the past, but I find it only intermittently interesting. His jazz singing, however, remained unimpaired, and I don’t think it accidental that there are more vocals than trumpet solos on these late performances. By this time the band was almost entirely different; only Barcelona on drums remained from the 1959 group. Tyree Glenn was a solid swing trombonist but not as imaginative as Trummy Young; likewise Joe Muranyi on clarinet and Buddy Catlett on bass weren’t quite as good as their predecessors. Happily, Marty Napoleon was back on piano, and both Armstrong and the band surprisingly pull themselves together for a splendid performance of Ole Miss, Glenn in particular harking back to his splendid playing style with Benny Carter, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Although the set ends with the tearful ballad You’ll Never Walk Alone, the real closer is a nicely-paced version of Cabaret. Running seven minutes, the band pulls back from its normal high-level intensity to play in a medium tempo. For some reason, Armstrong’s vocal is off-mike a bit on this one, but his trumpet is well recorded.

By and large, then, Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia is a wonderful reminder of just why Armstrong was so beloved by audiences and able to maintain a 46-year career at the top of his profession even in the face of stiff competition and changing jazz styles. He was as uplifting as a shot of rye on a cold, raw day and as happy as the sudden appearance of sunshine in the midst of a rainstorm. He was Louis Armstrong, the one and only, and no one has really taken his place in all the decades since his death.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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McCarthy Blends Jazz With Civil War Music


THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE / TRADITIONAL-McCARTHY: The Bonnie Blue Flag. HOWE: The Battle Hymn of the Republic. McCARTHY: Shiloh. The Better Angels of Our Nature. ROOT: Battle Cry of Freedom. TUCKER-SAWYER: Weeping, Sad and Lonely. EMMETT-HOBBS: I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land. SPIRITUAL: Oh, Freedom. HEWITT: All Quiet Along the Potomac To-night / Brian McCarthy Nonet: McCarthy, a-sax/s-sax; Bill Mobley, tpt/fl-hn; Daniel Ian Smith, t-sax/s-sax; Stantawn Kendrick, t-sax; Cameron MacManus, tb; Andrew Gustauskas, bar-sax; Justin Kauflin, pn; Matt Aronoff, bs; Zach Harmon, dm / Truth Revolution Recording Collective (no number)

I suppose only saxist-bandleader Brian McCarthy really knows why he chose to arrange a number of Civil War-era songs for his nonet, adding a few originals by himself. The publicity blurb accompanying this CD, due out June 13, states that “McCarthy finds the roots of jazz in Civil War-era songs and spirit.” I like the musical results, though, and in the end that’s really all that matters.

As an arranger and soloist, McCarthy is clearly influenced by the larger cool jazz bands of the 1950s and ‘60s led by such writers as Gil Evans, George Russell, Tony Scott and Rod Levitt, the last a name that only jazz cognescenti seem to recognize. These musicians pushed the envelope of the style initiated in the late 1940s-early ‘50s by Evans, John Carisi, Gerry Mulligan and Shorty Rogers, later finding flower in the names cited above. Like them, McCarthy’s band sound is rooted in the trombone and baritone saxophone, using the trumpet in its lower mid-range rather than pushing it to the stratosphere. Happily, he has in Bill Mobley a trumpeter and flugelhornist who knows how to do a first-rate Louis Mucci emulation, Mucci being the go-to guy whenever those ‘50s composers-arrangers wanted a mellow but full-sounding high horn in their ensembles.

McCarthy has also learned well the lessons of using contrasting voices and counterpoint, not just in the lead lines but even as background figures. Listen to the beautiful figures he has composed behind Justin Kauflin’s piano solo in Battle Hymn of the Republic, and then, later, the astringent held chords he places behind his own alto sax solo. Due to the richness and complexity of his writing, the solos themselves don’t have to be the most dazzling, but they do have to fit in to the overall structure. They need to be able to pick up on the theme statements and altered chord progressions used in the ensembles and apply those to their improvised contributions. McCarthy’s band, which is as tight as a snare drum and as warm as a teddy bear, envelops itself around those alterations and composed figures with consummate ease.

The first of the original tunes to come up is Shiloh, and here McCarthy departs significantly from the tone and temperament of the authentic Civil War-era songs. This piece has a theme made up of modern-styled licks, meaning that it never really coalesces into a recognizable theme, and the rhythm is likewise ambiguous. The tempo relaxes into an almost motionless ballad mood for McCarthy’s soprano solo, in which he meanders using other brief licks in a continuously evolving series, later breaking them into little two- or three-note figures before then running changes. A surprisingly lovely theme rides the tune out.

This is immediately followed by an uptempo romp titled The Better Angels of Our Nature. This one has a sort of melody which is catchy but repetitive, whose rhythmic elements allow McCarthy the chance to write some nice counterpoint around its theme statement. Mobley gets a nice solo on this one, played in a sort of Clark Terry vein, which is appropriate since three of his band’s members (Kauflin, Kendrick and MacManus) actually played with the legendary jazz trumpeter. But this one has more ensemble work in it than its predecessor, and once again McCarthy shows how deftly he can write for his tight-knit ensemble. In this one, perhaps due to the more driving beat, Stantawn Kendrick’s tenor solo is gutsy, borrowing a few R&B sounds as it goes along. There’s a nice (improvised?) counterpoint passage between trumpet and alto sax, then once again the tempo comes way down, Kauflin plays repeated open fourths on the piano, and Aronoff plucks a few tasteful notes in and around it before the ensemble slowly comes creeping back in—and then, it just stops.

George Frederick Root’s Battle Cry of Freedom is given a leisurely but rhythmically complex treatment, with open scoring on its simple tune. On this track it is the solos rather than the ensemble that makes the greatest impact, particularly Daniel Ian Smith’s soprano sax and MacManus’ warm, burry trombone solo. Once again a tempo shift, solo piano for a while, but this time when the ensemble returns the tempo is increased and the musical temperature rises. Interestingly, Kendrick’s tenor solo on this one is considerably cooler, showing a bit of bop influence as he plays almost consistently in double time around the rhythm section.

Weeping, Sad and Lonely is an anomaly, a jolly, upbeat tune with dismal, sad lyrics. McCarthy slowed the tempo down to try to make them match a bit better. The intro and opening chorus are played by the rhythm section only, with Kauflin’s piano leisurely leading the melody with nicely articulated figures. Then the rhythm section drops out entirely as the horns play a variant using altered chords and rich, warm timbral blends. Eventually the bass and drums come in beneath them, but subtly and softly, ending with the ensemble. I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land begins with Kauflin playing out-of-tempo bluesy licks while Zach Harmon rumbles around on the drums, with occasional ensemble passages playing a somewhat mournful tune. It’s only around 2:40 that the listener slowly begins to recognize the overly-familiar melody, alternately known simply as Dixie, but this is quickly interrupted by some free-form passages. The tempo remains bogged in non-movement as McCarthy wails on the alto, later shifting to sort of a medium tempo jazz blues that appears to have no relation to the original theme. There is an extended drum solo on this one, following which there is an interesting chase chorus between McCarthy’s alto and Kendrick’s tenor, which eventually heats up both the tempo and the ensemble in an almost Mingus-like finale.

The spiritual Oh, Freedom is once again turned over to the ensemble in a relatively short (2:36) but meaningful statement, although Kendrick has a brief two-bar tenor solo. The album then closes out with John Hill Hewitt’s All Quiet Along the Potomac To-night, given a hip, almost Las Vegas-type jazz treatment, entirely different from anything else on the set. Here the textures are lean and geared more towards the top-end instruments, with the baritone sax used sparingly and lightly and the trombone playing higher in its range than usual for this group. This is the one tune that sounds the most like something Clark Terry would have played, light and bouncy, and the solos by Mobley, Kauflin and Smith have that nice sort of ‘50s cool-jazz feel about them. This could almost have come from a Russ Freeman session c. 1956!

All in all, then, a particularly varied and interesting album, combining fine solo work with outstanding writing. Footnote: having reviewed this on a cool, raw, rainy day, I can assert that this is perfect bad-weather music, guaranteed to raise your spirits!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rostropovich and Richter Present a Mixed Bag


BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 3 & 4. BRAHMS: Cello Sonata No. 1 (2 versions). GRIEG: Cello Sonata in A min. PROKOFIEV: Cello Sonata No. 1 in C / Mstislav Rostropovich, cellist; Sviatoslav Richter, pianist / Doremi 7931/32 (live: Aldeburgh, June 20, 1964 [Grieg & second Brahms performance]; Moscow, March 1, 1950 [all others]).

This album is not for everyone. It is a slice in time or, to be more specific, two slices in time, concerts given in Moscow in March 1950 when Joltin’ Joe Stalin (one of the Left’s great idols, right behind Che Guevara and Mao Tse-Tung) was still alive, and at Aldeburgh in 1964 when both artists were at last free of the Iron Curtain. (And dear Socialists: Why do you think they called it an IRON curtain? It wasn’t built to keep people out, but to keep them in, because most people wanted to get the hell out.) The sound quality is far from optimal, although clear and relatively noise-free. In the 1950 concert, in order to get Richter’s piano to sound clear and natural, the engineers have had to emphasize the buzz of Rostropovich’s cello. But this was a musically stupendous concert, as it included both Beethoven sonatas, the Brahms, and the world premiere of the Prokofiev, undoubtedly with the composer in attendance.

One of the most interesting aspects of the 1950 performances is that Richter, so often a lion at the keyboard, took a back seat to his cellist partner, allowing him to take the emotional lead in these works. This isn’t to say that his playing is ineffective, but it is subdued, and that in itself is unusual. Rostropovich’s huge sound dominates here, and it seems to me that he is also the one setting the pace insofar as the shaping and pacing of the music goes. This speaks volumes for Richter’s artistry, showing that despite his powerful attack and massive technique, he was not going to overpower his partner. I couldn’t imagine Vlad “the Impaler” Horowitz playing his sensitively in a million years. Richter’s playing here reminded me very much of Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich in his famous recording of the third sonata with Jacqueline du Pré.

I’m not sure if it was artistic choice or an accident, but in the last movement of the Beethoven Fourth Sonata the duo completely misses the humor of the “late entrance” of the cello in that famed passage, playing it very flat-footed rather than with humor and a bit of zing. Otherwise, however, it’s a good performance, strong and powerful if lacking in wit.

That being said, the Brahms sonata receives its proper gravitas but, even moreso than the two Beethoven sonatas, there is a certain lack of “springiness” in the rhythm. It almost sounds as if these two musicians chose to emphasize the piece’s structure rather than let themselves go emotionally in it, although there is a nice sense of forward momentum in the last movement.

The second CD begins with the last work in this concert, which was the world premiere of the Prokofiev Cello Sonata. Here, for some odd reason, Rostropovich’s low range is captured more faithfully than in the Beethoven and Brahms pieces; the duo also sounds looser here than they did in the Brahms, which is a welcome relief. Written during one of Stalin’s many snits over the ugliness of modern music, the sonata is tonal and relatively conservative for Prokofiev, albeit still an interesting piece. The duo sounds so relaxed here that they even “float” some passages exquisitely, at least insofar as the rather two-dimensional sound quality permits, and Richter is more alert to his role in underscoring the livelier passages in the piano part. In short, the duo really gets into this music.

The Aldeburgh concert from 14 years later has only marginally better sound—it’s still in mono, but the cello sound is rounder—yet the performances are immeasurably looser. Comparing this Brahms sonata to the one from 1950, one hears both musicians really enjoying the music, playing the opening movement in a much jollier manner. The timing says that this performance of the movement is 12 seconds longer than the one from 1950, but it sure doesn’t feel longer. Happily, the sound quality even improves by the second movement, and continues in good sound through the end of the concert. And the Grieg Sonata is, if anything, even finer than the Brahms: a performance of such combined intensity and relaxation that it mesmerizes you, making you think the music even better than it really is. Here they play very relaxed indeed, but it’s the kind of relaxation that makes it sounds as if they’re deep inside the music, not tense or emotionally disconnected. What a splendid reading!

The bottom line, then, is that this is a split review, and split exactly even between the two discs. CD 1 is good, with certain passages that are very good, but never quite great, whereas the second CD will keep you involved from start to finish. Yes, I realize thar this makes your decision to purchase this album a bit problematic, but that’s how I hear it. If you really enjoy this duo’s playing, you’ll want to own CD 2 for sure.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Knussen’s Great New Recording of “The Soldier’s Tale”

Soldier's Tale

STRAVINSKY: Fanfare for a New Theatre. The Soldier’s Tale. Double Canon (Raoul Dufy in Memoriam). Epitaphium für das Grabmal des Prinzen Max Egon zu Fürstenberg / MAXWELL DAVIES: Canon ad honorem Igor Stravinsky (arr. Knussen). Canon in memoriam Igor Stravinsky. BIRTWISTLE: Chorale from a Toy Shop – for Igor Stravinsky (2 vers., one each for winds and strings) / Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble; Oliver Knussen, conductor; Dame Harriet Walter, narrator; Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, Soldier; George Benjamin, Devil / Linn CKD 552

Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat was specified by the composer to be narrated in the vernacular of each country’s performers, unlike his operas which were to be sung in Russian (Le Rossignol), Latin (Oedipus Rex) and English (The Rake’s Progress). He stuck to his guns on this, although he allowed the narration in Oedipus Rex to be spoken in the vernacular.

Thus most recordings of The Soldier’s Tale are in English, not only because they are recorded in English-speaking countries but also because English is now the dominant world language for science and the arts, having replaced French which in turn replaced Latin. The recording I had for several decades was made way back in 1988 and featured Ian McKellen as the narrator, Sting as the Soldier and Vanessa Redgrave as the Devil, conducted by Kent Nagano (a first-rate Stravinsky interpreter). That being said, I had to pull it off my shelf and play it in order to make a comparison as I hadn’t listened to it in at least a decade.

There are as many likenesses as differences here. Both recordings have marvelously clear, crisp sonics, always a prerequisite for Stravinsky’s music. Both are conducted with good rhythmic spring and textural clarity, also necessary for this music. I liked the fact that Knussen’s performance was consistently a shade quicker in tempo; this helped not only the music but the narration, which in the Nagano recording sometimes felt slack despite the consistently over-the-top delivery of McKellen and Sting. Of course, a little over-the-top certainly works here, and Dame Harriet Walter—a terrific actress—does not get cheated in narrating this tale. One of the more interesting aspects of this performance was that the narrator assumes some of the lines of the Soldier, i.e., the long passage near the end of Scene 1, “Eh? Eh? The dirty cheat,” ending with the words “What am I going to do now?” as well as in Scene 2, “Come along, ladies!” Yes, it works because Walter is so good, but I have no idea why portions of it were switched around. (David Gutman, in the Gramophone, suggests that the McKellen-Sting recording used an alternate edition “less faithful to the studied anti-realism of Ramuz’s original concept.”)

By and large, Harrison Birtwistle as the Soldier and George Benjamin as the Devil are more laid back in their delivery, particularly the former. It works because Birtwistle sounds natural, like a normal person talking and not an “ACTOR,” if you know what I mean. But this does point out the differences in the performances. And if and when things seem to be getting a bit too quiet, along comes Walter and/or Knussen to kick up the voltage a bit and get us back on track. The bottom line is that both are superb performances, albeit slightly different, but this one has the extra bonus of additional music included by Stravinsky as well as by Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies written in honor of the Russian composer. The Birtwistle pieces were composed specifically for this CD release and, although I don’t consider him a major composer, he is certainly a skilled craftsman whose work here dovetails nicely with the Maxwell Davies, which are not among his most serious pieces.

What I find so fascinating about Stravinsky is that, even in the very short works presented here—Fanfare for a New Theatre is less than a minute long, and the other two less than than a minute and a half—was that he always seemed to be thinking in terms of maximum impact in the most compact and concise timeframe. In other words, he didn’t waste time in his compositions, and I think that, as much as his rhythmic and harmonic innovations, was what put him head and shoulders above most of his peers.

In short, this is a terrific release, so good, in fact, that I chose to replace the Nagano-Sting recording with it in my collection.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Letters, We Get Letters…


One of the great joys of having a blog is receiving positive and/or informative comments from knowledgeable readers. Once in a blue moon, I get a comment that I delete not because I found it offensive but because I felt the writer was uninformed musically, and I really didn’t want to get into arguments with any of my readers, which I think would be confrontational and not productive.

But then, of course, I get spam. Lots and lots of it, anywhere from 2 to 7 items per day. I thought my readers might find it amusing to read some of the weirdest of them, so I’ve decided to post them here. Hopefully you’ll find them as funny as I do.

Once in a while, but only rarely, I get the feeling that the spammer might actually be a legitimate poster who simply doesn’t write or speak good English. Believe it or not, I have approved a couple of such comments which you will find on the articles I’ve written. But most of them are strange in a very odd way. They praise my writing style and “the topic under discussion” without ever referencing MUSIC. I’m sure a lot of them are just adbots trying to get me to click on their links to buy some program designed to get me more hits, but I just get such a laugh out of most of the bizarre ones that I thought I’d give you a good cross-section.

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(or so she says…notice that she just discovered my site because she was bored at work but has been “readding” it “forr a lng tiome nnow.”)

From someone who apparently thinks my articles aren’t long enough:

Excellent post however , I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic?

Sorry, no.

Here’s one spammer who really became quite garrulous, though in the end I still wasn’t sure what they wanted:

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This was my first spam post in a foreign language (other than disstorttd Englsih):

Herr Werner Burmeister sollte als Vorstand ordentliche Vereinsarbeit machen, ohne „Umgestaltung alter Vereinslinien“ funktioniert heute kein Verein mehr. Die Welt dreht sich weiter, nur der Führungsstil ist unverändert. Wenn man sich 2 Vereinsfahrzeuge leisten kann, muss es einem Verein gutgehen…Es sollten die Ausgaben optimiert werden, anstatt immer nur mehr Förderungen zu fordern.


Mr. Werner Burmeister as a board should make proper association work, without “reconstruction of old club lines” no more club today functions. The world continues to turn, only the style of leadership is unchanged. If you can afford 2 club cars, you have to go to a club … The expenses should be optimized instead of only ever more promotions.

How ‘bout THAT, huh?

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Apparently, has nothing better to do with their time than to send spam to websites like mine. This recent entry was so surreal I wasn’t sure which illegal drug they imbibed before writing it, thought in the middle it suddenly switched gears to an arcane bit of factual American history, so maybe someone at Google is a history buff:

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Well, see, you can’t claim that I’m not learning some interesting facts from at least some of my spam.

More handy hints came from someone or something called game guardian app, who apparently knows a lot of things that just don’t translate into English:

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And, last but certainly not least, this extremely non-helpful post—originally in Portuguese—that was placed on my review of a Shura Cherkassky recital from one Cervejeiro Mestre:

How to Freeze Fast Beer

Pay attention to our guidance, because I tested it on a barbecue this weekend, and I was pretty happy too! By the way,
A gratulación privativo to the Guiga (@filhodopadeiro) of All About Facebook, that passed me this Millenarian knowledge!

The extent of any of these ingredients will depend on the quantity
Of beer that is intended to freeze. But commonly, it would be an ice pack, a
Liter of rain, one liter of alcohol and also half a kilo of salt.
After putting all the ingredients in a container, simply accommodate the cans / bottles
Beer and wait for 3 minutes to come. You can proportionate these measures according to the quantity of beer that
Is intended to freeze.

Salt dissolves neatly in the rain and reduces its
Refrigeration. Pure, the water freezes at about 0 ° C.
Salt water needs a lower temperature, which can reach tens of degrees below zero.
When saal is placed on ice, some of the cubes melt,
Stealing “heat during the change of physical state and also
Cooling the blend as a whole. On the other hand, dissolved salt causes
Endothermic reaction, that is, it reduces the temperature
Of the blend. Alcohol has a similar role: melting gelpo stealing “heat
And also dimnui even more refrigeration point. It is used
Because when the temperature stays below -9° C, sall loses somewhat of the effect, but alcohol does not.

Watching the clock: aluminum is good for heat and heat, and 3 minutes is enough for the cans Thermal stability. As the temperature
Is less zero, after numbered minutes, the liquor will be so cold that it will not hurt to feel Palate and also freeze freeze. Leave dde towel
Paper absorb well water, and also after, light the beers to freezer.

The water in the paper will freeze rapidly, forming an ice stratum Cools the potion.

Information: take care, because depending on the freezer the beer can freeze at an absurd speed,
Leaving your beer frozen, which is not legitimate.
Mini USB Refrigerated But umm alcoholic gadget for
You do not miss the chance to have an ice-cold beer in the
Recreation doo your work. There has not even been seen … the one of the nitrogen is the best (cinch to locate) hahahahahha optimum.
I added to favorites …. And what about Leandro?
It does not work with other drinks, not just beer that gels, the others
Get hot!


Anyway, that’s my spam world. Hope you enjoyed wasting a minute or two reading through it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley