Matt Haimovitz’ New Album a Mixed Bag

front cover

MEETING OF THE SPIRITS / McLAUGHLIN: Open Country Joy.2, 5,7 Meeting of the Spirits.1,3,5-8 DAVIS: Half Nelson.4-8 COLEMAN: W.R.U.3, 5 LEWIS: Blues in A Minor.7 STRAYHORN: Blood Count.5 SANFORD: Triptych. 4-8 GERSHWIN: Liza.5,7 MINGUS: Haitian Fight Song4-8 / Matt Haimovitz, cellist with 1Jan Jarczyk, Fender Rhodes keyboard; 2John McLaughlin, el-gtr; 3Matt Wilson, dm; 4Chloé Dominguez, 5Amaryllis Jarczyk, 6Yoana Jhon, 4Alice Nahyun Kim, 7Dominic Painchaud, 5Leanna Rutt, 8Andrea Stewart, cel / Pentatone PTC5186659

Matt Haimovitz is a modern-music cellist whose work I’ve had occasion to praise in the past. Here, he reworks several modern jazz and fusion pieces for his consort of cellos, which he calls “Uccello,” with various jazz musicians as guests. Unfortunately, I am neither a fan of rock fusion, which the first piece is, nor of B.S. guitarist John McLaughlin, who basically just runs changes on his instrument and says nothing, so we will draw the curtain on Open Country Joy which for me was not joyful.

For me, then, the album truly begins with Miles Davis’ Half Nelson, played in an almost casually relaxed late bop style by Haimovitz and his Uccello members. This has a nice swagger, kind of like the Turtle Island String Quartet in a low key (both figuratively and literally). Interestingly, the primary soloist in Ornette Coleman’s W.R.U. is the drummer, Matt Wilson, and he is excellent. On this track Uccello picks things up a few notches, both in pitch and tempo, with Haimovitz scurrying around his instrument as his bandmates provide some wild pizzicato accompaniment.

John Lewis’ Blues in A Minor perfectly reflects the complex yet subtle mind of its creator, played here solely bu the duo of Haimovitz and Dominic Painchaud. Lewis would have loved this treatment of his score; it has a certain piquant humor about it as well as quiet dignity. The centerpiece of this performance is a really great counterpoint chorus played by the two cellists. The music becomes quieter and slower towards the end. The next number is another McLaughlin original, Meeting of the Spirits. It’s another fusion piece. Bye bye.

Next up is Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count, written by the composer as he lay dying in a hospital. This starts with a lonely, pensive solo cello, based on Gordon Getty’s “There came a wind like a bugle” from The White Election, leading into a suave yet hip reading of the score by his cellist colleagues. There’s an interesting passage at about 4:30 where the other cellists play a strange, edge series of notes behind Haimovitz before moving back into the bluesy feel. This, is turn, slams almost immediately into David Sanford’s Triptych, a thrilling, exciting Third Stream piece of tremendous power. There is a certain amount of fusion-like energy in this piece, but it doesn’t last too long, thank God.

This arrangement of George Gershwin’s Liza almost sounds like a modern extension of “Paul Whiteman’s Swinging Strings” version from 1938, though the liner notes claim Django Reinhardt’s Hot Club Quintet as its inspiration. It’s mostly pizzicato by Uccello behind solos by Haimovitz and Leanna Rutt.

The finale is Charles Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song, only based more on the remake he did for the album Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus under the title II B.S. Haimovitz builds it up from a relatively quiet, low-key opening to a fairly high pitch before moving into solos. What I found interesting about this, however, is that for the most part it backs away from the hard edge of the piece that Mingus gave it, eventually moving into dancing pizzicatos, first by the group and then by solo cello.

The bottom line? If you leave out the two horrible fusion pieces (I know I will…why do so many “jazz” musicians think this crap is so hip? I hated it when it was new!), this is a fine album.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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