Muczynski’s Chamber Music Brilliantly Played on Brilliant Classics

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MUCZYNSKI: Fantasy Trio, Op. 26. Sonata for Cello & Piano. Duos for Flute & Clarinet. Time Pieces for Clarinet & Piano. Sonata for Flute & Piano / Ginevra Petrucci, flautist; Glen Kanasevich, clarinetist; Dorotea Racz, cellist; Dmitry Samogray, pianist / Brilliant Classics 95433

The music of Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), not being as familiar with audiences as it should be, is always welcome to hear, and this new collection on Brilliant Classics is surprisingly good.

Muczynski, who studied with Walter Knupfer and Alexander Tcherpenin, joined the composition faculty at the University of Arizona in 1965 and stayed there for 23 years. His Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra was nominated for, but did not win, a Pulitzer Prize in music. He is frequently referred to as one of the most distinguished neoclassical composers in postwar America. His music is essentially tonal, but due to his constant shifting of chord positions and pivoting within those chords, his music sounds restless and modern. He was also very fond of irregular meters with 5 or 7 beats to the bar, which further complicated the listening process.

The works on this CD are typical of his output, and are played with tremendous sensitivity as well as precision by this enthusiastic group of young musicians. Italian flautist Ginevra Petrucci, American clarinetist (and composer) Gleb Kanasevich, Croatian cellist Dorotea Racz and American pianist Dmitry Samogray, here performing as a duo or trio in the various pieces, give committed, beautifully articulated readings of these appealing yet tricky scores. As a pianist, Samogray is the kind of player I like to characterize as a “chamber music specialist,” much like Menahem Pressler; he has a fluid and fluent technique, but by and large stays within a relatively narrow dynamic and emotional range, which makes him absolutely perfect as a chamber musician. Samogray’s special talents are fully on display in the Cello Sonata with Racz, in which he shows his mastery of line and color within his self-imposed limits.

Muczynski’s music tended to sound edgy and energetic both as a result of his irregular meters and his natural proclivity towards rhythm-driven music. Only in the slow movements or slow introductions did he relax his pace and ease up on this aesthetic, yet somehow it all dovetailed together and he made it work. Even in the Scherzo of the Cello Sonata, for instance, using a fairly conventional 3/4 or 3/8 rhythm, Muczynski’s tendency towards altered harmonies makes the listener sit up and pay attention. There was always something going on in his music!

By contrast with the preceding pieces, the Duo for Flute & Clarinet is an essentially witty piece, full of playful cat-and-mouse chases between the two instruments. Only the pensive “Allegro molto” is serious in feeling. The Time Pieces for clarinet and piano also have their playful side, but are more driven than jocular. One of Muczynski’s more endearing qualities was conciseness; his music said no more and no less than it had to, thus even in the movements at or over five minutes, one rarely feels like “tuning out.” For me, this is always the mark of a good composer, which is one of the reasons (aside from his bathos and religiosity) why I so heartily dislike Bruckner.

The Flute Sonata is also sprightly and energetic; indeed, I was amazed at how much Muczynski was able to extract from the same basic style of composition. His “brand,” so to speak, might tend to be repetitious by using similar devices in every piece, yet at least within the confines of these works the impression one gets is that of delight rather than déjà vu.

All in all, then, an excellent album all round. Surprising, good music played by really talented young musicians who seem to enjoy it. Who could ask for anything more?

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Hausegger’s Amazing Orchestral Works Exhumed

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HAUSEGGER: Aufklänge, Symphonic Variations. Dionysische Phantasie, Symphonic Poem. Wieland der Schmeid / Bamberg Symphony Orchestra; Antony Hermus, conductor / CPO 777 810-2

OK, boys and girls…how many of you have ever heard of, let alone heard, the music of Siegmund von Hausegger? Just what I thought. No hands up!

Well, it’s all right because I had never heard of him, either. Hausegger (1872-1948) was the son of a jurist and musicologist who hoped his son would show musical talent…how different from all those stories we hear of young men and women forced to go into law or medicine, because that’s that their families wanted, only to scrap it all to become a pianist or an opera singer? Apparently, Hausegger scored a few important musical victories early on, particularly when Richard Strauss mounted his opera Zinnober in 1898, directed the Frankfurt Museum Concerts in 1903-06 and became music director of the Berlin Blüthner Orchestra in 1911, but somehow things went awry for him. He was named music director of the Munich Academy of Music in 1920, but abruptly resigned in 1934 when the Nazis assumed power and then relinquished all his other posts four years later. Hausegger’s resignations were based as much on aesthetic principles as political ones. In addition to being virulently anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual, the National Socialists (never forget: these were the German Socialists) detested most modern music, and Hausegger was very deeply involved in new German music and art, which was clearly being attacked and pushed out of Germany at that time.

A follower of Beethoven, Wagner and Nietzsche, Hausegger created his own sound-world, based largely on his own instincts and enthusiasms rather than a meticulous study of counterpoint and form. Happily, his musical instincts were so great that he was able to create a sort of “alternate Straussian universe” in music that had its own direction, color and musical rules. So much is evident in Aufklänge, the longest work on this CD, an energetic and ingenious piece that only resembles Strauss in terms of the colorful orchestration (and a couple of paraphrases from Till Eulgenspiegel shortly after the 24-minute mark). Written in 1917, it was—surprisingly enough—his last major work, compiled on the children’s song “Sleep, little child, sleep” to celebrate the birth of his daughter Veronika. Despite its great length (31:20), the music is continually evolving and changing. Hausegger refuses to fall into the trap, which afflicted such late Strauss works as the Sinfonia Domestica and Alpine Symphony, of trashy Romantic-pop tunes worked to death within a large framework.

Hausegger

Siegmund von Hausegger

We then jump backwards in time 21 years to the Dionyssische Phantasie of 1896-97. This is even starker and more cogently dramatic, darker than any of Strauss’ tone poems. Indeed, with its strong rhythms and almost abrasive scoring in which the winds dominate, it almost sounds like something Beethoven would have written had he lived into the era of Brahms, albeit with Berlioz-like orchestration. One wonders if Hausegger had not seen or heard any of Mahler’s early symphonies by this time, too, for there is a certain kinship to his work as well. One difference here is that the forward momentum of Dionyssische Phantasie is consistent and relentless; he does not indulge in any of the extreme contrasts of tempo and mood that characterized so much of Mahler’s scores.

And I really have to spend some time here singing the praises of conductor Antony Hermus. It would have been easy, perhaps even forgivable, if he and his orchestra performed these scores in the accepted modern fashion, which is to just “play the notes” and not inject any personal viewpoint of their own, but this is not the case. The orchestra really digs into these scores with bite and drive; if Hausegger’s music is not to your taste, you absolutely cannot blame the performers for your lack of enthusiasm. I really can’t imagine that these works could be performed any better than they are here.

The last piece on this CD, Wieland der Schmeid (1904), was dedicated to his wife and inspired in part by the poetry of Nikolaus Lenau, whose songs Hausegger had just set to music. This is the most Straussian of the three works presented here, but once again Hausegger has his own voice and his own modus operandi. The story is based on a symbolist literary fragment by Richard Wagner about Wieland the blacksmith. Hausegger wrote the following preface to the score:

            The power and fame his art have created do not suffice for Wieland; he yearns for more. A swan-maiden (Schwanhilde) hovers, descends out of the sky and inclines toward Wieland. He reaches out, but, frightened by his singeing subterranean fire, she flies away. Powerless to follow, he collapses, assailed by the paralyzing thought that he who would be lord of the skies is bound insolubly to earth.
The vision of Schwanhilde fades; a cripple, Wieland stumbles, friendless through his life. Of what use is his art, power, fame? The pain of longing builds up to a cry for redemption.
           Suddenly, the lethargy melts away. The transfiguring and blissful vision of Schwanhilde rises within him. His strength returns, bolder than ever. His art will carry him to luminous heights!
            He forges himself wings of glittering steel. From the sky, the voice of Schwanhilde calls. Free of his earthly woes, he spreads his mighty wings and    flies up to his woman. United in love, the couple soars into the sun.

I am indebted to the website http://www.oocities.org/vonhausegger/wieland.html, part of a scholarly article on von Hausegger and his work, for this information as well as for the musical examples provided below. The tone poem begins with stabbing tremolos followed by a brief, explosive figure symbolizing Wieland’s frustration:

Wieland 1

I quote from the website: “This figure – according to the composer the most important theme in the work – builds sequentially to a rapid climax, to be followed by a more lyric theme, that of Earthly Longing:

Wieland 2

“He soon combines a variation of it with the theme of Heavenly Longing:”

Wieland 3

It’s a wholly remarkable piece, in which Hausegger develops both themes, with interjections of the first example (played by the horns), “leading to an especially anguished outcry of Ex 2, after which the mood shifts. Divisi violins, flageolet lower string tones and feathery, cascading woodwind sextuplets introduce Schwanhilde’s theme in E flat major, on a solo violin. The horn fifth harmonies in the woodwinds clearly indicate Alpine skies.” And so it goes, relentlessly, until the end.

Hausegger also wrote a 56-minute Nature Symphony which is, again, a darker and more dramatic work than Strauss’ mature-themed pieces. There is only one recording of it in existence by the WDR Rundfunkchor and Sinfonieorchester Köln, conducted by Ari Rasilainen; fortunately, it’s available for free streaming here on YouTube, and it, too, is a surprisingly fine performance.

This is the kind of composer and music that people like me live for: someone who was a genuine genius, somehow fell through the cracks, and is in desperate need of revival and re-examination. Who needs dead-heads like Bruckner when you have Hausegger to explore?

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rozhdestvensky’s Marvelous Enescu Recordings Reissued

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ENESCU: Symphonies Nos. 1-3*. Suite No. 3, “Villageoise.” Romanian Rhapsodies Nos. 1 & 2 / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; *Leeds Festival Chorus; Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductor / Chandos CHAN 10984

In my opinion, George(s) Enescu (his first name was spelled both ways, depending on whether or not he was staying in France for an extended period of time) was the greatest of all violinist-composers. The problem, if problem there is, is that Enescu had so much talent that people didn’t automatically think of him as a violinist first and foremost, as they did with Wieniawski, Sarasate, Kreisler or Paganini; but then again, the same was true of Antonio Vivaldi, who I put second in the all-time list of violinist-composers. Yet the violin was Enescu’s primary instrument, which is the reason he taught Arthur Grumiaux and helped “finish” Yehudi Menuhin’s technique for him, although he was also a first-rate pianist, a cellist, and an excellent conductor in addition to being a composer.

These 1996-98 recordings of his orchestral music, including all three of his numbered symphonies (he wrote three un-numbered ones and a Chamber Symphony) and the ever-popular Romanian Rhapsodies, are given a bit of a Romantic feel by the wonderful Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Listening carefully to the recordings, the ear catches some noticeable digital splices and I’m sure there are others in there not so noticeable, but I forgive the BBC Philharmonic because Enescu’s music, great as it is, is still not standard repertoire except for the Rhapsodies. People like their Tunes, and Enescu’s symphonies, late Romantic but not pandering to plebeian tastes, are far more dramatic and technically complex to be sopped up by those who just love repeated hearings of the Beethoven Seventh or Brahms First.

Just listen, for instance, to the first movement of the first symphony. Yes, it’s a bit heavy-handed here and there, trying to make a big impression, but there’s so much going on here in terms of shifting meters, wholly unexpected harmonic changes, counterpoint and even counter-melodies that it just overwhelms you. And then there is the second movement, sensuous but not treacly or sentimental, with its wonderfully broad melodies. By contrast, the opening movement of the “Villageoise” Suite No. 3 is much simpler in construction, exuding a “folksy” Rumanian feeling. Yet there is the unexpectedly eccentric second movement, with its fluctuation meter and unusual use of the xylophone. And in that long third movement, bearing the long descriptive title “The old childhood house in the sunset – Shepherd – Migrating birds and crows – The vesper bell,” Enescu works around a long oboe or English horn melody (there’s so much reverb around the instrument I couldn’t hear it clearly) with strange atonal and bitonal wind chords, creating a bizarre tapestry of sound.

Only in the Romanian Rhapsodies did I feel that Rozhdestvensky gave the music a softer, more “romantic” profile in the sense of more tender contours, yet even so he maintained the basic core strength of the music when it was called for. The Second Symphony, though composed not too long after the first, is an entirely different animal, being more like a tone poem in its shape and style; obviously, the composer was thinking of a symphony in altogether different terms. Moreover, the extremely long first movement (over 19 minutes) almost seems like a separate tone-poem, but I didn’t care at all for the long second movement, a bit like the slow movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique in that it meanders too much and says too little. Then, suddenly, the last two movements sound like Mahler, but very confused, chaotic Mahler. This is not one of Enescu’s better works.

The Third Symphony, written in 1916-17, begins with a slow but sad-sounding movement. Both the rhythm and the structure are tighter here, and there is less rambling and ruminating. Rozhdestvensky holds the structure together beautifully, caressing the line and nudging the tempo forward. Parts of this movement also sound Mahlerian, but by this point Enescu had a better grasp of what he (and Mahler) was trying to do, and thus manages to balance it out with some of his own ideas. The musical flow is more consistent here and less “I-don’t-know-where-I’m-going.” Eventually the temp picks up but the mood remains dark; Enescu, who actually fought in World War I on the side of the Allies, was evidently mourning his lost friend and comrades. The liner notes indicate that he makes frequent use in this movement of the Mixolydian mode, which gives the score a restless feeling.

The second movement, marked simply “Vivace ma non troppo,” is not quite Mahlerian in scope, despite a Mahler paraphrase at the two-minute mark; rather, it sounds almost like early Stravinsky in a light, but not a jocular, vein, with swirling winds and strings playing off of a viola-cello melodic line. Eventually, however, the music becomes extraordinarily muscular, almost overpowering, with ferocious brass and percussion passages, before lightening up again and moving back into light string and wind interplay. The third movement, by contrast, is all beauty and harmonic resolution, featuring a wordless chorus à la Holst’s “Neptune, the Mystic.” The biggest problem here, however, as in the last movement of the Second Symphony, is that it goes on for too long.

The first Roumanian Rhapsody was even more popular than the second—even Toscanini played it, and Rozhdestvensky has a ball with it here. Enescu spoke with disdain of the rhapsodies, however, somewhat angry that they became concert-hall staples while his better works languished, but he was so busy with his playing, teaching and conducting that he didn’t have much time left over for composing. As this set proves, he was an erratic composer but when inspired quite original and effective, surely more interesting to listen to than anything Bruckner wrote.

By and large, then, an interesting but uneven set. Personally, I recommend CDs 1 & 3 but not CD 2, so if you can find them separately that is what you should go for.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Steprans’ Hip Little Quintet Cooks

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AJIVTAL / STEPRANS: Shades of White. Luna’s Tune. Ajivtal. Rebirth. Chambre No. 5. One for Vedady O. Suite des Thèmes Lettons. Une Autre Original. FISHER: That Ole Devil Called Love / Janis Steprans Quintet: Steprans, a-sax/s-sax/t-sax/cl; Gabriel Hamel, gtr; Geoff Lapp, pn; Adrian Vedady, bs; Andre White, dm / Effendi FND145

Saxophonist-composer Janis Steprans is of Latvian descent though born in Montreal. He apparently started playing the alto sax in high school, later studying at McGill University with Gerry Danovitch and playing in the big band, combos and sax quartets there. After winning the concerto competition in 1975, he attended the New England Conservatory in 1982-84 where he studied with Joe Allard and also played a concert in George Russell’s Living Time Orchestra.

This album is best described as “cozy” jazz. The basic aesthetic is very similar to the modal jazz pioneered in the 1950s by the likes of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Tony Scott, but although the basic style of the music breaks no new ground it is very fine music nonetheless. Steprans plays with a laid-back beat that sounds as natural as breathing, thus producing music that is both comfortable and intriguing. All of the innovation is in the solos, which are all of a very high order. Although the leader is obviously the star of the show, he does not hog the spotlight but allows his sidemen to comment on and interject when they feel the urge to. Interestingly, bassist Adrian Vedady is one of the most inventive of Steprans’ sidemen, playing solo after solo of breathtaking originality.

The work that gives its name to this album was inspired by Sonny Rollins’ famous composition, Airegin, which is Nigeria spelled backwards. Ajivtal is the name of the country of Steprans’ ancestors, Latvija, also spelled backwards. As the notes indicate, “The piece is built around a previously imagined musical motif, an exotic motif evoking Russian, Middle Eastern and Jewish music. While writing this piece, I was reflecting on my own origins and how they influence my music.” But the odd Eastern rhythms and backbeats only last through the first chorus; we then move on to a straightahead medium-uptempo swing beat with the leader playing a nice modal solo on alto.

Rebirth is another mid-tempo swinger, on which both guitarist Gabriel Hamel and pianist Geoff Lapp sound particularly in their element. Chambre No. 5 is a nice ballad in B-flat with an interesting modal structure on which Steprans plays a nice, cool tenor. By contrast, One for Vedady O is another swinger with an unusual leading melody and rhythm, in which Lapp really shines…but so too, once again, does bassist Vedady.

Suite des Thèmes Lettons has an odd, swaggering backbeat taken at a slowish pace: surely one of the most unusual pieces on the album. Steprans is back on soprano sax here, leading his troupe through the music’s melody which sounds extended by an extra couple of beats (it sounds to me like 7/4). The leader plays both soprano and tenor on this one, switching saxes so quickly that it almost sounds like two different players coming in one after the other. The tempo picks up around the five-minute mark, just a bit, as we lead into an excellent guitar solo by Gabriel Hamel which is interesting and creative without pandering to the rock crowd, despite a few hot blues licks thrown in for fun. This in turn leads back to the leader, on soprano again, now playing in a light, airy manner reminiscent of Paul Winter. 

The lone standard on this set is Doris Fisher’s That Old Devil Called Love, on which Steprans surprisingly switches to clarinet. His playing is cool, however, recalling Jimmy Giuffre rather than Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. The rest of the band sounds very relaxed and comfortable in this piece, as if they’d been playing it for years, though Lapp’s single-note piano solo with occasional left-hand chord interjections gives it a more modern bent.

The program ends with another Steprans piece, Un autre Original, which begins like something out of Ornette Coleman’s book, an angular melody without an evident home key. After the intro, however, it settles down a bit, moving around E-flat until it finally lands there. The leader is back on tenor for this one and dominates the first half before Lapp comes in on piano, picking up from where the leader left off, followed by a chase chorus between Vedady and drummer Andre White. It’s a nice, joyous finish to an overall fine album, one you should explore.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Tansman’s Folk-Influenced Piano Music

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TANSMAN: 8 Novelettes. 3 Preludes en Forme de Blues. 20 Pièces faciles sur des mélodies populaires polonaises. Suite dans le Style Ancien / Danny Zelibor, pianist / Toccata Classics TOCC0265

This, the second volume of Danny Zelibor’s traversal of the piano works of Alexandre Tansman, focuses on his jazz-influenced scores of the 1930s. Although these are evidently the first complete recordings of the 8 Novelettes, the sixth of these—titled “Blues: Andante cantabile”—was indeed recorded previously, in 1956 at Walter Gieseking’s last recording session. The music requires the performer to “pull back” on the beat in order to produce the slightly out-of-synch style required to simulate the blues. I’m happy to say that Zelibor does this, but more interestingly, so did Gieseking!

Not all the pieces on this album are blues- or jazz-influenced, of course; several are, but others are informed by Gypsy and Polish dance music, particularly the mazurka, polonaise and polka. I’m happy to say that Zelibor, a pianist with an extremely sensitive touch, gives them all just the right spirit. Surprisingly, Novelette No. 7, the “Prelude and fugue,” is played with a jazzy lilt to it.

Of course, the 3 Preludes in the Form of the Blues, from 1937, is uncompromising in its simulation of blues piano; and please note how much more it sounds like real jazz or blues than most of George Gershwin’s pieces. I’ve been saying for decades that Gershwin, clever though he was, was a couple of steps removed from real jazz music, therefore his “jazz-classical” pieces sound much more raggy than jazzy. Just compare any of these three blues to ones that Gershwin wrote, particularly the second, and you’ll see that I am right.

The 20 Facile Pieces on Popular Polonaise Melodies is lighter fare, but once again Zelibor zeroes in on what is best in this music and presents it to us with the right spirit and feel. He has a rich, deep-in-the-keys touch that works wonders with this rather slight material, elevating it to a new standard. His delicate tracing of the music line rewards the patient listener with beauty after beauty in the unfolding of these scores.

By contrast, the Suite in the Ancient Style has more vigor and backbone in it, and Zelibor plays it exceedingly well. Curiously, the “Gavotte” in this suite is played by Zelibor with a hint of a jazz beat in it. Since this was composed in 1929, near the tail end of the “jazz age,” I wouldn’t be surprised if Tansman had that in mind when he wrote it.

All in all, then, a fascinating album, and one sure to make all of you Gershwin-lovers out there scratch your heads a little!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Neeme Järvi’s Busoni Set Reissued

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BUSONI: Orchestral Suite No. 2. Berceuse Élégiaque. Concertino for Clarinet and Small Orchestra.* 2 Sketches from Doktor Faust: Sarabande & Cortège. Tanzwalzer. Lustspiel Overture. Indianische Fantasie.+ Gesang vom Reigen der Geister. Die Brautwahl / *John Bradbury, clarinetist; +Nelson Goerner, pianist; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, conductor / Chandos CHAN 241-57

Ferruccio Busoni was an odd composer: so odd, in fact, that his music was seldom popular in concert halls during his lifetime and, in fact, lay largely neglected until the late 1960s when pianist John Ogden suddenly recorded his massive Piano Concerto. That concerto, like his opera Doktor Faust, was pretty much a meandering mess, but of course Academia jumped all over them and told us how ignorant we were for not recognizing their genius.

But in time, concert audiences got to hear Busoni’s other music, mostly suites and concertinos written in brief movements. Here, the composer’s deep knowledge of Baroque and Classical structure did him great service, and he was able to produce some excellent pieces of lasting value. Arturo Toscanini regularly performed only two of these works, the Berceuse Élégiaque and the Rondo Arlecchinesco, but on these two CDs, recorded by Neeme Järvi in 2001 and 2004 respectively, we have all but the Rondo to represent the very best of this phlegmatic conductor’s output. Moreover, these are performances of almost fearsome intensity and etraordinary clarity. hallmarks of Pop Järvi’s conducting style since he first appeared on records some 35 years ago.

In the Orchestral Suite No. 2, we hear some of Busoni’s influences coming forth, particularly Berlioz; he throws in quotes from the French composer’s Symphonie Fantastique and his arrangement of the Rakoczy March, and later on music that sounded for all the world like something of Prokofiev’s…except that Busoni wrote it between 1895 and 1902! This means that only was he not influenced by Prokofiev, but also that he wasn’t influenced by Scriabin, who was at that time still working towards his mature style. At another point, I heard a passage played by the clarinets that seemed borrowed from the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony (completed in 1896). Busoni certainly had “big ears,” as they say.

Järvi’s performance of the Berceuse is absolutely marvelous, bringing out the sensuousness and delicacy of the music with great felicity. I found his performance of the Concertino for clarinet greatly improved the quality of the music with his sprightly approach, which often disguised the works’s weaknesses (particularly the slow, meandering second movement, which goes in one ear and out the other). Clarinetist John Bradbury also plays very well on it. Järvi’s performances of the sketches from Doktor Faust, the “Sarabande” and “Cortège,” are quite different from those of Michael Gielen. Järvi is fairly strict in tempo but, although bringing out some of its color and vigor, not quite as penetrating, but the performances are certainly valid in their own right. The music itself, like most of Doktor Faust, has some interest in the counterpoint but is often meandering.

The Tanzwalzer, also light music, are very interesting for the way Busoni plays with orchestral color and rhythm. It almost comes across as a developing, organic composition than a suite, particularly in this performance. The Comedy Overture lives up to its title, with sprightly, playful music, bustling and happy form start to finish, yet has enough harmonic interest in it to keep up one’s interest. It would certainly not be a favorite on your local classical radio station! The curious thing about Busoni is that he sounds both German and Italian at the same time: German, and sometimes Russian, in his melodic contours, but then suddenly Italian in the very next phrase.

Perhaps the most interesting piece on either disc is the rarely-heard Indian Fantasy, completed in 1914. Although it premiered in Berlin in March 1914 and was played again (with the composer at the piano) with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Stokowski the next year, the piece has never caught on. This is a shame, as the music uses genuine American Indian themes (particularly the one at 10:40) and is a tightly-knit structure in the form of a one-movement piano concerto. Although the solo piano part is occasionally splashy for the sake of impressing listeners, most of the time it is interesting and dovetails nicely with the orchestral score, which is far less Germanic-sounding than much of Busoni’s output. Pianist Nelson Goerner strikes me as riding the surface of the music and not being terribly imaginative in his performance, but his technique is dazzling and the score itself has numerous features of interest. This one is well worth reviving!

By contrast with the essentially flashy Indian Fantasy, the Indian Diary, Book II is mysterious and reflective, without a piano soloist. Busoni called it a “chorale prelude” and thought of it as an orchestral elegy along with the Berceuse Élégiaque. Järvi plays it with a nice sense of feeling, albeit a tad fast for the mood of the piece.

The suite from Busoni’s first opera, the failed Die Brautwahl or The Bridal Choice, is as great as anything he wrote. The music is enormously complex in both rhythms and thematic material, surely too much for the average opera-goer to absorb in one evening (or, even, in one week), but it’s also quite lively and ingeniously scored, particularly in the winds. The liner notes tell us that Busoni did not just extract a series of set-pieces from the opera, but rather assembled episodes that portrayed specific moods and “wove those together to make a whole movement of that character, though the various sections may come from diverse parts of the opera.” In many ways, I think, this is Busoni’s masterpiece. a great work that is both emotionally appealing and musically complex. The third section, titled “Mystiches stück,” is as remarkable and creative a piece of music as I have ever heard, and Järvi’s conducting of it is just perfect in mood. Let me be clear: this music is too good for an operatic audience, particularly one of 1913. No tunes? No high notes? No ballet? We’re out of here!

All in all, then, a really fine album of mostly very fine music. As a 2 for 1 deal, this is a no-brainer.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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“Bird in Time” a Great Time Capsule

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BIRD IN TIME / Complete musical contents available by clicking here; also includes interviews with Max Roach, Teddy Edwards, Roy Porter, Howard McGhee, Earl Coleman, Milt Jackson & Parker / ESP-DISK’ 4050, 4 CDs (mono)

Bernard Stollman, who died in 2015 at the age of 85, was one of New York City’s original wacked-out Commie-Socialists—a sure fit for the “Social Justice” bunch of today. He went to Columbia University where he pursued a law degree, working as an unpaid intern for a law firm who was working on the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. He developed a love of both jazz and Esperanto, envisioning a one-world-order where everyone would speak that artificial and now arcane language. Indeed, the ESP of ESP-DISK’ is short for Esperanto, not an abbreviation of Extra Sensory Perception as many of us in the 1960s assumed. He put out the label’s first release, Ni Kantu en Esperanto, at his own expense, but then received a large financial gift from his parents—who owned a chain of women’s wear stores—to found the label full-time. Typically of so many Communists and Socialists, he didn’t put his money where his mouth was. In addition to issuing (illegally, be it noted) old recordings and performances by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, he also signed a wide range of avant-garde artists of the time like Paul Bley, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders and Don Cherry as well as such “underground” rock bands as Pearls Before Swine, the Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs (later The Village Fugs). Most of them—the living ones, anyway—frequently sued him for failure to pay royalties. As per Wikipedia, Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine claimed “We never got any money from ESP. Never, not even like a hundred dollars or something. My real sense is that he [Stollman] was abducted by aliens, and when he was probed it erased his memory of where all the money was.” Similarly, Peter Stampfel who founded both the Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs said Stollman told him that “the contract says that all rights belong to me. You have no royalties ever, ever, ever. The publishing is mine. You don’t own the songs anymore. We don’t owe you anything.”

Such is the way of all armchair Communists and Socialists. They talk a good game, but THEY are never the ones to share ANYTHING with you or the underclass they claim to represent. Just ask the Haitians who are still picketing the Clinton Foundation over being screwed by them in hurricane relief, or the Latino workers suing Ben & Jerry’s for underpaying them.

But Stollman recorded some truly great and original music, though most of it really didn’t sell well enough copies to recoup his outlay. He sold the label in 1974 and worked as an assistant New York Attorney General. After retiring, he revived the label in 2005.

This particular release is a generally marvelous set that somehow slipped through the cracks when it was issued in 2009, but is still a valuable and fascinating resource for early Parkeriana. Bird in Time takes you from Charlie Parker’s beginnings, surprisingly related by Parker himself in a rare interview, up through 1947 when he was literally the hottest thing in jazz and on top of the world. Most of the performances included are airchecks and acetates, the only exceptions being six Dial sides from 1946-47.

Parker0001Being an ESP-DISK’ production, the sound is a little raw on most of the tracks and very raw on others. No attempt was made to clean up the hum, surface noise or pops, and in some cases—particularly the early material—this is more than a little frustrating. It almost but not quite supplants the Definitive Records issue, Charlie Parker Complete Recordings with Lennie Tristano, and pretty much replaces the now-very rare Spotlite LP Early Bird. The latter contains a clutch of 1943 airchecks with the Jay McShann band, but Bird only plays solo on a couple of tracks, Lonely Boy Blues and Jump the Blues.

I had a few questions pop into my mind as I moved from disc to disc. Question #1: As long as you were including some commercial discs to illustrate Bird’s musical evolution, why only 6 from Dial and none from Savoy…not even his two most popular Savoy tracks, Red Cross and Now’s the Time? Question #2: If you were including Dial tracks, why the infamous recording of Lover Man where Bird was so stoned that he missed his entrance and flubbed a few notes in the first chorus? Or the really lame Trumpet at Tempopop tune The Gypsy, where Bird plays straight and the song isn’t even interesting? Question #3: After including so many interviews praising the playing of trumpeter Howard McGhee, including interviews with Maggie himself, why no examples of just how blistering he could really play? True, there are a handful of sides with Maggie, but nothing on the level of his superb Dial recording of Trumpet at Tempo, which is actually Back Home Again in Indiana with a new title? And considering that the Definitive CD of Parker and Tristano came out in 2006, why bother including so many of their broadcast tracks? Yes, they’re terrific, but unless you include ALL of them (and they don’t), a handful would have sufficed.

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The Jay McShann band with Parker on alto sax.

That being said, the set really is an ear-opener. In addition to the eight famous early recordings from 1940-42 that comprised side 1 of the Spotlite LP, there are additional acetates from about the same era that I didn’t even know existed. Incidentally, those 1940 acetates are important for including the only known recordings of once-famed trumpeter Bernard “Buddy” Anderson. It was Dizzy Gillespie who related that Anderson “was into a new style that used a soft vibrato and combined shimmering legato and crackling staccato passages before anyone else.” Anderson worked with Dizzy and Parker in the Billy Eckstine band , but made no records with them, and died of tuberculosis in 1944. These sides also give some exposure to tenor saxist Bob Mabane who likewise had very little exposure in the recording studio.

The two biggest surprises for me were an aircheck in which Bird plays with the Nat King Cole Trio and half a complete set with a 1945 big band led by trumpeter Cootie Williams. I didn’t know either existed, and to be honest I never knew that Williams had a big band, in 1945 or any other time. Somehow I missed this chapter of his career, and the loss was mine, because the orchestra was very tight and very professional. Apparently, this band (minus Parker) made the first recording of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight in 1944, so it has a definite place in jazz history. The arrangements are terrific (although Williams evidently received permission from Duke Ellington to use his 1940 chart of Concerto for Cootie, later renamed Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me) and both the ensemble execution and solos are wonderful.

As you go through the four CDs in this set, you learn some interesting little sidelights about Bird’s arrival in New York, his tremendous impact on the West Coast (Norman Granz, who had heard a worn-out acetate of Parker in 1944 and thought little of him, was blown away when he heard him live in California and added him to his Jazz at the Philharmonic tours), and his relationship with various musicians. Aside from his heroin habit, which brought everyone down (including Bird himself), everyone loved him as a person as well as a musician. He has this wonderfully lovable side to him that was neither phony nor put on. You can hear it in his speaking voice in the few interviews included here; whereas the others all sound hepped up, as if they’re anxious to tell their stories, Parker sounds consistently relaxed, laid-back and genial. There is always the hint of a smile in his voice. He obviously enjoyed life and had a good sense of humor, two traits that endeared him to Gillespie in addition to his immense talent.

You can thus trace the artistic evolution of one of the most original and important jazz musicians of all time, and the layout of the album—those few caveats I mentioned aside—is fascinating. Since I had to review the album from streaming audio of the mp3 tracks, I had no access to the two fulsome booklets that apparently accompany the hard copy of the set, and none of my missives to ESP-DISK’ could persuade them to send me Adobe PDF copies of said booklets. Thus I can’t comment on how wonderful they are, or aren’t, but I would assume that they are well-researched since Stollman was involved in the Parker estate case. (Luckily for him Chan Parker, Charlie’s common-law wife who had no real legal claim to his royalties, died in 1999.) Bird’s personal life was a mess, and you can pick some of that up in the commentary heard in this set, but he based his blistering sixteenth-note alto style on the blues and thus was never very far away from them in mood, and it shows. A few lapses aside, it is amazing how consistent his work was. It’s the one thing he never skimped on. His mind was continually active and he almost never coasted, which was the reason he became such a legend in his own lifetime.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Ulf and Erik Wakenius Create Guitar Magic

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FATHER AND SON / ZAWINUL: Birdland (2 vers). U. WAKENIUS: Irish Vagabond. Mistral. Paco’s Delight. TRADITIONAL: Medley: Meine Schöne Heimat/Vem Kan Segla Förutan Vind. MORRICONE: Once Upon a Time in America. TRADITIONAL: Scarborough Fair. Medley: SVENSSON: Dodge the Dodo/BERGLUND-ÖSTRÖM: When God Created the Coffee Break. LENNON-McCARTNEY: Eleanor Rigby. STEVENS: Father and Son. SINGLETON: Help the Poor / Ulf Wakenius, Erik Wakenius, gtr/voc / Act 9843-2 (live: Göthenburg, September 3, 2016)

In Europe, the father and son team of Ulf and Erik Wakenius is practically legendary, whereas here in the U.S. they’re not as well known as a duo. Ulf is better known than Erik because he played for 10 years on the Oscar Peterson Quartet. What I particularly liked about them is that both play the guitar with guts and drive, not the usual laid-back “soft” guitar playing one normally hears here in the U.S.

The sales sheet accompanying this release tells us that famed guitarist John McLaughlin, whose playing is fast and flashy but doesn’t say much to me, once praised Ulf Wakenius by saying that he sounds as if he was born with a guitar in his hands. He certainly can play, and to my ears his solos are more creative and say more than McLaughlin’s own. Of course, since this is not a video I have no idea which player is Ulf and which is Erik, but they’re certainly a fit match for each other. It’s almost like listening to José Feliciano double-tracking himself. I particularly liked the way one of them would vamp a bass line while the other would improvise in the treble. Such moments were not frequent on the album, but when they did occur they were special.

My sole caveat to this album is that some of the music leaned towards funk or fusion, but played by just two acoustic guitars it doesn’t hammer on the brain nearly as badly as a full band would. They also break up these numbers with some traditional swingers and, in the case of Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in America, a nice ballad piece, played with great sensitivity and elegance by the duo. Paco’s Delight, a tribute to Paco de Lucia, also contains a bit of Django Reinhardt as well; I particularly loved the way they “bounce” off each other in this number. Are they as good as Django or Feliciano? Not quite, but who is? I can certainly enjoy them on their own level because what they play is inventive and beautifully articulated.

Their version of Scarborough Fair never touches the melody, but is rather a two-minute duo improvisation in the key of B. Surprisingly, Dodge the Dodo turns out to be a fairly hard-driving Latin-rhythm tune while its successor in this medley, When God Created the Coffee Break, is a syncopated piece in which one guitar remains almost constantly in the bass range playing an ostinato rhythm against the other’s top-line improvisations.

I was particularly delighted by their treatment of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, played in lightly-strummed thirds, sometimes minor thirds at that. I’ve never heard it like this in my life! Erik Wakenius sings the folk tune-like Father and Son by Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam. It’s pleasant but kind of a nothing tune, like all of Cat Stevens’ songs. This is followed by a longer version of Joe Zawinul’s famous piece Birdland, played with zest and a nice rhythmic bounce by the duo. As the piece goes on, they almost make a folk-rock-jazz piece out of it. Who needs a bass player when the two of them can play this well?

The album closes with a song titled Help the Poor, which has a sort of funky beat and lyrics I couldn’t even understand. Are they singing in English? It doesn’t sound it to me. A sad ending to an otherwise great album, highly recommended for American guitarists who want to learn how they should be playing their instruments.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Nat Cole Trio’s Last European Stand

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ZURICH 1950 / ASHBY: Nothing to Fret About. YOUMANS: Tea for Two. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul. WHITING-MERCER: Too Marvelous for Words. COLE: Bop Kick. In the Cool of the Evening. Medley: HANDY: St. Louis Blues/JACKSON: Bluesology. COLE-COSTANZO: Go Bongo. LEWIS-HAMILTON: How High the Moon. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: Summertime. G & I GERSHWIN: Embraceable You. HUBBELL: Poor Butterfly. HYDE-HENRY: Little Girl. BURWELL-PARISH: Sweet Lorraine. TROUP: Route 66 / Nat “King” Cole, pn/voc; Irving Ashby, gtr; Joe Comfort, bs; Jack Costanzo, bongos / TCB Montreaux Jazz 02432 (live: Zurich, October 19, 1950)

Next Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, I don’t think any major jazz figure was as beloved by the public as Nat “King” Cole. Even as a six-year-old, watching his nationally syndicated TV show, I was mesmerized by this charming, gentle and obviously hugely talented man, but even then, as much as I liked his singing, it was his piano playing that grabbed me and never let me go.

It wasn’t until I had grown up a bit that I learned that Cole was considered one of the most important and influential pianists in jazz history, the man who took the Earl Hines style, peppered it up with interesting dissonances and unusual rhythmic twists, and thus led to the development of bebop. All I knew was that every time he sat down at the piano and played, it was absolutely magical. Cole had a delicate touch, but more importantly, he had tremendous imagination and a good dose of wit. His musical humor sometimes consisted of just throwing snippets of Christmas tunes into the midst of a conventional song, or of playing a chord that didn’t quite fit the norm, or suddenly throwing in a full keyboard gliss when it was least expected, but over the entire course of his career he remained one of the most interesting and delightful of jazz tinklers, as we hep cats called them back then.

Jack the BellboyAnd of course, Cole was famous for having innovated the drummerless jazz combo, a move that initially hurt him until club owners realized how magnetic his musical personality was and how much people loved him. He later said, “I knew I was on the right track; it was everyone else who was wrong!” His first recordings were made for RCA Victor, his trio backing up Lionel Hampton on a couple of jazz classics, Jack the Bellboy and Central Avenue Breakdown. Ironically, Hampton played drums on that session, not vibes, so their recording debut had the drums he would never use in person.

By the time this marvelous, formerly unreleased session took place, his original bandmates—guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince—were long gone. Prince had been replaced by Johnny Miller in 1945, and later by Joe Comfort at the time of this live session (and later by Charlie Harris). Moore, who was probably the least known great guitarist in all of jazz, left near the end of 1947, to be replaced by Irving Ashby. As you can hear on the first track of his live session, Ashby was clearly a superb technician who fit into the group sound very well, but he couldn’t really touch Moore in terms of musical imagination. On the other hand, Comfort was very much Prince’s equal.

For the most part the sound quality of this live session is surprisingly good. You really get a “you are there” feeling from it, with just enough room resonance around the group to give their sound a nice sheen. And there is a surprise for those who don’t know much about the Nat Cole Trio’s later days: the addition of a drummer, in this case a bongo player, Jack Costanzo. So technically, this was no longer a Nat Cole Trio, but the Nat Cole Trio Plus One or Nat Cole and his Trio. The reason was that he really liked them from hearing the big bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton. Indeed, Costanzo, known affectionately as “Mr, Bongo” (and still alive, at this time of writing, at age 97!), was Kenton’s bongo player. Cole heard him playing live with Kenton and placed an ad in the paper asking the “bongo player with Stan Kenton” to call him to join the group. In a wonderful interview with Costanzo printed in the booklet, he states that he never appeared on ballads but Nat told him to “just move your hands as though you are playing and then they won’t know.” Another weird sidelight: a conga drum player had joined Stan Kenton two months before, and when he saw Nat’s ad in the paper he called him up and pretended to be Costanzo, who was vacationing in Florida at the time and didn’t see the ad. Fortunately, Costanzo’s brother was in Chicago at the time when Cole was playing there, went to see him, and informed him that he had the wrong drummer. He showed Nat a photo of Jack and said This is the guy you’re looking for! So that’s how Costanzo got the gig.

The piano at the Zurich nightclub from which this emanated (the Kongresshaus) is in tune but sounds a little “clangy” on some of the keys…a typical club piano. Fortunately, you only notice the flaws at full volume. When Nat plays softly, as he does much of the time, it’s unnoticeable. Th set surprisingly starts with Ashby and Comfort playing feature numbers, the guitarist dominating in his own Nothing to Fret About and the bassist sounding pretty good in Tea for Two. Cole has some real fun with the St, Louis Blues, purposely playing the first chorus in a corny, pre-1920s manner that has the audience laughing. But for the most part the trio is in a particularly innovative mood; nearly every solo, even Costanzo’s on Go Bongo, is interesting and inventive.

The trio does a marvelous version of Poor Butterfly, taken at a medium swing tempo and quite different from the ballad version for which they were more famous. Oddly, Costanzo doesn’t play on this one, but Nat takes the tune into some interesting harmonic territory and has a nice, playful chorus backing and interacting with Ashby. Costanzo also doesn’t appear on the uptempo Little Girl, so apparently the rule about Costanzo playing on faster numbers wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule.

Although Cole continued to perform and record with his trio for another six years, 1950 was the last year they were a real full-time performing group. The success of such solo vocal recordings as Mona Lisa and Unforgettable catapulted Nat to fame as a vocalist first and foremost, thus despite excursions back to the piano (and, on one memorable session with Billy May, electric organ), the trio pretty much disappeared as a regular group.

Thus what we have is a nice slide of history. To the best of my knowledge (and I’ve been wrong before), I don’t think there is any other complete live set by the Nat Cole Trio where Cole introduces his band members and tunes like this. Yes, there are radio transcription discs, but they’re not the same thing. And it’s really marvelous to hear an audience showering him with so much love and appreciation.

But such adulation was easy to show to Nat Cole. He was, after all, the King.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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O Sister! Stompin’ Down the Boswells Path

Stompin in Joy

STOMPIN’ IN JOY / PADILLA: Nowzah! (I Don’t Accept Your Rules). Please, Don’t Talk to Me Before My Morning Coffee. I Fell in Love with New Orleans. Keep Your Head Up, Sister.3 COMINO: The Baby Rag.1 MEYER-LOESSER-DeLANGE: I Wish I Were Twins. SECUNDA-CAHN-CHAPLIN: Bei Mir Bist du Schoen. COMINO-BOSSO-CABRA: The Dances I Owe You. BOSWELL SISTERS: (Stop That) Puttin’ It On. HUDSON-DeLANGE-MILLS: Moonglow.2 BOSWELL SISTERS-O SISTER: You-dle-ee-oo-dee-oo / O Sister!: Helena Amado, Paula Padilla, Marcos Padilla, voc/uke; Matías Comino, gtr/bjo/ Camilo Bosso, bs; Pablo Cabra, dm/washboard; Juli Aymi, cl/a-sax; Julien Silvand, tpt; Josep Tutusaus, tbn; Ángel Andrés Muñoz, pn; 1Amalia Comino, Daniela Huertas, Abril Cabra, baby voices; 2Miguel Romero, Enrique Chaves, vln; Gonzalo Castelló, vla; Sebastián Lato, cello; 3Amandine Dulaurans, Mamen Arroyo, Rocio Huertas, Viki Vassiliou, voc qrt / O Sister private release, no number, available as LP, digital download or CD at https://osister.bandcamp.com/

Back in the 1980s, when I was in sporadic contact with Vet Boswell, I mentioned to her one day that it was a shame the Boswell Sisters couldn’t have stayed together another 12 years because they might have been the groundbreakers who started singing close-harmony jazz vocal arrangements of hip tunes of that time like Caldonia, Four Brothers and Cloudburst. “Oh, sure,” she said. “We would probably have done things like that…we always enjoyed a challenge, and songs like that were the kind of things we did best…” And then he voice trailed off into silence. I didn’t know, at the time, how much it pained her inside that the sisters broke up when they did, and how badly she missed the act even into advanced age.

Fast forward to May 20, 2011. On a street corner in Seville, Spain, a relatively new group calling themselves O Sister! lined up at a Seville street corner, a photo of Vet Boswell on an easel behind them, and celebrated the 100th anniversary of her birthday by singing a spirited version of Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On. You can still see that live video on YouTube; delighted passersby stop and smile as they sing the infectious rhythms, a group of somewhat blasé young men at an outdoor café raise their eyebrows and listen. The Boswell Sisters, to a large extent, were reborn.

What made O Sister’s performance so much better than the contemporaneous versions by the Puppini Sisters and The Wah Wah Girls, among others, were two things. First, they had the same penny-bright vocal timbres that the Boswells had, which gave their music more of an edge, and second, they had a much edgier rhythmic drive and were able to sing those tricky vocal triplets and other little turns without trying to sound sultry and soft. In short, they sounded so much like the original Boswell Sisters that it was eerie.

Before I go on with this review, I think an editorial comment is in order. It never ceases to amaze me when jazz listeners, particularly those who know the history of the music and have explored it in some depth, say to me that they’ve “just discovered” the Boswell Sisters, that they’re “the greatest jazz vocal group you’ve never heard” and that they’re “forgotten.”

Yes, that was true for a long time, from the early 1940s, when the very popular Andrews Sisters eclipsed them in the pop music charts up through the early ‘70s. I can understand a lot of people missing out on the 2-LP compilation that American Decca issued in 1971, on which one measly Boswells record was included (although a good one, When I Take My Sugar to Tea). The only reason I knew to look for them was that I had been reading somewhere, in my explorations of early jazz, that the Boswell Sisters were supreme in their field and influenced both the Andrews and every other jazz singing trio that came after them. But yes, I admit that in 1971, the Bozzies were obscure. In order to hear anything more by them, I had to travel to The Record Album, a rare-record shop on the upper West side of Manhattan, to buy a 4-78 set issued by Brunswick around 1941 with eight of their classic performances on it.

But then, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, there was a brief but spirited “Boswells Renaissance.” Producer Michael Brooks convinced Columbia Records, then owner of the original Brunswick masters (but not their handful of Decca sides), to issue a 3-LP set on their Columbia Special Products label. The price was inexpensive, and to the best of my knowledge the album sold very well because CSP followed with a Vol. 2 and the Boswell Sisters were back on the map.

Music historian David McCain, then a young man, also got into them around this time and contacted Vet, the surviving Boswell sister, at her home in Peekskill, New York. They began a lively phone-and-mail relationship that eventually led to face-to-face meetings. Somehow, someone was persuaded to do an off-Broadway show about the Boswell Sisters. It did well artistically but not financially; Vet, a real perfectionist, was never 100% satisfied with the singers chosen to play her and her sisters. The one thing she couldn’t get across to them was the Boswells’ penchant for crossing voices during ensemble passages. This is very tricky and, in fact, most untrained ears never picked up on it, but the “usual” arrangement of Vet singing the high part, Martha the middle and Connie the low did not always hold true. They would switch parts in the middle of a chorus or even in the middle of a bar. The mere mortals chosen to play the Boswells for the show never could catch on to this; it really was something very difficult for them to wrap their heads around. But somehow or other, they managed to do it to a point, and the show went on.

But not for long. It attracted an enthusiastic but smallish audience and never really gained traction, closing only a couple of months after it opened. Still, it put the Boswells back in the entertainment section of the New York Times.

Around the same time (1981), Steve Martin made a rather surreal film about a salesman in the 1930s who lived a fantasy life in his head. Pennies From Heaven wasn’t a box-office smash, but it did well enough, and among the ‘30s records played in the film was the Boswells classic, It’s the Girl. So once again, popular culture and the Bozzies intersected. The British wing of Decca Records issued an LP titled Sand in My Shoes which included several solo recordings by Connie Boswell and the last six sides made by the sisters. Vocalion issued a single LP of Boswells material from their Brunswick days, which included a few tracks not on either of the CSP sets. And, from Pennsylvania, an indie label called Jazum Records issued some really rare Bozzie performances, including British discs, super-rare Brunswicks and a slew of radio transcriptions from the Dodge Bros. radio show.

It’s true that they were rather neglected for a while after that, but you’d have thought that all of this was enough to re-establish their fame, at least among jazz aficionados. But apparently not. Then, from the late 1990s on, a series of CD reissues came around, including yet another from a British label which had some of their all-time best recordings on it. Still, no traction. The British label ASV put one out; Jass Records put out a few more; Columbia Legacy struck again, on CD, with their “Art Deco Series” tribute. Still, no traction.

Or was there? Somehow their name and style was spreading, because tribute groups sprang up, most prominently the Pfister Sisters, Hazelnuts, Puppini Sisters, Boswell Project, The Stolen Sweets and an extremely talented Spanish trio, O Sister!, whose sound is so close to the originals that it’s almost eerie. The Stolen Sweets and O Sister! have gone beyond the confines of pure copying to produce later material in the Boswells’ style, which I really do think Vet would have appreciated had she lived to hear them.

And now we have this new album by O Sister!, which is even more assured and swinging than their earlier performances. A perfect example is their completion of an original Boswells tune that was sketched out but never recorded, You-dle-ee-oo-dee-oo. O Sister! has indeed worked this song out in a manner very close to what the Boswells would have done, and it is my opinion that none of the other Boswell-imitation groups could have done as great a job. Moreover, their performance on this new studio recording is stronger and more assured than their original version, apparently recorded during a hot day in Seville (August 2014) and also available for free streaming on YouTube. In the earlier performance, there is indeed a certain frisson when they switch gears from the ballad portion of the song to the uptempo improvisation that sounds more planned on the studio one; but I like the slightly quicker tempo and jauntier performance of the early section on the new recording.

This greater assuredness by the group runs like a spine of metal throughout the entire album, and this extends to the many new songs that are the bulk of the program. Both Paula Padilla, one of the group’s founders, and guitarist/banjoist Matías Comino have contributed several wonderful new songs in the Boswells mold, only with the personal stamp of O Sister! on the lyrics. My particular favorites are Nowzah! (I Don’t Accept Your Rules), The Baby Rag, I Fell in Love with New Orleans and Keep Your Head Up, Sister. The vocal group’s back-up band has, if anything, also grown in assurance and style over the past four years. They are now as good, in my view, as the Dorsey Brothers’ studio band that accompanied the Boswell Sisters. Guitarist Comino, trumpeter Julien Silvand, trombonist Josep Tutuseus and pianist Ángel Andrés Muñoz play some real quality solos and lay down a ground beat as strong and solid as a stonewall, Jackson. I was particularly delighted to hear the way they played and sang I Fell in Love with New Orleans with the kind of swaggering backbeat associated not with New Orleans musicians of the Boswells’ era but with the New Orleans sound of the 1950s and ‘60s, i.e, the world of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Alan Toussaint. That is modernizing the Bozzies’ sound without leaving “The Land of Dreams.”

With so many things to praise in the album, however, I must let O Sister! know that their English diction simply must improve. At first it was rather charming to hear them sing the old Boswells numbers with a heavy Spanish accent, but now that they’ve gone into original numbers they really need to clean up their nasal consonants and mangled vowels. True, what they sing in the New Orleans song is wholly accurate:

I’m not a US citizen
I don’t speak English very well
I never celebrate Thanksgiving Day

I live so far away from the land of dreams
Even so, Mississippi, wait for me
(Oh, please…)

But it’s a matter of wanting to improve them. If all Helena Amado, Paula and Marcos Padilla really want of their career is just to sing in and around Spanish cities (although they did appear once in New Orleans), I guess they don’t need to change. I doubt that most of their audiences know what they’re singing anyway if they perform mostly in their heavily-accented English. But if they spent three months working with a good diction coach and improving their English, they would be world-famous. No audience in any city, particularly in the U.S.A., would be able to resist a group that is to all extents and purposes a reincarnation of the Boswell Sisters. They would have the jazz world at their feet.

And they’d be able to create Boswells-style arrangements of tunes like Caldonia and bowl people over with the tremendous power of their infectious rhythmic drive. I say these things not because I wish to hurt their feelings but because I want so badly for them to conquer the world.

They’re that good.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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