New John Carollo CD Has Fine Music

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CAROLLO: The Rhetoric and Mythos of Belief. The Transfiguration of Giovanni Baudino. Let Freedom Ring. Do You Have an E.R. for Music? Symphony No. 2 (The Circle of Fire). Move Towards the Light (Your Destiny Awaits You) / Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Petr Vronsky, conductor / Navona Records NV6109

This album, which will be released on August 11, will be Parma Records’ 500th release and the first to also be available on LP for those who are into that.

Having become somewhat familiar with Carollo’s music through his previous release, Starry Night, I was a bit taken aback by his four-part Rhetoric and Mythos of Belief. For the most part, Carollo eschews his normal contrapuntal style in favor of slow, sad, meditative movements, all scored for strings alone. In the first we have a deeply-felt Adagio in the vein of Samuel Barber’s most famous piece. It is not a clone by any means—Carollo takes his theme in different directions with a different feeling for harmony—but it is a close cousin. It is also just as deeply moving and emotional. The second movement, marked “Animato – Largo,” returns us in the beginning to Carollo’s more familiar style, but this only lasts about 30-40 seconds. We are then returned to a slow tempo, but now the melodic line is more angular and the harmony spikier. The “animato” tempo recurs again towards the end.

The third movement, marked “Tranquillo (Existential Loneliness as a Background for Joy and Sorrow),” returns us to the sad mood of the first, as does the fourth “ Misterioso/Meditativo.” The last, titled “Intenso,” is just that, albeit not at a particularly fast pace. Overall, I liked some of the music in this suite very much but found some of the slow passages a bit too similar to one another.

I admit to having been baffled who Giovanni Baudino was, or how or why he became transfigured. If you Google it you’ll come up with people of that name born in 1899, 1905, and a living Giovanni Baudino on Twitter and Facebook. The closest I came was the Baudino Family Tree on Ancestry.com, where a Giovanni Baudino was apparently born and died sometime in the 18th century (no specific dates provided). Eventually the composer solved the riddle for me. He was a war orphan, and that was his original name before he was adopted by the Carollo family! The music, however, is superb, being simultaneously dramatic and quite chipper in mood. Here the orchestra seems primarily made up of brass (trumpets, trombones, French horns, tuba), winds, and piano. Carollo has a ball exploring “Baudino’s” transformation through a most imaginative score, although the music retains essentially the same mood throughout its 11-minute length depsite a slow passage towards the end. This piece and the following one were previously released as part of the Winter’s Warmth CD (Navona 6091).

Let Freedom Ring is a bit different, here using a full chamber orchestra, playing swirling string figures against slower-moving figures by the winds and brass. This piece was particularly imaginative in its scoring and its boisterous use of percussion. Yet even more creative, in fact on of the highlights of this CD, was the jocular Do You Have an E.R. For Music?, in which Carollo has fun bouncing around in syncopated figures which the Moravian orchestra has just a wee bit of trouble playing with the proper swagger.

We then arrive at his second symphony. This opens with a solo flute figure, picked up by oboe, which is then developed briefly by other winds. Interestingly, the music is light and playful, almost defying the title of the symphony, “The Circle of Fire.” Indeed, the lightweight scoring and humorous nature of the piece defies most people’s ideas of a symphony, period. This first movement (titled “A Recording is the Antithesis of His Aesthetic”) is almost a divertimento. Both the mood and scoring reminded me of the whimsical Polka from Shostakovich’s The Golden Age. The second movement, “Line and Polyphony,” is in a more serious vein but no less barely-scored or contrapuntal. Heavy brass “pushes” the beat along like a steamroller. The last movement (“The Rein Which Resists Allegory Run Riot”) is in a much faster tempo, playing the instruments against one another in a continuous line of music. This movement was particularly well conceived, and ends in a riot of humor.

The album concludes with Move Towards the Light, which returns us to the more ethereal, sedate mood of the opening work. For me, personally, this was even more beautiful and moving, a simply luminous work that probes one’s inner feelings quite deeply.

If I may be permitted an observation that is more about the performance than the compositions, it didn’t seem to me that the orchestra had much rehearsal time or was comfortable with some of this music. In other words, I found myself having to judge the music—which, of course, was entirely new to me—from performances that were clean and professional but sometimes lacked a good rhythmic “bounce.” These things happen in the recording world nowadays, and I understand that, but I couldn’t help feeling that some of these pieces (particularly the Second Symphony) would sound much better in the hands of an orchestra comfortable with its rhythms and musical syntax.

Overall, however, a fine recording, well worth exploring!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Paul Chihara’s Whimsical Music

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TAKE THE “A” TRAIN / CHIHARA: String Trio / Gavin String Trio / Bagatelles / Jerome Lowenthal, pianist / The Girl From Yerevan / David Starobin, guitarist; Movaes Pogossian, violinist; Paul Coletti, violist / Ellington Fantasy: I’m Beginning the See the Light; Sophisticated Lady; Take the “A” Train / Lark Quartet / Bridge 9488

Japanese-American composer Paul Chihara generally writes music that is both intriguing and entertaining, and in this new CD he has hit the jackpot. Despite the album’s title, and the fact that it does indeed close with a string quartet arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s classic, the general mood of the album is not jazz-oriented but is one of Chihara’s strongest collections.

The opening String Trio is, for Chihara, unusually angular and almost mathematical in its balance, thus I wasn’t surprised to learn that this work was influenced by the artword of M.C. Escher. Individual strands play against one another but also blend into a three-way dialogue with each instrument, sometimes the violin vs. the viola and cello. Although in three movements, they are played without a break, yet the listener can clearly feel the shifts in mood and structure (the slow middle movement has more homogeneous playing by the trio). Occasionally, as is his usual style, Chihara breaks out discernible melodies, but they never last very long and fold back into the ongoing dialogue. The notes tell us that he used the opening fugue from Beethoven’s C-sharp minor quartet (Op. 131) in his last movement, but there’s also a unique swagger to the rhythm that I found appealing.

Pianist Jerome Lowenthal describes the Bagatelles as “Twice Seven Haiku for Piano,” and this is what Chihara has subtitled his work. The individual pieces bear titles such as “Like falling leaves…,” “Drinking song for kittens…,” “Hip hop farmer…” “Misty fugue…” and “La Valse de Chatons (The Waltz for Kittens).” The music is Chihara at his most humorous and whimsical, pictorial but also musically intriguing. He uses almost simple building blocks for these pieces, yet manages to say something new and refreshing. Some of the pieces have a “lounge music” feel to them without really being that simplistic. Once in a while you’ll hear a tune that resembles American Indian music, at other times a sort of retrograde ballad with one hand playing the melody of the other in reverse, etc. At one point he quotes the old folk song Red Wing. The first bagatelle of the second set is titled “Hommage aus trois B’s (Bach, Brahms, Bolcom).” All in all, a witty, charming set.

The Girl from Yerevan, composed for the Dilijan concert series and its artistic director, violinist Movses Pogossian, blends Armenian folk songs, the music of Khachaturian and “samba-esque stylizations of João Gilberto.” Chihara admits that he didn’t know, when he accepted the commission, “that Armenia is a totally land-locked country with no ocean beaches…no Ipanema!” But he still managed to create something new, elegant, and yes, entertaining. David Starobin, Bridge records’ co-owner, plays on this one and he’s a fine guitarist. Listening to the full piece, the layout and feel of the music is most definitely classical depite the folk influence (and the quasi-Latin beat). The guitar acts primarily as commentator to the ongoing musical dialogue, played by the strings in unison or close harmony, though there are some nice solo spots for Starobin.

The genesis of Chihara’s Ellington Fantasy is intriguing. While conversing with surviving members of the Duke Ellington band, the composer learned that the musicians often played string instruments when performing in “polite society,” even though they “had not studied string playing formally.” Chihara took over this project when Duke’s son Mercer told him that he didn’t have the time or energy to arrange his father’s songs for string quartet. Chihard was lucky that Ellington and his publisher, Belwyn Mills, gave him permission to arrange and publish any songs of his choice. The three he picked are good ones, but all famous ones. How I would have liked to hear string arrangements of such lesser-known fare as Dooji Wooji, The Sergeant Was Shy or Fugue-a-Ditty.

Interestingly, the first song presented here, I’m Beginning to See the Light, was a collaboration between Ellington and trumpeter-bandleader Harry James, who made it a number one hit. Ellington’s star alto saxist Johnny Hodges and lyricist Don George are also credited as co-composers…I’d hate to see how they split those royalty checks! The mini-suite is played beautifully by the Lark Quartet whose lead violinist, Maria Bachmann, also plays in Trio Solisti in addition to having a solo career. She once told me that she’d love to be able to play jazz like Stéphane Grappelli, one of her idols. Listening carefully to these arrangements, she seems to be the one who comes closest to swinging, with cellist Astrid Schween a surprisingly close second. Chihara thrown in some nice touches of his own, including quickly-shifting keys and occasional bitonal passages. The brief but mysterious introduction to Sophisticated Lady is wonderful, though overall this is the closest to a straight, chamber-music-style chart, with Bachmann’s glistening tone shining like a beacon throughout. Billy Strayhorn’s classic Take the “A” Train, which many people mistakenly believe was written by Duke, provides the closer and a fine arrangement it is. Chihara retains Strayhorn’s original opening, with its descending diminished chords, before leading into the melody proper. He also keeps a few elements of Ray Nance’s memorable trumpet solo, which many listeners almost feel is a part of the tune, but there are many little surprises throughout. Once again, Bachmann’s violin is the swingingest in the group.

Overall, an eclectic mixture of styles, but that’s what makes this one of Paul Chihara’s more interesting albums!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Lerdahl’s Music a World of Its Own

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LERDAHL: Episodes and Refrains / Windscdape / Quiet Music / Quattro Mani / Times 3 / Weiss-Kaplan-Stumpf Trio / Time and Again / St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; Claudio Abbado, conductor / Bridge 9484

Fred Lerdahl (1943 – ) is a name I know I’ve run across before in my years as a reviewer, and liked his music, but my now-faulty memory plays me tricks nowadays and I can’t recall where or when I heard him. Nonetheless, this disc, which is Vol. 5 in an ongoing series of his works on Bridge, is so striking in its originality and so striking in its unusual use of timbral blends and harmony that I know I shall not forget him again.

From the opening bars of Episodes and Refrains we are plunged into his sound world. Lerdahl uses both wide intervals and close ones in a unique way; indeed, I would go so far as to say that the harmony not only dictates the top line but also the mood of each piece. Of course, in this instance he is blessed to have an outstanding group of musicians to play his music; in the case of Episodes and Refrains it is the wind quintet Windscape, which includes the brilliant flautist Tara Helen O’Connor whose CD I gave an enthusiastic review to last year, as well as the excellent French hornist David Jolley, another name I’m sure I’ve seen before. In Times 3 the piano trio includes the outstanding violinist Mark Kaplan, whose Bach Sonatas and Partitas also got a stellar review on this blog last year. Thus in nearly every instance, Lerdahl is fortunate to have some of the very best professionals playing his music.

Although Lerdahl’s music never quite resolves itself harmonically, there are moments when it sounds as if the harmony is resolving. It’s an aural illusion, one he creates by virtue of letting the other instruments fall away, thus exposing the lead line which in itself “resolves” in the listener’s ear. It’s a fascinating way of writing, and one that I can’t recall anyone else doing.

The same principles can be heard in Quiet Music, played by the piano duo Quattro Mani (Steven Beck and Susan Grace). Here, Lerdahl avoids some of the angst in the first piece by lightening the texture (which, as I stated above, leads to the ear resolving his chords) and simplifying the music by using less notes and more space. It’s difficult to say exactly how Lerdahl processes these elements of his music while writing it. The liner notes quote him as saying that he incorporates “cognitively plausible modes of organization” that “accept the past and express inwardness,” but that’s fairly cerebral and doesn’t really address the issue. By the middle of this piece, despite its relatively quiet and simple aesthetic, the harmonic clashes between the two pianos begins to disorient the listener in terms of where he or she is both rhythmically and harmonically, but soon enough Lerdahl straightens things out again. The steady, almost monotonous rhythm and limited harmonic movement in this piece suggest minimalism, yet the music is richer than most minimalist pieces.

Also, you could never really call Times 3 a minimalist piece. Here, working with a piano trio, Lerdahl is almost forced to use the instruments in a traditional sense, yet in the context of the score they almost never play together or even in a coordinated manner, but rather they play against each other continually. At times the music here put me in mind of Marius Constant, the underrated French composer best known for his Twilight Zone theme. Sometimes the music is quiet, almost questioning; at other times, it sounds like a cat chasing its tail. In one of the more intriguing passages, the violin holds long notes while the piano interjects staccato chords and the cello plays an edgy, repeated motif at various moments. It almost sounds spontaneous. At another point, the piano plays the edgy motif while the strings play an almost wistful-sounding series of strummed chords. In this way, Lerdahl plays around with space and time.

An interesting aspect of Time and Again is that, although it is written for a chamber orchestra, you don’t automatically realize this when it starts, for once again Lerdahl is writing in terms of discrete sounds. What I mean by this is that the strings, winds, horns etc. all play their “own thing” independently of each other, only occasionally interacting. Although this is not so uncommon in chamber works, it is extremely rare in orchestral music. The peculiar pacing of the music—once again, including stops and starts, abrupt rhythmic shifts and thematic material that seems to abut each other but not always develop logically—keeps the listener on edge. I can also imagine that it keeps the performers on their toes. This particular recording was made available to Bridge by Minnesota Public Radio, since it stems from a 2015 broadcast.

I will certainly be interested in reviewing anything by Lerdahl that comes along in the future; this is one amazing and original composer!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Feltsman’s Bipolar Schubert Sonatas

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SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas: in A min., D. 784; in A, D. 959 / Vladimir Feltsman, pianist / Nimbus Alliance NI6345

Vladimir Feltsman, whose Bach recordings impressed me so greatly more than a decade ago, is now embarking on the complete piano sonatas of Schubert. This is Vol. 4 in the series, and it is indeed an extremely interesting approach to the music. The very opening of the sonata D. 784 is quiet, introspective, even mysterious in mood, but as soon as the volume increases Feltsman pounces on the keyboard like a tiger. Another interesting feature of his performance is that, despite the introspective passages, he takes this echt-Romantic music in strict tempo, using touches of rubato in the soft moments but a full-speed-ahead approach in the louder, faster moments.

This gives the music a more cohesive feeling than is often the case in Schubert, whose piano sonatas are more like extended fantasias. Each movement is a peculiar and self-contained psychological trek, while at the same time the separate movements never quite seem to relate to one another the way they do in Beethoven. Thus, to a point, I found Feltsman’s approach both bracing and musically logical.

But is a bracing, logical approach really apropos to Schubert? That is an aesthetic question that always seems hard to answer. Certainly, in some of his early symphonies such an approach is valid, but surely not in the Symphonies Nos. 7-9 (yes, Virginia, there is a Schubert Seventh Symphony). Even such strict architectural conductors as Toscanini, Rodzinski and Szell realized this, and what works in the late symphonies also works, at least for me, in the late sonatas and chamber music as well.

Take, for instance, the alternation of loud, fast tremolos and quiet music towards the end of Sonata D. 784’s last movement. Feltsman plays the tremolos like the storm music from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and the soft passages as if they were Bill Evans. It does convey a feeling of emotional schozophrenia, but is this really what Schubert intended? Or, if it isn’t what he intended, is it artistically valid?

Actually, it’s hard to say, because all we have to go by is the score and that isn’t really as detailed as we might like, but the implication is that Schubert was struggling with competing emotions when he wrote it. This, for me, is always the key to understanding both the mood and the method of interpreting his late works. Even though he was only in his early 30s, something dark and fatalistic had grown inside him. Melancholy was competing with the struggle to stay alive and live his life to the fullest, which as a victim of syphilis he knew he was denied him. In the liner notes for this disc, Feltsman says that “Schubert longed for what could have been, but never was. He dreamed of the life he should have had, but never did… He never had a real career or held a job in a musical establishment, did not perform publicly except in private houses, and did not conduct his own works… All of Schubert’s music is an attempt to reinvent the past and to create a new life, a new reality, a time that never ends––an everlasting Present.”

It’s an intriguing assessment of him, but no one is really sure. We do know that Schubert, who always struggled for a living, was envious of those who had achieved success in life. The first thing he would ask of a new acquaintance was, “What do you do for a living?” He didn’t want to be judged by his lack of a steady job, but was fascinated by the jobs of others. Occasionally he and Beethoven haunted the same bars at the same time, and the older composer made it a point to ignore him. He didn’t like Schubert, and that was that. I think he considered him a dilettante who over-wrote music.

By and large, I find Feltsman’s approach more appropriate in the Sonata D. 959, but this is a work where the phrases seem to follow one another with greater logic and less contrasts of mood. I was mesmerized by the opening movement of this sonata, where the tumblers all fall into place and everything makes perfect sense, and his performance of the second movement is particularly fiery, even a bit edgy, which I liked. I also liked the introspection he brought to the final section of that movement, and Taken on its own merits, this was quite fascinating.

Yet overall, I like the more discursive approach to Sonata D. 784 by Daniel Shapiro, a pianist who has spent a lifetime studying the composer, and the performance of D. 959 by Craig Sheppard on Roméo 7283. Clara Haskil’s few Schubert sonata recordings are also quite fine; I’m not quite as convinced by Artur Schnabel in Schubert as I am in Beethoven. Feltsman’s approach is certainly valid in its own way, however, and you may be interested in hearing his “take” on this composer.

Holliger SchumannA final note. The cover of this album has artwork that was used in part by Audite on the cover of Schumann’s orchestral works conducted by Heinz Holliger. I wonder why, and whose choice it was. Not sure what the painting is supposed to represent apropos of Schubert, but it’s Caspar David Friedrich’s Chalk Cliffs on Rügen.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Gerald Cannon Really Hops!

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COMBINATIONS / HAMPTON: Everyman is a King.1,4,6,9 CANNON: A Thought.2,4,7,9 Columbus Circle Stop.2,4,6,9 Amanda’s Bossa.2,4,7,9 Gary’s Tune.1,7,10 Combinations.1,5-7,9 ELLINGTON-MILLS: A Prelude to a Kiss.3,6,8,9 SAM JONES: One for Amos.2,6,9 TRADITIONAL: How Great Thou Art.8 ZINDARS: How My Heart Sings.6,9 VAN HEUSEN-DeLANGE: Darn That Dream / Gerald L. Cannon, bs with 1Gary Bartz, 2Sherman Irby, 3Steve Slagle, a-sax; 4Jeremy Pelt, 5Duane Eubanks, tpt; 6Rick Germanson, 7Kenny Barron, pn; 8Russell Malone, gtr; 9Willie Jones III, 10Will Calhoun, dm / Woodneck Records (no number)

This is bassist Gerald Cannon’s second recording, and his first in more than a decade. As you can tell from the header above, he has a slew of sidemen here to help him, and they are all first-rate players, but Cannon himself is the centerpiece of this show, not only with his bass but also with five of his own compositions.

The set is refreshing because—and I mean this as a compliment—it doesn’t think too much but just jumps feet first into each piece and takes off like a rocket. The whole set reminds me of some of Blue Note’s very best albums from the early 1960s, when Alfred Lion would dance around the studio while listening. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and alto saxist Gary Bartz are simply wonderful on the opener, Everyman is a King, listening to each other as they take turns soloing, later part of a chase chorus with drummer Willie Jones III, and Cannon’s rich, driving bass is never far from the surface. It’s the kind of performance that can give lessons to many among the younger generation on how to swing.

Cannon’s A Thought is a ballad, the theme initially played by altoist Sherman Irby whose tone is somewhat more sensual than Bartz’. Although both Irby and pianist Kenny Barron take fine solos, the prize on this track goes to Pelt, whose solo is an absolute gem. Yet another alto saxist, Steve Slagle, leads us into Ellington’s A Prelude to a Kiss with a somewhat aggressive, very non-Johnny Hodges-like tone. He is lyrical but more edgy, sounding a bit like Sonny Stitt, his solo quite interesting in creating new shapes and forms around Ellington’s tune. Mellow guitarist Russell Malone plays a nice double-time solo on this one, too.

Another Cannon original, Columbus Circle Stop is a driving tune in E minor, introduced by the bassist before leading into a bitonal lick played by the band. Irby is back on this one, and he and Pelt have a bit of a musical argument going on in a thrilling chase chorus…I’m not sure who really wins this one, but it’s great to hear, with Pelt going into the high range to let off a volley of triple-tongued notes and Irby doing his best to keep up. Jones’ drum solo here is really spectacular in a sort of Elvin Jones-ish kind of way, following which the piano comp and the bass leads us back to the principal melody for the ride-out. Amanda’s Bossa moves leisurely along, its ambiguous melody played lovingly by Irby and Pelt. Barron contributes a minimal but very tasteful solo here, Pelt is lyrical, and Irby plays a nice double-time chorus.

Sam Jones’ One For Amos, as Louis Armstrong used to say, is “a good ole good one,” a swinger that just screams late-‘50s/early ‘60s. Cannon clearly dominates this one, not only playing the introduction but also a two-chorus solo following the brief theme statement by the horns. He has a nice, light touch and a fine imagination, and Irby’s alto solo is both busy and inventive. Rick Germanson is on piano here, and his solo is minimal but tasty, ending on an unresolved chord, before Jones plays a flashy solo. This is followed by another Cannon original, Gary’s Tune, which almost has a reggae-type beat, except in a jazz manner. Bartz returns here on alto sax and dominates, playing the melody in a lightly swinging manner before embarking on a series of solos. It’s the kind of tune that has a slight soul feeling about it without hammering the concept over your head. Malone is also quite fine here, if not as scintillating as on Prelude to a Kiss. Bartz returns to ride things out.

How Great Thou Art is Cannon’s arrangement of an old hymn featuring just the duo of Malone and Cannon, and here his skills are really tested as he creates fascinating two-way dialogues, the bass essentially playing lead. This one is a real gem! How My Heart Sings, the Earl Zindars piece that opened Bill Evans’ 1962 album of the same name, is given an alternating 4/4 / 3/4 treatment and turned over for the most part to pianist Germanson. He channels a bit of Evans while still retaining his own identity, and the bass and drums really cook behind him. Cannon’s solo on this one too, even more inventively than Chuck Israels on the Evans original. Following this, Cannon’s Combinations kicks up its heels and dances, pulling the full band into the fray. Duane Eubanks is on trumpet here in place of Pelt, and he’s fine, but Bartz’ alto solo is the one that really commands attention with its consistent invention and harmonic daring. Barron plays his best solo of the set here, too, really digging in and finding new interstices in the tune. Cannon is equally inventive here, taking a bit of what both Bartz and Barron had just played and running with it.

The set wraps up with Darn That Dream, a song that jazz musicians all seem to love and I could live without. It was originally introduced by jazz singer Mildred Bailey during her brief stint with the Benny Goodman orchestra in 1939, but is probably more famous for the dreary arrangement played by Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” nonet in 1950. This is an a cappella vehicle for Cannon, who plays a ruminating, out-of-tempo introduction that eventually includes the melody of the song, making art out of dross. Indeed, his entire performance is a study in superb musical construction, showing the wannabes how you take a basic melody and work it so that it becomes something entirely new and even beautiful, but not in a “gee that’s pretty” sense. Cannon gets into the strange rising chromatics of Jimmy van Heusen’s creation, using them as a launching pad for a variety of permutations.

This is surely one of the best pure jazz albums of the year to date.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Forgotten Jazz Orchestras: Sam Donahue’s Navy Band

 

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The Navy Band’s rhythm section with Sam Donahue on tenor sax

It was a service band like no other, and to many people it came out of nowhere. Sam Donahue, a Detroit-born sax player and sometimes trumpeter, took over Artie Shaw’s Navy Band after Shaw, trumpeter Max Kaminsky and drummer Dave Tough collapsed from stress and exhaustion and had to be sent home and given a discharge. The first thing Donahue did was to gift-wrap Shaw’s arrangements and send them back to him—he didn’t need or want them. What he wanted was a modern, streamlined, powerhouse swing band that had the punch of a freight train, and he got it.

Donahue’s success was immediate, but unlike his Army Air Force counterpart, Major Glenn Miller, Donahue didn’t have a regular broadcast or V-Disc recording schedule. His band was catch-as-catch-can, but the few times outsiders had a chance to hear it they were stunned and amazed. Here was a band that had power but didn’t hit you over the head like Stan Kenton; it had finesse like Jimmie Lunceford’s band but their arrangements weren’t “cute” or precious. They just played straight-ahead jazz charts that made little concession to popular tastes, featuring a trumpet section that was the envy of the band industry and and a sax section that blended perfectly—all driven by a greased-lightning rhythm section.

As it turned out, Donahue had plenty of experience going into his Navy gig; he just wasn’t very well known. Born in Detroit, Donahue formed a big band there in 1937 but eventually turned it over to Sonny Burke so he could join Gene Krupa’s new band. He stayed with Krupa two years, worked briefly with the bands of Harry James and Benny Goodman, then formed another band of his own in 1941. This one had those powerful, streamlined arrangements like his Navy band, but received scant attention in the jazz press. The Navy Band, however, took off like a comet and propelled the young bandleader to stardom.

brass sectionAnd small wonder. The trumpet section of Conrad Gozzo and John Best (co-leaders), Frank Beach and Don Jacoby was considered the best in the business. Donahue occasionally joined them to create a five-man trumpet team. The trombone players were Tasso Harris (lead), “Tak” Takvorian and Dick Le Fave with Gene Leetch on bass trombone. The saxes were Mack Pierce, lead alto; Ralph La Polla, alto and clarinet; Bill Nichol, alto sax; Joe Aglora, tenor sax and sometimes Donahue with Charlie Wade, baritone sax. The rhythm section was made up of pianist Rocky Coluccio, guitarist Al Horish, bassist Barney Spieler and drummer Buzz Sithens.

reed sectionAn interesting sidelight in the band’s history is that they were transported on an LST, a transport ship designed for carrying aircraft and heavy artillery but not people. The band was so intrigued by this incident that Donahue wrote a piece, LST Party, to celebrate the moment.

One of the most amazing qualities of the Donahue band, besides its power, was its perfect intonation. Every player in every section apparently had perfect pitch, or at least played that way, so that the cumulative effect was greater than the individual parts. One of the best descriptions of the band was published in Great Britain’s Melody Maker in the fall of 1944 when the band played in England:

“Musician Second Class Sam Donahue has a band that is easily as good as any civilian outfit playing right now. It plays fresh, exciting, modern jump arrangements. It is an uninhibited powerhouse unit that makes few concessions to commercialism and moves along with a beat and attack that actually scare you.

“Sam himself is great. The man is tops because he is a terrific tenor man, a unique arranger who nonchalantly dashes off scores written in tough keys, a competent trumpeter, and a leader who looks as if he belongs in front of a band. His alternately wild and restrained tenor work is little short of amazing. He thinks nothing of playing lead parts in the alto range on tenor. And it doesn’t sound cheaply flashy the way he does it.

“The Navy band has guts, power and finesse, but mere words can’t do it justice. I have heard the band on its infrequent radio shots and have seen it only once but the one showing convinced me that Donahue is a coming man in jazz.

Miller & Donohue

Glenn Miller and Donahue, fall 1944

“Major Glenn Miller sat about five rows from me at the Queensbury Club digging the Donahue outfit. He was there with his manager, Don Haynes, now a first looey [lieutenant], and looked mighty attentive and pleased when Sam trotted out full, musical scorings of medium tempo standards and then blew the house apart with stuff like a wild Donahue arrangement of Ellington’s C Jam Blues.”

The Navy Band, like all service outfits, was mostly allowed to record only on V-Discs, but happily quite a few of them have survived. You can hear them play on YouTube:

Arrangements by Donahue, Dave Rose and Dick Jones

Bugle Call Rag (Pettis-Meyers-Schoebel)V-Disc label
LST Party (Donahue)
Convoy (Donahue)
Deep Night (Henderson-Vallee, arr. Dave Rose)
I’ve Found a New Baby (Palmer-Williams, arr. Donahue)
C-Jam Blues (Duke Ellington)
Moten Swing (Bennie & Bus Moten)
Just You, Just Me (Klages-Greer)
Cocktails for Two (Johnston-Coslow)

So what happened to Donahue? After the war he led another band of his own, playing arrangements similar to his Navy outfit, but although they were good the players weren’t quite as all-star and so the unique chemistry he achieved in the Navy wasn’t the same. In 1951 he went back into the Navy for a couple of years to fight in the Korean War, then he was discharged and worked for Tommy Dorsey’s band. In the 1960s he assumed leadership of TD’s ghost band for a few years, then he died in 1974, aged only 58.

But that 1944-45 Navy band was one of a kind.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Neunecker’s Strauss Will Blow You Away

Strauss Neunecker

STRAUSS: Horn Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings* / Marie Luise Neunecker, French hornist; *Ian Bostridge, tenor; Bamberg Symphony Orchestra; Ingo Metzmacher, conductor / EMI 5099972354759

While listening to our local classical insomnia-inducing radio station a week or so ago, my cousin actually heard a recording that woke her up and blew her away. It was the Strauss Second Horn Concerto, the one that Dennis Brain played as if he didn’t care and would much rather have been driving his sports car or reading a racing magazine, by a horn player she couldn’t quite catch the name of. So I pulled up the radio station’s playlist for the day and discovered the name:

Marie Luise Neunecker.

WHO?

Sorry to sound naïve, but honestly, I’d never heard of her in my life. Aubrey Brain, Dennis Brain, Peter Damm and Hermann Baumann, check. Barry Tuckwell, check (I even saw Tuckwell live once). A few other names along the way, also check. But Neunecker? I had no idea who she was. So I checked her out online, and was completely blown away. What a gorgeous tone, and what a thrilling attack! Moreover, she plays as if she never takes a breath. Does she use circular breathing? I don’t know, but it sounds like it.

Now, it would be easy to say that Neunecker achieves her effects by playing the music with accents somewhat different from those in the score…easy, but not true. On the contrary, she plays exactly what Strauss wrote, but she does so in a manner that enlivens the fast passages and brings elegance and warmth to the slow ones. She is both a poet of her instrument, as Dennis Brain was, and a stupendous technician, which Hermann Baumann was (and, I think, still is). This places her, for me, at the very top of her profession. So the question then comes, Why isn’t she world-famous as they are?

Probably because she’s a woman and, although a nice-looking woman, not particularly striking or stunningly beautiful. If you’re a man you don’t have to look like a movie star to make it, but if you’re a woman you almost have to be a ravishing beauty, like Susan Graham and Rachel Barton Pine are, in order to become a superstar. Oh yes, there have been a few exceptions, among them Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, but they are the rarities.

Neunecker combines a bright tone, enthusiasm, sensitivity and fantastic technique. She sounds as if she were born with a horn in her mouth; her playing is that natural. Watching her on YouTube, I notice that she uses a 2/3 top – 1/3 bottom embouchure on the mouthpiece, which probably gives her great control. But when does she breathe? She never appears to take the horn away from her mouth when playing, nor do I notice her taking little quick breaths.

As for this performance of the Britten Serenade, it is quite good. Unlike Dennis Brain, who in the original recording overshot the high A-flat (which is very difficult to play on an open horn anyway) and played a B-flat, Neunecker gives us what is written. Ian Bostridge, here at an early stage of his career, has a much more pleasant tone and better breath control than one heard later on from him. The performance just misses greatness, but it is quite fine nonetheless.

If you have any fondness for the Strauss Horn Concertos, this is surely the recording to acquire. It will, simply, blow you away.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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