Paul Chihara’s Whimsical Music


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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