Taneyev’s Quartets Brilliantly Played by California String Quartet

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TANEYEV: String Quartets Nos. 2 & 6 / California String Quartet / Centaur 3589

As 19th-century Russian composers go, Sergei Taneyev was one of the most interesting but scarcely one of the most famous. Tchaikovsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Borodin are only a few of those who eclipsed him during his lifetime, and since he lived until 1915 you could also throw in Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Yet as these two string quartets prove, he wrote some very interesting and intense music, although its intensity is increased here by the straight-ahead, no-relaxation-or-pause style of the California String Quartet.

I should say right at the start that this style does not always work in music from the Romantic era. The first such performance I recall hearing was the Heifetz-Piatagorsky Quartet’s performance (with an additional cellist) of Schubert’s great String Quintet back in the 1960s. There was a certain excitement about it, but by and large the performance missed a lot of nuance. To a certain extent, the same is true of the California Quartet’s performances of Taneyev here, but I’ve heard other performances of the String Quartet No. 2 with rubato in it, and there were moments when the music sagged. It does not sag here. Moreover, the California Quartet plays with an almost incredible intensity, making this piece sound more akin to the hyper-emotional string quartets of Janáček from the 1920s, which is not a bad thing.

Thus, as long as you are aware of this and buckle up your seat belts tightly, I think you’ll enjoy the ride, because the California Quartet at least has the benefit of strong emotion in their playing, and Russian music is pretty much all about strong emotion anyway. In addition, their tighter, more terse reading has the benefit of illustrating the structure of the music with greater precision. Think of it as the chamber music equivalent of Arturo Toscanini’s performances of the Schubert Second Symphony or Eduardo Fernandez’ performance of Albéniz’ Ibéria. Sometimes a tauter projection of the music helps to work over its stodgy spots.

As you listen, you begin to appreciate some of the interesting qualities of Taneyev’s music, for instance the quirky melodic line and constantly shifting chromatics of the second-movement Scherzo, with its strange, falling figures and ominous overtones, or the later shift to a surprisingly lighter, more quicksilver theme in the major with none of the angst of the preceding pages. There is no lack of feeling in the very Romantic Adagio espressivo, nor any lack of a good, rich-sounding string vibrato so necessary to this music’s success. This movement begins in F minor, later morphing to E-flat major, and builds up section to section like a dramatic opera aria. One can almost imagine a singer like Anne Schwanewilms cutting loose on this melody with an orchestra playing the underlying music, expanded in orchestration to include brass and winds as well as strings. There is also considerable angst in the quicker middle section, which leaves the suggestion of opera arias behind. After such interesting and intense excursions, the last movement almost seems like a jolly ride-out to the quartet.

The Sixth Quartet begins with a much less intense, almost meandering first movement in B-flat major. A repeating syncopated figure is tossed around among the instruments, and implied even when it is not audible, giving the music a jaunty feeling. In the second half of the movement, the rhythm shifts to a single eighth note followed by a triplet of eights, repeated throughout the bar; then this falls away as the rhythm shifts to a more conventional 4, and slows down towards the end. The second movement, marked Adagio serioso, features the cello playing the rhythm on 1 and 3 in each bar at the outset. The melodic line is a bit quirky but not nearly as intense as the slow movement in the second quartet, though it does lend itself to extension and variations even better. Taneyev’s sense of melody is indeed Russian in feeling, but also somewhat Germanic as well. At the four-minute mark the music suddenly breaks off and a new, more intense theme in the minor is introduced as an opposing emotion. This, in turn, affects the so-far placid mood, as darker chord positions bring the music in and out of shadows as it turns back to the mood of the opening.

The scherzo, marked Giga, is a jolly tune in G major that suddenly shifts to G minor and back again at whim. Dramatic pauses and equally dramatic upward bow sweeps on the violins add interest as the music progresses and morphs, the galumphing rhythm fairly relentless until roughly the two-minute mark, when a quieter, more mysterious theme makes its appearance and the bouncing rhythm relents. Interesting chromatic changes come and go, there’s a dramatic pause, then suddenly we’re back in the jolly environment of the opening. More luftpausen as the music toodles along, now with variants on the original theme, and a lively final section with allusions to the minor once again as the music just sort of quietly shuffles off.

The final Allegro moderato is yet another pleasant movement, much like the first, except with more cat-and-mouse games being played by the sudden and surprising dead stops. When the music really winds itself up, it is with a bouncing rhythm, followed by an even faster passage that continually shifts in harmony. The California Quartet has a great deal of fun with this piece, evidently enjoying Taneyev’s unusual and unexpected chromatic shifts that keep changing both the theme and the mood. At the six-minute mark, Taneyev plays even more cat-and-mouse with some surprising lunges forward followed by pauses, then a return to the opening theme for the final section (with variants, of course).

This is clearly an effervescent and engaging reading of these two fine quartets, well worth hearing for the remarkable changes of mood, tempo and harmony. Highly recommended!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Josh Nelson’s “The Sky Remains” Mostly Brilliant

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THE SKY REMAINS / NELSON: Bridges and Tunnels. The Sky Remains. Ah, Los Angeles. Pacific Ocean Park. Run. Stairways. JOHNSON: On the Sidewalk. The Architect. GARCIA: Lost Souls of Saturn. E. SMITH: Pitseleh / Chris Lawrence, tpt/fl-hn; Josh Johnson, a-sax;fl; Brian Walsh, B-flat cl/bs-cl; Josh Nelson, pn; Larry Goldings, Hammond B3 org; Anthony Wilson, gt; Alex Boneham, bs; Dan Schnelle, dm; Aaron Serfaty, perc; Kathleen Grace, Lillian Sengpiehl, voc / Origin 82471, Available at Amazon & iTunes

Pianist and composer Josh Nelson’s new album, The Sky Remains, due for release September 15, is a mosaic of his impressions of his home town, Los Angeles. Live performances of the music from this album feature multimedia film footage to enhance the audience’s experience.

More often than not, programmatic music designed to depict a specific location or event fall flat for those whose experience does not include those places or images. In addition to the visual enhancements noted above, Nelson smooths this over somewhat by presenting music that is as enjoyable to those who never set foot in Los Angeles as to those who grew up there.

In the opening selection, Bridges and Tunnels, Nelson sets the tone for the album, beginning with soft, almost ambient-style jazz, with gently flowing arpeggios, that slowly morphs and builds into something quite different.  Kathleen Grace’s wordless voice is heard singing along with the music, but what struck me was the fact that this is a composition, with a beginning, a middle and an ending, in which the jazz element is subsidiary. Nelson is the primary soloist, with occasional fills from and a chase chorus with guitarist Anthony Wilson, who is co-producer of the album.

The Sky Remains comes next, a gentle, relaxed piece with lyrics describing the water and “the wave of the oceans.” This was, to my ears, more of a soft pop piece than a jazz composition. According to the notes, it tells the true story of Griffith J. Griffith, who shot his wife in a drunken rage. The music proper picks up again with Josh Johnson’s On the Sidewalk, which begins with a little horn fugue before featuring an 8-bar break by bassist Alex Boneham and then the melody proper played by trumpeter Chris Lawrence. This piece has a considerably harder jazz edge than the first two, named for a newspaper column written by Charlotta Bass, the first African-American woman to own and operate a newspaper in the U.S. The Architect follows, a remarkable, quirky piece which is also a real composition with alternating themes and development sections. I was particularly impressed here with Nelson’s digital dexterity, turning an extended series of rapid triplets with remarkable articulation. Johnson’s alto solo fits right in, but only uses triplets incidentally rather than continually. Nelson fills in some really nice counterpoint figures behind him, followed by a particularly fine Boneham solo and, later, an interesting drum solo by Dan Schnelle as Nelson and Boneham fill in with a repeated 12-note figure which the full band picks up on for the ride-out, with solo fills from the leader.

The liner notes tell us that Ah, Los Angeles was inspired by John Fante’s book “Ask the Dust,” about a young writer’s struggles in the L.A. of the 1930s. This is told in slow, wistful musical lines, broken up with pauses, before going into a sort of rock beat, which mercifully dissipates for the vocal by Lillian Sengpiehl but returns for the guitar solo. We shall be kind and draw the curtain on this one.

The next piece, although nearly 60 years old, is not one I’ve heard before, Russ Garcia’s Lost Souls of Saturn. It’s the kind of pieces that has a certain “bachelor pad” exotica feel about it, very retro, with tempo changes and unusual, “spacey” chord changes. I found it exciting and delightful, particularly in the upward trumpet rips and Lawrence’s exuberant solo, followed by Brian Walsh on B-flat clarinet and then Johnson on flute. Get out your old martini shaker for this one! The band has a lot of fun with it.

Another non-original on this disc is Pitseleh by Elliott Smith, a singer-songwriter whose work I was unfamiliar with. This is another pop tune. The notes claim that Pacific Ocean Park opens “with the haunting, Charles Ives-inspired sound of a merry-go-round,” but apparently merry-go-rounds on the West Coast didn’t use calliopes, as all the ones on the East Coast did, swo I wouldn’t have recognized it as such. Nonetheless, this, too is a fine composition, here in 3/4 time, and after the gentle clarinet-piano opening, the band comes in strong and the rhythm section plays with an aggressive, almost mazurka-like beat.

Run memorializes something I had never known, that Mack Robinson came in less than a half-second behind Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. We hear so much about Owens’ victory—which was considerable, and he earned it—that we never hear about Robinson, who as it turned out was the older brother of Jackie Robinson. Again, this is a pop tune.

The album’s closer, Stairways, commemorates the 400 historic stairways scattered throughout Los Angeles. I think my city of Cincinnati has about 100, but considering it’s far less than 1/4 the size of L.A. I’ll take it. This is a moody but fascinating jazz piece, taken at a sort of loping, broken-rhythm 3/4 with fine solos by Lawrence, Johnson, Nelson and Wilson, again filling space in what is clearly a fine composition.

For those listeners who like soft-grained pop vocal tunes, this album will probably be more enjoyable as a whole, but I didn’t care much for these pieces on this album. Even so, the other material here clearly puts Nelson in a very small group of jazz composers who take a true compositional approach to their work, and I for one give him all the credit in the world. It’s very hard to compose original jazz pieces that have this kind of structural integrity, and here he does it repeatedly. Overall, then, I say it’s an album you have to hear!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Inside Nietzsche’s Musical Mind

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NIETZSCHE: Einleitung. Ermanerich, Symphoniche Dichtung. Das zerbrochene Ringlein. Im Mondschein auf der Puszta. 2 Polish Dances: 1. Mazurka; 2. Aus der Czarda. Heldenklage. So lach doch mal. Da geht ein Bach. Sturmmarsch. Hymnus an die Freundschaft. Édes titok. Piano sonatine, Op. 11. Piano Sonatas in D and G. Klavierskizze. Ungarischer Marsch. Albumblatt. Allegro. Skizze du Byron’s “Foscari.” Fugue fragment. Schluss eines Klavierstücke / Michael Krucker, pianist / New Classical Adventure NCA60189-215

Here’s something different: piano works by one of the most important philosophers and music critics of the late 19th century. I hadn’t even known that he wrote music, but it’s not really my fault for not being aware. Pianists don’t program the music of Friedrich Nietzsche very often, if at all, though it seems that his Heldenklange is sometimes performed as a stand-alone piece. As might be expected, his idiom is tonal and his composition models seem to have been largely German composers of the early 19th century, but within that framework Nietzsche displayed a great deal of passion and a fine mind for structure. What he lacked in virtuosity—by which most classical piano music is judged—he made up for in seriousness and integrity of content. None of his pieces will bowl you over with their brilliance, but neither will you be bored or want to stop listening.

Every piece is a self-contained little gem, and pianist Michael Krucker takes these scores to heart. The result is a recital of music that you start hearing and say to yourself, “Hmm, I think I’ve heard this before,” only to be sucked in to its melos and made to stay by its quality of invention. Only the beginning of Da geht ein Bach shows anything resembling flash, the two hands playing opposite each other in syncopated figures, but it quickly morphs into something more lyrical, as do most of his works. Although there are clearly definable melodies here, such as the attractive tune that opens In Mondschein auf der Puszta, there always seems to be a seriousness of purpose behind every note. It sounds a bit like Schubert and a bit like Mendelssohn, but not exactly. In the end, one must concede that it sounds like Nietzsche and no one else.

Of course, what is most fascinating about these works is that they were all written in his younger years. In his two decades as a music critic and philosopher, he had little time for such a dalliance as writing music that he was sure no one but he would bother to play. Occasionally, as in the “symphonic poem” Ermanerich, which runs for almost eight minutes, one gets the impression that Nietzsche worked through the score slowly, taking pains to make sure that when he moved forward with a new theme or introduced a variation, that he tried a few different avenues before coming to a conclusion.

There is a newer recording of most of this music played by Jeroen van Veen on Brilliant Classics, and that was the recording I had started to review; but six selections in I had the feeling that van Veen was taking the music far too slowly. Comparing his timings to those of Krucker told me I was right. Ermanerich, for instance, runs a little over 11 minutes in van Veen’s performance, and the other pieces are equally slow. This gives Nietzsche’s music, which is generally slow to begin with, a feeling of lethargy unrelieved by the slight pressing of tempo.

The longest work on this album, Hymnus an die Freundschaft, runs nearly 20 minutes—almost as long as the two piano sonatas and the piano sonatine put together—and is clearly Nietzsche’s most ambitious construct. What makes it so remarkable is that at every turn, when you think you know how the music is going to go, it shifts away from that path and instead moves into a different direction.

The bottom line is that when one compares these pieces here, most of which are fairly short, to the average “encore” pieces played by most pianists in recitals, their high musical quality and fascinating structures are clearly superior. Moreover, since most of this music is not that technically challenging, it can be played by a goodly number of intermediate pianists looking for quality music to play that is off the beaten path. Édes titok, for instance, would make a far more interesting encore than any of Chopin’s over-exposed preludes or etudes.

I would describe the quality of Nietzsche’s music as mid-ground. None of it is so dull that you don’t want to listen, yet in the long run it just misses greatness. Perhaps, if he had studied composition for a longer period of time and put as much work into it as he did into his philosophical writings, he might have become quite an accomplished composer. As they are, these works show great promise that was not quite fulfilled, yet which is original enough in its own way as to make one wish he had gone further.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Irving Mills’ Hotsy-Totsy Gang

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McHUGH-FIELDS: Doin’ the New Low Down (3 tks). Diga Diga Doo (2 tks). Futuristic Rhythm (2 tks). Out Where the Blues Begins. PALMER: Don’t Mess Around With Me (2 tks). BERNARD-BLACK-FISHER: Dardanella. PALMER-MILLS: I Couldn’t If I Wanted To. RIDDICK-SMITH: Since You Went Away. PETTIS-MILLS: What a Night. HANDY: St. Louis Blues. VAN EPS: Some Fun. WALLER-RAZAF-BROOKS: Can’t We Get Together? (2 tks). Sweet Savannah Sue (2 tks). Ain’t Misbehavin’. CARMICHAEL: Harvey. March of the Hoodlums. Stardust / various musicians, including Jimmy McPartland, Al Harris, ct; Bill Moore, Mannie Klein, Phil Napoleon, Leo McConville, tpt; Jack Teagarden, Tommy Dorsey, Miff Mole, tb; Fud Livingston, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Pee Wee Russell, cl; Jack Pettis, C-sax; Gil Rodin, Arnold Brilhart, a-sax; Larry Binyon, t-sax; Vic Breidis, Frank Signorelli, Hoagy Carmichael, pno; Eddie Lang, gt; Dick Morgan, Dick McDonough, bjo; Harry Goodman, Joe Tarto, tuba; Ben Pollack, Chauncey Morehouse, dm; Elizabeth Welch, voc; Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, tap dancing/voc / Retrieval RTR 79082

In the late 1920s there were three “recording-only” jazz bands that sold decent amounts of their records: The California Ramblers, The Chocolate Dandies, and Mills’ Hotsy-Totsy Gang. Although the first two had sometimes starry lineups of jazz soloists, I never really cared for most of their discs because the arrangements were stocks and not very interesting. The Hotsy-Totsy Gang, on the other hand, generally used interesting charts.

The first dozen sides on this compendium are played by the Ben Pollack Orchestra, meaning that we get young Benny Goodman, Jimmy MacPartland, Jack Teagarden and such neglected pioneers as saxists Jack Pettis and Larry Binyon. Oddly, the one Pollack band member missing here is trombonist Glenn Miller, whose excellent arrangements these most certainly are. Considering the fact that Victor Records, their usual label, generally stifled the Pollack band’s jazz quotient, it’s really nice to hear them playing with such brio here.

Another pleasant surprise, in tracks one, three and four is the singing of one Elizabeth Welch. When you think of how God-awful many 1920s “jazz” singers were, it’s nice to hear someone who could actually swing. The alternate takes, made for the German market, omitted the vocal in Doin the New Low Down entirely and the full-chorus vocal in Diga Diga Doo because they were in English.

One thing that impresses you immediately with this release is the stupendous remastering job. Each and every track sounds crystal clear; the treble isn’t muffled, the bass isn’t tubby, Pollack’s cymbal work is at just the right level of crispness. My hat’s off to audio restoration wizard Harry Coster!

Goodman and Teagarden, who inexplicably sat out the first session, are present in the latter two sessions, but in the third fellow-New Orleansian drummer Ray Bauduc, who later rose to prominence in Bob Crosby’s Dixieland-styled band, replaces Pollack on drums. Miller is also gone as arranger, replaced by such competent but less interesting talents as Bob Haring (also a bandleader at the time), Don Wilkinson, Elliott Jacoby and Irving Mills himself. An interesting presence is Dick Morgan on banjo. For those who don’t know, Morgan was later a comedy star for Spike Jones’ City Slickers, where he was familiarly known as “Icky Face.” Pollack sings on Dardanella in his typically sappy style—he was a fine drummer but an over-sugary singer—but the record is salvaged by the hot ensemble chorus that follows it. Mills sings on I Couldn’t If I Wanted To, and although his voice was a bit thin he could swing. On this one we hear a rare alto sax solo by Goodman and a full-chorus of trombone from Big T. Since You Went Away is a sappy ballad that even McPartland’s Bix-like fills behind Mills’ vocal couldn’t save, but Jimmy’s later solo on it is fine.

Ironically, Mills’ arrangement of Futuristic Rhythm is pretty snappy, not bad for a guy who was mostly a music publisher and promoter. Smith Ballew, a well-known singer-bandleader of the time, pops in as vocalist. He’s not as corny-sounding as Pollack but not as hip as Mills. McPartland and Goodman have a chase chorus but play it fairly straight, as does Teagarden in his eight bars. This session, however, sounds more like a jam session and less like the Pollack band than normal.

The next session features a combo which was pretty much the (studio recording only) Dorsey Brothers’ band of the time: Bill Moore on trumpet. T.D. on trombone and occasional second trumpet, J.D. on clarinet and alto sax, Al Goering on piano and Merrill Kline on bass. Surprisingly, the band sounds funkier and more relaxed than the Pollack group; there’s a particularly interesting violin-muted trumpet duo on Since You Went Away, and second pianist Jack Cornell surprises with some really hot accordion playing on both this track and St. Louis Blues. Tommy’s trombone fills really swing, but Jimmy’s clarinet just plays virtuosic arpeggios.

After this, we hear a band with two fine trumpeters, Mannie Klein and Phil Napoleon, the great Miff Mole on trombone, Larry Binyon back on tenor, Frank Signorelli on piano, Joe Tarto on bass and Chauncey Morehouse on drums. The anonymous arranger, if there was one, just gives us standard-sounding arrangements. The best solos on Some Fun are brief ones by Mannie Klein and Mole. The first takes of Can’t We Get Together and Sweet Savannah Sue are spoiled by the nasal, insipid singing of one Lillian Morton. Signorelli’s piano takes the chorus on the non-vocal (German) takes. By and large, however, this was a session with more jazz promise than it delivered, a real disappointment.

Two months later we get mostly the same band except with only one trumpet (the notes don’t indicate whether it’s Klein or Signorelli) and the addition of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap dancing and singing. Robinson almost sounds like a jazz drummer on Ain’t Misbehavin’, creating wonderful arabesques with his feet. In his vocal he rewrites the lyrics to suit himself, also leaving out notes and beats. A surprisingly jazzy performance from a dancer who was basically known as merely an entertainer. Doin’ the New Low Down was one of Bojangles’ showcase numbers from Blackbirds of 1928. I remember hearing this record on an LP of hits from Blackbirds many moons ago; it’s wonderful to hear it once again.

A little over two weeks later, the same band is back—this time with Leo McConville as second trumpet and both Jimmy Dorsey and Pee Wee Russell added—to back rising star Hoagy Carmichael on three of his own numbers, the most famous of which is, of course, Stardust. The arrangements are much snappier than in July, with Carmichael’s hot ragtime piano (he never was a real jazz player) and vocals prominent. Harvey is just a cute novelty tune but March of the Hoodlums is a fairly hot number with excellent McConville and Klein trumpet solos, an interesting chromatic break, and fine solos by J.D. on alto and Russell on clarinet. This version of Stardust is not the song’s premiere—that was a piano solo by Carmichael—but it’s probably the first band recording ever made. It’s played fairly straight at the original medium-bright tempo (later slowed down by Isham Jones, who made it a hit) but is still an interesting curio.

All in all, then, a mixed bag with a few mediocre tracks and one really poor session but also some very interesting tracks and moments. I teeter on recommending it because ‘20s jazz has a very specialized but narrow audience, yet the highs on this set tend to outweigh the lows.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Katie Thiroux’s “Off Beat” Provides Pleasant Jazz

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OFF BEAT / POBER: Off Beat. CARTER-WILLIAMS: When Lights Are Low. LEONARD-MARTIN: Why Did I Choose You? THIROUX: Slow Dance With Me. LOESSER: Brotherhood of Man. BROWN-FULLER: Ray’s Idea. LEIBER-STOLLER: Some Cats Know. HUNT: When the Wind Was Green. ELLINGTON: Happy Reunion. RONELL: Willow Weep for Me / Katie Thiroux, bs/voc; Ken Peplowski, cl/t-sax; Roger Neumann, t-sax/s-sax; Justin Kauflin, pno; Matt Witek, dm / Capri Records (no number)

This, Katie Thiroux’s second outing on CD, is a pleasant, relaxed swing disc featuring her cool, breathy singing, the superb playing of pianist Justin Kauflin, and veteran reedman Ken Peplowski. One thing I found perplexing about the disc, however, was that Thiroux’s bass seemed to be under-recorded in the first few numbers, undulating in the background. We only begin to hear what a good bassist she is when we reach the instrumentals Slow Dance With Me and Brotherhood of Man, where she comes through clearly. This was evidently an error on the engineer’s part.

Both Thiroux’s bass playing and singing have a nice sense of jazz time about them; she can swing, no question about it. Yet the surprising star here is Kauflin, a pianist whose playing is so consistently interesting and refreshing that he always makes you sit up and take notice. Because of this, I found myself really enjoying the instrumentals—where Thiroux complements Kauflin perfectly—more than the vocal pieces where she’s more subdued. Brotherhood of Man is particularly nice; Thiroux’s solo is superbly structured and she tells a real story with her instrument.

One song that Thiroux did a really fine singing job on was Benny Carter’s old tune When Lights Are Low. Despite a classic reading of this tune by Lionel Hampton’s studio swing band of 1939, with young Charlie Christian on guitar, I’d have to say that Thiroux’s version is the one that will stay in your mind. Another was Ray Brown’s instrumental Ray’s Idea, which Thiroux scats through with aplomb. Peplowski’s solo is also stupendous on this one. How weird is it nowadays to hear a great jazz clarinetist? But then again, Peplowski is old-school, a former friend of R. Crumb’s from the 1970s who always decried avant-garde jazz, preferring to stick to the swing-bop axis in his style. Kauflin picks up in his solo where Peplowski left off, with superb breaks from Matt Witek on drums. And you know what? I like Thiroux’s singing in vocalese even more than her singing of lyrics!

The leader’s bass is also well recorded on Some Cats Know. If only she would sing out a bit more, à la Anita O’Day, I think she’d be a bit more effective vocalist, though she is quite pleasant here. On this one Peplowski switches to tenor sax, playing in a surprisingly earthy style. Kauflin is laid-back here, playing in a swinging, chordal style.

When the Wind Was Green is a duo by Thiroux and Peplowski. They perform with excellent effect, Thiroux playing behind the beat (and singing) while the clarinetist pushes it. Perhaps predictably, it is Duke Ellington’s Happy Reunion that sounds the most retro-swing in the entire set. On this one, Peplowski and Roger Neumann play as a tenor sax duo, the latter filling in the harmony against the former’s lead line. I’m not sure who plays the first tenor solo, but it’s a decent Ben Webster imitation, complete with the breathy style that Webster made his own.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear Ann Ronell’s Willow Weep for Me taken at a medium-fast clip for a change. I get so tired of always hearing it as a sluggish ballad. Thiroux’s singing is at is very best here; she uses her voice as an instrument against her own playing, which alternates between pizzicato and slap-bass. It’s a fine ride-out to a very pleasant swing session.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Violinist-Composer Peter Hristoskov: A Retrospective

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HRISTOSKOV: 12 Capriccios for Solo Violin. Rhapsody for Violin No. 3, “Rural.” Violin Sonata.1 VLADIGEROV: Burlesque for Violin & Orchestra.2 CHAUSSON: Poème for Violin & Orchestra.3 BRAHMS: Violin Sonata No. 1.4 SCHUMANN: Märchenbilder.4 SZYMANOWSKI: 3 Myths: No. 1, The Fountain of Arethusa4 / Peter Hristokov, violinist; 1Vera Baeva, pianist; 2BNR Symphony Orchestra; 2Vassil Stefanov, conductor; 3Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra; 3Pierre-Michel Le Conte, conductor; 4Zlatka Arnaudova, pianist / Gega New GD 391/92

From the Gega New website:

It is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Peter Hristoskov (1917-2006) – a brilliant representative of the Bulgarian performing art and composition of the twentieth century. He began playing the violin at a very early age and with the first performances at stage showed that he had amazing qualities. For his development as a violinist a crucial role play his teachers, mainly Professor Sasha Popov, and later on, Professor Gustav Haweman (violin) and Professor Hans Malke (chamber music). He performed actively in Bulgaria and Europe as a soloist with symphony orchestras and as a chamber musician. His repertoire is very diverse – from the baroque to the music of the twentieth century, including works by Bulgarian composers. He performed all emblematic violin pieces, sonatas and concertos at his concerts. Parallel to his concert activity Peter Hristoskov devoted a significant part of his time to teaching. Since 1945 he taught at the Academy of Music in Sofia, and since 1950 he was professor. Many of his students are among the most famous violinists in Bulgaria and world-wide and are laureates of international competitions. Hristoskov himself was a respected member of several international violin competitions in Bulgaria, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, France, China.

His work as a composer is greatly significant, too. Hristoskov wrote over 40 opuses in the typical (for him) virtuoso performance style, based on Bulgarian folklore. Most of them are for violin – pieces, concertos, suites …, for cello – concertos and pieces, concertos for piano, orchestra, symphony, children’s album for violin, etc. His works are part of the repertoire of all prominent Bulgarian musicians and some of them are included in the repertoire of foreign performers.

I’m glad to have found this because the CD download I reviewed it from had no booklet and I had never heard of Hristoskov before. His 12 Capriccios for Solo Violin do indeed fulfill the promise of the above blurb: they are virtuosic and, based on Bulgarian folk music, sound very Eastern European. Think of Dinicu’s Hora Staccato as but one example, perhaps the most famous one, of this style of violin music. The harmony is modal, and Hristoskov constantly shifts it chromatically as each piece goes on. There are little trills throughout the score, all tossed off by Hristoskov with insouciant ease. Moreover, his sheer enthusiasm as a performer makes him great fun to listen to. He put me in mild of Gilles Apap of the Transylvanian Mountain Boys, only with more double stops and other technical flourishes thrown in for good measure. Of course I have no date of recording, but the sound is pretty good, albeit with a lot of “air” around the violin.

Hristoskov’s “Rural” Rhapsody and Violin Sonata are even more astringently modern in harmony than the Caprices. This music is almost vehement in its expression, with the composer’s violin hurling itself into the scores with dramatic exuberance. Indeed, the latter part of the Sonata is so wild—even frightening—that the audience (it’s a live performance) sounds almost too afraid to clap when it’s over. By contrast, the other unknown piece on this set, Pancho Vladigerov’s Burlesque for Violin & Orchestra is very kitschy piece, almost sounding like a 1940s movie idea of a violin concerto, and also poorly written. The music is messy and all over the place, but the performance is certainly enthusiastic.

The second CD is comprised of Hristoskov playing standard old-timey violin pieces. In these his work is about as good as any all-around violinist of his day and better than most. I was particularly impressed by his continuous forward momentum in the Brahms Sonata No. 1, a piece that is often played as if on autopilot. Hristoskov will have none of this; he digs into the music with complete engagement. I was surprised to hear him using a fair amount of portamento, stylistically correct for this music but often purged in our modern era. It is surely one of the finest performances of this sonata ever recorded by anyone.

Schumann’s Märchenbilder, though also a fine performance, suffers greatly from blowsy, ill-defined sound. Whoever engineered this recording for release certainly did not do a good job, for I was able to improve the sound by a fair degree by decreasing the bass by 1 db, increasing the treble by 3.4 db, and then doing noise removal through Goldwave. The movement from Szymanowski’s Mythes has much better sound, particularly for the violin, and is thus a good closer to this recital.

All in all, then, an interesting excursion into the musical style and compositional mind of a neglected Bulgarian violinist-composer. Well worth exploring.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Matt Wilson’s “Honey and Salt” a Great Tribute to Carl Sandburg

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HONEY AND SALT / WILSON: Soup. Anywhere and Everywhere People.1 As Wave Follows Wave.2 Night Stuff. We Must Be Polite.3 Fog.4 Choose. Prairie Barn5 Offering and Rebuff. Stars, Songs, Faces. Bringers. Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz.6 Paper 2.7 Trafficker.8 Paper 1.9 I Sang. To Know Silence Perfectly.10 Daybreak / Dawn Thomson, gt/voc; Ron Miles, ct; Jeff Lederer, reeds/harmonium/voc; Martin Wind, bs gt; Matt Wilson, dm; 1Christian McBride. 2Matt Wilson, 3John Scofield, 4Carl Sandburg, 5Jeff Lederer, 6Jack Black, 7Bill Frisell, 8Rufus Reid, 9Joe Lovano, 10Carla Bley, readers / Palmetto Records PM2184

Here’s a fascinating CD made even more interesting by its backstory. Both drummer-bandleader Matt Wilson and Carl Sandburg came from the prairie lands of Knox County, Illinois; both were/are of Swedish descent; and Wilson’s great-great Aunt Emma was married to Sandburg’s childhood friend Charlie Krans. In addition, Sandburg himself was a huge jazz fan, so it made perfect sense that Wilson would do a CD combining his jazz with Sandburg’s poetry.

CDs like this were once more common than they are now. That was in the late 1950s, the Beat Era, when Jack Kerouac read his poetry to the jazz of Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Langston Hughes read his poems to the music of Leonard Feather and Charles Mingus, and Kenneth Patchen made some really wild poetry-jazz CDs on the West Coast. Wilson harks back to that era immediately in the blues-funk tune Soup, which sounds like something from a Blue Note LP—except for the fact that guitarist Dawn Thomson sings Sandburg’s poem about a man eating soup over the music. As is usual in a Wilson band, the soloists are superb; I didn’t even mind Thomson’s electric guitar solo, funky though it was, because it fit in so well.

In the tunes where Thomson doesn’t sing the lyrics, we get a series of poetry readers, some of which (John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Rufus Reid, Joe Lovano and Carla Bley) are world-famous jazz musicians. I was particularly wowed by Christian McBride’s cool, laid-back reading of Anywhere and Everywhere People, which he made sound like something Kerouac or Patchen would have written. OUT THERE, man!

One thing that really impressed me about Wilson’s music was that, good as it was, it didn’t draw attention to itself as compositions. I know that probably sounds like a contradiction in terms, so let me explain. What I mean is that every piece sounds spontaneously improvised, merely leaving space for someone to sing or read the poetry. And yet, odd though it sounds, the music works like a suite, each piece building on or complementing the one before it. I know that sounds odd, but if you just listen to the CD you’ll know what I’m talking about.

One soloist who continually impressed me in track after track was cornetist Ron Miles. It’s not that his playing is super-virtuosic or in any way dazzling, because it’s really not. What it is is tasteful, impressing the listener in an almost Miles Davis-ish sort of way. Moreover, it suits the temperament of Wilson’s compositions, which in their laid-back style almost sound as if they’re falling together on their own. That being said, I also thoroughly enjoyed Jeff Lederer’s reed solos, particularly his outstanding clarinet choruses on Night Stuff. But damn, this whole CD is great. Everything sounds like a fantastic jam & poetry slam at a late night coffee house setting. Not even the surprising beat coffee shopcalypso music written for We Must Be Polite disturbs this vibe; everything just sort of rolls along, one tune into the next, and it’s all so excellent you never want it to stop. And how cleverly Wilson dovetailed Sandburg’s own reading of Fog into his drum solo, as if the late poet dropped into the coffeehouse to sit in because he wanted to be a part of the action.

Another surprise is Choose, set to a crazy sort of march with Lederer playing piccolo and the poem sung by the full band. Miles plays a sort of Gene Shaw-type solo on this one, and Lederer’s piccolo just goes nuts. In the drum solo, I could almost hear actual pitches being played. I almost visualized the late Baby Laurence tap dancing to this one. On Offering and Rebuff, Thomson switches to acoustic guitar, playing and singing like a folk singer from the early ‘60s. By contrast, Stars, Songs, Faces is a slow quasi-blues number, feeling a bit like a Mingus piece from that era, while Bringers has the feel of a Gospel tune. Snatch of Sliphorn Jive should almost have been titled Be Happy, Kid, But Not Too Doggone Happy! This one is just Lederer playing soprano sax over Wilson’s drums as Jack Black narrates Sandburg’s poem.

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L to R: Wind, Lederer, Wilson, Thomson, Miles

With Paper 2 we’re back to the blues groove that dominated the first half of the album. Lederer plays a nice tenor solo on this one while Thomson sounds nicely laid back on guitar. On Trafficker, Ron Miles is in his best Miles Davis groove, and Rufus Reid’s speaking voice is deep and resonant. Paper 1 is a quick little piece; as a poetry reader, Joe Lovano is a great sax player. I Sang has the curious feel of a Salvation Army hymn while To Know Silence Perfectly features Carla Bley, who sounds like an old survivor of the Beat era. Oh, wait a minute…she is an old survivor of the Beat era! The music to this one has no rhythm section, but is just Thomson on acoustic guitar, Miles on muted cornet and Lederer on clarinet. Daybreak is the ride-out, lively and pert, with Thomson’s singing voice riding over the band.

This isn’t just a great new jazz-poetry CD. This is one for the ages. Put it proudly on your shelf next to those CDs by Kerouac, Hughes and Patchen.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Anna Lundqvist Quintet Gets Hot!

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MEWE / LUNDQVIST: Listen. Alone. Inspired. My Joy. The Ravens. Behind it All. Insomnia. Everything is Everything. Mewe. Without and Within. Beautiful Friend, The End / Anna Lundqvist, voc; Björn Almgren, t-sax/s-sax; Fabian Kallerdahl, pn; Mattias Grönroos, bs/el-bs; Jon-Erik Björange, dm/perc. Special guests: Krister Jonsson, el-gt; Stina Larsdotter, cello; Tobias Hedlund, vibes / Prophone PCD 169

The Anna Lundqvist Quintet’s latest musical adventure, MEWE is scheduled for release on September 1. Interestingly, I listened to this CD immediately after reviewing Sarah Maria Sun’s album of modern classical vocal music, and the contrast was startling. Not just the contrast in the kind of music being played, although that was certainly so, but a contrast in emotional involvement and communication.

I was intrigued and impressed by Sun’s well-trained soprano voice and much of the music she sang, but not moved by any of it. On the other hand, Anna Lundqvist and her brilliant band—which sounds far larger than a quintet most of the time—were both innovative and emotionally engaging. This is even so in such pieces as the opening number, Listen, in which the gifted Swedish singer uses her voice as a background instrument. Despite a semi-rock beat, the music has a swing and swagger that is irresistible, and the minor-modal melodic line is hypnotic and fascinating. In addition, Björn Almgren’s soprano sax solo is wonderfully crafted, fitting into the surrounding material like a hand in a glove.

The ending of Listen melts seamlessly into Alone, a quieter piece but no less interesting. Again, Lundqvist uses her voice as an instrument, and Almgren also plays another (quite lovely) soprano solo, but this time they retreat from the sound barrier and the rhythm is quite irregular.I couldn’t quite figure out the pulse, because every time I thought I had a handle on it, three or four extra beats would sneak into the bar, the bass and drums suspended playing, and I got lost trying to count. Fabian Kallerdahl plays a limpid piano solo in this one. Call me crazy, but some of this music reminded me of the work that Ursula Dudziak did back in the 1970s, only not so high in pitch.

By the time I reached Inspired, I definitely got the idea that this was a “concept” album, one in which Lundqvist and the quintet chose to experiment with sound, color and rhythm more than presenting what you would conventionally call a series of jazz pieces. Indeed, on this piece the piano-tenor sax duet had an almost classical feel to it with Kallerdahl comping in G minor while Almgren moves from simplistic exchanges to “outside” playing, with Lundqvist coming in over him as the harmony suddenly melts into a chaos of crushed chords and the volume increases. This is really remarkable music by any measurement!

My Joy starts out with more limpid piano, following which the tenor comes in. More ambiguous rhythms, this time in a sort of shuffle beat, with Lundqvist again singing wordlessly in the background before coming into the foreground for a scat solo. This one seemed to be in 6/8, however, so it wasn’t quite as strange as some of the earlier pieces. It was, however, a more tightly-knit piece in terms of structure, and I liked the way drummer Jon-Erik Björange played a sort of shuffle backbeat that held the piece together. This piece then blends into the beginning of The Ravens, which except for the use of jazz instruments almost had the sound of a modern classical piece. I particularly loved the way Anna’s voice perfectly matched the walking bass of Mattias Grönroos here.

Indeed, as the album progresses you find yourself getting deeper and deeper into the music as it becomes both quieter and more complex. Lundqvist’s voice also stays in the foreground on Insomnia with its changing meters and interesting musical effects, including a solo on electric piano just before the band gets into a funk groove for a while. The pressing tempo eases up to half as fast as guest guitarist Krister Jonsson plays a very bluesy solo, after which Kallerdahl returns on piano. The piece then just stops dead while bird whistles are heard before moving on to Everything is Everything with its more relaxed tempo and almost conventional melodic line. Yet even here, the band is kept on its toes, and I particularly liked the way Lundqvist’s voice dovetailed perfectly with the tenor sax, piano and rhythm.

The title track, Mewe, almost sounds like something from the old Peter Gunn program with a more modern sound texture. The music is propulsive in its eight-to-the-bar rhythm and the band (and Anna) really cooks on this one as a unit. Jonsson returns for another guitar solo, this one more rock-based than the former, followed by Kallerdahl on what sounds like an electric piano. After this chaos, Without and Within sounds like the eye of a hurricane, calming and lyrical with the focus on Almgren’s warm tenor sax and Lundqvist’s voice.

We ride out into the sunset with Beautiful Friend, The End, a brief piece played by Kallerdahl on soprano sax over the piano. A lovely ending to an overall superb CD.

And now, as a bonus, here is my interview with Anna Lundqvist herself!

Art Music Lounge: Anna, I loved your new album but it’s so different from your earlier work. It struck me as being a sort of “concept” album. Is that what you had in mind?

Anna Lundqvist: Thank you! Both yes and no. The thoughts of a more digital and electric approach has been in my mind for long time. Time and money has been a stress factor in my earlier works and I got “stuck” in the acoustic jazz. I love that too, of course, but in the progress of creating MEWE I told myself not to compromise with any of my visions. This time I wanted all my ideas to fit. I’ve never thought of it as a concept album, but now when it’s finished I can more and more hear and feel that that is what I’ve done! It’s an 11-track emotional ride of personal reflections.

AML: I’m not used to hearing you sing wordlessly in the background as much as you did in this album, although I’m very used to hearing you use your voice as an instrument in the ensemble. How did the pieces in this set evolve?

AL: This is also something that has been on my mind for a while. I’m not the typical jazz song interpreter, lyrics to me are not that important. It’s the music that sets me free! There is a tradition of jazz vocals that you are supposed to carry and I guess that I felt obligated to write lyrics when composing. During planning MEWE this came to me in an earliy stage: ” – I want to do an “instrumental” album.” It’s been a fantastic liberation and I also started to compose in another way. As a result, I started writing for the other members in ALQ. I wasn’t even in the lead anymore, as you said, I’m in the background in several of the tracks. But if you think about it, this is only uncommon because I’m a vocalist. If I were a saxophone player or played any other lead instrument this would not come as a surprise, it would just be a normal way of vary the arrangements and the dynamics.

AML: There were so many little details in each of the pieces on this album that I began to miss some of them. You must have worked yourself and the quintet very hard to achieve some of these effects, didn’t you?

AL: We had three guest this time and with that, guitar, vibes and cello we could create new worlds of sound. On top of that we’ve worked with digital sounds and samplings.

AML: Although you are listed as the composer of each tune, I would guess that the band members had some significant input into the finished performances, didn’t they?

AL: No, actually not. I produce, compose and arrange everything. This time I produced the music together with Martin Olsson. He has the technical knowledge for my ideas to come to life. ALQ is a part of the interplay, solos and acoustic sound, of course, but above that it’s written by me.

AML: Did you write all the arrangements yourself?

AL: Yes, aside from two songs. Martin wrote the vocal/vibe-line in the B-part in Alone and the piano intro-hook for The Ravens. Martin wrote that when he found me in a dead end, not finding the right touch for the song to come alive. It has been a great collaboration between us.

AML: I wasn’t sure what the extraneous sounds in the beginning or between tracks were supposed to represent. Sometimes they sounded like a radio station not quite tuned in, at other times like a nightclub audience talking between numbers. What was that all about?

AL: Well…Each foley [sound clip] has something to do with the album concept and with the song it’s attached to but I want it to be a personal experience for each listener, so I don’t have an answer to that. You have to find your own!

AML: How long has this particular quintet been playing with you? They sound perfectly attuned to both your singing and to one another.

AL: Yes, we love playing together and we love to hang out! There’s a lot of laughter in our rehearsals and in the tour bus, and they are all such great personalities. Mattias (bass), Jon-Erik (drums) and I have played together since I started the band in 2005. Fabian and Björn came along when we started to plan for my second album CITY (released 2010, before that we were just a quartet and we had another pianist). We share the expression of high energy and intensiveness and they always know how to make the best of my tunes.

AML: Does this CD represent a permanent change in direction for your quintet, or was it just an experiment in different sounds and forms?

AL: I don’t know. I might “go back” to the acoustic sound again but at the same time, working with MEWE has been so much fun and I’ve never felt more true and genuine. I don’t want to decide anything. I listen to my heart and what it tells me to write and do. That’s how I roll with everything. actually.

AML: Thank you for your time! I hope the CD gets a lot of airplay and does well for you!

AL: Thanks for your support, Lynn!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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An Interview with Aruán Ortiz

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I was so impressed by Aruán Ortiz’ solo piano album, Cub(an)ism, that I felt impelled to interview him for this blog. He was very busy at the time with a concert tour, and then when he returned he became engaged in writing new pieces, thus it took about a month to get the answers sent to me, but as you will see in the following piece it was well worth the wait. I don’t think anyone has asked him quite the kinds of questions that I have; certainly, I haven’t found anything like it online; and Ortiz is such a highly creative and original musical mind that I think it important that my readers come to understand his aesthetics. Thus I proudly present to you pianist, composer and bandleader Aruán Ortiz!

Art Music Lounge: Thank you for granting me this interview! I’ve been deeply impressed by your music in general, but specifically by this piano solo album, and as someone who grew up loving both classical music and jazz simultaneously, I was deeply impressed by your manner of combining them.

I noticed in the liner notes to “Cub(an)ism” that you originally started on the violin and then switched to viola although you also took the piano as a second instrument. I would guess, then, that your classical background influences much of your own music. Who were some of the composers whose music impressed you the most?

Aruán Ortiz:  Yes, my classical background has informed my music in many ways. When I started at the conservatory I was 7 years old, and my training was in European classical music literature. I had the opportunity of being exposed to 20th century music there, and studied major composers such as Prokofiev, Bartók, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, George Enescu, Dvořák, Penderecki, and Lutosławski, among many others. The Cuban musical education system in those years used the Russian methodology. We had Russian teachers, books, recordings, and instruments and we heard mostly eastern European guest artists, performers, and orchestras in our cities.

AML: I read in the liner notes that after completing your formal piano studies in Cuba, you went to Barcelona to pursue studies in jazz. What exactly drew you to switch your musical style?

AO: I don’t think I switched musical styles; I just try not to put any stylistic barrier in my mind. I grew up listening to local Afro-Cuban folk music in my home town and the last few years I have been very interested in the Afro-Cuban folk art. While I was studying at the conservatory, discovering jazz was a key moment in my life. When I was 14 years old, I started playing popular Cuban music at night in local groups in my hometown. At the same time I was playing Mozart, Brahms, and Bach with the viola during the day. I was also trying to transcribe Chick Corea’s solos. The differences in style weren’t a problem for me. I enjoyed being exposed to all those styles and learning from different sources. When the question, “Who am I, musically?” arose during my composing process, I just trust that my own reality would become part of the music and would answer that question. I have lived in different countries, been exposed to different music styles, and learned much from them. I would say the only thing that prevails is the need to dig into myself and discover what is the essence of my voice, without putting it in any category, label, or stylistic boundary. I like to express myself through the music and enjoy finding sources of inspiration from different places and artistic disciplines, and I try to integrate them in my own creative process.

AML: Who were some of the jazz musicians (particularly pianists) whose work impressed you the most? I thought I heard some elements of Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans in your playing.

AO: It’s hard to say who impressed me the most, because at different periods in my life I leaned toward a certain way of playing and listening to different pianists to learn about the history of jazz piano. I guess you are not that far from your comment about the influence of Tristano and Bill Evans’ music in my playing, since for a while I was transcribing some Tristano solos and used them as part of my morning practice routine, making exercises from them. I also practice Bill Evans’ tunes sometimes, such as Turn Out the Stars, Very Early, Time Remembered and Orbits, which I consider masterpieces. However, my first influences were Cuban jazz pianists Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Emiliano Salvador. I was also attracted by the playing of Keith Jarrett, Michel Petrucciani, Kenny Kirkland, and Chick Corea, thanks to recordings (cassettes, back then) I got from musician friends in Cuba. After relocating to Spain, I had the opportunity to study jazz history comprehensively with Horacio Fumero, an Argentinean bassist who played with the great Spanish pianist Tete Montoliú for 20 years. He introduced me to the sounds of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Nat Cole, Fats Waller, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clark, Horace Silver, Al Haig, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. I learned many of Monk’s compositions and transcribed a lot of his solos. I really liked Monk for his angular playing, very precise rhythmic phrasing, and his exceptionally creative harmonic universe, which I still think is quite fascinating. When I moved to the U.S. in 2002, I was deep into the music of Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Andrew Hill, Herbie Nichols, and Cedar Walton, playing their repertoire and absorbing their jazz vocabulary. Later, I got interested in the music of the ‘60s, and I was focused on more avant-garde playing like Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Jackie Byard, Paul Bley, Muhal Richard Abrams, Don Pullen, etc. These pianists, one way of another, have made a huge impact on my playing, shaping my jazz approach, and my understanding of the nuances of this art form.

AML: Even in your trio CD, “Hidden Voices,” I heard a strong proclivity towards classical form. Do you generally work from the premise of a structured piece first, then add the improvisation, or do you begin improvising and then create the form around that?

AO: I usually incubate an idea, or theme based on what I might be working on at that moment. Although I don’t have a preconceived way of writing, I do like to work on the same material and address it from several angles, making countless variations, finding new themes, and new information—harmonic structure and even rhythmic pulses—during the process. I also like to translate into music, non-musical concepts and work with them, the same way. I’m not interested in familiar chord changes, I avoid easy piano “chops” and getting into dazzling piano playing. I really enjoy getting inside the chords and decontextualizing them, generating other sonic textures from them, and I improvise those structures, deconstructing the melody-solo-melody out form, present in so many mainstream jazz pieces and recordings.

AML: One of the things I noted in both albums was that you do not use technique merely to dazzle the ear, but rather as a means of pulling different elements of each piece together…almost an “anti-virtuoso” approach. Is this a fair assessment? 

AO: I’m a big fan of groups that sound as an entity, decentralizing roles and interacting collectively, like a string quartet. At the same time, artists that have found their unique, personal touch, and have transcended the virtuoso, anti-virtuoso statement have been my references in music. If we talk about pianists in jazz history such as Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Bud Powell, Jackie Byard, Herbie Nichols, Sun Ra, Art Tatum, and more recently Jason Moran, Craig Taborn, the late Geri Allen, etc., they have developed a conscientious knowledge of their sound, their own “thing,” coming from an unyielding piano legacy but without paying attention to that virtuoso/anti-virtuoso assessment. I truly believe the industry has invented that antagonistic criteria to attract more public, sell more tickets and more albums.

AML:  I’m wondering if you’ve ever played in venues devoted to modern classical music as a soloist. I don’t see your music as being too far outside that discipline.                     

AO: Yes, I have played in venues that you could also hear classical music, but not in recent years. For musicians like me, coming from the jazz world, sometime it’s hard to find a talent buyer interested in presenting other styles of music in venues specialized in modern classical music. However, I look forward to presenting the music of “Cub(an)ism” at those kinds of venues soon.

AML: Have you ever written for, or recorded with, larger groups—say, a quintet or sextet with a couple of winds or horns? I occasionally hear moments in your music that seem to be reaching out for a fuller voicing, even some polyphony.

AO: I have recorded with bigger ensembles, from big bands to quintet/sextet both as a sideman and leader. I also write concert music, and my pieces for string quartet, brass quintet, and percussion ensemble have been performed at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I’m pursuing an MFA in Composition.

AML: Can you tell us what some of your future projects might be?

AO: I have some works in process projects, on hold for next year, where most likely I will combine this polyphonic/ polyrhythmic concept even more.

I’m preparing the European tour with my trio, “Hidden Voices”, in September and October 2017, and a piano solo tour in the Netherlands and Germany in November 2017. I’m also looking forward to touring and recording a duo project with one of my favorite musicians and composers, the clarinetist/saxophonist Don Byron at the end of the year. At the same time, I will be finishing a piano trio (piano, cello, and violin), and a flute solo piece for my MFA, and I have few tours as a sideman this fall and next spring.

AML: Thank you so much for your time and patience!

AO: Thank you very much to you too!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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More Classical Song Gems from Shirai

frontShirai front cover

HÖLDERLIN SONGS / ULLMANN: Abendphantasie. 2 Hölderlin-Lieder, No. 2: Der Frühling. EISLER: 6 Hölderlin fragments. KOMMA: 5 Fragments of Friedrich Hölderlin. REUTTER: 3 Lieder nach Gedichten von Friedrich Hölderlin. FRÜHLICH: Ruckkehr in der Heimat. CORNELIUS: Sonnenuntergang. JARNACH: 4 Lieder, Op. 7: No. 2, An die Rose. HAUER: 3 Songs, Op. 12 No. 1: Ehmals und jetzt. PFITZNER: 4 Songs, Op. 29 No. 1: Abbitte. FORTNER: Geh unter, schöne Sonne. BRITTEN: 6 Hölderlin Fragments, Op. 61 No. 5: Halfte des Lebens / Mitsuki Shirai, mezzo-soprano; Hartmut Höll, pianist / Capriccio 10 534

EUROPEAN SONG BOOK / SCHOECK: 28 Songs, Op. 60 No. 10: Der romische Brunnen. BERG: 4 Lieder, Op. 2. HINDEMITH: 2 Songs, No. 1: Image. NUMMI: Viorella. 6 Hölderlin Fragments, Op. 61 No. 5: Halfte des Lebens. WEBERN: 4 Songs, Op. 4. RESPIGHI: 4 Lirische, P. 108 No. 1: Tempo assai lontani. BERIO: 4 Canzoni Populari: No. 3, Avendo gran disio. KRENEK: Gesange des spaten Jahres, Op. 71 No. 4: Ballade vom Fest. EISLER: An eine Stadt, “Heidelberg.” Souvenir of Eichendorff & Schumann. DEBUSSY: Noel des Enfants qui n’ont plus de Maisons. POULENC: C. BEYDTS: La Colombe Poignardee. SZYMANOWSKI: 7 Songs, Op. 54: Nos. 1-5. KILLMAYER: 9 Lieder: Nos. 5, 6 & 9 / Mitsuko Shirai, mezzo-soprano; Hartmut Höll, pianist / Capriccio 67 024

Having been deeply impressed by Mitsuko Shirai’s 70th Birthday Album, I decided to look into some of the other things she has recorded. In addition to a fair amount of conventional 19th-century German lieder (Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Strauss etc.), including a complete Die Winterreise—apparently she’s one of only two mezzo-sopranos who have tackled this song cycle written for tenor (the other being Brigitte Fassbaender)—I came across an album of songs by Anton Webern (mostly the early ones, but also the 5 Songs and the four Op. 12 lieder) and these two discs, which are all over the map in terms of chronology and musical style.

What impresses me so much about Shirai is that, in addition to being a very dramatic and intense interpreter (and apparently so from the time of her emergence as a major artist in 1972), she also has a beautiful, rounded tone that she can lighten, darken, or color at will. This is not an insignificant thing. When you think of her great contemporaries—Janet Baker, Brigitte Fassbaender, Jan de Gaetani—you recall the intensity of their singing but also their unusual and sometimes acidic timbres. This is not an insult; I would have walked over broken glass in my bare feet to hear any one of those three in person, and fortunately I was able to hear two of them, Baker and de Gaetani. In fact, I was the one who recommended de Gaetani to a local conductor to sing Britten’s Phaedra cantata, which she did and brilliantly so. But none of them had “beautiful” voices in the strict sense of the word. De Gaetani’s voice was lean, pleasant in its own way, but it was the drama of her singing that grabbed you. Baker and Fassbaender were even more dramatic—their voices were larger and so they sang more opera than de Gaetani did (although I did hear the latter in the American premiere of Peter Mazwell Davies’ Murder in the Cathedral)—but they certainly had a few drops of acid in their tone. Shirai’s voice is al honey and rue, almost a mezzo-soprano extension of someone like Gundula Janowitz, but far more interesting than the German soprano.

The first recital listed above, issued in 1994, is typical of Shirai’s and Hartmut Höll’s range of interests. Nearly all of the composers listed here are 20th century, not 19th, yet they are settings of the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, who died in 1843. I was most impressed in this collection by the six songs of Hanns Eisler, a composer whose other music has largely left me cold. In this set of songs, however, he reveals a fine conception of the lyric style and interesting compositional style. But Shirai can make lemonade out of any old lemon, because she sings everything with a superb legato, rounded phrasing and perfect voice placement and breath control. When you listen to Shirai, in fact, you stop thinking about such things because after a few moments you realize that she has a perfect voice. There is a very small amount of nasality in the upper mid-range, but that simply gives the voice character. Otherwise, her timbre is as beautiful in the middle and bottom of the voice as it is at the top. This is extraordinarily rare among singers, particularly lieder singers and specifically mezzo lieder singers. The standard in this field was set a century ago by Elena Gerhardt, the celebrated German lieder singer whose unusual and rather nasal tone was combined with an intense expression (but also a good legato). Occasionally one heard exceptions like Christa Ludwig, but even Ludwig was not able to fine-tune her voice as well as Shirai, probably because it was such a large instrument. Soprano Régine Crespin, who had a phenomenal chest register, also sang lieder in mezzo keys and was also an interesting interpreter, but neither she nor Ludwig bothered much with 20th-century composers. They stuck to the older classics, though Crespin did include some Debussy in her repertoire.

What I find intriguing about the Shiral-Höll duo is that although the singer remains constant to her legato phrasing regardless of era, the pianist does indeed change his approach to match the era of the music. This means that in more modern composers he takes a more angular approach to his playing, pointing up the rhythm and astringent harmonies while his wife goes about her business. Occasionally, as in the midst of Karl Michael Komma’s Wenn über dem Weinberg es Flammt, one hears Shirai “pinch” her tone so that the voice becomes leaner and more pointed in order to emphasize the text. She is always deeply immersed in the words, and in fact her German pronunciation almost sounds like that of a native speaker, except that she avoids the harsher consonants and more nasal vowels that some singers use. In the same composer’s Zu Rossen she opens up her high notes with an almost startling brilliance of tone, placing the voice perfectly “in the dome of the head” as the old voice teachers used to say.

A rare find, for me, was the music of Hermann Reuter. Although he lived his entire life in the 20th century (1900-1985), the first half of his opening song, Sonnenuntergang, sounds very 19th-century-ish, but then you hear the harmony begin to shift and you realize you’re not in that century. The Pfitzner and Britten songs are more familiar territory.

But not so most of the songs on the second album, recorded in 2003. Shirai’s and Höll’s hair is gray-white by this time; she was 56 years old at the time, and the voice remains unchanged in timbre, control and basic sound. Yet if anything, her interpretations had grown even subtler. This is especially apparent in Alban Berg’s Op. 2 songs. As well as others may have sung Berg, among them Jessye Norman, Chloé Owen and Susan Graham, Shirai goes them one better. She limns the music so delicately as to almost seem afraid it will break if attacked too hard, but as it turns out this is perfect for these specific songs. She opens up the voice again for Seppo Nummi’s excellent tune Vuorella before again retreating from the sound barrier for the Webern songs (she also thrown in another version of the Britten Hölderlin song for good measure).

In the songs by Respighi and Berio, I note a weakness: her Italian diction isn’t as perfect as her German. The consonants are clear, but the words aren’t pronounced quite right. A small point, but one must be honest. Yet her Italian vocal style is excellent, so there is a compensation. The Ernst Krenek piece almost sounds like a German cabaret number with its occasional spoken lines, yet the music is so harmonically modern as to belie that environment. Shirai is completely at home in this music, as she also is in the other Eisler songs heard on this disc.

In the Debussy song—surely one of his least-known—Shirai’s French sounds more like Italian, but she catches the mood of the piece wonderfully. The five Szymanowski songs are sung in what passes for English; we shall be charitable and draw a curtain on a discussion of her English diction. The three songs by Wilhelm Killmayer, very abstract and in German, are much more up her alley.

And so we conclude this episode of Mitsuki Shirai’s artistry. I will add but two things. First, her recording of Die Winterreise, though unusual, is certainly the equal of the best tenor performances out there (Peter Pears, Peter Anders and Peter Schreier). And second, Shirai contracted Gillian Beret Syndrome in 2006 and became completely paralyzed, yet this tough little woman fought back. After months of strenuous physical therapy, she regained all her motor skills including the ability to sing. That’s TOUGH. One more reason for us to admire her!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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