Jonathan Nichol Plays Modern Sax Music

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TENOR ATTITUDES / RUGGIERO: Tenor Attitudes.1 MINCEK: Karate.2 Nucleus. MARQUEZ-BARRIOS: Concentric Circles.5 LOEFFERT: Bombinate.3 GILLINGHAM: Supercell6 / Jonathan Nichol, tenor sax/3soprano sax/6alto sax; Geoffrey Deibel, 2tenor sax/3soprano sax; 3Jeffrey Loeffert, soprano sax/singing bowl; 1Michael Kirkendoll, 5John Nichol, pianists; Lance Drege, 4percussionist/6conductor; 6University of Oklahoma Percussion Orchestra / BGR 433

This is one of those CDs that are always a bit of a gamble: an audio version of “publish or perish,” where an academic musician records music by academic composers. In this case, however, I was more than a little intrigued because the first name up was that of Charles Ruggiero, whose music I’ve found over the year to be consistently interesting, engaging, and brilliantly conceived as a synthesis of jazz and classical principles.

Thus I looked forward eagerly to hear his three-part Tenor Attitudes. The first part, “Disciples,” combines elements of Stan Getz, who synthesized elements of Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and Joe Henderson, who combined elements of Parker, “the two Sonnys” (probably Stitt and Rollins) and Ornette Coleman. The second portion, “Pathfinders,” combines “Michael Brecker’s Time” and “Coltrane’s Vision” while the third, “Master Storytellers,” blends the styles of Gene “Jug” Ammons, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Rollins in the three phases of his career: the young lion, his playing with Thelonious Monk, and the older, mature, aged-in-bronze Rollins. All of which would not mean much if the performer had no sensitivity to this kind of music, but happily Jonathan Nichol, Professor of Saxophone at Central Michigan University, has excellent jazz credentials, having played at the Montreux, North Sea and Ford Detroit International Jazz Festivals in addition to solid classical credentials. The only thing I found just a bit off was his tone, which is so “classical” and perfectly centered that he has a little trouble blurring it around the edges in emulating Stan Getz or playing the harder, more tubular tone associated with Trane, but in his favor he knows how to swing and obviously loves the music as much as Ruggiero does. And happily, pianist Michael Kirkendoll also plays with a loose, relaxed beat behind him.

I was particularly taken with the second movement, in which Ruggiero very cleverly transfers the feeling of jazz—those tricky moments when the player has to hold back on the beat just a fraction or press forward just a hair—into his scores. When you combine that with a very obviously outstanding crossover saxist like Nichol, you’re guaranteed of success in performance. Ruggiero is able to classically develop his jazz-based themes in such a way that the average jazz listener would swear it was being improvised, a high compliment indeed. Only a few others, most notably Daniel Schnyder and Nikolai Kapustin, have succeeded as well in doing this. Interestingly, in a movement devoted to a synthesis of Brecker and Coltrane, Ruggiero works with a 5/4 beat like that of Paul Desmond’s famous Take Five.

Also curiously, the Gene Ammons portion on “Master Storytellers” almost has a Pink Panther-like feel to it, particularly the opening section, before Ruggiero sinks back and relaxes both pianist and saxist in a nice medium-tempo blues, complete with a fe growl effects (played to perfection by Nichol). A quote from Bird (Charlie Parker) is thrown in at just the right time to act as a bridge. I was both fascinated and delighted by the way Ruggiero synthesized the music of Sonny Rollins, surely one of the five greatest tenor saxists of the 20th century (the others being Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Coltrane and one name omitted here, Lew Tabackin), into a musical narrative that is coherent as it develops from young Sonny to older Sonny, ending up with a cadenza (“Rollins Alone”), as well it should. This music bears repeated listening; it is a masterpiece!

Following this is Alex Mincek’s Karate for two tenor saxophones, with Nichol joined by Geoffrey Deibel. This is an entirely different style of the kind I call “techno-mechanical,” based on aggressive, choppy rhythms and repeated short phrases or licks. Mincek also calls it “brutal chamber music,” and so it is. I guess it’s a guy thing, because I didn’t like it much after the first 20 seconds or so (it lasts 7:31), though it is certainly technically challenging and the duo plays it very well.

After this came a most attractive piece, the two-part Concentric Circles by Victor Marquez-Barrios, who says he was inspired by a New York Times headline from 2011, “NASA Detects Planet Dancing With a Pair of Stars.” This piece was commissioned by Nichol to premiere at the North American Saxophone Alliance at their 2012 conference at Arizona State University. In the first part, “Two Stars,” Nichol begins with a soft, lyrical theme, played a cappella which is both attractive and memorable—a rare combination in today’s classical music world. Soft piano sprinkles come in behind the soloist, followed by single notes played in both the bass and treble ranges to complement everything the saxist is performing. Eventually the piano takes off on a theme of his own, more bitonal in nature yet somehow still in synch with the sax. Dancing with the stars, indeed! Eventually the piano moves into the upper range and the pair continue to develop their dance. In the second part, titled “Run Dos,” the rhythm is more aggressive, with the piano setting the tempo and pace and the saxophone coming in behind it. The reed player seems somewhat reluctant to join this more rhythmic dance, but does so anyway as the music moves along. What’s particularly interesting about this piece is that, although the rhythm is strongly played by the keyboard (mostly in the bass range), it’s so asymmetric that you have a hard time following it! Eventually the rhythm stops, the saxophone plays a cadenza, then picks up the rhythmic lick while the piano meanders around it, followed by an aggressive and almost improvised-sounding passage. Utterly fascinating and original music; hard to describe, really.

Jeffrey Loeffert’s Bombinate is a strange piece scored for three soprano saxes and a singing bowl, the latter played by the third soprano saxist (I wonder if he has to play singing bowl and toot the horn at the same time?). As Loeffler describes it, “The work is largely centered on concert D…initially sounded by the singing bowl” with the sax parts weaving “in and out of this center pitch through microtonal fluctuations, tone distortions, and articulative techniques.” This could easily translate to “music written by and for academics” if it weren’t so fascinating. It’s also surprisingly intense as well as lyrical, and at the three-minute mark it incorporates the kind of “cluck-tongue” technique used by early jazz saxists of the 1920s. Despite some repetitive moments, Loeffert manages to keep up the listener’s interest by means of these tonal distortions, which inevitably sound like real contributions to the ongoing musical development and not merely effects for the sake of effect.

Mincek returns for Nucleus, another one of those “techno” kind of pieces, here pitting the saxophone against what sounded to me like a click track. I will be merciful and close the door on this piece.

The final work on the CD is David Gillingham’s Supercell, named after and depicting the monstrous thunder-bumpers, complete with hail, gale-force winds and eventually a tornado, that develop over the Great Plains. Scored for alto saxophone and percussion orchestra, Supercell begins somewhay quietly but restlessly, depcting the atmosphric shift from breezy, sunny skies to puffy clouds and eventually the kind of atomic explosion that begins the atmospheric assault. Thanks to Gillingham’s keen ear for music and fine sense of development, what could have been a mere flashy showpiece becomes a fascinating, well-developed piece of music. The ear follows the various stages of the supercell with fascination. As a sidelight, I should mention that I always felt that Ferde Grofé’s “Cloudburst,” which depicts the same sort of storm, was by far the best and most effective piece in his Grand Canyon Suite.

All in all, then, a fine album, with Tenor Attitudes and Supercell being my favorite works therein.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Lipovšek Dominates Martin’s “Der Cornet”

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MARTIN: Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Cristoph Rilke / Marjana Lipovšek, alto; Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Lothar Zagrosek, conductor / Orfeo C 164 881 A

Swiss composer Frank Martin, nearing age 50, was strongly drawn to Rainer Maria Rilke’s collection of brief poems, The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, but kept saying to himself, “This is far too long for a song cycle.” Really, it wasn’t if you think of Schubert’s Die Winterreise (24 poems/songs), but Martin, always an economical composer by nature, didn’t really want to drag it out. But his wife, who kept translating Rilke’s superb poetry from German to French for him to understand, eventually drew him to the point where he just had to set it to music.

So he wrote this extended orchestral song cycle, almost a monodrama for one singer with orchestra, and it is superb. And not just superb for Frank Martin; superb for this type of music in every respect. He managed to mirror the mood and feelings of the text with unerring accuracy, producing a work that flows from song to song in a continuous fashion. This is why I describe it as a monodrama, and also why it is imperative that the singer be a first-class singing actress.

Because each song is perfectly tailored to the words, and because each poem/song is complete in itself, one can perform some of it without necessarily doing all of it. The same thing, for those who forget, was done with Winterreise for decades. But as in the case of Winterreise, Der Cornet gains in intensity and meaning when you hear the whole thing performed together, in order. Indeed, certain songs, such as Nos. 11 (“Rast”) through 13 (“Und Einer steht”), are musically linked and thus should not be separated.

What makes Der Cornets even more remarkable is that Martin creates this tension with a relatively small orchestra, often using just the strings. The winds and brasses are occasionally brought in for color and occasional dramatic punch, but he very rarely scored the full orchestra to play together as a unit. This not only gives the score of Der Cornets considerable variety, but more importantly, it leaves a “hole” in the score for the voice to come through without having to complete with instruments. For the most part, the music is tonal, indeed even more so than his remarkable opera Le vin Herbé, despite the lack of memorable “tunes” and a disdain for high notes. In short, your average opera lover will hate this piece but most lieder fanciers will love it. I was particularly struck by the edgy waltz tempo set up for “Das Fest”

Lipovšek, one of my all-time favorite contraltos/mezzos, has always been a great interpreter and she is in her element here. Moreover, this was recorded at a time (1988) when her voice was at its very freshest, able to move seamlessly throughout its range at all dynamics levels and with various expressive accents with seamless ease. As for Lothar Zagrosek’s conducting, it’s good without being quite as brilliant as I might have liked. A conductor of genius, like Michael Gielen or Esa-Pekka Salonen, could bring much more out of the score; but then, they might not have had a singer like Lipovšek, and she is too special for me to want to relinquish. The sonics are pretty decent, with the voice recorded forward which I like, without creating much in the way of atmosphere. Best of all, this release—at least in its original format—includes all the lyrics in German, English and French. Well worth seeking out!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rod Levitt’s Missing RCA Album Reissued At Last!

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FORTY-SECOND STREET / DUBIN-WARREN: Forty-Second Street. Shuffle Off to Buffalo. About a Quarter to Nine. Lulu’s Back in Town. The Gold Digger’s Song. KOEHLER-McHUGH: I’m Shooting High. FREED-BROWN: Alone. WHITING-BULLOCK: When Did You Leave Heaven? ROBIN-RAINGER: Please. MITCHELL-ALTER: Twilight on the Trail. ROBIN-RAINGER: Here Lies Love. KING-JANIS: Paramount on Parade / The Rod Levitt Orchestra: Bill Berry, tpt; Rod Levitt, tb/arr; George Marge, pic/fl/a-fl/cl/t-sax/oboe; Buzz Renn, fl/cl/a-sax; Gene Allen, bar-sax/cl/bs-cl; Sy Johnson, pn/woodblocks/bells; John Beal, bs; Ronnie Bedford, dm/whistle / RCA/Legacy, available only as downloads; no physical CD.

The late trombonist-arranger-composer Rod Levitt (1929-2007) had but four years of fame and success in the music world, 1963-1966, first through the issue of a single album on Riverside (The Dynamic Sound Patterns of the Rod Levitt Orchestra) and then, so he thought, lasting success via a contract with industry giant RCA Victor. But RCA only made three albums with him, Insight (1964), Solid Ground (1965) and Forty-Second Street (1966) before they pulled the plug on him.

The RCA albums did not sell well. The arrangements and compositions were too quirky and eccentric to appeal to the Les & Larry Elgart “businessman’s bounce” crowd but not far out enough to compete with such avant gardists as Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra or Michael Mantler. On the first two albums he wrote and recorded his own material, but for the last of these he wrote updated arrangements of old 1930s pop & movie tunes. The album flopped. End of career.

Several years ago, Insight and Solid Ground came out on a single CD reissue, but neither hide nor hair of Forty-Second Street was to be seen anywhere. Then, just yesterday, I was poking around on Sony Music’s Freegal site, a free and legal music download service provided to large public libraries across the country. On a whim I typed Levitt’s name in, and voila: Solid Ground and Forty-Second Street popped up, available for download or streaming!

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Original side 1 LP label

Well, of course I was excited to find this, so I immediately started listening and was captivated by the tongue-in-cheek humor and camp of Levitt’s arrangements. That was when I searched the Net to find out when the album was reissued. Surprise, surprise: it came out on RCA/Legacy last October 7 (2016). But it’s not available as a hard copy CD, only as downloads, You can buy the tracks on Amazon or stream them for free at Spotify or Muzoic. For free? Yup. So why spend money on the album? Obviously Sony/RCA doesn’t give a crap. So take this music, please.

And what excellent music it is! All of Levitt’s familiar traits—displaced rhythms, substitute chords whose roots suddenly fall out from under you, overlaid counterpoint and his unique knack of scoring an octet to sound like a full orchestra—are present in this album. And, as a little teaser, here is an excerpt from the original liner notes by Willis Conover:

“Well,” Rod Levitt says, “with a little organization and contrast you can get away with anything”—including a club sandwich of camp and jazz and nostalgia, all three. Camp followers, however, are serious about silliness. Rod, like his brother trombonists Vic Dickenson, Dickie Wells, Bill Harris and Tricky Sam Nanton, is serious about his musicianship; he laughs at the silliness.

Rod is a club sandwich himself. He’s thirty-six—looks five years older in photos, five years younger face to face. His Oregon-bred, gee-whiz boyishness is unusual in New York City, but in New York’s musical rat race Rod runs at least Place or Show. He majored in music at the University of Washington, interned with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the Middle East, and served the community six and one-half years in the Radio City Music Hall orchestra. Now he is leader, composer, arranger and trombonist with his own eight-man band. He thinks of his octet as a orchestra. He thinks of himself as a salesman.

Though he didn’t compose any of the music in this album, some composers may find more composition in Rod’s arrangements of their songs than they gave the songs originally. Here and there, other bandleaders will catch Rod winking at them.

But what of the music? Well, that exhibits Levitt’s usual mixture of innovative orchestration, in which he made is octet sound like a full orchestra, with inventive writing and tongue-in-cheek humor. A drum roll introduces a purposely corny, ricky-tick rendition (with some beats missing in the bars, and a transposition in the middle) of Shuffle Off to Buffalo, one of five songs (nearly half the album) written by the movies’ star duo, Al Dubin and Harry Warren. Levitt did so much juggling of his three reed players, who between them played 12 instruments(!), that you’d swear this was a full jazz orchestra playing. Part of the illusion was created by trumpeter Bill Berry’s amazingly strong tone, which made him sound like a full section. The album’s title track then follows, the tempo brought way down and anchored in the bass notes of the piano and low reeds. Levitt almost makes it sound like a sinister death march. I don’t think devotees of ‘30s movie music were terribly amused by it. In the midst, Levitt sticks a plunger in his trombone and channels his inner Tricky Sam Nanton, followed by a whimsical and tasteful bass solo.

I’m Shooting High comes next, and here Levitt made no ironic comments or major transformation. It’s played in a straightforward manner as a propulsive swing tune, with Berry and Levitt, playing in unison, injecting an infectious riff on and off as the saxes blister their way through some incendiary solos. It has the feel of some of those sleek late-swing bands like Charlie Barnet’s Skyliner group. Alone, sung by Allan Jones in the Marx Brothers’ classic A Night at the Opera, is played by Levitt on trombone as if by a drunken sailor while flutes are all a-twitter above him and Berry’s muted trumpet fills in the background.

Dick Whiting’s classic When Did You Leave Heaven? also receives a somewhat straight swing treatment, this time with two of the reeds doubling Berry to give the illusion of a full trumpet section. Gene Allen’s baritone solo is tasteful and fitting, but it’s the arrangement, with its rhythmic displacements, that steals the show. Levitt then slows the tempo down yet again and plays plunger-muted through theAl Jolson classic About a Quarter to Nine as the reeds play whimsical figures around him. The piano plays a repeated riff while Beal solos, then continues behind Levitt for the ride-out. Someone yells out “About a quarter to nine!” as the song comes to a close.

More cornball musical treatment greets Lulu’s Back in Town, with more rhythmic displacements, until the tempo is halved to back up a fine Allen solo. (Sorry to be obtuse, but I can’t always tell which of the other two are playing the alto solos.) Flutes and piccolos chirp happily behind him in his second chorus, then in the third he doubles the tempo. Then Levitt and one of the reeds plays a descending lick while the trumpet and other reeds peruse a hip figure, which eventually turns into a ride-out which in turn becomes corny again. Lulu is back, indeed.

Please was one of Bing Crosby’s very early hits during his solo career. Levitt’s a cappella trombone introduces it, after which the key shifts upwards and we get a waltz tempo. Another transposition upward for the band, all four of the other front-line musicians playing in unison. Levitt has fun throwing in a few upward rips, Allen returns on baritone, then the whole band kicks into gear before a fine alto solo (probably by Buzz Renn). Levitt returns to ride the tune out. The Gold Digger’s Song (a.k.a. We’re in the Money) is cause for great exuberation by the band, sending up brightly-colored musical skyrockets. Renn solos on alto with an energetic bass and drum backing, then a rare solo by trumpeter Berry. Levitt slips and slides around on ‘bone while the band continues to sparkle around him, then a ride-out.

Levitt band

L to R: Bill Berry, Gene Allen, Buzz Renn, Ronnie Bedford, George Marge, Sy Johnson (w/sunglasses), John Beal, Rod Levitt.

Twilight on the Trail is given the old pseudo-Tunisian treatment that was so much in vogue during the ‘30s, but typically of Levitt, the sound texture is bright and not muted or very mysterious despite brief oboe interludes by Marge. The beat then slides into barrelhouse (or as Bing Crosby used to call it, “tempo di bucket”) for the middle portion of the song, with the drums eventually doubling things up just to confuse you before sliding back into Marge’s oboe and the original beat. Weird stuff!

Here Lies Love is a showcase for the leader’s funky trombone, with the rest of the band injecting some spiffy staccato chords behind him and the rhythm section under him. The ‘30s love fest then wraps up with Paramount on Parade, a song that was played in the movies to introduce the “news of the world” to be followed by the Serial of the Week. (Those under the age of 80 probably won’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Look it up.) This, too, becomes a relatively straight, medium-tempo swinger with little Levitt touches of harmony and orchestration, a fine yet quirky ride-out into the sunset.

No two ways about it, if you’re a fan of interesting jazz arrangements, you won’t want to miss this release. A shame you’ll have to burn your own physical CD because Sony-RCA was to cheap to issue it that way.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Variation5 Explores Odd Wind Quintets

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ARNOLD: 3 Shanties. FRANÇAIX: Wind Quintet. HINDEMITH: Kleine Kammermusik, Op. 24 No. 2. NIELSEN: Wind Quintet / Variation5 / Berlin Classics 885470010007

Variation5 is a fairly new wind quintet who’s trying to make a mark for itself with this first CD release. Like so many modern chamber groups, their aesthetic is marked by brisk tempi, a forward press to the rhythm and extreme clarity in sonic texture. To a certain extent, this eliminates such niceties of expression as rubato, rallentando etc., but the program they’ve chosen consists of works that don’t really rely all that much on such things. Malcolm Arnold’s 3 Sea Shanties, Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik and the Wind Quintets of Françaix and Nielsen all ride the surface, more or less, and are bravura rather than sensitive pieces.

That being said, I found Variation5’s approach so lively, bracing and highly energized that, at least in this program, I didn’t miss those other niceties of detail all that much. Moreover, in certain moments, such as the second of Arnold’s Shanties, I detected moments of relaxation that played well into the feeling of the music. And even in the Françaix, one of my all-time favorite pieces, they managed to find little details and ways of phrasing that even escaped the highly esteemed New York Woodwind Quintet (in the days when John Barrow was still on horn).

After the bracing first movement, the group plays Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik with surprising delicacy and lightness of touch, leading the ear inward to some of his most clever transmutations. Yet it is in the Nielsen Wind Quintet that they really show their mettle, playing the music with a lightness of touch that creates magic of this score. The final movement in particular, with its stream of variations, is really special to hear, and throughout the engineers did a splendid job of capturing the instruments’ timbres, particularly the French horn, which is quite spectacular in the Nielsen.

All in all, a fine debut release, and one definitely worth hearing.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Those Darn Cowboys & Frenchmen are “Bluer Than You Think”!

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BLUER THAN YOU THINK / BRODER: Wayfarer. Companion Plan. Uncommon Sense. HELM: Beasts. Lilies Beneath the Bridge. Bluer Than You Think. C&F Jam. MISCH-BLOXDORF: Clear Head / Cowboys & Frenchmen: Ethan Helm, a-sax/s-sax; Owen Broder, a-sax/bar-sax; Chris Ziemba, pn; Ethan O’Reilly, bs; Matt Honor, dm / Outside in Music (no number)

This disc, slated for release on October 13, is the second by a quintet that calls themselves “Cowboys & Frenchmen.” Since I don’t see any French names in the band and am not sure which ones are cowboys, I’ll have to assume that this is a tongue-in-cheek name.

One thing is for sure: this band is eclectic in a good way. The opening track, Wayfarer, sounded for all the world to me like something Rabih Abou-Khalil would have written, a slow, mesmerizing, Middle Eastern-type piece that begins with the bass playing a sustained low F which signals the band to vacillate between the major and minor around that note. The music is slow and moody, with Matt Honor playing a decidedly Eastern-style drum beat while Chris Ziemba weaves a slow, Arabic-sounding piano line around it. When the two saxes enter, playing in harmony, it is to introduce an entirely new theme, and wonder of wonders, an attractive and memorable one, followed by a truly lovely solo by Owen Broder on baritone sax that intensifies in later choruses, followed in turn by Etham Helm playing a very gutsy alto. It’s the kind of piece that’s so good, and so attractive, that you wish it would go on for 15 minutes, but alas we only get eight.

Helm’s original piece Beasts follows, immediately on the heels of Wayfarer, a strange piece built around a repetitive series of rhythmic triplets played by the two horns, often with the bass grumbling down below, before breaking up into a series of continually-evolving eighth-note patterns that just barely fit into the odd, irregular rhythm beat out by Matt Honor on drums. This strangely interlocking melodic line dominates the proceedings, the only real improvisation being a splashy overlay by pianist Ziemba. This is the kind of piece I live to hear, a truly interesting and original piece using classical principles in a jazz setting. Wunderbar! At 6:30 in the piece the music morphs and changes yet again, then returns to the repetitive string of eighths, which the promo sheet describes as being like the DNA of “an otherworldly creature.”

Broder’s Companion Plan is up next, and finally the spell set up by the first two pieces is broken somewhat by the the slightly funky “Pink Panther”-type beat and the rhythmic lick played by the composer on baritone. Little circular licks played by the two saxes come and go, adding spice and interest to the evolving musical pattern. A great, almost Bossa-Nova-type solo ensues from one of the alto saxists (unidentified in the album art, and since both Helm and Broder play alto it’s hard to say), followed by both altos playing together, then by Broder again on baritone. By now the rhythm has loosened a bit from its opening funk style to, once again, convey overtones of Eastern music (though not as strongly as in Wayfarer). Interestingly, when Ziemba enters on piano, he completely changes the beat to something a bit more complex but also more relaxed, coasting above the rest of the band as the music ends quietly.

Lilies Beneath the Bridge is a ballad, with the two saxists playing a portamento-filled melodic line like something Charles Mingus would have written. (What’s nice about this is that it channels Mingus without being an outright imitation, something I think the crusty old curmudgeon would have actually liked.) Here, Ziemba’s piano solo almost sounds the way Bill Evans did when he played with Mingus (see: East Coasting), filling space beautifully while still maintaining his own identity.

Next up is Clear Head, the only piece on the album written by an outside source, Chris Misch-Bloxdorf. It’s more of a conventional modern-jazz-group sort of piece in outline, but Cowboys & Frenchmen take it apart and put it back together again in a fascinating manner, stressing the music’s underlying structure via repeated and contrasting rhythmic licks. The title tune, Bluer Than You Think, starts out in a Blue Note sort of groove, including a nice chorus by the two altos and a surprisingly “chunky” chorded solo by Ziemba. There’s another really great, gutsy alto solo, again uncredited, but my guess is that it’s Helm because Broder comes in under him at one point on baritone sax, and the later alto solo sounds more like Broder. But I may be wrong. A rare drum solo from Honor follows, with interspersed piano chords, then the out-chorus.

The promo notes indicate that C & F Jam was “inspired by the dueling car stereos on the streets of NYC.” Flutter-tongue alto over sprinkled piano starts it, following which we hear both altoists going against each other in fast-moving counterpoint, with Broder moving to baritone. Call me crazy, but some of this music sounded like Raymond Scott overlaid onto bop (something the iconoclastic Scott would have abhorred)! If this was indeed inspired by dueling car stereos in New York, the denizens of that city must be listening to something other than hip-hop and rock because this music is clearly more complex and far more technically involved! An equally wacky but inventive solo from Ziemba follows against the reverse-rhythm backbeats of Honor, then the ensemble returns to push the music further through a tube into Wonderland. Wild stuff.

The album concludes with Uncommon Sense, a brilliant piece that sounds at the outset almost more classical than jazz—at least, until the two altos, playing in unison, enter to create a flowing line that rides above the fray. The horns drop out to allow bassist O’Reilly to take a solo, with piano and cymbal splashes in the background, following which Ziemba meanders around the keyboard a bit. This is a surprisingly quiet piece for this quintet, although typical in its rhythmic and structural complexity.

The musical descriptions above are my own individual reaction to what I heard, and may not necessarily be yours. Music is the most difficult art to translate into words because it “speaks” its own language and that language is a very complex mathematical system that somehow becomes fluid rather than solid. Nonetheless, there is no question but that Cowboys & Frenchmen is an outstanding group of musical creators, and I certainly look forward to their future endeavors!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Kadesha & Rimmer Play Modern Violin Sonatas

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ENESCU: Violin Sonata No. 3, “Dans le caractère populaire Roumain.” RAVEL: Violin Sonata in G. Tzigane. SKALKOTTAS: Little Suites Nos. 1 & 2 / Jonian-Ilias Kadesha, violinist; Nicholas Rimmer, pianist / Avi 8553640

Here’s a nice program of violin-piano works from three composers writing at different times in the 20th century. It’s always a pleasure to visit, or revisit, music composed in a century in which my life intersected, rather than the same old-timey stuff we hear over and over and over again.

But Jonian-Ilias Kadesha, born in 1992, is a young violinist with an appetite for music based on European folk themes, which is fine by me. His partner, Nicholas Rimmer, is a British pianist who studied music in Hannover, Germany, rounding off his training with lessons from Wolfram Rieger and the Alban Berg Quartet.

First up is Enescu’s sprightly third violin sonata, subtitled “In the popular Rumanian character.” Kadesha plays this with a very light, skimming vibrato, much in the character of folk fiddlers, creating an evocative atmosphere. Rimmer is right with him, nudging the music along in its quirky Rumanian way; as a duo, they are perfectly matched in temperament. The only small caveat I had was that, in soft passages, Kadesha doesn’t always achieve a muted quiet tone, but rather maintains his brightness…a small thing, surely, but noticeable, although he does a good job of playing the edgy, slightly-out-of-tune high soft passages in the second movement. And clearly, he has a good grasp on how to play the remainder of the movement, with its edgy and sometimes vibrato-laden folk-ish tunes. In the lively third movement he is also quite fine.

The Ravel sonata in G (actually, his No. 2) is an unusual piece, with the second movement strongly influenced by the blues and the third influenced by American jazz of the 1920s. Unlike most European composers who tried to write in a “jazz” style, Ravel actually traveled to America and heard the real thing first-hand, in Chicago in 1928. The first movement, however, is folk-influenced, and the duo of Kadesha and Rimmer grasp this concept thoroughly. Their keen sensitivity to dynamic levels and phrasing pays dividends in their performance here. Unfortunately, Rimmer’s rhythm is woodblock stiff in the last two movements, which inhibits Kadesha’s looseness of swing. For a good example of how it should be played, listen to violinist Arabella Steinbacher with the excellent, loose-rhythmed pianist Robert Kulek on Orfeo (Steinbacher & Kulek are even looser in the more formal, less jazzy first movement.)

The music of Nikos Skalkottas was entirely new to me. One of Schoenberg’s prize pupils, he lived a fairly charmed life until 1931, but then encountered poverty and a lack of performance venues. Returning to Greece, he suffered from “composer’s block” until later in life when he streamlined his style. The two Little Suites here date from this later period, and they may be “simpler” but are by no means simple! On the contrary, the first one seems to be written in two different keys simultaneously with a rhythm that plays backwards instead of forwards, and here both musicians have a firm grasp on this tricky and challenging music. Only in the third movement of the first suite does the rhythm finally straighten out, but the harmonies are still on a knife’s edge. In the second suite, Skalkottas maintains his edgy harmonies and rhythm, particularly in the first movement where he tosses in a few pauses just to throw the listener off a bit more. Although the second movement here is a shade lyrical, it is also rather eerie in feeling, whereas the third movement—a brief, slashing piece lasting just under 2 ½ minutes—reverts to the bitonal feeling of the first suite, albeit with a more regular and driving rhythm. There’s an almost Ives-ian moment when it sounds as if he’s quoting “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” for a bar ot two. It drives off a cliff for the ending.

The recital wraps up with Ravel’s Tzigane, and here again its Gypsy connotations play into the talented hands of Kadesha very well. He performs with particular fire and verve, moving through the music with insouciance, and Rimmer manages to keep up with him. Written for Hungarian-born British violinist Jelly d’Arányi, it is a bravura piece (something quite rare for Ravel) which the composer later arranged for violin and orchestra.

All in all, then, a very fine recital but for the last two movements of the Ravel.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Herzogenberg’s Underrated Piano Trios Given New Life

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HERZOGENBERG: Piano Trios Nos. 1 & 2 / Atos Trio / CPO 777335-2

Heinrich Picot de Peccaduc von Herzogenberg, friend to both Brahms and Ethel Smyth, is one of many Romantic composers whose name has slipped through the cracks of history; but unlike many who get revived nowadays, he actually deserves notice.

It would be nice, and easy, to say that he was “just another Brahms imitator” and leave it at that. Nice, but unfair and not wholly accurate. For what, exactly, does it mean to “imitate” Brahms? What it meant, in the late 19th century anyway, was to be serious about the music you wrote, not flippant or trivial, appealing only to the masses; to have a long view of what you were writing and, if possible, to tie your ideas to a clear melodic structure; and, most importantly, to be passionate about what you wrote. This discards a good many composers who were said to be “like Brahms,” including Liszt, who wrote some very good pieces and a large amount of rubbish, and many composers (rightfully forgotten) whose music was so derivative that nothing original came of it. But Ethel Smyth, one of my favorite composers of that era—and a woman who dressed in tweeds, smoked cigars, rode bicycles and had a love affair with Hezogenberg’s wife, Elisabeth (known as Lisl)—was also an admirer of Brahms and one of Herzogenberg’s composition pupils. In fact, Herzogenberg showed Brahms one of her pieces, which Johannes doubted a woman could have written. But he was wrong, and apologized for his mistake.

To get back to Herzogenberg, however, these are powerful, big-boned piano trios, interesting and as far from polite salon music as one could possibly imagine, and the Atos Trio attacks them with gusto. There is an alternate recording of these works by the Arensky Trio, also played with feeling but played at a much slower tempo, with a good deal of rubato which may or may not be to your taste. For me, unless the composer’s name was Schubert or Chopin, I don’t care a whole lot for rubato in my musical performances. I like guts, and the Atos Trio is, symbolically, on fire from first note to last in these interesting works.

Perhaps Herzogenberg’s individuality, particularly in his use of harmony, stemmed from the fact that he was descended from an aristocratic French family. Educated at a Jesuit school before studying law, philosophy and political science, he became drawn to the music of Wagner but after intense studies of the music of J.S. Bach he became more of a classicist.

Herzogenberg had the attractive habit of ramping up both the volume and the intensity whenever he launched into an alternate theme. He also moved the instruments into their upper registers, which automatically gave the music more interest; and he did this in his slow movements as well as the fast ones. His continually interesting melodic lines are actually more memorable than most of Brahms’, and unlike the older composer he seldom dragged out his themes or let the grass grow under his feet. The continually shifting chords also add piquancy to the score, and to my ears his development sections are more organic, i.e., they sound as if an improvising musician were creating the variants out of the original theme(s). The second (slow) movement of the first trio consists of a theme and a series of variations, very much in the Beethoven and Brahms mold, yet somehow Herzogenberg manages to channel some of the former’s excitement along with the latter’s sense of structure. I questioned, while listening, whether or not the variant with the pizzicato cello should have gone quite as quickly as the Atos Trio plays it here, but the effect is certainly exciting, riveting one’s attention. In the ensuing variation, Herzogenberg shifts the focus from pizzicato cello to a continual series of triplets played on the piano, with good effect.

The harmonic leaps in the ensuing scherzo, marked simply “Presto,” will have you on the edge of your seat, particularly the way the Atos Trio plays it. Few of these harmonic jumps would have occurred to Brahms, and if they did, he’d probably have subdued some of them in order to create greater flow. Herzogenberg, however, revels in them, taking the listener on a wild ride.

Surprisingly, the last movement begins not only quietly but mysteriously, like a twilight fog creeping through the streets and around your house. It’s a rare moment of symbolism or, if you will, impressionism in Herzogenberg’s music; after the expected crescendo, however, the tempo becomes quicker and more energetic but the minor-major alternations in the harmony keep the feeling of unease in the music. Even in those moments of what appears to be unbridled exuberance, Herzogenberg keeps pulling the trio—and the listener—back to a slight feeling of unease, bordering on fear. It’s simply a remarkable piece of music by any criteria, and the Atos Trio plays it with gusto.

In the Trio No. 2, written in D minor, Herzogenberg sets up an almost elegiac feeling in the first movement, mitigated in part by the forward press of the “Allegro” tempo. The music shifts back and forth between the home key and its relative major, sometimes within a single bar, keeping the listener off-kilter before pursuing most of the second theme in A major, though going through a series of key changes, including A minor. There’s a remarkable passage around the seven-minute mark where the cello plays a broad, impassioned theme, only to have the piano come crashing down into the middle of it, disrupting the flow and building to an almost fever pitch before turning quiet again The lyrical second movement, in G-flat major, also moves fluidly in its harmony, with occasional dramatic spikes.

In this trio it’s the third movement, “Allegro molto,” that begins mysteriously, and like the first trio Herzogenberg sets up a particularly quirky-sounding 6/8 beat. There’s a surprisingly majestic-sounding tune in the middle of this movement, also in 6/8 but sounding more like a Prussian march, and Herzogenberg works it out in an interesting manner. This last movement begins in a ruminative vein, far less eerie than the last movement of the first trio, and quickly moves into an almost celebratory mood. Almost, but not quite, as Herzogenberg continues to keep us off-balance with his numerous harmonic shifts and the way he tosses the buoyant rhythm around within the trio. Here it’s the third strain, the trio theme, that sounds the most mysterious, with spikes of feverish energy coming and going within it.

Thus Herzogenberg had a great deal going for his music, certainly more than most other Austrian composers of his day. These are first-rate works that need and deserve to be heard, and these recordings are first-rate.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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