Jonathan Nichol Plays Modern Sax Music


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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