Johnny Dankworth’s ‘50s Band Cooks in New Reissue

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ENGLAND’S AMBASSADOR OF JAZZ / HAWDON: Tribute to Chauncey. Kool Kate. LINDUP: Slo Twain. New Forest. DANKWORTH: Sunflower. Honey-Dew Melon. International. Specs Yellow. Desperate Dan. DANKWORTH-LINDUP: Dauphine Blues. T. RUSSELL: Joe and Lol / Dickie Hawdon, Derek Abbott, Stan Palmer, Colin Wright, Bob Carson, tpt; Laurie Monk, Tony Russell, Danny Elwood, Garry Brown, tbn; Ron Snyder, tbn/tuba; Johnny Dankworth, a-sax/cl; Danny Moss, t-sax/bs-cl; Alex Leslie, bar-sax/cl/fl; Dave Lee, pn; Eric Dawson, bs; Kenny Clare, dm / Avid Entertainment 191018904326

This is a reissue of a once-famous, classic album by the Johnny Dankworth band, made shortly before they packed up their instruments and headed to the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival where they created a sensation. Many websites give the year of recording as 1958, and one says 1960, but I got this into from http://henrybebop.co.uk/dankwort.htm and the info there is so complete and thorough that I accept the recording dates given there as May 12, 13 & 19, 1959. The album was originally issued in the UK on Columbia 33SX1280 and in America on Roulette R 52040 (an American label run by the Mafia, FYI) in their “Birdland” series. It sold very well in both countries. To the best of my knowledge, this is its first appearance on CD.

Dankworth and saxist Ronnie Scott were the harbingers of progressive swing and bop in England, which during the 1950s and ‘60s was still pretty much in thrall with Dixieland. The really popular bands in the U.K. during those years were those of Chris Barber (still alive as of this writing), Humphrey Lyttleton, Acker Bilk, etc., although Dankworth’s famed jazz septet of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, nicknamed “The Seven,” was also very popular. When he formed his first big band in 1953, The Seven was the central part of the orchestra, a blended section of trumpet, trombone, alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax and tuba. By the time of this album and his Newport gig he had revamped his lineup somewhat. Dickie Hawdon, an outstanding soloist, became the lead trumpeter, much to the dismay of Dankworth fans who felt that he didn’t have a strong enough tone to play lead. Nonetheless, the music herein is truly sensational in every way.

Dankworth backThe music here is molded to some extent on the cool jazz charts that Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, Shorty Rogers and other Americans had written for the bands of Claude Thornhill, Elliott Lawrence, Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton. The sound is rooted in low saxes and, more often than not, trumpets playing in a lower, more mellow range. And there is no question that the band could swing; just listen to the outstanding performance here of David Lindup’s Slo Twain for an example of what I mean. Muted trumpets split the melody with low saxes and trombones, and the occasional, deft use of counterpoint completes the arrangement in a satisfying way, despite the lack (here) of a great solo turn. Moreover, the various writers for this album—Lindup, Hawdon, Tony Russell and Dankworth himself—maintain a certain integrity of style that is both pleasing and engaging for the mind. Dave Lee’s relaxed, slightly meandering single-note solo in Sunflower, followed in turn by Hawdon and Danny Moss, is a good indication of how well each member of this band was attuned to each other and to the ensemble as a whole. “Relaxed brilliance” is a perfect description of this entire program.

Dankworth himself doesn’t really assert himself until the dramatic, drum-laden introduction to Dauphine Blues, continuing after the brass interjection with a solo quite evidently influenced by Lee Konitz, but with a tone slightly sweeter. This is also a much more aggressive tune than the first three on the album, as is the succeeding Honey-Dew Melon with a great tenor spot by Moss and an even better one by Hawdon. Tony Russell’s Joe and Lol is a more relaxed, laid-back piece in a nice medium tempo, featuring a splendid trombone solo (unfortunately unidentified) and a nice flute solo with strong bass underpinning by Alex Leslie.

Indeed, as the album progresses you begin to understand why this band was so good. Everyone “felt” each other’s playing to the extent that they listened carefully to what player X was doing before they embarked on their own solos, and in turn the soloists were listening to the ensemble and what it was doing. These performances, then, have a kind of completeness about them that a great many jazz big bands. past and present, simply do not achieve…and this despite the fact that Lee’s instrument has a thin, almost klunky sound, as if it were a piano in the back room of a bar (who knows? Maybe it was!). And it’s not a case of “follow the leader,” good as Dankworth was, because Johnny doesn’t dominate the solo space. In Kool Kate he drops in for a chorus or two in the middle, then splits. In other numbers he doesn’t play at all. And the band almost sounds as if were “dancing in place” in their seats.

New Forest has a slightly dark sound to it despite the use of clarinet and muted trumpet playing the simple theme in the beginning. I wonder if this piece was in some way a tribute to Reginald Foresythe, who had died the year before, and whose Deep Forest was such an popular and influential tune back in the 1930s. On Specs Yellow Dankworth is the dominant soloist in the first half, but then turns things over to a trombonist, and the trombone section as a whole shines in the last few choruses, aided by nice blasts from the trumpet section. The finale, Desperate Dan, is a medium-slow number based on Louis Armstrong’s theme song, When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, but so transformed that it sounds like a completely original piece. Danny Moss’ warm, Ben Webster-ish tenor sax is the dominant solo voice here.

In later years, of course, both Dankworth and his orchestra became better known to Americans as accompaniment to his wife, the great jazz singer Cleo Laine, at which time he pretty much gave up playing instrumentals like these, but to his credit he didn’t mind. He felt he had had his turn in the spotlight, and now it was her turn, but in exchange for her powerful voice and stage presence we lost this superb band with its unique sound. This is an album to treasure.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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A Wild Ride With Wild Bill Davison on Commodore

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WILD BILL DAVISON: THE COMMODORE MASTER TAKES / L. POLLACK: That’s A-Plenty. TYERS: Panama. CARMICHAEL: Riverboat Shuffle. ORY-GILBERT: Muskrat Ramble. SHIELDS-LaROCCA-RAGAS-SBARBARO: Clarinet Marmalade. LaROCCA: Original Dixieland One-Step. LaROCCA-SHIELDS-SBARBARO-EDWARDS: At the Jazz Band Ball. C. WILLIAMS-WARFIELD: Baby Won’t You Please Come Home / Wild Bill Davison, tpt; George Brunies, tbn; Pee Wee Russell (first 4 tracks), Edmond Hall (remaining tracks), cl; Gene Schroeder, pn; Eddie Condon, gtr; Bob Casey, bs; George Wetting, dm / YOUNG-WASHINGTON-CROSBY: A Ghost of a Chance. DELANEY: Jazz Me Blues. HYDE-HENRY: Little Girl. WALLER-WILLIAMS: Squeeze Me / Davison, Russell, Condon, Casey; Lou McGarity, tbn; Danny Alvin, dm; George Zack, pn (first 2 sides); Dick Cary, pn (last 2 sides) / HINES: A Monday Date. NEYBURG-DAUGHERTY-REYNOLDS: I’m Confessin’. ARMSTRONG-VENABLE: Big Butter and Egg Man. PIRON: I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate / Davison, Hall, Condon, Schroeder, Casey; Vernon Brown, tbn; Danny Alvin, dm / LaROCCA: Sensation Rag. SNYDER-KALMAR-RUBY: Who’s Sorry Now? JONES-KAHN-LYONS: On the Alamo. B. & J. SPIKES: Someday, Sweetheart / Davison, Condon, Wettling; Joe Marsala, cl; Bill Miles, bar-sax; George Lugg, tbn; Joe Sullivan, pn; Jack Lesberg, bs / PIRON-C. WILLIAMS: High Society. KOEHLER-MOLL-BARRIS: Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. COOK-HEYWOOD: I’m Comin’, Virginia. RINGLE-MEINKEN: Wabash Blues / Davison, Brunies, Schroeder, Condon, Lesberg; Albert Nicholas, cl; Dave Tough, dm / Commodore CMD-405

Having fully explored Bill Davison’s Danish recordings of the 1970s along with a disc of live material from Condon’s in 1952, I decided to go back in time to investigate his first recordings. Despite having been born in 1906 and playing professionally by age 20, these 1943-45 discs were his first. Many people have puzzled over this, but you have to remember that the field was pretty crowded in the ‘20s, that Davison was sort of a one-off, and his blasting trumpet or cornet tone with its growls, buzzes and lip vibrato was difficult to record. Commodore’s owner, Milt Gabler, was used to arranging jazz musicians for record sessions, however, and thus was somehow able to minimize the microphone damage when Davison cut loose.

Davison LP coverFamous in their day only among “Dixieland” aficionados, the Davison Commodores have since become iconic recordings. It’s not difficult to understand, at least for the first 16 of them. The sheer energy level of these recordings is so powerful that listening to them sounds like a passing freight train barreling down the track at 120 MPH, with no intention of applying the brakes. It would be easy to say that this is just how Davison played all the time, throughout his entire career, which is true, but it wasn’t always that the rest of the band was swept along with such dynamism, and indeed when we switch clarinetists from Pee Wee Russell or Edmond Hall to Joe Marsala or Albert Nicholas, a certain amount of wattage is missing. The same is true once bassist Bob Casey is replaced by Jack Lesberg. It’s not necessarily that Marsala and Lesberg are poor musicians—they were not—so much as that Russell, Hall and Casey were on fire while the others simply played a gig.

In a way, it’s a shame that Davison never got involved with one of the prestigious white swing bands, as his compatriots Max Kaminsky and Bobby Hackett did. Jazz fans have particularly decried Hackett’s involvement with the extraordinarily popular big band of Glenn Miller, but his contributions to the charts he played on were almost always top-notch in quality and at times superb—and not just the big hits like A String of Pearls or Serenade in Blue but also in the band’s arrangements of From One Love to Another and Stardust. Miller adored Hackett’s special art and set him off like the crown jewel that he was. Had Davison signed on with Tommy Dorsey in the early ‘40s, he could easily have become the new Bunny Berigan.

I'm ConfessinIt’s never been entirely clear where Davison stood re: swing music since he was always open-minded to new ideas and in later life played a good number of swing-era tunes. Even in the context of this set, he does not stick strictly to the old tunes from the Teens and Twenties, but adds later songs like I’m Confessin’, A Ghost of a Chance and Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, none of which would be considered prime Dixieland fodder. But there is no question that the majority of his bandmates preferred small-group jazz (clarinetist Edmond Hall made a famous series of recordings for Blue Note under the title of the Celeste Quartet with Charlie Christian playing acoustic guitar and boogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis on celeste) and, not being part of some swing band’s “small jazz wing” (the Clambake Seven, Gramercy Five, Bob Cats, Kansas City Seven or the various Ellington small bands), they stuck with Chicago-styled Dixieland, which finally experienced a revival around 1942-43. This was also the same era in which San Francisco cornetist Lu Watters came up with his Yerba Buena Jazz Band, playing old ODJB and King Oliver tunes in arrangements fairly close to the originals.

There were several original ‘20s musicians involved in this project: in addition to Davison, Condon and Russell, there was also trombonist George Brunies (he changed his name to Brunis in 1947 on the advice of a numerologist, since “George Brunies” had 13 letters in it) who had been a key member of the legendary New Orleans Rhythm Kings/Friar’s Society Orchestra. Known as the King of the Tailgate Players, Brunies was actually a trombone virtuoso whose playing was far in advance of such “sludge pump” players as Kid Ory or Eddie Edwards, and these recordings show him at his very best. Moreover, if you listen closely, you’ll note that the band eschews the traditional 2/4 “Dixieland” beat in favor of a more streamlined 4/4. This was clearly the influence of advancements in jazz since 1929, including swing.

Perhaps the least interesting soloists in these recordings are the pianists. They play decently but are surprisingly unimaginative, certainly not on the level of Arthur Schutt or Jelly Roll Morton. But then again, the various bands led by Eddie Condon rarely had pianists who played adventurously, and Gene Schroeder was one of Davison’s drinking buddies. Some online critics have unkindly said that Davison was a powerful player but an uninteresting soloist. I disagree. Within the style he played, he was surprisingly original. Not one of his solos proceed the way you “think” they should go. He took chances, veering off the melody and sometimes the harmony, though of course he was never as deep into the chord changes as his friend Hackett. But then again, Louis Armstrong himself was not really a “harmonic” improviser, either.

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Toots Thielemans, Adele Girard & Joe Marsala on 52nd Street, c. 1947

As for the replacement soloists in the later recordings, Joe Marsala deserves special mention. Chicago-born and trained, Marsala played a hybrid style of jazz that combined elements of swing and Dixieland on 52nd Street in New York. He had a beautiful tone and could really swing, but as these recordings show, he was no match for the incendiary brilliance of Russell or Hall, not to mention Goodman or Artie Shaw. His greatest claims to fame were two: he was among the first to integrate jazz in New York, and kept mixed bands through most of his career, and he took a girl harpist under his wing when the band she was playing with skipped town and left her in the lurch. That “girl harpist” was Adele Girard, who later became Mrs. Marsala. Joe taught her how to play jazz and how to improvise, and she quickly became one of the greatest jazz harpists who ever lived. The Marsala Quartet with Girard quickly became the talk of New York; even Armstrong dropped in to hear them and was bowled over by her swing and inventiveness. In later years, Joe became quite ill and incapacitated. Adele took care of him until he died, and made some late recordings on the harp that showed she still had it. He was one of the sweetest and most honest people in the jazz community, everyone admired him, but strictly as a jazz improviser he had too much competition to be remembered for his playing alone.

Albert Nicholas, New Orleans-born, was one of those many “Albert system” clarinetists (Omer Simeon, Jimmie Noone, Barney Bigard and Irving Fazola were others) who made their mark on ‘30s and ‘40s jazz. The Albert system clarinets were differently constructed and used alternate fingering based on the early 19th century 13-key system developed by Iwan Müller. They had a richer, more mellow tone than the standard clarinets. To the best of my knowledge, they were never used by classical musicians in the 20th century because you could play much faster and brighter on standard clarinets, but they are used by clarinetists who play Belarussian, Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish folk music. Nicholas was a pleasant musician but, to my ears, never a great one. I wonder why they couldn’t get Simeon to fill in; perhaps he wasn’t in New York at the time.

Some people have been excited by the fact that Dave Tough is the drummer on the last session, but although it’s true that Tough was also a Chicago-jazz original from the late ‘20s, he had modernized his style considerably by 1945, having played in Tommy Dorsey’s big band and then, at the time of these recordings, exploring a much more modern style in the progressive swing outfit of Woody Herman. If you listen carefully to these recordings, you’ll hear Tough playing a hybrid style of drumming halfway between Dixieland and swing.

All in all, the Davison Commodores were important recordings because, even more so than the Yerba Buena sides, they established Chicago Dixieland as a viable jazz style during the late Swing Era and helped keep it popular in later years when bebop was taking over the modern jazz world. It’s ironic that bop and Dixieland were then seen not only as contrasting but as “warring” styles. Except for the greater harmonic daring and often faster digital dexterity of the boppers, their essentially small-band brand of jazz had much more in common with the Dixielanders than with the heavier, sometimes rhythmically leaden big bands that emerged after World War II. But such was the nature of club life at the time that they were often vying for full-time gigs, and none of the small jazz clubs of the late 1940s had both a bop group and a Dixie group playing in the same venue. Eventually the Dixielanders made their home in two clubs, Eddie Condon’s and Nick’s in Greenwich Village, leaving 52nd Street to be taken over by the boppers and such advanced swing musicians as Art Tatum. For their time and place, the sound quality is surprisingly good. As I mentioned earlier, Gabler was a pro at setting up microphones and managed to capture a certain amount of hall resonance on the original recordings. The Wild Bill Commodores are thus both an important slice of jazz history and extraordinarily vital and exciting recordings in their own right.

Here are links to some of the best recordings as a taste of the set:

That’s A-Plenty
Panama
Riverboat Shuffle
Muskrat Ramble
Clarinet Marmalade
Original Dixieland One-Step
At the Jazz Band Ball
Jazz Me Blues

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Nimrod Borenstein

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BORENSTEIN: Violin Concerto, Op. 60.* The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe. If You Will It, It Is No Dream / *Irmina Trynkos, violinist; Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5209

Nimrod Borenstein (1969 – ) is a violinist-composer who won the Cziffra Foundation award at the age of 15 for his original cadenza to the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3. He attended the Royal College of Music, first as a violinist, but later won the Leverhulme Fellowship for composition. Neither he nor his work are particularly well known, but pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has been championing his works for some time, so here they are on CD at last.

Borenstein, like so many modern composers, is essentially tonal yet one who spices up his scores with counterpoint, surprising chordal shifts and local folk music. There is a strong thread of Jewish folk music running all through his Violin Concerto, despite the biting brass and pounding tympani. The first movement, in particular, is dynamic and driving, using the violin in an integral fashion, much as Berlioz’ Harold in Italy did for the viola. What impressed me the most was that his themes, although tonal, never sound sappy or mundane. Moreover, he knows how to knit them together seamlessly to tell a story, leading the ear from section to section like a master storyteller. His orchestration is colorful, a bit showoffy but never splashy for the sake of cheap effects; rather, he seems to know how to use different sections of the orchestra in a most effective way, never letting one section dominate over the others. At several moments, you’d be hard-pressed to think of his orchestra as containing strings, though when they do return you say to yourself, “Oh yes, he’s got a full string section here.” More often than not, however, he allows the brass and/or winds to dominate, even in the second movement where he has the violas and cellos play pizzicato almost throughout. When the violin section does enter, it is to play a long-note, rhapsodic theme, over which Borenstein overlays more brass.

The third movement has a particularly interesting, long-lined melody, in the course of which Borenstein constantly colors the music with soft percussion (chimes, vibraphone, cymbals) despite its elegiac quality. By such methods, in addition to his keen ear for harmonic resonance and dissonance, Borenstein keeps his music from becoming overly sentimental, something I fully appreciate. At 3:40 into the movement the soloist embarks on a particulary attractive theme, which is then developed using Jewish folk music harmonies. In the fourth and last movement, Borenstein returns to his pounding ways, using edgy, driving rhythms and themes that hold your interest. Here, too, the composer “smears” his harmony in such a way that at times it is tonally ambiguous.

The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe begins quietly, almost pensively, with soft vibes playing before the strings and piccolo enter. A canon is set up in the string section, which becomes quite lively, rhythmic and energetic. This is a big bang with a bit of a swagger! Flutes and clarinets then take up their own canon, backed by chimes, followed in turn by pizzicato strings. Borenstein uses and re-uses the triad of A-C-E as a motif in the first movement as well. A surprisingly lyrical theme then take up in the winds (oboe, clarinets and flutes) against the pizzicato strings. In the second movement, the canons are replaced by a full-blown fugue which goes on for a bit before the texture is reduced to a few cellos playing against the vibes before the upper strings return to play against them. Eventually the counterpoint drifts away, leaving a soft bass drone beneath the vibes soloist with flutes and piccolos up top. The third and last movement is taken at a moderate pace, using many of the same techniques from the first two movements in a lighter and more syncopated manner, sounding almost jazzy as the movement progresses.

If You Will It, It Is No Dream follows in the footsteps of The Big Bang, By now, I came to recognize that although Borenstein has a lot of technical tricks at his disposal, he tends to use them in much the same way in piece after piece. This gives his music a feeling of sameness about it, not necessarily bad but showing that the composer still needs to develop alternate modes of expression. I’ve run across this many times—almost too many times—in the music of many modern composers. They don’t seem to understand how to vary their means of expression. Once they’ve locked themselves into a particular way of writing, they stick with it come heel or high water. What I mean by this is not that their music is bad, ir necessarily repetitive, but too strong a resemblance from piece to piece can be wearing on the listener. (I should also point out that both Mozart and Chopin suffered from this weakness, too, which is why not all of their music is as wonderful as their admirers like to pretend.)

In Borenstein’s case, the repeated tricks are counterpoint and canons, pounding rhythm and syncopated figures with Jewish or Yiddish-style harmonies. No, this third piece doesn’t sound exactly like the preceding work, but it’s a bit too close for comfort. He needs to develop a few different “voices” to make his music sound fresher.

All in all, however, this is a fine introduction to a composer whose music needs to be heard more often. In doing so, he might recognize the repetition and find a means to expand his palette.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Little and Gardner’s Exciting Szymanowski & Karłowicz

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SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. KARŁOWICZ: Violin Concerto, Op. 8 / Tasmin Little, violinist; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Edward Gardner, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5185

Those who have followed my music blog regularly know that I’ve become extremely interested in, and fond of, the music of Karol Szymanowski over the past 10-11 years, and of course this includes his violin concertos. I have both of them played by an excellent fiddler, Ilya Kaler, with the Warsaw Philharmonic directed by Antoni Wit, but what I didn’t have, or had even heard before, was the violin concerto of one Mieczysław Karłowicz, who only lived 32 years (1876-1909). In comparing these new performances to the ones by Kaler and Wit, what struck me was how different the approaches of the conductors were while the approaches of the violinists were not too dissimilar.

Both Kaler and Little have phenomenal control of their instruments and, more importantly, the feeling or “soul” to play this music. The startling difference comes in the quicker, more emotionally direct and outgoing approach of Gardner in the orchestral portion of these scores. It’s like listening to Rodziński conduct the music (see my review of his performance of the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Henryk Szeryng here), giving it more backbone and less wistfulness. Yes, it works, and I liked it very much, but I also like the greater mysticism of the Kaler-Wit performances. Hearing this recording is like listening to Toscanini conduct the Schubert Second Symphony. Gardner’s approach brings out an exciting, almost overheated feeling in the music, like listening to one of Scriabin’s symphonies, and of course Scriabin was one of Szymanowski’s principal influences. I was also greatly impressed by Gardner’s ability to bring out more clarity of detail in the first concerto than Wit, which made me sit up and take notice. I also liked the broadness and emotional directness of the theme in the midst of the last movement, played with uncommon passion.

The second concerto follows much the same pattern as the first: after an appropriately mysterious opening, Gardner, the orchestra, and soloist Little tear into the music as if their lives depended on it. There’s certainly something to be said for this approach, however, as it brings out the music’s structure with exceptional clarity. Little is especially fine playing the first-movement cadenza, which she approaches as if it were a complete violin fantasia. Gardner slams into the staccato chord introducing the second movement as if it were the hammer blow of fate. As I said, terribly exciting performances! Her spiccato in the last movement skitters with the elegance of a cat, and her timbre in the upper range never thins out or becomes wiry, no matter how high or sustained the tone.

The Karłowicz concerto, according to the liner notes, was written before his major tone poems and symphony and is a more lyrical and genial work. Like Szymanowski, three years his junior, he was passionately devoted to modern classical music and probably also a Strauss fan. Certainly, the concerto says as much. Not quite as innovative as Szymanowski, his concerto is nonetheless a fine piece of music, although it seems to lean on popular-sounding tunes to make its points. Once again Gardner and Little do their utmost to make the music sound exciting and bring out its structure, and in this case I think they succeed handsomely. Certainly, I could well imagine this score making little impression were it taken more slowly or played with less feeling. As the first movement progresses, you begin to appreciate Karłowicz’ aesthetic a little more, with notable and sometimes powerful new themes making their way into one’s ears, but by and large this score put me in mind of Hollywood movie music from the 1930s and ‘40s.

As for the cover of this CD, I absolutely loved Tasmin Little’s perky, friendly smile, so disingenuous and open, but could not figure out why Edward Gardner looked as if someone pushed him into the camera frame at the last second. Geez, Ed, couldn’t you at least have given us a little smile? At least like the Mona Lisa? Would it have killed you? Otherwise, this is a sterling release with an entirely new “take” on the Szymanowski works and a surprising window into the Karłowicz concerto.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Wild Bill Davison’s Excellent Danish Adventure

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WILD BILL DAVISON: THE DANISH SESSIONS, 1973-1978

CD 1: S. EVANS: Driftin’ Down the River. BERRY-DAVIS-RAZAF: Christopher Columbus. WILLIAMS-WARFIELD: Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home? WOOD-GREY-GIBBS: Runnin’ Wild. REDMAN-DENNIKER-DAVIS: Save It, Pretty Mama. CONLEY-ROBINSON: A Cottage for Sale. WINFREE-BOUTELJIE: China Boy. RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. JOHNSON-MACK: Old-Fashioned Love. JENSEN: Blues for Ann. Farfar’s Blues. LAYTON-TURNER: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans. REYNOLDS-DOUGHERTY: I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You). SWANSTONE- MORGAN: Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me. DUKE-GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started. G. & I. GERSHWIN: Oh Lady Be Good* / Wild Bill Davison, ct/voc w/Papa Bue’s Jazz Band: Arne “Papa” Bue Jensen, tbn; Jorgen Svare, cl; Bent Jædig, t-sax; Jørn Jensen, pno; Lars Blach, gtr; Jens Sølund, bs; Knud Ryskov Madsen, dm; *Ole Stolle, tp / WALLER-KIRKEBY: All That Meat and No Potatoes. AHLERT-YOUNG: I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter. HOWARD-ADAMS-HOUGH: I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now / Davison, ct; A. Jensen, tbn; Svare, cl; J. Jensen, pno; Bjarne “Lille” Pedersen, bj; Jórgen Hallin Olsen, gtr; Sølund, bs; Madsen, dm; Gustav Winckler, voc

CD 2: BERNIE-PINKARD-CASEY: Sweet Georgia Brown. McHUGH-GASKILL: I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me / Davison, ct; Finn Otto Hanse, tpt; Ole “Fessor” Lindgreen, tbn; Elith Nykjær, cl/a-sax; Steen Vig, t-sax/s-sax; Torben Petersen, pno; Preben Lindhardt, bs-gt; Thorkild Møller, dm. / TRAD., arr. Lindgreen: Just a Closer Walk With Thee / Davison, ct; Verner Work Nielsen, tpt; Lindgreen, tbn; Vig, t-sax/s-sax; Hans Kjærby, pno; Claus Nielsen, gtr; Ole Mosgaard, bs; Møller, dm / BURWELL-PARISH: Sweet Lorraine / Davison, ct; Lindgreen, tb; Jesper Thilo, t-sax; Ralph Sutton, pno; Lars Blach, gtr; Hugo Rasmussen, bs; Svend Erik Nørregaard, dm / CARMICHAEL-GORRELL: Georgia On My Mind / Davison, Vig, Steen, Rasmussen; Torben Munk, gtr; Ove Rex, dm / BURKE-VAN HEUSEN: But Beautiful. ARMSTRONG: Someday You’ll Be Sorry. BLAKE-RAZAF: Memories of You. McHUGH-FIELDS: Exactly Like You / Davison, ct; Thilo, t-sax/cl; Uffe Karskov, t-sax; Flemming Madsen, bar-sax; Pere Carsten Pedersen, a-sax; Steen, pno; Munk, gtr; Rasmussen, bs; Rex, dm / ARLEN-MERCER: Everything Happens to Me. WALLER-RAZAF: Blue Turning Grey Over You / same, but omit a-sax & bar-sax.

CD 3: CONDON: Improvisation for the March of Time. SHAPIRO-CAMPBELL-CONELLY: If I Had You. SMITH-WHEELER-SNYDER: The Sheik of Araby. AUSTIN-McHUGH-MILLS: When My Sugar Walks Down the Street. OLIVER: Dippermouth Blues. WALLER-RAZAF: Keeping Out of Mischief Now. WALLER-RAZAF-BROOKS: Black and Blue. ALTER-DeLANGE: Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans? YOUMANS-CAESAR: I Want to Be Happy. HANDY: Memphis Blues. Ole Miss / Davison, ct; Cutty Cutshall, tbn; Edmond Hall, cl; Gene Schroeder, pno; Eddie Condon, gtr; Bob Casey, bs; Buzzy Drootin, dm / JOLSON-DeSYLVA-ROSE: Avalon / Davison, Cutshall, Hall, Casey; Ralph Sutton, pno; Cliff Leeman, dm / WALLER-WILLIAMS; Squeeze Me / Davison, Cutshall, Hall, Sutton, Condon, Casey; Don Lamond, dm.

CD 4: PINKARD-ALEXANDER-MITCHELL: Sugar. WHITING-MORET: She’s Funny That Way. SHAPIRO-CAMPBELL-CONELLY: If I Had You. CARMICHAEL: Rockin’ Chair. CLARK-TURK-MEYER-JOHNSTON: Mandy, Make Up Your Mind. BROWN-HOMER-GREEN: Sentimental Journey / Davison, ct; Per Walther, Ivan Leth, Erik Vedel Peteren, Boris Samsing, Kurt Jensen, Niels Peter Ludbergsen, Willy Jensen, Hans Nielsen, vln; Finn Ziegler, Jørgen Haslev, vla; Niels Erik Clausen, Lueyna Lange, cel; Jørn Jensen, pno; Lars Blach, gtr; Jens Sølund, bs; Hans Nymand, dm. / GORDON-WARREN: Serenade in Blue. G. & I. GERSHWIN: Our Love is Here to Stay. ELLINGTON-GORDON-MILLS: Prelude to a Kiss / same, but add Jesper Thilo, cl; Ole “Fessor” Lindgreen, tbn / ARNHEIM-TOBIAS-LEMARE: Sweet and Lovely. WASHINGTON-YOUNG: A Ghost of a Chance. ELLINGTON-CARRUTHERS-MILLS: Black Butterfly. SWAN: When Your Lover Has Gone / same, but Torben Munk, gtr replaces Blach.

Storyville SVL1088621

Wild Bill in Copenhagen

WILD BILL DAVISON IN COPENHAGEN / SHAPIRO-CAMPBELL-CONOLLY: If I Had You. CONN-KRUEGER-MILLER: Sunday. DUKE-GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started. CARMICHAEL-GORRELL: Georgia on My Mind. BURKE-VAN HEUSEN: But Beautiful. Here’s That Rainy Day. DAVISON: B-Flat Blues. ARMSTRONG: Someday You’ll Be Sorry. CLARKE-AKST: Am I Blue? RODGERS-HART: You Took Advantage of Me. WASHINGTON-YOUNG: Ghost of a Chance. REYNOLDS-DOUGHERTY: I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You). ARLEN-MERCER: Everything Happens to Me. BLAKE-RAZAF: Memories of You. WALLER-RAZAF: Blue Turning Grey Over You. McHUGH-FIELDS: Exactly Like You / Wild Bill Davison, tpt/cnt; Torben Munk, gtr; Jesper Thilo, cl/t-sax; Per Carsten, a-sax; Steen Vig, Uffe Karskov, t-sax; Flemming Madsen, bar-sax; Niels Jorgen Steen, pno; Ove Rex, dm / Storyville 1018523 (Recorded in Copenhagen, February 6-13, 1974)

Perhaps no other trumpeter of the “Jazz Age” had quite as long and as interesting a career as Wild Bill Davison. Born in Defiance, Ohio in 1906, he was there in the late 1920s, alongside of Louis, Bix, Muggsy, Jabbo, Max, Bubber Miley, Red Nichols and all those other cats, but whereas they all became famous (some after their untimely deaths), Davison just meandered along, trying to survive in the Depression, until Eddie Condon hired him to join his band at Nick’s in Greenwich Village in late 1943. Suddenly, people stood up and took notice of this highly original and unorthodox trumpeter who blew out of the side of his mouth, blasting distorted and buzzing notes, lip vibrato and growls. And believe it or not, he kept it up into his 80s!

These sessions, made in Denmark when Davison was still a spring chicken of 66-72, show him still very much at the top of his game. The small band of Danish musicians are certainly all fine enough, particularly the saxophone soloists who try their best to follow Wild Bill, but there’s no question that he dominates this session like a colossus.

And it wasn’t just the blasting, buzzes and growls that made him so good. It was also the quality of his improvisations. Even when he used notes economically, as he does on many of these tunes, his note choices were always original and startling. No, he never really updated his style to incorporate bop or modern jazz, but he didn’t have to. Take his solo on I Can’t Get Started  from the In Copenhagen album, for instance. Not even Armstrong would play this tune except once, as a tribute to Bunny Berigan, and he supposedly “played the hell out of it,” but Davison is unfazed. He just tears into it in his own inimitable manner, and by the time Torben Munk enters playing a very nice but also rather polite guitar solo you’re well aware that Davison is dominating this session like a lion making a sudden appearance among a herd of gazelles. He was just that good and that different.

For a graphic example of what I mean about his dominance, just look at this wav file of this tune. Note how Davison’s overblown, powerful trumpet notes stand out like railroad spikes in an otherwise placid (in the middle, when he wasn’t playing) sound wave. You just have to take my word that nearly every track on this album looks like this:

Davison I Can't Get Started

But I’m getting ahead of myself, in part because I’m just such a big Davison fan. We start off with Bill in a surprising swing set with the band of trombonist Arne “Papa” Bue Jensen, which has great soloists despite a somewhat staid rhythm section. But Wild Bill could make any band swing, and he does so here, though he is the seventh soloist up in Christopher Columbus, coming after a particularly great clarinet solo by Jorgen Svare, nice barrelhouse piano by Jørn Jensen and the trombone of Papa Bue himself. This performance of Baby Won’t You Please Come Home is much mellower than the tone Davison played in the 1940s on his Commodore recording, but his lip vibrato, growls and rasps are as vital as ever. And if you think that was good, wait ‘til you hear Wild Bill driving the Danes on Runnin’ Wild. They can barely keep up with his energy! The liner notes describe Davison in the 1970s thus:

Davison was a sensitive ruffian who drank like an entire band, could be gruff and violent, tender and touching, generous or stingy. But ever since he had been put under administration by his fifth and last wife, Ann Stewart, the number of female acquaintances had diminished and his consumption of booze had dwindled to a trickle. Nevertheless, when it came to procuring alcohol, WBD had a number of evasive methods.

All the film clips I’ve seen of him interacting and playing with Danish musicians show a charming, funny guy who yes, could come across as brash in Danish society but who was also a really nice, kind, good-humored man…exactly what you’d think of him from listening to his recordings. Just think of him as a white, trumpet-playing Fats Waller. Same personality, different era. The first CD on the multi-disc set also gives us a glimpse of Davison as singer, particularly good on Save It, Pretty Mama but also stylish on A Cottage for Sale. Eddie Condon used to refer to him as “Wild Pitch Davison,” but this was obviously just a joke. No matter how volcanic Davison’s playing got, he was almost never off-pitch. The man had a tuning fork in his head. The best description I can come up with of his playing is barrelhouse trumpet with great ideas and perfect control of all his effects. As trombonist Ole “Fessor” Lindgreen put it,

I’ve played with many of the choice Americans, but I have to say I was always impressed by the punch there was in Wild Bill. No matter whether he was playing for forty people or four hundred, there was an enormous amount of power. If the concert was being recorded, or if there was a PA system, the sound people always thought there was something wrong with the equipment – that’s how strong he played. The fact that later in the evening he drank himself stinking drunk didn’t matter so much… Like all American musicians, he was very direct. And more serious with his music than you’d think, behind that smash-bang-pow façade. He practiced all the time. He said: “I have the kind of chops that, if I don’t practice one day, it’s okay. Two days, problems. Three days, serious shit.”

One New Year’s Eve, trumpeter Keith Smith started behaving badly, so much so that Papa Bue had to fire him and send him home. “Don’t worry, I’ll take the job,” said Bill, who sat in and played as if he had always been with them. He wasn’t a fast reader, though he was score-literate, but he had very quick ears. Even secondary figures in band arrangements didn’t escape him. One of his proudest moments came in a concert he gave with Clark Terry, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Louis Armstrong. During a break, Armstrong took Davison aside and said, “I’m so glad you continue to pursue this music, and you’ve never taken anything from me.” On Oh, Lady Be Good, Davison engages in a chase chorus with a guest trumpeter, Ole Stolle. Stolle is prodded to play at his absolute best, but Davison still tops him.

The session with Ole “Fessor” Lindgreen’s band, and various reductions thereof, really swings. Here is a rhythm section that needs no apologies. Steen Vig’s soprano sax on I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me, taken at a surprisingly blistering tempo, has the same drive and fast vibrato as that of his own idol, Sidney Bechet, which spurs Davison on to a really hot solo. Davison and Vig also engage in a slower but equally hot dialogue, a cappella at the outset, in Just a Closer Walk With Thee before the tempo doubles and the rest of the band falls in. Much of this CD, however—seven tracks, in fact—is duplicated on the single CD, Wild Bill Davison in Copenhagen, reviewed separately. The live 1952 set with Eddie Condon’s band, taken from broadcasts, came a a surprise to me since it has nothing to do with his Danish experience, but of course any Wild Bill is welcome to hear.

A surprise in this set is CD 3, comprised of live broadcasts from Condon’s emporium in New York City in 1952. The band is a hot one, including Edmond Hall in addition to Davison and a really swinging rhythm section. Here is Davison in his element, pushing his fellow “Nicksielanders” through a program of old blues and standards, and a good time is had by all.

The Wild Bill-with-string session was an idea of Storyville Records’ producer Walther Klæbel. With so many outstanding jazz musicians having gone down that road and coming out of it sounding as if they’d been buried by Mantovani, it could have gone badly but somehow didn’t. As Davison put it, “The conductor, Ole Kurt Jensen, is an extremely conscientious young musician himself and we had the best scores with players who work with the Danish Radio Symphony or from the pit of the Royal Theatre. And contrary to the sessions back in New York, where there was always a distance between the strings and the soloist – why, here it became a one-big-happy-family style of things. We all played music!” Well, until he flubbed a note near the end of one number and immediately asked for a re-take. Sorry, they said, time for a break. “Fuck all strings!,” Davison bellowed. But the session came out great, with plenty of heart in it, and for the most part the arrangements are more creative and even swinging at times, a far cry from what many other jazz musicians (like Clifford Brown and Coleman Hawkins) were saddled with in this country. Check out, in particular, the swinging charts on Sugar, Serenade in Blue and Our Love is Here to Stay, but even the ballad A Ghost of a Chance has a nice beat to it, and in all of them Davison is fully relaxed and completely himself, no compromises in his improvisations.

As for the single CD that came out in 2008, Wild Bill Davison in Copenhagen, six tracks are duplicated from the 4-CD set already reviewed. One might ask, “What about I Can’t Get Started?,’ but the version on the boxed set is a different, shorter take, not quite as interesting as the six-minute version presented on the single disc. It’s all good stuff, though, and well worth hearing. Even with state-of-the-art stereo recording, Davison almost continually blasts the microphones with his buzzes and growls. Of the accompanying band, the saxophonists and guitarists are the most interesting soloists besides Wild Bill himself.

Three of the songs on this album, But Beautiful, You Took Advantage of Me and Memories of You, have surprisingly rich background arrangements for the reeds, playing like a section in a big band, which gives you a small idea of how Davison might have sounded in such an environment. Regardless of his accompaniment, however, he remained steadfastly gritty in his approach. Wild Bill was Wild Bill, regardless of surroundings. In the latter’s second chorus of his solo he lets out an upward glissando rip that probably took the roof off the studio. Throughout the session, Davison’s powerful tone and buzzing distortions dominate. And even in well-known songs like Ghost of a Chance and Am I Blue?, his improvisations were so inventive, right from the first note, that you might not even recognize them unless you looked at the titles first.

The boxed set also includes a bonus DVD of Davison playing with the Condon band in the early 1960s, but I couldn’t play it from the downloads I received.  All in all, a splendid tribute to a true original, one of the few “trad-jazz” musicians I really admire and respect. Davison was one of a kind!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Zeller’s “Vogelhändler” Sparkles in New Recording

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ZELLER: Der Vogelhändler / Elena Puszta, soprano (Electress Marie); Dagmar Schellenberger, soprano (Baroness Adelaide); Bernhard Bechtold, tenor (Adam, a bird seller); Rupert Bergmann, bass-baritone (Baron Weps); Maximilian Mayer, tenor (Count Stanislaus); Wolfgang Dosch, tenor (Professor Süffle); Gerhart Ernst, baritone (Professor Würmchen); Martina Fender, soprano (Postmistress Christel); Raimund Stangl, tenor (Mayor Schneck); Mörbisch Festival Orchestra & Chorus; Gerrit Preißnitz, conductor / Oehms Classics OC-461

I’ve never been much of an operetta fan. Can’t stomach Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus or most of the Franz Lehar things except for The Merry Widow, but I’ve always had a soft spot for two gems from the late 19th century, Carl Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent and Carl Zeller’s Der Vogelhändler, for no other reason but that the music is so much fun to listen to. There was an old (early 1960s) EMI recording of Vogelhändler with Renate Holm, Adolf Dallapozza, Anneliese Rothenberger, Walter Berry and Gerhard Unger, conducted by veteran operetta maestro Willi Boskovsky, but I haven’t heard it in years and honestly don’t recall it.

This one most definitely sparkles from first note to last, and in operettas, sparkle is what you want. More importantly, all the lead singers have fine voices, and that, too, is what you want. This is especially crucial in the four major roles, Adam (the bird seller of the title), Christel (his girl friend), Baron Weps, and Electress Marie. As for the plot, it is typically silly fare. The Elector Prince wants to hunt for a wild boar and receive a “ceremonial maiden,” male chauvinist pig that he is, but the Bergermeister can’t provide him with either. A waitress suggests the postmistress Christel as the latter because her boyfriend Adam is too poor to move into the community and marry her. Christel tells Adam that she is planning to petition the court to find him a job in the town so he can afford the wedding. Being a proud Tyrolean male, Adam doesn’t want his bride-to-be to be the one to find him a job, so he offers Baron Weps a beautiful yellow bird as a bribe to help him.

Meanwhile, Electress-Princess Marie arrives in disguise, hoping to catch the Elector in flagrante with the ceremonial maiden by posing as the maiden herself. Christel ends up in the pavilion with Count Stanislaus, thinking him the Elector. Adam arrives to find the Hunt Master and the Burgomeister informing him that Christel is the ceremonial maiden, and is therefore not in the crowd. Marie, hoping to save Adam from embarrassment, offers him the bouquet of roses which she has brought in case her plan to become the ceremonial maiden works out. Adam, thinking of his own Tyrolen behavior code, somehow thinks himself to have been promised to Marie and Christel to have been promised to the Elector. He thus publicly breaks off his engagement to Christel. Somehow all this confusion gets worked out in brilliant, attractive arias and ensembles, all of which are presented here minus the spoken dialogue (which non-Germans couldn’t care less about anyway).

For the most part, Zeller’s music is flat-out amazing, showing everyone just how many good tunes could be written in 3/4 time…the tempo taken for most of the operetta, except for the few (like the finale) written in a fast-paced, bouncy 4. Adam’s aria, “Wie mein Ahnl zwanzig Jahre,” is probably the most famous set-piece in the operetta, having been recorded in days of yore by such famous tenors as Richard Tauber, Marcel Wittrisch and Nicolai Gedda. Naturally, all of these had much better voices per se than the usual tenors cast as Adam, but Bernhard Bechtold is up to the task, not only stylish but able to manage the difficult soft high notes with ease. The one thing I missed, which both Tauber and Wittrisch had in their recordings, was the mechanical bird in the background. I mean, gee whiz, as long as you’re going to spend this much money on a new recording, ya couldn’t afford a mechanical bird to twitter in the background of Adam’s aria? Cheapskates! But as I say, everyone is into their roles, they have good voices, and boy oh boy does conductor Prießnitz whip up the chorus and orchestra. A good time is had by all.

If you enjoy this operetta as much as I do, this is a sure-fire recording.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Ahonen Plays Affectionate Ives

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IVES: Violin Sonata No. 4, “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting.”1 Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860” 2 / Joonas Ahonen, pianist; Pekka Kuusisto, 1violinist/2violist; 2Sharon Bezaly, flautist / Bis 2249

The tendency of modern classical musicians to soften nearly all classical music from the past, to take the “edge” off pieces that were intended to have it, continues apace with this otherwise fine set of performances. Joonas Ahonen is an outstanding pianist, and does not play the “Concord” Sonata in a cool or dispassionate manner; far from it, he brings the forte passages to vivid life. But in between those passages he emphasizes lyricism and elegance. He clearly wants to impress the work’s structure on you. And, to a certain extent, he succeeds.

In some respects, this is a very fine performance for nowadays. Ahonen really does let himself go in the louder passages, and in some moments—particularly the hymn tune that arises at about 5:35 in the second movement—he brings out an almost wistful, nostalgic quality that surely is not out of place in this music, followed almost immediately by the clangorous and eventually atonal march tune. Moreover, Ahonen has an excellent sense of rhythm, which allows him to play the ragtime passage in that same second movement (around the 7:30 mark) with considerable élan and “swing,” and for that I applaud him. I’m sure that this recording will please a great many Ives fanciers who are put off by the wild and woolly 1960s recording by John Kirkpatrick (which I reviewed here), which almost sounds like a frontal assault on the keyboard, with little concession to such niceties as phrasing or elegance. But then again, that is exactly how Ives himself played this music if we are to believe the few surviving recordings of him performing excerpts from it, and this includes the “Alcotts” movement which he performed complete. Ives and Kirkpatrick sound craggy, even a bit rough, whereas Ahonen is clearly leaning on the nostalgia of the piece. I was also quite pleased to hear that the pianist used both the optional viola in the first movement and flute in the last, which creates an eerie feeling, particularly in the way these instruments are miked, which is in a very distant perspective. This almost gives them the feeling of “ghost instruments.”

As for the fourth Violin Sonata that opens the record, it is played in a lively fashion that again brings out its rhythmic liveliness without emphasizing the work’s edginess. My gold standard in the Ives violin sonatas is the old recording by violinist Gregory Fulkerson and pianist Robert Shannon on Bridge 9024, but in the context of this simpler sonata, written by Ives for his 12-year-old nephew, this is a good performance.

The collector, then, will undoubtedly want to consider this new recording as it is one of the very rare versions to include both the viola and flute passages, but others may prefer, as I do, Donna Coleman’s outstanding recording on Etcetera 1079, a somewhat livelier version that at least includes the flute in the last movement. And every Ives fancier will undoubtedly want to explore one of Kirkpatrick’s recordings, either the original 1945 performance or the stereo remake from the 1960s.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Guitarist Rez Abbasi’s “Unfiltered Universe” a Gem!

Unfiltered Universe Album Cover

UNFILTERED UNIVERSE / ABBASI: Propensity. Unfiltered Universe. Thoughts. Thin-King. Turn of Events. Disagree to Agree. Dance Number / Invocation: Rez Abbasi, gtr; Rudresh Mahanthappa, a-sax; Vijay Iyer, pno; Elizabeth Mikhael, cellist; Johannes Weidenmueller, bs; Dan Weiss, dm / Whirlwind Recordings, no number

It’s not often nowadays that “all-star bands” live up to their hype, but when you have a band that includes three such prominent, powerhouse improvisers as guitarist Rez Abbasi, pianist Vijay Iyer (see my extended comments on his work in From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, Chapter XVI, pp. 438-442) and alto saxist Rudresh Mahanthappa (of Bird Calls fame), it’s difficult to describe it as anything but.

Abbasi’s band Invocation has been working in the field of Eastern music-influenced jazz since 2008, and this is their third album in that style. For those of us with a view of musical history it can be compared to the performances of Don Ellis’ Hindustani Jazz Sextet of the 1960s, which is where the late trumpeter learned to swing in unusual meters, or the large body of work produced over the years by Lebanese musician Rabih Abou-Khalil.

Abbasi’s first album of Eastern music drew from North Indian Hindustani music and his second, Suno Suno, was built around the Qawwali music of Abbasi’s native Pakistan. This album, due out October 6, draws on the Carnatic music of South India which came to Abbasi via his saxist, Rudresh Mahanthappa. Perhaps not too oddly, considering Mahanthappa’s great interest in American jazz, the opening number, Propensity, sounds much closer in musical style to our own jazz with the exception of the complex and irregular rhythm. This already marks a strong departure from the approach and aesthetics of Ellis’ old group, which took Hindustani rhythms and harmonies and threw the American musicians into the mix. This is almost as if Abbasi and Mahanthappa had decided to throw Middle Eastern musicians, and sensibilities, into an essentially American context. Abbasi says in the liner notes that he “trusted the intuitive process to the degree that I did not feel the need to assert specific established ideas into the mix, per se, but rather relied on the ‘nature’ of of my experiences.”

Rez Abbasi band

L to R: Iyer, pno; Mikhael, cello; Abbasi, gtr; Weidenmueller, bs; Mahanthappa, a-sax; Weiss, dm

It also doesn’t hurt that Abbasi, unlike most of his American counterparts, is a powerhouse jazz guitarist who plays with the drive and power of late Django Reinhardt, Charlie Byrd and others who followed in their footsteps. No shrinking violet is he, but a musician who is not afraid to play his solos with power and emotion. Indeed, the one musician in the group who retreats from the sound barrier when he plays is Iyer, which isn’t at all surprising considering his classical background. His solos are remarkably interesting, combining elements of Monk and Bill Evans (two of his early heroes), but they are cooler than the saxist or guitarist. Iyer is particularly effective on the title track, where the voltage is reduced somewhat. Abbasi and Mahanthappa play an interesting yet quirky long-lined melody in unison which then leads into Iyer playing interesting figures while the guitar-sax duo is joined by Elizabeth Mikhael on cello playing a sort of ground bass behind them. Since the Hindustani Jazz Sextet left very few recordings, mostly from live performances, it’s difficult to say what their “book” was really like, but judging from Abbasi’s pieces on this CD the music here consists of real compositions. Much more has been written out and preplanned, using South Indian rhythms with American harmonies. Iyer’s solo is remarkable, a single-note excursion that cuts through the complex harmony and rhythms with ease. His fecund imagination never ceases to amaze me; nothing he plays is trite or derivative, yet it always sounds as if he had the entire solo mapped out in his head before he even got through the first three bars. Following this, Mahanthappa ramps up the tempo in double time with a long string of repeated octave flutters.

The tune titled Rez Intro sounds as if was played backwards on a tape player…maybe it was! Thin-King is a medium-tempo romp for the band, and even Iyer plays here with a higher level of energy to match the intensity of the others. Johannes Weidenmueller contributes a nice bass solo as well. There’s a really nice tricky passage in the coda to wrap things up.

Turn of Events, the longest track on the album at nearly 12 minutes, starts with slow, out-of-tempo musings from the various musicians, mostly guitar and alto sax while piano, bass, cello and drums drop notes in here and there as filler. Eventually it develops into a really lovely tune, essentially in A minor, out of which development occurs with the naturalness of a flower’s petals opening up. Every note played by each band member contributes to the whole, and even the individual solos seems specifically tailored to the surrounding structure. Indeed, the quality of the music is so high that picking apart individual moments here seems counter-productive. Iyer’s solo contains some echoes of Lennie Tristano, which isn’t a bad thing. This leads into some delicate pluckings, and eventually a pizzicato solo, from cellist Mikhael, after which Iyer plays the piano with one hand while damping the strings inside the piano with the other. This is followed by a guitar-saxophone passage which is a variation on the original theme, again sounding preplanned, with nice ground bass bowing from Mikhael. Then, it just stops dead!

Disagree to Agree begins slowly, and here the rhythmic complexity seems particularly dense, especially in the introduction and opening chorus. By 1:50 we’ve suddenly entered a hard bop mode despite the extended bar lines. Iyer contributes another superb single-note solo. By the time Mahanthappa enters for his hard-driving solo, both the tempo and the intensity of the music have been ramped up a couple of notches. What a wonderful player he is! Abbasi plays with equal intensity, taking care to control his instrument’s sound superbly. Then comes another one of those apparently written-out guitar-alto passages, this time turning into the ride-out.

The album concludes with Dance Number, a loping, relaxed piece at medium tempo that almost sounds informal yet shows signs of careful writing and thematic balance. In this one the band seems to be staying in one chord or mode much of the time; there is less harmonic movement as the soloists take their turns, adding interest in the context of their individual choruses rather than in the basic structure. Some of Mahanthappa’s figures reminded me of belly-dance music although for the most part he is playing some very complex double-time passages that go “outside” fairly often. The volume drops for Iyer’s solo, the eye in the midst of this musical hurricane, although towards the end of it he increases the volume as Mahanthappa plays soft long notes behind him. Abbasi and the saxist then ride us off into the sunset.

Unfiltered Universe is an unqualified success for Rez Abbasi, easily one of the most spectacular albums so far this year.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Ketil Hvoslef’s Unusual Chamber Music

Hvoslef No 1Hvoslef No 11

VOL. I / HVOSLEF: Erkejubel. Duo due. Frammenti di Roma. Scheherazade forteller videre. Canis Lagopus / Hvoslef Chamber Music Project: Gary Peterson, Britt Pernille Lindvik, trumpeters; John-Arild Suther, Kjell Erik Husom, trombonists; Ricardo Odriozola, Māra Šmiukše, violinists; Ilze Klava, violist; John Ehde, cellist; Peter Palotai, bassist; Steinar Hannevold, oboist; Christian Stene, clarinetist; Per Hannevold, bassoonist; Marija Kadovič, harpist; Einar Røttingen, synthesizer; Alexander Ulriksen, percussionist / Lawo 1066

VOL. II / HVOSLEF: Duodu / Ricardo Odriozola, violinist; Ilze Klava, violist / Ludium. Flute Octet / Moa Bromander, Sofya Dudayeva, Cecilia Lind, Rebecca Lambrecht, Ingrid Neset, Knut Magnus Bøen, Luana Gundersen, flautists; add Rebecca Lambrecht, flautist on Octet / Dano Tiore / Hilde Haraldsen Sveen, soprano; Odriozola, violinist; Klava, violist; John Ehde, cellist; Hans Knut Sveen, harpsichordist / Accordion Duo / Jostein Stalheim, Kai Hanse, accordionists / Quartetto Percussivo / Torleif Torgersen, Einar Røttingen, pianists; Manuel Hofstätter, Peter Kates, percussionist / Lawo 1081

Unable to download or stream the album I wanted to review, which was Vol. 5 of this series, I turned instead to the above two discs and was glad I did, because they gave me a unique window into the mind of this strange but wonderful composer.

If you’ve previously heard of Ketil Hvoslef (1939 – ), you’re one up on me. Reading the liner notes for Vol. 1, it seems he had an unusual background to say the least. The son of composer Harald Sæverud and Marie Hvoslef, he originally wanted to become a painter but was arrested by the police for sketching a prominent office building in downtown Ljubjana. This apparently led him to music, which he entered as a rock & roll musician, forming Bergen’s first rock band, The Mixmaster. He studied at the Bergen Art Academy where he met and married Inger Flatebø. Thety were still both Sæveruds back then. When their first child was born in 1962, Ketil realized he had to get a real job and not just knock around as a painter or rock star, so he became an organist, studying at the Music Conservatoire. After graduation, however, he couldn’t find a job and so knocked around as a gardener until Gunnar Sævig, the conservatoire’s director, hired him as a music theory teacher.

He obtained some studies in Stockholm and London, wrote his first classical piece in 1964, but did not decide to become a full-time composer until 1979. That was when he decided to change his last name to his mother’s maiden name because he didn’t want people confusing him with his father. According to the liner notes, from which I’ve gleaned all of the above information, he “has worked assiduously at his music, receiving a fairly continuous stream of commissions, never exerting any apparent effort to make himself noticed. The comparatively few times he has been in the media have always been in connection with a specific project. On such occasions, he has always kept the necessary distance, aided by his refined sense of humor, making it apparent that he is interested in the work and does not wish any undue attention directed towards his person.” In short, he’s an eccentric hermit.

Interestingly, the first piece on the first album of his chamber music, Erkejubel, shows him much more strongly influenced by jazz than by rock music. Hvoslef uses a repetitive rhythm to propel the piece, but although his harmony is also a bit static he does not repeat the same melodic cells over and over again as the minimalists do. Rather, there is a continual shift and change, moving from staccato eighth notes to a B theme in half notes, moving back and forth between them for the development section. A strange passage around the three-minute mark is played by muted trumpets, followed by what sounds like bongo drums and open trumpets, while an electric piano plays a repeated single-note motif against this. Sustained organ notes come and go throughout the piece as well. Duo due, which follows, begins with a dramatic, double-time string figure, after which a cello drone is set up against edgy figures in the upper strings. Again there is an insistent rhythm, but here it’s different from Erkejubel. slower and less jazzy in scope. The liner notes describe his style as “the accumulation of latent energy, rhythmical ingenuity and, often, an element of humor.” I would go so far as to say that varied but insistent rhythmic patterns lie at the heart of everything Hvoslef writes, just as they did with Beethoven. The only real difference is that Beethoven was able to overlay his rhythmic devices with extraordinarily long and complex melodic lines and development, whereas Hvoslef is far more economical in his gestures. In Duo due, for instance, he is content to explore a narrow path of development in the violin figures, with each phrase and gesture tied to the rhythm. Beethoven always kept his rhythm going but allowed the top line far more freedom and latitude in its explorations. In other words, Beethoven used his rhythmic energy to propel the music into complex realms whereas Hvosloef ties the music to his rhythms. What keeps one’s interest up are the remarkable variations he makes in his rhythm and the unexpected directions they take.

The Frammenti di Roma, written for winds, begins much more lyrically than the previous two pieces, but by the second segment or fragment he is up to his old rhythmic tricks, overlaying the oboe and clarinet on the bassoon in opposing rhythms which continues even into the slow segment, No. 3. In Fragment No. 5, Hvoslef can no longer contain himself and returns to staccato rhythms played against one another for a whole 58 seconds, followed by a more lyrical and jazzier episode in 40 seconds! It amazes one to hear how varied he can make this technique sound, resistant to repetition or banality, even as he shifts gears in tempo and phrasing.

In Scheherazade forteller videre, Hvoslof has fun sending up Rimsky-Korsakov’s sappy music from over a century ago, deconstructing it and replacing its goopy Romantic tune with edgy rhythmic cells, played only by a violinist and a harpist. The former almost sounds as if they’re playing Hungarian gypsy music, and Hvoslef is able to maintain this musical balancing act for more than 17 minutes. Here, his music does not become more rhythmically complex but, rather, exponentially simpler, eventually reducing it to basic notes that somehow keep returning to Rimsky’s mundane Scheherazade theme. Eventually the violinist explodes into quadruple-time figures, sounding a bit like a country music fiddler, while the harpist ruminates around the edges.

Canis Lagopus begins with what sounds like a snare drum beat in strict military time, but turns out to be someone tapping their bow to their cello. The viola explodes in a sudden outburst of sound as the cello goes to bowing his instrument and woodblocks suddenly appear in the background. Exploding snare and tom-toms are payed against insinuously rising string glissandi, then string tremolos, followed by edgy bowing in the upper strings and pizzicato in the lower as the percussion comes and goes. This is really crazy stuff! A single plucked violin or viola is heard against sustained cellos and basses, then the snare drum returns in earnest. Eventually the tom-toms take over, creating complex patterns while the strings ruminate around them.

In Vol. 2 Duodo begins, again, with edgy violin figures, different from but related to those of Duo due. Interestingly, here Hvoslef finds a fairly nice, conventional melody for the viola while the violins play choppy figures with the edge of their bows. Hvoslef is able to play around with this idea or set of ideas for nine and a half minutes by shifting the beats, moving them around to different instruments within the ensemble, and both reducing and varying the melodic tune.

The rather brief (1:51) Ludium presents us with flutes playing a lovely melodic sequence (it almost sounds Rimsky-ish, once again) over alto flutes. By contrast, the Flute Octet runs 11 minutes, begins with a dramatic flourish like the opening of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, then playing serrated figures by half the flutes over sustained notes by the other half. Once again Hvoslef toys with our expectations of how the rhythmic shifts will go, moving the stress beats around from measure to measure to suit himself. At around the seven-minute mark, he smooshes the flutes together into a weird tone cluster before separating them and moving on to other and different rhythms. Later on the upper flutes scream in protest to the repetitive rhythm set up by the lower ones, and keep on screaming to the end like the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In Dano tiore, Hvoslef mixes a soprano voice in with the strings, reminding one of the many such pieces that Luciano Berio wrote for Cathy Berberian. Hvoslof plays no favorites towards the singer, however, forcing her to jump around her range like a jack-in-the-box. She thus becomes another instrument in the ensemble, standing out only because she gets the most solo space. It helps a great deal that the soprano soloist, Hilde Haraldsen Sveen, has a clear, pure voice with no wobble, a range of close to three octaves, and impeccable diction. Around the 10:45 mark the singer is performing the rhythmic patterns while the strings become more lyrical, then they switch again, followed by a passage in which both voice and strings are performing rhythmic patterns against the harpsichord.

As someone reared in a family that was mostly Polish, and forced me to be their performing monkey playing polkas on the accordion, I cringe every time I hear the instrument, even in the hands of a jazz master like George Shearing or Art van Damme. Nonetheless, Hvoslof plays no favorites and thus attacks the accordion the same way he attacks strings, winds and voices. It’s almost comical to hear accordions play his music, however, kind of like hearing Hawaiian guitars playing Stravinsky. Or something like that.

And like accordion duos, those independent record producers who supply me with review material know that I have zero tolerance for percussion ensembles. I don’t just dislike them, I really hate listening to them, thus I almost skipped the Quartetto Percussivo entirely. I’m glad I didn’t, because Hvoslof uses the percussion in a wholly unique way, and the “percussion” includes two pianos, so it’s not just four guys banging around on whatever they happen to have at hand. Hvoslof sets up a moto perpetuo between the two keyboards, who play joyous if atonal figures nonstop while the two drummers have a field day accompanying them. Eventually a xylophone enters the picture, playing apposite figures against the pianos, followed by a quirky, galumphing rhythm set up by the remaining percussionist. In a way, this piece almost sounds like Ballet Mécanique Jr., alluding to the classic George Antheil piece of the early 1920s. The pianos quiet down to playing isolated single notes while one of the percussionists wails away at woodblocks. A chime is heard, then choppy, rising thirds on the pianos that come and go. We return to the running piano figures and dramatic percussion, once again channeling Antheil, before the volume is reduced to low piano bass notes with triangle while the other pianist softly plucks notes on their instrument. And that’s just the first eight minutes!

Hvoslof has fun playing with rhythm and texture throughout the remaining 11 minutes of this Quartetto, once again enticing the listener and then undermining his or her expectations. By the 11-minute mark, the percussion is really getting into its highly syncopated figures, sounding almost like Gene Krupa on Sing, Sing, Sing. Then we get really quiet, with undulating soft tympani, equally soft, intermittent piano figures, and triangle. This cat-and-mouse game continues through to the end.

If you have a tolerance for musical adventure, discovering the music of Ketil Hvoslof will be a real joy for you. Highly recommended.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Satoko Fujii & Wadada Leo Smith Weave Their Magic

kamij_4P-2D-B_127-127-6_AI10 [更新済み]

ASPIRATIONS / FUJII: Intent. Floating. Aspiration. Evolution. SMITH-TAMURA-FUJII-MORI: Liberation. TAMURA: Stillness / Wadada Leo Smith, Natsuki Tamura, tpt; Satoko Fujii, pno; Ikue Mori, electronics / Libra Records 204-043

Despite the fact that this is the first time these musicians have worked together as a band, Wadada Leo Smith and Ikue Mori had performed together before and thus had a certain kinship and style to bring to this new project by the Japanese-American pianist. This is music-making on a very high level; one might almost say, too high a level for the majority of jazz lovers to grasp; but it’s exactly the kind of album I love the most, not just because it’s edgy and contemporary but because these musicians are masters and know exactly what they’re doing.

I’ve praised Smith twice earlier on this blog and will do so again, every chance that I get. He is surely the greatest “master of space and time,” as they used to say of Leon Russell, active today. His artistry is marked by his wisdom in choosing exactly the right notes at the right time for maximum effect, yet his musical constructions are so logical and developed so brilliantly that they could almost have been written out by a master composer. Fujii’s pianism is both adventurous and elegant; almost lyrical in contrast to the trumpeters’ pungent upper-range playing. This creates a stylistic contrast which works because all of the musicians involved are thinking ahead in a logical way, which makes everything they contribute a valuable part of the whole.

My only regret was that, since their playing mirrored each other so perfectly, I couldn’t always tell when it was Smith playing and when it was Tamura. Yes, I felt that the more adventurous excursions were by Smith and the more lyrical ones by Tamura, but was that a fair assessment? When in the presence of a genius like Smith, everyone’s game is raised a bit. You either rise to his level or fall by the wayside, and this was not a quartet that was willing to give an inch. Just listen, for instance, to Fujii’s ruminating, rumbling piano towards the end of Liberation, a piece for which all four musicians receive co-composer credits. In addition, Tamura has been described by critic Mark Keresman as having “some of the stark, melancholy lyricism of Miles, the bristling rage of late ’60s Freddie Hubbard and a dollop of the extended techniques of Wadada Leo Smith and Lester Bowie.” Thus we have a meeting of peers and possibly equals.

As a free-form jazz album, of course, an exact musical description of each piece is virtually impossible unless one were to sit and analyze every note and each bar, but there is more tonality here than, say, in the music of Ornette Coleman or late-period George Russell. Yet tonality does not equate to banality because there is a great deal of risk-taking going on here. There’s a particularly lovely moment at about the 7:30 mark in Floating where the two trumpeters complement each other in long-held notes, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in unison and sometimes in clashing tonality. I wondered, however, if their chorus in thirds was thought out ahead of time or not. I can’t really imagine that they would suddenly jump into a passage like that without at least some premeditation.

Satoko_Fujii_photoThe title track begins with an extended piano solo by Fujii, showing her as a pianist of considerable charm as well as depth of feeling and imagination. If I say little about electronics player Mori it is because I don’t like electronic music and so would prefer leaving others to discuss what she does here. I personally find her noises obtrusive, but you are free to enjoy her more than I. There only appears to be one trumpeter on Aspiration. Is it Smith or Tamura? Hard to tell, but the playing is outstanding in any case.

Evolution begins with Mori producing what strikes me as very tight and difficult flatulence on her electronics for nearly two minutes. Happily, when the band enters they are playing a lovely tune in F major, following which Mori takes us into outer space for a while. Eventually Fujii enters on piano, playing light bitonal figures, eventually joined by one of the trumpets playing muted. There is a lot of “space” in this piece, making it sound as if it did indeed evolve, and slowly at that.

On the finale, Stillness, Mori produces some really intriguing if somewhat bubbly sounds that put me in mind of an out-of-kilter Theremin. A trumpet (Smith?) plays soft, plaintive notes in and around this for a while, followed by Fujii noodling softly on the keyboard. The trumpets enter one at a time; by this point in the CD, I think I recognized Tamura first and Smith second. Towards the end, it sounds as if Mori is trashing the recording studio.

All in all, a fascinating session displaying the interplay between Fujii and the two trumpeters. Well worth hearing for that!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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