Delfeayo Marsalis’ First Live Album A Relaxed Affair

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KALAMAZOO (AN EVENING WITH DELFEAYO MARSALIS) / ROPPOLO-POLLACK-STITZEL: Tin Roof Blues. PRÉVERT-KOSMA-MERCER: Autumn Leaves. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine. RAPOSO-HART-STONE: Sesame Street Theme. LOESSER: If I Were a Bell. D. MARSALIS: The Secret Love Affair. ELLINGTON-MILLS: It Don’t Mean a Thing. D. MARSALIS-DIAZ: Kalamazoo.* ALTER-DeLANGE: Do You Know What it Means (to Miss New Orleans?) / Delfeayo Marsalis, tb; Ellis Marsalis Jr., pn; Reginald Veal, bs; Ralph Peterson, dm; *Christian O’Neill Diaz, voc / Troubador Jass Records 713869572501

Delfeayo Marsalis, like his sax-playing brother Branford, once played and recorded modern jazz, but now it appears that his band—now a quartet including his father Ellis on piano—is more attuned to playing mostly retro tunes from the 1920s and ‘30s like his trumpet-playing brother Wynton. Whatever the motivation, however, the resultant music is relaxed, much of it falling into a very nice groove, what jazz musicians like to call a “coochy” feeling. This is Delfeayo’s first live album, recorded on tour while promoting their The Last Southern Gentleman CD.

As a trombonist and improviser, Delfeayo falls somewhere in the Lawrence Brown-Dicky Wells style. He has impeccable technical control of his instrument, and thus is able to play anything he chooses to without fear that his chops will fail him. In the opener, Tin Roof Blues, he even plays a string of rapid lipped notes à la J.J. Johnson, not an easy feat (I seriously doubt that many classical trombonists could do it) while maintaining that nice, burry tone that only jazz trombonists seem able to produce. His brother’s piano solo is pleasant but, to my ears, not on the same high level of creativity, but bassist Reginald Veal makes up for this with a sensational bass solo, using the slow tempo as a means of spacing out his notes with great taste.

Despite the fact that Autumn Leaves is generally played at a medium-slow tempo, Marsalis tears into it at a surprisingly fast clip, and his opening solo contains elements of swing, blues, and even bop trombone. More importantly, his solo is a cohesive piece of music and “tells a story,” as jazz critics once said a half-century ago. Ellis is rather more animated here on the keyboard, playing in a nice groove and finding some nice licks, though he does toss in a quote from Yes Sir, That’s My Baby. After a nice drum solo by Ralph Peterson, Marsalis returns, but although he plays well here it’s not quite as stunning as that opening solo.

Although Delfeayo does a nice job on My Funny Valentine, somehow the performance falls a bit flat. Sometimes you just don’t mess with tunes that legendary jazz musicians made their own, although to be honest I’m not sure that either Ellis or Delfeayo thought that much about Chet Baker when performing this. It just happened to not come out great. On the other hand, their creative reworking of the Sesame Street Theme as a blues is both fun and very creative. I don’t know why, but while listening to it my mind flashed on the late Vince Guaraldi…it’s exactly the kind of thing he would have done, and had a ball with. Ellis plays a typically sparse solo, with Peterson contributing some nice backbeats on the snare and cymbals. Delfeayo gives us some growls in his solo, apparently using both a straight mute and a plunger, which stays within a fairly narrow emotional and note range but makes a nice impression.

If I Were a Bell belongs primarily to Ellis on piano, playing very nice swing style, followed by bassist Veal doing an incredible Slam Stewart imitation, singing along with his bowed bass. The Secret Love Affair is an original by Delfeayo with a Latin beat, played very nicely. Ellis throws in a quote from Summertime at the beginning of his laid-back solo, but it is Delfeayo’s second solo that is the real gem in this performance.

Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing, the first “cover” of which was made by the Boswell Sisters and Bunny Berigan in 1932, receives a laid-back, medium-tempo performance from the band. Ellis seems intent on tossing in quotes from other tunes, including Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Yes Sir That’s My Baby, Blue Skies and Swing on a Star, but the audience, clapping in time to the rhythm, seems to be enjoying it immensely. By contrast with his father, Delfeayo is wholly original in his solo, finding new avenues to explore in Duke’s classic tune. Peterson’s drum solo is a bit flashy but has a nice dance-like flow and logic about it (put me in mind a bit of Baby Laurence).

The next track is an introduction to Kalamazoo, a spontaneously improvised blues tune that has nothing whatever to do with the Mack Gordon-Harry Warren classic from 1942. Guest vocalist Christian O’Neill Diaz has the scat solo. It’s a nice piece, if not a particularly great one.

The closer is Louis Armstrong’s 1946 hit, Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?, played as an almost wistful, slow ballad. Delfeayo’s tone is at its warmest here, very close to the way Lawrence Brown sounded, and after the theme statement his solo is wonderfully original, full of little surprises. In his second solo, Delfeayo again pulls out the plunger mute, this time giving us a bit of the ol’ wa-wa style of the 1920s and ‘30s.

All in all, a warm, relaxed evening of music, played with quite a bit of affection by the quartet.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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George Crumb’s Vol. 18 Fantastic Music!

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CRUMB: The Yellow Moon of Andaluza (Spanish Songbook III). Yesteryear / Tony Arnold, sop; Marcantonio Barone, pn; add David Nelson, William Kerrigan, perc on 2nd work / Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik / Marcantonio Barone, on / Celestial Mechanics / Quattro Mani ; Bernie Brink, third pn/ Bridge 9476

Fifty-four years after he startled the music world with his Night Music I and 47 years after his surprise success with Ancient Voices of Children, George Crumb is still active and inventive. This CD encompasses works composed between 1979 (Celestial Mechanics) and 2012 (Spanish Songbook III), although this performance of the former contains a new ending that he also wrote in 2012. On this album he is fortunate to have as performers the immensely gifted soprano Tony Arnold, for whom he wrote Yesteryear (2005, revised 2013) as well as the superb pianist Marcantonio Barone, whose playing with violinist Barbara Govatos created the most exciting modern recording of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas, and the equally skilled piano duo Quattro Mani, whose work I’ve had occasion to praise in the past.

As it turns out, The Yellow Moon of Andaluza, subtitled Spanish Songbook III, has a remarkably lyrical vocal line, reminiscent to my mind of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Tom O’Bedlam except not so aggressive in certain passages. Arnold’s voice, though exceptionally lovely and with both outstanding diction and flawless technical control (listen to her sing those coloratura runs!), is not particularly powerful, thus this was a good idea. As usual with Crumb, the pianist is required to really “play the piano” and not just the keyboard: plucked strings, bangs on the frame, using a wood block on the metal crossbeam and some sort of whining probably created by teasing the inner strings with the fingers, all contribute to the overall effect. At one point Arnold is asked to whisper the lyrics while Barone plays those soft, whining strings. Crumb’s music always sounds to me as if it descended from outer space, but that is not a criticism. It’s so soundly constructed that despite the sound effects you can follow every phrase perfectly; it’s just “out there” in a way that other composers simply aren’t.

Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik, literal translation A Little Midnight Music, is that rarity, a classical piece based on a jazz classic that isn’t jazz-inflected rhythmically. Here the basis of Crumb’s piece is Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight (so for all of you jazz people out there who think that no classical musicians appreciate Monk because of his splayed-fingers playing technique, you’re wrong…his songs are musical classics in their own right), and Crumb plays with the theme as Beethoven did with Diabelli’s cornball little waltz, only much more intricately and with modern harmonies. The pianist scurries up and down the upper range with the right hand, creating strange arabesques of sound while the left hand thrown in occasional crushed chords. Among the highlights of this piece are the “nightmarish distortions” of the theme in the fifth piece (“Incantation”) and a deliberate parody of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk in the sixth. This is surely one of Crumb’s most imaginative pieces, and I applaud him for having the courage to write a serious piece based on one of jazz’s finest composers. In the last-named, Crumb not only includes Debussy’s quotation of the opening notes of Tristan und Isolde but also throws in the opening of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel! Crumb comes closest to jazz in the next segment, titled “Blues in the Night,” which Barone plays with an excellent feel for jazz rhythm. A “Cadenza With Tolling Bells” follows, in which the pianist shouts out each “stroke of midnight” in Italian, then finally “Midnight Transformation” in which Monk’s tune returns in its fuller form (it is played virtually complete, without variation, in the opening section in the piano’s high range), with the music floating dreamily and ethereally into the night with soft knocks on the piano frame. What a great piece!

Next is one of Crumb’s better-known pieces (it’s difficult to say that anything George Crumb writes is “popular,” other than Ancient Voices which sold nearly a half-million copies), Celestial Mechanics, played here by the very gifted piano duo Quattro Mani (Steven Beck and Susan Grace) with Bernie Brink chipping in as third pianist in two passages. This is much more rhythmic that most of Crumb’s music, creating in fact an almost moto perpetuo in the opening piece, “Alpha Centauri.” Interestingly, Quattro Mani almost sounds as if they’re swinging it a little in one spot. Indeed, they also sound rather jazzy in the plucked piece that follows, “Beta Cygni.” I wonder if this duo has had some jazz-playing experience? In any case, Quattro Mani sounds as if they’ve having fun playing the music, and this enthusiasm carries over to the listener. This is even true in those passages where they are asked to drum on the low piano strings, followed by harpsichord-like plectra effects. The 2012 revision of the work concerns only the last passage of the final piece, “Delta Orionis,” where Crumb switched from a highly ornate, intricate piece to a “Bell piece processional” that is “transfigured, slow, mysterious,” and this is what we hear on this recording. The liner notes say he was inspired by the final pages of the last movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata, Op. 111, and I like that. I’ve always felt this was one of Beethoven’s greatest and most cosmic inspirations. Crumb may not have had this in mind, but it also echoes the final section of Holst’s “Neptune, the Mystic” from The Planets.

The CD closes out with the 11-minute Yesteryear, A Vocalise for Mezzo-Soprano, Amplified Piano and Percussion, sung to perfection by Arnold. It absolutely amazed me how she was able to maintain a perfectly rounded tone in all ranges as she wove her way through the score, even in those sections that called for sotto voce chromatics or microtonal effects. This is Golden-Age singing in a completely modern piece that sounds centered around E-flat minor. At one point the rhythm almost sounds “jungle-like” in the way that many of those popular “exotica” pieces of the 1950s were. Crumb creates some remarkable sounds with his percussionists, who in turn play bass drum, Chinese gong, woodblocks, spring coil drums, bowed flexitone, Indian ankle bells, wind chimes, crotales and Japanese temple bells! The composer describes it as a piece in which “the singer is vainly searching for her lost youth and beauty and laments their inevitable erosion by the relentless passage of time,” but in a sense Arnold’s incredibly beautiful voice negates this as it retains its beauty throughout.

The two vocal works and the final section of Celestial Mechanics receive their world premiere recordings on this disc. This is must-get for Crumb fanciers, as well as for devotees of Tony Arnold.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Isserlis Plays Music of WWI

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THE CELLO IN WARTIME / DEBUSSY: Cello Sonata. BRIDGE: Cello Sonata. FAURÉ: Cello Sonata No. 1. WEBERN: Drei Kleine Stücke. SAINT-SAËNS: Carnival of the Animals: The Swan.* PARRY: Jerusalem.* NOVELLO: Keep the Home Fires Burning.* TRADITIONAL: God Save the King* / Steven Isserlis, cello/*trench cello; Connie Shih, pn / Bis SACD 2312

This is one of those odd “concept” albums record companies seem to come up with in alarming numbers nowadays, trying to re-sell older repertoire to people who already have recordings of it in their collection. As you can tell from the album cover and title above, the gimmick here is to give an impression of how the war affected several composers while also trying to recreate the playing of a British soldier on a “trench cello,” somewhat smaller, rectangularly shaped and able to fit into a box resembling a little coffin. What on earth these things have to do with one another rather escapes me. It seems to me like two or three “concepts” forced together into one CD.

The saving grace of this album, however, is British cellist Steven Isserlis, clearly one of the greatest players of his instrument now living. I’ve been a fan of his since the early years of this century, when I first heard him on the old “St. Paul Sunday” radio show. I fell in love with both his playing and that of American cellist Zuill Bailey, and they remain favorites of mine today.

Isserlis is at his arresting best in most of this recital, starting out with one of the great masterpieces for his instrument, the Debussy sonata, which he plays very well. I also applaud him for including the Cello Sonata of Frank Bridge, one of my favorite composers of this era and one that I almost feel transcended “being British,” if you know what I mean. His music was just so fresh, so modern and so cosmopolitan that he always seemed to be outside the norm of his time and place, just as it’s difficult to think of Szymanowski as being “Polish” or Igor Markevitch as being “Russian.” Their music just “was,” and it was interesting. Here Bridge is rather more lyrical and less harmonically astringent than he later became, especially in the first movement. It’s sort of like listening to Scriabin’s early piano sonatas with their strong debt to Chopin. You can hear glimpses of where the composer was going, but he hadn’t quite arrived there yet. Still, Isserlis plays this music with such energy and evident love that the listener is swept up in the process. Pianist Connie Shih has a wonderful technique and a good style, and she complements Isserlis splendidly, although I miss a little more warmth in the piano tone. There’s a late-Romantic feel in the first movement particularly, whereas the second has a bleaker, more melancholy bent to it. Moreover, his use of harmony here is more interesting and less predictable; the whole mood of the piece is wistful, as if Bridge were thinking of someone he had lost or remembering a place he could no longer return to. The notes tell us that Bridge, a lifelong pacifist, was devastated by the horrors of the war, and would “pace the streets of London in the middle of the night; it was apparently during those nocturnal wanderings that the ideas for this movement, which took several years to complete, started to take shape.” It is, as the booklet puts it, fantasy that develops into phantasmagoria.

Clearly, Isserlis’ interpretation of Fauré’s Cello Sonata of 1917 is one of his finest achievements on disc. He takes a bold, fresh approach to the music, clearing away what some music critics have heard as “complicated” and making sense of the whole thing. Perhaps it is due to his stylistic approach, taking the music in hand as a continual spinning-out of ideas and playing it with only small rubato touches here and there. This, along with pianist Shih’s clear-eyed, almost bracing performance of the accompaniment, pulls the disparate and sometimes conflicting motifs of the music together, clarifying its structure and making it sound surprisingly modern for the work of a 72-year-old composer who didn’t quite get or appreciate the shifting harmonies of his impressionist brethren. This is particularly true of the second movement, which in the hands of other cellists can sometimes sound quite sentimental and soggy. The last movement, too, which starts out rather lyrically, has a nice sweep to it that makes the melodic line sound a bit more objective. I played this whole sonata twice, listening carefully and finding different nuances each time I heard it. It’s quite an achievement, clearly one of the highlights of this set.

We then leave France and Romantically-infused music to jump feet first into the 12-tone music of Anton Webern. Interestingly, just as Isserlis played the music of Fauré with rather more objective style than usual, he plays these brief but fascinating pieces by Webern with a warm tone and rich vibrato, which brings out considerably more emotion in them than is usually found. I can’t recall ever hearing anything by Webern played with this much warmth and feeling; it almost feels as if the composer had written these pieces with Isserlis in mind.

I was thus a bit surprised to hear him play the well-worn Swan of Saint-Saëns in a slow, moody manner. This is the first of four selections that Isserlis plays on the trench cello, introduced to him by Charles Beare. Isserlis states that he “fell in love with its shy, soft tone” and played it in public a few times. His choice of material played on it here was dictated by what he imagined its original owner, Harold Triggs, might have played on it in those days. Listening carefully, one hears what might be described as a “break” in the tone between registers, as a singer displays. I’m not sure what might cause this as I am not an expert at playing the cello, but it is audible. It’s a strange but charming end to the recital.

All in all, a really lovely disc, but then again, I would have expected nothing less from Isserlis.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Villa-Lobos’ First Two Symphonies Released

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VILLA-LOBOS: Symphony No. 1, “O Imprevisto.” Symphony No. 2, “Ascensão” / São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Isaac Karabtchevsky, conductor / Naxos 8.573829

This disc is the last of six issued by Naxos of the symphonies of Villa-Lobos, but ironically it is the first I have heard. These are very early works, the first dating from 1916 and the second from 1917, though he revised the latter in 1944. The opening of the first symphony in particular is surprisingly Romantic for those who know him for his more astringent Cantos, Bachianas Brasilieras and string quartets of his later years, but the music shows glimpses of the composer to come. Even in the first movement of the first symphony, which starts out very tonal and lush in orchestration. we soon get oddly moving bass lines, displaced rhythms and out-of-center tonality as the music slowly but surely veers away from its harmonic base and goes into uncharted territory. The second and third movements, highly inventive, veer even further away from strict classical form, bringing with them some elements that one later heard in the Bachianas Brasilieras.

Since this is my first exposure to the conducting style of Karabtchevsky, who has garnered praise for his previous releases in this series from the Gramophone, I’d like to make some comment on his conducting style. He is very good in emphasizing the rhythmic flow of the music, feeling the pulse quite well, though his concept of orchestral sound tends to be on the side of warmth and homogeneity rather than a sharp profile in which some of the more remarkable inner voicings of the music would be more noticeable. Mind you, this is not so much a criticism as an objective description of what is achieved here, and in saying this I’m not entirely sure that what you hear on the record may not be as much, or more, influenced by the microphone placement of engineer Ulrich Schneider. Nowadays, it often seems to me that a soft, lush sound in orchestral recordings is what average listeners like to hear in classical music. We’ve come down a very different path than that which existed in the time of Toscanini, Reiner, Munch, Leibowitz, Rosbaud, Steinberg, Szell and even Bernstein, sloppy and emotionally overwrought as he often was.

Nonetheless, Karabtchevsky is clearly “into” this music and understands both its traditional and radical elements very well. By all reports, Villa-Lobos was a very instinctive composer. He wrote what he liked the way he liked it; first thoughts were usually his preference, with some revision in some works coming later. The last movement of the first symphony is a good case in point; it sounds like music of spontaneous composition, with niceties of detail given more to the orchestration than to the music itself. The multiple themes abut each other but although they are complementary they stand out as separate episodes within the movement. Pounding tympani behind forceful brass and winds provide the finale of this movement, and the symphony.

The second symphony is a bit of an enigma. How much of it was actually written in 1917 and how much comes from the 1944 revision? The opening certainly sounds more modern in feel than the beginning of the first symphony, and Villa-Lobos uses a continuing sequence of ascending figures as part of his theme (the liner notes say that he was following the principles of his teacher, Vincent d’Indy). Yet the development section is more conventional and less off-the-cuff, although Villa-Lobos does reiterate themes and some of the later development is more formal. The second movement, a scherzo, pits playful double-time winds (flutes and clarinets) against a more lyrical theme played by brass and strings. Eventually the atmosphere changes, we get a triplet motif and then a lyrical theme with the triplets underneath as the movement heads towards its conclusion.

The slow movement is darker than that in the first symphony, in fact almost sinister in places, though Villa-Lobos also alternates lyrical themes here. This yin-yang pull of moods continues through the movement; in later passages he even combines these two moods, giving us lyrical music in the top line with moody, melancholy chords underneath it. The ascending motifs continue in this movement, and eventually it ends quite serenely. The final “Allegro,” on the other hand, is a more discursive piece, the music being presented more or less in an alternation of pensive and bitter-sounding music. Eventually the tempo slows down, the music becomes more conventionally Romantic, and the mood turns to melancholy. It almost sounds as if the symphony will to end softly, but then suddenly the allegro tempo returns and we get a very energetic bass line played by the cellos pushing the music forward. Pounding tympani pushes the edgy-sounding strings towards an explosive climax.

This is obviously the music of a young man (aged 29-30) trying to find his way through symphonic form while trying to maintain his own personal voice. By and large, it’s a compromise, but there are some very remarkable passages and excellent moments. You decide if you want to get this one!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Lalo Schifrin Flashes His Classical Side

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SCHIFRIN: Mission: Impossible Main Theme. Tango: Main Theme. Pampas. Jazz Piano Sonata. Danza de los Montes. Theme and 10 Variations on an Original Theme. Tango à Borges. La Calle y la Luna. Lullaby for Jack / Mirian Conti, pn / Grand Piano GP776

Back in the mid-1960s, we Americans first heard of Lalo Schifrin as the composer of the Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts for jazz musician Paul Horn, but he didn’t really break through in a big way until the hit TV show Mission: Impossible came around. That’s when all of America got to know at least this one piece of music by the Argentinian pianist-composer.

But pianist Mirian Conti, who is also Argentinian, was an avid fan of Schifrin’s classical works. She had premiered his Piano Concerto No. 2, “The Americas” in Los Angeles with Schifrin conducting, and now wanted to make a complete CD of his solo piano music. She called him on the phone and asked, Do you have enough pieces to fill out a full disc? Schifrin’s answer was, “Not too much, but I could write some.” Thus this CD was born. Every work here, including the piano version of the first piece, are premiere recordings except the Lullaby for Jack.

We start out with two themes Schifrin wrote for visual media, the Mission: Impossible theme and the main theme from the film Tango. He has added some interesting keyboard fills and counterpoint to the first, which still has its fascination after all these years, and the second, which runs over six minutes, is in my estimation a better piece that most of Astor Piazzolla’s tangos. That is because the counterpoint is more interesting and complex. Pampas is a wholly original work “reflecting the flatlands in Argentina.” It is a bit ruminative by nature, but an effective mood piece.

Schifrin and Conti at his studio

Schifrin and Conti at his studio, 2016

Then there is the Jazz Sonata, originally written in 1963 (a couple of years before he broke through with the Jazz Suite) but revised for Conti in 2016. Schifrin told her, “When passages feel too fast, just relax the performance. My suggestion is that you listen to Donna Lee by Charlie Parker. It is based on the harmonies of Indiana. He plays it very fast, but that would be a good idea for you to get the feeling of a natural interpretation even though he plays it prestissimo.” Conti herself makes a very strong and important (to my mind) statement regarding Schifrin’s accomplishment here: “George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Gunther Schuller all tried to make excursions into the jazz idiom but they didn’t fully understand how to approach it because they were not jazz musicians. On the other hand, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane were experts. This is the foundation of the Jazz Sonata.”

The music is rather denser in chording and less flashy in the right hand than the many jazz-based sonatas of Nikolai Kapustin. Schifrin evidently appreciated pianists who played with a more chorded style; Conti also suggests that his use of harmonies here reflect his studies with Olivier Messiaen, and I agree. The music is largely tonal and accessible but not melodic in a conventional way. The odd and slightly irregular beat drives the music from the left hand like a steamroller. But more importantly, Conti has a good feel for the rhythm of this music. She’s not stiff or ungainly in playing it, as so many very fine classical pianists would be. And I do get the feeling that in some passages she relaxed the performance just a bit to allow the music more breathing room. The frequent progression of dense, two-handed chords, particularly in the first movement, sometimes impedes swinging—this is not easy music to play by any means!—but for the most part Conti has a good feel for the music. The second movement, an “Andante,” has the least jazz content, sounding to my ears almost strictly classical in both form and rhythm, but Schifrin ‘s remarkable ear also includes some single-note passages in the right hand that double the tempo and are played as a series of triplets against the steady beat in the left. Later on in the movement, said triplets are slowed down from eighths to quarter notes.

The last movement almost sounds like a Latin-jazz-classical fusion. A strong series of single notes in the left hand dominate, and they fluctuate subtly in rhythmic placement as the movement progresses. The upper line here is a bit more melodic than the rest of the sonata, but not really a tune that one could hum or remember upon the work’s conclusion. There are rumbling arpeggios in the left-hand part, too, as well as choppy right-hand chords played against a “walking bass.” This is truly extraordinary music!

In a way, I felt that the Danza de los Montes was nearly as good in its own way: vigorous and continually inventive, one could play this piece in a recital without revealing the composer’s name and everyone would want to know who wrote it. That’s how good it is. Likewise, the Theme and 10 Variations on an Original Theme is a strictly classical piece on a par with similar works by Bach and Beethoven. Indeed, I felt very strongly that Schifrin was channeling his inner Bach here, although the first variant (“Andantino”) was clearly based on the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and the sixth is subtitled “Jazz Meets Chopin.” This work is almost a term paper mapping out Schifrin’s musical mind and influences; he is so easily conversant in each of them that for him the term “crossover” is almost meaningless. He just “thinks” in terms of music, all music, and what he produces is so fluent in all styles that it just blends without the feeling of pretentiousness. This is music that you instinctively like, even if you’re an amateur listener without any knowledge, without questioning why you like it.

The Tango a Borges once again contains more counterpoint, harmonic complexity and rhythmic variation than any of Piazzolla’s pieces. At one point Schifrin has the left hand play a running bass line while the right pours out a stream of notes; then he reverts to his favored “chunky” style of two-handed chords, followed by a free fantasia section. Later we get an almost boogie-woogie tango for the rideout. Fascinating, excellent music, almost beyond description! By contrast, La Calle y la luna is a more relaxed and less dense piece, yet still retaining a strong sense of coherence in its structure, no matter how ruminative the performance becomes. It sounds like the kind of piece that the composer simply made up at the piano while improvising, very similar to the piano album that jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus made back in the 1960s.

The Lullaby for Jack, written for Schifrin’s infant grandson, is a lovely piece with a nice melodic line. Typical of Schifrin, however, it is not an uninteresting piece. There are some very nice passages where he plays with both tempo and time, subtly shifting the length of the notes played in the right hand against the steadier beat in the left.

This CD, due out in mid-November, is a must-have for anyone interested in jazz-classical fusion in general or Lalo Schifrin in particular. It’s an ear-opener.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Eric Wyatt Looks to the Sky in New Release

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LOOK TO THE SKY / B. GONZALEZ: E-Brother. Starting Point. WYATT: Look to the Sky-Sister Carol. Jolley Charlie.+ A Psalm for Phennie. RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: My Favorite Things.* HANCOCK: One Finger Snap.+ SANTAMARIA: Afro Blue.+ GROSS: Tenderly / Eric Wyatt, t-sax/a-sax/s-sax/*voc; Keyon Harrold, tpt; Benito Gonzalez, pn; Eric Wheeler, bs; Shinnosuke Takahashi, +Kyle Pool, dm; *Andrea Miller, voc / Whaling City Sound WCS104

The notes for this release state that this album is a reflection of Eric Wyatt’s life. His father, Charles Jolley Wyatt, was himself a tenor saxophonist and a friend of Sonny Rollins who, early in Eric’s career, dubbed him “The Godson of Sonny Rollins.” He introduced his son not only to Rollins’ playing but also that of Charlie Parker. A family friend, Arthur Rhames, introduced Eric to the music of John Coltrane, and ever since he has felt that he is “wearing two hats,” with one foot in Newk (Rollins) and one in Trane. Both his father and Rhames died in 1989.

The album starts out with E-Brother, one of two tunes by pianist Benito Gonzalez. This is a funky jazz piece with a bit of an Afro-Latin beat to it, and Wyatt’s first entrance is impressive. He seems to be channeling Trane here, but Trane in his earlier, more swinging days. Keyon Harrold takes a fine trumpet solo, then it’s Gonzalez’ turn, and he plays some very pretty fast figures before the whole band returns for the ride-out. On Look to the Sky-Sister Carol, which starts out as a 6/8 jazz waltz, Wyatt switches to alto, but politely defers to Harrold as the first soloist up. Harrold plays relatively sparsely, using the relaxation of his improv to rhythmically launch his trumpet. He does not have a big tone but is a very good and imaginative improviser. Then Wyatt enters, and he completely changes the sonic landscape, playing alto with the kind of “flat” tone associated with both Rollins and Coltrane (but not with Bird). Gonzales’ solo is right up there with Wyatt’s, exploring the changes with dazzling runs and fills in the first chorus, a bit sparser in the second. Then, surprise surprise, Wyatt returns but this time on soprano, and in the ride-out both he and Harrold are quite busy interacting with and complementing each other. This is wonderful jazz!

Considering his admitted debt to Trane, it stands to reason that Wyatt would throw in a cover of his classic My Favorite Things. He is flying high in the extended intro before we hear the familiar tune, and if I may inject a personal observation, he does a great Trane imitation. Let’s face it, Trane worked this song so long and so thoroughly that doing a cover version can only be a good tribute (which it is) and not a new vision of it. Gonzalez, however, is quite good here, and Wyatt and Andrea Miller surprisingly sing the lyrics, something neither Trane nor one of his bandmates ever did.

Wyatt shows us his remarkably fine Rollins side in the tribute to his father, Jolley Charlie. This is a straightahead swinger, with bassist Wheeler and drummer Kyle Pool feeding him beautifully. Interestingly, when Gonzalez comes in the rest of the band falls away, leaving him to play a cappella, and he sustains the rhythm and tempo perfectly through a series of double-time runs, feeding himself chords with the left hand à la Bud Powell. This solo becomes quite well developed and convoluted as it goes along, becoming a separate composition in itself. A drum roll press beings the rhythm section to attention behind him. Upon Wyatt’s return, he surprisingly plays only a few bars, letting Gonzalez continue to dominate the proceedings. I think that he, too, appreciated what the pianist did here. A little corny lick from the saxist, evoking laughter from me, ends it.

A Psalm for Phennie is a tribute to his mother, a fairly slowish, serious melody built around a B-flat minor drone (with chord changes in the middle section). All three soloists (Wyatt, Harrold and Gonzalez) are a bit more pensive in this one, although the latter returns to his rapid-triplet form later on in his turn. Herbie Hancock’s One Finger Snap moves at a rapid bop pace, the band fleetly skimming through the tune with Pool again replacing Takahashi on drums. Wyatt plays both tenor (the opening statement) and soprano (the solo) here, and following his first soprano solo Harrold is just wonderful in the way he pushes through the tune. Gonzalez has a short say, then Wyatt returns, playing quite blistering piano. Pool’s drum solo is well paced and interesting.

Hugo Santamaria’s Afro Blue comes next, another fairly uptempo hard bop classic, played to the hilt by Wyatt (on tenor) and the band. Starting Point also cooks pretty hard, with everyone quite hot in their solo turns, but particularly Wheeler on bass.

The album wraps up with Tenderly, played on tenor by Wyatt, and though he does his best to keep within the parameters of a ballad it’s evident that he, like other jazz saxists, has a hard time staying in that mode without going double-time to liven things up. Nonetheless, it’s a nice finish to an excellent album.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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A Clutch of Modern String Music from Munich

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MUSIC FOR STRINGS / RIHM: Quartettstudie / Quatuor Ébène / J.M. STAUD: Towards a Brighter Hue / Korbinian Altenberger, vln / SHCHEDRIN: Lyrische Szenen für Streichquartett / Apollon Musagète Quartett / SAWER: Parthenope für viola solo / Antoine Tamestit, vla / TÜÜR: Lost Prayers, String Quartet no. 2 / Armida Quartet / SALONEN: knock, breathe, shine / Tristan Cornut, cello / N. BRASS: etchings for String Quartet / Quartet Amabile / BR Klassik 900715

This is an interesting album in that it is a release on a major label that follows the pattern of many “vanity classical” labels, where the artist or the composer pays for the recording of their work and a compilation CD is quickly assembled and released. Of course there’s nothing wrong with such an arrangement, and many a fine composer, from Gernot Wolfgang to John Carollo, has benefited from such arrangements. The question, however, when one approaches such as CD is, how good are all the other composers presented therein?

In this case we have three well-known names presented here: Wolfgang Rihm, Rodion Shchedrin (his name spelled Germanically here as Schtschedrin) and Esa-Pekka Salonen, although I’m sure the latter is better known as a conductor than as a composer. What I found interesting about this release is that all of the works presented here are for solo string instruments (three of them) or string quartet (four of them), yet each of the latter uses an entirely different quartet!

The liner notes explain the genesis of this CD, which is the annual International Music Competition of the ARD in Munich. In addition to numerous pieces that can be selected from the old-timey stuff, at least one modern work has been compulsory since 2002. The rules stipulate that it must be between 8 and 12 minutes long, “and so demanding from a technical and musical point of view that it pulls the diverse abilities of a participant to the test.” To what end they do this I’m not sure, since having a great technique is not a guarantee of musical sensitivity. In addition, there are so many solo string players, duos, trios and quartets out there all butting heads and vying for gigs that many of them end up in orchestras anyway, where they play the Standard Repertoire 90% of the time, but those are the rules.

Rihm’s Quartettstudie was written during the period when he was composing his 11th, 12thand 13th string quartets. The music is incredibly dense but also tremendously energetic and exciting; there are moments of tonality, but even these use quite edgy underlying chord positions. The rhythmic episodes, which drive the quartet in mood, break off and collapse into the lyrical episodes. The Quatuor Ébène plays it with a bright, edgy tone and tremendous drive. The technical complexity of some of the more violent passages are evidently what pleased the sadistic judges of this competition. Happily, it’s also an interesting, quality piece of music.

Johannes Maria Staud’s Towards a Brighter Hue was composed during the summer and early fall of 2004. Interestingly, it sounds remarkably similar in shape, contour and mood to Rihm’s quartet. I wonder if they know each other, or if Staud at least looked at Rihm’s score? It uses the same pattern of alternating edgy, atonal loud passages with quiet, reflective and more tonal interludes. Violinist Korbinian Altenberger clearly has the chops to play it, but also a musical sensibility that makes the music come alive.

By comparison to these first two pieces, Shchedrin’s Lyric Scene for String Quartet has far more legato in it and a melodic line that one can follow with one’s ear if not exactly hum. In short, it is closer in style to the quartets of Shostakovich or Weinberg. I felt this was clearly one of the finest pieces on the CD, and one that may be destined for more actual concert performances than the first two, by nature of its greater appeal and accessibility. The Apollon Musagète Quartett, apparently named after Stravinsky’s work, gives their all and turns out a fine performance. I was particularly impressed by the change of mood at the five-minute mark, when the quartet suddenly starts playing loud, edgy downbow figures that continue to drive the music in the ensuing sections. But then again, I’ve always been fond of Shchedrin as a composer, even way back in the day when he was writing music for his wife, ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. His sense of structure is never very far from the surface, and one can mentally picture the way he develops his themes.

Much to his credit, David Sawer is very much his own man in his Parthenope for Viola Solo, writing lyrical, tonal passages overlaid on modern ones that sound modal but not atonal. The angular movement of his top line becomes a sort of mantra for this piece, suggesting itself to the listener even in those moments when it is not actually present. An edgier pizzicato passage emerges at the four-minute mark, during which the soloist is required to play short bowed figures intermittently. These then become the dominant motif, with the pizzicato tossed in for color. Throughout the piece, violist Antoine Tamestit maintains a bright rather than a dark timbre on his instrument, which helps buoy the music and keep it from sonding a bit too cello-ish. Even in the lower passages of this piece, Tamestit manages to keep his tone light and bright.

Next we get Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Lost Prayers for string quartet. The notes describe this music as “quite melodic;” I felt it was anything but. On the contrary, the few lyrical gestures are just that, gestures rather than clear, definable melodies. The overall impression I had of the music was of a seriesof disjointed gestures trying to make a whole statement but not quite succeeding. This is not to say that it isn’t an interesting piece, only that there isn’t much truth here in the advertising.

I did, however, really enjoy Salonen’s knock, breathe, shine for solo cello. I had to check my player to make sure this was what was playing, because it really sounded like at least two instruments throughout, so technically involved is it. Divided into three sections, the first is the hyper-active pizzicato just mentioned; the second, more lyrical but still unsettled tonally, exploits the performer’s emotional sensitivity, while the third is quite varied, using multiple stops. But the important thing is that the music is interesting and creative; it’s not just virtuoso technique for its own sake. Young Tristan Cornut plays with remarkable energy and flawless technique.

We end with Nikolaus Brass’s etchings for String Quartet. Here, the virtuosic meets a wild imagination; I was fascinated by the way in which Brass interwove the difficult technical passages into an interesting and rather wild piece.

One of the interesting aspects of this album is that these are all live performances given in the course of the International Music Competition described above. The years given range from 2004 (Rihm and Sawer) and 2016 (Brass), and this adds to the edge-of-your-seat excitement of them. Overall, then, a really fine disc of unusual works, superbly played and recorded.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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