Mahanthappa Returns With His Indo-Pak Coalition

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AGRIMA / MAHANTHAPPA: Alap. Snap. Showcase. Agrima. Can-Did. Revati. Rasikapriya. Take-Turns / Indo-Pak Coalition: Rudresh Mahanthappa, a-sax/electronics; Rez Abbasi, gt; Dan Weiss, dm/tabla / no label or number, available only as digital download or as double vinyl LP set at the artist’s website: http://rudreshm.com/

Although Rudresh Mahanthappa has been on the jazz scene for at least a decade, and won plaudits for his now-famous album Bird Calls, this is only the second release by his Indo-Pak Coalition band, the first having been issued in 2008.

Recently I reviewed an album by Canadian bassist-leader Søren Nissen, who attempted to fuse Indian music with jazz, commenting that such a combination is extremely difficult because the two music systems tend to be incompatible. I mentioned the old Hindustani Jazz Sextet as one of the few groups successful in that endeavor, largely because they had Indian musicians in the band. Mahanthappa, also being Indian, does a credible job here as well, although in his case the resultant music sounds more Indian and less American jazz although much of it is improvised. Some may feel this is a small issue to bring up, but to an extent I feel it’s an important difference. What makes it work is the fact that two of the group’s three members, Mahanthappa and guitarist Abbasi (whose recent CD I also raved about), are bona-fide jazz players who just happen to have an Indian heritage.

The difference comes in accent. Nissen “speaks” Indian rhythms with an American accent while Mahanthappa and Abbasi “speak” jazz rhythms with an Indian accent. Listen carefully to their playing, particularly in the breaks, and you’ll hear what I mean. Mahanthappa’s debt to Bird is well known and unashamedly admitted, and here’s the odd thing: if you go back and listen to Bird’s later (post-1949) recordings, you’ll hear him play rhythms that could easily be overlaid onto an Indian beat. Not that he was all that influenced by Eastern music, mind you, but he always tended to play the blues with an accent quite different from that of his peers. Just a thought.

The first piece on this disc, Alap, is a relatively brief guitar solo by Abbasi that acts like an introduction to the rest of the set. The trio really gets cooking in Snap, a nine-minute romp that, astonishingly, bears a resemblance to some of what the Hindustani Jazz Sextet did back in the early ‘60s. I doubt that Mahanthappa or Abbasi have even heard this group, but who knows? In any case, it is one of the most successful Indo-jazz fusions on the set.

By contrast, Showcase is a pure funky blues. Dan Weiss switches from table to drum kit, and just listen to Abbasi’s great guitar solo. So many modern jazz guitarists seem to want to play mostly in rapid-fire single notes, but Abbasi re-teaches us that playing chorded solos can be even richer and more rewarding to hear. (Get out your old Eddie Lang and Dick McDonough records to hear what I mean by that.) Towards the end, Abbasi and Weiss set up a nice repeated lick that Mahanthappa improvises over for the finale. On Agrima, Mahanthappa switches from alto sax to electronic keyboards, playing a pair of complementary double-time riffs (either one in each hand or pre-recorded to overlap one another) with Abbasi coming in with a third riff before moving into the tune proper. This one is an almost perfect fusion of Indian and jazz rhythm, although to my mind some of those riffs, built around Western modes rather than Indian scales or ragas, tended to sound somewhat Celtic to me. The second time Mahanthappa plays his wild, circular riffs, Weiss really cuts loose on the drums. There’s a storng allusion here in his beat to rock music, yet the continual invention of the two soloists above him (partilcarly Mahanthappa, who really gets into this one) holds the attention and makes one forget the nasty rock beat. Abbasi, on the other hand, shiftsgears here and simulates the playing of a rock guitarist. Oh well.

With Can-Did we’re back in India, and very firmly so. The tempo is relaxed and not so much swinging as swaying (hard to describe, but you’ll know that I mean when you hear it). Weiss is back on tabla and Abbasi has calibrated his electric guitar so that, at times, it almost sounds acoustic, the tone exceptionally clean. Mahanthappa plays relaxed lines and the harmony sounds basically Indian on this one, quite modal in its form. At the three-minute mark, however, Weiss switches to drums, they double the tempo, and suddenly we’re in an American jazz groove tempered by the Indian harmony. Mahanthappa is quite wild on this one, playing some “outside” alto while Abbasi remains calm, cool and collected. They go into a bit of free-form rhythm, with Weiss playing almost a quasi-march beat on the drums behind a repeated five-note riff which is then reduced to four notes.

Rasikapriya starts off in a fast tempo and cooks throughout. This sounds the closest in style to the Hindustani Jazz Sextet, rapid music played with an Indian beat and harmony, though the earlier group fractured the time even more radically than this. Mahanthappa and Abbasi go into a “reverb trance,” playing their instruments in an atmosphere of echo and tape-looping. Once they come out of their reverb, they play in a quite hard style. Abbasi again reverts to rock guitar. I guess younger jazz listeners really like this kind of thing, but I was opposed to Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew way back when and haven’t changed my mind much since.

Revati also begins in reverb-land, this time with Abbasi out front while Mahanthappa plays electronic keyboard way out back. A tape loop plays Abbasi’s phrases backwards. After a pause, Mahanthappa enters on alto sax, Weiss seems to be playing tabla and drums simultaneously, Abbasi fills in with chords, and we’re on our way down a strange journey. Then, suddenly, the tempo jumps up to an asymmetric rhythm for a few bars, with Weiss now firmly on drums, then we shift towards Indian tempo, the tabla returns, and so too does our journey. Mahanthappa is relaxed here if somewhat static in development; he seems intent on maintaining a mood more than pushing the music into new directions. Then suddenly, around 6:35, he jumps into some really wild, inventive improvisation, taking us in an entirely new direction. Abbasi returns to his clean, quasi-Nashville guitar sound, complementing Mahanthappa’s series of rhythmic riffs with outstanding soloing of his own. This is the kind of piece I love: it keeps shifting, morphing and building on itself, creating new motivic cells (as the classical cats are wont to say) as it goes along. Later, a rarity in this set, a tabla solo—but with some cymbal licks thrown in for color.

The closer, Take-Turns, begins with Mahanthappa madly playing little circular riffs up close to the microphone and then in the back, overdubbing himself. Then we apparently switch to a live feed, Mahanthappa plays a commanding lick and the band cooks mightily behind him, playing a strange and elusive rhythm that sounds at once static and propulsive. Abbasi’s solo is excellent, as is Mahanthappa’s, mostly over drums despite the strong Indian feel of the rhythm. The two soloists do indeed “take turns” in this one, to good effect. It’s an effective finish to a fine album.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Duo Perfetto Digs Kapustin’s Cello Music

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KAPUSTIN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Elegy. Nearly Waltz. Burlesque / Duo Perfetto: Clorinda Perfetto, pn; Robert Witt, cel / Brilliant Classics 95560

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since the turn of the 21st century, you must have run across the music of Nikolai Kapustin by now, and been bowled over by its strong affiliation to jazz. It has jazz swing and swagger, the solos feel improvised, yet as Kapustin himself has said, “the classical part is more important. The jazz style is there to give color – I don’t like jazz ‘forms’…which is why I’ve adopted those from classical music.” Indeed he has, but unless you’re a classical performer who also understands jazz your performances of Kapustin’s music are bound to be stiff and disappointing.

Enter Duo Perfetto, a young cello-piano pair (they’ve only been together for two years) who tackle Kapstin’s music like old hands. And good ones. Without slighting cellist Robert Witt, who catches the feel of the music extremely well, Kapustin’s sonatas—even those built around violins or cellos—must have a jazz-oriented pianist. Duke Ellington’s old maxim, “It Don’t Mean a Thing ifit Ain’t Got That Swing”—was never more meaningful than in the music of Kapustin or that of his younger, Swiss-born counterpart, Daniel Schnyder. This is particularly crucial not just in the fast movements, where a jazz pulse is a little easier to create and sustain, but also in the slow movements where the feel of the pulse is much trickier. Listen, for instance, to the second movement of the first sonata. Every so often, and not for long, one or the other of these gifted musicians lapse just a bit from a true jazz pulse, but by and large they are able to sustain it through the most complex and well-thought-out variations. Once in a while, Witt swings a little more loosely than Perfetto, or vice versa, but by and large they are able to pick each other up.

I make this point so strongly because, in the classical world, sticking to a strict pulse is more or less essential to the successful performance of most formal or classical music. This is the reason so many classical musicians fall flat when they try jazz. Remember that it took Yehudi Menuhin close to a decade of playing with Stéphane Grappelli before he was finally able to swing fairly well, and he had been playing the violin professionally since the age of 12. In addition, pianists in particular are more familiar (and comfortable) with the works of George Gershwin, which have a nice ragtime swagger but do not swing. Contrary to popular belief, Gershwin was not a jazz composer. He was a composer who, like Kapustin, took the rhythms of his day and inserted them into classical forms, and the predominant white culture of his time did not have a real jazz pulse. They didn’t swing, they clomped along.

But Kapustin swings and he expects his interpreters to do so. The last movement of the first sonata is a perfect example of what performers are up against. At about 2:50 into the movement, the cellist is required to play rapid bow-edge strokes against the pianist’s part. It’s very hard to do this and still be able to swing. Perfetto does a good job of helping Witt out, and he in turn pushes her towards a greater swagger with his playing. Towards the end of the movement, the tempo suddenly turns into an eight-to-the-bar that isn’t quite boogie woogie, but comes close. Again, a very difficult passage, and Duo Perfetto gets through it fairly well (although I think listening to a few Meade Lux Lewis or Pete Johnson records would help Ms. Perfetto get a little more into it).

By contrast with the first sonata, the second opens up with a relaxed, almost meandering movement in which the composer allows the performers to “catch” the swing without having to extend themselves too much, yet later on there’s a “walking bass” passage against the piano that could have been a bit more swinging. Clorinda and Bob, pull out those old Jimmy Blanton-Duke Ellington duet records and take a listen (particularly Pitter Panther Patter)! You come very close, but a little closer to jazz would have been ideal. Oddly, there’s a theme in here that sounds very similar to Rock-a-Bye Baby. The second movement, more lively than reflective, is built around pizzicato bass played against the piano part. In the last movement, built around a syncopated figure that catches both instruments up in its swirl, the duo acquits itself very well.

Elegy begins quietly but later on Kapustin indulges in his patented cross-rhythmic devices. Nearly Waltz shifts randomly between 5/3 and 3/4 in the opening before settling down to a regular waltz, and Burlesque grumbles its way along in a quasi-charming sort of way, with repeated syncopated figures in the piano part driving the cello to similar responses. This is very tricky music (see score excerpt below), and Duo Perfetto does a splendid job, particularly in catching the humorous outbursts in the latter piece.

Nearly Waltz 1

Nearly Waltz 2

Nearly Waltz 3

Nearly Waltz 4

This is a very fine CD, both of the music and for the performers.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Nick Maclean Quartet Breaks Through

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RITES OF ASCENSION / HANCOCK: Cantaloupe Island. Driftin’. One Finger Snap. Tell Me a Bedtime Story. MACLEAN: Temptation of the Crossroads: Blue vs. Brown. Goldberg Machine. Nation’s Unrest: A Tribal Conflict. Feral Serenity. Elasticity of Time and Space. One. B. ALI: Madness of Nero / Nick Maclean Quartet: Brownman Ali, tpt; Nick Maclean, pn; Jesse Dietschi, bs; Tyler Goertzen, dm / Browntasaurus NCC-1701K

Here’s a hot CD by a Canadian-based jazz group playing four pieces by Herbie Hancock mixed in with a plethora of original tunes by the leader and trumpeter Brownman Ali. Although Maclean is the nominal leader of this quartet, and drives the rhythm section brilliantly, I hear the band more as a collaborative and particularly as a showcase for trumpeter Brownman Ali, clearly one of the more arresting and individual players I’ve heard in a long time. He and Maclean are the first two soloists up on the opener, Cantaloupe Island, one of many “funky” tunes written by Hancock, and they bring it to vivid life. In addition to his great ideas, I was really impressed by Ali’s pure, round tone, reminiscent (to me, at least) of the late, great Fats Navarro. Maclean and the rhythm section fall into a nice groove on Driftin’, one of Hancock’s more attractive songs, while Ali hovers overhead with more great playing. Although Hancock was noted as a virtuoso pianist (he had solid classical training before moving into jazz), I seldom enjoyed his solos from a purely musical standpoint because, to my ears, they were musically static with little real invention, falling back on repeated licks and motifs. Maclean is, for me, far more interesting, taking a less complex, almost Dave Brubeck-like approach to his instrument. In the latter part of this tune they ramp up the tempo to double time and really cook as a unit.

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Next up is Hancock’s One Finger Snap, a fine bebop composition with the opening bars reminding me of Thelonious Monk. Maclean really swings his rear off here, playing a series of rapid eighths that fall through the harmonic trap chromatically, dragging his left hand along with them. Ali really does sound a bit like Navarro on this one, his big butter tone easily able to negotiate the brilliant, flying figures he plays. This band is like a tonic; they wake you up and put some pep in your step! This tune also includes a nice drum solo by Tyler Goertzen in which he splits the time brilliantly.

Maclean’s original piece Temptation of the Crossroads: Blue vs. Brown follows, a slow number featuring Ali with a plunger mute, smearing certain notes as he meanders his way through the piece, clearly dominating it. Maclean surprises with his solo on a little electronic keyboard which he almost makes sound like a harmonica. Jesse Dietschi’s bass solo is relaxed and sparse by comparison, riding the wave of the music until Ali returns to ride the band out (with a short interlude by the leader). Goldberg Machine is a more innovative piece in terms of its rhythmic construction, mixing a 6/8 beat with a five-bar phrase. The liner notes indicate that the piece is reminiscent of some of Woody Shaw’s recordings, with Ali sounding a little like Shaw. I will concede that point, and also point out the superb manner in which Dietschi’s bass solo picks up from where pianist Maclean left off, completing his musical thoughts. Great work!

Nation’s Unrest: A Tribal Conflict opens with some spoken folderol about growing by having a mind open enough to experience things as they are (well, duh!), but thankfully moves into some nice bebop lines that occasionally relax in tempo only to move back towards the opening tempo. Ali is excellent on this one, and the rhythm section really drives hard. On this one, for sure, Maclean is channeling his inner Herbie Hancock, playing similar licks and phrases, which is appropriate since the band is clearly paying tribute here to Miles Davis’ quintet with Hancock. Feral Serenity, another Maclean original, is described in the notes as “inspired by a series of panic attacks,” yet the music is relaxed and rather genial-sounding despite some shifting chords. At the work’s “calm center” is a nice bass solo.

The band reclaims its more energetic mojo in Exploration of Time and Space, a piece with a whimsical time shift in the break. Without warning, the piece suddenly drops into a slower groove while a narrator gives us information about the sun and how long it takes light to reach us from the sun (eight minutes, if you’re interested), so if the sun ever blows up and disappears we won’t know about it until eight minutes later. (There will be a pop quiz on the narrations at the end of this review.) Then we return to the peppy bop pace for the rideout, driven by Goertzen’s drums.

Brownman Ali’s Madness of Nero has a certain hip-hop feel that is undermined by the complex metric divisions. The composer’s statements on trumpet sound more like composed music, so logical and orderly are they, but when the tempo suddenly falls into a swinging groove Maclean’s piano gives out with some truly relaxed yet innovative improvisation. But the highlight of this track is Ali’s blistering solo that follows, one of his finest on the album. What a player he is!

Maclean’s One begins its life as a warm, moody ballad, played to perfection in suspended time by Ali over bowed bass and piano with light cymbal washes from Goertzen, but moves into a slow waltz while another voice-over talks about affecting things in a positive way. It’s a great tune, however, completely “owned” by the composer on piano who plays one of his finest and most attractive solos here. After a pause Ali returns, repeating the suspended-time ballad theme as the outro. In the very opening ande closing of the finale, Hancock’s Tell Me a Bedtime Story, there is the simulation of the crackle of an LP before the music begins. Both the piece as such and its performance have a certain wistful quality about it, explained in the notes by its dedication to Ali’s beloved cat, Kiwi-3, who died of cancer while this CD was being recorded It’s a nice, relaxed finish to an outstanding album, one that should put the Maclean Quartet firmly on the musical map.

No two ways about it, the Nick Maclean Quartet has staked out its claim in the jazz world and intends to stick around.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Vol. 8 of Scelsi’s Music Released

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Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) was a modernist Italian composer who also wrote surrealist poetry in French. He was largely unknown for most of his career, although concerts in the mid-to-late 1980s finally premiered many of his compositions to great acclaim (as per Wikipedia). Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich said, “A whole chapter of recent musical history must be rewritten: the second half of this century is now unthinkable without Scelsi… He has inaugurated a completely new way of making music, hitherto unknown in the West.”

That statement was made regarding Scelsi’s orchestral music of the 1950s and early ‘60s, which predated György Ligeti’s work yet had similar qualities. Scelsi was fascinated by microtones, smeared pitches and other techniques that became associated with Ligeti. That in itself would be fine except for the fact that many critics and musicologists gave Ligeti the credit for being the innovator of these techniques, which Scelsi clearly pioneered.

Most of the works that established Scelsi as a pioneer near the end of his life were orchestral, i.e. Uaxuctum, Hymnos, Hurqualia and the Quattro Pezzi for Orchestra, but this album focuses on his chamber music. Without a booklet or liner notes (neither were available for download), I don’t know the chronology of these pieces, but Chemin de cœur is clearly a tonal, Romantic piece for violin and piano, almost like early Debussy or Strauss, lovely but not cloying, and is played exquisitely by violinist Markus Däunert and pianist Alessandro Stella. Dialogo for cello and piano is, however, quite treacly, and I didn’t like it at all.

Next up is the Violin Sonata, clearly from another phase of Scelsi’s development. A powerful, bitonal piano introduction leads to a jolly but modern-sounding tune played on the violin, with the piano supporting and occasionally commenting. At this phase in his career, Scelsi was moving towards a different means of expression but had not yet found his groove, so to speak. Nonetheless, this is very fine music, well constructed and with a sense of purpose. By and large, the music sounds more like early Bartók than anything by Stravinsky (who didn’t write sonatas anyway) or Prokofiev. The second movement is particularly haunting, showing Scelsi’s more tender side while still retaining harmonic interest and a clear view of construction. In the second half of this “Lento” movement, Scelsi indulges in some quite animated, almost folk-like tunes taken in double time. The last movement, marked “Allegro drammatico,” is actually more energetic and purposeful than truly dramatic, but still very interesting music. Taken altogether, this is a fine concert piece for violinists who are bored with the usual Romantic stuff.

The Piano Trio was completed in 1939—finally, a date! This is mature Scelsi, the music being much more involved with atonality although he is still clearly thinking of the music in terms of melodic development as well. It has the feel of Hindemith about it, which of course was quite unusual for an Italian composer of the 1930s. Interestingly, he doesn’t give much solo space to the cello here, using that instrument largely in a supporting role. Even the piano has much more involvement in the music’s evolution.

This release is interesting in showing Scelsi’s musical development, but by and large fans of his much more advanced orchestral works may be disappointed due to the style being more old-fashioned. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating slice of musical history in the career of a neglected and enigmatic composer.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Griller’s Orchestral Music Dazzling, Brilliant

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GRILLER: Ensemble Seventeen: Concerto for Small Orchestra. Concerto for Clarinet & Strings.1 Distant Villages: Concerto for Violas, Cello, Keyboard Instruments & Pitched Percussion / 1Denis Myasnikov, cl; Musica Viva; Alexander Walker, cond. / Toccata Classics TOCC 0424

Arnold Griller (1937 – ) is far from a household name in the music world, but to judge from this CD he should be. Getting straight to the point, this is music of tremendous vitality, intellectual interest and rhythmic-harmonic complexity. Griller uses very strong motor rhythms to propel his themes, he uses almost constant polyphony to buttress them; and he quite evidently thinks like a chamber musician even when writing for a full orchestra. One doesn’t listen to or for the strings or winds or brass and how he uses them when listening to Griller’s music; rather, you listen to the totality, how it all fits together like an energetic but eccentric jigsaw puzzle. Even at those moments when he uses what jazz musicians refer to as “outside” playing, i.e. notes in the upper range that lie outside whatever the tonality of the moment is, Griller’s mind is always focused on how to continue beyond that point and, more importantly, make everything sound logical while it strikes the listener as imaginative and unpredictable.

Thus his Ensemble Seventeen for small orchestra one hears almost continual orchestral interplay, using the instruments as soloists vying with each other for supremacy in a rather crowded sonic field. Only a slow, moody cello solo initially sounds out of place, catching one by surprise. but it is mapped out in such a way that the other instruments weave their way into and around it and make it fit in with the evolving development. Griller always sounds in complete command of his materials, and his music shifts to suit itself. Eventually, when the tempo picks up again, the winds (clarinet, oboe, bassoon) bounce off one another like ping-pong balls, into which fray the solo cello re-enters to remind us that Griller has not forgotten it. Here is a sample from the score of the opening to give you an idea of Griller’s modus operandi:

Ensemble 17 exc

The work, which continues on for 28:56, goes through several permutations before it comes to an abrupt conclusion. It is a work you will want to hear over and over again.

Annotator Douglas Finch notes that Griller “becomes taciturn when he is asked about his own music,” preferring to discuss the music of others. In the case of the Clarinet Concerto, Griller started discussing his own work but then veered off into his enthusiasm for the clarinet quintet of Alexander Goehr. Finch notes that “his love of Goehr’s Quintet does seem to be a clue – one piece in a jigsaw of influences and connections that make this one of Griller’s most emotional and personal works.” Focusing on strings as the sole orchestral component, Griller once again uses his forces contrapuntally, but in this case there is also a theme played by the violins, atonal and a bit moody, that disappears as the solo clarinet enters, backed now by the cellos and basses. The interesting aspect of this concerto is that, due to his penchant for decompartmentalizing his orchestra, Griller almost makes this concerto sound like a work for strings in which the solo instrument is not a soloist in the strict sense of the word but, rather, just another voice around which his contrapuntal web is woven. Yes, there are some passages in which the clarinet is heard playing solo notes without the orchestra’s backing, but not that many. More often than not, this music is a joint collaboration, and a fascinating one. The legato but atonal string tune that one heard near the beginning of the first movement returns near the end.

The second movement, titled “Spring,” follows hard on the heels of the first and is both jovial and bouncy. Finch points out the rather comical score indication of “the sheepdog and the flock,” wherein Griller conjures up an image of cellos (sheepdog) pushing the violins (sheep) into a more orderly formation. Just another example of how this is a “concerto” without a concerto atmosphere:

Griller Spring exc

In the third movement, Griller completely shifts gears, presenting us with very forlorn themes, and it is only here that he uses the clarinet against the string orchestra in true concerto fashion. Yet the movement concludes in an edgier mood rather than a sad one.

Distant Villages is set up in Griller’s by-now-expected style of energetic and somewhat battling counterpoint. This, I feel, is the one weakness of his music, that it tends to sound alike from piece to piece regardless of the stated mood or intent. This is a trap into which many modern composers fall: in creating a personal stylistic voice, they sometimes tend to become so slavish in their pursuit of this that they lack the ability to write in any other style but the one that they consider their “signature.” As in Ensemble Seventeen, Griller creates some contrast with a slow section, and again includes a solo cello.

This is a fascinating album despite the caveat noted above. I had occasion to praise Alexander Walker’s conducting highly in his recording of Havergal Brian’s Symphonies Nos. 8, 21 & 26 on Naxos, and I will reiterate what I said here. Walker inhabits and enlivens each and every bar of music, making it sound not merely energetic but likable, as if he had written the music himself.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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A Koechlin Cornucopia, Part 2

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KOECHLIN: ORCHESTRAL WORKS / SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart; Heinz Holliger, conductor on all tracks / SWR Music 19046CD

CD 1: KOECHLIN: Quatre Poèmes de Edmond Haraucourt.3 Deux Poèmes Symphoniques: II. Vers la plage lontaine. Poèmes d’Automne.1,2 2 Poems d’André Chenier: I. La Jeune Tarantine. 2 FAURÉ: Chanson de Mélisande (orch. Koechlin)3 / 1Gunter Tueffel, vla d’amore; 2Tatjana Ruhland, fl; 2Libor Sima, bsn; 2Joachim Bänsch, Fr-hn; 2Renie Yamahata, hrp; 2Mila Giorgieva, David Ma, vln; 2Paul Pesthy, vla; 2Ansgar Schneider, cel; 3Juliane Banse, sop

CD 2: KOECHLIN: Trois Mélodies: I & II.1 Études Antiques. 6 Mélodies sur des Poésies a’Albert Samain: Le sommeil de Canope.1 Chant funèbre à la mémoire des jeunes femmes défuntes2 / 1Juliane Banse, sop; 2SWR Vocal Ensemble

CD 3: KOECHLIN: The Jungle Book: La Course de printemps. Le Buisson ardent1 / 1Christine Simonin, ondes Martenot

CD 4: KOECHLIN: The Jungle Book: La Méditation de Purun Bhagat. Les Heures Persanes (orch. 1921)

CD 5: KOECHLIN: The Jungle Book: Les Bandar-log. Offrande musicale sur le nom de BACH 1 / 1Bernard Haas, org; 1Michael Korstick, pn; 1Christine Simonin, ondes Martenot

CD 6: DEBUSSY: Khamma (orch. Koechlin). KOECHLIN: Sur les Flots lontains. FAURÉ: Pelléas et Mélisande (orch. Koechlin).1 SCHUBERT: Wanderer Fantasy, D. 760 (orch. Koechlin).2 CHABRIER: Bourrée Fantasque (orch. Koechlin) / 1Sarah Wegener, sop; 2Florian Hoelscher, pn

CD 7: KOECHLIN: Vers la voûte étoilée. Le Docteur Fabricius1 / 1Christine Simonin, ondes Martenot

This, the orchestral portion of SWR Music’s massive new Koechlin release, covers the composer’s original works as well as his orchestrations of others’ music (Fauré, Debussy, Schubert and Chabrier). Like the chamber and piano music set, it is comprehensive but not complete; indeed, it is even less complete than its companion. For whatever reason, it omits several pieces in Koechlin’s lifelong musical obsession with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, though it does include the longest piece in the series, La Course de printemps, as well as La Méditation de Purun Bhagat and the last one, Les Bandar-log. But why omit the others? Also missing are the Partita for Chamber Orchestra and Cinq Chorales dans le modes du Moyen Âge, neither of which are particularly long and could have fit on the first CD in this set which runs only 53 minutes. Very curious! Of course, David Zinman recorded the complete Jungle Book back in 1994 for RCA Victor with the Berlin Radio Symphony and singers Iris Vermillion and Johan Botha, an album that sold very poorly because the music was far too complex and over the heads of most Jungle Book fans, but that shouldn’t have mattered in this case.

Popular or not, the other sections of Koechlin’s travelogue are masterful music that deserved another recording. Koechlin was not merely fascinated but obsessed with Mowgli, the “man cub” raised by a feral wolf, once writing that he “has the power, the élan, the youthfulness and courage of a Siegfried, but is wiser, not so pretentious; he does not try to set himself up as master of the world’s destiny.” And as Heinz Holliger, the conductor on this set, put it,

What fascinates me first in this music is the fact that it does not come forward. I believe that it is totally open music, into which one can “fall,” where one can penetrate the very pores of the sound. But it does not come to fetch me, it does not try hard to please me. It has a certain crystalline transparency as well as a preference for unfolding very slowly. And this way of dealing with sound and movement was probably totally alien to France and, at the time, it would have been even more alien in Germany. And today, maybe, we are ready to appreciate that better. We cannot afford to do without these works.

Holliger also omits both of Koechlin’s numbered symphonies, the “Seven Stars” Symphony, and such orchestral pieces as Sur le flots lontains, Walpurgis Night and Hymne à la nuit, the Poem for Horn and Orchestra and the Ballade for Piano and Orchestra. Why? Youth wants to know!

After such a description, we are stunned to hear this collection open with a bang—quite literally, an orchestral explosion of the sort that seldom appears in Koechlin’s works. The 4 Poems of Edmond Haraucourt is a short orchestral song cycle, sung well by soprano Juliane Banse despite a tendency towards hardness when she opens up in her top range, After the explosive opening, however, these are songs quietude and beckoning, just as Holliger described, but much more melodic than usual for Koechlin, on a par with the similar cycles of Chausson and Duparc. By contrast, the Vers la plage lontaine from the 2 Symphonic Poems (but why not record both of them?) fits Holliger’s description perfectly: it is elusive, beckoning music like the most delicate creation of Debussy. Banse is also excellent on the equally Chausson-like Poemes d’Automne, Koechlin’s orchestration of Gabriel Fauré’s Chanson de Mélisande and, at the start of CD 2, two of the three Mélodies. The third of the Études Antiques has an almost pseudo-Chinoiserie sound about the orchestration while the fourth sounds very close to Debussy.

The Chant funèbre à la mémoire des jeunes femmes défuntes, which closes out CD 2, is by far the most fascinating and complex work yet heard in this set. Written for mixed double chorus, organ and orchestra, it was described by the composer as a symphonic poem that “translates the feelings, evokes the visions suggested to us by such a cruel and especially unjust loss: the death of a burgeoning soul full of hope and beauty. First there is the funeral procession described by Haraucourt …Then, as if in a coun­try chapel with shrill bells, in an atmosphere heavy with sighs and flowers, after a long plaint played by the orchestra, the voice of the choirs rises up. In a long crescendo of the orchestra, choir and organ (‘Ad te omnis caro veniat …’), the voices proclaim the irreversible final destiny of the body; and they also speak of the eternal light promised in ex­change. The song fades into the distance, the pale voices of the flutes recall the funeral march from the beginning. As if floating above a tender memory, comes the apparition of far-off voices: dejected and disconsolate appeasement in which all thought ceases.” Holliger surprisingly finds exactly the right tone and temperament for this music, making it float across the recesses of our mind as it unfolds in its own manner and style. Nothing is exaggerated, yet at the same time nothing is slighted in his superb reading.

Likewise, Holliger’s superb reading of La Course de printemps from The Jungle Book, even more detailed and atmospheric than Zinman’s recording, makes you sad that he didn’t record the whole thing. Holliger also achieves a more dynamic reading, full of drama, despite the composer’s insistence on frequent pauses in the course of its 33-minute length, so that it almost sounds like a self-contained suite.

On the other hand, what we now consider part 2 of La Buisson ardent was actually composed first, in 1938, and uses the strange instrument known as an ondes Martenot which is actually a keyboard version of a Theremin. The music is wild and woolly, depicting the life of an artist, and Koechlin pulled out all the stops in orchestrating it. What is now part 1 was composed in 1945 as a response to the ending of World War II; it is more of an episodic fantasy like La Course de printemps and much in the same musical style. Thus we have a somewhat episodic, slow-moving piece as an introduction to its swifter, tauter, more exciting companion. Interestingly, in the liner notes Holliger concurs with my opinion, stating that after performing the two large sections of The Jungle Book in concert he wanted to find a companion piece and so settled on this as a sequel. He, too, notes the similarities between part 1 of this piece and La Course de printemps. But Heinz, why didn’t you just perform or record all of The Jungle Book? Nonetheless, the music is superb, illustrating succinctly just how unique his use of falling chromatics was, and how he used this harmonic movement as a pivot for his melodic variants. Note, too, the odd harmonic passage at 9:32 and how he uses it to impact the increased volume and tension at this point, followed by a few minutes of relaxation and contemplation. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a rather jolly but bitonal tune arises, like an Irish reel on absinthe. Koechlin had the odd habit of writing music that often sounded as if it had come to an end, but without the preparation the listener needed to accept it as an ending, only to suddenly start up again 10 or 12 seconds later with something related but different. You never knew where you were going with him.

CD 4 begins with the third of his Jungle Book pieces, La méditation de Purun Bhagat. inspired by the one story located outside the jungle. It is largely a slow, meditative piece, and Holliger conducts it even more slowly that Zinman did in 1994. FYI, the Jungle Book pieces missing from this compilation are the Three Poems, Op. 18 (Berceuse phoque, Chanson de nuit dans la jungle and Chant de Kala Nag), which contain vocals by a mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone with chorus, and La loi de la jungle, Op. 175. This is followed by a real rarity, the composer’s own 1921 orchestration of his earlier piano suite, The Persian Hours. It was a land he never visited, drawing his inspiration from Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau’s Nouvelles asiatiques, bits of 1,001 Nights and especially Pierre Loti’s 1904 travelogue, Vers Ispahan. Interestingly, Koechlin’s orchestration, though soft-grained and mysterious, uses the strings in such a way that they produce a sort of edgy shimmer, a technique he may have borrowed from Stravinsky’s Firebird. The effect is somewhat less opaque than one might expect, evoking the glare of heat on the desert sands rather than some sort of mysterious cloud formation.

Holliger’s performance of Les Bandar-log is considerably slower than Zinman’s, 20:43 to his 16:31, but no less atmospheric or exciting in the fast passages, and the almost incredible sonics here give the music greater clarity and transparency of texture. At certain moments, such as 14:45, the music almost sounds as if it’s running backwards. Koechlin’s Offrande musicale sur le nom de BACH has to be the weirdest and least Bach-like of all musical tributes to Johann Sebastian, using a large orchestra with a prominent saxophone part, sliding chromatic harmony and strange musical forms. The second piece, for instance, “Canons sur le nom be BACH,” features high winds playing against a tuba and ends with a cymbal crash. In the third piece a fugue is set up but the orchestration is that of a large string orchestra, whereas the second fugue (band 6) is a weird, polytonal piece written for a handful of winds and French horn that sounds much more like Messiaen than Bach. “Feuillet d’album” (band 8) is a piano solo, also heavily chromatic. There’s a full description of the music in the booklet, but just reading about it doesn’t do it justice. You have to hear this piece to believe it!

CD 6 consists mostly of orchestral transcriptions of others’ music, the only original piece being Sur le flots lontains. Debussy’s ballet Khamma, which he wrote on commission and didn’t care much for, was passed on to his colleague to orchestrate for him; it is probably Koechlin’s best-known orchestral arrangement, and Holliger does a superb job of conducting it. Fauré gave Koechlin carte blanche to orchestrate his Pelléas et Mélisande suite, which contains some excellent music (particularly the “Mort de Mélidande”) and a lot that is fairly uninteresting. But hey, my cats liked it, so what the heck! Much more problematic is Koechlin’s orchestral arrangement of a piece that neither wanted nor needed it, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. This was a commission and made him some much-needed money, but although Holliger tries to spruce it up with his conducting energy I admit not liking it very much. Sorry, Charles. On the other hand, Chabrier’s Bourée fantasque jumps to vivid life in Koechlin’s bright, lvely orchestral garb.

Vers la voûte étoilée is another of Koechlin’s impressionist pieces, this one a bit more in the style of Debussy. It’s a nocturne for orchestra that recalled his earlier love of astronomy. It is the most overtly romantic of his compositions, recalling some of Mahler’s slow movements in its lyrical quality and use of harmony. The CD, and the set, ends with his “musical testament,” the huge orchestral suite Le Docteur Fabricius. It was composed from 1941 to 1944, orchestrated in 1946 and premiered in the presence of the composer in 1949, conducted by Franz André. A strange, slow-moving piece, it had never been performed between the time of its premiere and this recording. Koechlin described the basis of the story behind it thus:

The author of the story imagines he went to see, in his retreat, a certain Doctor Fabricius, a philosopher he had known a few years earlier. The doctor invites him to spend the night in his home, dinner in silence, an air of mystery about the doctor, the latter, finally, breaks the silence and explains to his guest why he lives “cut off from the world”: “Life”, he says, “is a piece of trickery, Nature is eternally indifferent, it uses us to maintain life and does nothing to reduce our misfortune” (cf. [Ernest] Renan’s [1823–1892] Dialogues philosophiques: “God does not operate through particular acts of will”). Immense injus­tice … very harsh with regard to the Powers that govern us …

So you can see this is a real fun piece. All kidding aside, however, it is a moody work that only has a few uplifting moments in its first half, i.e. the brief (43-second) fifth section, though it does get more energetic towards the end. It is, however, an extremely modern-sounding piece which has the feel of 12-tone music though it actually uses a sliding tonality.

All in all, an excellent set of Koechlin’s music, though I would gladly have forsaken all those transcriptions on disc 6 in favor of more of his own music. You can, however, find all the missing pieces I mentioned above, and more, for free streaming on YouTube. All the performances here are first-rate, as is the recorded sound.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Allison Au is Au-Some

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FOREST GROVE / AU: Tides. Bolero.* Aureole. The Clearing.* Deluge. Through Light. Tumble. Your Ordinary Stranger. They Say We Are Not Here* / Allison Au Quartet: Au, a-sax; Todd Pentney, pn/Hammond B3/Rhodes/Wurlitzer/synth; Jon Maharaj, bs/el-bs; Fabio Ragnelli, dm; add *Felicity Williams, voice / self-released CD available from the artist at http://www.allisonau.com

Canadian alto saxist Allison Au has been leading her own quartet since 2009, but this is only her second recording. Those expecting just another bird of passage—i.e., another Grace Kelly—are going to be in for a surprise, because Au is a very talented young woman with several skills that the Grace Kellys of the world do not possess, among them a good musical imagination and the ability to write her own material. All of the pieces on this album are originals, and they are all interesting in their own way.

Tides opens up with the leader on alto, playing the unusual melody with a good, hard edge. Her playing reminds me a little of such good ‘50s alto saxists as Sonny Stitt or Phil Woods; like them, she clearly comes out of the lineage of Bird but does not ape him. The rhythm is loose but also quite complex, and although I felt that Ragnelli overplayed his drums somewhat (a familiar weakness among young drummers nowadays, evidently nurtured by rock music) he grasped the odd rhythms quite well. After an electric piano solo by Todd Pentney, Au returns on alto, deconstructing her own tune into short phrases with little pauses between them which she builds up into a fairly good head of steam. There’s a wonderful passage where Pentney and bassist Jon Maharaj play together in simultaneous single lines, probably planned in advance but adding to the composition. When Au returns she is in full flight, more garrulous than before but developing her own tune wonderfully.

Bolero is a ballad, taken at a very slow 4 and having little to do with a true bolero rhythm. Vocalist Felicity Williams sings softly and wordlessly along with Au in the opening choruses, following which Maharaj rolls out his bass lines with beautiful poise and a fine sense of structure while Au and Williams continue on softly behind him. By contrast, Aureole is a straightahead swinger, with Au skipping on top of the beat. Her solo here sounds the most Bird-like, fast, fluent and inventive. Pentney switches to the Hammond B3 organ for his solo, which swings like mad, equally skipping across the top of the beat lightly.

Allison AuThe Clearing is another quiet piece, this one more atmospheric, the out-of-tempo intro featuring Williams’ voice in the background as if in an echo chamber. When the downbeat comes and Au starts her first solo, she plays with an intriguing, hard tone for a while before softening her stance. Deluge is introduced by Pentney on the Fender Rhodes, but this one has a hard rock beat which made me run the other way. Fortunately, Through Light, though a bit funky, lacks the hard rock beat of its predecessor and is a very interesting tune constructed of little rhythmic cells, much like some of Bird’s compositions. The drums tend towards rock in certain half-choruses, which for me spoils the excellent effect of Au’s playing and the interest of her improvised lines, but Ragnelli pulls back on the rock influence in the rest of the track. Au’s and Maharaj’s solos are quite fine and the drum solo is more in a jazz than a rock groove. The late Roy Eldridge put it best: “The jazz beat goes somewhere. The rock beat stays somewhere.” Tumble is a medium-slow piece with a somewhat modal harmonic base, fascinating and hypnotic, with a nice “gliding” sound by the rhythm section under Au’s sensuous alto. I was fascinated by Pentney’s slow, sinuous, single-note piano lines; whether composed or improvised, they fit in perfectly. When Au returns for her longest and most serious solo, she is locked in and playing in a quite torrid style.

Your Ordinary Stranger begins with Pentney tinkling on piano, then switching to electric keyboard as the rest of the rhythm section comes in and they all back Au in her statement of the theme. This is a piece that almost tells its story by suggestion and half-statements. Rangelli keeps trying to sneak a rock beat in here and there. I’d rather he didn’t. Pentney fully understands what Au is driving at, however, and so approaches his own keyboard solo with small gestures rather than grand statements.

They Say We Are Not Here is the longest track on the album at 11:59, with another wordless vocal from Williams. This one is a bit too much like smooth jazz for my taste, but those who enjoy this genre will like it very much. Au’s solo is beautifully shaped and molded, including some surprising buzzes. But wait! After an interminably long pause of 32 seconds (I thought the album was over), we suddenly get a lively, uptempo tune, completely different, driven by electric organ and bass with Au playing at her very best.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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MOPDtK’s New Album Kicks & Cooks!

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PAINT / ELLIOTT: Yellow House. Orangeville. Black Horse. ELLINGTON: Blue Goose. ELLIOTT: Plum Run. Green Briar. Golden Hill. Whitehall / Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Ron Stabinsky, pn; Moppa Elliott, bs; Kevin Shea, dm / Hot Cup Records 171

In the famed cult film Little Big Man, one of the characters is a snake oil salesman who, when first met by the main character (played by Dustin Hoffmann), is missing an eye. Every time thereafter, the guy has another body part missing: a hand, a leg, etc. I’m sure that Mostly Other People Do the Killing will get mad at me for this, but this image immediately came to mind as soon as I saw that the once full band is now down to a trio.

Of course I say this with affection because I really like MOPDtK, not to be critical, and even as a piano trio the band is as quirky as ever. One of their great strengths over the years was their ability to function as a unit. This sounds like a given or even a non sequitur; don’t all jazz bands function as a unit? Well, not exactly. You seldom have the harmonic base of a band move with the same chord changes, tempo, rhythmic accents and phrasing as the top line. It’s not really as common as you might think, but these three musicians, having been the heartbeat of the band when it was larger, are now able to show what they can do as a fully integrated entity.

You can hear this in their very first number, Yellow House, where Stabinsky’s piano leads Elliott’s bass and Shea’s drums through a veritable minefield of rhythmic and harmonic traps, only to have them stick to him like glue no matter how wild he gets or how far astray he steps. It’s not as if the tune were rhythmically so complex, either; in fact, the basic pulse is a regular 4/4, but the little “kick beat” that Stabinsky introduces right at the start and sticks with like glue makes for some interesting interplay. This ability to “hang with them” is even more important in Orangeville, which is written in 5/4. At the 1:38 mark, Stabinsky’s right hand goes absolutely wild, playing rapid, out-of-tempo frills and licks while drummer Shea is right there with him.

Black Horse, in a traditional 4/4, is an uptempo swinger that channels some of the hard bop jazz of the 1950s, except that Kevin Shea’s drumming is far more complex (and less foot-up-the-rear-end insistent) than such hard bop drummers as Art Blakey. There’s no getting around it by this time, however: this is primarily Ron Stabinsky’s album with the other two along for the ride, this despite an excellent bass solo on this track by Elliott and some nice mixing-it-up drumming from Shea in the background. I was almost taken by surprise by hearing Duke Ellington’s Blue Goose, somewhat unrecognizable without Johnny Hodges’ suave and sultry saxophone singing its way through the melody, but much to my surprise Elliott’s bass takes over that role from the bridge on through the remainder of the first chorus. Here I felt that Shea’s drumming was overly-busy and rather obtrusive; Ellington’s elegant tune doesn’t really need to be slop-bop-whack-a-mopped as heavily as this from start to finish. Take your Ritalin, Kevin!

Plum Run is pure MOPDtK madness, a romp that begins as a minor-key waltz before spilling over into wild double- and quadruple-time figures played by Stabinsky against the roiling rhythm. Green Briar, its companion piece, uses a series of repeated figures that are reharmonized differently. Tune your ears up for this one! By contrast, Golden Hill is a really pretty waltz with a definable melody, played to perfection by the trio, at least until Shea decides to become Elvin Jones in the middle of it. Ritalin, Kevin, Ritalin!

The last tune on this album, now titled Whitehall, was originally penned by Elliott under the name of Blue Goose until he learned that Ellington had already beaten him to it. It’s a good old-fashioned kind of swinger, the type of piece that almost plays itself except that Stabinsky is far from being an average jazz pianist. I also liked the way Elliott falls “into” the rhythm as if plopping into bed for a good night’s sleep—comfortable and relaxed. At 3:16 the tempo becomes rather edgier, prodded by Elliott’s bass, and Stabinsky follows his lead, playing some fairly wild and occasionally bitonal figures to contrast with the swinging 4/4 groove.

This is a fascinating album in many ways, particularly in terms of composition and Stabinsky’s always-varied approach to keyboard playing. It’s due out on October 20.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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A Rare CD from Pianist Jack Reilly

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NORWEGIAN RADIO / COOTS-LEWIS: For All We Know. J. HODGES: Someday. UNKNOWN: How Long / Ben Webster, t-sax; Jack Reilly, pn; Sture Jonson, bs; Trygve Windingstad, dm / REILLY: Suffering. Death. Resurrection. Floral Space. YOUNG-WASHINGTON: Stella By Starlight / Jack Reilly Trio: Reilly, pn; Jack Six, bs; Joe Cocuzzo, dm; add Lew Gluckin, Fl-hn on last track / Unichrom 0019, available from the artist at a special price of $18.99 (European customers please add $4 USD for postage). Make checks payable to Jack Reilly & mail to 78 Nautilus St., Beachwood, NJ USA 08722-2645

Here’s a true rarity: an album of never-before-released material, including three tracks with a bona-fide jazz legend, issued in a limited edition by the artist himself. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime collector’s items that will undoubtedly be selling on eBay for $100 or more in the not-too-distant future, thus I recommend your acquiring it ASAP.

For those who are unaware of him, Jack Reilly is one of the finest jazz pianists to emerge in the 1950s, alongside of Bill Evans and Horace Silver. Stylistically closer to the former than the latter, he has worked in a variety of jazz venues over the years and also plied his hand as a jazz educator and author (Species Blues, The Harmony of Bill Evans, The Harmony of Dave Brubeck) as well as a classical composer (the La-No-Tib Suite and Orbits, among others). But he has had extremely bad luck in attracting commercial labels to record him. To the best of my knowledge, his only commercial date was a quartet session with clarinetist-alto saxist John LaPorta on Everest Records in 1958 titled The Most Minor.

The first three tracks here were broadcast by Norwegian radio in 1971. Happily, they’re very professionally recorded by Norwegian radio engineers (always among the best in their day) and, better yet, Webster is in prime form. The attentive listener will note, even in the opening track, how much more his improvisations were formulated by harmonic movement in this phase of his career. He plays the melody at the beginning and end but not entirely straight, bending notes and exploring a few “outside” notes. Of course, this may have been encouraged by his working with Reilly, who has always been among the most harmonically advanced of jazz pianists. Jimmy Hodges’ classic tune Someday (You’ll Want Me To Want You) is taken at a surprisingly fast clip and, the way Webster plays the tune at the opening, might almost be confused for the old 1926 song Sunday (a favorite with Chicago jazz bands into the 1950s). Reilly is particularly swinging here, keeping to the basic chord structure in his two choruses, possibly so as not to throw off his older colleague (though Webster survived the bop era, he was never a participant, unlike his famous colleague Coleman Hawkins). The Norwegian rhythm section is beautifully swinging as well as relaxed, particularly drummer Windingstad whose smooth, gliding style puts you in mind of such subtle percussionists as Dave Tough or Jo Jones. Despite the very clear sound, there is an unfortunate amount of radio static that pops up here and there (most audibly at the end of Someday). Both Webster and Reilly play rather sparingly on How Long, making every note and even the rests count. This is what I consider great slow jazz to be: not some soporific to numb the listener out, but beautifully crafted music that tells a story.

The remainder of the album consists of brief recording studio sessions made (Jack thinks) at Jerry Newman’s A&R studios. Suffering is but a brief prelude, almost classical in structure, leading to a surprisingly jolly waltz tune which he calls Death (albeit one with a strange central theme or interlude). I’m so used to hearing Reilly write and play very complex pieces that this almost sounds Vince Guaraldi-ish, although he does insert some interesting chord changes that might not have occurred to Guaraldi. The piece ends on an unresolved chord. Resurrection is a swinging tune; apparently Jack thinks of rebirth as a party! Yet it is here, particularly in the middle improv, where he tosses in more complex chords. The superb bassist Jack Six takes a splendid solo that fits right in with Reilly’s concept, backed sensitively by Cocuzzo on drums. The latter’s breaks nicely complement Reilly’s sparse chorus, after which the pianist rides it out.

Floral Space is the most interesting of all as Reilly works his way through the opening chorus, alluding to a melody but only occasionally playing bits of it. Reilly continues to work the tune through extra choruses, building on what had come before and expanding it both melodically and harmonically. This is a real masterpiece!

Victor Young’s Stella By Starlight returns us to a swinging groove, featuring Flugelhorn player Lew Gluckin. Gluckin’s solo is quite fine but Reilly’s is even better, becoming quite Tristano-ish in places. He alternates single-note measures with chorded passages, and Six feeds him nicely—but then the tune suddenly stops. Evidently an incomplete take.

Despite its brevity (only 35 minutes of music), this is a fascinating slice of history, first in making a rare Ben Webster session available and second in presenting us with new compositions by Reilly himself. Well worth acquiring!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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A Cornucopia of Koechlin on SWR Music

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CHARLES KOECHLIN: CHAMBER MUSIC / SWR Music 19047CD

CD 1: First & Second Clarinet Sonatas.1 Les Confidence d’un joueur de Clarinette.2Idyll for 2 Clarinets.3 14 Pieces for Clarinet & Piano.1 Monodies for Solo Clarinet / Dirk Altmann, 3Rudolf Koenig, clarinetists; 1Florian Henschel, pianist; 2Sibylle Mahni Haas, French hornist; 2Gunter Teuffel, violist; 2Johanna Busch, cellist

CD 2: Flute Sonata.2 Épitaph de Jean Harlow.1,4. 6 Trio (Divertissement for 2 Flutes & Clarinet).1,3,7 Suite en Quatuor.1, 6,8 Trio for Clarinet, Flute & Bassoon.1, 5, 7 Sonata for 2 Flutes.1 2 Nocturnes for Flute, Horn & Piano.1, 6, 9 Sonatine Modale for Flute & Clarinet.1, 7 Piece for Flute & Piano (pour lecture à vue)1, 6 / 1Tatjana Ruhland, 2Barbara Hank, 3Christina Singer, flautists; 2Michael Baumann, 6Yaara Tal, pianist; Libor Sima, 4alto saxophonist/5bassoonist; 7Dirk Altmann, clarinetist; 8Mila Georgieva, violinist; 8Ingrid Philippi, violist; 9Joachim Bansch, French hornist

CD 3: Le Portrait de Daisy Hamilton.1 Oboe Sonata.2 Bassoon Sonata.3 Suite for Solo English Horn.4 Stèle funéraire for 3 Flutes in Turn5 / 1Dirk Altmann, clarinetist; 1Mako Okamoto, 2Hans-Georg Gaydoul, 3Inge-Susann Römhild, pianists; 2Alexander Ott, oboist; 3Eckart Hübner, bassoonist; 4Lajos Lencsés, English horn; 5Peter Thalheimer, alto flue/piccolo/flute

CD 4: Viola Sonata.1 Cello Sonata.2 20 Breton Songs for Cello & Piano2 / 1Paul Pesthy, violist; 1Chia Chou, 2Roglit Ishay, pianists; 2Peter Bruns, cellist

CD 5: Andante quasi Adagio. Nouvelles Sonatines, Opp. 20 & 87. L’Album de Lilian: Book I, Nos. 2, 3 & 5; Book II, Nos. 2, 4 & 8. Sonatine, Op. 87. Paysages et Marines / Michael Korstick, pianist

CD 6: Les Heures Persanes / Michael Korstick, pianist

CD 7: Danses pour Ginger, 2 excerpts. Sonatines, Op. 59 Nos. 2 & 3. Andante con moto. L’Ancienne Maison de campagne. Pièce pour piano, Op. 83b. Esquisses Op. 41, First Series / Michael Korstick, pianist

Poor Charles Koechlin…born at the right time but died at the wrong one. He was original but not entirely, a composer who bridged the gap between the first impressionists, Debussy, Ravel and Dukas, and such later French composers as Poulenc and Françaix, and somehow he got lost in the shuffle. He also had the misfortune of not dying young and not having a “hit tune” as the other three did to carry his fame worldwide.

It also didn’t help him that he got a late start—his first surviving pieces weren’t written until he was in his mid-20s—and never modernized his style, as Ravel did in his last decade. By 1938, Ravel had been dead a year but Koechlin, then 71, would continue to live and write music for another 12 years. By the time he died in 1950, most people had forgotten that he was still alive, if they knew about him at all. Like British composer York Bowen, he simply outlived the era in which he was considered something of a modernist and died an anachronism. In my half-century of listening to and reviewing classical music, I only heard his name mentioned once and did not discover his music until I reviewed Ralph van Raat’s superb recording of Les Heures Persanes, one of his undisputed masterpieces, about a decade ago.

Part of his problem is that he was an artistic soul born to a family of mechanics, inventors and engineers. His interests were astronomy, natural science, mathematics, the novels of Jules Verne and music, but his father insisted that he study to become a civil engineer. He only got out of it the hard way, by coming down with tuberculosis and almost dying before he was sent to a sanitarium in Algeria for several months. By the time he returned to school he was too far behind in his engineering studies, which suited him just fine, but now his father decided that he was to become either an artillery or a naval officer, both of which he detested. Like nearly all the French impressionists, including the equally underrated Florent Schmitt and Reynaldo Hahn, Koechlin came out of Wagner, particularly the Wagner of Tristan und Isolde, the Ring and Parsifal, which opened the door for continual modulations and what would be called “rootless” chords. Because of his father’s stubborn insistence that he not pursue music as a career and his health problems, Koechlin didn’t really get started on his serious music studies until he was 23, which accounts for his late production.

The music herein is not all impressionistic but it is all very French. Much of it, in fact, is tonal, but Koechlin had very much found his voice by the time he wrote these works and thus even the smallest piece in this collection is a gem in its own way. The first CD is entirely devoted to music written for the clarinet, much of it in solos or small duos (playing with piano or, in one instance, French horn). SWR Music has assembled this collection, and the companion volume of his orchestral works (which I will review separately), from broadcast performances and radio studio recordings made by musicians of the German radio orchestras. The fact that such a group of predominantly German artists would have an interest, let alone an affinity, for playing the music of a Frenchman may sound odd, but I am here to tell you that these performances have exactly the right relaxation, lyricism and limpidity required. A quote in the booklet from our principal clarinetist, Dirk Altmann, gives you an idea of how highly these musicians regard Koechlin:

Koechlin takes us through the history of music almost academically, from the old Renaissance masters to his contemporaries Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He is no stranger to any style of composition: there are polytonal works as well as experiments with atonality. His main youthful influences were Gounod and Chopin, followed by Chabrier and his teacher, Fauré. Koechlin’s compositions also make no secret of his deep affinity with Bach.

Although Koechlin first attempted composition at the age of fifteen, it was not until later, around the age of 50, that his “technique du développement,” or the “spinning out” of musical motifs, became fully developed. The Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano (op. 85 and 86), to whose classical sonata form Koechlin adds new elements in masterly fashion, date from this creative phase. The songlike opening of op. 86 gives little indication of the paths that are to lead us through a lush jungle of creativity, via an arabesque-like middle movement to a brilliant finale. The work was composed for Louis Cahuzac, an outstanding clarinettist of his day, who gave the première of the Second Sonata in 1926. Sadly it was not until after Koechlin’s death that his First Clarinet Sonata was premièred by Jean Tastenoe, in Belgium in February 1969.

Altmann’s tone, cool and liquid, sounds very French in style except for the fact that he plays with no vibrato. This probably stems from years of his being browbeaten into playing with straight tone in nearly every pre-1850 orchestral work, which is wrong but no one seems to care. Nonetheless, he is also a very expressive player, managing to color and shade his playing with a wide range of dynamics, including various hues even within the range between pianissimo and piano. The Monodies for Solo Clarinet are particularly interesting music, covering a wide range of moods and rhythms, and Altmann plays them with great style and understanding. His various partners in these performances are also sensitive, thoughtful musicians who understand Koechlin’s style. Several of these performances had been issued previously by SWR as single discs, e.g. the Chamber Music With Flute on SWR 93157 (2006) and the three volumes of Michael Korstick playing his piano works.

The Flute Sonata which begins CD 2 has the feel of a piece by Fauré or Hahn yet contains elements that could only have been created by Koechlin, for instance the chord modulations in the solo piano moments and the melodic line that suddenly veers off into unresolved moments. There’s also a triple-meter passage in the third movement that sounds almost like a British sailing song. I was particularly struck by the elegance and sheer beauty of the Epitaphe pour Jean Harlow (though Koechlin’s biggest film-actress crush was Lilian Harvey), where he miraculously gets a flute and an alto saxophone to blend…plus the music itself is highly creative, the harmony continually shifting, not just a puff piece tossed off casually. The opening of the Trio (Divertissement for 2 Flutes & Clarinet) has a wonderful forlorn quality about it that is not entirely relieved when he has the three instruments playing together except in the chirpy, upbeat third movement. The Suite et quatuour is an almost pastoral piece, warm and genial like Koechlin himself. So too are the Wind Trio and Sonata for Two Flutes, light, buoyant and fun to hear. By contrast, the two Nocturnes for Flute, Horn & Piano are elegantly etched like the down of a thistle.

The clarinet returns temporarily at the start of CD 3 for the Portrait of Daisy Hamilton, but it’s the Oboe Sonata that wakes you up and makes you take notice. The Bassoon Sonata is also very good, in which Koechlin makes the instrument actually sound jolly (a difficult task!). The Suite for Solo English Horn is a much more serious piece, one of the few I’ve heard that fully exploits the good qualities of this often forlorn-sounding instrument. Koechlin uses complex harmonic changes here in the playing of a single-voice instrument. What a shame that jazz alto player Charlie Parker never knew or met Koechlin; he’d have been exactly the kind of composer who could have pointed him in the new direction he was seeking. This disc closes with the Stèle funéraire for 3 Flutes in Turn, written in Koechlin’s last year of life (1950) and still very much a serious piece in his characteristic style. He also manages to make the most of the timbral contrasts between the alto flute, piccolo flute and “regular” flute while maintaining a consistent musical progression that never wavers or loses its train of thought.

CD 4 brings us to the works for viola and cello, and here Koechlin surprises us by starting the viola very low in its range for its sonata, so much so that it almost sounds like a ghostly cello. Indeed, the feeling of ghostliness remains throughout the first movement, which is atmospheric in a strange, moody sort of way. The piano part is also pitched rather low to emphasize the eeriness, playing minor-key modes and strange chords. Somehow, I can’t picture Lionel Salter or William Primrose playing this music. In the second movement, Koechlin sets up a bitonal series of swirling eighths for the piano while the viola protests above it. Eventually the argument truly erupts in a volatile exchange of clashing musical ideas as Koechlin pushes the envelope before returning to quietude, then into an ecstatic and not-so-dark forte passage. Ironically, the third and fourth movements are a shade more conventional, although the last recaptures some of the moody quirkiness of the first (but in a more relaxed and less eerie vein). Interestingly, in the cello sonata, Koechlin pitches the instrument fairly high in its range most of the time so it sounds more like a viola! The music here is more “Debussy-ish” in its own way; perhaps he liked his older colleague’s cello sonata and used some of its form and style for his own (there are certain resemblances between the two). The third and last movement is the most unique, as it tells its story in a sort of musical shorthand, the themes breaking up and off into silence fairly often, then pushing the music into bitonal realms when it continues. The 20 Breton Songs for Cello and Piano are, of course, defined and to a certain extent controlled by the material being used. Koechlin’s gift was in rescoring the harmony (quite evident in the third song, for instance) and writing variants on these tunes which he then pitched in various parts of the cello’s range. The seventh tune is particularly interesting, as it seems to grind along stoically, whereas the eighth is mercurial and flowing. I must give special praise to cellist Peter Bruns for his complete command of both his instrument’s resources and an intuitive grasp of the music’s contours.

CDs 5-7 belong to Michael Korstick, a pianist I’ve been extremely fond of since he released his superb set of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas more than a decade ago. Korstick is also a master of Debussy’s music, so it stands to reason that he’d have an affinity for Koechlin. His style is a bit more “wide-awake” than that of many French pianists, but he still understands the underlying feel of this music extremely well. That being said, the Sonatines are fairly lightweight music, albeit fun, and the Paysages et marines are lovely, well-crafted and atmospheric music, played to a T by Korstick. The 10th of these sounds like an Irish jig! Ironically, the meagerly-skilled “actress” Lilian Harvey (pretty much a blond bimbo who put on a “screw me” act) inspired Koechlin to some of his loveliest and most delicate piano works in his two “Albums” devoted to her, and Korstick lavishes them with multiple shades of tone color. The later Sonatines are elegant, bouncy, charming music, almost like salon pieces from the turn of the 20th century.

The Persian Hours is, of course, one of Koechlin’s great masterpieces, a sensitive work of meditation and inner peace, which is ironic considering that today Persia is Iran, one of the largest centers of state-sponsored terrorism. The music is slow, atmospheric, almost atypical of Koechlin, more of a “mood” piece than most of what he wrote (except for moments like “En vue de la ville”), but unfailingly mesmerizing and brilliant, particularly the 12th piece (“Arabesques”) which is mostly a fugue. Korstick plays it superbly, giving us a performance on par with that of Ralph van Raat (Naxos).

The most unusual qualities of The Persian Hours are that Koechlin uses no key signatures, no time signatures or metronome markings. The first piece, simply marked “Lent,” features no less than 19 quarter-note beats in its first bar, irregularly divided using dotted quarters (some tied to regular quarter-note chords) while the left hand plays a series of single eighth notes, divided in groups of 4, 3, 3, 2, 3, 4, 4 (with tone cluster chords played above the single eighths), an eighth note rest, then 4, 5, 2 and 3. The second bar in the work has but three beats divided into a double-dotted eighth followed by a 16th, then a half note. Quixotically, there then follows a rest mark of indeterminate length. The third bar appears to be in 5/4, unevenly divided and including a five-eighth-note group in the left hand played against a conventional grouping of 4 eighth notes in the right. This kind of musical jigsaw puzzle can drive even the most professional and sophisticated pianist insane, since it has no specific rhyme or reason about it. It is music of feeling and as close to a rejection of “music as mathematics” as could possibly be done.

Persian p 1

The last CD covers more small piano pieces, the most substantial of which are the Esquisses, although the Dances for Ginger (Rogers), yet another of the blonde movie stars he was infatuated with in his later years, are exceptionally fine music. Hey, who cares as long as the music is good, right? The second of the “Ginger Dances” bears a strange resemblance to Satie’s Gymnopedies while the first two of the 5 Sonatines, Op. 59 sound more like dance music. L’Ancienne Maison de campagne or The Old Country House consists of 13 little gems, each of which could easily serve as an encore piece, yet which as a set presents us with a charming mental image of a lost world. Today the old country house would be overrun by Muslim “refugees.” At times the delicacy and “space” in this music puts you in mind of The Persian Hours.

I’m not sure why Korstick only recorded the first 12 Esquisses rather than the full set of 24. Surely he could have omitted some of the smaller and less consequential pieces from the first or third CD to make room for the remaining dozen? I say this because he does such a superb job with them that I wished he had finished the set.

All in all, then, this is an outstanding collection of Koechlin’s piano and chamber music—not complete, but comprehensive nonetheless. To my mind it makes all other Koechlin collections pretty much superfluous.

Onward and upward to the orchestral music!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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