Ella Warms Up the Concertgebouw in 1961

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THE LOST RECORDINGS: ELLA FITZGERALD LIVE AT THE CONCERTGEBOUW / Spoken introduction by Norman Granz. LEVY: Won’t You Please Let Me In. BOCK-WEISS-HOLOFERNER: Too Close for Comfort. LOESSER: On a Slow Boat to China. G. & I. GERSHWIN: How Long Has This Been Going On? I’ve Got a Crush On You. Lorelei. CARMICHAEL-LOESSER: Heart and Soul. DONALDSON: You’re Driving Me Crazy. ARLEN-MERCER: That Old Black Magic. ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN: Lover Come Back to Me. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine. WEILL-BRECHT: Mack the Knife. HANDY: St. Louis Blues / Ella Fitzgerald, voc (all tracks except 1 & 2); Lou Levy Quartet: Levy, pn; Herb Ellis, gt; Wilfrid Middlebrooks, bs; Gus Johnson, dm / Fondamenta 1704027 (live: Amsterdam, February 18, 1961)

This formerly “lost” live session (probably not lost at all, since it was found, but simply misplaced as happened so often back in those days) is particularly warm and relaxed, the kind of session that almost never made it onto records in a studio. It opens with a spoken introduction by Norman Granz, a man who jazz musicians of all races and colors should get down on their knees and thank for promoting them against all odds, financial, musical and social, before moving into a nine-minute instrumental by the Lou Levy Trio. Levy was a good pianist though he won’t set your heart a-flutter with invention or excitement, and although the piece they play here is titled Won’t You Please Let Me In, the opening and closing are lifted straight from Bobby Timmons’ Moanin’. Interestingly, it’s the little-known bassist Wilfrid Middlebrooks who plays the most interesting and inventive solo here. His 2008 obituary in the Los Angeles Times put it succinctly: “Middlebrooks earned a reputation with musicians as an unflappable timekeeper, whose mastery of the instrument allowed him to be ‘heard as well as felt, but not obtrusively.’”

But then here comes Ella, and the two best things about her performance here is that she’s in fabulous voice and mucho relaxed. Her sense of jazz time is as impeccable as always, but although she sings with her usual joie-de-vivre she’s not pressuring the voice too hard. It’s like the live set that Frank Sinatra did in Australia with the Red Norvo band; everything clicks and sounds perfect, as if a master jazz composer had written out every note and phrase for her in advance. I’m not one of those who normally waxes enthusiastic over Ella the ballad singer—indeed, my regular readers know that I am allergic to lightweight, “cozy” readings of ballads by female singers—but even here, in How Long Has This Been Going On?, her sense of time is simply flawless, reminding me of her great 1939 recording of Stairway to the Stars. And she continues this cool groove into Heart and Soul, a song that no kid growing up in America during the 1950s and ‘60s can ever forget because we ALL learned to play the melody with one finger while some other kid played the boom-boom-cha-cha boom-boom-cha-cha rhythm in the bass clef.

Ella picks the tempo up, twice, in You’re Driving Me Crazy, medium-up at the beginning and very up for the second half, where she spurs Herb Ellis into some almost R&B-type licks. Then she drops the tempo into a nice bluesy groove for some off-the-cuff improv at the end. What a great performance! That Old Black Magic, which debuted on discs as a ballad (sung by Skip Nelson with the Glenn Miller band) but then became a hot tune for most jazz musicians, is also taken at a medium-uptempo, and the slight relaxation this creates is exploited by Fitzgerald’s right-on-the-money swinging groove. But there’s no holding back at all in her blazing version of Lover, Come Back to Me, which takes off like a rocket and never lets up. At the beginning of My Funny Valentine she promises the crowd, “it won’t be like the record. OK?” But it’s beautifully sung, her voice full and rich as it frequently was. I’ve Got a Crush on You continues her streak of ballads, but although Lorelei starts as an out-of-tempo ballad it moves into a bit harder pace with a nice kick from drummer Gus Johnson. Oddly enough for someone who sang the song 1,000 times since 1939, Ella forgot the opening lyrics of Mr. Paganini, singing “The concert was over in…concert hall,” but then corrects herself. It’s still a silly song, but no one could sing it as well she did.

In Mack the Knife Ella does her own thing while channeling Louis Armstrong. It swings but big deal. Happily, we still have the St. Louis Blues, and after a zillion versions of it (trivia question: who made the first vocal recording of it? No fair Googling it! It was white singer Marion Harris, for Columbia in 1918. She had to leave Victor for Columbia because Victor wouldn’t let her record it) she manages to find something fresh in it, singing the first half in a nice medium groove before doubling the tempo and driving it home on made-up lyrics (and scat, of course).

And so ends this wonderful, relaxed live date by one of America’s finest jazz singers.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Kay Johannsen’s Quirky But Fabulous Music

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SUNRISE / JOHANNSEN: Fiery Dance. Encore I. Encore II. Encore III. The Great Wall. Vorspiel aus der Orgeloper, “Nachtbus.” Song of Hope. Sunrise. Pièce pour flûte et orgue.* Improvisation über B-A-C-H. Concerto for Organ, Strings & Percussion+ / Kay Johannson, org; *Julie Stewart, fl; +Stiftsphilharmonie Stuttgart; +Mikhail Gerts, cond. / Carus 83.485

It’s not usual nowadays that we encounter a composer whose principal instrument is the organ. Oh yes, there are many works written for the organ, but normally by non-organists. Kay Johannsen, on the other hand, is organist at the Stiftskirche Stuttgart, and he is also a composer with a great ear for musical color as well as a modernist bent. The very first piece, for instance, Fiery Dance, is a transmutation of de Falla’s famed Ritual Fire Dance, only shifted to 3/4 time, using modern modulations and increasing in both tempo and volume from start to finish. It’s as good an introduction as any of the wonderfully creative musical mind he possesses.

But if you think that’s wild, wait ‘til you hear Encore I, which almost sounds like circus music on acid. The tune is upbeat and largely tonal, but not straightforward by any means. As the liner notes say, it is “characterized on the one hand by arpeggios in both hands over a continuous pedal line, and on the other hand by a solo voice which is accompanied with percussive rhythms in the left hand and pedal.” Equally strange is Encore II, which has a sort of Eastern-fantasia quality about it. It is centered around D minor but uses whole tones and broken chords. Encore III almost sounds like an old French pop tune of the 1960s (think of those Claude Bolling film scores), except that the harmony keeps on moving and shifting chromatically.

The Great Wall, a more serious piece, was of course inspired by a concert tour in China. But it is really only more serious in terms of its greater length (almost eight minutes) and complexity. The music still veers towards tonality, and Johanssen composes real tunes as his themes, which he develops in an interesting manner. Once again there is an Asian tinge to the score, more creative use of chromatics, as well as an organ “thunderstorm” in the middle. A bolero-type rhythm is set up, against which Johanssen plays yet another variant on the original tune. It ends in a blaze of glory.

The Vorspiel aus der Orgeloper, “Nachtbus” is the prelude to an 80-minute opera that Johansson wrote in 2010 for two singers, flute, percussion and organ. The music here is much more harmonically dense and also more “serious” (if I may use that term) in tone, being quite dense in structure. For this recording, Johanssen left out the percussion accompaniment.

The Song of Hope is a strange mixture of popular song, classical fantasia and a bit of ominous harmony. It sounds like something the Phantom of the Opera might play for himself in a cheerful mood. Eventually a syncopated figure shows up and dominates the proceedings. The notes suggest that this evokes a saxophone soloists with a jazz band, but rhythmically speaking Johansson is not quite Fats Waller; he doesn’t really play the jazz rhythms crisply enough. (But then again, neither does any other pipe organist I know of.)

Sunrise, dating from 2016, started out its life as an improvisation and it sounds it. The music is ruminative yet exploratory, quiet yet with a feeling of disquiet. Close seconds in the harmony continually pop into the picture, disturbing the otherwise placid surface of the music. The notes indicate that despite the title, Sunrise is not intended to be program music or to specifically suggest the rising of the sun. Slowly but surely, the music becomes more and more complex, with Johannsen adding layers to it so that it almost sounds as if two organists are playing in tandem. The music’s complexity continues to grow as it crescendos to a full forte, then ever more complex as contrary eighth-note figures play against one another.

The Piece for Flute and Organ marks a complete change of pace for Johannsen. Here, the music is light, lyrical, and transparent, reminiscent of some of the best French music from the early 20th century. Debussy, Saint-Saëns or Koechlin would have been proud to claim it, as it moves along slowly but beautifully through a number of dissolves into quietude. On the other hand, the Improvisation over B-A-C-H is just that, an improvised piece using the basic notes of B, A, C and B-flat (called H in German) to create a fascinating piece with real development and evolution. At around the 2:40 mark, the music moves into an almost Spanish tango rhythm, then slows down while the organist simulates bells and then evolves into yet another rhythmic pace as the theme morphs and changes. Eventually it becomes a swirling mélange of notes, leading to its conclusion.

The CD ends with the Concerto for Organ, Strings and Percussion (2014), a work that harks back to the neo-classical style of the 1920s but not quite in the Stravinsky vein. Once again Johannsen flirts with Spanish rhythm, uses chromatic shifts to great effect, and shows a proclivity for using the orchestra almost as if it were a three-manual organ. The second movement begins with a lovely, lyrical violin solo, which eventually blends into the soft organ tone as Johannsen plays an alternative theme, much more complex and involved. The development section, however, belongs mostly to the orchestra with occasional organ interludes. The third movement, a sort of odd-sounding Schero, has an irregular 1, 2, 1-2 1-2 kind of pulse with quite a bit of syncopation. The notes indicate that all movements of this concerto are based on the same motivic material, but that the composer did not intend for listeners to be aware of this at first hearing. Eventually, the Scherzo moves almost imperceptibly into the last movement, which is quite lively and, again, almost Spanish-sounding. One of the things I like most about Johannsen’s music is that it is playful, in the sense that he plays with the music in his mind and somehow comes out with results that sound spontaneous even when through-composed.

This is a wonderful CD, but do yourself a favor and also check out his organ opera Nachtbus on YouTube, available in three sections beginning here.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rodney Green & Warren Wolf Cook in Montmartre!

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COREA: Bud Powell. Humpty Dumpty. MANDEL-MERCER: Emily. MONK: Well, You Needn’t. ‘Round Midnight. POWELL-DAVIS: Budo. PORTER: Just One of Those Things / Rodney Green Quartet: Green, dm; Warren Wolf, vib; Jacob Christoffersen, pn; David Wong, bs / Storyville 2017 (live: Copenhagen, February 18-20, 2016)

This is one of those really “feel-good” jazz sets that set your toes tapping and your heart dancing. Americans Rodney Green, Warren Wolf and David Wong are joined by Danish pianist Jacob Christoffersen for these joyous performances from the famed Jazzhaus Montmartre in Copenhagen, and the good vibes (no pun intended) are felt from start to finish. I was particularly impressed by Wolf’s playing, unfailingly inventive and quite virtuosic without ever sounding forced. In fact, what I liked more than anything was how buoyant Wolf sounded even in those moments when Green was clearly overplaying his drums, introducing too much “busy-ness” into the music. This was especially evident on the set’s opener, Bud Powell. Green played just fine behind Christoffersen’s piano solo, but sounded a bit too much all over the place behind Wolf.

Yet as I say, the overall vibe of this set is exuberant and hugely enjoyable jazz. What a pleasure it is to listen to music for its own sake without wondering what the beat is, how the chords morph, or what the political implications of the music are supposed to be. The tightness of the piano-bass combination behind Wolf is also a treat for the ear, particularly on Humpty Dumpty, and Green is more on the beat and less of a showoff here, too. The result is a performance that just glides, and swings, from start to finish, building in tension and excitement as it progresses. Christoffersen is particularly good here, too, flying along with the rhythm through a series of chromatically-influenced rapid phrases.

Johnny Mandel’s jazz waltz Emily is a rare moment of relaxation for the quartet, which plays it with mellow ease. Green also plays tastefully on this one, and Wolf plays one of his finest solos. Christoffersen plays sparsely behind a fine solo from bassist Wong. Next we get a two-tune tribute to Thelonious, Well, You Needn’t and ‘Round Midnight. The former is taken at an unusual pace: Wolf playing rapidly in the foreground while the rhythm section plays half-time behind him, at least until the theme statement is over and he begins soloing. I admit to a personal fondness for the vibes as an instrument, so it doesn’t bother me in the least that Wolf has so much solo space. I could listen to vibes players or harpsichords all day long and love every minute of it. Christoffersen is particularly felicitous and swinging here, too, coming up with some remarkable phrases and fills. In ‘Round Midnight the band takes a leisurely (13:20) stroll through Monk’s classic tune, although Christoffersen never tries to evoke the composer’s own playing style. At such a pace, Wolf has plenty of time to unfold his solo and he does so, albeit at double tempo for much of it. The pianist, by contrast, sticks to a more relaxed pace, playing mostly single notes in the right hand above occasional chords in the left. When Wolf returns, he is in the same relaxed groove as Christoffersen.

Having already played one tribute to Bud Powell, the band plays another: Budo, written by Powell himself and Miles Davis for the latter’s “birth of the cool” tuba band in 1949. This is a straightahead bebop romp, with Wolf in fine form and Christoffersen joyfully feeding him chords as he progresses. When the pianist plays his own solo, it is surprisingly un-Powell-like, being a rapid series of single notes played in what sounds like the middle of the keyboard, first leaning towards the bass and then moving up a bit into the treble, though he eventually becomes much busier and starts channeling his inner Bud.

The album ends with an old Cole Porter classic from Jubilee, Just One of Those Things. The quartet plays it at a very uptempo that simple glides, so swiftly that the familiar melody almost sounds like minimalism. When Wolf takes off, he has Wong’s propulsive bass to drive him, with Green playing very rapid paradiddles and Christoffersen feeding them staccato chords on the keyboard. This one really flies into the upper stratosphere! Even when Wolf stops playing, the Wong-Green duo keep on keepin’ on, pushing Christoffersen as well, though the pianist keeps his own council and plays his solo the way he wants to.

No two ways about it, this is an exciting and fun album. Get it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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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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