Donatoni’s Strange Chamber Music


DONATONI: Marches for Harp Solo. Nidi for Piccolo Solo. Clair for Clarinet Solo. Small for Piccolo, Clarinet & Harp. Estratto for Piano Solo. Secondo Estratto for Piano, Harpsichord & Harp. Quarto Estratto for Piccolo, Flute, Violin, Mandolin, Harp, Harpsichord, Piano & Celesta / Ensemble Adapter / Kairos Music 0015021KAI

What other composer do you know who would even think of writing marches for a solo harp? Particularly those you can’t really march to? But that pretty much sums up Franco Donatoni, perhaps the strangest of Italy’s avant-garde composers of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, whose music I have praised in the past. Even his performance instructions were strange, as witness this direction to his harpist:

Staccatissimo, as soft as possible; the white notes are to be played by hitting the fingertip against the corresponding string, without plucking the string.

Pretty strange, huh? But as I say, not as strange as the music itself. He once summed up his aesthetic this way: “A single idea suffices to compose a piece. There’s no need to amass scores of them. Again and again, I observe how ideas are simply wasted, resulting in arbitrariness and complete confusion. In order to avoid this, we should think about codes or sets of guidelines, according to which we can organize, transform and develop single ideas.” But it wasn’t as simple as that. Donatoni often worked with strict mathematical or geometric patterns, the liner notes tell us, “in which chains of pitches are perceivable not as shapes or expressive gestures but rath­er as structured flows of energy.” To put it another way, he went off the deep end but always had SCUBA gear with him to provide oxygen when he needed it.

The two pieces titled Nidi for Piccolo Solo are as abstract as anything you will ever hear, yet the music is fascinating in its own way. Beginning with a single, simple idea, it builds on itself almost like a Bach violin sonata or cello suite, with little notes both high and low sprouting from the main theme to embellish and fill it out. I find it a bit odd that the individual musicians of Ensemble Adapter do not identify themselves anywhere in the booklet or on the CD inlay; they are all fine virtuosi and should be applauded individually for their efforts here. I had to go to their website to find their names: Kristjana Helgadóttir on flute and piccolo; Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson on clarinet; Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir on harp and Matthias Engler on percussion (and, I would assume, piano and harpsichord). The clarinet pieces titled Clair are so virtuosic that even the difficulties of Bartók’s Contrasts fade into the background; this is riotous, almost manic music, particularly the first of them which requires acrobatics from the soloist.

But when you get to Small for piccolo, clarinet and harp, you realize you haven’t even heard the strangest music yet. This is begins like ambient classical, except that it uses bits and pieces of the previous three works, combining them and eventually becoming quite excitable. The piccolo screams in the upper register, the clarinet plays a lyrical theme and the harp surrounds them with a series of corrugated eighth notes. Eventually the clarinet gives up trying to be lyrical and instead tries to shout the piccolo down, to no avail. Of this piece Donatoni stated, “One could say that the piccolo is the husband, the harp the wife and the clarinet ‘the third party.’”

Estratto, a one-minute piece for piano, is comprised of “short, systematic attacks that form a continuous pulse.” The Secondo Estratto is ten and a half minutes long but uses the same principle, multiplied in this case by dividing the music up between piano, harpsichord and harp. In this instance, however, I felt that Donatoni went on too long and said nothing of any value for the last eight and a half minutes. The fourth Estratto, for piccolo, flute, mandolin, harpsichord, harp, piano and celesta, instructed to play “as quickly as possible,” is undoubtedly the most interesting. Here the cross-currents of the various instruments create a whirlwind pattern that the ear must straighten out and make clear. It’s possible to do this but it takes great concentration. A snippet of the score (below) gives one an idea of the piece’s difficulty in performing.

Quartetto Estratto

With the exception of the second Estratto, I liked this collection of pieces very much. They’re strange enough to capture the imagination and different enough to hold one’s interest.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Martinů’s Great Early Orchestral Works Recorded


MARTINŮ: Vanishing Midnight. Ballade (after Böcklin’s picture, “Villa By the Sea”). Dream of the Past / Agnieszka Kopacka, pn; Sinfonia Varvosia; Ian Hobson, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0414

This, the third in a series of CDs by Ian Hobson of Martinů’s orchestral music, begins with a bona-fide masterpiece. The three-part suite Vanishing Midnight, finished in 1922, was the first of his works to be performed by the great Czech conductor Vaclav Talich (though not in its entirety). The music is absolutely incredible: powerful, complex and at the same time appealing, it occupies the same sound-world as his 1955 masterpiece The Epic of Gilgamesh (which I reviewed earlier in this blog). Here Martinů expands his orchestral palette to encompass an entirely new world of sound, while at the same time taking a tip from Mahler in using only a small portion of the orchestra here and there for more intimate moments. Because of this, the music struck me as almost being like a concerto grosso in which the wind section here and the strings there play passages that contribute to the whole. It’s astonishing to consider that this is its world premiere recording.

As usual with conductor (and pianist) Ian Hobson, we get a clean, emotional but largely no-nonsense performance. There are no passages that linger or stop to smell the roses. Once the rhythmic impetus is set, the music moves on its own course from start to finish. In between, Hobson works hard to bring out the orchestral detail of the score the same way conductors like Rodziński did. He also does not indulge in bathos or other Romanticized touches. I believe this is the right approach; the Czechs, like the Hungarians, have long produced musicians and composers who are more interested in getting to the core of the music and not in trying to impress the listener with impressionistic touches.

In Vanishing Midnight the top line of the music that “leads” the harmonic changes, not the other way around. This is the opposite of the French impressionistic approach of Debussy or Koechlin. Even when the music becomes quiet, as towards the end of the first movement, clarity rather than an opaque sound is the rule. That being said, the central movement, titled “The Blue Hour,” sounds somewhat like the exotic music of Koechlin’s The Jungle Book. This was the piece that Talich conducted in 1923, and it was repeated in a performance by Karel Kalik in 1926. To quote from Michael Crump’s excellent liner notes:

For many years, Vanishing Midnight was thought not to have survived intact. In the first edition of his catalogue of Martinů’s works, Harry Halbreich listed only ‘Modrá hodina’, stating that the piece was the central movement of a larger triptych. He went on to state that the first movement, ‘Satyři vháji cypřišu’ (‘Satyrs in the Grove of Cypresses’), was lost, but that orchestral parts for the second movement and indeed the third (‘Stíny’ – ‘Shadows’) were housed in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra archive in the Rudolfinum in Prague.

Yet somehow the music was found, although Crump doesn’t tell us where or how the missing first movement (“Satyrs in the Grove of Cypresses”) was discovered. The music is, as I say, quite astonishing. Crump gives us some detail of the musical progression and how Martinů put it together:

‘Satyrs’ begins in D flat major, the violas embellishing the seventh of the chord with trills above and below it. Muted horns sound in the distance, and a cloud of polytonal semiquavers issues from the violins and dispels in an instant, like ‘the scent of blossoms rising from the garden’. Longer string lines emerge, each beginning with a descending perfect fourth, inherited from Dream of the Past and destined to head the majority of the important themes in Vanishing Midnight. Presently a solo violin delivers a languid theme, followed by a four-bar solo for trumpet, lifted from Dream of the Past with only minor rhythmic adjustments. A brief reminiscence of the opening bars rounds out this introduction, setting a precedent for the entire movement: each new episode that arises during its course is fatally attracted and destroyed by the gravitational pull of the opening bars, like objects on an event-horizon succumbing to the irresistible strength of a black hole.

The bulk of ‘Satyrs’ is devoted to the symphonic elaboration of a slow waltz delivered at first by solo flute and then clarinet. This melody has also been heard within Dream of the Past, somewhat concealed within the long oboe solo towards the start (the clearest resemblance is found between 9:03 and 1:59). In the earlier work, this phrase is a mere incident, but in ‘Satyrs’ its symphonic credentials are revealed and exploited at once; it is developed through a gradual accelerando by the oboe and then by full strings, capped by a thrilling Maestoso and a tumultuous chromatic descent. Once more, the textures of the opening return to absorb the energy of this impressive outburst, though now the distant sounds are all but drowned out by massive swells from the percussion.

A sudden turn to C major announces the second half of the movement, generally swifter in tempo and perhaps portraying the ‘distant celebrations’ of the programme. This section introduces a two-bar theme on the trumpet, another theme with a kinship to material from Dream of the Past (compare 8:54 with 7:36). Again, Martinů is keen to develop this old material in its new surroundings; the trumpet snippet alternates with snatches of the earlier waltz theme, later becoming the springboard for an idyll high in the strings as well as a more urgent sequel in the woodwind.

But it’s not just “Satyrs” that’s great; so, too, is the third movement, “Shadows,” which has even more complex counterpoint and a highly dramatic, surging pulse and top line that belie the impression conveyed by its title.

Conversely, the earlier Ballade (1915) was one of only two pieces by Martinů inspired by a piece of visual art (the other was the later Frescoes), in this case Arnold Böcklin’s various paintings of Villa by the Sea. The cypress trees in all of them are bent to the strong ocean winds, and a woman gazes pensively out to sea. Martinů tried to capture this feeling in dark colors and a feeling as if the sea winds were moving relentlessly towards the villa, only to fall back when the winds recede. This is by no means an immature work; on the contrary, it is beautifully and well crafted, and in addition to the use of a piano there is a long, forlorn viola solo. Hobson manages to capture the lonely quality of this music beautifully, as well as the more powerful moments that surge in and out of the score. Moreover, Martinů “builds” the music in stages of intensity as he develops his themes. Oddly, however, the solo piano, playing softly, rides the music out to the end. It’s a heck of a piece, and this, too, is a world premiere recording.

villa-by-the-sea 1865

Villa by the Sea 1878

Two versions of “Villa by the Sea,” 1865 and 1878.

Dreams of the Past comes from 1920 and, although it may be the slightest work on this set it is by no means a poor piece. It is, however, more resolutely tonal and impressionistic in character, making it sound, perhaps, less Martinů-like than the other works here. There is a louder middle section with a tambourine(!) that acts as an effective contrast. Later on we hear swirling winds around a solo oboe, followed in turn by a surprisingly dark, sinister orchestral passage. The piece does, however, end quietly with the winds playing and soft strings in the upper register playing in the background.

This is a simply wonderful CD and a great addition to Martinů’s legacy.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Miles’ Mega-Sax Groups Stir Up the Gumbo

Profound Like Gumbo

PROFOUND…LIKE GUMBO! / WATSON: Conservation.1 MOWER: The Easter Islander.1 Building.1 Svea Rike.1 Full English Breakfast.1 D’RIVERA: Wapango.2 JACKSON: The Frequent Flyer.2 KONITZ: Ablution.3 DAILEY: Title Goes Here.3 First Step.3 Union County Line.4 OSLAND: Lisa’s da Bossa.3 CARUCCI: Cecilism.4 Grey Swans.4 PRATT: The Kwisatz Haderach.4 Blame It…4 KIRK: Serenade to a Cuckoo4 / 1Mega-Sax Quartet 1: David Balfour, s-sax/a-sax; Rudy Brannon, a-sax; Lindon Kanakanui, t-sax; Joe Carucci, bar-sax. 2Mega-Sax Quartet 2: Chris Barber, s-sax/a-sax; Jana White, a-sax; Joshua Branham, t-sax; Tom Wallis, bar-sax. 3Osland/Dailey Duo: Miles Osland, s-sax/a-sax/fl; Raleigh Dailey, pn. 4Profound Gumbo: Kelly Pratt, tpt/fl-hn; Brad Kerns, tb; Joe Carucci, bar-sax; Dailey, keyboards; Danny Cecil, bs; Matt Skaggs, dm / Sea Breeze SB-4546

And here is yet another earlier CD from Miles Osland’s Mega-Sax bands. This one, from 2002, is just as interesting as Stinkin’ Up the Place.

The opening selection, Robert Watson’s Conservation, is well written if more in a jazz form than classically-influenced, with powerful solos by Rudy Brannon on alto and Joe Carucci on baritone sax. It’s just that here structure isn’t quite as important as the swing and drive of the music; it’s still there but not quite as complex. But any composition written by Mike Mower has solid and often unusual structure, and his four pieces here clearly fit the bill. Nonetheless, The Easter Islander, written for soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, is simply amazing in the manner which the saxes interweave behind David Balfour’s soprano solo as well as after it. It’s almost like Bird meets Monk. Mower’s Building follows, a rare slow piece for him with some space between the notes, allowing the melodic line to coalesce more fluidly and less rhythmically…at least for a while. Soon enough, the saxes begin to intertwine in polyrhythmic complexity. This could easily have been part of yet another Stinkin’ album. Eventually the baritone sax plays an ostinato figure while the top saxes interweave around each other, then a quick ride-out. Mower’s Svea Rilke is similarly structured. Boy, does he like counterpoint!

Paquito D’Rivera’s Wapango, though built around an opening chorus in Latin rhythm, is also informed by counterpoint. Mower’s Full English Breakfast is, perhaps, a bit less interesting than its predecessors—not from lack of contrapuntal figures but simply because the theme and its development seem to me a bit less original—but taken on its own merits, it’s a good, swinging piece that shows off the group’s chops. The tempo slows down for Carucci’s baritone solo, but he turns up the heat with his hard-swinging beat.

We then get into several duets between Osland on soprano sax and flute and Raleigh Dailey on piano. Lee Konitz’ Ablution almost has a Lennie Tristano vibe; after all, Konitz was one of Tristano’s close friends and colleagues. Dailey’s light and airy solo nonetheless sounds a bit more West Coast style and less like Lennie’s complex playing. It’s a little odd not to hear at least a bass working in the background, but the lack of any rhythmic underpinning gives the music an almost weightless quality, as if it were floating on air. The same goes for his original pieces, Title Goes Here and First Step, although his own compositional style is bluesier than Konitz’. The first of these almost has a sound like those “Western”-styled pieces that were so popular during the 1950s, while First Step is a ballad, with rich chord changes and a lovely lyric line played to perfection by Osland on the flute. Dailey’s piano solo is also a gem, and when Osland returns the two play together in perfect synchronization with a nice, genial feeling for the swing of the piece. The last of their duets together is an Osland original, Lisa’s da Bossa, a reference to his wife, who is also a saxist. It’s a very nice piece whose melody line and chord choices have a strangely Mingus-like quality, though Dailey’s piano solo suggests a Latin beat in the first eight bars. It’s really wonderful to hear these two outstanding artists and pedagogues play together, two musical minds that obviously like and respect one another.

Dailey’s Union County Line, written for the Mega-Sax Ensemble, returns to the sort-of-Western beat of Title Goes Here, punched up in this case by Dailey on a Fender Rhodes and the wonderfully swinging but understated bass lines of Danny Cecil. Miles flies on alto here, followed in turn by (surprisingly) a couple of brass players, trombonist Brad Kerns and trumpeter Kelly Pratt. This one almost has a “Blue Note” vibe about it that I really liked. Dailey’s solo is as clean as if he were engraving each note on a locket. The cool jazz vibe returns for Joe Carucci’s Cecilism, played with Pratt on flugelhorn and featuring some delicious intertwining of the various instruments in fugal fashion. This sounds as much unlike the usual hard-hitting Mega-Sax sound as you can possibly imagine, but it works beautifully, providing a nice contrast. Pratt’s solo is a real gem.

The Kwisatz Haderach is a piece that seems combine a Latin beat with Middle Eastern harmonies…again, another ‘50s type of sound. It’s beautifully written, avoiding the flashier sort of style for which Osland’s Mega-Sax groups are famous, with excellent spot solos. By contrast, Carucci’s Grey Swans is a moody ballad, scoring the trumpet and the reeds down in their middle ranges and spotting Dailey again on piano. The composer provides a nicely meditative baritone solo, followed by Pratt in his lower range (sounding a bit like Louis Mucci) and Dailey.

Pratt’s original, Blame It…, begins in ballad tempo, built around a slippery theme (played well by Dailey) which fades into a cymbal wash followed by a drum solo. Following this the tempo doubles, the theme changes, and Pratt’s trumpet leads us into an ostinato groove over which he plays for a chorus. Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Serenade to a Cuckoo begins with what can only be described as coherent cacophony, out of which comes a slow but swinging bluesy beat with the band playing nice and relaxed. Kerns contributes a nice, burry, Eddie Bert-like trombone solo, and Carucci plays his heart out on the baritone sax. A great finish to a great album, another triumph for the U of K musicians!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Osland Goes Classical With “Intrinsic Versatility”

Intrinsic Versatility

INTRINSIC VERSATILITY / FISCHER: Rhapsody Nova. DEBUSSY: Syrinx. MOWER: Collaboração. Conglomerate. HINDEMITH: 8 Pieces. ÅSTRAND: Finding Fossils. STRAVINSKY: 3 Pieces. BURNETTE: This Ain’t Your Grandfather’s Stinkin’ Rondo. WILLIAMS: Escapades for Alto Saxophone / Miles Osland, fl/s-sax/a-sax/t-sax/bar-sax/C-fl/pic/a-fl/bs-fl/Bb sop cl; Raleigh Dailey, pn; Vince DiMartino, tpt/fl-hn; UK Wind Ensemble, Symphony Band & Percussion Ensemble / Mark 50209

This is a rare chance to hear Miles Osland, mentor of the University of Kentucky’s jazz sax program, play in a more classical vein, and if anything his artistry is enhanced by the specific pieces chosen for this program.

It begins with a “jazzical” piece (as Mingus liked to call them) by the late Clare Fischer, an outstanding composer and one of Osland’s mentors. Rhapsody Nova is a fascinating work by any standard, uses various unusual wind timbres and blends in the ensemble playing behind the soloist (in this case flute). I don’t know the date for this work, but it certainly sounds like mature Fischer, possibly from the 1980s. Later on, the soloist switches to clarinet while the music continues to evolve in its own unusual and slightly quirky manner, yet it is developed along fairly strict classical lines. The UK Wind Ensemble plays beautifully behind Osland, who in a later section changes to alto sax. This was written for the superb reed player Gary Foster, another of Osland’s mentors and teachers.

Debussy’s Syrinx is more standard classical fare, and although Osland was inspired by such flautists as James Galway and Julius Baker he plays it here on soprano sax, but in the original flute key. It is a remarkably sensuous and heartfelt performance, one of the best I’ve ever heard. Following are two pieces by Mike Mower, who generally writes hot (but complex) scores for the UK Mega-Sax Ensembles. Here he was working for, and with, three players who can straddle the divide easily: Osland, trumpeter Vince DiMartino and pianist Raleigh Dailey. The music is thus classical in form but with jazz swing. In Collaboração Mower even allows for Dailey to play an improvised solo cadenza before the finish. The tonality vacillates between settled and unsettled, throwing the inattentive listener off. By contrast, Conglomerate is more tonal and rather Latin in its rhythm. In the second half of the piece, trumpeter DiMartino does some neat double-tonguing and the trio takes off almost as if it were a jazz piece. These are wonderful works, but unfortunately they call for musicians who can straddle the jazz-classical divide, and such are not that common as one might think.

One might think Paul Hindemith’s astringent music unsuited to a program like this, but Osland’s flute playing has a genial, relaxed feeling for rhythm that is disarming even in the face of the composer’s modernity of style. The lyrical ebb and flow of these pieces would be the envy of many a strictly classical flute player.

Finding Fossils is described by composer Anders Åstrand as having started as “an improvisation that became the foundation or core idea for the piece,” the second find being “the melody, which came as a logical continuation of the initial improvisation. The end result is a piece for flute (playing into an echo chamber) with 14 mallet players, wandering into its own little byways and alleys. After the echo-laden introduction, the music enters its lyrical phase as Osland switches to bass flute over marimba playing, with other percussionists (triangle, xylophone and chimes) coming in later on. Osland switches back to regular flute for the main body of the work. What I found interesting was that, for the most part, the lyrical quality of the score comes out through the percussion players while the solo flautist goes on his (or her) own excursions in and around them. Åstrand doesn’t say if there are improvised passages in the music or not, but in places it sounds like it. In the second half of the piece, it really swings!

As for Stravinsky’s 3 Pieces, Osland mentions that one of his teachers, Charles Bay, “actually had words/lyrics to the harder licks of the pieces,” which he still remembers to help him get through those passages. They are played with great expression, which Stravinsky may or may not have liked (he wasn’t one much for injecting emotion into his scores). To my ears, it sounds like a regular clarinet, but only the Bb soprano clarinet is listed among the instruments Osland plays on this CD.

Certainly, the funniest title of a piece on this disc is Sonny Burnette’s This Ain’t Your Grandfather’s Stinkin’ Rondo (we’re back to the “stinkin’” theme). Osland quadruple-tracked himself to cover all four of the saxophones called for here (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) as well as flute and clarinet, and plays it with a decidedly Mega-Sax Ensemble swagger. It’s a bit like Nikolai Kapustin’s music, a strict classical form wrapped around very jazzy and swinging figures.

We end with a fine piece by John Williams for alto sax and orchestra. Osland is backed here by the University of Kentucky Symphonic Band, and the performance is loose and relaxed. Though based on some of the music Williams wrote for the Spielberg film Catch Me if You Can, it has been adapted here for concert band by Jay Bocook. Osland also “took the liberty” of rescoring the cadenza section of the second movement, making it “a bit more like the original orchestral arrangement.” He also “added some altissimo to the cadenza to create more excitement.” It certainly fleshes out the piece somewhat.

This is an unusual yet outstanding album of works, most of them new to me, played in an outstanding manner by all concerned.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Turtle Island Quartet’s “Bird’s Eye View”

Turtle Island

BIRD’S EYE VIEW / BALAKRISHNAN: Aeroelasticity: Harmonies of Impermanence. Squawk. Rebirth of the Holy Fool. KONITZ: Subconscious-Lee. DAVIS: Miles Ahead. PARKER: Dewey Square. VON GUTZEIT: Propeller. LEWIS: Django / Turtle Island Quartet: Alex Hargreaves, David Balakrishnan, vln; Benjamin von Gutzeit, vla; Malcolm Parson, cel / Azica ACD-71318

I was a bit surprised to discover that the famed Turtle Island String Quartet no longer uses the word “String” in its name. Apparently this dates from their tenure on the Telarc label several years ago, when they were told that jazz listeners and club owners might shy away from a string group. I guess they’re supposed to be surprised when they show up with violins, a viola and a cello.

But the music on this disc is classic TISQ. Ostensibly a tribute to Charlie “Bird” Parker, who first introduced extended chords and overtones up to a 13th into jazz, it covers a fairly wide range of musical styles, including the cool jazz of Miles Davis, John Lewis and Lee Konitz that was built around Parker’s innovations but took it a couple of steps in a different direction. We should also bear in mind that Bird wanted desperately to study classical music with Stefan Wolpe, and was ironically granted permission to do so a few weeks before he died at age 35.

The opening suite, Aeroelasticity, is a tribute by Balakrishnan to both his own father, who was a mathematician, and Parker. The music is very modern and almost classical, leaning towards the kind of music that Wolpe wrote, while still using the kind of extended chords that Bird pioneered. I loved the calypso-type rhythm in “Backlash,” the opening movement…Balakrishnan is as inventive as ever, the music changing both mood and rhythm, then just as suddenly ending in the midst of a phrase. “Lonesome George” has an edgier, harder-sounding opening before shifting gears towards the kind of swinging bluegrass style that has also been a Balakrishnan trademark. This piece is meant to depict the life journey of a giant Galapagos turtle who was too old and tired to mate, and so his species died with him. As a result, the music continually shifts in all three respects, melody, harmony and rhythm, yet the underpinning of new cellist Malcolm Parson keeps poor George’s musical story swinging—at least until the end, when he dies and ends up on a taxidermist’s table.

The third movement is titled “Pralaya,” a Sanskrit word for dissolution. This has absolutely nothing to do with Bird, but it’s still a wonderful composition, and in fact even closer to classical sensibilities than to jazz. (Would those club owners who don’t like jazz string quartets allow them to play this? I dunno!) Despite the title, the music is quite busy at times, not at all “dissolving” as much as one might assume. The suite ends with “Flutter Point,” a lightly played but wildly uptempo romp in which the quartet shows off just how much they’ve changed forever the concept of string jazz. Despite the entirely different style, some of the writing here reminded me of the string arrangements that the great but vastly underrated Jimmy Mundy wrote for Paul Whiteman (“I’ve Found a New Baby”) and for Bird himself when he formed his string band in the early 1950s (“Easy to Love”). The ride-out is particularly uptempo and uproarious.

Following this suite, we embark on three jazz classics written by others, Subconscious-Lee, Miles Ahead and Bird’s own Dewey Square. Imaginative and beautifully played, they show off the quartet’s jazz chops in pure jazz material, harking back to their early days and such arrangements as A Night in Tunisia. I particularly liked Parson’s cello solo in the first piece, which eventually morphs into a double-time obbligato behind the other strings, as well as von Gutzeit’s writing in the ensuing ensemble chorus which sounds based on an improvisation.

Davis’ Miles Ahead, according to arranger Alex Hargreaves, is configured in such a way that “the dialogue between musicians” is more important than the individual solos, making every performance of this piece “different and not without some pleasant surprises.” Of course, I only have this recording to go by, but it is indeed a well-crafted score, allowing more “space” than usual in the quartet’s playing. Conversely, Parsons’ arrangement of Bird’s Dewey Square is a lesson in having the melodic line, harmony and rhythm all move together simultaneously. This is a neat trick all-too-rarely pulled off well by jazz composers, a style of writing initiated c. 1926 by innovative arranger Bill Challis. You have to “hear” all three elements moving together as one. which generally means that your melody line has to be a tight, moving one that can tie itself to the rhythm and harmony fairly easily. There’s a nice touch in the middle where the tempo briefly shifts to 6/8 before going back again.

Balakrishnan’s strange composition Squawk is based on a true event, when a small town in Arkansas awoke to find flocks of birds lying on the ground and dying for no explainable reason. This is impressionistic music, informed by his jazz sensibilities but largely structured and planned. I dare you to play this piece without identification for your friends who like modern classical string quartet music and ask them to analyze the piece. The variance and juxtaposition of themes alone will have them puzzled but fascinated. It’s the kind of piece that bears repeated listening (I listened to it twice in a row while reviewing the CD.)

Contrasting this is von Gutzeit’s Propeller, meant to depict the “duality of propeller based flight” as opposed “to the ultimate nightmare of any migratory bird” caught in the path of “rotating metal blades.” Perhaps he overthought the subject matter a bit, but the music itself is ingenious and interesting, having a surprisingly strong bluegrass flavor about it, particularly in the first and last sections. The swinging tempo, on the other hand, has an almost Caribbean sound to it, and the harmonies used are fairly modern.

We then reach John Lewis’ Django, which appeared on the very first MJQ album. I’ve always liked the tune but never could figure out what it had to do with Django Reinhardt, whose music was nothing like this. Balakrishnan’s arrangement, however, brings it much closer not only to Django but also to his longtime musical partner, violinist Stéphane Grappelli, who seemingly lived forever and was still active when the TIQ was in their first decade. The tempo is brought up to a medium swinger, Parson plays a great pizzicato cello solo reminiscent of Fred Katz, and the piece takes off before a return to the slower pace for the close-out.

The closer is Balakrishnan’s original, Rebirth of the Holy Fool. This really does kick into a bluegrass groove, or at least bluegrass combined with a strong jazz-funk beat and varying sections which dovetail together nicely. It’s a rousing conclusion to what is, in my view, one of the very finest Turtle Island Quartet records.

Thus we find that this “tribute to bird” is in fact a tribute to a few different kinds of birds, and not just the Charlie Parker variety. If you’re a Turtle Island fan, you need to add this one to your collection!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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An Early Example of the UK Mega-Sax Ensemble “Stinkin’”

Stinkin Up the Place

STINKIN’ UP THE PLACE / MOWER: Hiatus. Quark. KERR: Send in the New Boy. KAPER: Invitation. MINTZER: The Red Sea. McNEELY: Shenanigans. WEINER: Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’. NELSON: New Kid in Town. HITT: Doe-Eyed. MURRAY: A Trip to the Harbor / UK Mega-Sax Ensemble: Jonathan Anderson, a-sax/s-sax; Corey Lareau, t-sax; Bryan Murray, a-sax/t-sax; Jeremy Long, bar-sax; Miles Osland, fl/a-sax; Dave Shelton, Corey Lareau, Lance Hoffmann, sax; Jim Campbell, Djembe; Jason Tiemann, dm / Sea Breeze SBV-4534

When I reviewed the UK Mega-Sax ensemble’s Stinkin’ 3.0 album, and discovered that it was the third installment of a series that began with We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rhythm Section, I contacted Miles Osland who graciously sent me the full series of his CDs. I liked the first disc but, being more oriented towards an R&B feel, not quite as much as this one, which was so good that I just had to review it.

From the first notes of Mike Mower’s Hiatus, you might think you’re listening to Supersax, the famed Charlie Parker-based sax band of the 1970s, so tight is the group and so fleeting the double-time figures that open it, but readers of my blog know by now that Mower’s music is almost always more complex than that. Based on classical principles, the music develops in interesting ways, using several time and chord shifts to keep the listener on his or her toes. And OMG, can this band swing! More interestingly, some of the tenor sax lines are “outside” jazz, something that Osland’s players only do occasionally. By contrast, Billy Kerr’s Send in the New Boy is very much a composition, leaning on jazz rhythm but fully developed. With its twisting lines, curving like snakes on speed, it never quite reaches any moment of repose, and the short solos by alto saxist Bryan Murray and tenor Corey Lareau fit into the overall pattern of the score, as good solos should do. (This is one thing I really love about Miles’ bands: none of his soloists play improvisations that don’t fit the surrounding material. I think it comes from their training in sound musical principles.) Once again there is some outside playing, but never so far outside that they can’t come back to earth. There’s also a fascinating passage in the middle where the saxes play off each other in counterpoint, creating a sort of hocket-style canon. So much going on in this piece that I’d have to see the score to really be able to do it justice, but it really does get quite wild in places!

The third piece is Mower’s arrangement of Bronislaw Kaper’s Invitation, completely rescored for the Mega-Sax group by Osland, adding his own twists and turns. This one leans more towards R&B, but it’s very creative R&B, with several fleeting double-time figures that go astray from the original theme. Once again it’s the ensemble that captures your attention, despite fine solos by Bryan Murray and Jonathan Anderson, and once again the music is so complex as to almost be beyond verbal description.

In Bob Mintzer’s The Red Sea, the group does use a rhythm section, a pianist (oddly unidentified in the booklet), drummer Jason Tiemann, and Jim Campbell playing a West African percussion instrument called a Djembe. This is a wooden goblet covered with a skin and tuned with a rope, played with one’s bare hands. Osland joins the fun here with brief flute solos, but in this case the ensemble (and the rhythm) really cooks and dominates the piece. Jim McNeely’s Shenanigans is a moody, almost Middle Eastern-sounding piece with soft-grained (and exquisitely played) reed passages that surround the fine tenor sax of Murray. Tiemann is present again on drums, as well as the unknown pianist. This is a thorough-composed piece despite the nice Murray tenor solo; both it and The Red Sea were commissioned by the Eastman School of Music’s award-winning sax group, Saxology. Brilliant writing throughout.

With Andy Weiner’s uptempo swinger Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’ we’re back to a rhythmless group. This one is scored more for the higher saxes (sounds like one tenor, altos and soprano) and moves like greased lightning. This is followed by three pieces penned by UK students, each of which is quite good. Larry Nelson’s New Kid in Town is the most rock-like of them, but has enough of a jazz pulse to overcome that defect. Osland’s alto solo is played with s surprisingly gorgeous tone despite its hard “funk” quality; Murray again pitches in on the tenor.

Doe-Eyed is a lovely ballad by Jeff Hitt, played in exquisite swing style (with a fine alto solo by Osland), the reed writing harking back to Woody Herman’s Herds, while A Trip to the Harbor by Murray is a tribute to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. This one jumps with a different kind of beat; despite the Coltrane reference, it sounds a bit like Supersax. We end with a lovely ballad, Mower’s Quark, as if to prove that the band can play sweet as well as hot.

A great musical trip by any measurement!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Sylvie Courvoisier’s Strange, Atonal Jazz


D’AGALA / COURVOISIER: Imprint Double. Bourgeois’s Spider. Éclats for Ornette. Simone. Pierino Porcospino. D’Agala. Circumbent. Fly Whisk. South Side Rules / Sylvie Courvoisier Trio: Courvoisier, pn; Drew Gress, bs; Kenny Wollesen, dm/Wollesonic / Intakt CD 300

This has to be some of the strangest yet most interesting jazz I’ve heard in a long time. Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier writes pieces that sound like Herbie Nichols meets Cecil Taylor. The odd atonal excursions are there, but the music has more structure about it and makes more musical sense. Underlying it all is a strong rhythmic base, yet except for the jazz pulse one would be forgiven for thinking these were modern classical works. A strange world indeed!

The opener of this album, Imprint Double, is a case in point. Courvoisier starts off playing a strong, rhythmic quasi-boogie beat, but quickly begins deconstructing the harmony before then deconstructing the melodic line until the music collapses into slow atonal meanderings on the keyboard. This is where the music becomes more Taylor-like and less like Nichols, but she always maintains a sense of musical structure even when taking a side road into the woods. The shuffle-boogie beat returns for the final chorus. What a strange piece!

Each tune on this album is dedicated to someone. The only three names I recognize are those of Ornette Coleman ( Éclats for Ornette) and Geri Allen (D’Agala). I have no idea who Antoine Courvoisier, Louise Bourgeois, Simone Veil, “Charlie” (no last name). Martin Puryear, Irène Schweizer or John Abercrombie are. But whoever Louise Bourgeois is, or was, she gets a really odd piece dedicated to her. Bourgeois’s Spider is a peculiar piece featuring a booming electronic instrument called the “Wollesonic” through most of its length, with Courvoisier tinkling the keyboard and occasionally strumming the piano strings until she takes over with a busy modal solo featuring left-hand tremolos played inside the piano frame. Very peculiar stuff!

Éclats for Ornette sounds exactly as you might expect it would, except, of course, for the fact that Ornette almost always avoided using a piano in his music. The flying right-hand figures flit about like musical fireflies while drummer Wollesen stirs up a storm behind her. Oddly, some of her playing here reminded me of the kind of work that Bill Evans did for George Russell, i.e. in Jazz in the Space Age, except that it becomes very busy and again leans over into Taylor-land.

But Courvoisier has surprises in store for us at nearly every turn. Simone emerges in fits and starts, almost as if she were trying out different figures at the piano to decide which ones she liked best. Once again she plays the inside of the piano, this time with the elusive Wollesonic moaning behind her at odd moments. Piero Porcospino, dedicated to “Charlie,” is a strange moto perpetuo that has a beat but an indefinable rhythm, propelling the music through fragments that sort of fall together and yet make a complete statement. Courvoisier’s fingers fly over the keyboard in this one, producing a stream of notes that sound for all the world like the work of some modern classical composer.

The title track begins with a series of noises that sound a bit like birds mixed with box lids closing. Courvoisier plays slow, almost tentative figures on the piano as the noises continue behind her. The delicate tracery and almost tentative development of this piece continue throughout, as do the bird songs and mechanical sounds. Circumbent, for Martin Puryear, is the kind of piece that some might call “meandering” except for the fact that the little phrases and fills that Courvoisier throws in all somehow jell and make sense.

I’m not sure who Irène Schweizer is or what her musical tastes are, but Fly Whisk, the piece dedicated to her, is even stranger than most of those preceding it. It consists primarily of Courvoisier playing four- to ten-note motifs—you can’t even call them themes or parts of themes—with long pauses between. Were it not for the entrance of the bass and drums, and her later tightening of the time structure to develop these motifs further, one might be lost. But, again, it works. By contrast with Courvoisier’s unusual minimalism, Drew Gress’ bass solo is busy and fulsome, sounding very much like the way Charlie Haden played with Ornette Coleman’s old quartet, while Wollesen’s drums get very busy behind him.

The closer, South Side Rules (for John Abercrombie) is another slow, enigmatic piece, opening with Gress and Wollesen before Courvoisier enters with some piano meanderings. Yet somehow the attentive mind puts these meanderings together to make a piece of music out of it.

No two ways about it, this is not album for everyone, but it is an album that will stimulate and challenge a mind that can hear and think outside the box!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz