Inside the John Perrine Quartet

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HERE’S THE THING / PERRINE: The Tao of Lenny Bruce. Tarantino’s Lullaby. Here’s the Thing. Greener the Grass. “Heard a Joke Once…” Welcome to the Monkey House. Rack-On Touring. Prelude to the Screwtape Letters / The John Perrine Quartet: Perrine, a-sax/s-sax; Rock Wehrmann, pn; Adam Plank, bs; Bill Ransom, dm / Centaur 3604

Well, here’s the thing: John Perrine, Associate Professor, Coordinator of Jazz Studies and Department Chair at Cleveland State University, paid to have his music recorded and issued by Centaur Records. Perrine holds a DMA from Louisiana State University, a Masters in Jazz Pedagogy from Northwestern University, and a BME from Stetson University. He is a founding member of the Neo-Tessares Saxophone Quartet as well as the Red Stick Saxophone Quartet.

Happily, as academic jazz musicians go, Perrine is pretty cool. His music is best described as straightahead jazz with a twist—actually, several twists. The opener, The Tao of Lenny Bruce, begins with a lick that sounds like Thelonious Monk only with some piano counterpoint in the intro. The chord changes in the improvised sections also have a Monk-like feel to them, and pianist Wehrmann has fun working around them, producing solos of considerable ingenuity and invention. Perrine’s solo on the opener is relaxed and laid-back, almost like some of the West Coast players of the 1950s. The piece ends with a cute little riff played in thirds.

By contrast, Tarantino’s Lullaby is anything but lullaby-like, rather an uptempo piece in which Perrine switches from alto to soprano sax. Here, his solo is busier and more angular in design, wailing as if he were playing on a Mingus chart. The harmonic base of the tune seems to be primarily two chords, but this doesn’t hold back any of the soloists here; Wehrmann is again inventive and swinging. Drummer Ransom has a nice couple of solos on this one, too. Here’s the Thing is a strange piece, built around an odd, bitonal melodic contour that seems to keep going on and on without developing until Perrine interrupts with his alto solo. And his solo really develops here, going on and on is a linear fashion, creating an entirely new line that bears little resemblance to the opening tune. It is Wehrmann who is more sparse in this one, playing laid-back single-note lines against the bass of Adam Plank. The latter gets his own solo, and it’s a very nice one; he plays electric bass, but the tone is clean enough to resemble an acoustic instrument.

Greener Grass begins with Perrine squealing outside jazz on his alto, followed by a funk sort of beat which leads into the main tune, the bridge of which is resolutely tonal, but the passage following is more relaxed and sounds quasi-classical—a strange mixture. Yet Perrine and his quartet manage to pull all of these elements together in a fine performance, multi-layered and fascinating.

“Heard a Joke Once…” begins in ballad tempo, relaxed and somewhat wistful in feeling. Perrine is back on soprano for this one, stretching out the melody line with superb breath control, and pianist Wehrmann is equally mellow. Welcome to the Monkey House has a sort of quirky opening line similar to Here’s the Thing, but once again Perrine’s and the band’s strong grasp of structure make the music sound unified in concept and execution, this despite a series of rapid-fire notes played at double tempo on alto and equally busy background from the rest of the band. This almost resembles an Ornette Coleman sort of piece. Perrine goes “outside” quite a bit on this one, following which the tempo comes way down for a piano-bass lick over which Perrine plays in a more relaxed fashion. Clearly, he knows his jazz composition; these are all fine and interesting works. It ends on a repeated, quite different lick.

Rack-On-Touring opens with a bass solo, then moves into a sort of Eastern belly-dance sort of tempo, with Perrine back on soprano and the rhythm section cooking like mad behind him. Wehrmann is relaxed, almost minimal in his solo here. When Perrine returns, he plays like mad—this track clearly belongs to him. The album ends with a fairly brief (two-minute) Prelude to the Screwtape Letters, a piece played in a stiff ragtime beat with a bit of shuffle-rhythm from drummer Ransom and Perrine playing the unusual melody—except for the brief uptempo bridge—before the tempo relaxes for a few bars, then returns to the ragtime shuffle for the finish.

A thoroughly delightful album, varied in concept and beautifully carried out by the quartet. Bravo!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Examining Fagerlund’s “Stonework”

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STONEWORK / FAGERLUND: Drifts for Orchestra. Stonework for Orchestra. Transit, Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra / Ismo Eskelinen, gtr; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu, cond / Bis SACD-2295

Sebastian Fagerlund (1972 – ) is a Finnish composer who studied with Erkki Jokinen, graduating with a degree in composition in 2004. The notes tell us that he creates “musical dramas in which powerful expression is combined with intensity and vivid communication, as well as an openness towards different musical expressions.”

My impression of his music, from the low-level but dramatic percussion opening of Drifts through the six-movement guitar concerto Transit, is of a composer who works more within the tonal system than many of his compeers while still retaining a fairly high degree of modernity in structure and harmonies. It is music not too distant from that of Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Benjamin Britten and other composers of the 1940s and ‘50s who created similar pieces, yet he definitely has his own style and voice. He uses primarily dense orchestral textures, particularly with rich string writing, and his music has a clear structure using a great deal of legato and what, for lack of a better term, I would call “sweep.” At times he tends to be a bit melodramatic, exploding in sound at moments that call for a bit more reticence, but this is also a part of his style. In Drifts, wind and brass figures swirl wildly around the more lyrical strings and winds at key moments, which also creates a feeling of movement. His music thus communicates on two levels, that of highly organized themes and variants as well as on emotion. Towards the end of the piece, a strong rhythmic figure emerges underneath all the turmoil, which propels the music with even more energy towards the final section.

The notes also indicate that Fagerlund now considers Drifts, written in 2016-17, to be the second part of a trilogy, of which Stonework (2014-15) is the first part, but he has not yet finished writing that third piece. Considering this, I’m puzzled as to why the earlier piece follows the later one on this CD, but it is clearly cut from the same cloth. In this case, however, Stonework begins loudly, with a trumpet fanfare that leads into a thick, slow theme for cellos and basses, but then explodes in a riot of rapid brass (trumpets playing staccato figures on top, horns and trombones whooping it up above) that leads into a complex development section with counterpoint. Woodblocks and tympani rattle around in the background, ramping up the tension as the strings eventually play rising glissandi that lead into the stratosphere, and thence to a quieter and slower section in which winds and strings are scored much more sparsely. Slowly, however, an undercurrent of tension returns, buffeted by timpani outbursts as sustained string figures vacillate between peaceful and ominous. Occasional biting winds make a commentary on the musical progression; then quietude again, with pizzicato strings and winds, a whooping French horn, snare drum and then pounding drums adding to the mix. I cannot say enough for Hannu Lintu’s remarkable musical direction; he leads performances that are crystal-clear in texture as well as emotionally charged and lyrically effusive. Equally slowly, the volume of the piece also ramps up again, leading to a loud climax before a sustained high A on the trumpet pulls the others slowly into its vortex as the volume recedes once again, followed by a low rumble of timpani at the end.

The guitar concerto was a challenge for Fagerlund because he was not as well acquainted with the instrument and its limitations. He apparently wrote a solo guitar piece, Kromos, in 2011 as a forerunner of the concerto, which uses some of the same material. It is certainly not a guitar concerto that will appeal to those who love the more famous Spanish works of the past; its music is generally dark and atmospheric, with the guitar used as another solo voice in the full texture of the work. True, it dominates the movements, using such techniques as slapping the instrument, pulling on the strings and bending strings in addition to more conventional picking, but its music is far more dramatic than one is used to.

All in all, a thoroughly fascinating album and one that you will return to again to hear different layers of the music!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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New Recording of Messiaen’s Famous Quartet

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MESSIAEN: Fantaisie for Violin & Piano. Theme & Variations. Quatour pour la Fin du Temps / Ensemble Nordlys: Christine Pryn, vln; Viktor Wennesz, cl; Øystein Sonstad, cel; Kristoffer Hyldig, pn / Danacord DACOCD756

Twenty-six years after his death, Olivier Messiaen remains a controversial and, for many listeners, a difficult composer to absorb. His music was astringent in such a manner that even as late as the mid-1960s, American music critics wrote polemics denouncing his music as unlistenable rubbish (I know; I remember those articles in High Fidelity). For me, he was generally cold and unapproachable until I heard Tashi’s groundbreaking recording of the Quatour pour la Fin du Temps in the 1970s, but even then, it took me two more decades before I finally “got” some of his other music. And to this date, I still don’t like his opera on St. Francis of Assisi or his organ music, the latter of which I find dark and sinister.

But to understand Messiaen one must look into his background and examine his mindset. The son of Cecile Sauvage, a poet who also thought herself a mystic, she deemed her son mystical as well and raised him to believe in spiritual themes, some of which were true and universal—our connection to nature and the universe, and being part of the universal mind—and some which were rubbish, such as the belief that Jesus controls our lives and fate and that birds are mystical creatures whose songs are messages from God. Messiaen bought into both concepts, mixed them together, and endeavored to produce music rooted in Roman Catholic mysticism and nature, particularly his love of birds. Thus when he was a prisoner of war in World War II, thinking he would not survive his incarceration, he wrote his Quartet for the End of Time for himself on piano and the three musicians imprisoned with him, a clarinetist, violinist and cellist. It remains his most popular and, in some ways, most personal and gripping work.

What I found interesting in this CD was the inclusion of two works from the early 1930s that are neither dark nor unapproachable, the Fantaisie and the Theme and Variations. Although clearly bitonal music, neither is unapproachable for the average listener and both are largely rooted in tonality with excursions into remote harmonies and moments of bitonality. Moreover, the musicians of Ensemble Nordlys (Northern Light Ensemble) play them with great enthusiasm and drive, which makes them even more likeable. My sole complaint about the Fantaisie is that I thought it was too short; it was so delightful to listen to that I wanted it to go on for at least another minute. Both works are played only by violinist Christine Pryn and pianist Kristoffer Hyldig, both highly emotional musicians who are completely involved in the music. This in itself makes their performances gripping and engaging in addition to the approachability of the music.

As for the famous quartet, I eventually came to prefer the recording made two years before Messiaen’s death by his wife and longtime musical partner, pianist Yvonne Loriod, with violinist Christoph Popper, clarinetist Wolfgang Meyer and cellist Manuel Fischer-Dieskau (Dietrich’s son). It wasn’t so much a technically superior performance—Tashi clearly played the music well—as an extra layer of sadness and fear in the feeling of the pieces. Considering its origin, this is clearly what Messiaen—who, as I said, was present at the recording session—wanted.

Thus I listened to Ensemble Nordlys’ performance with this in mind. Their approach is somewhat mixed; the drama is there, but in soft passages they only occasionally capture the otherworldly feeling of the score. This isn’t necessarily a condemnation of their approach; many performances don’t quite capture this, and Ensemble Nordlys clearly wanted to give a lucid, dramatic reading. And occasionally, as in the third section, “The abyss of the birds,” they do penetrate into the mystical feeling better than Tashi. But Loriod et al set the bar very high, and in my view only clarinetist Viktor Wennesz consistently reaches for it, although violinist Pryn plays with great tenderness of tone in “Praise to the eternity of Jesus.”

This may be nitpicking, but to my ears the playing of Loriod is what outshines most others’ performances. This isn’t surprising, as she was clearly one of the greatest French pianists of her time, often taken for granted because she was Messiaen’s wife. Taken as a totality, Ensemble Nordlys’ reading is for the most part quite satisfactory, though there’s just more “edge” in the Loriod version, particularly in the “Liturgy of crystal” that opens the work and in “Dance of wrath for the seven trumpets” that overshadows all others.

If this is your only exposure to this work, you may not feel disappointed. As I say, it occupies a position midway between Tashi and Loriod etc. But I still recommend Loriod as the reference recording of this work. It’s a pinnacle that may never be reached by anyone else.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Arúan Ortiz Trio in Zurich

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LIVE IN ZURICH / ORTIZ: Analytical Symmetry. Fractal Sketches. IMPROVISATION. CHOPIN: Étude Op. 10 No. 6 (arr. Ortiz). COLEMAN: Medley: Open or Close/The Sphinx. SCHWARTZ-DIETZ: Alone Together (arr. Ortiz) / Aruán Ortiz Trio: Ortiz, pn; Brad Jones, bs; Chad Taylor, dm/Mbira / Intakt 301 (live: Zurich, 11/26/2016)

My first taste of Aruán Ortiz was his Hidden Voices CD, to which I gave a rave review when it appeared in late 2016. Here, it seems, he took his trio and three of the major pieces in the set (his two originals and Ornette Coleman’s Open or Close/The Sphinx) to Zurich a couple of months later. This live CD is the result of one of those concerts.

Ortiz’ approach to the music here differs from the studio album. In Analytical Symmetry, for instance, he opens with an out-of-tempo introduction before moving into the percussive effects of his right hand playing a steady sort of beat against the percussion (Mbira) played by Chad Taylor. This interplay goes on for quite some time, with the Mbira shifting its accents and bassist Brad Jones making some commentary here and there. The performance here is considerably more abstract than the recording, with Jones playing high figures on bowed bass and Ortiz also more abstract in his piano commentary. One could almost call it an ambient jazz performance except that the music has much more substance. It develops more slowly, too, but develop it does, eventually moving into a steady beat with the pianist throwing in some Monkish figures over a bitonal foundation. The rhythm is also more Latin-sounding here than on the record, although in places the beat dissipates and the performance takes on the feel of an Art Ensemble of Chicago performance. (Reading the liner notes, I discovered that I was not far off the mark. One of Ortiz’ strongest musical influences was Muhal Richard Abrams, a former member of the AEC who died last October 29. Abrams took Ortiz to museums and had long discussions with him about Chicago’s progressive African-American music and Scriabin.) In short, it’s completely hypnotic, drawing the listener deep into the workings of the trio’s musical mind. Ortiz also blends his Fractal Sketches into the music, thus giving us a 34-minute performance of modern jazz as high art.

Indeed, the abstract quality of the performance almost defies description. It’s almost like having an inner view of the workings of Ortiz’ mind as he plays with themes and variants, connecting and disconnecting musical ideas as they occur to him. You simply have to stay with him as he moves themes, motifs and improvisations around like a musical chess game in which there are no winners or losers, merely different moves. It’s free jazz, but it’s not, because whatever free (and, in this case, atonal) musical ideas are thrown out there, he is able to corral them and use them as a springboard for further invention.

The second set opens with an a capella bass improvisation by Jones as fascinating and inventive as Ortiz’ pianism. This eventually morphs, surprisingly, into a jazz reconstruction of Chopin’s Étude Op. 10 No. 6, unrecognizable to most Chopin-lovers except for portions of the top line of music. And Chopin somehow morphs into the Coleman pieces. As sometimes happens in Ortiz’ playing, there are hints here and there of Tristano, who I still feel is one of the most underrated influences on modern jazz in history. Ortiz plays a long series of single-note improvisations, eventually bringing in the left hand as counterbalance. Eventually he introduces some Cuban rhythms, but then deconstructs those as well, producing a sort of swirling, asymmetric vortex of sound on the keyboard. He wraps it up with a swinging, rhythmic riff.

The album ends with a surprise: Ortiz’ treatment of the old Arthur Schwartz tune Alone Together—or, to be more accurate, a spacey rewriting of Alone Together. Ortiz is unusually subdued here but still inventive, reveling in the rich chord patterns of the tune until he eventually meanders off into playing figures higher and higher on the keyboard until the music simply disappears into the ether.

Quite a trip!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Gee’s “Amazing Sliding Circus” Interesting

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AMAZING SLIDING CIRCUS / VINCENT: A Most Grand and Marvelous Spectacle. Mrs. Nisbett’s Particular Lament. The Triumphal Coulrobonia. KARL KING: The Melody Shop. STRAVINSKY, arr. PIENAAR: Pulcinella. BERIO: Sequenza V. SONDHEIM, arr. KNIGHT: Send in the Clowns. CARPENTER: Fischietto è morto. KEELEY: Circus Games. LEONCAVALLO, arr. KNIGHT: Pagliacci – Intermezzo & Vesti la giubba / Matthew Gee, ten-tb/bs-tb/dm/cymbals; Sulki Yu, Shana Douglas, Joana Valentinaviciute, Anna Smith, Charlotte Ansbergs, Manuel Porta, vln; Abigail Fenna, Liz Varlow, vla; Jonathan Ayling, cel; Chris West, bs; Emer McDonough, fl; Katherine Lacy, Emily Meredith, cl; Katy Ayling, bs-cl; Lawrence Davies, Fr-hn; Gerald Kirby, vib; Christopher Glynn, pn; Nigel Woodhouse, mand / MG Music 02

British trombonist Matthew Gee, a nonconformist, writes the following in the notes for this album:

Where by first release, Paradiso e inferno, sought to challenge the trombone’s buffoonish stereotype, this second solo album…seems to embrace it.

The trombone’s ability to produce raucous glissandos has naturally drawn composers to focus on the instrument’s comic potential – its undeniable clownishness. Of course, those with a deeper understanding of the instrument, such as the composers and arrangers represented on this disc, also exploit the trombone’s vast array of colors, and its capacity for nuance and beauty.

The album begins with a real piece of musical chaos, Simon Vincent’s A Most Grand and Marvellous Spectacle. Gee was just playing around one day with different mutes, and out came the raw material for this piece. It’s comical, all right, but not much in the way of music; it’s the kind of piece I like to call “schlumph,” meaning non-sequential nonsense. Immediately following, however, is Karl King’s peppy little march, The Melody Shop, in which Gee multi-tracked himself to produce a nicely rounded performance. His staccato technique is simply astounding in the second half of the piece, lipping a series of notes into place as if they were popcorn coming out of a popper.

We then move into a pert performance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, with Gee accompanied by pianist Christopher Glynn. Played straight, it’s a nice transcription so far as it goes. Though I missed Stravinsky’s orchestration, it was funny to hear Gee “blatting” in the low range or growling out notes on occasion. Glynn’s piano, however, sounds a bit odd, very bright and almost tinny, as if he were trying to emulate a fortepiano. In the “Toccata,” Gee uses a cup mute while playing staccato through most of it, giving the music an odd color, while in the succeeding “Gavotta” he produces a really beautiful, rounded tone, almost like Lawrence Brown or Tommy Dorsey. The clownish-sounding slide work in the “Vivo” is extremely well done, as are the lipped staccato notes in the Finale.

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Portrait of Mrs. Nisbett by Robert William Buss

As an interval we get another Vincent piece, Mrs. Nisbett’s Particular Lament. This is dedicated to a famous and beautiful 19th-century comedienne; again multi-tracked, including on the bass trombone, this one begins somewhat melodically but quickly moves into a smear of notes backed by electronic sounds. This acts as a prelude to a series of pieces either written to portray clowns, comment on them or, in the case of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V, dedicated to one, his neighbor Karl Wettach a.k.a. Grock the Clown. But of course there is nothing clownish about Berio’s music, which is abstract in the extreme, played here by Gee a cappella, unless it is the strange wah-wah effects (created at times simply by placing a hand over the bell for a mute) or the even stranger growling through the horn. Following this as contrast is the perfectly banal Send in the Clowns of Stephen Sondheim. Why this song gained popularity completely escapes me; why Gee included it here, other than for its title, puzzles me. Much better, and more interesting, is the quirky little piece that follows by Gary Carpenter, Fischietto è morto, based on the mock-funeral scene from Fellini’s movie I Clowns. Setting the trombone (mostly muted) against a lyrical but odd figure played by strings, it is both original and enticing. Carpenter also develops the piece well and along traditional classical lines, eventually using broad tonal themes for the strings before moving into a quirky scherzando passage.

Next we hear Circus Games by Rob Keeley, whose intention was to cast the trombone “as a circus ringleader, and the winds, piano and vibraphone as embers of a circus troupe.” The music is, like Fischietto è morto, odd but delightful, with several interesting effects created by Keeley’s playing the winds against the percussion instruments in funny little musical cells while the trombone weaves it way around them. This, in turn, is followed by a full orchestration of the Intermezzo from Pagliacci, played quite straight by Gee with his warmest TD tone and a small string section, followed by “Vesti la giubba.” Very pretty but nothing special. The disc ends with a cacophonous thing called Coultrobonia, “the irrational fear of clowns.”

All in all, an interesting disc, uneven in spots but with meaty portions you can savor.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Broder’s “Heritage” a Fun & Creative Album

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HERITAGE / BRODER: Goin’ Up Home. A Wiser Man Than Me.* HAZAMA: Wherever the Road Leads. TRAD., arr. HOLMAN: Jambalaya. TRAD., arr. McNEELY: Cripple Creek. TRAD., arr. TRUESDELL: Wayfaring Stranger.* TRAD., arr. HAZAMA: I’m Not Afraid to Die. TRUESDELL: Brodeo.* HORNE: The People Could Fly / The American Roots Project: Scott Wendholt, tpt/fl-hn; Nick Finzer, tb; Sara Caswell, vln; Owen Broder, a-sax/t-sax; James Shipp, vib/perc; Frank Kimbrough, pn; Jay Anderson, bs; Matt Wilson, dm; *Wendy Gilles, Kate McGarry, Vuyo Sotashe, voc / ArtistShare AS0158

The concept of this album is to combine traditional Americana, i.e. folk music, with jazz. Saxophonist-bandleader Owen Broder chose this format in order to show links between the two types of music, but although I enjoyed it quite a bit I’d still have to say that it’s only because he makes jazz out of the folk music, not necessarily because the two types of music are related. Alan Lomax Jr., former director of folk music at the Smithsonian Institution, spent decades trying to prove that jazz was a form of folk music (including his recording and later writing about Jelly Roll Morton) and failed. Folk music is its own thing, and I do like much of it myself, but it doesn’t swing and it has nothing to do with improvisation.

Happily, the arrangements presented here are lively and inventive. I was really glad to hear an arranger who does his own thing and doesn’t just work from formula. Moreover, some of the original pieces on the album, particularly Miho Hazama’s Wherever This Road Leads, have a somewhat different “feel” to them, and lean much more in the direction of jazz tunes than American folk or blues.

And best of all, Broder allows himself and his talented bandmates to express themselves in a purely jazz sense, which lifts the project up and puts it on a nice level. I was particularly happy to see the name of drummer Matt Wilson among the players here, as his own music has given me some very happy listening over the past couple of years. His enlivening and multi-faceted technique keeps things swinging, even under Sara Caswell’s Turtle Island-like jazz violin chorus in Wherever This Road Leads, which suddenly morphs into a bluegrass hoedown in the final choruses. I was quite surprised by the slow, impressionistic introduction to Jambalaya with its displacement of rhythms and altered chords. Hank Williams would never recognize the piece played this way, and for a few choruses neither did I! Scott Wendholt’s bebop trumpet solo is played over band riffing, after which the group plays a written variant on the original tune, with flatted thirds and other jazz devices tossed in for fun. A different kind of Jambalaya, you bet!

Cripple Creek gets a sort of exotic Middle-Eastern feel to it, resembling some of the things that Rabih Abou-Khalil did so well back in the 1980s and ‘90s. Once again, Broder’s arranging skills are so acute and so original that the music is transformed. What a wonderful reading this is, with a sort of group improv in counterpoint just before Wendholt’s solo. The leader’s tenor sax solo is joyous and inventive, fitting into the structure beautifully. Just listen to Wilson on drums, producing varied backbeats through yet another polyphonic chorus before it suddenly starts to swing out like bluegrass Dixieland, two forms of music that do fit together, if you remember some of those old Jimmie Rodgers records from the late 1920s-early ‘30s, here taken to extremes that Rodgers could never have imagined.

Wayfaring Stranger is taken way down in tempo, beginning with an a cappella out-of-tempo chorus by pianist Frank Kimbrough with polytonal chording, under which Jay Anderson’s bowed bass plays ominously. Kate McGarry’s soft-grained voice sings the lyrics with Wendy Gilles later joining her in close harmony. The writing in this chart for the violin is positively haunting. From a jazz perspective, however, only Anderson’s solo leans in that direction.

I’m Not Afraid to Die, another original by Hazama, again dispenses at first with any allusion to folk music, played in a nice middle tempo with fine writing for the trombone underneath the trumpet lead. Kimbrough’s solo is rich in feeling as well as in his variants, while Wendholt switches to flugelhorn for a beautifully relaxed outing. Ryan Truesdell’s Brodeo begins uptempo in a hoedown sort of beat, again scored with a fine ear for texture before moving into a more relaxed pace. Here, Caswell’s violin is more in a jazz-classical sort of vein, followed by the leader’s ethereal alto and an nice, double-tempo polyphonic chorus over Wilson’s drums.

Alphonso Horne’s original The People Could Fly is based on the Bantu music of South Africa. This is, however, a very varied arrangement, shifting in tempo and beat, with Nick Finzer playing plunger trombone in the manner of Tricky Sam Nanton. Some chanting and hand-clapping liven up the latter portion of the piece. This is a real butt-kicker! Vuyo Sotashe and the two ladies contribute some neat vocal effects, too.

We end our journey with another piece by Broder, A Wiser Man Than Me, based on New Orleans dirge style and featuring a much looser arranging style. The slow beat in 3 put me in mind of some of those Southern gospel-jazz pieces that G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live band used to play as bumper music back in the late 1970s-early ‘80s. And the band here gives it the same kind of “koochy” feel, getting under the skin of the music as it rides nice and easy into the sunset.

This album is a wonderful find and strikingly original in addition to being appealing music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Reappraising William Grant Still

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Behold, a composer: now, as in his lifetime, celebrated as “The Dean of African American Composers,” yet in many ways still misunderstood. Handsome, dapper, and extremely bright, William Grant Still (1895-1978) lived a life simultaneously in public and in the shadows. In many ways, his fame came with a caveat. As “Dean of African American Composers,” he was not Dean of American composers. Raised in Woodville, Mississippi, both of his parents were teachers, although his father also worked in a local grocery store. Their heritage was of mixed blood: African-American, Scotch, Irish, American Indian and Spanish. His father died suddenly at age 24, when William was only three months old. His mother, Carrie, took her baby with her to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she taught high school English for 33 years. There, she met and married Charles B. Shepperson, who was a wonderful stepfather to young William. Shepperdson noted his musical talent early and nurtured it, buying several Victor Red Seal records of classical music and taking him to local concerts whenever he could. Something of a late bloomer, William started violin lessons at age 15, but also taught himself how to play the oboe, double bass, viola, cello, clarinet and saxophone. His other musical influences during those years would stay with him for the rest of his life, notably the ragtime, blues, cakewalks and Spanish dances he heard.

Still was so precocious that he was able to graduate high school at age 16, whereupon he wanted to go to college—a daunting goal for a young African-American in 1911—but his grades were so good that he was snapped up by Wilberforce University in Ohio. Since his mother thought he would never make it in the current racially-skewered environment as a classical musician, she insisted that he study to be a doctor, thus he took up a Bachelor of Science course of study. But music kept pulling him away from medicine; he conducted the university band, learned various instruments and began to compose and write orchestrations. His talents were so notable that he was awarded a scholarship to Oberlin College.

Still enlisted in the Army in 1918 and served in World War I. Upon his release from the service in 1919, he worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy’s orchestra and played in the pit band of the big Noble Sissle-Eubie Blake hit show, Shuffle Along. He then studied at the New England Conservatory of Music with conservative Romantic composer George Whitfield Chadwick and avant-garde modernist Edgard Varese. Falling under Varese’s spell, many of his earliest mature works were exceptionally modern, but within a few years he felt that he was not being true to himself and so reverted to a more tonal style, incorporating Negro folk tunes, cakewalks, rags and spirituals into his work.

His first big breakthrough was Dark America in 1925, but it was his Symphony No. 1, subtitled “Afro-American Symphony,” that really put him on the map in 1930. By this time he had written some interesting arrangements for popular white bandleaders, i.e. a concert version of St. Louis Blues for Don Voorhees and two pretty advanced versions of the popular songs Poor Butterfly and Limehouse Blues for Red Nichols. But jazz as an art form held little appeal for him. As someone who through-composed everything, even when ragtime or the blues was its influence, Still was uncomfortable with the concept of freewheeling instant improvisations. It took him nearly a decade to become attuned to individual musicians playing their own variations on his themes; thus, jazz per se was never a strong influence on his work except as it pertained to the blues. It has never been recorded what he thought of Duke Ellington’s work, which managed to dovetail written themes with improvisation, but it’s telling that he never wrote a single arrangement for a black jazz orchestra, not even the well-known bands of Earl Hines, Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie or Billy Eckstine. Basie’s freewheeling, open-arrangement style could not have appealed to him very much.

The “Afro-American Symphony” caught the attention of fellow-composer Howard Hanson, then music director at the Rochester-Eastman School of Music, and it was there that the work was premiered in 1931. It was an instant success, which led to Hanson performing his ballet Sahdji the same year. With Sahdji, however, a trend began to make itself apparent. Mixed in with some truly original and inventive music, Still also wrote sentimental tunes in a popular style. This was to become his one weakness, a tendency to combine the artistic with the commonplace. It was probably his own proclivity to do so, but it often undermined the structure of his pieces. The same weakness, I hasted to point out, did not afflict the classical pieces of African-American composers John Lewis or Ornette Coleman, nor the jazz-classical hybrids of Charles Mingus, George Russell or J.J. Johnson.

But the general musical public responded to Still’s music with great enthusiasm, and he slowly but surely became more famous, his arranging and writing skills in demand. He became an arranger for Willard Robison’s Deep River Hour and “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman’s Old Gold program in the early ‘30s, then moved to California where he became an arranger for films. These included such box-office hits as the Bing Crosby film Pennies From Heaven (1936) and Lost Horizon (1937), where he scored the music of Dimitri Tiomkin. He became the first African-American to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in 1936, and a year later received a commission from the WPA to write a ballet on the life of blacks in New York, which he titled Lenox Avenue. He was also fortunate enough to be able to record this work under his own direction with the Los Angeles WPA Symphony.

At this moment, we need to step back and inspect what Still was attempting to do, and compare that with its realization in sound by others. With his rich background in the African-American musical vernacular, Still wrote music that was, although not jazz, intended to be played in a jazzy manner. His recording of Lenox Avenue points this out quite clearly. He was most proud of the section that included a spiritual and an original blues, the latter built around an ostinato figure played by the French horns (a gently rocking alternation of two notes in the key of F (initially A-G, A-G, A-G, but shifting as he moved into the dominant 7th) over which the piano and clarinets played the principal theme. Eventually a trumpet section outburst, buttressed by strings, played a variant on the piano’s theme, with the cymbals playing a backbeat against it. This hypnotic riff tune became so popular that, three years later, he expanded it into a six-minute piece for Artie Shaw’s orchestra, leaving spots open for short solos. Some critics felt that Still was “slumming,” but no such thing. It took me a long time to realize, by listening to and comparing various recordings of his music, that this bluesy “feel” was not only intentional in this piece but in fact in all of his concert music. In other words, most conductors, then as now, played it incorrectly because neither they nor their musicians in the orchestras they led could “feel” a blues or ragtime rhythm properly. In short, most classical musicians play his music too primly, and without that blues-ragtime swagger, Still’s music fails to make its proper impact.

I bring up the Blues from the Lenox Avenue Suite because it is such a glaring example. Nowadays you generally hear it played by a violin-piano duo: the tempo is slowed way down so that it sounds more like a funeral dirge than the blues, the hypnotic two-note riff is often omitted, and the violinist takes excruciating pains to play the flatted third as if just producing the note was causing him or her great suffering. Who plays it today the way Still himself or Shaw did? I haven’t heard it.

Another example, and a very important one, is the “Afro-American Symphony.” There are several performances of it available on YouTube, including those by Neeme Järvi, John Jeter, Anthony Parnther, Marion Daniel, Bethany Pfluger, Adam Riccinto and Orlando Cela, but the only one that captures the right swagger of the piece is a version by the New Trier High School Symphony Orchestra conducted by one Peter Rosheger. And the difference isn’t minor or insignificant; the Rosheger performance really swings. The others don’t have a prayer of doing so. And the listeners’ reactions as recorded in the comments (such as those below the Järvi performance) are typical: “Sounds just like Gershwin”…“Amazing! So soothing to the ear.”…”EASY LISTENING!”

Well, it’s not supposed to be entirely easy listening, folks. That’s just the point. And it’s also not supposed to sound just like Gershwin.

In short: most of the performances you’ve probably heard of Still’s music, even by such great and famous artists as George Szell, Pierre Monteux, Howard Hanson, Rachel Barton Pine and Neeme Järvi, are simply too polite-sounding. They water down Still’s original concepts as much as listening to, say Arthur Fiedler conducting Duke Ellington. You need to hear Still’s music played by musicians, white or black, who have some rhythm in their soul in order to appreciate it.

The situation is analogous to a comedy skit done many years ago by the Canadian satirists on Second City TV. A white music director, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth, is leading his chorus in a series of songs he calls “white scat singing.” This includes such tunes as Abba Dabba Honeymoon and Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral, with the chorus flailing their arms and moving around as they sing. The whole concept is, of course, absurd, but I seriously wonder if the classical musicians who “straighten out” and “whiten up” Still’s essentially black rhythms and motifs realize what damage they’re doing to his music. Ironically, there don’t seem to be many African-American classical musicians who take much of an interest in Still’s music. I’ve found very few performances by black musicians of any of his scores on YouTube or in the discography, particularly of the orchestral works.

For those who’d like to know Still’s music the way Still conceived it, here are links to the best versions I’ve heard:

Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American” (1930) / The New Trier High School Symphony Orchestra; Peter Rosheger, conductor. Ironic that the hippest, loosest performance comes from an orchestra of young white musicians from Winnetka, Illinois, but there you are.

Lenox Avenue: Spiritual and Blues (1937) / The Los Angeles WPA Symphony Orchestra; William Grant Still, conductor. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-w3CRWAlMtY, move the cursor to about 11:16, and listen to the Spiritual and Blues (runs about six and a half minutes). I have no way of knowing how many Africa-American musicians were in this orchestra, but the gospel choir certainly sounds black.

Suite for Violin and Piano / Timothy Schwarz, violinist; Daniel Weiser, pianist. The only performance I’ve heard with guts, though the recording balance favors the pianist.

Ennanga (1956) / Ann Hobson Pilot, harpist; Videmus Ensemble – Still wrote this piece under the influence of the African harp, transcribing some of its effects for a conventional harp. It’s not quite as African-sounding as I might have liked, but spirited enough to give the right impression, particularly in Pilot’s wonderful solo work.

Frisco Jazz Band Blues / The Azusa Pacific University Chamber Wind Ensemble. A little-known and unusual work by Still, simulating the slightly off-kilter rhythmic playing of West Coast black blues bands of the late 1910s, probably written while he was W.C. Handy’s band arranger. The APU wind ensemble miraculously captures this archaic jazz-blues style with its funky and slightly off-kilter ragtime rhythms.

Africa: III. Land of Superstition / American Symphony Orchestra; Leon Botstein, conductor. The first two parts of this suite are rather romantic-sounding and unremarkable, but the third section is highly imaginative. Today it is often played by solo pianists who don’t have a clue what to do with the music. Botstein doesn’t always capture the “feel” of Still’s music right, but in this performance he is really very good.

Danzas de Panama: 4. Cumbia e Congo (1953) / Cincinnati Conservatory of Music Encore Advanced Chamber Orchestra; Jaime Morales-Matos, conductor. Not one of Still’s most imaginative works, but a piece built around an insistent Afro-Caribbean rhythm, conducted with great brio by Morales-Matos.

So there’s your crash course on William Grant Still. Poke around and listen to other music by him, and if you find any performances that match these in looseness and rhythmic verve, email me and let me know! (Email address on my home page.)

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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