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.

Mrs-Nisbett

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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