David Amram Still Kicking After All These Years

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SO IN AMERICA / AMRAM: Three Lost Loves. The Wind and Rain. Sonata for Violin & Piano. Portraits for Piano Quartet / / Elegy for Violin & Piano. 2 Excerpts from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”* / Elmira Darvanova, vln; Kenneth Radnofsky, a-sax; Thomas Weaver, *David Amram, pn; Ronald Carbone, vla; The New York Piano Quartet; *Estelle Parsons, narrator / Affetto AF1801

For those who didn’t live through the Beat Era, or who have had their heads under a rock for the past 60 years, David Amram was one of the original movers and shakers of that heady time. A compatriot of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Elise Cowan, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs, Diane Di Prima and Joanne Kyger (among many others, of course), Amram’s unique compositions and wonderful French horn playing provided the soundtrack to the era…in the case of one short film made in 1959 (Pull My Daisy), quite literally.

Yet unlike all but Di Prima, Amram is still alive and kicking at age 88. He must have had a stronger constitution than the others. Just call him the Beat version of rockabilly pianist Jerry Lee Lewis, who is also still around at age 83.

All the pieces on this album are world premiere recordings except for the Violin Sonata and Portraits. Two are recent compositions, the Three Lost Loves for alto sax, violin and piano (2016) and 2 Excerpts from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (2017). The first of these is quite formal in its structure, and does not use the alto sax in a jazz manner, yet the rhythmic swagger of the piece tells you that it was written by someone who knows jazz intimately. (Please remember, it was jazz, not rock music, that fueled the Beat Era). It’s a very good suite of pieces, expertly crafted and played with evident love by the three musicians. The second piece, “Janie and Tea Cake” (based on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God), has a nice bluesy swagger about it that reminds one of William Grant Still’s music, and here alto saxist Radnofsky does a pretty good job of getting the right feeling while Darvanova and Weaver do even better. No question about it, Amram was, and remains, a hip musician. The third piece, “Sal and Terry” (based on an excerpt from Kerouac’s On the Road), also takes up a midway position between classical and jazz.

The Wind and the Rain, from 1958, is more classical throughout, with a unique feeling of nostalgia about it. It also seems to channel the kind of Americana one hears in the compositions of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. The 1960 Violin Sonata also echoes this Americana, but uses stronger rhythms and more modern harmonies than the previous two works. This seems to me a pure fusion of jazz and classical, in which neither side dominates but both are there in perfect balance as undercurrents (particularly in the fast section of the first movement, where the motor rhythms are syncopated while the form is still classical). In the last movement, however, Amram just couldn’t help himself and the jazz feeling predominates.

In Portraits (1979), Amram returns to his Americana style, the piece leading off with an extended cello solo. Tom Weaver is also the guest pianist here, replacing the New York Piano Quintet’s regular player. I was also very impressed with the contrapuntal writing in this piece as well as the masterly way Amram handles the somewhat atonal harmonies. As the piece develops and becomes busier, Amram seems to relegate the piano to an accompanying role, focusing on the string writing, once again mostly in the cello (and viola). Eventually, however, the piano has his own say, with the strings playing disturbed-sounding tremolos and other figures around him, yet it ends quietly, with yet another cello solo in the mix.

The Elegy, originally written in 1970 as an orchestral piece, gets its first recording here in the version for violin and piano. It is played with great sensitivity by Darvanova and Weaver, more tonal than the previous piece despite the use of some advanced harmonies. Yet again, it’s an interesting piece with plenty of meat on its bones.

But we end with a wonderful new piece, 2 Excerpts from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” with Estelle Parsons doing the narration over Amram himself on piano. It’s a somewhat nostalgic piece, more a remembrance of the great writer and his prose poetry, but a nice finale to a fascinating album.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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