Zuill Bailey Plays Haydn

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HAYDN: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 / Zuill Bailey, cel; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robin O’Neill, cond / Steinway & Sons STNS30094 (also available for streaming on iTunes and Spotify)

The transformation of Zuill Bailey from a young, dynamic and respected but not internationally famous cellist to one of the top names in the world has been, for me personally, one of the most satisfying things in recent years. I’ve been a fan of his since he was on the old St. Paul Sunday radio program on NPR back in the early 2000s, playing outstanding versions of the cello repertoire, through his Telarc years where he finally became something of a household name in America, to his present-day status. And he deserves every bit of it.

These wonderful performances of the Haydn Cello Concerti compare quite favorably to the marvelous performance of No. 2 left us by the late, great Emanuel Feuermann, and like Feuermann, Bailey plays with a pure tone using a quick vibrato throughout rather than the ahistorical “straight tone” so much in vogue nowadays. This gives his playing heart, and his close attention to the use of dynamics gives his playing great color. Like Feuermann, he also occasionally employs a minimal portamento (you can hear this a couple of times in the slow movement of Concerto No. 1) which is also proper style. It’s the kind of playing that does not so much grab you by the throat as it draws the listener inward. Bailey can be quite dynamic when he wants to be, but more often than not he seduces. This was a feature of his playing that impressed me so deeply on those old radio broadcasts, particularly in the first movement he played of the Debussy Cello Sonata so long ago—a work I still wish he’d record complete!

And happily, he has here a conductor who is on his wavelength (not the case in all of his concerto recordings, alas). Robin O’Neill, whose work I did not previously know, leads the Philharmonia Orchestra in a performance that uses very little if any string vibrato, but still manages to play with dynamic inflection and a sense of musicality. He is the perfect foil for Bailey here, matching him in his sensitivity of phrasing as well as rhythmic drive. Listen, for instance, to the fast final movement of these concerti, where both cellist and orchestra are in perfect synch, particularly in the rapid passages where lightness of touch is so important. It reminds me of the splendid performance he gave of the Haydn Cello Sonata No. 1 with one of his favorite partners, pianist Awadagin Pratt. They are so tightly interconnected that they breathe the music together. And just listen to the spectacular way he plays the cadenza in the first movement of Concerto No. 2! This is truly spectacular yet still lyrical. Pure Zuill Bailey.

This album is a must for Haydn fanciers as well as for all Zuill Bailey fans. Chalk up another outstanding album to his growing discography.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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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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A New Vegas Duo: Penn & Jones!

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THE SHOW BEFORE THE SHOW / WOODE-McRAE-BIRD: Broadway. JOBIM: Corcovado. G. & I. GERSHWIN: But Not For Me. RODGERS-HART: Have You Met Miss Jones? BONFA-MARLA; Manha de Carnaval. SCHERTZINGER-MERCER: Tangerine. McHUGH-FIELDS: On the Sunny Side of the Street. Exactly Like You. M. JONES: Box Viewing Blues / Mike Jones, pn; Penn Jillette, bs / Capri 74148-2

When I got the promo material and links to this album, and opened up said links, my jaw dropped. No, I didn’t think it was a joke, even though Penn & Teller are the foremost jokesters in the magic business, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is never to underestimate the intelligence of this brilliant duo, but to say I was skeptical that Penn could be this good on the bass is an understatement. The only other experience that compares to it was a couple of years ago when I learned that Louis Farrakhan was a first-rate classical violinist. (And maybe someday I’ll fall for that fake meme going around showing Albert Einstein playing a Telecaster guitar!)

The full story of Penn’s transformation from pretty good electric bass player (which has frets), which he had played in a “mariachi power trio” called Bongos, Bass & Bob, to first-rate acoustic bass player (which doesn’t have frets, and is thus much harder) is given in the liner notes by Teller (who you can see on the left-hand side of the album cover, sitting backstage playing cards with a rabbit). It’s pretty amazing. The short version is that Penn played upright bass as a stand-in for Dick Smothers accompanying his brother Tommy in one number on a TV show in 1998 and kind of liked it. Gary Stockdale, the music director in Vegas, mentioned to him around 2000 that he heard of an upright bass for sale, and Penn took the plunge. A year later, magician-pianist Mike Close heard that Mike Jones was coming to Vegas for a lucrative contract to play with a singer at the Paris Hotel, but somehow the deal fell through and Jones, stranded in Vegas without the promise of any gig, ended up playing dinnertime music at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant. Penn and Close, dining there one night, were blown away by Jones’ playing, and Penn proposed that he play as an opener for the famous duo’s act. Teller loved the idea, and Penn decided that he would learn to be a great bass player, and play jazz, on the fly during performances.

It took him nearly a decade to reach the high level of proficiency you hear on this album, but by golly, he got there. That’s just the kind of man Penn Jillette is. You put your mind to something, you work your ass off, and you get there. No Federal grants. No crying the blues about his rough childhood to gain sympathy. You just DO IT.

And this recording is the solid proof of his achievement.

Yes, it’s what is sometimes not-so-kindly referred to as “straightahead jazz,” but make no mistake, Jones is a superb pianist. His playing reminded me a lot of Jay McShann with some Oscar Peterson tossed in for flavor: not merely virtuosic but musically interesting. Jones composes excellent choruses that follow logically one upon the last, creating a musical continuity not often heard in the playing of so many avant-gardists nowadays. Jillette’s solo on this one sticks close to the melody in the first 8, but then moves out into original territory. While not flashy, his contributions are solid and professional. He creates his own lines and complements the pianist extremely well.

The same goes for Corcovado, although Jillette’s sense of Latin rhythm isn’t quite as loose as Jones’. Yet there’s a nice feeling of camaraderie between the two that comes from their long professional relationship, and Jillette’s “springy” sense of rhythm acts as a nice solid base on which Jones can play unfettered. There are also nice little touches in the bass solo here that indicates how well Jillette has learned the instrument’s strengths. Although the set is live, there are no recording dates given in the booklet for these performances.

But Not For Me is taken at a brisk clip, as are the previous two tracks, and here Jillette shows his mettle with some really fine breaks while Jones just keeps on his own high level. In Have You Met Miss Jones?, Jones really takes off on some fantastic roulades, adding some crushed blue notes here and there while the bassist keeps the motor going behind him. No, he’s not going to make you forget how good Charles Mingus or Eddie Gomez were, but he’s as good as any club bassist I’ve heard, and that’s saying quite a bit considering his full-time gig.

And so the set goes. I think what impressed me more than anything is the fact that Jones doesn’t hold back on his musical imagination to “help” Jillette along. He gives you his best, and Penn is, at this point, always there with the right feel and occasional surprises of his own. One thing that surprised me was the consistently brisk tempos; I’m not sure that Jones or Jillette really enjoy ballads. Personally, I don’t blame them; I’m not crazy about too many ballads in a set myself; but one or two medium-slow blues (and maybe a fast bebop number) would have been nice for contrast. Jones really flies on Manha de Carnaval, and the tempo on Tangerine isn’t quite as up as the previous tracks. On the Sunny Side of the Street is even more relaxed, showing Jones in a playful mood. Jones’ original, Box Viewing Blues, is a really uptempo swinger reminiscent of the great stride pianists of the 1940s. In the closer, Exactly Like You, he channels boogie-woogie with his running single-note bass lines—the only time on the album when Jillette doesn’t play. Yet it is the album’s most spectacular track, a fantastic finale that will take your breath away. Jones keeps subtly increasing the tempo until both he and the audience are in a pianistic frenzy.

Jones-JilletteAs Jillette has said, “When you ask Jonesy what kind of music we play, he says, ‘Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown.’ When you ask me, I say, ‘Oscar Peterson and…a bass player.’ I wear a hat and a coat, and even though I’m very recognizable, you just don’t expect the pre-show bass player to be someone important. I’m not lit, and people don’t notice me…[but] I get to play professionally, not need the money and play with the best person in the world. Beat that!”

You’ll notice him here, though.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Erin McDougald Swings Outside the Soirée

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OUTSIDE THE SOIRÉE / WYCHE-KELLY-WATTS: Don’t Be on the Outside. PORTER: Begin the Beguine. HARBURG-GORNEY: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? JENNEY-DeLANGE-LAKE: The Man With the Horn. HAMPTON-BURKE-MERCER: Midnight Sun. McDOUGALD: Outside the Soirée. DeFOREST: Don’t Wait Up for Me. MAGIDSON-WRUBEL: The Masquerade is Over. LANDESMAN-WOLF: Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. VANNIER-GÉRAUD-WOLF-MERCER: When the World Was Young. ROSE-OWENS: Linger Awhile/JOLSON-DeSYLVA-ROSE: Avalon. M. YESTON: Unusual Way. TRAD. IRISH: The Parting Glass / Erin McDougald, voc; Dave Liebman, a-sax/s-sax; Tom Harrell, tpt/fl-hn; Dan Block, a-sax/fl/cl; Rob Block, pn/gtr: Mark Sherman, vib/perc; Cliff Schmitt, bs; Rodney Green, dm/cymb; Chembo Corneil, perc / Miles High Records (no number)

The most difficult part of reviewing this CD, for me, was trying to read the curlicue cursive script in the liner notes, which of COURSE had to be white print on a black background (one of the most difficult to read, third to red on black or blue on black…all three seem to be in vogue these days).

The easy part was the music. Erin McDougald, thank God, is one of those jazz singers who actually believe in singing “out” with the voice, not whispering and trying to sound like Marilyn Monroe. She’s an aggressive singer in the Anita O’Day mold, she pushes the beat and her backup band is equally hot and hip, particularly soprano and also saxist Dave Liebman and vibes player Mark Sherman, who attack their instruments with both musical invention and gusto. On Begin the Beguine, she does start softly, but nuances her voice with crescendos. She also does an imaginative rendition, adding notes to the melody line that aren’t in the sheet music, her backup featuring slow piano triplets to vary the beat. McDougald doesn’t really scat, but she knows how to bend the beat in a really jazzy way.

A sort of calypso beat opens the old Depression-era hit Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? This she sings in a medium-up tempo, with flute and soprano sax playing nice licks behind her, far different from the way Bing Crosby did originally or Spanky McFarland did decades later with her band, Spanky and Our Gang. “Al” almost sounds as if he’s having a ball as he begs for change! The middle section is given over to the horns as a group, with Tom Harrell swinging out in a wonderfully boppish trumpet solo. When flautist Dan Block takes his solo, McDougald does indulge in a bit of scatting, followed in turn by Rob Block again on piano.

James 1I was surprised and delighted to hear her sing Jack Jenney’s 1947 hit with the Harry James band, The Man With the Horn, as a vocal. (How many readers out there remember, or have even heard of, Jack Jenney? And yet he was once considered one of the greatest jazz trombonists of his time.) Yet although the song was written by Jenney, the star of the original record was alto saxist Willie Smith, and McDougald does a lovely job emulating some of his phrasing. This is followed by the wonderful progressive swing tune by Lionel Hampton, Midnight Sun, with Johnny Mercer’s great lyrics. She starts this out at Hampton’s original relaxed tempo, but adds some double-time passages as the song goes on. (Trivia: Hampton stole the title of this tune from his bass player at the time, Charles Mingus. Mingus wasn’t very happy about this, but then turned around and wrote his own tune with the title Tonight at Noon, which was even hipper.) The soprano sax solo is absolutely superb, and Sherman’s vibes solo is also quite good.

McDougald’s original tune, Outside the Soirée, begins very slowly, with guitar playing over bowed bass. It’s a ballad, but a hip ballad, and she sings out on this one, too. In the notes, she is quoted as saying, “I just hear a possibility and sing it…Serious players do this in rehearsal or writing phases, but I tend to get these ideas onstage.” Rob Block switches to guitar on this one; it sounds like an amplified acoustic rather than an electric instrument. There’s also a sweet alto solo, and McDougald’s lyrics tell a story of a woman trying to make it in the big city, a parallel to her own life. Charles DeForest’s Don’t Wait Up for Me, taken at a swinging but asymmetric beat, also tells its own little tale. The solos on this one are less spectacular but no less original or tasteful, with Rob again on guitar.

When The Masquerade is Over started, I almost thought it was a Jobim tune, since it’s played with a bossa nova beat. This has been one of my favorite old songs since I first heard it as a teenager on the old Glenn Miller version, but McDougald is a far better singer than Ray Eberle. (Al Jarreau also did a cute version of it back in the 1980s.) This one has a nice quiet accompaniment, mostly Rob Block’s acoustic guitar with bass and very minimal percussion. Both bassist and guitarist take nice solos, Block’s being especially inventive. The piano comes in for the last chorus as well.

McDougald opens Spring Can Hang You Up the Most in a laid-back fashion, but as soon as the bass enters the tempo picks up and the tune begins to really swing. Alto sax and vibes back her up with imaginative playing, later laying out some wonderful solo work. When the World Was Young is another life tale sort of song, with McDougald accompanied solely by guitar. But the biggest surprise, to me, was her uptempo bop treatment of the old 1920s tunes Linger Awhile and Avalon. Had Al Jolson heard this, he wouldn’t have known what hit him! She cooks at an almost manic uptempo throughout, with Rob Block reminding me of Oscar Moore in his solo. (In case you don’t know, Oscar was Nat Cole’s original guitarist with his trio, and absolutely one of the hippest and most original jazz soloists of the 1940s.) The muted trumpet also has echoes of the past, a bit of Dizzy here and a little Fats Navarro there. We’re also treated to a drum solo in this one.

The most modern of the songs on this album (except for her original), Maury Yeston’s Unusual Way is also given a hip sort of bossa nova treatment, with Dan Block switching to clarinet for a nice low-register solo and brother Rob following on guitar. She closes her set with a jazz treatment of an old Irish tune, The Parting Glass, taken at a nice medium-uptempo. Again the solos are outstanding, as is the band as a whole.

Erin McDougald is clearly the jazz vocal find of the year to date. You’ll love this album!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Edward Downes’ Magnificent “Rienzi”

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WAGNER: Rienzi, der Letzt die Tribun / John Mitchinson, ten (Cola di Rienzi); Lois McDonald, sop (Irene); Lorna Haywood, sop (Adriano Colonna); Michael Langdon, bass (Steffano Colonna); Raimund Herincx, bass-bar (Paolo Orsini); David Ward, bs (Raimondo); Adrian de Peyer, tenor (Baroncelli); Paul Hudson, bs (Cecco del Vecchio); Elizabeth Gale, sop (Messenger of Peace); Brian Cookson, ten (Herald); BBC Northern Singers & Orchestra; Edward Downes, cond / Opera Depot OD-10914-4 (available at https://operadepot.com/products/wagner-rienzi-mitchinson-haywood-mcdonnall-langdon-herincx-ward-downes-london-1976)

“I am of the firm opinion that [Rienzi] is the finest thing achieved in grand opera in the last twelve years, that it is the most significant dramatic creation since Les Huguenots, and that it is just as epoch-making for its own time as were Les Huguenots, Der Freischütz, and Don Giovanni, each for its respective period of musical history.”

—Eduard Hanslick

Despite its being his first (and biggest) hit opera, and the one that led to his further productions in both Dresden and Paris, Wagner came to loathe Rienzi. Yet despite the fact that he kept cutting music from the score, not only for the 1842 opening night but also making further cuts over the next two years, it was not necessarily the music that became “repugnant” to him. It was, actually, the militaristic tone of the work. We tend to forget that Wagner, an iconoclastic thinker, not only despised the control that members of the royalty had over the arts, but also the militaristic trend of his own country, which is what led him into exile and becoming a wanted man for several years. Yet, ironically, it was exactly this militaristic tone, and the strong manner in which Rienzi fought the patricians as well as the Catholic church of his time, that so attracted young Adolf Hitler and led him to consider Rienzi Wagner’s greatest opera. He kept the only known completed and approved final score of the opera by him night and day, and in fact had it incinerated with him in his bunker in 1945.

This has led to a general distaste for and condemnation of the opera in the 20th and 21st centuries. But should we blame Richard Wagner for this militaristic view when he clearly disliked it so much that he ejected it from his canon of operas? True, he also dismissed his even earlier operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, but these were rejected on musical grounds. With Rienzi, he emerged almost fully-developed as a composer. Almost, but not quite; close listening to the music reveals the strong influence of two earlier composers who he once admired. Vincenzo Bellini and Giacomo Meyerbeer, though he later wrote virulent condemnations of the latter because one of Meyerbeer’s letters to the Paris Opera recommending him got lost in the mail and he accused Meyerbeer of never writing it. Part of Wagner’s motivation for distancing himself from Rienzi was that the Parisians wanted his later operas to sound like it. Tannhäuser was a resounding flop at the Paris Opera, not least because he placed the ballet, set in the Venusburg, at the very beginning of the opera instead of in Act II or III as the French dilettantes preferred.

Yet Rienzi as a musical construction continued to fascinate singers and conductors. Even in the early 20th century, many great singers (among them Louise Kirkby-Lunn, Jacques Urlus and Ernestine Schumann-Heink) were so attracted to arias from the opera that they sang and recorded them, and the overture became a favorite concert piece, even of Italian conductor Guido Cantelli who performed it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This fascination led to abridged performances, one of the most interesting being from 1960 with tenor Set Svanholm in the title role, Christa Ludwig as Adriano and American soprano Teresa Stich-Randall as the Messenger of Peace. But in all these performances, a heavily abridged score was used because the original sources were obscure. It wasn’t until the 1970s that other scores came to light, one autograph by Wagner which included much music cut even before the first performance, and three published scores, the last from 1844, edited by Wagner with further cuts. It seems to me that another reason why Wagner came to hate the opera was because he was forced to keep cutting it, just as poor Hector Berlioz was forced to make cuts in Les Troyens for performance.

A commercial recording finally appeared in 1974, about three hours and 20 minutes of the nearly five-hour opera, with René Kollo as Rienzi, Siv Wenneberg as Irene, American mezzo Janis Martin as Adriano and Theo Adam as Paolo Orsini. It met with astonishing critical acclaim, but until recent years was the only studio version of the opera. Modern recordings are cut just as much if not more.

But in 1976 British conductor Edward Downes convinced the BBC to let him perform and broadcast an uncut performance of the opera, based on the surviving manuscript and scores, trimmed just a bit to match what musicologists then felt was the closest they could come to the way it was performed in 1842. Downes assembled a cast of first-rate British singers. Some, like tenor John Mitchison, baritone Raimund Herincx and basses Michael Langdon and David Ward, were fairly well-known outside of England, but most of the others—and particularly the outstanding sopranos Lois McDonald and Lorna Haywood—were scarcely known at all internationally. This is the performance presented here on this superb release.

The sound is first-class stereo for its time, although a couple of passages in Act I are, for some reason, heard in mono (but good, clear mono). It has had only three issues prior to this that I can trace, all on small or “pirate” CD labels: Audio Encyclopedia AE 003, Oriel Music Society OMS 146/5 (the only one stretched out to five CDs), and Mitridate’s Ponto label, PO 1040, which was the best-circulated and therefore the most commonly available version.

Thus this current version being sold by Opera Depot, an independent label run by Andy Whitfield (http://operadepot.com), is an especially welcome edition for those who want their Wagner on CDs and not just as streaming audio (the performance is also on YouTube). What makes this performance so interesting, in my view, runs counter to what most critics say of Rienzi, that it doesn’t suffer from the cut music, that as usual Wagner over-wrote the opera. But considering how little action takes place, Wagner also over-wrote Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde and Siegfried, and except for Tristan, which almost always has a chunk cut out of the love duet (which is superfluous music; I heard the uncut performance that James Levine conducted at the Metropolitan Opera with Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, and the extra music was a crashing bore), none of the other operas are generally performed with cuts.

What strikes the ear in this remarkable performances, aside from the extraordinarily high quality of all of the singing, down to the smallest role, are two things. Firstly, and perhaps more importantly, is the fact that Downes conducts it like an opera from the Wagner canon, meaning with an alternation of dramatic and lyrical phrasing. This reduces the almost overwhelmingly martial impact that the opera as a whole makes, as opposed to those scenes clearly intended to be dramatic and exciting, which he does not gloss over. But secondly, most of the music new to my ears is some of the most beautiful and moving that Wagner ever wrote. One example among many is the newly extended version of the Irene-Adriano duet in Act I. What is given most of the time, and even in the 1974 recording, as a nice interlude is here revealed as one of the most interesting, well-crafted and moving pieces in the entire opera. The fact that it runs nearly three times as long as what we previously heard is of no importance; sheer length is not always an indicator of musical invention or lack of it, and it is clear that the young Wagner (he was only 29 when Rienzi premiered) was clearly channeling the long lines and continually-developing musical flow of Bellini, for whose opera Norma he once wrote an alternate bass aria.

Nor is this the only moment when one steps back, allows time to stand still, and admires what he poured into this score. Yes, there are some moments—not too many—where you think to yourself that this is going on too long, but for the most part you just keep listening and following the thread of the music because it is so good. What I’m saying, then, is that these snarky critics and musicologists who dump on Rienzi as overwritten trash are dead wrong. Very little of it bores; you just have to consider that this is French Grand Opera written by a German and accept it on its own terms. (For those who care, there’s also a completely uncut performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots running nearly four hours on YouTube, conducted by Cyril Diederich, and most of the “new” music is relatively uninteresting.) In only two places did I feel the music was over-written: 1) the incredibly lengthy Act II ballet, which runs a whopping 38 minutes. Part of this IS banal. I cut five minutes out of the middle that I found unimpressive. 2) the orchestral interlude near the beginning of Act IV, which repeats itself unnecessarily. I trimmed that, too.

Yet even so, you won’t be disappointed with this performance, even though Haywood (Adriano) is a soprano, and thus sounds a bit too similar to McDonald (Irene), instead of the called-for mezzo-soprano in the role. Mitchinson wasn’t much of an interpreter, but his superb phrasing, great diction (in fact, most of the singers here have incredibly clear German pronunciation) and sympathetic treatment of the title role can be deeply affection at times, particularly in his “prayer” which opens the fifth and last act. A bit too long? Sure, but so are Huguenots and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, and frankly, there’s only about 90 minutes of great music in Tell. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Diane Moser’s Inventive, Fascinating Birdsongs

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BIRDSONGS / MOSER: Birdsongs for Eric. Hello. Dancin’ With the Sparrows. If You Call Me, Then I’ll Call You. Won’t You Come Out to Play. Folk Song. When Birds Dream. MacDOWELL: Woodlands: I. Morning and Afternoon; II. Evening. BEACH: A Hermit Thrush at Eve & Variations. PEDERSON: The (Un)Common Loon / Diane Moser, pn; Anton Denner, fl/pic; Ken Filiano, bs / Planet Arts 30174

Here is something new under the sun: a jazz trio’s classical-jazz fusion treatment of music dedicated to birds. At first blush, the music seems to be ambient jazz, but this is deceiving, because Diane Moser, who apparently also leads the Composers Big Band in New York, has a discursive musical mind that marches to the beat of a different flute. Yes, the music is soft-grained and definitely has strong classical overtones, as indicated not only by the inclusion of the two pieces from Edward Mac Dowell’s Woodlands and Amy Beach’s A Hermit Thrust at Eve, but also from her own strongly classical-based compositions/arrangements. The very first tune, dedicated to Eric Dolphy, begins with bowed bass and flute flutterings, which thrown you off at first, but before long a jazz beat emerges and the music becomes more rhythmic with improvisations thrown in—and then moves back again. It’s very difficult music to describe, however, because both its structure and its ebb and flow bend and morph like small tree branches in the wind.

Of course, the hardcore jazz fan may be turned off by this approach, since much of the music here is gentle and bassist Filiano almost always plays arco or bowed rather than standard pizzicato jazz bass, but I found it fascinating. In some ways the music is very modern, hence its resemblance to ambient jazz (but without ever becoming banal or uninteresting), and in some ways it harks back to the kind of musical experiments one heard in the late 1950s from such innovative musical minds as the late Fred Katz, particularly when he played cello with the Chico Hamilton group that had Paul Horn on flute and saxophone.

Absolutely key to the success of this music is Filiano, whose playing flows like a golden thread through each and every piece. He is a dominant presence in every track, as is flautist-piccolo player Anton Denner; if anything, it is the leader’s delicate traceries on the piano that act more as the ambient element in this music. She gives free rein to Denner in his imitations of birds which are intermingled with the constant flow of the music. Moreover, since the tracks flow seamlessly into one another, listening without seeing the change of tracks gives the impression of a complete work divided into different movements. This music is as great as anything I’ve heard accomplished by modern classical composers, and in those moments when Moser’s playing becomes more forward and more rhythmic, it simply acts as another variant in the ongoing musical discourse.

This is especially evident in the third track, Dancin’ With the Sparrows, where Moser not only becomes more jazz-animated but Filiano suddenly switches to plucked bass. Yet this, too, acts like another movement in the ongoing suite. The marvelous thing about this music is that its shifts of mood do not break up the flow but rather enhances it. Another name that crossed my mind when listening to this album was that of jazz-folk flautist Abbie Rabinovitz, whose Flute Story CD of many years ago I fell in love with. Even the introduction of quasi-bop figures here and there add to rather than detract from the music’s quality and impact.

Moser also holds the listener’s attention by means of her keen ear for detail. Although most of the music is sparse, she uses space in a highly creative way, which keeps the listener engaged in the ongoing musical discourse.

The MacDowell and Amy Beach pieces are also transformed through Moser’s musical mind into jazz-classical pieces, which adds to the classical feel of the album without disrupting the overall mood. As she put it in the publicity sheet for this album, “Our world is overrun with all kinds of sounds that are not always good for your health, or mental and emotional well-being. I wanted this recording to be a respite from that, so that those who listen can feel relieved from their daily stress and feel refreshed and positive.” Towards the end of the album, we get mostly Moser alone on piano, playing very softly and more ambient than jazzy, bringing the CD to a soft close.

She has clearly accomplished her goal. This album is mostly a gem.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Joanne Tatham Swings on New Release

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THE RINGS OF SATURN / DONALDSON-KAHN: love Me or Leave Me. FRANKS: Summer in New York.* WINKLER-BRUGGERMAN: Catch Me if You Can. SNOW: Poetry Man. GABLE: The Rings of Saturn. RUNDGREN: Can We Still Be Friends?+# JOBIM: If You Never Come to Me. SONDHEIM: Anyone Can Whistle. JOHN & PAUL WILLIAMS: Nice to Be Around.+ JOBIM-DE MORAES-GIMBEL: Jazz ‘n’ Samba (So Danço Samba). VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: It Could Happen to You# / Joanne Tatham, voc; +Brian Swartz, tpt; #Bob Sheppard, t-sax; Max Haymer, pn; Marcel Camargo, *Larry Koonse, gtr; Lyman Medeiros, bs; Dan Schnelle, dm; Kevin Winard, perc / Café Pacific Records CPCD 14060

Joanne Tathum has been a singer since she was her New Jersey high school, working with an all-girl vocal group that sang standards and show tunes. She also worked as a single doing weddings, bowling banquets and New Year’s Eve parties before she married TV writer Chuck Tatham and moved to Los Angeles with him. There, she got into jazz singing, performing at the Cinegrill, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill and Jazz. As she puts it, “I can’t believe I had the nerve, but I actually walked up to him one day when he was there checking on construction, and gave him a copy of my first CD. I began playing there almost from the day it opened!”

On this disc, Tatham is lucky to have an outstanding, swinging group of musicians whose playing is anything but “lounge” style. They swing, and so does she. Tatham does hold back a bit on her voice, not quite singing out as much as I’d like, but she has great jazz timing. And I don’t just mean in a generic sense. Tatham holds back on the beat, pushes it forward, and adds little quasi-beats to the rhythm when she sings. Max Haymer is a pianist who catches her mood and style perfectly through his instrument, playing swinging, sparse choruses and breaks as she sings. She can also improvise on the melody while sticking to the lyrics—in other words, where other singers would just scat, Tatham holds onto the words while inventing her own choruses. Love Me or Leave Me is a perfect introduction to her and her style, and I loved the way she and the band do a samba-like treatment of Summer in New York, where her “New Joisey” accent sneaks through a bit. (I’m from New Jersey myself, so I’m not being critical, just factual.) Haymer creates a softly swirling mélange of notes in his first solo on this one, and the tight rhythm section is a delight. Guest guitarist Larry Koonse plays a nice solo on this one, too.

Tatham is particularly good on Catch Me if You Can, her rhythmic sense as sharp as that of any jazz soloist. And the backup band really cooks on this one, Haymer playing a single-line solo as fine as any you’d hear from a first-rank pianist. Kevin Winard’s tight drumming is both subtle and propulsive at the same time. I was interested to hear what she could do with Phoebe Snow’s Poetry Man, particularly since Snow was really a “soft rock” singer and not a jazz writer. She performs it as a ballad, which isn’t too surprising, and resorts to some ultra-breathiness here that didn’t really grab me, but still manages to infuse the music with a jazz feeling. And her backup band does not disappoint.

Both Tatham and the band cook pretty well on The Rings of Saturn, also played with a Latin beat. In a few bars, she seems to have double-tracked her own voice for effect. Another surprise on the disc is a song by Todd Rundgren, Can We Still Be Friends? Here, she most definitely converts it into a jazz tune, played in a swinging 4 and featuring guests Brian Swartz on trumpet and Bob Sheppard on sax, playing nice, swinging licks behind her. One of things I really liked about Tatham is that she is part of the band, and not just a voice-accompanied-by-instruments. Listen, for instance, to the way her solo follows those of Sheppard and Swartz, more minimal in terms of notes but no less inventive rhythmically. And she opens up the voice a bit more in the final bars, which I wished she would do more often. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s If You Never Come to Me could almost have been tailor-made for her, so good is her phrasing and rhythm, at one point scatting along with Marcel Camargo’s guitar and Haymer’s piano. This is surely one of the highlights of the album, with bassist Medeiros also getting a nice solo.

Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle is a show tune turned ballad, with Tatham again in whispery mode, but also swinging in a light, relaxed style. Nice to be Around is also given the ballad treatment. Predictably, things heat up a bit in Jobim’s So Danço Samba, here retitled Jazz ‘n Samba. Both Tatham and the band cook beautifully on this one, with her voice bouncing off Camargo’s guitar. The closer, It Could Happen to You, is a medium-slow piece alternating between 4 and 3 in which Tatham swings gently with the band, featuring nice licks from Sheppard on tenor and a nicely swinging Haymer solo. Tatham then scats with Sheppard for a chorus before the saxist takes off on his own.

This is a nice introduction to this singer and this band, very rewarding for the most part. Recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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