Fantastic “Rape of Lucretia” With Vickers, Rideout

Rape of Lucretia

BRITTEN: The Rape of Lucretia / Jon Vickers, ten (Male Chorus); Lyn Vernon, sop (Female Chorus); Claude Corbeil, bass (Collatinus); Alexander Gray, bar (Junius); Allan Monk, bar (Tarquinius); Patricia Rideout, alto (Lucretia); Ruth Ann Archibald, mezzo (Bianca); Elizabeth Strauss, sop (Lucia); Guelph Festival Orchestra; Nicholas Goldschmidt, cond / Opera Depot OD10964-2, order here (live: Guelph, spring 1974)

Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia, has always been a favorite of those who enjoy musical drama but not particularly of average opera-lovers. Indeed, conductor Reginald Goodall, who was so pleased to conduct Britten’s Peter Grimes that he jumped at the chance to follow it up by conducting this work, was disappointed by it and vowed to never conduct a Britten opera again.

For most collectors, the definitive recording is the one made by Britten himself with Janet Baker in the title role, Peter Pears as the Male Chorus, Heather Harper as the Female Chorus, John Shirley-Quirk as Collatinus and Benjamin Luxon as Tarquinius. I owned that recording for several years but eventually gave up on it. Pears and Luxon were clearly past their prime, despite the dramatic force of their singing, and the recording—for me, anyway—lacked the excitement of a live performance.

Here we have a live performance with an outstanding cast and, more importantly (in my view), a conductor who drives the music forward with even greater force than Britten. The stars of this show are obviously Jon Vickers as the Male Chorus (the only Britten role he ever sang other than Grimes), Patricia Rideout as Lucretia, and the great Allan Monk as Tarquinius. The drawback is that it is recorded from the audience, which recesses the voices somewhat even as it gives a natural “space” around the voices, and is in mono.

But what a great performance it is! Lively in every respect, sung and acted splendidly, and conducted with a tautness ever greater than Britten’s own version. And once you get used to the sound, it isn’t bad at all; in fact, if anything, the orchestra is recorded with an almost 3D effect, with both the upper-range instruments (strings and winds) and percussion practically leaping out of the speakers at you.

Although Vickers fans will surely be interested in it for his participation—possibly at the insistence of Rideout—it is the contralto whose performance is clearly the most stunning. Gifted with a rich contralto voice, which she always felt was “like Kathleen Ferrier’s” (Britten’s original Lucretia, who unfortunately only left us a defective-sounding live performance from 1946, conducted by the lackluster Hans Oppenheim), she received short shrift even at the Canadian Royal Opera, where she sang an endless succession of maids and servants until she finally impressed audiences with her Carmen. This was the first time, in fact, that she was given the lead role in this opera; previously, she had only sung Bianca, the nurse, in performance. And to a certain extent, it is she who is the centerpiece of this overall splendid performance. I never really thought that anyone besides Ferrier and Baker could invest the role with such drama and meaning, but this recording proves me wrong. If anything, she is better than Baker of sainted memory: the voice richer and deeper—she easily reaches the low end of her range that Baker could just “touch”—and her interpretation even more three-dimensional. It is a stunning achievement, and a fine memorial of a great and vastly-underrated singer. Thankfully, her voice has a less prominent vibrato than Ferrier’s, and she didn’t always sound is if her dog had died, one of Ferrier’s chief faults as an interpreter.

But if Rideout’s Lucretia is the crown jewel, the rest of the cast are diamonds in the tiara of this opera. Vickers’ voice is not merely firmer than Pears’, but his interpretation equally riveting, and even some of the singers little-known outside of Canada—Corbeil, Gray, and Lyn Vernon as the Female Chorus—are up to their tasks. As much as I adored Heather Harper’s voice (for me, she was THE lyric soprano assoluta of the 1960s and ‘70s, an artist who could sing the phone book and make it sound great), Vernon, though less naturally gifted with beauty of tone, is even more intense, much like Joan Cross in the original production, but with a finer voice.

As for Vickers, he is stupendous: fully into the role and its text, and despite the somewhat distant microphone placement, his softest singing is clearly audible. But again, I must return to Goldschmidt’s conducting as the glue that holds this performance together and drives it with dramatic force. A Moravian Jew who emigrated to the U.S. in 1937, at age 32, he moved to Canada in 1945 and became the first director of the Royal Conservatory Opera School from 1946 to 1957. He was co-founder of the Royal Conservatory Opera Company, later the Canadian Opera Company. From 1968 to 1975 he was Music Director at the University of Guelph, the period during which this splendid performance was given.

In some ways the audience-perspective sound works miraculously well, as the voices are “staged” at different distances from the listener, something that is extremely difficult to pull off in a recording studio, and this, too, adds to the performance’s effectiveness. There is but one dropout in sound, towards the end of the first track on CD 2. Well worth the modest cost, although of course no libretto is provided.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Sellin’s Jazz Impressions of Debussy

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JAZZ IMPRESSIONS / DEBUSSY: Children’s Corner: The Little Shepherd; Doctor Gradus ed Parnassum. Clair de lune. Le petit Négre. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Images: Reflets dans l’eau. Petite Suite: Ballet.* Préludes, Book I: La fille aux cheveux de lin. Pour le Piano: Sarabande. La plus que lente. BEIDERBECKE: In a Mist / Hervé Sellin, *Yves Henry, pn / Indésens INDE107

It was Friedrich Gulda who said that much of modern jazz owed a great deal to Debussy, and he was right, but until now no one—not even Gulda himself—dared to improvise on the perfectly-constructed pieces of Debussy’s own music. Most jazz-classical performances focused on one composer, and that was Johann Sebastian Bach.

But here is Hervé Sellin, a renowned jazz pianist and leader of a famed Tentette, playing solo in his own personal explorations of Debussy’s music, adding one Debussy-influenced third stream piece by Bix Beiderbecke. According to the liner notes, this project had its gestation in 2012 when Sellin performed with classical pianist Yves Henry in a concert of Debussy’s music. On the present disc, Henry joins him in Sellin’s arrangement of the Petite Suite ballet. Otherwise, this is a strictly solo effort.

Sellin is not stranger to this repertoire in its legitimate form. He studied classical piano as a child and, at age 19, became part of Aldo Ciccolini’s class at the Paris Conservatoire. But he always loved jazz, and so pursued a career in that field, playing with such noted greats as Chet Baker, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton and Art Farmer. He has also received the Django Reinhardt Prize in 1990 and the Django d’Or, category of Confirmed Artist, in 2008—ironically, since Reinhardt himself never received a music prize in his life and died in relative obscurity.

Sellin’s method in approaching “jazz Debussy” is much like that of his countryman Jacques Loussier’s approach to Bach, i.e., to introduce the melody in the opening bars, sometimes play it through as written (and sometimes not), then take off on his own, adding lines and rhythms, and often chord positions, that Debussy never dreamed of.

For those who erroneously think that jazz pianists fall back on learned licks when they improvise, I urge you to explore this CD. There is very little here that sounds that way; indeed, most of the time Sellin is off on tangents that most pianists wouldn’t have thought of. Only occasionally, in certain right-hand keyboard runs, does he play what I would say are standard jazz patterns. With Debussy always clearly in focus, he needs to be thinking of the piece’s underlying structure even if he is rewriting it as he plays.

Occasionally, as in the famed Clair de lune, the stickler for classical form will not like what Sellin does because they consider what Debussy wrote, as they consider what Bach wrote, to be sacrosanct. But I liked it. Sellin is not pretending to be “presenting” Debussy, but using his themes as a take-off point for exploration, and if you view it from that perspective, there’s no problem. If you want to hear a jazz pianist play Debussy “straight,” there is always Gulda’s recording of the 24 Préludes, and that, too, is a fascinating document. This one is just different but, to my mind, equally valid.

The ragtime sensibilities of Le petit Négre may seem, in the opening, to be just right for Sellin’s ruminations, but he surprises you by slowing down the tempo and shifting harmonic gears to something far more complex than what Debussy wrote. To my mind, classical pedants give all too little credit to jazz musicians for expanding the harmonic palette of classical music by using suspended and extended chord positions. Yes, Debussy was a master of this in his own time, but his chord extensions only opened the door for musicians of a later era, particularly the great Art Tatum, master of harmonic suspense, and Bill Evans, master of harmonic extension, to take what Debussy (and Stravinsky) did into an entirely new universe of sound. What Sellin does is far from being a “desecration” of Debussy; rather, it shows what his harmonic experiments led to at the same time that he gives you what Debussy himself accomplished. It’s a way of combining the past with the future, so to speak.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a combination of Debussy, Tatum, Evans and pianists who extended what Evans did, like Keith Jarrett and Jack Reilly, creating an entirely new musical form. You can always go listen to others play this music as written. There are literally dozens of recordings to choose from. But there is only one recording like this, and it shows what a master jazzman can do by inserting “instant improvisation” into formal structure.

The other complaint pedants will have is that Sellin, like those jazz pianists who improvise on Bach, remove some of the original composition to impose their own ideas. Although it’s true that one can listen to the middle of one of these pieces, i.e. Reflets dans l’eau, and not have a clue what the original piece sounded like, Sellin re-introduces snippets of the original often enough that one gets an idea of what he is doing. And this is exactly what a jazz musician does when improvising on a popular tune. If you were to start John Coltrane’s performance of My Favorite Things three minutes in, and didn’t know the title, you wouldn’t hear that original tune, either. This is what jazz musicians do.

The duo-piano performance of the Ballet from the Petite Suite is perhaps closer to the original because Sellin is working with Henry, but the latter pianist sets up his own non-Debussy rhythm to play a few variants of his own, and accompany Sellin in others. In La fille aux cheveux de lin, he even tosses in short licks from Tea for Two and the opening chorus of Honeysuckle Rose as a bit of a joke. Musical blasphemy? No, just making musical relationships. This is also what jazz musicians do.

I won’t spoil the fun for listeners by tipping off what Sellin does in every track because the listening experience will tell you all you need to know, but suffice it to say that he has fun with virtually every piece in this collection. Debussy’s music is essentially used as the backdrop for his musical explorations. They’re not so much “variations on (fill in the blank)” as they are jazz pieces incorporating Debussy. I particularly liked the rocking motion he set up in the Sarabande, which he uses to fuse the two worlds, here quite successfully without sacrificing a connection to the original. Conversely, La plus que lente is the most personal performance, merely using the theme as a launching pad for extraordinary excursions into musical outer space. But perhaps the biggest surprise is that, aside from a few ritards and perhaps an extended chord or two, Sellin does almost nothing individual with Beiderbecke’s In a Mist. It’s a wonderful performance, don’t get me wrong, but just a few extra notes are added here and there to what Bix and Jack Teagarden—who added the contrasting theme in the middle just before the piece was published by Robbins Music—originally wrote.

Yet the extraordinary quality of this music and its performance will delight and surprise you. Sellin has achieved something truly wonderful here.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Great New Recording of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”

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BIZET: Les Pêcheurs de Perles / Julie Fuchs, sop (Leïla); Cyrille Dubois, ten (Nadir); Florian Sempey, bar (Zurga); Luc Bertin-Hugault, bass (Nourabad); Les Cris de Paris; Orchestre National de Lille; Alexandre Bloch, cond / Pentatone SACD PTC 5186 685 (live: Opera de Lille, 2015)

Although I’m not much of a fan of Romantic operas per se, a few just jump out at me because of their exceptional musicality. Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Le Prophète and Robert le Diable are among those, and so is this sweet little opera by Georges Bizet in his pre-Carmen days.

But The Pearl Fishers has not fared very well, on record or in the opera houses. Too often, even nowadays, the score is truncated. When it was done a year or two ago by the Metropolitan, they even chopped out the second half of the actual tenor-baritone duet that Bizet wrote for the opera, instead performing the concert arrangement that most people are familiar with from the old recordings. Even the Nicolai Gedda-Ernest Blanc recording of the 1960s had cuts. And too often, the music is oversung by big voices that lack the delicacy that this music calls for…and is conducted too slowly.

Yet some of this (pre-1975, anyway, when musicologists began taking more of an interest in it) was not always their fault. As the notes point out:

Les pêcheurs de perles has been handed down to posterity in the form of a piano reduction written by Bizet himself. In addition, there is a conductor’s score dating from the time of the first series of performances in 1863, containing various deletions. This manuscript is a so-called violin-conductor’s score, a kind of six-staff particella (= short score) with the main entrances of the brass and strings, as well as relevant instructions on orchestration. The autograph of Les pêcheurs de perles is privately owned and to this day has not been made accessible to the public. Therefore, the conducting score is the most important source for Bizet’s ideas on instrumentation. Why is this information important? Well, after Bizet’s death in 1875, the estate went to his widow, who had little interest in the work of her deceased husband. In addition, in the wake of the success that Carmen was enjoying, Bizet’s publisher Choudens particularly wanted to profit financially from the sale of Bizet’s earlier works, and in 1886 printed a heavily revised score of Les pêcheurs de perles. In the same year, the Italian publisher Sonzogno revived the opera in Milan; this was the beginning of a new series of performances. And finally, in 1893, Léon Carvalho decided to simply make changes to the opera, and to commission additional numbers in line with his own taste. Arrangers not only manipulated the microstructure of the work, but even eliminated or reshuffled entire sections. In addition, Carvalho immediately adapted the end of the work, with Zurga now giving up the ghost. That same year, Choudens based a new edition of his score on this version containing the changes for the worse. And it was mainly on this misshapen version that subsequent performances and recordings of Les pêcheurs de perles were based until 1965.

And now for a little tidbit that may be apocryphal but could also be true. I once heard, from a knowledgeable musician who had talked to a very old man who had some inside information, that Bizet was two-timing his wife and she found out, as did the husband of the woman he was having the affair with. According to him, the husband poisoned Bizet, which led to his early death, and his widow refused an autopsy to cover his tracks. This would also explain why his widow “had little interest in the work of her deceased husband.”

The first complete recording was the one made by Ileana Cotrubas, Alain Vanzo, Roger Soyer and conductor Georges Prêtre for EMI in 1976. This live concert performance (not a staged version) from the Opera de Lille in 2015 goes a bit further, using the latest critical edition which uses the original 1863 score.

Conductor Alexandre Bloch, like Prêtre, leads a very tight, straightforward performance, with little lingering or slow tempi as were often favored in this music, but at times he is a shade more relaxed than Prêtre, which also works to the music’s favor. Another thing in this recording’s favor is the splendid, modern digital sound, even clearer and less afflicted with studio reverb than the EMI studio recording.

But, of course, the real test of any opera recording is not how good the conducting is but how good the singers are, and here Bloch was extremely fortunate to have a first-rate cast to work with. Soprano Julie Fuchs (Leïla) has an absolutely gorgeous voice, touching and sensuous without the occasional odd flutter one heard in Cotrubas’ singing. French baritone Florian Sempey (Zurga) has a slightly “woolly” voice, with the kind of French vibrato that has all but died out in modern singers (but was much in vogue in that country for more than a century), but he is basically a good, solid singer with wonderful expressive qualities. The real surprise and delight of this recording, however, is tenor Cyrille Dubois, who I was completely unfamiliar with. Dubois possesses a light, beautiful voice of the sort that recalls such great French-trained tenors of the past as Louis Cazette or Joseph Rogstschewsky, names probably unfamiliar to any but hardcore vocal record collectors. It is even a lovelier voice than that of Alain Vanzo, the Nadir of the Prêtre recording, and in several places—particularly in the famous duet “Au fond du temple saint”—he sings in a melting half- voice that would be the envy of many a tenor today. This is no small achievement. In addition, despite the concert setting, everyone gives their all, as if they were performing the opera in costume during a staged performance, but without the constant interruptions for applause that often afflict such live performances.

There is some music in this performance that even I hadn’t heard before and, more interestingly, at the conclusion of the tenor aria “Je crois entendre encore,” the last note is taken an octave higher up, as is usually done in concert performances and recordings, and not at the lower pitch one heard in the old Alarie-Simoneau recording from the 1950s OR in the Prêtre recording. But here it is. Right or wrong? Without my actually seeing the newly-revised score, I dunno. And that’s the best answer I can give you. The Leïla-Zurga duet in the third act is sheer perfection, and although I’m not one of those who insist on an all-French cast for French opera, having one here certainly helps in their diction, all of which is, thankfully, clear as a bell.

As with Verdi’s Il Trovatore, the extremely high quality of the music supercedes the flawed and somewhat ridiculous libretto. This is a superb performance and recording, and clearly goes to the top of the list for this opera. The booklet also, believe it or not, includes the complete libretto in both French and English.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Arthur Fagen’s Superb Diamond Performances

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DIAMOND: Rounds for String Orchestra. Music for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Symphony No. 6* / Indiana University Chamber Orch. & *Philharmonic Orch.; Arthur Fagen, cond / Naxos 8.559842

The late David Diamond was a composer who prided himself on being part of the “Americana” scene in classical music while remaining an iconoclast. Even as late as the 1990s, he refused to own a telephone or a fax machine; if you wanted to contact him, you had to go out to his home and visit him in person!

He was also an iconoclast who refused to write music he didn’t feel, and thus composed to satisfy his own muse. Often it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but the three pieces on this new album are all outstanding.

The Rounds for String Orchestra were composed in 1944 at the request of Dimitri Mitropoulos, who wanted something to cheer him up in the midst of those dark, terrible times. Although a light work, it has substance; Aaron Copland loved this piece and one said he wished he had written it himself. But what makes the music work is conductor Arthur Fagen’s strongly-accented, emotionally committed performance. He does not approach the score as light music. He gives it as much attention and drive as if it were a major work, and in so doing brings out all of the music’s strengths while somehow managing to keep it from sounding too lightweight. The frequent counterpoint and imaginative progression of the music are his focus, and in so doing he makes you pay attention to each strand of the piece. The slow second movement is the most American-sounding of the three, also perhaps the most Copland-like, thought there is a certain American feel to the last movement, despite it not being based on any real American tune.

Romeo and JulietMany years ago, I owned the original 78-rpm set of Diamond’s Music for Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” played by The Little Orchestra Society under Thomas K. Scherman (Columbia). I thought it was a pretty good piece. But I was disappointed by Gerard Schwarz’s recording of the same music on Delos…it just didn’t create the same effect for me. Fagen’s performance, on the other hand, is even better than the original Scherman recording: crisp, stylish and full of passion. One thing that helps in its favor is the clear, forward sound. My readers know that I’ve complained in the past about many Naxos recordings, which seem to always want to bathe their orchestras in echo and reverb. This one is quite the opposite, thank goodness, which particularly helps in such soft music as the “Balcony Scene,” where you can actually hear the vibrato of the strings as clearly as if you were sitting in the front row of a concert hall. The tenderness and beauty that Fagen and his Indiana University forces draw out of this music is truly exceptional, and “Juliet and her Nurse” is played with a nice, light touch that does not trivialize the score. “The Death of Romeo and Juliet” is more tender and less dramatic than in others’ music for this play, but Fagen enhances its effectiveness.

Then we come to the Sixth Symphony from 1951-54, of which this is the first-ever recording. This is a powerful, epic work, far greater in both its scope and development than the other pieces on this disc, and it is played here by the full Indiana University Philharmonic rather than just the Chamber Orchestra. To be honest, I was blown away by this piece; it’s a very different David Diamond than I was previously used to, a truly major American symphony with drama and power, and is, again, conducted and played superbly. Yet this score was met by derision from critics when it premiered in New York; Winthrop Sargent, in The New Yorker, called it “possibly the worst composition of its type by a composer of any pretensions to have been heard since the Philharmonic preformed Carlos Chávez’ Third, about a year ago.” I disagree. What apparently set Sargent off was its modernism or, to be more precise, its disregard for music of the past. “Mr. Diamond is either ignorant of the tradition or is perversely and fashionably bent on writing as if it didn’t exist.” Well, yeah, Winthrop, I think that was kind of the whole point. It is, in my view, the most modern of his scores, and still holds up superbly today, particularly as played here. At times openly dramatic, at others quiet but a bit sinister, it pierces the heart like the cry of a wounded bird, yet at the same time is rigorously constructed and well-developed. Kudos to Fagen and the Indiana forces for wanting to play and record this great piece!

This may well be the finest single collection of Diamond’s music, and surely one played by a great interpreter who understands his aesthetic. You need to hear it, particularly the symphony!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Jungsu Choi, Jazz Composer

Tiny Orkester

TSCUSS JAZZ ERA / CHOI: Stolen Yellow.* PARKER-CHOI: Anthropology. CHOI: Nach Wien 224.1,2 STRAYHORN-CHOI: What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train?3 COREA-CHOI: Spain3 /Jungsu Choi Tiny Orkester: Yejung Kim, tpt; Junyeon Lee, tb; Eunmi Kim, fl; Minkyu Cha, a-sax; Sungil Bae, t-sax; Sehwa Kang, cello; Jungmin Lee, pn; Sungyun Hong, gtr; Joseph Han, bs; Hyunsu Lee, dm; 1Jungsu Choi, 2Jinho Pyo, 3Sehyun Baik, voc / Challenge Records CR73451

This album is proof positive of what I’ve been saying in my reviews for the past 17 years, ever since Clare Fischer went into semi-retirement due to failing health and Toshiko Akiyoshi finally gave up her great jazz orchestra, that to be great in the jazz world doesn’t just mean writing cool, swinging charts for a standard 16-piece big band in a generic style. You need to think outside the box, not only in your creation of the music but in your scoring, and a lot can be done with only nine or ten musicians. George Russell did it for years. So did Charles Mingus and Rod Levitt. Thinking outside the box means coming up with your own timbral blends, scores that don’t just sound like everyone else’s. Daniel Schnyder, Dmitri Tymoczko and a few others have done this in their jazz-classical hybrids, and this is what Jungsu Choi has done here.

Choi’s brief but intense liner notes give you an idea of how much this music means to him. “Writing music is one of the most painful things I do,” he says. “Sometimes it takes more than a week to fill a single measure, which is a difficult and lonely time…in the majority of cases, this first idea is not the right one and instead is thrown out because it might be a cliché, old fashioned or simply too plain. For me, writing a piece of music is a laborious series of choices and throwing ideas away again and again.”

It took Choi three years to write the five pieces you hear in this album, three of which are actually rewritings of others’ work. What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train? is erroneously attributed on the inlay and booklet to Duke Ellington instead of the song’s composer, Billy Strayhorn, but that is the only mistake you will see or hear in this impeccably written and arranged series of pieces.

Stolen Yellow is not, as some of us in the West may assume, a mistaken combination of English words (as the Japanese sometimes do for their “Japlish”), but a tribute to a former President of South Korea whose name was Yellow. The opening line is simply astounding: complex, bitonal and striking, with Choi’s wordless vocal woven into the ensemble. The piece then reaches a section where repeated low As on the piano play an ostinato rhythm beneath an excellent trumpet solo by Yejung Kim, after which altoist Minkyu Cha interweaves lines with him. Following this is a squealing solo by what sounds to me like tenor player Sungil Bae in overdrive, pushing the upper limits of his instrument to sound almost like a soprano sax. Eventually tonality takes over, but the complex, interwoven lines are, as Choi points out, devoid of cliché or predictability. The rhythm within each bar is shifted rhythmically in such a way that the tune seems to be contracting rather than expanding. The heightened tension is such that the piece seems to not be very long at all, whereas in fact it runs for eight minutes.

Choi’s arrangement of Anthropology is also stunning and creative. You recognize the melody, but only in bits and pieces; the harmony is completely rewritten, and the music sounds like an entirely new piece using Anthropology as a thread that runs through this new piece. And, like Rod Levitt, Choi is able to make his tentette sound like a big band. At one point, tenor saxist Bae (now sounding more like a traditional tenor) plays a rhythmic solo while flautist Eunmi Kim plays Parker’s melody above him in counterpoint, following which he goes off on a solo of his own, still in counterpoint, now with Bae expanding on his solo. This is clearly great music. The ensemble finale is also full of contrapuntal effects.

With Nach Wien 224, we finally get a respite from the manic uptempo of the first two numbers. This begins with the piano playing in a ruminative manner, with cymbal washes and a guitar entering (in its low range) with Choi humming along. Then the melody comes in, quickly leading to a passage played by cello and flute, eventually followed by a complex ensemble playing in counterpoint, following which we reach a moment of quietude with Jinho Pyo singing a vocal over the rhythm section. To re-use an old cliché, you can’t take your ears off this music. It keeps you engrossed because it is always moving, developing, shifting and morphing. There’s also a passage where Choi and Pyo duet in counterpoint.

What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train? begins with low-register growling (trombone, possibly) before moving into Strayhorn’s tune, again contracted and rewritten in the manner of Anthropology. Certain notes are omitted, others truncated in length, before it moves into a really swinging passage propelled by Joseph Han’s bass. The tempo is then cut in half for an excellent trombone solo by Junyeong Lee, sounding not too dissimilar from Jimmy Knepper (yes, that is a compliment; Knepper is, in my view, somewhat neglected today as one of the greatest and most original jazz trombonists in history). Another ensemble passage, again truncating the melody further, leads to a rock-influenced guitar solo; this was, for me, the least pleasant moment on this disc (I DETEST rock guitars in jazz). Another ensemble takes Choi’s rewritten Train into an entirely new station, in a new musical universe, before a brief restatement of the melody and then a complex rideout.

Chick Corea’s Spain, already a fairly complex piece, is made more so in Choi’s rearrangement. This one also has a nice, relaxed piano solo in it, as well as a tenor sax/vocal duo-improvisation (Sehyun Baik is the singer here) that suddenly crashes into the finale.

This is not just a good disc. This is a stupendous disc. His record label is aptly named: Challenge. Indeed, I was so impressed by it that I asked Mr. Choi if he would do a short email interview with me, and he agreed. Here it is:

Art Music Lounge: Thank you for granting me this interview! I must say, I was completely taken aback by your compositions and rearrangements. They’re so completely original and, better yet, inventive, that I couldn’t stop listening. I suppose my first question would be, who are the composers and arrangers who have influenced you the most?

Jungsu Choi: Actually, there are so many things that have influenced my music. As I wrote in the liner note on my album, my music comes from something inherent: mine were inside me for a long time, put there by something I saw, read or heard…

it’s not only from music but also from many others. However if I should say only one of them, I would have to say “Mathias Ruegg” – the leader and composer of Vienna Art Orchestra. His music was a trigger that made me decide to tailor to big band music. It was in 1999. At that moment when I listened to the music, I was really shocked and speaking in my mind, “this is the music that I’ve wanted and will do.”  His music is full of many fresh musical ideas and super structured arrangements.

AML: I read your comments on how long it takes you to write and arrange your music, and I can completely understand that since you are obviously very serious about your work. But I’m curious: when you come up with the right way to proceed, is it always the result of long meditation? Or does the next step sometimes occur to you in a flash of inspiration?

JC: Yes, I write music both ways. Usually I consider deeply how to fill out the measures of my scores. Even when I come up some of good flash ideas, I don’t really use them as it is. In other words, it takes some time for me to complete music I want and intend even when I use flash ideas.

AML: The late jazz composer Alonzo Levister, who wrote the jazz ballet Manhattan Monodrama back in the 1950s, one told me that, for him, the opening of a piece is of vital importance, because without a somewhat suspenseful or dramatic opening, you may not hold your listeners. How do you feel about this?

JC:  Absolutely, I agree with that. Of course, the opening of a piece should excite the listeners’ curiosity about how the music goes. But it doesn’t mean that it has to be a big dramatic musical device or something strong that surprises listeners. Sometimes even only a few notes played by a single instrument is enough to hold listeners’ attention.

AML: Another thing that impressed me about your scores is the fact that, despite their melodic and harmonic complexity, they had a good flow…the music moves in what seems like a logical progression, no matter how dense it is. Do you think of this linear “flow” when you are trying to come up with a bar or two?

JC:  Usually, when I compose or arrange, the general flow of the melody and bass line comes first. There are so many diverse ways to develop compositional ideas. One of them I use is firstly to assemble the top line and bottom line, and then choosing harmonic devices and density are next. In terms of melodic devices, I’ve been hugely inspired by Nicolas Slonimsky’s theory on the ways to handle melodies.

AML: I would guess that, because you work slowly, it is difficult for you to write music on commission. Is this so?

JC: The ways I compose are absolutely different between doing commissioned works and doing my own. Actually, I have done many commissioned works in diverse areas such as for film, modern dance, orchestra and so on. But that is not “ART.”  On the commission works, the point is to produce not that I want but what the commissioner wants. In addition, the deadline makes it possible for me to be completed on time. On such kind of works, the important things are techniques and experiences. However on doing my own works, other things are added, which are “thinking, philosophy and experiments.” This is the reason why I’m slow doing my own works that is art!

AML: I couldn’t quite determine if the opening growls on What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train? were played by trombones or not. Is that what they were?

JC: It’s not trombone but guitar effector’s sound. On the intro of the piece, I ask guitarist Hong to play a sonic improvisation using diverse effector that suggests departure of the “A “Train.

AML: It seemed to me that you think a great deal about orchestral texture as well as the musical line and the underlying harmony when writing your music. I’m curious if you’ve ever studied the scoring of such iconoclastic jazz writers as Eddie Sauter, Charles Mingus or Rod Levitt, who were also adept at creating unusual textures from just a few instruments?

JC: Not really. Actually, this is the first time I’ve used that kind of instrumental combination. The composers you mentioned were great masters, but in studying music I’ve focused more on harmonic devices and structures from diverse composers. I think each instruments combination has its own unique magnetism no matter their size. I’m deeply interested in composing unusual instrumental combinations and am going to keep experimenting with it.

AML: Were these scores written for the 10-piece combination heard on this record, or were these reductions of fuller scores, for instance using the usual complement of 3-4 trumpets and 3 trombones?

JC:  You have a point. From the start, some of them were written in mind for standard big band ensemble (4,4,5), for instance What if Ellington…. However, to be honest, a limited budget was an issue for me, so I decided to downsize the band and re-write the scores for the 11 piece band (trp, trb, alto sax, tenor sax, flute, cello, male voice, guitar, piano, bass, drums). In such small-sized big band writing, I tried to extract a rich sound as much as possible using contrapuntal devices rather than simple punch tutti horn voicing.

AML: Thank you for your time! I’m sure that my readers will appreciate your insights.

JC: Thank you for your interest in my music!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Les Petits Nouveaux Redefines Manouche Jazz

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STOCKHOLM / MAC: Neptune.* Blue Jasmine.# Morning Brew.# HOMZY: Catnip.*+ Bluie.*+ King’s Garden.# Brz.# ARIKUSHI: Leapsheep.* REINHARDT: Stockholm.* ULMER: Si tu Savais.* HILDÉN: Tango Sobremesa.# Dépaysement# / Les Petits Nouveux: Aline Homzy, vln; Andy Mac, *Tak Arikushi, #Mikko Hildén, gtr; *Jim Sexton, #Marten Korkmann, bs; +Michael Davidson, vibes / Les Petits Nouveaux LPN002

Les Petits Nouveaux, a collaborative jazz group from Canada and Sweden, plays older and original swing tunes in the manner of the old Stéphane Grappelli-Django Reinhardt Hot Club Quintet. I’ve commented several times on the irony of the fact that, up until the 1970s, this style of music was virtually ignored by the general public (but not by musicians) in America, whereas nowadays it is almost omnipresent, even as background music for TV ads. Nevertheless, this does not detract from its attractiveness or its almost limitless scope in enveloping more modern jazz, in part because Reinhardt’s harmonic sense and brilliance of invention on the guitar reached into the future.

The principal difference I hear between Les Petits Nouveaux and such groups as the old Frank Vignola Quintet and modern-day bands Man Overboard and The Faux Frenchmen, is their gentler, less hard approach to swing. Yet there is another difference, and that is their musical imagination. Not only in the solos by guitarist Andy Mac and violinist Aline Homzy, but also in their ability to create new works that fall outside the Hot Club Quintet canon, they reach beyond the “classic” application of this genre to produce music that is not only swinging but inventive. I was particularly struck by Homzy’s composition Catnip, with its tongue-in-cheek pizzicato violin and whimsical turns of phrase, not to mention the addition here of a vibraphone for color. This is clearly not the kind of piece that Django and Stéphane would have played, but it’s wonderful and original.

Apparently the quartet (most of the time, anyway) uses a different second guitarist and bassist when they play in Stockholm than when they play in Toronto, but the effect is the same. Nonetheless, the different members of the group from the two different countries have added their own compositions to the band’s book. Leapsheep is a piece that could easily have been in the original HCQ’s book, as is Andy Mac’s Neptune. Yet they consistently surprise you with their new and novel approach to this repertoire, not only in Catnip but also in Bluie, a slithering sort of piece with unusual changes, including rising and falling chromatics. Homzy makes up for her occasional lack of “oomph” by producing a consistently sweet tone and a nice, relaxed concept of swing, and her solos are consistently interesting and original. Vibist Michael Davidson, who plays on both Homzy originals in this set, gives us a particularly fine solo chorus in the latter. It almost sounds like Grappelli meets Milt Jackson.

The almost startling downward chromatic opening of Stockholm is as good an indication as any of Reinhardt’s musical imagination at work, and the band plays it with wonderful taste and swing. Here, however, the guitar solo is somewhat circumspect in comparison to what Django played on the original recording. Another Hot Club piece, Si tu Savais, is taken at a relaxed ballad tempo and played with great delicacy and charm by the quartet. Note particularly the wonderful string tremolos played by Homzy behind Jim Sexton’s bass solo. The guitar solo is also very fine on this one. (I was led from the posted lineup to believe that Andy Mac is the guitar soloist on all of the tracks, but Tak Arikusi informed me that the two guitarists on each session take turns soloing and playing rhythm, and the soloists are not identified in the album.)

Moving on to the Stockholm sessions, we open things up with Homzy’s King’s Garden, yer another departure from the HCQ tradition, with an almost rock-sounding beat in the introduction and a melody line that sounds a bit like Klezmer. Mac plays interesting rising chords beneath Homzy at one point, and her own playing is absolutely amazing in its invention and technical security. There’s also a surprising, slow-tempo coda at the end. Our Swedish second guitarist, Mikko Hildén, wrote Tango Sobremesa, a lovely piece combining Spanish tradition with Manouche jazz.

Morning Brew is another Mac original, starting out almost like a C&W tune in its rhythm and chording before moving into a gentle, medium-tempo swing. The guitarist doesn’t attempt to emulate Django in this one, but he doesn’t have to; what he plays is delightful and original in its simpler way. This is his showcase, and very fine it is, too, although Homzy also comes in for a nice, relaxed chorus of her own. Her own composition Brz follows with its finger-snapping beat and simple, catchy tune, and her violin dominates the solo space.

Mac’s Blue Jasmine is up next, a slow, moody piece with a quasi-Latin rhythm. The performance, and solos, are very laid-back. We close out the album with Hildén’s Dépaysement, which starts out very quietly with relaxed solo guitar before moving into the melody. Then the tempo picks up (hooray!) as rhythm guitarist Hildén plays some nice double-time chords with a particularly fine guitar solo. We suddenly get a half-chorus in 3/4 time before moving back to 4 as Homzy solos. The finale is particularly interesting with its rolling triplets. Overall, then, a very fine album, though I wish they hadn’t played so many slow numbers in the second set.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Music From the Crackpot Hymnal

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CRACKPOT HYMNAL / TYMOCZKO: The Eggman Variations / Corigliano Quartet; John Blacklow, pn / Typecase Treasury. This Picture Seems to Move / The Amernet Quartet; Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner, pn / Another Fantastic Voyage / Daniel Schlosberg, pn; Illinois Modern Ensemble; Stephen Taylor, cond / Bridge 9383

Despite the album’s title, Crackpot Hymnal contains no vocal or choral music, but rather is a collection of unusual instrumental pieces. The Eggman Variations. in three movements (“Pentatonia,” “Bent” and “A Rolling Worm of Sound”), combines what sounds like gentle and ordinary classical themes with rather odd rhythms played by pianist John Blacklow. The string quartet plays shifting versions of the musical elements of the theme in changing ways. The first movement ends with what composer Dmitri Tymoczko calls “the ugliest major chord I know.” In “Bent,” Blacklow eventually abandons his little rolling rhythm for backbeats played against the quartet as the music develops. The strings slither and slide chromatically before the tempo pick up again. In “A Rolling Worm of Sound,” we hear lively string figures above a rhythm that seems to combine calypso and jazz as the music seems to develop sideways rather than in a linear fashion. The tempo decreases and increases, apparently on a whim.

Typecase Treasury was inspired by a childhood recollection by the composer of “a small table made from a printer’s typecase, divided into a hundred little compartments. Each had been filled with a mineralogical curiosity—a strange crystal, a piece of iron pyrite, a shark’s tooth, or a fossilized trilobyte.” In this piece, despite a pianist being credited in the ensemble, I never heard one; it is the string quartet writing that dominates, here using the quartet in a more traditional manner (all four instruments playing together) rather than in the solistic nature of The Eggman Variations. Also, despite the rhythmic nature of the music, it is much more in the vein of modern classical music than jazz or rock. The third movement of this suite bears the name of the album. Trying to give a verbal description of these pieces is, however, quite difficult, although Tymoczko does a credible job of it in the notes. As he puts it, the pieces are short, “just long enough to make a coherent statement but not long enough to sustain much development.”

This Picture Seems to Move is one of Tymoczko’s earliest pieces. Composed in 1998, he describes it as “more straightforward and in the pocket…willfully and assertively traditional.” Yet it is a fascinating piece, based on two paintings that impressed him by Paul Klee and Boccioni. Despite its being more “traditional,” the music is clearly individual in style; I can’t think of any other composer who might have written it. He fuses elements of Ravel and early Stravinsky into his own aesthetic, using rhythmic (but not jazzy) figures that propel the unusual, moving upper lines that constantly shift and morph. Here, too, his use of the string quartet alternates between using them as a homogenous entity and pitting upper strings against the lower. The second piece, “Those Who Go,” opens with the cello playing its theme against pizzicato violins before moving into quirky and often interrupted figures played by the whole quartet. In this, he uses backbeats as well…this seems to be one of his trademark sounds. Later on, running lines in triplets play against long-held notes in an unusual way.

The last and longest piece on the album, Another Fantastic Voyage, is by far the most “crackpot” piece on this disc. Written for piano and an ensemble of 15 strings, brass, winds and percussion, it is intended “as a musical analogue to literary genre fiction,” whatever that is. This music is clearly wacky in a good way, with abrasive atonal figures blasting their way in and out of one’s consciousness. The first of the three pieces, titled “The Mad King,” is indeed mad-sounding, much like Hillary Clinton on her “I-blame-everyone-in-the-world-besides-me-for-my-loss” tour. Indeed, the later, galumphing rhythm set up by the ensemble reminded me of her not-so-infrequent tripping and falling down staircases, and the peculiarly rambling piano solo sounded like her on-the-tour chatter. Yet this was written in 2012; how prescient Tomyczko was!

The second piece, “Changeling,” sounds like a lullaby for the murderous baby in the movie It’s Alive! It keeps trying to stick to, as Tomyczko puts it, “all sorts of adagio sweetness,” but the sinister harmonies and black-sounding mood of the ensemble eventually comes out wrong and sinister. I always wondered how the baby in the movie, less than a month old, had the prescience to find its direction while crawling through the streets and even find things to eat that it clearly couldn’t know were edible. This kid was clearly no vegan.

The finale, “An Evil, Evil Carnival,” makes one wonder if the composer was scared to death by the fake mad gorilla at local carnies as a boy. But as he puts it, it was meant to be scary in a “good fun” kind of way, and the music builds from its slow introduction through an accelerating second section “where demons are invoked and souls are stolen.” The piano plays swirling figures while the ensemble plays syncopated and sometimes jazzy-sounding figures around it to the sinister harmonies. What a great climax to a fascinating record!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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