Dmitri Tymoczko is Taking Beat Therapy

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BEAT THERAPY / TYMOCZKO: Loop & Swing.1 Kachunk.2,3 Katrina Stomp.2,4 Sweet Nothings.2,4 The Mysterious Stranger.2,3 Earthquake.1 Dreams May Come.2,4 Sayonara2,3 / Thomas Bergeron, tpt; 1Jon Irabagon, 2Alejandro Aviles, a-sax; Geoff Vidal, t-sax; 1Rane Moore, 2Ken Thomson, bs-cl; 1William Stevens, 3Vladimir Katz, 4Daniel Kelly, pn; James Johnston, synth; Michael O’Brien, bs; David Skidmore, dm / Bridge 9353

Having given a rave review to Dmitri Tymoczko’s CD Rube Goldberg Variations, I was interested in hearing his earlier music, and Beat Therapy is the earliest issued by Bridge. And what an album it is!

The opener, Loop and Swing, opens with a syncopated drum figure, over which the trumpet and saxes enter, playing what sound like disconnected notes. The music then develops through what Tymoczko calls “a Stravinskian climax” before moving into a jazz-rock sort of beat. But the music is just so complex and so interesting that you can almost ignore the rock influence (thank God!) and enjoy what is going on. The opening notes return in a different key as the music again builds up to an exuberant climax. And despite what sounds like improvisation, this piece is completely written out. Having recently reviewed a jazz CD by Dave Tull (Texting and Driving), on which the trumpet player was Wayne Bergeron, I couldn’t help wondering if our trumpet player here, Thomas Bergeron, is any relation, but I couldn’t find anything online one way or the other.

Kachunk is more of a straightahead swinger (in rhythm, at least) with the kind of quirky, awkward melodic line that might have been written by Rod Levitt back in the early 1960s (and if you’re not familiar with the Rod Levitt Orchestra, you need to check them out). Tyomczko identifies the soloists as Bergeron, tenor saxist Geoff Vidal and Alejandro Aviles, but slyly doesn’t say whether or not they’re improvised. I rather think they are. The beat shifts into double-time, with excellent bass lines (written out?) played by Michael O’Brien under the saxes (playing in solo as well as in tandem, the latter obviously written) while Bergeron plays his own line above them. This is pretty wild stuff!

Katrina Stomp, Tymoczko tells us, “is supposed to be endearingly awkward, juxtaposing dissonant and aimless chords in the keyboards with more straightforward lines in the horns,” later turning darker as he reflected on the hurricane that nearly wiped New Orleans out. But the music doesn’t resemble older New Orleans music; rather, it more closely resembles the Dirty Dozen Brass Band with its quasi-rock-and-zydeco beat. Bergeron is the star here, despite solos by others. The slower, darker music that it morphs into uses some of the earlier material but in an entirely new way, and here it is clarinetist Ken Thompson who has the most striking statement. The music tries to recapture its original upbeat feel, but slips back again into sadness.

Sweet Nothings is in a ballad tempo, built around a fairly simple melody that returns in various forms. This one is filled with solos, probably improvised, by pianist Daniel Kelly, Thompson on bass clarinet, Aviles and Vidal. This is followed by the “haunting and sad” tune, The Mysterious Stranger, with its atonal opening and odd little repeated melody, the trumpet and alto sax being underpinned by the bass clarinet. The tempo then suddenly increases as the band swings; then a return to the slow tempo for the finish.

Earthquake has the players accompanied by computer-generated sound textures, but it’s a slow-moving earthquake, one might say a tremor on Prozac. Here the score is also fully notated, with little eighth-note flutters by the saxes playing in thirds while Bergeron plays solo above them. Another extreme shift to a slower tempo emerges, with the piano playing slow chords beneath the others, playing fluttering figures above it.

Dreams May Come is a sort of jazz-rock ballad, which Tymoczko calls “a lullaby blues.” The music here is relatively simple and straightforward. I didn’t like the rock beat, though; I don’t go to sleep with pounding rock drums floating through my brain.

We end this excursion with Sayonara, which is in a funky groove but a jazz one, but the constantly shifting rhythms and the complexity of the overlaid instruments keep pushing one’s mind away from the persistent drumbeats. As Tymoczko put it, “it works its way into a giant chromatic configuration by the end.” The soloists are Aviles and Vidal, though Bergeron plays some interesting figures above them on trumpet. It ends on a soft, slow chord.

This is, for the most part, extremely interesting music which will appeal to the jazz lover as much as to those who appreciate modern classical directions.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Fred Hersch Releases a “Found Object”

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LIVE IN EUROPE / MONK: We See. Blue Monk. HERSCH: Snape Maltings. Scuttlers. Skipping. Bristol Fog. Newklypso. The Big Easy. Miyako. SHORTER: Black Nile / Fred Hersch Trio: Hersch, pn; John Hébert, bs; Eric McPherson, dm / Palmetto Records (no number), available from Apple/iTunes & Amazon. (live: Brussels, November 24, 2017)

In the liner notes for this release, pianist Fred Hersch admits that this album is “one of many” that he only discovered was being record live after the fact.

The performances here are in Hersch’s usual style: harmonically interesting but emotionally laid-back. Nonetheless, he does a great job picking apart Thelonious Monk’s We See and putting it back together his own way, and his musical partners, Hébert and McPherson, are right there with him. One of this trio’s great qualities is the way it “breathes” together; listen for the way they shade the volume, down to a quiet piano and then slowly back up again. This is superb music-making.

The first of several originals on this disc, Snape Maltings (also known in England as the Maltings Snape—I always thought it sounded like a creature that the late Edward Gorey would have drawn) is a curious piece, almost put together of short fragments that somehow make up a complete tune. Hersch and the trio has fun with this one, playing the somewhat surrealistic music in an appropriately surreal, almost disjointed fashion. This is really almost a composition on the classical sense of the word, only given a quasi-jazz beat (at times) and including improvised passages…including a few by Hébert on bass that are superb. Scuttlers begins with an unusual drum solo (sounds like sticks on the rim of his snare drum) which leads into Hersch’s piano, and once again the music is a bit odd, almost sounding atonal, and again resembling classical music, although in this case very modern classical. It reminded me of the late Cecil Taylor, except with the walls and floors filled in (Cecil gave you structures without them). Skipping is in the same vein, except that about a third of the way through, a jazz pulse makes itself felt and the music begins to swing, but the overriding feeling is still that of a real composition.

With Bristol Fog Hersch presents us with a slow waltz in the Bill Evans vein. The quietude of the music is enhanced by the omission of the drums; most of it is a duet between Hersch and Hébert, and a lovely one it is, too. When McPherson does enter, it is to play very softly with brushes. Newklypso is, as the title infers, a jazz calypso written as a tribute to “Newk,” a.k.a. Sonny Rollins, evidently inspired by his classic St. Thomas. Not as deep or complex as the preceding pieces, it is nonetheless an excellent piece, and Hersch plays it with great wit and invention. This one also includes a rather fulsome drum solo for McPherson, which rises to a crescendo before quieting down to allow Hersch to re-enter.

The Big Easy (for Tom Piazza) is (sort of) an old-fashioned medium-slow swinger, which Hersch invests with a few crushed chords and outside playing. Miyako is another slow tune, something of a ballad, and more tonal than several of the originals in this concert, but not lacking in imagination when it comes to the solos…well, Hersch’s. since he pretty much dominates this track, and well he should since he has so much to say in this piece, including some cute little tempo shifts towards the end. This morphs into Black Nile, an uptempo original, via a nice drum solo before Hersch enters to establish the melody and go on from there. The trio really swings on this one, with Hébert propelling him with a nice, light, John Kirby-like touch. Hersch takes the music into somewhat exploratory territory but always finds a way back to the home key and keeps the melody going, one way or another, throughout the piece.

The set ends with Hersch’s solo performance of Blue Monk as an encore. He completely deconstructs it in the intro, slowly playing little bits of the original tune until you start to recognize it, though he only plays the original melody as written in the last chorus. I think Monk himself might have really enjoyed this treatment, as his own solo piano performances were also experimental excursions into deconstruction and reconstruction of his own (and others’) music. So few modern jazz albums end on such a high level of performance and invention as this!

A “found object,” indeed. Hersch found a gem when these tapes showed up!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Rosen & Artymiw Play Mendelssohn

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MENDELSSOHN: Variations Concertantes. Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Lied ohne Wort, Op. 109. Assai tranquillo / Marcy Rosen, cel; Lydia Artymiw, pn / Bridge 9501

I reviewed this CD immediately after doing the Schubert Trios by Trio Vitruvi. The musical approach here is similar: fairly brisk tempi, taut phrasing and very little rubato, but in this case it works better because Mendelssohn was the 19th-century Mozart and, well, this approach just feels more right in the Classical style.

Moreover, Lydia Artymiw is a more varied and interesting player that Trio Vitruvi’s pianist. She has a richer, more deep-in-the-keys style, and gives out more emotionally. This is key in these sonatas, which are true dialogues between cellist and pianist, and it doesn’t hurt that Marcy Rosen has a luscious tone with a quick vibrato that falls gratefully on the ear. Between the two of them, they dig into the music with aplomb, giving their all emotionally as well as musically.

As I’ve said many times in the course of my reviewing career, I not only consider Mendelssohn the true successor to Mozart but, in many ways, a superior composer. He possessed the same sense of classical balance as his predecessor, but was much more varied not only from work to work but also within each movement of each work. Whereas Mozart generally rode on the surface of everything he composed, albeit with little harmonic twists that added interest, he generally stayed outside his own music (a few works, like the Requiem and the 40th Symphony, being exceptions), whereas Mendelssohn gave you everything he had. And he did this as a part-time composer, spending most of his relatively brief career as a pianist and conductor, often of others’ music (his two favorites being Bach and Beethoven). Nothing Mendelssohn wrote was really perfunctory, or just brilliant, pretty music without substance. And the same can also be said for his talented sister, Fanny, who was his musical alter ego. As for his younger brother Paul, an accomplished amateur cellist for whom these works were written, we can only guess from the high quality of this music, particularly the superb Variations concertantes which opens this CD (which are also superbly played, I must add, on records by Zuill Bailey and Steven Isserlis).

This is especially evident in the slow movements, which Rosen and Artymiw play with care and feeling without overstepping the line into bathos. There is so much attention to detail here, in fact, that it would take a full page just to describe all the little things they do to enhance the music, and never overstep the line. These are superb performances by any measure.

Their performance of the second sonata is as good as the first, superbly detailed and emotionally moving. If Paul Mendelssohn was as good as his reputation suggests, I think he must have played them in a similar manner. The small encore pieces, Lied ohne wort and the Assai tranquillo, are played in a similar fashion. This CD is clearly competitive with most of the big-name versions of these pieces.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Trio Vitruvi’s Schubert

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SCHUBERT: Piano Trios in E-flat, D. 929 & 897 / Trio Vitruvi / Bridge 9510

The playing style for Schubert’s music has shifted considerably over the past century, from a more relaxed, Romantic and warm aesthetic to the brisk, taut, and brighter sound heard on this CD, and thus a tradeoff has been made. The more modern style brings the structure of the music into clearer focus, to be sure, but with only occasional moments of rubato (as, for instance, at the moment the music becomes quieter in the first movement of the D. 929 piano trio that leads off this CD), his music sounds much less Viennese. And, at least until the late 1970s, the Viennese style was all about relaxation in music-making.

Of course, after saying all this, I have to admit that in most of Schubert’s music I like the crisper approach. Arturo Toscanini practically gave Viennese and German audiences heart attacks with his approach to the Second and Ninth Symphonies, which were diametrically opposed to “tradition,” but I still don’t care much for his great String Quintet in C being played like cereal-shot-from-guns (as in the Heifetz-Piatagorsky concert recording). The booklet for this disc opens with the headline, “Emerging From Beethoven’s Shadow,” and to a certain extent this is true. Beethoven didn’t care much for Schubert’s music, which he found over-written and indulgent, and in fact when they were in the same wine bars at the same time the older composer made a point of completely ignoring him. This hurt Schubert’s feelings considerably since Beethoven was one of his idols. So maybe the younger composer really did want his music played at brisker tempi and less indulgent Romanticisms in phrasing. Who knows for sure? Vas you dere, Sharlie? Again…this is why “historically-informed performances” cannot claim to be historically informed at all. Recordings didn’t exist, and even as late as the early 1950s, the Germanic tradition was to conduct Beethoven symphonies like Schubert, not the other way round.

Listening to this CD, I was consistently struck by the tautness of Trio Vitruvi’s approach. The running piano figures up and down the keyboard have the crispness of the Beaux Arts Trio’s Menahem Pressler, not the discursive playing of earlier Schubert pianists, and the violin and cello playing is as lean and taut as if they were first-desk players of the NBC Symphony. Yet their style does not ignore nuance; there are several moments when they relax the tempo a shade and give the music a nice feel, particularly in the slow movements which, to my ears, sound more “Schubertian.” Still, the reader should understand that their approach is non-traditional. The “Scherzando” movement of the trio D. 929 is a perfect example. It has good forward movement but the rhythmic approach is somewhat metronomic, lacking a bit of Viennese swagger. This may seem like nit-picking, but such things must be made clear. In their favor, Trio Vitruvi does a good job with the louder and more aggressive trio section in this movement. The last movement is considerably longer than the performance by the Stuttgart Trio on Nimbus (19:19 compared to 16:08), but this appears to be due to the fact that Trio Vitruvi takes more repeats, because the Stuttgart Trio’s performance is more relaxed, a true “Allegro moderato” compared to Allegro without much moderato in this new performance.

But of course individual tastes vary and, as I say, there is considerable interest in this new approach that I’m sure will appeal to many others. We critics sometimes fall into the trap that everyone must hear music the same way we do, but this isn’t the case at all. These are clearly virtuoso performers who have their own take on this music.

The much shorter (one movement, 8:16) trio D. 897, subtitled “Notturno,” is played with great tenderness by the trio but, again, with a “cool” sound by the strings. The short review is that this is an interesting take on these old classics.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Blair Big Band’s Debut CD

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SUCH SWEET THUNDER / MIDDAGH: Sorry Not Sorry. Indra Kunindra. ELLINGTON: Such Sweet Thunder. MANDEL: Emily. J. COFFIN: Espoo You. WASHUT: Cubaneando. D. RODGERS: Sivan. HAMILTON: Cry Me a River. NOBLE: The Very Thought of You. M. LEAGUE: Atchafalaya / Blair Big Band; Ryan Middaugh, dir / Suite 28 STE017

This is the debut CD of the Blair Big Band, an aggregation formed at the jazz school within Vanderbilt University. I admit to not being much impressed by the opening track, which has heavy rock music overtones (ugh!), but they are clearly a first-rate aggregation. I really lost it when the flabby, whiny electric guitar solo started—that was when I skipped to the next track, an outstanding version of Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder. And one of the things that made it outstanding was how well the orchestra captured the Ellington sound…not at all an easy task, considering that his orchestra was, as he himself put it, “full of individualists.” This was particularly true of the rhythm section, which always had a somewhat “loose” sound to it. Duke never cared much for the “tight” sound that most swing and bop bands produced, and the Blair musicians do a great job here.

They also do a nice job with Johnny Mandel’s ballad, Emily, which opens with a lovely trombone solo (unfortunately, very few of the soloists are identified in the booklet by name, even though the full band is listed), backed by piano, before the band comes in behind them little by little. It’s pretty generic big-band scoring, but it’s played very well. They pick up the tempo once the sax section enters, and go on from there. Leader Ryan Middaugh’s Indra Kunindra also has some rock overtones, but this one has an irregular meter that seems to vacillate between 6/8 and a straight 4, and the melodic construction is quite interesting. There are also tempo changes, i.e. the shift to a ballad tempo for the piano solo, then back up to a rapid tempo, with both brass and reeds playing portamento to simulate the sound of Indian music, before a pretty wild alto sax solo. This is a highly creative piece, fascinating in its construction and flawlessly played by the band.

Jeff Coffin’s Espoo You is an old-fashioned blues swinger that could have been played by the first Woody Herman Herd (and probably would have been had it been written back then), with crisp, smooth playing from the sax section. Special guest artist Coffin, one of the few soloists identified, gets a nice spot on tenor, at times in counterpoint with an unidentified trombonist. Cubaneando is a pretty hip fusion of Latin rhythm with jazz, featuring a nice piano solo. There’s a really nice polyphonic passage with crisp brass playing against the lower reeds, and a band chant over piano-bass-drums, again with trumpet section interjections. There’s also a nice trombone section passage with saxophone counterpoint, again with screaming trumpets, in the penultimate chorus.

Sivan starts out with ambient water sounds over soft piano before moving into the orchestra playing what sounds like a straight 4 over 3. This one features very interesting scoring, with low trombones playing a cushion beneath a soprano sax solo before the piano takes over for a chorus. There is some very nice scoring in this one, too, particularly the brass-sax mixture, before the tempo relaxes for piano fills over an orchestral cushion. Cry Me a River opens with a bass solo before moving into a nice uptempo with a vocal by featured guest Christina Watson—and a good vocal it is, too! I was also delighted with their sensuous version (opening with solo trombone over a sax cushion) of Ray Noble’s exquisite song, The Very Thought of You.

The album wraps up with Atchafalaya, a delightfully quirky tune that starts with solo trombone, leading into the trombone section playing a rhythmic riff, with the trumpets playing a second melody in counterpoint above them, then adding the saxes and rhythm sections. A bit of handclapping over the rhythm section leads to yet another outstanding trombone solo (identified, finally, as Brian Entwhistle) before a flabby-sounding rock guitar nearly ruins the performance.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Bittersweet Life of a Great, Forgotten Jazz Singer

My journey of discovery into the great jazz artists of the past continues, it seems, on biannual pace. Among the forgotten names I have been fortunate enough to trip across over past decade or so are Dorothy Donegan, Rod Levitt and Lee O’Daniel’s Hillbilly Boys, but this discovery took me by complete surprise because I hadn’t even known that she existed.

And I’ll bet many readers of this blog don’t know that she existed, too.

In fact, before I go into who she was, I’ll give you her photograph, and I bet you STILL won’t know who she was:

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A few hints. She was a major jazz singer of the period 1934-1941, a contemporary of such more famous names as Billie Holiday, Connie Boswell, Ella Fitzgerald and Mildred Bailey, and during that period she was actually more popular than Holiday, whose unusual, somewhat acidic voice didn’t much appeal to the general public. During her time in Berkeley, California, 1935-36, she met and greatly impressed Al Jolson, who featured her on his Shell Chateau radio show. After moving to New York later that year, she appeared on such popular radio programs as the Rudy Vallee show, the RCA Magic Key series, the Studebaker Champions Show, and Ben Bernie’s Show. Her beautiful, swinging voice led to a series of twice-weekly, 15 minute sustaining programs of songs for the NBC Blue Network. In early 1937, she did a weekly series of songs for the NBC Red Network. Clearly, she was at the top of her profession.

Give up? Her name was Midge Williams (real first name: Virginia, like her mother).

The fact that she has been forgotten was due to one bad career decision and bad health, which took her out of the limelight and put her into the shadows. She was only 32 years old when she died. And yet, her surviving recordings clearly show her to have been a major jazz singer.

The career that ended so abruptly and mysteriously was the product of her having been born into a musical family and hard work. From Wikipedia:

Williams came from a talented family. Her grandfather Joshua had been a music teacher, her mother Virginia Louise was a dance teacher, and her uncle Henry played the violin. She also had a half-brother named Lester Williams who worked as a jazz musician. Williams and three of her brothers formed a singing and dancing act called the Williams Quartette. The group performed regularly in churches and theaters in and around the San Francisco–Oakland area.

During performances of the Williams Quartette in the early 1930s, Roger Seguire saw the act and signed on to be the group’s manager. Seguire was a pianist with experience in Asia, and he booked the group for a tour of China and Japan. In 1933, the Williams Quartette went to Shanghai to perform at the Canidrome. In 1934, in Japan, Williams made the first recording of her career, singing jazz songs in both English and Japanese.

And there was something more in her background…a dangerous environmental hazard in her home town that possibly led to her later health problems. Though born in Oregon, her family moved to the agricultural town of Allensworth, California, where they had arsenic in the groundwater supply, and when promised new water sources were not provided, the economic hopes of the community began to falter. Many residents had to leave, but although her mother moved to Oakland in 1925, Midge and her brothers, John, Lewis, Charles, and Robert, remained in Allensworth. In 1929, the children joined her newly remarried mother and her uncle, Henry Singleton, in Berkeley, California.

rosie-the-redskinBut from 1933 onward, Midge’s career flourished. In addition to the venues mentioned above, she also sang at the Apollo and Savoy Ballrooms in Harlem and, in 1937, began a series of recordings for Brunswick-Vocalion with small groups of highly regarded jazz musicians. She had already recorded in 1936 with such big names as Bunny Berigan, Miff Mole and Teddy Wilson, but the lineup for most of the “Midge Williams and her Jazz Jesters” recordings were also very good. A great many of them were made with Brunswick-Vocalion’s hot new black jazz band, the John Kirby Sextet, both in its earlier incarnation with Frank Newton on trumpet and Pete Brown on alto sax as well as its “classic” lineup with Charlie Shavers and Russell Procope replaced them.

Listening to Williams sing is a revelation. Like Mildred Bailey, she had a very sweet, high, light soprano with pure intonation and a swinging style, but unlike Bailey she could also scat very well. What’s even more interesting is that her jazz and blues phrasing was taken straight from Louis Armstrong—one of the few female singers to copy Louis in that way. Among her surprisingly large number of recordings (they fill two whole CDs in toto) are the following gems, which I consider her best:

1) I Was Born to Swing (Lil Hardin Armstrong)
2) Dinah (Lewis-Young-Akst)
3) Alabama Barbecue (Benny Davis-J. Fred Coots)
4) Copper-Colored Gal (Cab Calloway)
5) What’che Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing? (Livingston-Neiburg)
6) Organ Grinder’s Swing (Hudson-Mills-Parish)
7) Rhythm Lullaby (Andy Razaf)
8) How Could You? (Dubin-Warren)
9) It All Begins and Ends With You (Froeba-Palmer)
10) The Lady is a Tramp (Rodgers-Hart)
11) My Newest Excitement (Schoebel-Mills)
12) I’m Getting Sentimental Over You (Bassman-Washington)
13) Fortune Tellin’ Man (Coots-Davis)
14) Walkin’ the Dog (Shelton Brooks)
15) The One Rose That’s Left in my Heart (McIntyre-Lyon-Rodgers)
16) In Any Language (Revel-Warren)
17) Where the Lazy River Goes By (Adamson-McHugh)
18) In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree (Van Alstyne-Williams)
19) Mama’s Gone, Goodbye (Piron-Bocage)
20) Rosie the Redskin (Al Stillman)
21) Love is Like Whiskey (unknown)
22) Oh! Miss Hannah (Deppen-Hollingsworth)
23) I’m in a Happy Frame of Mind (Rube Bloom)
24) Cow Cow Boogie (Benny Carter-Gene DePaul)

All of these can be found on the Classic Jazz Online website with the exception of the last, which I will discuss in a moment. In a nutshell, however, by mid-1938 Midge had good reason to think that she was at or near the top of the jazz world, but in the fall of that year she made a poor career decision. She accepted an offer to be the girl singer with Louis Armstrong and his big band. Surely, she must have thought that this would be the pinnacle of her career: after all, Armstrong was not only considered one of the greatest of all living jazz musicians, but his popularity was sky-high. Unfortunately, it took her out of circulation as a recording artist because she never made a single record with the band in the three years she was with them!

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I think this had to be the decision of Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser. Although he managed other artists, Armstrong was clearly his big cash cow, and he probably didn’t want Louis to share record space with a female jazz singer who was clearly his equal. Under ordinary circumstances, this would have been a minor annoyance, but as it turned out, Williams almost immediately checker herself into a hospital after leaving Armstrong and was never heard from again…except for one appearance on the short-lived (one season) half-hour comedy show hosted by Jack Webb. In April of 1946, she appeared on the Webb show singing Benny Carter’s song about a stoned-high cowboy, Cow Cow Boogie, which Webb introduced on the show as “the blues”!!! (You can stream this recording on YouTube.)

And just as quickly as Midge Williams returned from oblivion, she went back to it. Nothing more was heard of her until it was reported, on July 9, 1952, that she had died of tuberculosis. TB was the scourge of jazz musicians in the late 1930s and early ‘40s: Charlie Christian, Jimmy Blanton, O’Neil Spencer and Benny Steckler had all died from the disease. But that was before penicillin was discovered, and TB patients were treated with sulfur drugs. Penicillin was indeed around after World War II, thus it is puzzling that Williams couldn’t have been treated with the drug.

midgewilliamsThus was the sad coda to the life and career of this extremely talented singer. True, the very concept of jazz singing changed considerably with the emergence of such high-flying scat artists as Anita O’Day, Betty Carter and later Ella after the War, but this doesn’t detract from her high level of accomplishment. You really need to hear Midge Williams’ lovely voice and effervescent style; you’ll be amazed and delighted.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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New Recording of Medtner’s Complete Violin-Piano Music

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MEDTNER: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Sonata Epica (No. 3). 2 Canzonas & Dances. 3 Nocturnes / Nikita Boriso-Glebsky, vln; Ekaterina Derzhavina, pn / Profil PH17087

This is not the first, or the only, recording of Nikolai Medtner’s complete works for violin and piano, but it is indeed a very fine one. As the booklet of the Laurence Kayaleh and Paul Stewart release on Naxos (a 2008 release) put it, “The piano works of Nikolai Medtner are finally achieving the recognition they merit, but not so his compositions for violin and piano. A great pity, for…Medtner’s scores are unique: distinctly Russian, unabashedly unique and full-bodied, yet intellectually devised and highly disciplined, every note and detail given a purpose.” The best I can describe them in one sentence would be that they are like a combination of Rachmaninov and Brahms, mixing the Slavic emotion of the first with the rigorous construction of the second.

There is also considerable charm in this music, for instance the central movement “Danza” of the first sonata, which has the kind of liveliness one generally only heard in those Brahms works influenced by Gypsy music (of which he was very fond). The massive second sonata (it runs 40 minutes) is Medtner pushing his composing skills to the maximum. Everything holds together compositionally, yet he still takes you on a roller-coaster ride emotionally and intellectually, pushing the boundaries of what a Romantic Russian violin sonata should sound like. And, surprisingly, he manages to keep a light tone in the second movement, despite its length and complexity.

But it’s the third sonata, subtitled “Epica,” that is the most gripping of the three. It’s also the longest, clocking in at 45 minutes. Yet Boriso-Glebsky and Derzhavina hold your attention with their tightly-organized performance, tying all the loose ends together. The opening of the fourth and last movement is surprising and dramatic, leading into an extended and fast-paced discourse between the violin and piano. The two Canzonas and Dances are lighter fare, but no less interesting. I particularly liked the dance No. 2, with its almost Bohemian swagger.

The nocturnes are very unusual for their genre, being less “nocturnal”-sounding and more lively than one would expect, with several fast passages of great difficulty for the violinist.

Comparing these new Boriso-Glebsky/Derzhavina performances with those of Kayaleh/Stewart (I haven’t heard the others), one hears a good emotional connection in the playing of both duos, with the pianists being particularly alert to dynamics and forward momentum. The only real difference is that Kayeleh and Stewart relax the tempo more in the lyrical passages, giving the music a bit more breadth in phrasing—one might say a Menuhin approach compared to a Heifetz approach. But these are the kinds of pitfalls that we critics are sometimes forced to fall into. Making comparisons can be valid if the performance under review is significantly superior to other versions, and often nowadays—particularly in chamber music—this just isn’t so.

Thus the readers of this review can indeed choose to obtain either set with confidence, although for me this new Profil release is the more exciting. It also combines all of Medtner’s violin-piano works in one 2-CD set while the Kayaleh/Stewart duo breaks them up into separate releases (and also includes Jascha Heifetz’ violin-piano arrangement of the first Fairy Tale Op. 20).

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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