Morlot’s New Berlioz “Requiem”

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BERLIOZ: Requiem / Kenneth Tarver, ten; Seattle Pro Musica; Seattle Symphony Chorale & Orch.; Ludovic Morlot, cond / Seattle Symphony Media SSM1019

The Berlioz Requiem is very hard to bring off on recordings because of its almost surround-sound quality when heard in person, particularly the section where the brass choirs play from different corners of the auditorium. The recording that I think pulls it off best is the old Leonard Bernstein version from the 1970s, recorded in the same cathedral in which the original premiere took place. It was recorded in Quadraphonic Sound but, for some strange reason, only issued as a conventional stereo disc, yet when it was played on a quad system you got the effect of surround sound.

My reaction to Morlot’s conducting in previous releases has been mixed. He certainly draws a great sound out of his orchestra in everything he does, but occasionally misses the mark in feeling. This was especially true of his performances of Henri Dutilleux’s music, which sounded prosaic compared to Charles Munch’s far more detailed and colorful readings. In this performance of the Berlioz Requiem, I felt that the opening Introit was not only a bit rushed but also prosaic in feeling. It also seemed to me a bit too loud, having none of the mystery of not only the Bernstein recording but even those of Dimitri Mitropoulos (which I also own) with Nicolai Gedda as tenor soloist, Munch (either of his recordings) or Colin Davis. It does, however, have the requisite “Berlioz sound,” meaning a very bright wind sonority, and good transparency of texture.

I did, however, like the opening of the Dies irae, although the engineers seemed to me to do very little to capture the surround sound of the brass choirs (I even listened to it through headphones after listening to it through speakers, and it’s just a 2-channel effect). Even Roger Norrington’s performance, which I didn’t particularly care for, did a better job (not to mention the Bernstein). They also seemed to me to be suppressing the volume at this moment (except for the loudest passage with the cymbals and tympani), which derails the impact of what I’m sure Morlot was trying to achieve.

The later portions of the piece, however, have good feeling to them; either Morlot or his orchestra seems to have loosened up by then, but the narrow dynamic range of the recording still inhibits the listener’s appreciation of Berlioz’ achievement. Tenor Kenneth Tarver, in the Sanctus, has a lovely tone and an incredibly easy-sounding high range if a slightly uneven vibrato.

In toto, then, a good performance if somewhat lacking in dramatic contrast as well as a bit tense in the first couple of sections.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Pyrć Plays Ekier & Symanowski

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EKIER: Colorful Melodies. 2 Preludes, Op. 1. 2 Mazurkas, Op. 2. Lullaby. Humoresque. Toccata. Mazurka, Op. 5. A Highlander Dance. SZYMANOWSKI: Etude in Bb min. 4 Mazurkas, Op. 50. Fantasy in C / Wojiech Pyrć, pno / Dux 1458

Here, young Polish pianist Wojiech Pyrć plays the music of two of his countrymen, Jan Ekier (1913-2014) and Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Although Ekier lived to the age of 101, his is the name I was unfamiliar with. As it turns out, he was primarily a pedagogue and a performer of others’ music who gave up his composing career fairly early in life. Like Szymanowski, he was fascinated by and devoted to the music of Chopin, but in his case the Chopin connection was deeper and more closely allied in style. My readers know that I like but do not love the music of Chopin; I find it too Romantic, too “goopy” for my taste unless the performances are somewhat muscular and exciting. Fortunately, Pyrć’s performances of these Ekier pieces fit that description, and harmonically, at least, Pyrć’s music is slightly more modern and a bit less sentimental than his model. I was particularly struck by the sixth and eighth of his Colorful Melodies as the most bracing and interesting of the set. An unidentified violinist joins Pyrć on most of the rest of the album, starting with the ninth and tenth Pyrć pieces. The 2 Pyrć Preludes, are very goopy indeed.

There is a strong Chopin connection in the Ekier Etude and first Mazurka as well, far less in his strange, enharmonic pieces that follow. These Pyrć plays with great delicacy and mystery, as they call for. When we finally reach Szymanowski, we hear a slight Chopin connection but music that is altogether more mystical, strongly influenced by Debussy and Scriabin. Yet he also plays them with a certain muscularity that reminded me of Carol Rosenberger’s wonderful Szymanowski set.

You may certainly enjoy the Ekier works better than I do if you love Chopin, and Pyrć is clearly a fine pianist. I look forward to his future releases, as long as they aren’t of Chopin.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Nikolas Anadolis Burns in Heidelberg

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ENJOY JAZZ FESTIVAL 2014 / ANADOLIS: Windows of Opportunity. Uncle Lefteris. Zu-Zu. Things We Used to Do Together. The Touch. Path to the Sky. Weaknesses. Like a Shadow. Gone Forever / Nikolas Anadolis Trio: Anadolis, pno; Simon Tailleu, bs; Jonas Burgwinkel, dm / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-471 (live: Heidelberg, October 13, 2014)

Greek pianist Nikolas Anadolis, who studied with Fred Hersch at Berklee, definitely has his own style. His approach is more varied and exciting; he takes more risks and pulls them off brilliantly, and his very talented rhythm section follows him every step of the way.

From a formal style, Anadolis’ compositions are not the most complex or groundbreaking out there, but they have a wonderful sense of lyricism and attractive melodies, something that many modern jazz pieces do not have. Uncle Lefteris is clearly based on classical form and style, opening with sparkling left-hand figures over which he plays equally sparkling right-hand notes. This style returns near the end, but in between Anadolis plays some really fine, swinging improvisations. Even in a ballad like Zu-Zu, Anadolis does his own thing, and really owes his principal style to no one else I can think of except perhaps Keith Jarrett, who isn’t anywhere as exciting or innovative a player as this.

A technical description of what Anadolis does here is possible but would be space-consuming. This is, in essence, jazz-classical fusion at its very best, and if the pianist tends to dominate the solo space he clearly earns it through his brilliant musical conceptions, although bassist Tailleu gets a fine solo in The Touch, a piece that has a Latin flavor to the rhythm, doubling the tempo in his second chorus in a very interesting manner, then playing in quarter-note triplets.

This kind of musical brinksmanship continues throughout this set, for instance in Path to the Sky which might be called a jazz waltz though it is really a classical waltz that tilts towards the jazz spectrum because of its high degree of improvisation. Anadolis also throws in some surprising key changes, then quickly and magically morphs back to the original tonality. In Weaknesses, Anadolis plays mind-boggling but crystal-clear keyboard runs that sound for all the world like something out of Rachmaninov or Medtner; this is truly astounding playing. He then morphs the music into an almost staccato march beat while continually improvising above it before loosening the rhythm while the bass and drums support him, the latter in an opposing rhythm. Eventually, the music becomes an almost mad-sounding mélange of notes, but Anadolis knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s going. He sounds like a combination of Jacques Loussier, Art Tatum and Glenn Gould. In Like a Shadow, drummer Burgwinkel, finally given a solo of his own, erupts like Buddy Rich on speed.

Anatolis continues in this vein throughout this recital, one of the most exciting and original I’ve heard in a very long time. This is truly some of the most exciting and original music I’ve heard in a very long time!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring the Music of Richard Arnell

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ARNELL: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Variations on an American Theme. Passacaglia for Solo Violin. BATE: Violin Sonata No. 1 / Patrick Wastnage, vln; Elizabeth Dunn, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0492

Toccata Classics is a label that specializes in the music of British composers, many of them barely known even in their home country. In this instance, the complete violin & piano music of Richard Arnell (1917-2009) was so sparse that the disc had to be filled out with a violin sonata by Stanley Bate (1911-1959).

Arnell’s music is typical of modern British music of the 1940s and early ‘50s: lyrical yet with modern harmonies to add interest. He was a fine craftsman and knew how to construct well-written pieces, yet what makes the music work here are the performances of violinist Patrick Wastnage and pianist Elizabeth Dunn, both of whom really dig in to it with energy.

The opening movement of the Violin Sonata No. 2, which starts off this disc, is typical: despite the tempo designation, Arnell vacillates between “Vivace” and “Moderato,” even using some decelerandos and a few full stops in the music flow, yet all of it is logical and fits together very well. In the slow movement, he introduces an odd stepwise pattern in the piano’s bass line that is briefly used as a transitional motive. The finale, too, has a certain quixotic feel about it that keeps the listener on his or her toes while listening.

The same aesthetic is heard in his Variations on an American Theme. As the liner notes confirm, Arnell’s “American theme” seems to be a sort of generic idea of his of what an American theme should sound like and not anything that is easily identifiable. Although composed in either 1953 (according to the CD inlay) or 1955 (according to the liner notes), it was not premiered until 1962, by which time Arnell’s musical style was surely considered passé.

Oddly, Stanley Bate’s violin sonata almost sounds like a carbon copy of Arnell’s style. It’s not a bad piece by any means, but it’s still a good piece. I was very much taken with Arnell’s Passacaglia for Solo Violin, an excellent piece and one of the most original on the disc. The final sonata, Arnell’s No. 1 for violin & piano, is a good piece but clearly not as good as his other works on this disc.

An interesting disc, then, if not consistently excellent in its musical quality.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Morten Haxholm’s “Vestigium”

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VESTIGIUM / HAXHOLM: Occam’s Razor. Vestigium*. Central Park West. Leviathan.* Obviate. Deep Sea Explorer.* A World Without End. ALTMAN-LAWRENCE: All or Nothing At All / Jonathan Kreisberg, gtr; Nikolaj Hess, pno; Morten Haxholm, bs; Ari Hoenig, dm; *Frederick Menzies, t-sax / Storyville SVL1014319

Morten Haxholm, a well-known jazz bassist-group leader in Denmark, presents here some very interesting music played with great brio and imagination. There’s a certain Tristano-like vibe to the opener, Occam’s Razor, a coruscating melody set to bitonal harmonies. The guitarist and pianist play in a somewhat understated manner but they really swing well and, thank goodness, there is no trace of a rock influence in Kreisberg’s superb improvisations. There is also a certain continuity to the solos that I liked very much; these are musicians who listen to each other, and thus pick up on the previous soloist’s ideas as a starting place for their own.

Vestigium is a 5/4 piece with displaced beats, which the group plays very well. Tenor saxist Frederick Menzies is added here to the ensemble for color, though he does not solo on this one. Central Park West is a ballad, but the melody line is not particularly memorable. As a bassist, leader Haxholm plays in an understated fashion yet holds the ensemble together beautifully.

I particularly liked Leviathan, a fast-tempoed piece with a sort of double-time shuffle rhythm underneath the principal beat. Once the rhythm straightens out and becomes more regular, Menzies, who returns on this track, takes a fine solo, and in the ensemble passages the band really swings. Obviate is another ballad, but a more interesting piece with a meatier lead line and some moving piano-bass figures in spots that up the tempo. The beat also shifts subtly for Hess’ piano solo.

Deep Sea Explorer begins with an intro in a quirky tempo, which alternates with a straightahead 4. Kreisberg really plays well on this one, as does Menzies on tenor, and drummer Hoenig contributes some excellent breaks. A World Without End is another jazz ballad.

The finale is an imaginative treatment of the old 1939 ballad, All or Nothing at All, with displaced rhythmic accents and a delicate guitar solo by Kreisberg.

In all, a superb album of consistently good group improvisations. I wish some of Haxmolm’s American counterparts would listen to this!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Enescu’s “Ghosts” Gets Its First Recording

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ENESCU: Strigoii (Ghosts). Pastorale Fantasy for Small Orchestra / Rodica Vica, sop (The Queen); Tiberius Simu, ten (Arald); Bogdan Baciu, bar (Der Magus); Alin Anca, bass (Narrator); Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Gabriel Bebeşelea, cond / Capriccio C5346

Here is a piece by Enescu that most people didn’t even know existed: his dramatic cantata Strigoii, or Ghosts, composed in the mid-1910s but lost during the first World War. The manuscript was only discovered recently and given to Cornel Târanu, who wrote the liner notes.

The text comes from a dramatic poem by Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889) about the premature death of King Harald’s bride. Much of the poem is sung by a narrator (bass) who explains that the grief-stricken king kneels beside his queen’s bier with bloodshot eyes, grieving for her, and then by Harald (Arald) himself, the tenor. Interestingly, Strigoii is translated into English here as “Ghosts” but in German as “Der Vampyr,” which suggests that his dead bride becomes not a harmless spirit but a vampire. The music is continuous, like Gurre-lieder or Bluebeard’s Castle, but broken into scenes, thus displaying Enescu’s skill in creating continuous musical narratives. Even more so than the Schoenberg and Bartók pieces, Enescu’s orchestral writing is the most complex and interesting aspect of the score. It does not so much mirror the vocal line as to provide a discrete soundscape over which the singing and narration occurs. Conductor Gabriel Bebeşelea, a name previously unknown to me, does a marvelous job with the Berlin Radio Symphony, bringing out all the drama and color of Enescu’s wonderful music. The only moment in the score that I thought sounded formulaic was the mundane major-chord ending of the second scene.

I was very unhappy with the wobbly voice of basso Alin Anca as the Narrator, despite his histrionic skills. For crying out loud, for a world premiere of a newly-discovered work by a major composer, couldn’t they come up with a consistently good group of singers? Fortunately, tenor Tiberius Simu has a splendid voice, clear and ringing, and likewise sings with great expression. Bogdan Baciu also has a magnificent voice, thank goodness, reminding me of some of the darker-sounding Slavic baritones I’ve heard.

Following Ghosts is an early Pastorale Fantasy for Small Orchestra, written when Enescu was only 18 years old (1899). It’s a nice, Romantic bit of writing, what I refer to as “GUCK music” because it’s the kind of thing you’d hear on my local classical music station, WGUC—tonal, Romantic, non-challenging to the intellect, but pretty.

The Pastorale may be a superfluous piece, but Ghosts is clearly a major work, and I’m very glad that Târanu was able to reconstruct it from Enescu’s formerly-lost manuscript. Well worth seeking out!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Mysterious Jazz from Myriad3

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VERA / DONNELLY: Pluie Lyonnaise. Ward Lock. Meme Art. CERVINI: Tamboa. DNA. Couch Tard. FORTIN: Diamond. Fortress. Total. STRAVINSKY: Piano-Rag-Music / Myriad3: Chris Donnelly, kbds; Dan Fortin, bs; Ernesto Cervini, dm/perc/cl/bs-cl/fl/a-sax/glockenspiel / Alma Records 13990

Here’s something very different from Canadian drummer-bandleader-promoter Ernesto Cervini, whose group Turboprop recently released an outstanding album to which I gave a rave review. Myriad3, which is a collective of these three musicians and not specifically Cervini’s group as leader, is more mellow without being sentimental or vapid, playing a sort of very understated jazz-rock with an emphasis on the former though with undertones of the latter. And the tunes played here are all rather different, Pluie Lyonnaise having a sort of soft-rock feel to it while Tamboa explores a sort of corrugated rhythm, understated but insistent, like a ground bass in classical composition.

Moreover, this unusual feeling is consistent throughout the album, regardless of the composer of each piece. It almost has (pardon the reference, it’s not meant to be demeaning) a “percolating” quality about it, like those coffee ads you used to see and hear on TV and radio. Very unusual.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that each of these three musicians are very talented pros with years of experience, or that they all have what jazz fans refer to as “big ears.” There are so many subtle little touches throughout the album, like Cervini’s complex backbeats on Ward Lock, that really have to be heard to be fully appreciated and understood. Mere words are deficient to convey all that is going on here. The music is primarily subtle, painted in pastels rather than primary colors, yet it glitters at times with its own inward sort of light.

My regular readers know me well enough to realize that I am normally an enemy of “soft jazz,” “lounge jazz” and anything that resembles it, thus you must take my word for it that Vera is a deceptively complex album that must be heard to be believed or understood. It speaks to the heart as well as the mind, which by itself differentiates this music from the usual soft-lounge pap that apparently sells to young jazz listeners. Yet such listeners will undoubtedly respond to this CD without knowing, intellectually, why. It’s that kind of music.

I was particularly interested to hear their arrangement of Stravinsky’s Piano-Rag-Music (1919), one of the seminal crossover pieces (after the early ones by Debussy and Satie), as noted in my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond. Myriad3 break up the original rhythm, redistribute it, and essentially re-writes the piece while remaining true to its spirit. This is extraordinary music-making by any standard. And there’s a certain sort of heartbeat pulse in Fortress that is extremely calming despite the complex rhythms being presented over it, whereas DNA starts with a slow, asymmetric, stuttering rhythm that entices as it baffles, taking on an almost Monk-like quality.

From start to finish, Vera is the kind of album that will both fascinate you and touch your calm center. It may be hard to describe, but it’s wonderful to listen to.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Roxanna Panufnik

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CELESTIAL BIRD / PANUFNIK: Unending Love. Celestial Bird. Salve Regina. O Hearken. St. Pancras Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis. Since We Parted. A Cradle Song. Deus et Caritas. St. Aidan’s Prayer. Child of Heaven / Ex Cathedra; Milapfest; Jeffrey Skidmore, cond / Signum Classics SIGCD543

I suppose that Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968) has a strong following overseas, but in my own personal classical world she is an entirely new name to me. A British composer of Polish background, she studied at the Royal College of Music and has written opera, ballet, choral and chamber works in addition to music for television and movies.

But before you assume that because of her association with pop media that Panufnik writes overly accessible and/or shallow works, you need to hear this album. The opening track, Unending Love, is based not on her Polish heritage but on Indian culture. There are Indian instruments, harmonies and chanting going on in these works, yet still poured into a classical structure. The music is hypnotic but not simple or sentimental. By contrast the album’s title track, Celestial Bird, is based on a mystical poem by American Jessica Powers, who became a Carmelite nun in Wisconsin, and has a certain amount of Celtic influence—but not enough to overcome the superb structure that Panufnik has created here. The music floats on a sea of gentle counterpoint and overlapping motifs, wending its way along. The Salve Regina was written as a tribute to Dame Raphael, a Benedictine nun, and its saving grace (no pun intended) is that it is not overly sanctimonious or devotional in feeling, but again well constructed and interesting.

O Hearken had an odd origin. In 2015, Panufnik offered her services to write a short piece for a raffle ticket winner at the annual Westminster Abbey Choir School’s summer celebration. She had promised to write a fanfare but the winner asked for a piece to be sung by the choir, so here it is. It’s short, quite pretty and, again, not sentimental. The St. Pancras Magnificat & Nunc Dimittus, written on commission for the London Festival of Contemporary Music, is a very contrapuntal piece in tonal harmony, albeit with interesting twists and turns. I rather liked the “Nunc dimittus,” with its slightly Eastern sound, a bit more than the “Magnificat.”

Since We Parted, written to commemorate the centenary of World War I, is admittedly a romantic piece, yet again with interesting harmonic twists (and rising chromatics), as well as interesting writing for the solo trumpet and cello. A Cradle Song, set to a poem by William Blake, is Panufnik’s “cradle song,” and here, too the romantic qualities are offset by her unusual sense of harmony. Deus et Caritas was written on commission from a man in tribute to his late parents. By contrast, St. Aidan’s Prayer is a more conventional piece, but the treble soloist is Panufnik’s son, Ben Macklow-Smith. With the finale, however (Child of Heaven), we hear Panufnik return to Indian harmonies with great effect.

A very interesting album, then, particularly for lovers of modern choral music, although Unending Love is the standout gem in this collection.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Pedroia String Quartet Plays Quadrants

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QUADRANTS, Vol. 2 / OSTERFIELD: Khamsin. BRIDGES: This Fragmented Old Man. De SENA: String Quartet No. 1. DEUTSCH: Departure. K. PRICE: Hymnody. LAMB: Lamentations / Navona NV6184

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the biggest problem with the Parma-Navona labels is that their releases only have very minimal liner notes, and available only online. Apparently they think that their customers all live in the cloud, when in fact at least half of all serious music listeners, like me, prefer physical CDs.

Anyway, much of the music presented here is in the apparently cookie-cutter modern style of jagged, sharp-edged lines meant to startle and excite listeners who grew up on rock music, but this is only an overview of the surface of the music. Paul Osterfield’s Khamsin turns out to be a well-written work with excellent development of its jagged theme, and the quartet plays it very well, digging into its alternating edgy and lyrical moments to tie the structure together. The hard-driving rhythm gradually slows down to a crawl as the volume decreases as well—not to a whisper, because Osterfield scores this later section very high for the violins, in an almost “whistle” register, which helps to maintain a certain edgy quality, but it is clearly an interesting, well-written piece. Following this slow section, a busy, edgy fugue is set up.

David T. Bridges’ This Fragmented Old Man is a pizzicato piece written in mostly bitonal harmonies. It, too, has an interesting structure, moving its component parts around to form interesting musical shapes, and at less than five minutes long it does not overstay its welcome.

By contrast, I found the String Quartet No. 1 of Ferdinando De Sena to be pointlessly atonal, meaning that the music was simply ugly and was neither emotionally affecting nor intellectually compelling, but he, too, understands musical structure, though his music is over-written and goes on a bit too long (and, by the third movement, one tires of the aggressively and pointlessly bitonal nature of the music).

I did, however, very much enjoy L. Peter Deutsch’s Departure, an exceptionally fine piece that vacillates between tonality and “leaning” harmonies. It has a good form and holds one’s interest from start to finish. And, it actually goes somewhere!

Katherine Price’s Hymnody, I hate to say, sounds like archetypal “women’s music”: melodic, tonal and full of sentiment. Not my cup of tea.

Marvin Lamb’s Lamentations, the last piece, starts in a manner that almost sounds like Hymnody but quickly morphs into something quite emotional without relying on pathos or bathos. Lamb, like Osterfield, exploits the high end of the violins’ ranges, but here fuses lyricism with an intense feeling of loss and suffering. But alas, the second half hammers its lamentations on you like a sledgehammer. Take a Valium and chill, Marvin.

An interesting album, then, despite my caveats.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Keith Oxman Teams Up With Dave Liebman

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GLIMPSES / OXMAN: Shai. Lenny. Trane’s Pal. Louminus. ELLINGTON-MILLS: In a Sentimental Mood. WALTON: Afreaka. RENÉ: I Sold My Heart to the Junkman. LIEBMAN: Glimpses / Keith Oxman, t-sax; Dave Liebman, s-sax/t-sax; Jeff Jenkins, pno; Ken Walker, bs; Todd Reid, dm / Capri Records 74152

Here’s a good, old-fashioned bop album by tenor saxists Keith Oxman and Dave Liebman, the latter a veteran musician who played with Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. On Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, Liebman plays alone with pianist Jeff Jenkins, and later on, Liebman sits out I Lost My Heart to the Junkman. Otherwise, Liebman’s tenor and soprano sax comes out of the left speaker while Oxman’s is panned to the right.

The band is tight and plays extremely well, although I personally found some of pianist Jenkins’ solos flashy but not particularly interesting. Oxman and Liebman complement each other in a similar, but cooler, way that Zoot Sims and Al Cohn did many moons ago. I particularly liked Liebman’s soprano sax playing, slightly breathy and warm rather than the cold brilliance one normally hears from the instrument. It almost sounds like an alto flute: quite beautiful, and as an improviser I found him superb, one of those rare players who improvises on the melody and not just always on the chords.

The two saxists are both superb on Trane’s Pal, a tune that harks back to John Coltrane’s early incarnation as a bop saxist. Oxman doesn’t really try to emulate Trane yet his solo is excellent, beautifully constructed. Cedar Walton’s Afreaka is clearly one of the most complex and modern pieces on the CD, and both Oxman and Liebman respond with some impassioned playing. We return to standard bop with Oxman’s Louminous, although here Liebman really goes outside the changes in a Coltrane-like way. And I was really impressed by Liebman’s superbly-constructed solo on I Sold My Heart to the Junkman.

We end with Liebman’s original, Glimpses, a hard bop piece with plenty of excitement. An excellent romp for those who like small combos of hot soloists!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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