Amos Gillespie’s Chamber Music Delights

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GILLESPIE: Providence of Zorn / Barkada Saxophone Quartet / Lacework / Amos Gillespie, a-sax; Taimur Sullivan, bar-sax / Jasper Johns / Gillespie Chamber Quartet / Chicago-Lucerne / Kaia String Quartet / Solo! For Chamber Ensemble / Trevor Watkin, fl; Jeff Yang, vln; David Keller, cello; Daniel Price, tpt; David Cron, tb; Amy Wurtz, pno / Spanish Speakers for Chamber Ensemble / Zach Sheets, cl; Vicente Alexim, cl; Julia Glenn, vln; Maria Hadge, cello; Miki Sawada, pno; Andy Miller, vib / Centaur CRC 3669

Amos Gillespie appears to be a somewhat youthful composer who has worked in TV and film music as well as jazz and the concert hall. He has taught music theory at Chicago State University and played the saxophone with the New Millennium Orchestra, Access Contemporary Music and the Hard Art Groop.

He had me in the palm of his hand almost immediately with the first movement of his suite, Providence of Zorn, obviously a tribute to jazz saxist John Zorn. The classical counterpoint, here applied to a lightly swinging musical line, is engaging as well as nicely developed formally. Gillespie dots all of his music I’s and crossed his T’s. He uses here a fairly narrow harmonic range, but keeps the “bouncing ball” of the syncopation and counter-lines going so well that you stay engaged from first note to last. In the second movement, “With slowly increasing intensity,” Gillespie plays a bit of cat-and-mouse with the listener, using both short and long rests within the framework of the theme. The other movements are equally clever and engaging.

Lacework, a sax duet played by Gillespie himself on alto with Taimur Sullivan on baritone, takes the counterpoint and use of space to a new level. The duo parry and thrust small, jagged themes and lines at each other as they go through the piece. The third movement, “Fast, bright” is particularly interesting in its use of changing meter.

Yet it is the quartet Jasper Johns that shifts the perspective, not only in its different orchestration (flute, clarinet, alto sax and cello) but also in its clearly more formal rhythm and development. Here, Gillespie seems to be not so much channeling jazz as syncopated music, closer to ragtime in feel albeit with subtly shifting rhythms within each measure, in a style close to early Stravinsky of his ragtime years. But Gillespie does not copy Stravinsky; he clearly has his own aesthetic, and follows it through its three movements (the last two linked and played without a pause).

Interestingly, the syncopated classical feel continues throughout Chicago-Lucerne for string quartet. A few brief allusions to Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train are sneaked in for a tongue-in-cheek cultural reference. Solo! Is another syncopated romp, this time for a chamber quintet including piano, designed along similar lines. The harmony here, however, moves somewhat sideways, stepping in and out of the home tonality at will. Spanish Speakers uses Latin rhythms to make its point, again in pointillistic counterpoint.

This is an interesting and delightful album. Although the pieces contained herein have similar qualities, they are well crafted and will brighten up your mood.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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