Barton Pine Plays the Blues

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BLUES DIALOGUES / D. BAKER: Blues (Deliver My Soul). PERKINSON: Blue(s) Forms for solo violin. Louisiana Blues Strut (A Cakewalk). STILL: Suite for Violin & Piano. Lenox Avenue Suite: Blues. DA COSTA: A Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin. C. WHITE: Levee Dance. ELLINGTON: In a Sentimental Mood (arr. Logan). D. WHITE: Blues Dialogues for Solo Violin. WALLEN: Woogie Boogie. B. CHILDS: Incident on Larpenteur Avenue. ROUMAIN: Filter for Unaccompanied Violin. C. BROWN: A Song Without Words / Rachel Barton Pine, vln; Matthew Hagle, pno / Çedille CDR 182

Rachel Barton Pine is possibly the most highly marketed classical violinist in the world today. I’ve liked several of her previous releases, but this one really piqued my interest because it consists of works by a wide range of African-American classical composers, ranging from quite early (Clarence Cameron White, 1880-1960) to modern (Daniel Bernard Roumain, b. 1971).

One of the more racist qualities assigned to almost any black classical composer or, worse yet, any jazz composer who bases his or her work on classical form, is that such music is somehow “race treason.” I covered this to a fairly large extent in my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, and castigated the academic community on both sides of the musical aisle for this shameful stance. To make such a value judgment is, basically, to say that African-Americans (and composers of color from all nations) can only write formal music based on their indigenous folk music or spirituals, that nothing more complex is really valid.

I admit being surprised to see the opening selection by David Baker, who taught music (primarily jazz) at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, but only because I knew of him primarily as a jazz educator who stressed the high quality of solos and not as someone who wrote music for violin and piano. His Blues (Deliver My Soul) fits neatly into the parameters allowed him by academics, but is also a very fine composition. I was even more surprised to hear how well Barton Pine adapted her classical tone and technique to this style with the proper slurring and “feel” of the music, which too many of her classical colleagues miss completely when they play this music. Since I was not provided a booklet to download with this CD, I don’t have any comments from her, but her approach to the music says it all. It has as much of a true feel for the style as any country blues fiddler or such jazz violinists as Eddie South or David Balakrishnan of the Turtle Island Quartet.

From a formal perspective, however, I was even more impressed by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Blue(s) Forms for solo violin. Here we have a work that clearly blends the two worlds of classical and jazz-blues so perfectly that one cannot imagine either element being absent. The music is hypnotic in its slow-moving, almost drawling style, yet has a very sophisticated form and leans towards modern harmonies. It is also bipartite in that, following the slow opening section, we get a faster second half that runs through canons and almost a partita form, including some dazzling double-stops and other difficult violinistic tricks. This is a great example of how one can blend jazz and classical together! By contrast, the same composer’s Louisiana Blues Strut is much more closely related to Cajun music of the bayous; it almost sounds like something that Michael Doucet would play with his band, BeauSoleil (which I was thrilled to hear in person once, at our very last Tall Stacks Festival here in Cincinnati).

We next get what is probably William Grant Still’s most famous chamber work, the tripartite Suite for Violin and Piano. For the uninitiated, it is divided into three sections, each inspired by a painting by an African-American artist. The first piece was suggested by Richmond Barthé’s African Dancer, the second by Sargent Johnson’s Mother and Child, and the third by Augusta Savage’s Gamin. I’ve listened to several performances of this suite, mostly on YouTube, and am here to tell you that NO ONE ELSE plays the rhythms as well as Barton Pine and her pianist, Matthew Hagle. This performance is so good that, in a blindfold test, you would be forgiven for suspecting a black duo was playing it. Only in Mother and Child did I feel that Barton Pine was a wee bit too formal in her phrasing; otherwise, this is perfectly phrased and executed.

Noel DaCosta’s Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin once again presents us with classical music that just happens to have a jazz-blues bias. In the first piece in this suite, “Walk Around ‘Brudder Bones,’” DaCosta, born in Nigeria to Jamaican parents (which technically makes him African-Jamaican, not African-American), seemed to be leaning more towards hoedown music than anything in the blues or jazz realm, but that’s OK, too. Many so-called musicologists tend to forget that there were many African-American “country fiddlers” back in the 1910s and ‘20s. The second piece, “Neumedia,” is a cross between a blues and a ballad; the third, “Little Diamond/Bird on the Wing Jigs,” returns us to hoedown mode. “New Orleans Clog” is a medium-slow dance piece in which the violinist is required to stomp his or her foot as he/she plays while the finale, the “New Orleans Clog Blues,” is a short set of variants on this them. This is the world premiere recording of this suite.

Clarence Cameron White’s Levee Dance was one of the late Jascha Heifetz’ favorite encore pieces. People tend to forget that Heifetz really loved jazz-influenced pieces and recorded several of them for Decca in the mid-1940s because his primary label, RCA Victor, wouldn’t allow him to (among them Robert Russell Bennett’s Hexapoda: Five Studies in Jitteroptera). This one is based more on the kind of ragtime or cakewalk dances done around the turn of the 20th century, with the spiritual Let My People Go used for the middle section. It’s not the most sophisticated piece on this CD, but it is well crafted and Barton Pine plays it exceptionally well. She follows this with the first recorded violin version of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, and although I like the piece, I initially thought of a number of Ellington works that might have fit the theme of this album better. Yet I was really impressed by Wendell Logan’s startling and highly imaginative arrangement, which completely rewrites it harmonically, giving it a dark quality quite different from the muted-trombone smoothness of Duke’s original recording of the piece (Lawrence Brown did the honors). It is thus transformed from a pleasant “slow dance” number to a minor masterpiece.

Dolores White’s Blues Dialogue is another quite sophisticated work, divided into four contrasting sections and exploiting the technical aspects of the violin quite well, including quite broad portamento. By contrast, Errollyn Wallen’s Woogie Boogie is a permutation of boogie-woogie music, using highly syncopated backbeats in the piano part to sort of drag the rhythm in a different direction from the violin line—a very clever and appealing piece. The world premiere recording of Billy Childs’ Incident on Larpenteur Avenue has a distinctly classical feel to the rhythm and writing of the piano part, with all of the jazz feeling in the solo violin. Despite being a continuous piece, it is divided into contrasting sections, and the duo plays it extremely well. Roumain’s Filter for Unaccompanied Violin is a remarkable edgy classical work, really with only a little bit of blues inflections in the constant use of the flatted third slurred up to the unflatted version. It then moves into some nifty fast bow work, which Barton Pine plays to perfection.

The inlay for the back of this CD shows the final piece being Charles S. Brown’s A Song Without Words, a slow, moody piece that sounds like a spiritual but isn’t, yet my download tracks also included the Blues from Still’s Lenox Avenue Suite, a piece that I know very well from both Artie Shaw’s superb 1940 recording and Still’s own 1937 original version. I never much cared for the violin performances of this I’ve heard online, in part because the piece is much slower in the violin version but mostly because the violinists I’ve heard sound too stiffly formal. This one retains the slow tempo (apparently how Still wrote it), but both Barton Pine and Hagle catch the feeling of the piece much better than the others I’ve heard.

All in all, this is a superb CD, clearly one of Barton Pine’s real masterpieces. Highly recommended to any other classical violinist who wants to tackle these works, and listeners who enjoy jazz and blues-influenced classical music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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