Willie the Lion Roars Again

Lion and Tiger001

THE LION AND THE TIGER / McHUGH-FIELDS: On the Sunny Side of the Street (2 tks). HANDY: Beale Street Blues. COOKE: Blame it On the Blues. HEYWOOD-COOK: I’m Coming, Virginia. JORDAN: Sweetie Dear. SMITH: Keep Your Temper. You’re the Limit. Rock and Roll and Weep. Woodland Fantasy. Harlem Joys. Zig Zag. Relaxin’. Here Comes the Band. WALLER: Fussin’. RAPEE-POLLACK: Charmaine. PORTER: Just One of Those Things. L. & O. RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. BLAKE: Memories of You. Medley: WALLER: Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now/JOHNSON: Charleston. JOHNSON: If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight. PINKARD: Sweet Georgia Brown (2 tks). Medley: CREAMER-LAYTON: After You’ve Gone/S. WILLIAMS: I Ain’t Got Nobody. YOUMANS: Sweet Sue. ROBERT-BOUSQUET: La Madelon. ROBLEDO: Three O’Clock in the Morning [Trois Heures du Matin]. JOHNSON: Carolina Shout. MORTON: Wolverine Blues. TRAD.: Didn’t He Ramble / Willie “The Lion” Smith, pno; Jo Jones, dm / Frémaux et Associés FA 5678

Here’s a rare treat: a chance to hear stride piano giant Willie “The Lion” Smith in stereo, near the very end of his long career, in association with former Count Basie drummer Jo Jones. But the title of the album is a bit of a gimmick. Although Willie Smith had been known since the 1920s by his nickname “The Lion,” Jones was never known or called “The Tiger” except for the title of this album.

Smith was one of those musicians who followed his own muse. Not only did he not improvise on the melody, but only on the harmony, of the tunes he played, but he often changed them around, changing or omitting notes and sometimes whole bars of music to suit his own lights. This sometimes drove those who played with him a bit batty, but an early gig (1929) that young Artie Shaw played with him taught him many things about the nature of jazz that the famed clarinetist-bandleader never forgot.

Smith could be like that, accommodating and instructive to those who approached him acknowledging his excellence, but he could also be petty and nasty. He had the hubris to imagine that he was the greatest jazz pianist in the world, putting down those rivals who either did not accept his self-assessment (like Jelly Roll Morton) or ignoring them as if they didn’t exist (like Art Tatum, Nat Cole and Bud Powell). But he was certainly an interesting musician as these 1972 recordings clearly show.

Jo Jones, by contrast, was a laid-back performer whose smooth, ball-bearing-like style propelled the Basie band from about a decade, from 1936 to 1945 or ’46, and afterwards propelled many other jazz musicians in his years as a freelance artist. Tenor saxist Lester Young became so used to his smooth, propulsive yet unobtrusive beat that it rather spoiled him; he was seldom happy with the “bomb-droppers” who played with him from the late 1940s onward, referring to them as “the bebop kiddies.”

These two sessions, one recorded on February 18 and the other on June 6, 1972, were among the last directed by Hughes Panassié, the French-born traditional jazz fanatic who first made his mark on the recording industry in 1938 by organizing recording sessions at RCA Victor for the likes of trumpeters Tommy Ladnier and Sidney DeParis, pianist James P. Johnson and Cliff Jackson, and guitarist Teddy Bunn, who had sadly been shunted aside during the Swing Era. The good news is that he also used Sidney Bechet on a few tracks. The bad news is that he used Mezz Mezzrow, one of the worst jazz musicians of all time, on most of the others.

But here he was working with a winning combination, and although I’m not sure they had ever played together on a live session prior to this recording they clearly worked hand-in-glove. This was, in my view, due more to the musical sensitivity of Jones, who could pretty much adapt himself to a number of jazz settings, which is what made him such a sought-after drummer. Here he adapts his normally fluid style to the loping, somewhat irregular beat of the pianist.

These sessions were newly remastered several years ago, at which time the selections were put in their correct chronological order and spoken commentary between numbers included. One thing that strikes the listener is how much closer Smith’s beat was to ragtime than many of his peers. James P. developed a very modern, linear style by the late 1920s, and to some extent so did Fats Waller, but Smith always retained a slight choppiness in his style that was unique to him. I was also surprised to hear how much slower his conception of Joe Jordan’s tune Sweetie Dear was compared to the famous 1932 recording by Sidney Bechet’s New Orleans Feetwarmers (surely one of the most exciting, albeit short-lived, jazz bands of all time). The performance given here of Smith’s original tune, Keep Your Temper, is one of his best; he was well warmed up by the time he hit the first note.

Among the many arguments that Smith had with Morton concerned piano technique. Although both could certainly play well enough to improvise on their own music, Willie claimed that Jelly Roll didn’t have the technique to compete with the stride pianists. In 1938, Morton wrote and recorded his one and only stride piece, the Fingerbreaker. Smith responded with his own Fingerbuster, but Morton’s piece was clearly better constructed and, truth be told, more difficult to play unless one had a classical technique. On this session, Smith precedes the performance of his own Fussin’ by proclaiming it “a gasser.” It’s a good piece, to be sure, but nowhere close to Morton’s superb two-handed coordination at the keyboard. Smith’s strengths as an improviser lay, as I mentioned earlier, in his imaginative reworking of the original melody by displacing beats and changing the rhythm—something Morton generally refused to do because his goal was always to “keep the melody going.” Yet Smith could do this on occasion, too, as he proves in his excellent performance of Cole Porter’s Just One of Those Things. Here, Jones takes a drum solo that sounds for all the world like a great tap dancer. The duo surprises one with another Smith original titled Rock and Roll and Weep, which has a definite R&B feel in the first chorus before shifting over to his normal, loping ragtime-stride sound. Woodland Fantasy is particularly interesting as it shows yet another connection in Smith’s style, to the early 20th-century American impressionist composers. It almost sounds like a swinging rendition of a piece by Edward MacDowell.

The stride medley of Waller’s Keepin’ Out of Mischief and Johnson’s Charleston is yet another indicator of how different his loping ragtime beat was from the other stride pianists, yet his treatment of both tunes is imaginative. The same can also be said for his rendition of Johnson’s If I Could Be With You, in which he almost peels off individual notes like leaves from a tree, again almost making the music sound like MacDowell. This is followed by a untitled, uptempo and somewhat wild improvised piece that sounds like the last bit of the previous piece. Jones flashes his chops on this one.

Smith claims that his Harlem Joys is modern-sounding for its time, but it’s not as advanced as several James P. Johnson pieces of the same vintage, though still good.

Smith’s first rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown serves as a perfect example of how he rewrote tunes as he played them, changing the harmony, rhythm and even the basic layout of the melody as he went along. Jones somehow manages to follow his train of thought on the drums. The second take, much faster, is more conventional but still rather exciting. By the time you hear his second reminiscence in the second set, you come to realize that this is, in a sense, Smith’s version of Morton’s Library of Congress recordings: reminiscing about the players and songwriters he knew way back when, and giving you examples of their music in his own style. After You’ve Gone is also taken at a more relaxed pace than you normally hear it, and he moves smoothly from this piece into I Ain’t Got Nobody. In the French song La Madelon, Smith and Jones move into a loping 6/8 tempo, strange indeed for stride jazz, and this tempo morphs into a 6/8 march as it moves along, suddenly becoming a stride-swing piece in the second half.

Another strange choice for a jazz pianist is Julian Robledo’s 1922 song, Three O’Clock in the Morning (recorded by both Paul Whiteman and John McCormack for Victor, and both versions hit records!). There’s not much improvisation, but he plays it well. This is, in turn, followed by Smith’s semi-boogie number, Zig Zag, and this is, indeed, a highly original and creative piece. Smith also has fun with James P.’s first hit tune, Carolina Shout. Jones has a surprisingly long drum solo on this one.

A real shocker, considering their rivalry, is Smith’s performance of Morton’s Wolverine Blues, which he begins almost like his own “spring” song at a surprisingly slow tempo (which I’m sure Jelly hated, since it was conceived as an uptempo piece). He finally increases the speed in the second half, turning it into a stride number with several drum breaks by Jones.

His introductory comments to Relaxin’ features Smith speaking in Hebrew, reminding us that he thought himself a member of one of the lost tribes of Israel (which, alas, was not accepted by Israel). The set wraps up with an impromptu rendition of the old New Orleans funeral song Didn’t He Ramble, which then morphs into another Smith original, Here Comes the Band. This gets an extended workout—nearly 10 minutes—with several rhythmic riffs and other ideas tossed around and another long drum solo by Jones.

Overall, then, a fascinating album, and a treat to hear Willie “The Lion” in modern stereo.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

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

Advertisements
Standard

Connie Han Enters the “Crime Zone”

Connie Han001

CRIME ZONE / WYSASKE-HAN: Another Kind of Right.+* Crime Zone.* By the Grace of God.* Southern Rebellion. Gruvy. Member This. Extended Stay. SONDHEIM: Pretty Women.* J. HENDERSON: A Shade of Jade. PEARSON: Is That So?* / Connie Han, pno/Rhodes; *Walter Smith III, t-sax; +Brian Swartz, tpt; Edwin Livingstone, bs; Bill Wysaske, dm / Mack Avenue MAC1140

Connie Han is a young jazz pianist who presents here an album of somewhat mainstream jazz, most of it co-written and arranged by her drummer, Bill Wysaske. She has a light touch, playing in a style that uses fairly wide intervallic leaps on the keyboard in her improvisations. I hear some Chick Corea influence.

Her backup band is talented, including trumpeter Brian Swartz on the opening track and tenor saxist Walter Smith III on five. My sole complaint is that some of the originals on here tend to sound alike in tempo, key and style. One gets the impression of good, solid “club jazz” played in a very professional manner, and although the individual pieces lack originality they are certainly nice to listen to because Han’s improvisations are so strikingly original. In the somewhat unmelodic ballad Pretty Women (not surprising, to me, that it was written by the minimally talented Stephen Sondheim, one of the most overrated talents of our time), she elevates the music through her reworking of it. The Wysaske-Han original Southern Rebellion really jumps, and on Gruvy bassist Edwin Livingstone has a very nice solo chorus. Han plays more forcefully, and with a funkier groove, on A Shade of Jade.

The music thus proceeds in this manner throughout the album. Were Han and Wysaske more creative in their writing of original tunes, I would surely give this CD a higher recommendation, but for the most part it is Han’s solo playing, and some of Smith’s saxophone solos, that are most of the show.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

Michael Berkeley’s Whimsical & Moving “Winter Fragments”

Berkeley

BERKELEY: Catch Me if You Can. Clarinet Quintet. Winter Fragments.* Sonnet for Orpheus.* Seven / *Fleur Barron, mezzo; Berkeley Ensemble; Dominic Grier, cond / Resonus Classics 10223

Following on from their lauded recording of chamber works by their namesake, Lennox Berkeley, the Berkeley Ensemble – celebrating their 10th anniversary – return to Resonus Classics to turn their attention to the music of his son, Michael.

This is unusual simply because, except for the Bach family, generational composers are rare. Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried wrote operas, too, but none of them have survived because the music was mediocre and derivative of other composers (including his father). Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Schoenberg, Milhaud, Stravinsky and Britten had no children (but Mozart’s father, not as good as he, was a composer). Debussy had a daughter, Claude-Emma, who unfortunately died when a doctor gave her the wrong treatment for diphtheria. (Remember my motto: stay away from doctors!) Just about the only one I can think of besides the Berkeleys were the Holsts, but Gustav’s daughter Imogen, a fine conductor, was a minor composer.

The Berkeleys appear to have been more fortunate. Father Lennox was never quite considered a “Top Ten” British composer, but his music was original, interesting and extremely well-crafted (much like the sadly underrated Leonard Salzedo), and son Michael seems to me to be on the same good level. His tripartite piece Catch Me if You Can has the same kind of modern but whimsical profile as his father’s Horn Trio, the one Lennox Berkeley piece that has become an established favorite among chamber musicians even today, yet he does NOT try to copy his father. He definitely has his own voice, and like his father he has a clear understanding of musical structure—something that too many modern composers choose to ignore.

The Clarinet Quintet, a 14-minute work in one continuous movement, starts slowly but then morphs into yet another whimsical theme in a faster tempo, using syncopation in a unique manner. The clarinet plays swirling passages around the equally busy strings, who play rhythmic figures. Then the tempo slows down a bit, but the music retains its bitonal edge in the development section. A very fine work indeed!

The six-part Winter Fragments, featuring mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, uses the voice like an instrument, even more so than the music of Britten or Tippett. She has an excellent voice with a rich, lovely timbre, steady tonal emission and superb styling and pitch, but her diction, alas, is not clear. She rolls her “r’s,” but other than that, all you can make out are vowel sounds—not complete words most of the time, although in “The Reeling Clouds Stagger” I did make out the words “while rising slow” in her low range. That was about it. Here, the whimsical quality that was evident in the previous two works is subjugated towards a more serious use. Berkeley still uses those wide intervallic leaps, but somehow manages to make them sound more “serious” here.

The Sonnet for Orpheus, one of his Three Rilke Sonnets, is a more lyrical piece with more of a tonal center, opening with a plaintive cello solo before moving into the vocal line. The disc concludes with the slow-moving piece for flute, clarinet and harp titled Seven. The liner notes only suggest that the music is based somewhat on the two-note opening of the Mahler 9th Symphony and a bit on the musical style of Erik Satie.

This is an interesting and diverse program of music, well crafted and certainly worth hearing!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Duo Pianists Play Debussy

cover

DEBUSSY: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. En blanc et noir / Inge Spinette, Jan Michiels, pno / DEBUSSY, arr. CONSTANT: Impressions de Pelléas / Lore Binon, sop (Mélisande); Yves Saelens, ten (Pelléas); Pierre-Yves Pruvot, bar (Golaud); Tijl Favayts, bs (Arkel); Angélique Noldus, mezzo (Geneviève); Camille Bauer, mezzo (Yniold); Spinette & Michiels, pno / Fuga Libera FUG610

Here’s something new in the Debussy discography: duo-piano versions of En blanc et noir and his famous Prélude plus Marius Constant’s impressions of Pelléas et Mélisande. This was the main reason I chose to review this set, since I am not a fan of duo-piano versions of orchestral music, which are what bookend the Constant piece.

It’s not that Inge Spinette (what a great name for a pianist!) and Jan Michiels are poor pianists, only that the music sounds thin and vapid when played by duo pianos, and this is exacerbated by the fact that they use an awful lot of rallentando and rubato in their performance which I do not care for. Indeed, they seem to alternate between slowing the music down and then speeding up certain passages, and in the end all I could think was, “Why even bother?” I mean, really: were there people out there crying for someone to play Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun on two pianos? (And if there were, were they sane?)

I wish the Constant piece had used an orchestra, too; strings sustain long tones far better than pianos do; and most of the music is pure Debussy, compressed into a 90-minute structure. Our Mélisande, Lore Binon, has a pure, sweet soprano voice, but our Golaud, Pierre-Yves Pruvot, has a wobbly, unfocused baritone, which spoils every scene he is in. I did note, however, that Pruvot does interpret his lines dramatically, which is now the preferred way of singing Pelléas but not the way Debussy wanted it. Having come to maturity in the era in which French opera and chanson was sung “straight,” without any inflections at all, he commended his first Golaud, baritone Hector Dufranne, for sticking to his guns and refusing to “interpret” the role in the face of changing tastes. (You can hear Dufranne’s Golaud in recorded excerpts from the opera made in 1928, a decade after Debussy’s untimely death from cancer.) Angélique Noldus, our Geneviève, also interprets her lines somewhat, and thankfully she has a steady pure mezzo voice. Basso Tijl Favayts, as Arkel, has a rich voice that is only slightly infirm, but this is appropriate to the aged king. Our tenor, Yves Saelens, has an attractive timbre and just a hint of unsteadiness in loud passages, but is otherwise quite good. (When he couldn’t get a true baritone-matin for Pelléas, Debussy preferred a tenor to a deeper baritone voice.)

There is indeed some interest ion hearing how Constant compressed the opera; its structure becomes tighter, and with the singers actually interpreting most of the roles, it gains in dramatic power, but the lack of an orchestra then reduces the impact of the overall work to a sort of salon piece. An interesting excursion, then, worth hearing at least once, but neither a substitute for nor a complement to a good full recording of the work.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Reappraising the Beatles

Rubber_Soul

In the booklet for the 1968 Angel Records album of Busoni’s Piano Concerto, played by John Ogden, there was a photo that I doubt many Beatles fans ever saw because there was, really, nothing about this complex music that would have drawn them to buy it. Sitting in the control booth, listening to the playback, were Ogden, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, The latter two were looking at the score as they were listening.

This may seem like a particularly odd way to start an article on The Beatles, but at the time I found it quite telling. Here were these two Liverpool scruffians, raised on pop music of their time and among the world’s most famous dispensers of rock music, actually interested enough in this piece to go into the control booth and follow the score. Of course, they were at the Abbey Road studios anyway because they were in the midst of recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but I doubt that they would have asked to look at the score if they hadn’t been interested. And it shows an angle to The Beatles that was not well known and, had it been known, would have been glossed over or completely ignored by their fans. They—but specifically McCartney and Lennon—were voracious listeners who tried to absorb all kinds of music.

I was only 11 years old when The Beatles first became famous with their hit record, Love Me Do. I didn’t like them much. I kind of liked Do You Want to Know a Secret?, but also didn’t care for She Loves You, Please Please Me, Can’t Buy Me Love and many of their other early hit records.

But their impact on the music industry in general was so powerful that, as early as 1965—by which time they had only evolved as far as their second movie, Help!—there baroque beatleswere serious articles in which learned college professors tried their damnedest to try to “prove” that what they were doing was “really” music. In the process, jazz-pop singer Keely Smith turned out a fairly awful album of swing arrangements of The Beatles’ early songs and classical musician Joshua Rifkin produced a surprisingly creative LP of rather complex arrangements titled The Baroque Beatles Book. Even classical mezzo Cathy Berberian gut into the act a little later, doing an album of Beatles songs in quasi-classical arrangements.

Yet, surprisingly, even the latter two projects ended up diluting the impact of their original recordings or, worse yet, making them sound like parodies and caricatures. The last Beatles’ single I bought was Help/I’m Down. I thought it sucked. Over the next couple of years, I did find myself liking some of the singles they released from their albums RevolverRubber Soul and Revolver, such as Nowhere Man, Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby, but felt that I was indulging in a guilty pleasure. I saw Sgt. Pepper’s in the record store but didn’t buy it, in part because that was their only album that spawned no single release, and I wasn’t going to buy a Beatles album on spec. It turned out to be my mistake. It wasn’t until the spring of 1968 that I finally heard the album in my high school English class: the teacher had asked us to bring in records we liked to play in class because it was the next-to-last day of our senior year. I was floored by the sophistication of many (but not all) of the songs, the richness of George Martin’s arrangements, and most astonishing of all, the variety of styles used in that album.

From that point on, I began following The Beatles again. I bought Sgt. Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, Let it Be and the “double white album,” and most of what I heard I liked.

But as my musical tastes grew and became more sophisticated, I left The Beatles behind. I figured that they were indeed a guilty pleasure from my misspent youth, and walked away from them. Yet as the rock music scene changed and morphed, over and over and over again, I eventually came to realize that except for Blondie and Billy Joel, I liked absolutely no pop music that came after them—certainly not The Rolling Stones, who I always found to be gauche, sexist, obnoxious and crude, no matter how often they had choruses or orchestras on their records.

Recently, I downloaded and burned most of my favorite Beatles songs to a CD. A few were pre-Rubber Soul songs such as I Call Your Name, We Can Work it Out, I’ll Follow the Sun, Another Girl, Day Tripper and, yes, one song from Help! (You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away), but most came from 1966 onward.

And this time, I did something I had never done when I was young. I listened critically to their music. In the process, I found that even as far back as I Call Your Name they were doing things different from other rock groups. Originally written, along with Bad to Me, by Lennon and McCartney for Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (another group managed by Brian Epstein), the Kramer version is good but pretty straightforward. John Lennon hated it, as well as the fact that Kramer decided to make it the “B” side of the 45. The Beatles’ own version is filled with unusual, astringent harmonies that clash rather than complement the simple melody, along with a patented “Lennon riff” (he was a genius at coming up with these) behind the words, “Don’t you know I can’t take it/I don’t know who can,” and during George Harrison’s guitar solo a change in rhythm that sounded like ska—then an almost unknown type of music.

Slightly after this period, the Beatles were already experimenting with different types of songs that sounded nothing like most of their pop hits, such as McCartney’s I’ll Follow the Sun and the collaborative We Can Work it Out. This was yet another facet of the Beatles that would eventually make them unique: they wrote and recorded the widest range of material of any pop-rock group of their time or after. Even before Sgt. Pepper’s, there were such interesting songs as Girl, Yesterday, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (I think their first tune written in 3/4), Norwegian Wood (their second song in 3/4), Taxman (a George Harrison song), Eleanor Rigby and Good Day Sunshine, the latter having a sort of rolling quasi-jazz beat. Even the hit song We Can Work it Out had an unusual rhythm, with a shift from 4 to 3 in the middle strain.

Mind you, this isn’t the highest level of musical art, but it is the highest level of popular music craft—and none of those who sang “Beatles tunes” wanted to bother with their own complex arrangements. Small wonder that those who heard only cover versions thought they were talentless.

Sgt._Pepper'sWith Sgt. Pepper’s, the LSD-drenched album from which no single was released, there were many songs that were clever (and even catchy, like With a Little Help From My Friends), but the “stoned songs” like Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, A Day in the Life, Within You Without You and even For the Benefit of Mr. Kite didn’t appeal to me much. The songs I really liked were generally the ones others didn’t: She’s Leaving Home (one of their very best songs in 3), Getting Better, Fixing a Hole, Lovely Rita and When I’m Sixty-Four. The latter was in some ways just a catchy old-styled vaudeville tune, but the clever lyrics made it memorable.

And that was another feature of their music that elevated it above the crowd. Both Lennon and McCartney could write fine lyrics, and even when the lyrics weren’t stellar the wedding of the words with the music was. A good example was Penny Lane, which stays in the mind despite the fact that it just describes normal everyday events on an obscure Liverpool street. The Fool on the Hill was probably their best “stoned” song, in part Abbey Roadbecause the lyrics could easily describe Zen meditation. Yet except for some rather silly songs, such as Come Together and the long and ghastly I Want You (She’s So Heavy), I still think the Abbey Road album was their best work, particularly the second side of the album which started with Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun and then worked its way through a long medley of new tunes that somehow interlocked and made for a remarkable medley. True, some of the lyrics here, such as She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, Golden Slumbers and Carry That Weight, make little sense, but again—it’s the wedding of words and music that captures the imagination.

Of course, the contribution of George Martin, one of four people who were referred to as “the fifth Beatle” (the others were original bass guitarist Stu Sutcliffe, who died in London at age 22, manager Epstein, and New York rock promoter/DJ Murray the K), had much to do with their later success. Martin had a keen ear for the subtleties of the Beatles’ harmonies as well as exceptionally good taste in arranging. He started off slowly, adding a French horn behind You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away and a string quartet behind Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby, but came into his own from Sgt. Pepper’s on to the end. John Lennon sometimes thought him a bother who “prettified” their music too much, but Paul McCartney, with his keener ear for orchestration and harmony, absolutely loved him. There is no question that without Martin, the Beatles’ music would never have achieved the richness it had in those latter years. Some rock fans agreed with Lennon and hated Martin’s arrangements, but most people I knew thought them excellent.

Another reason for the Beatles’ wide diversity in musical styles (their body of work covers a much wider spectrum than any other rock group in my experience) was that their three primary members, John, Paul and George, all had their own diverse viewpoints and skills. McCartney was obviously the most prodigiously gifted: he could whip up memorable melodies at the drop of a hat. But Lennon’s hard blues edginess and genius for inventing counter-lines was equally amazing and thus gave virility to their music. Listening to the out-takes of some of their songs from Sgt. Pepper’s on forward, one is amazed at how much better most of these songs sounded once Paul or John added something to the mix than in their original conception. George was very talented in terms of blues inflections, but more often than not he was relegated to the back burner because he had the quietest and least aggressive personality of those three. For the “White Album,” for instance, George made no less than 102 takes of a very fine song called Not Guilty that was never issued on that LP–and, ironically, the song’s lyrics refer to the fact that he was often overruled by the other two. And this is the reason that although all three had some success after the demise of the band (McCartney most of all), the music they produced independently was not as rich or as varied overall as the music they produced when they were together.

Ironically, the more they got away from being a unified band that sang and played their simpler dance tunes as a group and moved towards more interesting and complex pieces, the more it became obvious that although they generally meshed as a unit their strong musical personalities were driving them apart. Even if Yoko Ono had not appeared on the scene, the Beatles probably would not have lasted as a working band more than two or three years beyond the point when they broke up. The Rolling Stones, which had no such divergent musical personalities in the group, would go on much longer.

There really was a lot going on in The Beatles’ music during the years 1966-71, the period I loved the most. Among the things they did that enhanced their music was experimenting with layering, recessing vocals and instrumental licks or bringing them forward, overdubbing vocals, etc. Others had used some of these effects previously, but not to the extent that the Beatles did, and there is much more variety in their music, even having George play a Chicago-styled bottleneck blues guitar in For You Blue. Like many who moved on to more sophisticated music in later years, I gave up on them and abandoned by Beatles collection, but now I listen to the best songs from that period, even the tongue-in-cheek ones like Back in the USSR and the wicked black humor of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, with joy. At their considerable best, they just seem to make your day a little bit brighter. Just don’t start listening to them as the voice of God or anything, as some people I know do.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Standard

The Return of Allison Au

AllisonAu-cover

WANDER WONDER / AU: The Valley. Future Self. The Rest is Up to You. Looking Up. Morning. The Lie That Saves Us All. Red Herring. Grounds. A Trick of the Moonlight. AU-PENTNEY: Force Majeure / Allison Au, a-sax; Todd Pentney, pno/Prophet Rev2; Jon Maharaj, bs/el-bs; Fabio Ragnelli, dm / independent release, available at CD Baby and http://www.allisonau.com

I gave a rave review to Allison Au’s previous release, Forest Grove. This one starts with a glissando played by the band which leads into a slow, amorphous melodic line that lasts a little over two minutes, then shifts into a slow groove piece titled Future Self. This is where the real jazz begins. Her first solo is a bit on the meandering side, but as the beat solidifies behind her she becomes more interesting. Todd Pentley’s first piano solo begins in a ruminating fashion, using single notes, but again becomes richer and more creative in the second chorus. Later on, there’s a very interesting passage in which bassist Jon Maharaj plays double-time licks behind Au’s solo, then it suddenly ends.

These two numbers set the tone for this album, which is more ruminative than her previous release but no less interesting. This is more of a self-exploration series of pieces, combining various moods with jazz, often changing and shifting the beat to suit hers and the rhythm section’s moods as the music moves along. In The Rest is Up to You, this includes a bit of funk which then changes into a sort of shuffle beat, while in Looking Up the tempo is vague and difficult to pin down, but it surely moves well once it reaches some steady 4 stretches, and Au is again excellent playing against the bass.

Maharaj plays an odd walking line in a sort of 7/8 tempo (I think) over which Au plays the equally odd melody. The piano and drums come and go almost at whim, though filling in nicely when they do. Only with The Lie That Serves Us All do we finally reach a medium-uptempo, though again Au and the quartet change both meter and tempo frequently.

These little musical cat-and-mouse games permeate Wander Wonder. It’s a strange sort of album, even more amorphous in many ways than Forest Grove, but always interesting and creative. As the music goes on, Pentney becomes more and more the center of the music, with the leader and the others gravitating around his orbit.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

Scharich and the Alexander Quartet Perform Mahler

cover

MAHLER: Songs of a Wayfarer. Rückert Lieder: Nos. 3, 4, 6, 7, 5, 1. Kindertotenlieder / Kindra Scharich, mezzo; Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics FCL2019

My regular readers know that I am not usually a fan of reduced arrangements of classical pieces written for full orchestra, mostly because I find them far less effective than the originals, but Sandy Alexander asked me to give this a try and, since I am a huge fan of his quartet, I complied.

All of these reductions were arranged by the group’s violinist Zakarias Grafilo, and they are indeed faithful to the originals in harmony and, so far as it goes, texture. In the Songs of a Wayfarer, in particular, I felt the reductions were charming but lacked the richness of the originals. But as in the case of any album of song cycles, the singer is for all intents and purposes the star of the show, and happily, mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich not only has a beautiful voice but an expressive one. She knows how to make the most of the text of each song she sings, and although I am not prepared to compare her to Christa Ludwig or Janet Baker, she does a very fine job on these songs. Her high range, in particular, has a bright, crystalline quality that I found particularly appealing.

Perhaps due to the chamber arrangements, Scharich does not sing most of these songs with a very strong, outward projection, but rather scales back her passion just a tad. This is most noticeable in the last two of the Songs of a Wayfarer, where she relies more on a light, almost airy projection of the voice and text to make her points. Without having to project over a full orchestra, it was probably a wise decision.

The Rückert Lieder and Kindertotenlieder go rather better, in part because Mahler’s original orchestrations were lighter to begin with, thus the reductions seem to be better suited to the music. Considering the somewhat short length of the CD, however (57:03), I was a bit surprised that the other songs of the former cycle were not included. As one can see from the header to this review, they are also sung out of order. This in itself is not very damaging since the Rückert Lieder is more of a collage and not a cycle in the strict sense of the word. The quartet plays very strongly here, particularly in “Um Mitternacht.”

The quartet really does play the accompaniment to Kindertotenlieder with great feeling, and Scharich sings beautifully but without the depth of feeling that Klára Takacs, Cornelia Kallisch, Thomas Hampson and especially Heinrich Rehkemper (the best recording of this cycle, with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra conducted by Jascha Horenstein) brought to it. Scharich sounds generically dolorous but not quite into the lyrics in a personal way. This is a shame, since a bit more depth of feeling from this obviously gifted singer would have made this one of the very best recorded performances of this cycle.

An interesting excursion, then, with some ups and downs in the overall interpretation of these ever-fascinating works.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard