Pablo Aslan’s Superb Jazz String Quintets

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CONTRABAJO / VILLA-LOBOS: Preludio No. 1. CUADRADO: Confluencias. Reflejos. ASLAN:Tanguajira.* DAVIDSON: Te Extraño Buenos Aires. Tango Para Cuerdas. ELLINGTON: Come Sunday. SENANES:Contratango. Riendo Suelto. RODRIGUEZ:La Cumparsita+ / Pablo Aslan, bs; Cuarteto Petrus (Pablo Saravi, Hernán Briatico, vln; Adrian Felizia, vla; Gloria Pankaeva, cel); *Paquito D’Rivera,cl; +Raul Jaurena, bandoneón / Soundbrush Records SR 1040

Bassist Pablo Aslan describes the genesis of this remarkable album thus:

At the suggestion of bandoneonist, arranger and composer Raúl Jaurena, I set out to create a body of work for bass and string quartet, in order to feature the bass not only as foundation and a melodic instrument, but as a driver of rhythm. As I was mulling over the idea, I got an invitation from Cho-Liang Lin, Artistic Director of the La Jolla Music Festival, to play a concert with Paquito D’Rivera and the Escher String Quartet in 2016. In turn, Pac-man, as he calls himself, invited me to bring some repertoire to the musical shindig, and thus the album was off to a start. I enlisted by teacher and friend, Gabriel Senanes, who lives in Buenos Aires, to write and arrange several pieces. This led naturally to inviting him to be the Artistic Producer. He contributed two mini-concerti that sent me to the practice shed for months and forced me to up my game, a common thread throughout the making of this album.

The result is, as you will hear, a series of string quintets in which the bass is not only the primary timekeeper in terms of rhythm but essentially the lead voice, thus turning the normal concept of such a group within the classical music community on its collective head. It begins with a new arrangement (by Senanes) of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Preludio No. 1 and ends with a popular tango song from the 1920s, La Cumparsita (recorded in a famous version by tenor Tito Schipa). Both pieces, as well as the others in between, are now much more complex than before, with changing tempi and the addition of jazz rhythms, sometimes quite subtle.

But of course, the problem with such a disc, as I noted in my review of Justin Morell’s jazz guitar concerto, is that the snobs on both sides of the musical aisle will probably reject it because a fusion of such elements is beyond their ability to grasp. Classical listeners, tied as if by Gorilla tape to The Score, won’t know why Senanes arranged Villa-Lobos like this, let alone try to appreciate what is being done, while jazz listeners, who reject any and all formality in their music, won’t like the classical elements.

The two new pieces that follow the Villa-Lobos, Confluencias and Reflejos, were written by Spanish bassist-composer Alexis Cuadrado. Interestingly, these pieces could easily be played in concert by a standard string quartet, without the bass, and still be interesting music. The first of these keeps on accelerating ever-so-slowly from start to finish while the second is a slow, moody piece using close modal harmonies, which automatically make it sound more jazz-related and less classical than the first piece. There is a rather strange-sounding cello solo on this one that dominates the lead line for some time before Aslan takes over with what sounds to me like an improvised chorus.

On Aslan’s Tanguajira the group is joined by D’Rivera himself on clarinet, which adds an extra voice to the mix. Here the string quartet plays around the edges of his solo lines in a nicely swinging style and, oddly enough, the clarinet almost sounds as if it is playing klezmer rather than Latin music. Aslan also gets a solo, then when the quartet comes back in it is the group’s viola player who takes a solo before D’Rivera returns.

Te extraño Buenos Aires is one of two tangos written by another of Aslan’s friends, pianist Roger Davidson. It is tuneful and sounds, as he puts it in the notes, “old-fashioned in the good sense.” The bassist and the quartet have a good time playing it. I’ve always felt that Duke Ellington’s very sentimental tune Come Sunday was rather overrated, being simple and too much like a mediocre pop tune, but Senanes did what he could with it. For me, however, this was the one weak link on this program.

Happily Davidson’s second tango, Tango Para Cuerdas, is bouncier and even quicker in tempo than the first and thus picks up the pace of the album again. Aslan’s bass solo sounds like a fairly chipper bullfrog singing in his pond. Eventually all the pieces come together. Senanes’ Contratango is a much more thematically and harmonically complex piece: as Aslan puts it, “a mini-concerto that explores a wide range of techniques.” And yes, even classical listeners should like this one, as it has very little jazz in the first half other than the pizzicato bass lines underneath slithering bitonal glissandi by the other strings in one passage. Later on, a sort of funky jazz beat does enter the picture for a while, but the music continues to morph and grow.

Although Senanes’ Riendo Suelto was written for an entirely different multi-part work, it complements Contratango very well—except to note that the music in this one is much edgier at the start, walking a tightrope between edgy, jazz-influenced rhythms and more classical interludes. Eventually a slower melody in 3 comes into play, after which Aslan plays a cadenza full of double stops. Then the whole quartet plays an edgy rhythmic passage.

Raúl Juarena’s highly imaginative arrangement of La Cumparsita deconstructs the familiar tune and puts it back together in such a way that it sounds as if little pieces of the melody line somehow got left out. Later, the piece slows down and Juarena comes in on bandoneon while the string quartet plays bitonal figures around him and Aslan plucks happily away in the background. Eventually the ear picks up the various bits of the tune and puts them together in one’s mind. There’s a swinging passage later on for Aslan solo while the bandoneon plays little figures around him, then swirling string passages in sixteenths to wrap it up.

Overall, then, an absolutely wonderful CD, neither fish nor fowl (though, believe it or not, I’m going to file it under classical) but as happy as a platypus swimming in Atlantis…provided that Atlantis is close to South America.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Pablo Aslan’s Superb Jazz String Quintets

  1. Pingback: CONTRABAJO (2018) | Pablo Aslan

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