Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Strange String Quartets

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WP 2019 - 2GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN: String Quartets Nos. 1-6 / Nordic String Quartet / Dacapo 8.226217

I’ve had occasion to review Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s orchestral works and chamber music already on this blog, the second of which includes his String Quartets Nos. 10 (subtitled “New Ground”) and 11 (“No Ground”). This CD is the first of a projected series covering all of his quartets played by the Nordic String Quartet.

Although this album does indeed contain the first six quartets, they are presented on the CD out of sequence. The actual performing list is Quartet No. 5, followed by Quartets Nos. 1, 6, 3, 4 and 2. I’m not sure why they were distributed this way, but they are. As the liner notes point out, his scores were to some extent based on post-war serialism, in which he injected his own laconic, simplified but strongly tongue-in-cheek forms, creating what may best be described as 12-tone nuttiness. His music is a modern example of Dada taken to its furthest extremes. Broken melodies and rhythms permeate everything he composed, and he took these details to extremes. You’ll either like his music or hate it; there seems to be no middle ground. I personally find it witty and uplifting in a fun-house-mirror sort of way.

Quartet No. 5, subtitled “Step by Step,” is a perfect example. It begins in a chipper, almost manic mood but ends in black gloom, in between featuring his usual mosaic of little snatches of melody juxtaposed against one another. A more academic and analytic description can be found in the liner notes, to wit:

Around a central note (the middle note of the piano, D) he unfolds a grid in a scale-like symmetry. On each side of this D the notes which the grid supplies rise and fall respectively so that the intervals between the notes gradually increase and then decrease. First two semitones, then a whole tone, then a minor and a major third. After this the music goes the opposite way: minor third, whole tone, semitone until we end on A flat and at a distance of an octave plus an augmented fourth from the original D. On the basis of our tonal system’s 12 notes, the grid uses 10 – the notes F and B are not used, and there are in fact a number of works by Gudmundsen-Holmgreen where one can search in vain for these two notes. The grid is not a tone row in the Schönbergian sense, rather a mode in the Messiaenesque manner, a limitation of the tonal material used by Gudmundsen-Holmgreen in most of his compositions since the early 1970s, the limitation being that the individual tones are locked into the particular position in the octave determined by the grid through its symmetry of intervals around the central tone D.

So there’s your Music Theory lesson for the day. From a purely auditory sense, the structure, odd as it is, can easily be picked out by the attentive listener, the music becoming much slower in tempo and darker in mood just before the 12-minute mark. It also becomes sparser in texture and moodier, sounding like a second-movement “Lento” although it is a continuous one-movement work.

Interestingly, the opening of the one-movement first quartet not only sounds like a continuation of the fifth but is much more melodic than his later music became. Written in 1959 before he changed his mode of writing, it is more lyrical in the manner of Bartók and not nearly as abrasive in its harmony, although in the development section that begins just before the five-minute mark there are clear indications of where he was headed. The music becomes edgier towards the end.

The one-movement Quartet No. 6, “Parting” (1983), is if anything more abstract from the very beginning than the fifth. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has the viola play a note and then “bounce” it on the strings in increasing rhythm, like a rubber ball dropped into a canister that bounces around until it settles, except that this pattern is repeated ad infinitum throughout the quartet at irregular intervals. At 9:25, he introduces a tempo and rhythm that sounds like a sort of bizarre polka. It’s typical Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, giving mixed signals. The perky rhythm tells you that he is kidding, but the dark harmonies and mood tell you he is not. Just absorb it and move on.

The five-movement Quartet No. 3, also from 1959, is subtitled “Five Small Studies,” and here, too once can hear Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music moving towards a more abstract, Dada-like feel, despite short passages in which he coalesces around a specific but truncated melody. The mood here, however, is unrelentingly dark, almost menacing, despite the preponderance of slow-moving themes. It almost sounds like a swarm of bees or hornets moving in slow motion.

The four-movement Quartet No. 2 (1959), subtitled Quartetto facile, opens with an “Andantino.” Here Gudmundsen-Holmgreen seems, for better or worse, to be completely serious in his presentation, and this seriousness continues into what might otherwise be a light-hearted “Andantino.” Interestingly, at this earlier stage of his career he used more regular rhythms even when the music was bitonal or atonal in construction, and there seemed to be much less tongue-in-cheek humor, although the repeated tremolos near the end of the third movement “Andante” almost seem to be mocking the listener, and this pattern continues, in a stronger rhythm, into the opening of the fourth-movement “Allegro.” This movement is developed much more strongly along “normal” classical lines, something the composer would dispense of in his later work.

These are splendid first recordings of these works, played with commitment and razor-sharp attacks by the Nordic Quartet. Recommended for those who like this highly unusual composer.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Moppa Elliott Diversifies His Band(s)


JAZZ BAND/ROCK BAND/DANCE BAND (2 CD set) All compositions by Moppa Elliott except KANYE WEST: Power / Hot Cup Records 909561

ADVANCING ON A WILD PITCH: Oreland. Herminie. St. Mary’s Proctor. Baden. Can’t Tell Shipp From Shohola. Slab / Charles Evans, bar-sax; Sam Kulik, tb; Danny Fox, pno; Moppa Elliott, bs; Christian Coleman, dm / Hot Cup 172

UNSPEAKABLE GARBAGE: Rocks, MD. Punxsutawney. Stone Hill. Minsersville. Drumore. Quarryville. Chrome. Bethlehem. Big Rock / Dr. Rocks, t-sax; Nicky Picks, gtr; Ronny Stabs, pno; The Mop, bs; James Monaghan, dm  Hot Cup 182

ACCELERATION DUE TO GRAVITY: Waddle. Geiger. Sparks. Energy. Power. Bangor / Nate Wooley, tpt; Dave Taylor, tb; Matt Nelson, a-sax/s-sax; Bryan Murray, t-sax/s-sax/bar-sax; Kyle Saulnier, bar-sax; Ava Mendoza, gtr; George Burton, pno; Elliott, bs; Mike Pride, dm / Hot Cup 183

Bassist-composer Matthew “Moppa” Elliot, founder of the somewhat outré jazz band Mostly Other People Do the Killing, has embarked here on a 2-CD set which is separated into three albums. I’m not sure why the booklet lists three separate catalog numbers for the three albums since, as far as I could find online, they are not available separately, but I’ve listed the numbers because they are printed in the notes.

The “jazz band” album, titled Advancing on a Wild Pitch, features a baritone sax, trombone and rhythm section. It starts out with the somewhat funky Oreland, taken at a medium uptempo and featuring good solos all around. According to the promo sheet accompanying this release, “Each composition or arrangement is named after a town in Pennsylvania, as has been the case with Elliott’s titles since 2004,” so there’s a clue to that side of the album(s). As is normally the case with his performances, it’s not so much about dazzling virtuosity as it is about finding musicians who play with energy, excitement, and a good sense of musical construction. The latter is not something you hear in every jazz recording nowadays, not by a long shot, and indeed hasn’t been that way since the “free jazz” revolution of the 1960s. (Even in such a brilliant album as the recent set by Eric Dolphy issued on Resonance Records, the solos are pretty much an “each man for himself” affair, with little attention paid to what anyone else is/was playing.) Herminie opens up with a swing feel, but quickly moves into a more relaxed 3/4 bridge before going back to the swing tempo. Although Elliot uses fewer instruments, there’s an eerie kinship between the music on this album and the compositions produced in the ‘60s by the Rod Levitt “Orchestra,” which was normally just an octet or nonet, which is to say, quirky melodic lines, odd juxtapositions of tempo, gutsy solos and more than a little bit of humor (St. Mary’s Proctor, with its odd ragtime-like beat and quirky melody, is a prime example). Those readers unfamiliar with Levitt should make themselves acquainted with his music forthwith. The guy was far ahead of his time, which is why his orchestra died commercially.

For all the fine contributions of baritone saxist Charles Evans and trombonist Sam Kulik, it is pianist Danny Fox who is the most creative soloist and the one who holds things together structurally. Every note and phrase he plays makes sense, develops the musical line and feeds into the others. Evans, in fact, sometimes seems more of the “I’m playing for myself” kind of soloist, which as I say is acceptable nowadays but not as interesting to me as someone like Fox who always holds the tune’s structure in his head.

If the reader feels I am giving short shrift to Elliot himself, I am not. His compositions, with their quirky structures and weird energy, are proof enough of his talent. It’s just that, at least on this first album, his contributions as a player are limited mostly to providing a solid foundation in the background, though he does open Baden with a bit of solo playing (but not a solo in the conventional sense). Yet he was wise to restrict himself in these pieces, which are not “open” structures but tightly-composed compositions. More often than not, a bass solo would lower the energy created by the music as conceived and improvised upon. Indeed, the manner in which Baden develops is a perfect example of what I mean. By the tune’s end, it is the overall form that sticks in your head despite the excellent solos (trombonist Kulik is particularly good on this one).

Can’t Tell Shipp From Shohola is, surprisingly, a slow jazz waltz, albeit one with an irregular and rhythmically fractured melody line (Elliot says that he grew up in a household where Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich were played successively on the family phonograph), and once again it is the structure of the tune that grabs one. Kulik’s surprisingly understated, almost reticent solo is a surprise as well, yet it fits into the piece beautifully. At the 4:40 mark there’s a superb piano solo with Elliot’s bass perfectly underpinning it both rhythmically and harmonically without being obtrusive. The final tune of this album, Slab, is a nice swinger with a descending chromatic line and quirky, Stravinsky-like rhythmic displacements, once again reminiscent of the kind of work Red Levitt did (think of Mr. Barrelhouse). Fox, once again, has (for me) the standout solo, though Evans is also quite good.

We then come to the “rock band” album, aptly titled Unspeakable Garbage. But of course, this is a group of jazz musicians aping contemporary rock music, so there’s always an undercurrent of jazz feeling to the performances as well as a structure (albeit more hidden here than on the first album). It is, however, unspeakably loud and noisy, so I warn you to turn the volume down when you reach the first tune, Rocks, MD, which sounds like a combination of Sam Butera, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler playing rock music. The one problem I had with this is that I couldn’t really tell if these pieces and the solos were intended to be strictly tongue-in-cheek or whether the musicians really meant what they were playing. Happily (for me, at least), Punxsutawney sounded more like old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, albeit with a few not-so-happy squeals from the saxist, who calls himself “Dr. Rock.” The promo sheet indicates that they do take this stuff seriously since it is “a style that all the members love dearly.” Well, I don’t love it, not even casually, let alone dearly. One online reviewer said this was the most “fun” album in the series. If fun is listening to ultra-loud, head-banging nonsense, go for it. My musical radar is set to a higher level, sorry. By the time I reached the end of Punxsutawney I had more than enough, and skipped all the rest of the tracks.

AdvancingThe “dance band” album, Acceleration Due to Gravity, also has a certain bit of a rock feel and even a bit of a heavy metal feel in addition to hip-hop (a code term for “all rhythm and no music”). This one, too, was far beyond my tolerance level. Sorry, but if this is what you’re selling, I’m not buying it.

A split review, then. If by any chance Advancing on a Wild Pitch is indeed available as a separate album, by all means get it. It’s a gem from start to finish. As for the other two, in my view they are only suited for listeners who have zero taste in music. Even for the occasionally clever things they throw into these pieces, it’s not enough to salvage what is, for me, an extraordinarily harsh, ugly and unpleasant listening experience.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Yoko Hirota Plays Schoenberg

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SCHOENBERG: 3 Klavierstücke, Op. 11. 5 Klavierstücke, Op. 23. Klavierstücke, Op. 33. 17 Fragments / Yoko Hirota, pno / Navona NV6214

This is not an original release by Navona but actually a reissue of Yoko Hirota’s first album, released by Phoenix Records in 2005. What I found most interesting about it is that Hirota does not play this music in the accepted modern angular style that has become so prevalent since Glenn Gould played and recorded Schoenberg many moons ago, but rather in a more lyrical style which is closer to the composer’s true aesthetic. My readers know that I have railed for years against what I call the “post-modern modernist approach” to such new music pioneers as Schoenberg, Berg and Bartók. Too many such pianists, apparently taking their cue from Charles Ives’ recordings of his own music which was “rough and ready” sounding, assume that these others are to be played the same way. They are not. We need to remember that Schoenberg was a product of the Viennese musical tradition, he was an early collaborator of violinist Fritz Kreisler, and that his later music is by the same composer of Verklärte Nacht and Gurre-lieder, which would scarcely sound credible if played with choppy, brittle phrasing.

Indeed, as Hirota correctly points out in her liner notes for this album, “Schoenberg’s demand for articulation became ever more obsessive. These meticulous directions better serve string writing, for example, than piano. However, these points demonstrate that Schoenberg was profoundly concerned with the search for a particular color produced on the piano… his interests in timbre and sonority are omnipresent in all five of his completed piano works.” It is these “meticulous directions” that she uses as a basis for her interpretations here, which I find not only effective but wholly convincing. The composer’s aesthetic view was not to present his 12-tone music as if it were something harsh and abrasive, attacked by steel hammers and dropped in form Mars, but rather an extension of the first Vienna school with its lyricism and arching phrases. He was also, as Hirota points out, a great admirer of Brahms, and the Brahmsian aesthetic informed his own by the time he reached the 17 Fragments.

Thus, in the first of the 5 Klavierstücke, one can hear her connecting the notes in her phrases as if they were adjacent tones and not separated by several intervals, and it is this view that permeates the entire album. In short, she views these pieces as music and not as an intellectual enigma to batter over the listener’s head. More interestingly, in the first of the Op. 22 Klavierstücke, Hirota almost plays it with a bit of a ragtime or jazz swagger, which might not be as inappropriate as you may think for its time and place, and in the first of the fragments (which is also one of the longest) she almost gives it a Latin rhythm.

As the series goes on and the fragments become ever shorter, several of them between 40 and 52 seconds, the disconnect with the non-attentive listener becomes more severe, but if one has paid attention to the longer, earlier fragments, one will be able to follow Schoenberg’s line of thinking with greater ease and thus be able to absorb what he was trying to accomplish. And some of these earlier fragments are surprisingly tonal for Schoenberg, which makes sense since he was basing some of them on the music of Brahms.

By performing the music in a consistently lyric style, Hirota has managed to tie these pieces together as being the work of the same musical mind. I will not pretend that, even here, these are all easy pieces to listen to, but even in the fragments, particularly fragment 12, one hears more “signposts” to guide the listener into what Schoenberg was trying to accomplish. This is surely one of the best recordings of these works ever released, and now my number one choice for the various Klavierstücke.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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A Mildred Bailey Retrospective


MILDRED BAILEY: THE ROCKIN’ CHAIR LADY / CARMICHAEL: Rockin’ Chair. What Kind O’ Man is You? Georgia on My Mind. Lazy Bones. Small Fry. CARTER-MILLS: Blues in My Heart. RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. CLARKSON-VAN STEEDEN: Home (When Shadows Fall). MILHANE-ROBISON: Harlem Lullaby. BERLIN: Heat Wave. I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm. MEYER-LOESSER: Junk Man. LIVINGSTON-SYMES-NEIBURG: Ol’ Pappy. SPIKES-SPIKES-BENJAMIN: Someday Sweetheart. WALLER-RAZAF: Willow Tree. Honeysuckle Rose. WALLER-WILLIAMS; Squeeze Me. AUSTIN-HUNTER: Downhearted Blues. JOHNSON-RAZAF: A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid. YOUMANS-ELISCU-ROSE: More Than You Know. BROWN-FREED: Smoke Dreams. AGER-SCHWARTZ-WEVER: Trust in Me. McHUGH-ADAMSON: Where Are You? REVEL-GORDON: Never in a Million Years. There’s a Lull in My Life. JOHNSTON-BURKE: The Moon Got in My Eyes. HANIGHEN-MERCER: Bob White. Weekend of a Private Secretary. RAINGER-ROBIN: Thanks for the Memory. ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN-SCHWAB: Lover, Come Back to Me. CAHN-CHAPLIN: Please Be Kind. SAMPSON-GOODMAN-PARISH: Don’t Be That Way. LANE-LOESSER: Says My Heart. ELLINGTON-MILLS-NEMO: I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. BURNETT-NORTON: My Melancholy Baby. SHILKRET-AUSTIN: The Lonesome Road. VAN HEUSEN-DeLANGE: So Help Me if I Don’t Love You. Darn That Dream. Peace, Brother! DEBUSSY-CLINTON: My Reverie. ROBISON-HILL: Old Folks. AILVER-HEYMAN-COSLOW: Have You Forgotten So Soon? HANDY: St, Louis Blues. PORTER: Begin the Beguine. OLIVER-YOUNG: ‘Tain’t What You Do, It’s the Way That Cha Do it. C. WILLIAMS: Gulf Coast Blues. COLUMBO-GASKILL-ROBIN: Prisoner of Love. NEMO: Don’t Take Your Love From Me. WARREN-KOEHLER: Me and the Blues. DONALDSON: At Sundown. SIMONS-MARKS: All of Me / Mildred Bailey, voc; various accompaniments including Eddie Lang, Glen Gray & the Casa Loma Orchestra, Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra, Matty Malneck, Benny Goodman & his Orchestra, Mildred Bailey & her Swing Band/Alley Cats/Oxford Greys, Red Norvo & his Orchestra, John Kirby Sextet, Alec Wilder, Ellis Larkins & his Orchestra, Julian Work & his Orchestra / Retrospective RTS-4344

This set, though only two CDs, is so jam-packed with interesting and often obscure material that even I only have 18 of the 52 tracks presented here, and I’m a huge Mildred Bailey fan and collector. I purposely did not list all the individual musicians in each and every group she sings with because, if I did, the header would stretch out twice as long as what you see above, but among the many great and famous jazz musicians she sings with are Hank d’Amico, Herbie Haymer, Andy Secrest, Charlie Margulis, Bill Rank, Bunny Berigan, the Dorsey brothers, Mannie Klein, Dick McDonough, Coleman Hawkins (hiding in a February 1934 session credited to “Benny Goodman & his Orchestra”), Chris Griffin, Chu Berry, Ziggy Elman, Ben Webster (renamed “Francis Love”), Teddy Wilson, Cozy Cole, Roy Eldridge, Zutty Singleton, Buck Clayton, Edmond Hall, Herschel Evans, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Jerry Jerome, George Wettling, Charlie Shavers, Russell Procope, Billy Kyle and Mary Lou Williams.

The brief but mostly accurate and informative liner notes cover some of the problems that beset Bailey through her up-and-down professional career. The worst of these were her appearance, not only fat but short and dumpy like a walking bowling ball and not pretty at all, and her vile, vicious temperament. Her unusual complexion came from the fact that she was half American Indian, a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, and had grown up on their Reservation in Idaho. She hid her temper most of the time from her fans, but music industry insiders were only too aware that Mildred was a handful and often wanted nothing to do with her. Indeed, it was her temperament that marked her as vastly different from the popular singer she envied the most, Kate Smith, who was also obese, but who had a wonderful personality as well as a prettier face—and she sang patriotic songs and love ballads, material that Bailey wouldn’t have done in a million years.

Yet there were two other factors that kept her from gaining widespread popularity. One was that she performed often, not only on records but also on the radio, with black artists. While it was perfectly OK for certain white male bandleaders to have black musicians in their orchestras, it was an entirely different thing for a white woman of the 1930s and early ‘40s to do so. Even into the late 1950s, when Nat King Cole had white female singers like Judy Garland and June Christy on his TV show, embraced them, held their hand and sang with them, he raised hackles with the mostly white viewers which led to the show being canceled. The other unspoken reason was, during the period 1940-42, Mildred made quite a few recordings with complex, semi-classical arrangements by Alec Wilder and Mitch Miller, both of whom adored her. Only one of those records, Don’t Take Your Love From Me, is presented in this collection, but they alienated her with jazz fans who were her largest fan base. Jazz impresario John Hammond, who declared her “one of the three or four greatest singers in jazz,” openly criticized these recordings, which brought down one of Mildred’s towering rages on his head. Add those two factors to her volatile personality and odd looks, and you have a recipe for commercial failure.

Even Paul Whiteman, who indeed hired her for his famous orchestra in 1929, was put off by her looks. Lured by Al Rinker, one of Whiteman’s “Rhythm Boys,” to drop in and enjoy an informal musical soiree with food and drink, Al told Paul that he just had to hear his sister Mildred sing because she was so terrific, “much better than me.” One look at her and Whiteman said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” The impromptu audition occurred while Whiteman was in the kitchen, pouring himself another drink and helping himself to some of Mildred’s fried chicken. Al pulled his sister over, sat down at the piano and began playing while she sang. Whiteman reportedly almost choked on the chicken, spit out a piece and said, “Who the hell is that?” He went back into the living room and was dumbfounded to learn that it was the small, dumpy, rotund woman he had not wanted to hear. He immediately hired her, but didn’t let her record with the band for two years. Her only record before that was a single side from 1929 with a pickup group led by guitarist Eddie Lang, What Kind O’ Man is You? (CD 1, track 2).

As a nod to her popular title as “the Rockin’ Chair lady,” the first disc starts off with the 1937 Vocalion recording of this song with “her” orchestra (actually husband Red Norvo’s band). This, believe it or not, is a version I hadn’t heard before. Her original hit record of the tune was made six years earlier with Whiteman, but the arrangement on that one is rather sappy while this one swings. (The other version I’ve heard is a live radio broadcast performance from the 1940s.) Her phrasing here is bluesier than on either of those other two recordings, and in the line “send me sweet chariot” she pulls back on the beat while in the line “judgment day is here she pushes it forward. In the second chorus, she bends notes, adds flatted thirds and other interesting touches that mark her as an improvising singer and not just a big band “songbird.”

The 1929 recording of What Kind O’ Man Are You? opens with an excellent solo by Andy Secrest, one of the best Bix Beiderbecke imitators of that time, and later has a nice alto sax half-chorus by Charles Strickfadden. What’s interesting about this track is that her voice has more of a noticeable vibrato in it that was minimized by 1934. Both Bailey and Billie Holiday had fairly narrow vocal ranges, a little over an an octave, so they often had to transpose uncomfortable passages to fit their tessitura. The difference was that Holiday often transposed down while Bailey, a high soprano, normally transposed upward. She could touch a high C, but since her voice was very light and sweet it doesn’t always register that way in listening to her. The 1931 Blues in My Heart with the Casa Loma Orchestra is a “torch” song, also showing Mildred singing with a bit more vibrato, which she elevates by emulating Louis Armstrong in her phrasing. The Whiteman recording of When It’s Sleepy Time Down South is one of his less sappy arrangements for her though it does feature a pretty awful vocal group called The Romancers in addition to Mildred. One thing I noted about this collection is that the producers have included a lot of ballads, which most of the time I shy away from, but this is a British production and the Brits love them some ballads. Georgia on My Mind and Home (When Shadows Fall) are sung with such a sappy style, including a great deal of portamento that Bailey normally shied away from, that I was almost embarrassed for her. These are not good recordings. I also could have lived without such racist “darky” songs as Harlem Lullaby. Mildred didn’t have a racist bone in her body, and neither did the Boswell Sisters, yet both were forced to record a few songs like this because they were popular at the time and sold records. A good Jimmy Dorsey clarinet chorus saves the record, but it’s not enough to warrant inclusion.

Lazy Bones could be interpreted as the same sort of song, but no specific reference is made to the race of “lazy bones” and I’ve known several white Southerners, even in the late 1960s, whose disposition was exactly the same as the protagonist of these lyrics. Also, Bailey sings this with more swing and less goop. The second track with the Casa Loma band, Heat Wave, is far jazzier than the first in both arrangement and performance. This marks the real beginning of Bailey’s mature swing style. The February 1934 Goodman session is really just a nonet featuring two trumpets (Mannie Klein and Charlie Margulis), one trombone (Sonny Lee), Goodman, Hawkins, pianist Arthur Schutt, guitarist Dick McDonough, bassist Artie Bernstein and drummer Gene Krupa. Junk Man is one of those “get even” songs where the woman threatens to kill her two-timing man, and Bailey sings it in a straightforward manner, while Ol’ Pappy is a medium-tempo swinger that opens with an excellent Goodman clarinet chorus and includes a nice bridge by Hawk. The lyrics are pretty stupid but Bailey swings the tune nicely. Again, it’s a Southern song with no racial stereotypes. Hawk also gets a half-chorus solo and a good one (at this time he was still starring with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra); McDonough plays the middle, and the band rides it out. Someday, Sweetheart is a wonderful record on which she is accompanied only by trumpeter Chris Griffin, tenor saxist Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, McDonough, Bernstein and drummer Eddie Dougherty. Finally, we’re getting someplace!

Next up is the famous “Mildred Bailey & her Alley Cats” session of December 1935, the cats being Bunny Berigan, Johnny Hodges, Teddy Wilson and bassist Grachan Moncur. The songs are Willow Tree, Honeysuckle Rose, Squeeze Me and Downhearted Blues, each performance a gem. Then at long last we reach Mildred’s stint with hubby Red Norvo’s band, starting with her classic recording of James P. Johnson’s surprise hit of 1936, A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid. She just sings one chorus, but it’s so wonderful you can’t help smiling, and Eddie Sauter’s beautifully understated arrangement includes a middle section in the opening chorus where the bass and guitar rise and fall in synchronization with the trumpets’ top line. Immediately following this track is a “Mildred Bailey & her Orchestra” recording where the band consists of Ziggy Elman, Ben Webster, Wilson, Dave Barbour, John Kirby and Cozy Cole. The tune is More Than You Know and her delivery is equally subtle as that of Helen Forrest’s famous recording with Benny Goodman but far jazzier in phrasing. Sauter reportedly wrote the harmonically complex and daunting introduction to Smoke Dreams because he was ticked off at Mildred, but she was such a good musician that she got it right on the first run-through. Needless to say, this record was a musicians’ favorite but went nowhere commercially while its companion, I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, hit #11 on the pop charts.

The next two “Mildred Bailey & her Orchestra” sessions have vastly different lineups, the first being a pickup band with Roy Eldridge, Scoops Carey, Herbie Haymer and Zutty Singleton, the second being Norvo’s full orchestra. Despite the fact that Trust in Me and Where Are You? are ballads, Bailey sings them in a much more straightforward style than she would have three years earlier, with fine jazz phrasing and no portamento. Haymer takes a nice solo in the first title; the second, featuring a wonderful Eldridge chorus, was a #5 hit. Both Never in a Million Years and There’s a Lull in My Life are pretty awful songs by Harry Revel and Mack Gordon, lifted above the scrap-heap only by Bailey’s delivery and nice xylophone solos by Norvo. Though not a great song, The Moon Got in My Eyes almost sounds like a masterpiece by comparison. On this one Bailey is accompanied by five members of the Count Basie band (Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans and the rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones) as well as clarinetist Edmond Hall, who is scarcely heard at all.

CD 2 starts with the flip side from the same session, It’s the Natural Thing to Do, a far better song by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke, and here Hall gets a half-chorus solo, followed by Herschel Evans in the second half. A much better record. Hubby Norvo’s band returns for Bob White under Mildred’s name, and on this one lyricist Johnny Mercer does the whistling. This is followed by what I feel is her best ballad recording, Bob Hope’s theme song Thanks for the Memory. She perfectly captures the irony of the lyrics while phrasing in a jazzy style. Chu Berry takes the tenor solo, nicely underpinned by the rhythm section of Wilson, Allan Reuss, bassist Pete Peterson and drummer Dave Tough. Lover Come Back to Me is transformed from operetta ballad to jazz tune by upping the tempo a little and having trumpeter Jimmy Blake play a nice obbligato behind Mildred’s first chorus. In the middle section, she sings some nice variations on the original melody. Hank d’Amico also has a nice bit on clarinet, followed by Berry.

Twelve more tracks with Norvo’s band follow this, seven of them credited to her name. She did such a nice job on Weekend of a Private Secretary that it hit #10 on the pop charts. Please Be Kind is an okay ballad but still a ballad. Her version of Don’t Be That Way, one of her few records in which she scats, may have been the very first to include Mitchell Parish’s lyrics and hit #9. Says My Heart, a surprisingly good song by Burton Lane and Frank Loesser, was her first #1 hit while I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart hit #8. Both are good performances. The next two, surprisingly, are old songs, My Melancholy Baby and The Lonesome Road, which she enlivens with her wonderful phrasing though Bill Miller’s arrangements are pretty dull. So Help Me is a very pedestrian song by Jimmy van Heusen, as is Willard Robison’s dreadful Old Folks, but Bailey has fun with Small Fry and does a nice job with Larry Clinton arrangement of Debussy’s My Reverie, which hit #9 and #10 respectively.

In a surprising reversal of the usual, the next four tracks, though credited as Red Norvo’s and Mildred Bailey’s Orchestras, are actually played by the already-famous John Kirby Sextet of Charlie Shavers, Buster Bailey, Russell Procope, Billy Kyle, Kirby and O’Neill Spencer, with Norvo joining them on xylophone. Ironically, the worst of these songs, Have You Forgotten So Soon?, is the one that hit the charts as #5. Sauter’s arrangement of Begin the Beguine is particularly fine. ‘Tain’t What You Do might have been written for her though it was really a Sy Oliver arrangement for Jimmie Lunceford.

Gulf Coast Blues is a certifiable classic, sung with Mary Lou Williams on piano and Floyd Smith on electric guitar. Much rarer is the other piece recorded the same day, Russ Columbo’s Prisoner of Love. I didn’t think Mildred would be able to salvage this tune, but surprisingly she did…as in the case of Where Are You?, it’s the best recording I’ve heard of it. By the time she made Darn That Dream, she was no longer a guest artist on a Goodman record but his interim female singer between Martha Tilton, who had recently departed, and Helen Forrest, who had not yet arrived. Like so many others, Benny loved Mildred’s voice and phrasing but found her a sour and taciturn personality, otherwise she might have stayed for a while, particularly since this song (again arranged by Sauter, who was now Goodman’s arranger) hit #1 on the charts. Peace, Brother! Is just a swing-era novelty, but Sauter and Bailey manage to make it a fun listen. Unusually, the first soloist up on the latter is not Goodman but alto saxist Toots Mondello.

Next we get the lone representation of Bailey’s jazz-classical period on this set, Alec Wilder’s superb arrangement of Don’t Take Your Love From Me. It’s amazing how different a song like this could sound when scored by someone with imagination in both instrumentation and harmonic movement. Bailey adored his arrangements though they alienated her with the “hot jazz” crowd. Teddy Wilson takes the piano solo in the middle. Not surprisingly, though the instrumentation is just a jazz sextet, the Ellis Larkins versions of Me and the Blues and At Sundown have a similar feel to the Wilder track—this was the kind of setting she preferred for her voice post-1940 (she even persuaded her old nemesis, Eddie Sauter, to write a superb arrangement of The Man I Love for a Crown 78 session she did with her now ex-hubby Norvo). Bob Haggart, formerly of the Bob Crosby band, is the bassist while Jimmy Crawford, formerly of the Lunceford big band, is the drummer. The booklet only credits a quartet to At Sundown, but one can clearly hear an unnamed clarinetist and trombonist on this track. We end our survey of Mildred Bailey with a not-really-first rate pop arrangement of All of Me from 1947. Sappy strings play footballs (whole notes) and woodwinds underscore the voice. Her phrasing is still good but the setting is pure pop dreck.

The reproduction of these archive recordings is nearly immaculate. So many British CD producers like including 78-rpm surface noise in their releases that it’s a pleasure to hear it minimized so well on this release. My sole complaint is that the high end is slightly muffled, which affects not only Bailey’s voice but the brightness of the trumpet, clarinet and alto sax solos throughout. I recommend boosting treble quite a bit when playing this set. Otherwise, with the exception of the songs noted above as being quite awful, highly recommended.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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A New Weinberg Release on Dux

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WP 2019 - 2WEINBERG: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3. Flute Concerto* / Łukasz Dlugosz, fl; Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio; Anna Duczmal-Mróz, cond / Dux 1525

In this, the 100th anniversary year of Mieczysław Weinberg’s birth (spelled on this release as Wajnberg, and sometimes even spelled Vainberg), neither his home country of Poland nor his adopted country of Russian (formerly the USSR) are planning a single memorial concert, which is tragic, but here the Polish CD label Dux has done us a great favor by issuing his two rarely-heard Chamber Symphonies and his Flute Concerto.

One reason why Weinberg is being ignored is that much of his music is unusual in form and structure. He used modern harmonies but seldom if ever wrote in a harsh, abrasive style, but neither did he normally write in an accessible one. Most of his symphonies lack the kind of form that audiences expect from such pieces; they are moody, occasionally joyful but often despairing, mirroring his own personal experience fleeing Poland after the Nazi invasion and then hearing, from a distance, of the decimation of his family and friends. Even in the liner notes of this release, it is noted that “his music in our country is well known only to a narrow group of recipients.”

Surprisingly, these chamber symphonies, though moving (after the initial themes) into unusual development sections, are not only more cheerful but also more accessible. They sound just as one would expect from works with such a title, and if they are closer in style to mid-20th century composers rather than those of the late 19th they also have a surprising number of formed melodies which he worked into interesting figures. Happily, the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio and its conductor, Anna Duczmal-Mróz, attack these scores with wonderful feeling in addition to crisp attacks and a perfect ensemble blend.

Although these are chamber symphonies in the sense that a small orchestra is used, they are not “small” symphonies. The first runs over 31 minutes, with a first movement of 10:25 and a second movement of 11:03, and the second runs nearly 32 minutes. In form, then, they are fully fleshed-out works. This is particularly evident in the first symphony’s second movement, marked “Andante-Allegro.” The contrast between the slow first half and the faster, more cheerful second half is striking, yet thematically Weinberg managed to tie both parts together in his typical fashion. The real surprise comes in the third-movement “Allegretto,” which is paced at the slow end of that tempo designation and has a sort of bittersweet quality about it, with several short pauses between its “falling” figures. The last movement begins with biting figures played by the celli and basses, followed by scurrying violin figures to which Weinberg wrote a lively if somewhat galumphing counterpoint. To a certain extent, this work put me in mind of Shostakovich’s piano concerti, which also use accessible themes within a tolerably modern harmonic environment.

The flute concerto also has a Shostakovich-like sound; perhaps due to the nature of the solo instrument, it is even happier-sounding music than the first chamber symphony, with flitting figures played by both the soloists and the high strings while the celli play bouncing counterpoint underneath. Another surprise is the depth of feeling Weinberg put into the second movement, which almost sounds like a completely separate work in its mood, while the third walks a tightrope between good humor and a sort of wry cynicism.

The third chamber symphony opens with a pleasant but quite serious theme played by the violas, followed later with a different theme played high in the violins. This is closer in both mood and structure to his symphonies for full orchestra, only in microcosm, or perhaps (for me, anyway) a far superior version of Strauss’ dreary Metamorphosen for 23 strings. (I’ll never forget being assigned to listen to that piece of dreck and then write an essay on its form and meaning. I described its form as “continually sad music in canon that scarcely develops, but stays in one place for a half-hour and makes you want to slit your wrists.” They were not amused, but I still maintain that I was right.) By contrast, the second movement jumps into a happy space via detached viola figures, with the celli playing a smoothly gliding commentary beneath and the violins whole notes above. This gets developed in a brilliant fashion, with the three string sections interacting and contributing to the scurrying, joyous whole. It’s a rare movement of unabashed happiness from a composer whose life and psyche were so scarred by tragedy and failure.

The third-movement “Adagio” has more forward momentum than the opening “Lento,” but also less of a dolorous feel to it. There’s a very moving cello solo towards the end that I could easily hear being played by a great cellist such as Steven Isserlis or Zuill Bailey. This moves, after the shortest of pauses, into the whimsical, happy-but-bittersweet final “Andantino,” again with the violas leading the way in the opening theme. Just before the seven-minute mark, the orchestra falls away and we hear a plaintive violin solo which leads into the slow closing section. Here we have the more typical Weinberg, writing music that moves the listener away from his or her expectations.

This is a splendid album, beautifully played and also beautifully recorded. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Springing Forward With David Shifrin!

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SPRING FORWARD / SCHICKELE: Spring Forward.1 DANIELPOUR: Clarinet Quintet.2 KERNIS: Perpetual Chaconne3 / David Shifrin, cl; 1Miró Qrt; 2Dover Qrt; 3Jasper Qrt / Delos DE 3528

Clarinetist David Shifrin, whose work I’ve always liked, here presents three quintets by three different American composers with three different string quartets. The first is a serious work (if one can call any of his music really “serious”) by the multi-talented but wacky Peter Schickele, who has presided over the musical legacy of P.D.Q. Bach for the past 57 years. As in all of his own works I’ve heard, Schickele has a strong sense of form but also an predictable streak laden with humor, and Spring Forward is no exception. Lively rhythms, a touch of jazz and unpredictable twists and turns are all a part of his music, and all are on full display here. He even throws in a few harmonic dissonances for spice, though the second movement has a fairly straightforward harmonic progression and is quite lovely, albeit with a fairly lively middle section. The third movement, in particular, reveals Schickele’s humor in its odd distribution of meter and quirky development. After a brief (2:17), lyrical “Interlude,” we reach the jig-like finale, “A Perfect Picnic,” with its occasional out-of-tonality notes thrown in for flavor.

For the most part, Richard Danielpour’s music is quite tonal and at times easily accessible. This quintet, however, subtitled “The Last Jew in Hamadan,” brings back memories of his childhood in that Iranian city that once had a fairly large Jewish population until the Ayatollah Khomeini took over in 1979 and began executing them, including one of Danielpour’s uncles. Another of his uncles was sent to prison but escaped, and a third fled to Turkey disguised as a mullah. The music is thus imbued with happiness, edginess, tragedy and hope; the first movement has a strong Eastern feel to it and is developed extremely well. The second begins in a more pastoral mood, so much so that it almost sounds like a discrete composition not necessarily tied to the first until the 4:30 mark when it suddenly picks up in a swift, dramatic passage before returning to the pastoral mood of the opening.

The finale of this disc is Aaron Jay Kernis’ Perpetual Chaconne, which begins very slowly with falling figures played by the violins against the clarinet line. The music is tonal and pleasant but not mundane; around 3:30 the tempo picks up and the music develops in an unusual and striking manner, with the string lines becoming more complex and a gradual acceleration to add interest. Indeed, the music becomes ever more complex, particularly in rhythm, and more intense as it goes along, then decelerates to its original slow tempo for further development. In the final section, the faster tempo returns.

A very interesting disc of world premiere recordings, then, with the Schickele piece and the first movement of Danielpour’s quintet being the particular standouts.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Tripping the Light Fantastic with Truman Harris

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HARRIS: Rosemoor Suite.1,3,4.7 Aulos Triptych.1,2,6 Concertino for Horn & Chamber Orchestra.7,8 Flowers.1,3,4.7  Sonata for 2 Bassoons & Piano.5,6 Concertino for Flute & Chamber Orchestra1.8 / 1Alice Kogan Weinreb, 2Aaron Goldman, 2Carole Bean, 2Leah Arsenault Barrick, fl; 3Nicholas Stovall, ob; 3Paul Cigan, cl; 4Truman Harris, 5Sue Heineman, 5Steven Wilson, bsn; 7Laurel Bennert Ohlson, Fr-hn; 6Audrey Andrist, pno; 8Eclipse Chamber Orch.; 8Sylvia Alimena, cond / Naxos 8.559858

American composer and bassoonist Truman Harris (b. 1945) is one of those writers whose work can best be described as light and witty without being mundane or cloying. It’s essentially tonal with harmonic twists and turns, the rhythms are generally straightforward, but at no time is any of it predictable. In short, this is the kind of music that fits my definition of “delightful,” not the predictable old-timey tonal music of the Romantic era that everyone else seems to think is the cat’s meow.

This is immediately evident in the Rosemoor Suite, a collection of five pieces for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. This is a combination that Harris really favors; the even shorter Flowers, which pops up later in this program, is written for the same combination. Harris himself plays the bassoon on both. Even in the slow piece in this suite, “By the Stream, Late September,” Harris manages to hold one’s interest via repeated rhythms and overlapping solo spots in a quasi-hocket style, although this is the one piece that would be most likely to turn up on your local snoresville classical FM station. “Charleston” emulates the beat of this famed 1920s dance, but here Harris really skewers the harmony in an effort to shake things up, while the finale, “Silent Movie,” is, surprisingly, less frenetic in tempo and sounds more like a modern composer’s reaction to a silent movie than the kind of music one might actually hear accompanying one. It also includes plaintive solo spots for the oboe and flute in a slower tempo.

The Aulos Triptych refers to the ancient Greek flute that was often paired with the Greek harp or kithara, but there’s nothing really Greek about this music. It has lively American rhythms, the opening movement, in fact, being in a rollicking 6/8. It almost (but not quite) sounds like the kind of music you would have heard in the background of an episode of Peabody’s Improbable History on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, except that it’s somewhat more complex in its interweaving of instruments. The second piece, “Dreams of Fantastic Places,” is slower in tempo but, oddly, still uses a 6/8 tempo and is more rhythmically complex than its counterpoint in the Rosemoor Suite. The last piece, “A Warm Day in Winter,” is in 4 but with several double-time passages, weaving the piano part among the four flutes in an intriguing manner.

The Concertino for Horn & Chamber Orchestra is a bit more ambitious in form, but only just. This is yet another lively piece which sounds fun to play, and although our horn soloist, Laurel Bennert Ohlson, has a somewhat rough tone, she sounds as if she’s having a ball playing it. The music here uses contrasting meters and tempi in its development sections, but again is primarily tonal. In fact, the music bears some resemblance to the wonderful pieces that Alec Wilder wrote for his French horn buddy, the late John Barrows. There are also some wonderfully intricate passages in the first movement for interwoven winds, and when the strings re-enter the tempo picks up, the rhythm becomes more complex, and Harris throws in some whole-tone passages. I did, however, find the second movement to be less original and adventurous, albeit still amusing, with a few unusual key changes thrown in for good measure. The third movement opens as a fun romp in polka tempo. At the 1:17 mark, however, Harris throws in some rhythmic complexities that make the music sound as if it were running backwards, and afterwards the pace slows up in order to add a few other syncopated touches in the orchestral part.

Flowers returns us to the syncopated part-writing and ebullient mood of the Rosemoor Suite, except that each section is considerably shorter and thus more compact in ideas. I felt that the third piece, “Tulip,” was relatively stagnant although pleasant to listen to, but “Kudzu” was particularly ingenious in construction with a sort of loping 4/4 beat at a medium brisk tempo.

Possible because the bassoon is his instrument, I felt that the Sonata for 2 Bassoons & Piano was by far the most serious as well as the most complex and arresting piece on the album. The essential style is the same, but here Harris is less flippant in his use of motor rhythms and his development sections are even more complex than in the other works. Sometimes he has the two bassoons play contrapuntally against each other, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes gives one of them a lyrical line while the other plays syncopated figures against it. In addition, the piano part has a real jazz feel to it, something I did not detect in the other pieces. Indeed, the first movement, with its continual rhythmic shifting during the development section, is a sort of locus classicus in how to write modern chamber music with a jazz influence. The second movement, a bit more conventional, is quite lovely in its own way, but in the third Harris again returns to syncopated rhythms that have at least a touch of jazz beat about them—although, in my mind’s ear, I could hear a more jazz-based pianist doing even more with the piano part than Audrey Andrist does here. At the 1:56 mark there are some remarkable cross-rhythmic effects, after which the tempo relaxes for a few bars before picking up steam again.

The flute Concertino, though also lively, is a bit more serious than the one for horn and, to my ears, better written overall. Mind you, the horn Concertino is not badly written, but much more lightweight in its ideas and not as strongly developed. Here, I felt that Harris had a better feel for the instrument and used it more as a voice in the overall progression of the music rather than as a “showcase” instrument. It’s a subtle difference, but to me an important one. Once again he uses contrasting rhythms for his contrasting themes and developments, yet here they seem to follow upon one another more logically and hold one’s interest better. Even the syncopations are knitted into the overall musical progression better than in the horn Concertino, although I found the slow second movement somewhat predictable in comparison to the outer movements.

In toto, then, an interesting disc with many interesting and fun moments and a really great sonata for bassoons and piano.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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