Robertson’s Debut CD “Bass’d on a True Story”


WP 2019 - 2BASS’D ON A TRUE STORY / BOWMAN: East of the Sun (and West of the Moon).4 ROBERTSON: The Next Thing to Come.3, 5 GOLSON: Stablemates.4 ROBERTSON: Majestic Nights.1,3,5 Mr. Lonious.4 Lullaby for Noelle.5 Peace by Midnight.5 Better Days Will Come.2,4 Phat Friday.1,3,5 Maven’s Arrival / Brandon Robertson, bs acc. by 1James Suggs, tpt; 2Adrian Crutchfield, s-sax; 2Avis Berry, voc; 3Lew Del Gatto, t-sax; 4Mason Margul, 5Zach Bartholomew, pno; 4Leon Anderson, 5Gerald Watkins Jr., dm / self-produced album

Bassist Brandon Robertson, originally from Tampa, Florida, presents here a collection of music that he realized all comes from “a time capsule of my beginnings as an artist” for his debut CD. In fact, Phat Friday was his first composition at age 18, written in New Orleans four months before Hurricane Katrina hit.

First up is Brooks Bowman’s classic 1936 song East of the Sun, with the leader playing the melody and its variants on bass to a simple piano-drums accompaniment. Nothing fancy here, but a great introduction to Robertson’s rich, strong sound and ability to swing. When pianist Mason Margul gets his chance, he contributes an outstanding chorus. Leon Anderson also acquits himself well in his drum breaks.

The first of several Robertson originals, The Next Thing to Come, sounds for all the world like an advanced cool jazz tune from the 1950s, complete with unusual chord changes. Lew Del Gatto’s laid-back tenor sax is added to the mix here, and he plays the opening chorus before Robertson enters. He has a fertile imagination, but tends to stay within certain boundaries when improvising. The rhythm section on this one is Zach Bartholomew on piano and Gerald Watkins Jr. on drums; Watkins is a smoother drummer than Anderson, which suits this piece well, and Del Gatto’s Stan Getz-like tenor solo is quite interesting.

Benny Golson’s Stablemates, an uptempo swinger, finds Robertson in fine form, again stating the melody before Margul contributes a tasteful solo. As a composition, I was especially impressed by Majestic Nights which has a sort of Night in Tunisia-style rhythm and an engaging melody—something you rarely hear in today’s jazz—played beautifully by trumpeter James Suggs with Del Gatto providing the harmony. Robertson develops his tune nicely above Watkins’ drumming, then Suggs returns to play a mellow but interesting solo that becomes more complex as he improvises further. Del Gatto also gets his Getz in.

Mr. Lonious also opens with the bass, this time playing a slow, quirky figure a cappella before picking up the tempo and launching into an interesting, minor-key tune. When the piano comes in, it’s obvious that this is a tribute to Monk, and a very fine one it is, too. Margul does a fine imitation of the master here.

Lullaby for Noelle opens with a bit of dialogue between Robertson and his daughter, saying goodnight. This is a ballad on which the leader plays bowed bass to start with, which emphasizes his rich, full tone (Robertson originally started as a cellist, and it shows up here.) On Peace by Midnight we again hear Del Gatto on tenor in an attractive but somewhat unusual medium-slow tune. The saxist plays an excellent solo here for a couple of choruses, leading into another fine one by the leader. Better Days Will Come is one of those hopeful ballads, sung in soul style by Avis Berry with backing by soprano saxist Adrian Crutchfield.

Phat Friday is a modern-New Orleans swinger in the style of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, only with just one trumpet and tenor sax, but it moves well and has a nice funky beat to it. Suggs and Del Gatto play a nice couple of chase choruses, followed by Bartholomew on piano with the leader’s bass pumping nicely in the background. He later takes his own solo, very rhythmic, which leads into the ensemble. The finale, Maven’s Arrival, is a bass solo for the leader, a slow piece with some interesting twists and turns.

All in all, a very fine debut disc for a jazz bassist who shows considerable promise. I give it five fish!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Rannou’s Landmark Couperin Set Reissued

cover 3

COUPERIN: PIÈCES POUR CLAVECIN / COUPERIN: L’art de toucher le clavecin: Préludes Nos. 1-8. Livre de Clavecin, excerpts from No. 1, 3éme ordre; No. 2, 6ème ordre/ 7éme; No. 3, 13éme ordre/15éme/17éme/18éme/19éme; No. 4, 21éme ordre/23éme/25éme /27éme / Blandine Rannou, hpd / Alpha 494

This 2-CD set is a less fancy reissue of Blandine Rannou’s 2003 recordings of a fairly hefty sampling of François Couperin’s dance suites and music. When it first came out, she was young, pretty and not at all well known on this side of the Atlantic. Sixteen years later, she is a frequent visitor at early music festivals around the world, has put on a little weight and now looks much more mature. But of course that is the business of the marketing people, who absolutely love to sell female classical artists in poses as close to cheesecake as they will permit, and not to those of us for whom the music and its performance always comes first.


Rannou in 2004 (left) and 2016

Rannou’s Couperin performances were not noted for their energy, although she did play the fast pieces with some zest, so much as for their elegance, and elegance is what Couperin was all about. His music will never leave you wanting to hear more, as in the case of Buxtehude, J.S. Bach or even Handel, but it was atmospheric in a way that such early Baroque music seldom was. He was a favorite composer of both Nadia Boulanger and one of Boulanger’s star pupils, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and even American harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe recorded some of his works.

cover 2This album was originally released on Zig Zag Territories 040401 in 2004 with a different cover. I don’t own the original discs so I can’t tell you if the liner notes were different or longer than the ones in this reissue, which consist of a mere three-page assessment of the composer and his works by the performer, but these are sufficient. Rannou tells us all we need to really know about Couperin and his music, at least verbally:

He takes pains to insist on the importance of the indications of character that he marks at the beginning of virtually all the pieces. By means of these musical “stage directions,” Couperin transports us, in quite literally poetic fashion, to distinctive worlds: languissamment, douloureusement, fièrement sans lenteur, grotesquement, vivement et dans un goût burlesque. He is perhaps never so touching as when presenting sad and sombre moods. One might surmise that the light pieces, sophisticated or pastoral, the very pieces often taken to define the composer, are only there the better to send us back into darkness, to the sound of Leçons de Ténèbres, commas framing the key word in the sentence.

Since it might be of interest for the reader to know all the pieces included in this set, in the order played, I’ve listed them below along with their timings.

1.  L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 4        1:48
2.  Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 23ème ordre; l’Audacieuse       3:29
3.  Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 23ème ordre: l’Arlequine          1:27
4.      “       les Satires Chèvre-pieds   4:37
5.  Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 18ème ordre: le Turbulent        1:41
6.  Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 18ème ordre: l’Atendrissante   4:25
7.      “      Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Maillotins          2:58
8.  L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 7 2:46
9.  Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 25ème ordre: La Visionnaire    3:28
10. Livre de Clavecin No. 2, 6ème ordre: La Bersan 2:52
11.      “     les Baricades Mistérieuses 2:24
12. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 3 1:11
13. Livre de Clavecin No. 2, 7ème ordre: La Chazé  4:05
14.      “     Les Amusemens    4:35
15.      “     La Ménetou           3:38
16. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 1 1:34
17. Livre de Clavecin No. 1, 3ème ordre: La Ténébreuses – Allemande       4:35
18.      “     Les Regrets           4:25
19.      “     La Lugubre – Sarabande   2:59
20.      “     La Favorite – Chaconne à deux tems        4:27
21. Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 25ème ordre: Les Ombres Errantes      4:43
22. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 8 1:29
23. Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 21ème ordre: La Reine de Coeurs        3:46
24.      “     La Bondissante     1:48
25.      “     La Couperin          4:03
26. Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 17ème ordre: La superbe ou la Forqueray        4:56
27. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 6 2:16
28. Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 27ème ordre: L’exquise – Allemande  4:46
29.      “     Les Chinois           2:59
30.      “     Saillie         2:55
31. Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 13ème ordre: Les Folies Françoises ou les
Dominos    8:53
32. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 2 1:30
33. Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 19ème ordre: Les Calotins et les Calotines      2:55
34.      “     L’artiste     3:19
35.      “     Les Culbutes jxcxbxnxs    2:59
36.      “     La Muse – Plantine           3:27
37. L’art de toucher le clavecin; Prélude no 5 2:54
38. Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 15ème ordre: La Régente ou la Minerve          5:04
39. Livre de Clavecin No. 4, 24ème ordre: L’Amphibie        5:50

Atypical of the era in which he worked, Couperin was among the very first, if not the first, composer to write out all the ornaments in the music that he wanted played. This is even different from Bach, who sometimes left a certain amount of improvising up to the performer.

One of the more interesting things about this recording, when you listen to it (especially through headphones), is that although Rannou made pauses between the works she seems to have played all of them in order without a break. I say this because the sound of the reverberation never completely dies away after any specific number. It almost sounds as if the recording company just started the tape and off she went, recording all 39 pieces in order with no second takes. If this is so, that in itself was a heck of an achievement. To have all that music under your fingers to play perfectly for the microphone is, to me, simply astonishing.

I must also point out that although Rannou may not be the most exciting performer of this music, she is never dull, and in fact most of the fast pieces (i.e., Le Turbulent from Livre de Clavecin No. 3, 18ème ordre, to cite but one example among many) are quite lively indeed. She is just a little more sedate in those slow numbers in order to present the composer’s darker side as she mentions in the notes. And I particularly liked the way her harpsichord was recorded: very forward, with minimal studio resonance around it, so that it almost sounds as if she were playing in your living room (for those of you who, like me, still listen to music through speakers). With all that being said, however, I still find that Couperin works best in small doses. One CD at a time, or perhaps even half a CD at a time, is enough to saturate your mind with the imprint of his aesthetic without overloading one. Remember that the composer never expected that someone would sit down at the keyboard and play two hours and eleven minutes’ worth of his music at one sitting. I’m not sure that he himself would have liked to be so oversaturated by it, yet Rannou programmed the works in a good order and provided effective contrasts between his jolly, sedate and somber pieces for these CDs.

One thing you pick up from this collection is that Rannou obviously loves what she does, and she conveys that love to the listener. If Couperin is a composer you relate to, these performances will satisfy you and then some.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Akiko Tsurga Wants Equal Time


EQUAL TIME / TSURGA: Mag’s Groove. Osaka Samba. Lion’s Gate. DECHTER: Orange Coals. MOBLEY: A Baptist Beat. COLTRANE: Moment’s Notice. SCHERTZINGER-MERCER: I Remember You. ALLEN: This Could Be the Start of Something Beg / Akiko Tsurga, B3 org; Graham Dechter, gtr; Jeff Hamilton, dm / Capri Records 74160-2

I always feel a little leery reviewing jazz organ records for the simple reason that they tend to fall into the same pattern of fast blues-type numbers, but another reason is that so few modern-day organists can compare with Jimmy Smith or Barbara Dennerlein, surely the two greatest virtuoso jazz organists of the modern era.

Akiko Tsurga, who originally hails from Osaka, Japan, is clearly an outstanding keyboardist, and she certain can swing. She may lack the exuberant flair of Smith or Dennerlein, but she plays in much the same groove (well, she ought to, since she’s a jazz organist), and on this new release she is blessed to have as a bandmate guitarist Graham Dechter, who is one of the most exuberant of today’s jazz guitarists. Dechter, thank goodness, is not a shrinking violet on his instrument, as far too many modern jazz guitarists are; on the contrary, he plays with a zip and drive that I found very refreshing, and helps keep Tsurga on her toes.

From the first selection to last, Tsurga plays with a nice feel for swing, and if her playing may lack that final “oomph” factor that made Smith and Dennerlein superstars of the instrument, she clearly can improvise interestingly at times. Dechter’s opening lick on the second piece in this collection, his own composition Orange Coals, swings more all by itself than many guitarists do in their full-chorus solos, and his later solo is brimming with ideas. He also plays an excellent chase chorus with Tsurga while drummer Jeff Hamilton propels them in the background (just listen to Dechter’s double-time licks at the two-minute mark!). The two of them make a splendid duo, with Tsurga doing her best to keep up with Dechter’s scintillating improvisations.

Osaka Samba, the second Tsurga original on this disc, is a cute little number perfect for summertime jazz listening. Dechter once again dazzles with his guitar playing—I’ve got to keep this guy in mind for future reference!—while Tsurga contributes her own tasteful, delicate organ commentary. Hamilton has a nice solo on this one, too, splitting up the beat in interesting ways. Both Dechter and Tsurga show that they can get a little soul in their playing in their rendition of Hank Mobley’s A Baptist Beat, with Tsurga accompanying the guitarist through the first half before getting her own licks in. This one’s a real toe-tapper!

I was especially impressed by Tsurga’s playing on John Coltrane’s Moment’s Notice, particularly the nice, rather complex introduction, and once again Dechter comes smoking out of the gate. Akiko’s solo on this one also swings very well. Lion’s Gate is a ballad, but the band really kicks up Arthur Schertzinger’s and Johnny Mercer’s I Remember You, with Hamilton playing a nice, rapid shuffle beat behind the soloists. Tsurga really swings well on this track.

The finale is Steve Allen’s classic This Could Be the Start of Something Big, and the trio digs into it pretty well, with both Tsurga and Dechter particularly inventive and both swinging hard. It’s a nice finale to a very good disc, and thank goodness we didn’t get a chunky tenor sax!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Fabrizio Sciacca is Gettin’ it There


GETTIN’ IT THERE / S. JONES: One for Amos. DOMENICI: Lullaby in Central Park. S. CLARK: Zellmar’s Delight.* SCIACCA: For Sir Ron. MASCHWITZ-SHERWIN: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. J. LEVY: Lonely Goddess.* HOPE: One Second Please* / Donald Vega, pno; Fabrizio Sciacca, bs; Billy Drummond, dm; *Jed Levy, t-sax / Self-produced CD, no number

Italian-born bassist Fabrizio Sciacca, who has been playing in New York since 2015, presents us with this debut CD due for release September 1. The album art contains words of praise from bass legend Ron Carter, who was “delightfully surprised…very crisp snare drum sound, and nice ride cymbal feel…great piano chord voicings and swing solos…very interesting sax solos…and a wonderful bassist.”

Carter’s words pretty much sum up this disc. Those looking for something cutting-edge or in the “Zeitgeist” (a word I’ve always detested, though to some people it means a lot) will have to look elsewhere. This is just a really fine set of pieces played, perhaps, in lounge-jazz style, but really top-drawer lounge jazz.

It’s not really surprising that Carter was impressed by the drumming. Billy Drummond, now 60 years old, has been around a long time and worked with many of the greats, including Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Sheila Jordan (one of the very few drummers to play with her) and the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin big band. As for Sciaccia, his playing is beautifully articulated and swinging if not always at the highest end of imagination. That is left to pianist Donald Vega, a very young (25-year-old) American pianist who was born in Venezuela when it was still a really nice country and not a Socialist hellhole. Vega’s playing is of the subtle lounge kind, but he has a nice sense of construction and uses a lot of chords in his solos which give them a nice, rich feeling. I particularly liked his solo on Lullaby in Central Park.

We first hear tenor saxist Jed Levy on the third piece, Zellmar’s Delight by Sonny Clark. A nice, straightahead bop-swing piece, it showcases Vega in a really fine solo. As for the leader, I must say that, judging by this disc at least, his playing is indeed tasteful and swinging but not particularly standout in any way. I certainly wouldn’t walk out if I heard him in person, but I wouldn’t rave about him either. Perhaps he is more of a motivator than an inspiration. His solo on this piece is so delicately plucked that I wonder if he realizes he wouldn’t break the strings if he played with more gusto and energy.

For Sir Ron is Sciacca’s tribute to his mentor Ron Carter, thus he opens the track with a bass solo, again tasteful and, if you listen closely, interesting without giving a strong impression. Vega’s solo spins out the melodic line and works through it with marvelous taste and invention. The well-known ballad A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square is nice but nothing to write home about.

Levy returns on Lonely Goddess, an original written by the saxist. It’s a pleasant tune with a quasi-Latin beat, and both the composer-saxist and pianist provide excellent solos. The closer is the bracing, uptempo One Second Please by Elmo Hope, again with Levy on tenor, and here the entire band plays well, with Sciacca’s moving bass lines quite good if again under-volume.

A very nice disc of straightahead music, then, which will please fans of this type of jazz.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Jeff Pearring Has “Nothing But Time”


NOTHING BUT TIME / PEARRING: Plugin Heavy. Gather and Go. Through Step. The March of the Aggressive Pedestrian. Sweet Sci-Fi Suite. Talking Outside Time. Sunday. Effective Translation. Plugin Light. ELLINGTON: Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues) / Pearring Sound: Jeff Pearring, a-sax; Adam Lane, bs/el-bs; Tim Ford, dm / Independent release, no number

Due for release October 4, this new album by alto saxist Jeff Pearring and his talented trio  pushes the envelope in 12 selections, most of them originals, but to my ears one of them goes much too far in the direction of electronic/rock/hip hop/whatever the hell you want to call it. It don’t quite ruin the album for me because most of the material here is so good, but you have to wonder who this track was aimed at. Certainly no one with the ears to hear and appreciate the rest of the music!

Thus I will leave the opener, Plugin Heavy, to those who like noisy electronic rock crap and start instead with the second track, Gather and Go. On this one, the bass opens playing edgy tremolos against out-of-rhythm drum licks as Pearring plays abstract figures in the foreground. The bass switches from tremolos to bowed playing behind the alto sax as the music progresses, with Pearring later moving into double-time figures as the drums become more agitated behind him. This almost sounds like the kind of music played by the Art Ensemble of Chicago back in the late 1960s and ‘70s. We then move into the one non-original on this set, Duke Ellington’s Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues), taken at a loping pace and rhythm and almost completely revamped by Pearring and his trio. It ends on a fade-out.

Through Step is a slow-paced number but clearly not a ballad; the music is too edgy and modern for that. Adam Lane plays electric bass on this one, moving it forward with an almost “walking” bass like the old-time jazz pianists; drummer Tim Ford plays a modified shuffle beat while Pearring plays both melodic and abstract figures in the foreground. The March of the Aggressive Pedestrian begins with ominous-sounding bass drum and electric bass, with Pearring coming in to play a series of repeated Fs before moving into the simple-but-edgy melodic line, then developing it through snaky, insinuous lines.

Sweet Sci-Fi Suite consists of three pieces, “To the Stars,” “Parallel Engines Grind” and “Interstellar Dust.” The music begins in an ambient sort of way with Pearring playing his alto into an echo chamber, but it’s the second piece that is more interesting and innovative, using distorted electronics in a truly creative manner. So too is “Interstellar Dust,” although this track is less musical that the previous two. On Talking Outside Time, Ford opens with muffled drums, followed by Pearring playing soft abstract figures that seem to have little relationship to one another. Eventually, however, the music coalesces as Pearring pulls the pieces together, then returns to abstract ruminations. A very odd but effective piece.

Sunday is another slow piece but effectively moody, with soft, slow notes played by the alto over irregular drum and bass punctuation. This, however, eventually moves into a sinuous slow piece, simple in construction but quite effective musically. Effective Translation is one of those funky groove kind of things that don’t usually impress me, but in this case the group plays it softly and with a sense of humor. The biggest problem with it is that it’s monotonous.

We end with Plugin Light which, fortunately, is an uptempo free jazz piece and not the heavy-metal-sounding junk in the first track. Pearring and company almost sound, for a few bars, like the old Ornette Coleman Quartet until they move into a funk groove, again held back in volume and aggressiveness and well-developed as a piece. The rhythm becomes more like dance music as it moves along, but Pearring’s improvisations go more “outside” as well.

An outstanding album, then, if you just ignore the opener.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Bennewitz Quartet Plays “Entrarte Musik”


ULLMANN: String Quartet No. 3. KRÁSA: Theme and Variations for String Quartet. SCHULHOFF: 5 Pieces for String Quartet. HAAS: String Quartet No. 2 / Bennewitz Quartet / Supraphon SU 4265-2

Once again we have a collection of music by Jewish composers who were sent to the concentration camps by the Nazis, and once again, although I applaud the music therein, I have serious reservations about this type of marketing ploy. It has become a “thing” for modern classical musicians to record a group of works by composers who were persecuted by the Nazis, and I for one am appalled by their insensitivity in this sort of promotion.

But the Bennewitz Quartet, a relatively young group of musicians which has been around since the early 2000s, is a fine group of musicians and the pieces they’ve selected for this recital are relatively rare ones for each composer—at least, I didn’t have any recordings in my collection of any of the four. We begin with Viktor Ullmann, one of the most famous and (nowadays) celebrated of those Jewish composers who died in Auschwitz and whose opera The Emperor of Atlantis was a parting shot across the bow of the Nazi regime. Ullmann’s music is among the most modern and, too my ears, the most strikingly original of any of those who died in the concentration camps, and this late string quartet is no exception. The first movement is surprisingly tonal for him, with a lovely theme developed well, but the music soon takes a darker turn, moving into some unusual harmonic territory, particularly as it moves into the second-movement “Presto” with its skittering string tremolos and serrated melodic line. I must applaud the engineers for recording the quartet so well: there’s just enough ambience around the strings to give them a nice sheen without swamping them in reverb. I was also struck by the fact that, although the quartet is in four distinct movements, Ullmann blends one into the next to produce a continuous flow. There are some pauses in the “Largo” movement as well as some slightly edgy rhythmic passages, but for the most part he continues his lyrical bent. It is only in the final movement, “Allegro vivace e ritmico,” that he becomes a bit edgier in tonality while still maintaining an excellent sense of structure.

Hans Krása’s Theme and Variations was written much earlier, in 1935-36, long before he was sent to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz. This, too, is a very lyrical work combining Czech, German and Jewish elements; the opening theme could almost be sung by a child, simple and attractive, and even when he moves into the variations he does not overdo the modern harmonies. I’m actually surprised that this work hasn’t become a staple of the string quartet repertoire; it could easily appeal to a broad audience. Although the music does become quite complex as we move through the variants, we always return to tonality and catchy melodic lines.

It is only with the 1923 Five Pieces for String Quartet by Erwin Schulhoff that we reach music that is more consistently modern in harmony, although this piece is not nearly as edgy as Schulhoff’s later work from the late 1920s onward. Nonetheless, even in the opening piece, “Alla Vales Viennese,” Schulhoff pulls the rug out from under our expectations, giving us a waltz with almost Stravinskian harmonies, and the following “Serenata” is also unusual and quirky. So, too, are his milonga and Tarantella, which sounds about as Italian as a glass of vodka.

Pavel Haas’ String Quartet No. 2 is very strangely subtitled “From the Monkey Mountains,” which (it turns out) was the local nickname for the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. It’s a very Czech-sounding piece, not too far from the contemporary music of Janačék. In the first movement, there also seemed to me to be a suggestion of American Indian music, some of which bears a resemblance to the music of that region.

If I have any complaint at all, it is that the Bennewitz Quartet tends to lean a bit too much in the direction of producing a lovely tone over getting into the dramatic heart of the music. Even in the Haas quartet, clearly the edgiest piece on this record, there’s just a little too much of sweetness and not enough vinegar in their interpretation. Nonetheless, this is an interesting mix of pieces, all of which are interesting.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Grits, Beans and Mexican Greens

Hayes cover 2

WP 2019 - 2GRITS, BEANS AND GREENS / COLEMAN: Where Am I Going? (5 tks). HAYES: Grits, Beans and Greens (4 tks). For Members Only (2 tks). Rumpus (4 tks). DUKE PEARSON: You Know I Care (2 tks) / Tubby Hayes Quartet: Hayes, t-sax; Mike Pyne, pno; Ron Matthewson, bs; Spike Wells, dm; add Louis Stewart, gtr on first 3 tks of Where Am I Going / Decca 7756964 (CD version)

Well, here it is, folks: the Holy Grail of British ‘60s jazz, the album that one critic claimed was more important to jazz history than finding the lost Buddy Bolden cylinder. Yes, claims this ridiculous are being made for this album which, though certainly a very good one, actually tells us nothing about Ernest “Tubby” Hayes that we don’t already know.

But first, a bit of background. These master tapes, begun on May 27, 1969 with three takes of Cy Coleman’s Where Am I Going? on which the Hayes quartet was bolstered by guitarist Louis Stewart, was then completed on June 24, 1969 without Stewart, comprising five selections. The tapes were then “lost,” in the sort of way that only the blundering idiots at Polygram (as the mega-corporation was then called) could do. In the early 2000s, jazz writer and Polygram catalogue manager Richard Cook saw entries in Hayes’ diary that detailed a number of recording sessions. Cook trawled through the Polygram archives and, in one of the great “finds” in jazz history, unearthed the 1969 tapes.

But they weren’t issued at that time. Why not? More corporate incompetence, this time under the name of Universal Music Group, which by then owned them. Cook actually retired from Polygram, and then died a few years before someone at Universal “found” them again.

Hayes recording sheet

Bear in mind, we’re talking about a mega-corp that hired the Three Stooges’ Roof Repair Company in 2008 to fix the roof of a building in Hollywood that, it turned out, housed thousands of master tapes of all music genres. The Three Stooges used a BLOWTORCH (no, I’m not making this up!) to repair the roof. They then “waited for the shingles they worked on to cool” before leaving, but apparently never heard of squirting them with FOAM to make sure that no fire would start in the wiring. About two hours after they left, the still-hot shingles burst into flames and thousands of recording masters went up in flames. Firefighters were powerless to salvage much of anything in the blazing inferno. I’m guessing that the antiquated sprinkler system didn’t work either.

On top of this, Universal then lied to the press and public and said that the damage was minimal. It was only due to investigative reporting, years later, than the true story came out. Not only did they lose a goldmine in pop masters ranging from Chuck Berry to Elton John and Nirvana, but jazz as well. Everything ever recorded by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan, Jimmy Dorsey, the Jay McShann band with Charlie Parker, early Count Basie and everyone else for Decca Records was gone; so too the entire Impulse! catalog, which Universal apparently also acquired along the way, which included masters by John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Pee Wee Russell and other jazz greats. Barely mentioned in the New York Times story was the classical hoard, which included a rare 1950 album for Decca by Nadia Boulanger in addition to all the New York Pro Musica, Russell Oberlin, Cincinnati Symphony, Ruggero Ricci and Andrés Segovia catalogs. All gone forever.

Thus I’m not surprised that the clowns at Universal lost these Tubby Hayes tapes after they were rediscovered. I would be surprised if they know where their brains are before they go to bed at night. Using the longest takes available, we then get an “album” of less than 40 minutes’ worth of music, unacceptable today but fairly normal for jazz LPs of the 1960s. Universal Music has thus issued this album three different ways: as an LP and a CD containing that less-than-40-minutes’ worth for $25.99, and as a 2-CD set containing all outtakes and studio talk for $28.99.

But why bother giving your hard-earned money to Universal when they’re allowing the full shebang to be streamed for free on Spotify? Here is the link:

As for the music, as I mentioned earlier, it is indeed excellent but no more unique or special than the kind of music Hayes had been playing for at least two years before this. In fact, if you go to YouTube you can find not only the master take of the title track from this album but also a live 1968 performance of For Members Only that is even better than the takes in this Fontana set. Of course, since Hayes was a jazz improviser and in fact one of the best of his time, the solos herein are considerably different from these other takes, so of course you’ll want to hear the whole thing. But in 1967, two years earlier, he made another album which was released, titled Mexican Green, which in my view is even more varied in the material therein. Every track is a gem and, in my opinion, the compositions on this album are more varied in style. The music on Grits, Beans and Greens is all uptempo except for the single complete take of Duke Pearson’s You Know I Care, a fine ballad played exceptionally well but scarcely a Holy Grail sort of piece. When John Coltrane’s “Lost Album” was released last year, Sonny Rollins said it was like “finding a new room in the great pyramid,” but even critic Geoff Dyer in The Guardian admitted that “the room turns out to be rather like a few of the surrounding ones, even containing versions of some of the same artifacts.” Such is the case with Grits, Beans and Greens.

Mexican GreenThe only personnel change between Grits, Beans and Greens and Mexican Green is the substitution of Spike Wells on drums for Tony Levin. Both drummers were excellent, although I admit that Wells was a bit more inventive than Levin. If anything, I’d say that Hayes’ playing is even fierier on Mexican Green. On the opener, Dear Johnny B, he comes charging out of the gate sounding so much like John Coltrane that even Coltrane fans would be taken aback, and he maintained this invention from first track to last—even in the relaxed, medium-tempo Off the Wagon, where he sounds like a cross between Sonny Rollins and Bird.

The May 27 takes of Where Am I Going?, particularly the first two, are very interesting, in part because they are played at different tempi and in part because of the inclusion of Stewart, an excellent jazz guitarist who gives the group a little more “body” to their sound (and who plays some excellent solos). It’s possible that Stewart was unavailable for the June 24 session, which is a shame because I miss his sound in the ensemble. Hayes is his usual interesting self throughout, as is Pyne on piano, and as mentioned earlier Wells is a very interesting drummer. One of the joys of listening to Hayes in his solo work is his logical sense of construction. Unlike Coltrane, who could go off on tangents, Hayes kept a clear view of where he wanted his solos to go and what he wanted them to say, and he does so. Those familiar with the Hayes group of this time already know that Mathewson was a terrific bassist, easily the equal of Charlie Haden or Jimmy Garrison.

The title track is a catchy-but-quirky original line by Hayes with a “jumpy” bass line that quickly turns into a swinger at a more conventional 4/4 rhythm, but again the solos are brilliant and there is quite some variety between takes 1, 3, and 4 (the latter being the one chosen as the master). Pyne, inspired by the leader’s playing, contributes some superb solos as well. Richardson is simply astounding in his solos as well, particularly in take 3.

For Members Only is played very well, but—as I mentioned earlier—not quite at the white heat of Hayes’ 1968 live version. Actually, I preferred take 1 to the “complete” take 2. It’s just as complete, really, and to my ears a bit more inspired. There’s really only one take of You Know I Care that could have been used, the first breaking down after about 40 seconds with Hayes exclaiming, “Ahh, f**k!” It’s a nice ballad, not too simpering, and played with just the right amount of rhythmic lift. For Rumpus, four takes were made but, in the end, the first was the one chosen to be the master anyway. It’s a splendid

Hayes LP labelSome “vinyl” collectors have complained online that Decca should have released the full version of this set in that format, but I don’t see that being a very sizeable portion of their market. I’ve already complained, loudly and long, about the idiotic “vinyl revival”; the music sounds, to the naked ear, absolutely no different in either format when mastered from the exact same tapes, and of course LPs, even when taken good care of, are subject to crackle, ticks and pops whereas CDs are not.

Not, then, a real revelation of hitherto unsuspected abilities by Hayes and Co., but clearly an excellent jazz album, well worth adding to your collection.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Evaluating Ben Johnston

Kepler Qrt and Johnston

The Kepler Quartet with composer Ben Johnston, lower left.

When the reclusive pianist-composer Charles-Valentin Alkan died in 1888, after 40 years of retirement during which he gave only a few recitals in the early 1870s, the French newspapers said “it was necessary for Alkan to die in order for people to suspect his existence.” Sadly, the same could be said of American composer Ben Johnston, who died a week ago (July 21, 2019) at the age of 93.

Johnston was little known partly by design and partly due to his temperament. A gentle, modest man, he never pushed himself into the limelight. He taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—scarcely one of the most prominent conservatories in America—from 1951 (the year I was born) until 1986 before retiring and moving to North Carolina. He studied music with both Darius Milhaud, a solid modernist of the French school, and Harry Partch, the furthest-out avant-gardist of his time, a man who invented and built a number of microtonal instruments to play his music on. This split musical personality caused Johnston considerable angst since, unlike Partch, he was untalented at carpentry or other building skills and thus took several years figuring out how to integrate microtonalism into his music, much less how to supply the instruments to play it on. Throughout his career, he would vacillate between a personal interpretation of Milhaud’s aesthetic and microtonal music as influenced by Harry Partch.

How little was he known? Well, even I, who has been involved in classical music all my life and in modern music particularly since 1973, had not heard of him, even though I had one piece by him on a CD: Calamity Jane to Her Daughter, a vocal work sung by American soprano Dora Orenstein on a potpourri disc. I liked the music but had no idea who this composer was. But his death, and the accolades of writers who I generally admire, led me to investigate this quiet but talented maverick and his music, and what I found impressed me greatly.

Before we get into a description of his music, a word about microtonalism. This type of composition can sometimes lead to cheap effects or sterility, but in the hands of inspired creators like Partch, Johnston and Julián Carillo, it was a vehicle for a vast range of expression. Just about the only Partch works I don’t like are those written primarily for percussion instruments because, quite frankly, I don’t like all-percussion ensembles playing anything. In Johnston’s case, writing microtonal music for wind instruments, which can play glissandi and slide into the cracks between notes with relative ease, and string instruments which can do the same, came relatively easy. The problem was in discovering how and who would make microtonal pianos, harpsichords and marimbas for him. These are instruments tied to what fellow-composer Leif Segerstam has called “that bonehard order of twelve notes,” and thus are harder to work with and conceive music for. Even as early as 1964 Johnston wrote a microtonal duo for flute and double bass, and it worked out very well for him. The first recording of it was a live performance by husband-and-wife duo Nancy (flute) and Bertram (bass) Turetzky, issued on the small Advance label. You can listen to it for free on Spotify HERE, along with many of the other recordings mentioned in the article below.

New World Records ‎– 80432-2

PONDER NOTHING / JOHNSTON: Septet. Gambit / Music Amici / 3 Chinese Lyrics / Dora Orenstein, sop; Marti Sweet, Matthew Raimondi, vln / 5 Fragments / Stephen Kalm, bar; Melanie Feld, oboe; Mark Shuman, cel / Trio / Charles Yassky, cl; Raimondi, vln; Shuman, cel / Ponder Nothing / Yassky, cl / New World 80432-2

This 1993 album is one of the earliest issued on CD of Johnston’s music. The performances are mostly played by the chamber group Music Amici in various combinations, with the 3 Chinese Lyrics being performed by Dora Orenstein with two of the group’s violinists, including leader and founder Marti Sweet, and Five Fragments performed by baritone Stephen Kalm (who had also appeared in Meredith Monk’s wordless opera, Atlas, two years earlier) and two members of the group. In addition to being available on CD, you can also hear it streamed for free or download it as an MP3 album at Amazon. The whole album is also available on the Spotify link given above.

The opening Septet is typical, I have found, of Johnston’s style when he wasn’t trying to write microtonal music. It is quirky, almost humorous music, somewhat in the style of Françaix or Poulenc. Also usual for Johnston is the tight structure: none of his music rambles, goes off on tangents or overstays its welcome. Johnston uses a great deal of counterpoint and it is generally laid out like a sinfonia concertante, with various instruments playing solos while the rest of the group plays rhythmic figures behind them. An utterly charming work and a great introduction to his oeuvre. One interesting sidelight: in this 1993 recording, French hornist Robert Carlisle is NOT playing with his hand stuck deep into the bell of his instrument, as most players do today (which gives the instrument a dull sound) but rather only partway in which allows some of the bite and brightness of the instrument to be heard most of the time.

The Chinese Lyrics, set to poems by Rihaku, are sung beautifully by Orenstein, surely one of the most underrated sopranos of my lifetime. (We always hear about Bethany Beardslee and Marni Nixon, and yes, they were pioneers, but somehow Orenstein gets neglected.) This music is more in the Neoclassical style of Stravinsky, resembling some of the music he recorded with mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, and you don’t need to have the text to read because Orenstein is singing in English and her diction is perfect. Johnston creates an interesting mood with the two violins, one playing isolated single notes in the extreme upper register while the other plays more lyrically in the mid-range.

Gambit is a piece for 12 musicians, including a trumpet, trombone and alto saxophone in addition to the usual complement of strings, winds (oboe, clarinet and bassoon), piano and percussion. I found it interesting that the trombonist on this track, Jim Pugh, was a mainstay for many years in the big jazz band led by Japanese-born pianist-composer Toshiko Akiyoshi. This piece walks a tightrope between Milhaud’s French style and Stravinskian neo-classicism; it also reminded me of some of the wonderful music written in the early 1960s by the equally ignored British composer, Leonard Salzedo. Despite the use of trumpet, trombone and sax, not to mention a traditional jazz drummer’s percussion kit, the music is only very slightly inflected with jazz rhythms (the fifth and sixth movements) but is more in line with classical syncopations, yet it’s still interesting and very inventive and, again, his subtle sense of humor is again prevalent in some spots.

The 5 Fragments are set to excerpts from Thoreau’s Walden. The music here is more angular and atonal, even for the vocalist, using wide-ranging intervals in a strophic style. The baritone, in fact, opens the cycle of five pieces singing a cappella; only near the very end of the first piece does the oboe come in, and the cello doesn’t appear until the third piece, but almost as soon as the oboe enters, playing a much more lyrical theme, the vocal line calms down as well, moving into long-held notes phrased beautifully by Kalm. With the entrance of the cello, playing its own widely-spaced, edgy figures, the vocal line again becomes serrated, smoothing out again near the end of this track and continuing into the next piece, which returns to oboe accompaniment. It’s fascinating to hear now much Johnston makes of just these three “lines” of music and their interaction; only in the last piece do both instruments play together behind the singer.

The Trio returns us to Johnston’s perky, modern French-influenced style, but Ponder Nothing, a strange and somewhat forlorn solo clarinet piece, is more abstract in its form. Also available on the Spotify link are pieces not available on this CD, the 12 Partials for flute and prepared piano, played by John Fonville (a composer himself) with pianist Virginia Gaburo.

New World NW80730

JOHNSTON: String Quartets Nos. 5, 6 (“Legato Espressivo”), 7 & 8: I. Vigorous, Aggressive; II. Lazy, Rocking; III. Fast, Skimming – Light; IV. Extremely Light and Rhythmic. Quietness* / *Ben Johnston, spkr; Kepler String Quartet / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking numbers or movement titles above; Quartets 6-8 also on New World CD NW80730

The highly talented Kepler Quartet (Sharon Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violinists; Brek Renzelman, violist and Karl Lavine, cellist) formed as a group in 2002 for the sole purpose of playing and eventually recording all 10 of Johnston’s string quartets, which they did for New World Records. No. 4 is often the most popular because it uses the popular hymn “Amazing Grace,” which I personally can’t stomach, thus I was attracted to these four quartets as a group.

This puts us squarely in the midst of Johnston’s microtonal style, but one notes that unlike Harry Partch, he tried to make his microtonal music melodic, which has an odd effect on the listener. Sharon Leventhal gives an excellent overview and musical analysis of Johnston’s quartets on her website, and in it she brings out one of Johnston’s quips, that “The overtone series is there for everybody because you can’t get rid of it.” Or, as Leventhal puts it:

Overtones vibrate in direct proportional relationship with the fundamental. For example, each half vibrates twice as fast as the whole (2:1), which produces the first overtone, the octave. Three equal divisions of the string creates a vibration ratio of 3:2. From this you get the second overtone, the fifth (one octave higher). Each subsequent division produces another overtone, which is always higher in pitch than the previous one. All of these overtones can be expressed in terms of mathematical ratios. Because the vibrations of the overtones are perfectly synchronized with the fundamental, there are no interference patterns in the sound waves. The intervals are pure; their sound is smooth and harmonious.

The overtone series is the kernel from which our Western harmonic language has grown. We experience simple pitch relationships—ratios of 2:1, 3:2, etc.—as consonant, and our scales emerged from these relationships. Yet the intervals derived from these naturally occurring phenomena are irregular. Fixed-pitch instruments cannot adjust to the particular characteristics of successive fundamentals. Therefore, temperament systems, which manipulate the distance between intervals within the octave, were devised to mitigate dissonance when moving between different tonal centers.

Very heady, technical stuff, couched in the kind of jargon generally used by academics. Yet even though Johnston was himself an academic, he still wanted his music to be played, and thus he tried to make it at least approachable if not entirely digestible by the average listener. Apparently he didn’t succeed, however, because the Kepler Quartet’s recordings of these works are the only ones in existence, and they aren’t usually programmed by other groups because they are very difficult to play properly. I suppose most quartets just figure, Why bother if no one’s going to like them?

But as I’ve said many, many times, great art is not meant to be “likable.” The late Jon Vickers, who was always up for a challenge, said this over and over again both during his active career and when giving lectures in retirement. You have to make an effort to come at least halfway to great art; its purpose is not to entertain you, but to make you think about things that may never have occurred to you before; and this is something Ben Johnston’s string quartets do very well. In these works, in addition to the microtonalism, Johnston works in extremely long lines, in part because he has the luxury of using strings which can extend a legato almost indefinitely via bowing techniques, and in these long structures he extends his structures, sometimes (as in the Quartet No. 5) moving quite leisurely through a long legato theme while the inner voices move, also rather slowly, in different directions. Oddly enough, the fifth quartet maintains its slow pace more fully than the sixth, subtitled “Legato Espressivo.” In the sixth quartet, the tempo gradually but noticeably increases even as the volume and intensity level increase as well. At about the time that the fifth quartet is almost over (13:12), the sixth is moving into some very fast and intense repeated rhythmic figures before moving back into its legato course. Yet legato or not, the rhythmic elements in this piece become ever stronger as it goes on, particularly in the almost intrusive serrated lines of the cello, which helps the piece build to an almost unbearable intensity.

The seventh quartet is an entirely different animal from the preceding two. It starts with ominous, edgy string tremolos that slowly increase in volume, leading to screaming violins and pizzicato viola within the mix, then recedes again as the edgy tremolos continue to build towards rhythmic two-note motifs before moving into screaming upward portamento. That’s the first movement (this quartet is in three movements instead of one long, continuous one). The second movement is a variant on the first; here the violin tremolos are quieter and a little less edgy as the viola and cello play pizzicato behind them. This movement is titled “Palindrome – Eerie,” thus it probably uses the thematic material from the first in reverse. The last movement, “Variations – With Solemnity,” returns us to edgy, microtonal blends in sustained notes, but played quite loudly and extending through almost 17 minutes (the first movement is only 2 ½ minutes long and the second close to five). Here, the volume gradually decreases rather than increases, although there are spikes of loud moments here and there. Eventually, however, the music slowly makes its way up higher and higher in pitch as well as increasing in volume until it is almost screaming in your ear. Then, suddenly, it stops.

The eighth quartet begins “Vigorously, Aggressive,” although not quite as aggressive as the opening of the seventh, at least at first. Johnston then doubles the tempo for a few bars, and when he relaxes he introduces a surprisingly lyrical violin theme, albeit one played microtonally. The second movement (this one is in four) reverts to Johnston’s floating, more lyrical mode. A solo cello passage at about 2:30 leads into a sort of canon played by the strings. The third movement sounds like a waltz played by musicians high on LSD, so microtonally skewed that it never quite establishes a home key but keeps on going nonetheless. The final movement, “Extremely Light and Rhythmic,” almost sounds like a hoedown, perhaps recalling some tunes that Johnston heard as a youngster down in Georgia. Eventually he introduces some string pizzicato to emphasize the hoedown feeling as the music continues on its merry way.

Quietude is a short, lyrical piece for quartet with narrator, and in this recording Johnston himself is the speaker. Influenced strongly by Partch, the narration is not entirely spoken but follows a microtonal path as he rises and falls in tuned cadences. It’s a pretty grim piece, however, including such lines as “Your former life was a frantic running from silence”…”die and be quiet!”


MICROTONAL PIANO / JOHNSTON: Suite for Microtonal Piano. Sonata for Prepared Piano. Saint Joan / Phillip Bush, pno / Koch International Classics 3-7369-2-H1

This 1997 disc is fairly elusive, and even online all I could pull up was the Suite, which is on YouTube in three separate movements: I. Alarum, II. Blues and III. Etude. But the sonata is available on both YouTube and the Spotify link I gave you earlier played by Robert Miller, who does an excellent job with it. The Suite, however, is not only shorter but more rhythmic and attractive, having certain passages and rhythms related to jazz and blues (Bush plays the second movement particularly well). Sadly, I could not find a performance of Saint Joan online at all.

The piano sonata is a much denser and more serious work, in fact one of the most complex pieces Johnston ever wrote. One can get an idea by likening it to Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata, or Charles Griffes’ piano sonata. In addition to its being microtonal, the music works its way through crashing, falling microtonal chords played in rapid succession, left-hand runs up the keyboard and other such devices. This is a piece that requires repeated hearings in order to figure out everything that’s going on because there’s just so much in it. The second movement is more atmospheric than the first, and this mood carries over to the third, although after the hallway mark there are some dramatic gestures followed by a section that almost sounds Middle Eastern. The last movement is the slowest and strangest of all, using sparse notes and chords and one section around 1:08 where it sounds as if the pianist is playing the inside strings.

Microfest Records MF5 - cover

RUMINATIONS: SETTINGS OF RUMI & BILLIE HOLIDAY / JOHNSTON: The Tavern / John Schneider, gtr/voice / Revised Standards. Set for Billie Holiday. I Concentrate on You / Eclipse String Quartet / Parable / Karen Clark, sop; Jon Sullivan, cl; Sarah Thornblade, vln / Ben Johnston discusses The Tavern / Microfest Records MF5

If this album weren’t on Spotify, you’d have a heck of a time finding it, since Microfest Records is one of those really small boutique labels typical of the kind that issue unusual material like this. The Tavern is a very Partch-like piece, influenced by that composer’s Barstow (see my Partch review on this blog), although in the beginning the microtonally-tuned guitar sounds more tonal than in Partch’s work. The narration, however, is somewhat more serious in its analysis of the human condition, only funny in one or two spots. “God has given us a dark wine so potent that drinking it we leave the true worlds” is one line.

Johnston describes his “revised standards” as “just-tuned jazz,” but despite his love of the music and his just tuning, the actual arrangements are pretty tame stuff, nowhere near as inventive as the work done by such actual jazz string groups as the Turtle Island String Quartet. The violins and viola play the melody with fairly standard harmony, and there is only a very little rhythmic variance in them. The first of these combines the Gershwin brothers’ How Long Has This Been Going On? with Rodgers and Hart’s Little Girl Blue. The second, a “Set for Billie Holiday,” moves from Lover Man to No More before ending with Einar Swan’s pop classic, When Your Lover Has Gone, The third uses just one tune, Cole Porter’s I Concentrate on You. The results are pleasant but unexceptional. The third of these was, to me, the most interesting rhythmically at least. It swung better than the first two, using the cello like a string bass in a jazz group, and Johnston got a good feel for the syncopations.

The final piece on this album, however, is Parable, using a soprano voice (Karen Clark) with violin and clarinet. The piece opens with the solo violinist playing a strange theme, mostly on the edge of the strings, before the clarinet enters in its lower register. When the soprano enters, her lines are as much spoken as sung but clearly designed to be sung at many points in the score. Oddly, it almost sounds like a more sophisticated version of The Tavern despite using the poetry of Rumi. Clark has an almost androgynous-sounding voice, which I found fascinating in the context of the poetry, which could be spoken by either a man or a woman.

The one thing you can say about Ben Johnston is that, although he developed his own individual style, he had more than one style and thus more than one “voice,” as composers are wont to say. He moved in different directions as the spirit moved him, and thus had fun writing his music because he was always “in the moment.” Would that more modern composers would follow their muse where it leads them instead of (in my opinion) trying to force things.

An excellent composer, indeed!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Paul Jost Lives the Simple Life


SIMPLE LIFE / McCARTNEY-LENNON: Blackbird.* With a Little Help From My Friends. ARLEN-HARBURG: If I Only Had a Brain.* TIZOL-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Caravan.* NEIL: Everybody’s Talkin’.* BLOOM-RUBY: Give Me the Simple Life. NOBLE: The Touch of Your Lips. KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: Folks Who Live on the Hill. ROLLINS: No Moe. DYLAN: Girl From the North Country. JOST: Bela Tristeza. Livin’ in the Wrong Time. TRAD.: Shenandoah / Paul Jost, voc; Jim Ridl, pno; Dean Johnson, bs; Tim Horner, dm; *Joe Locke, vib / PJ Music, no number

Paul Jost is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and arranger who has performed in New York clubs as well as internationally. After many years working as a sideman with some of the bigger names in jazz (among them Billy Eckstine, Mark Murphy, Dr. John, Bucky Pizzarelli, Joe Farrell and Ron Carter), he began singing in 2015. This is his second album as a vocalist.

Undoubtedly due to his long career and connections, Jost has assembled a first-rate swinging band for this CD. He alternates between a soft delivery and singing “out,” and in the first track, an uptempo jazz rendition of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, he also shows that he picked up a few things about improvising with the voice from Murphy. The rhythm section works behind him mostly as a unit, propelling the swing behind him, and on the first tour tracks he also has vibist Joe Locke to add to the mix. Jost doesn’t have Murphy’s great vocal range—he has to really reach for those notes that Murphy got so easily—but he swings just as hard and knows how to propel the beat.

Moreover, his ability to take songs that other jazz singers and musicians normally don’t touch—not only Blackbird, but also If I Only Had a Brain (in a slow but swinging rendition that the jazz-loving Harold Arlen surely would have liked), Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’, Ray Noble’s Touch of Your Lips and Bob Dylan’s Girl From the North Country—and turn them into effective vehicles for his vocal talents says a great deal for his imagination.

His arranging skills are also evident in his rewriting of Juan Tizol’s Caravan, surely the most famous and popular Eastern-tinged jazz/pop tune of all time (Ellington himself made no less than four completely different arrangements of it for his band). And as I say, his jazz chops are clearly honed to a fine pitch; to my ears, he is one of the most interesting jazz singers since Murphy’s death. I wasn’t particularly crazy about his rendition of Everybody’s Talkin’ even though I picked up on the fact that he was trying to sound like a lost, confused soul making his way through a crowd of people. I mean, it was nice, I guess, and certainly original, but it didn’t move me. Give Me the Simple Life starts out as a half-spoken, half-sung performance, but when he reaches the song proper he takes it at a nice medium tempo and really swings. Dean Johnson’s bass is particularly good on this one, bouncing the rhythm nicely behind both Jost and pianist Jim Ridl’s solo.

I also really liked The Touch of Your Lips, taken at a surprisingly fast tempo rather than its usual ballad pace and with good scatting in his vocal solo. Johnson also gets to solo on this one. Jost slows down Jerome Kern’s Folks Who Live on the Hill and gives it the whisper treatment. So too is the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends, which I felt was the wrong approach to this song, but what the hey. They can’t all be masterpieces.

Jost does an excellent job, however, on Sonny Rollins’ No Moe, scatting and improvising throughout, and Johnson’s rather extended bass solo on here is superb. Bob Dylan’s Girl From the North Country is converted into a soulful ballad. (I don’t much like soulful ballads.)

Bele Tristezza is an original waltz tune which features someone whistling behind Jost’s opening scat vocal before moving into a nice piano solo with the rhythm. Shenandoah, a song I’ve always hated, goes in one ear and out the other as it usually does.

The album closes with yet another ballad, Livin’ in the Wrong Time, but this one is more serious, being about children being killed at school—undoubtedly by a fellow student whose brain was filled by hate, fueled by something twisted online or in a video game, as is normally the case. Kind of a downer for an album that has a lot of ups on it.

Simple Life, then, is a mixed bag, combining some terrific singing and arrangements with touchy-feely ballads and ending on a solemn note. But Jost is clearly a talented jazz singer, thus for more than half the album it’s definitely worth hearing.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Faccio’s Surprisingly Good “Amleto”


FACCIO: Amleto / Pavel Černoch, ten (Amleto); Iulia Maria Dan, sop (Ofelia); Paul Schweinester, ten (Laerte); Edouard Tsanga, bs (Polonio); Dshamilja Kaiser, mez (Gertrude); Claudio Sgura, bar (Claudio); Bartosz Urnabowicz, bar (Marcello); Sébastian Soules, bs (Orazio); Gianluca Burarro, bs (Ghost); Yasushi Hirano, bs (Gravedigger); Prague Philharmonic Choir; Wiener Symphoniker; Paolo Carignani, cond / Naxos 8.660454-55 (live: Bregenz, June 2016)

Franco Faccio (1840-1891) has been, until a few years ago, little more than a footnote in operatic history, known primarily for being the conductor of the premiere of Verdi’s Otello, but this opera has become a bit of a cause célèbre in recent years. A younger colleague of Arrigo Boito at the Milan Conservatory where they became good friends, both embarked on writing a first opera upon graduation. Boito’s eventually became Mefistofele but, typical of this composer, he spent several years refining it prior to its premiere. In the meantime, Faccio wrote I profughi fiamminghi which had an unsuccessful premiere at La Scala in November 1863. Undaunted, Faccio launched into work on Amleto with the libretto (and, one would guess, some of the music) by Boito, which premiered in Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice in May 1865. The audience complained of the score’s “paucity of melody,” but the critics liked it immensely, praising Faccio’s music and especially Boito’s libretto, and after the second and third performances the public began to warm up to its dramatic flair. Faccio revived the opera in 1871, at which point he was director of La Scala, but after that it disappeared from the boards. Conductor Anthony Barrese, however, created a critical edition of the opera which was premiered by Opera Southwest in 2014, and two years later conductor Paolo Carignani gave this performance of it at Opera Bregenz. Prior to this audio-only release, this performance was available as a DVD released by C Major.

As was usual for Boito, he made a brilliant operatic reduction of Shakespeare’s sprawling play, which in this instance begins with the king’s coronation and the merrymaking of the populace. The musical style and harmonic language are by no means as advanced as Verdi’s Don Carlo, Otello or Falstaff; this was 1865, after all, a period in which Verdi’s “middle period” operas were still the rage. Yet even in this opening scene, a prologue, one can hear that the prelude lacks that “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” style so much in favor in those years (just think of the Forza del Destino overture of 1862), and even during this early merrymaking scene Faccio uses a great deal more chromatic harmonic changes than was usual in that time. Much of Hamlet’s music, even here, is dramatic recitative and not terribly tuneful music; even when the rhythm suddenly shifts to an almost tarantella-like 6/8 to represent the festivities, Hamlet is still singing occasional strophic lines rather than bursting into song à la the Duke of Mantua. When he finally does sing melodic lines, yet the scene does end melodically in a peppy waltz tune.

The opening of the first act features the first of the Ophelia-Hamlet duets. Soprano Iulia Maria Dan has a typically edgy-sounding Eastern European voice, complete with the usual overripe vibrato and high notes than thin out the tone, but she does have a good legato, excellent diction and sings expressively. Baritone Claudio Sgura, as Claudio, has a wobbly voice—what else is new nowadays? I’ll be damned if I can figure out why casting directors can’t do a better job of picking singers for these important projects. I know for a fact that there are dozens of better sopranos and baritones out there than these two, but here we are, stuck with inferior voices. As for Pavel Černoch, our intrepid Melancholy Dane, he has a generally fine voice without too much flutter and a generally good timbre, somewhat similar to one of the most underrated tenors of the 1960s, Robert Ilosfalvy (now there’s a name from the past for you!) and he, too, sings with commitment and drama. Dshamilja Kaiser, as Gertrude, also has a somewhat fluttery Eastern European voice, but her tone is more solid from top to bottom and her high notes are not overparted.

What I particularly liked about the music, however, is that Faccio wrote continuous scenes. There are “solo bits” sung by Claudio, Gertrude, Ofelio and Amleto, but they aren’t “stop-the-show-so-you-can-admire-us” arias, and they don’t have superfluous high notes. By the time we reach the scene beginning “Prence – Signor,” we can hear Faccio refining his style still further, using dark-sounding low winds and thumping basses to underscore the vocal line, and even when the tempo suddenly quickens and the chorus enters, the music continues to develop, almost as in a string quartet or a symphony.

It is in Act I, Part II that the music becomes even deeper, opening with a slow passage played by the cellos that surprisingly resembles what Verdi would do several years later in “Ella giammai m’amo” from Don Carlo, and even when the tempo picks up and the tenor enters with a sort of arioso, it, too, is closer to the kind of music that Don Carlo sings in Verdi’s opera. (The publicity blurb for this album claims that the music “strikingly prefigures the verismo operas yet to come,” but not really—at least, not as much as Ponchielli’s La Gioconda prefigured verismo.) And finally, we encounter another good voice besides the tenor, bass Gianluca Burarro as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. If he continues to sing like this, he is destined for stardom. This passage with the Ghost and Hamlet is very interesting, both musically and dramatically.

Act II opens with rapid but quirky music which heralds the entrance of Polonio, Claudio and Gertrude before Amleto enters to sing “Essere o non essere,” or “To be or not to be.” Well, of course I was waiting to hear this, and yes, it’s somewhat in Italian aria form, but more like Rigoletto’s “Pari siamo.” There are some high notes, but they come at dramatic points and don’t disrupt the musical development but, rather, enhance it. Except for one rather strained, unsteady high note, Černoch does a very fine job on it. There are also some interesting harmonic changes here and there that mark this as the work of a well-trained composer, which Faccio was. The ensuing duet with Ofelia is also very good; despite being set to a barcarolle rhythm, Faccio uses minor-key harmonies and tries to maintain drama and dignity in the vocal line. A shame that our soprano is so squally; I can just hear, in my mind’s ear, the voice of Sondra Radvanosky soaring through these lines. And someone please explain to me why Sondra Radvanosky is not on more complete opera recordings. But what a great piece of music this is! You cannot, for a second, predict where the music is going; there’s nothing formulaic about it, yet it keeps developing, becoming more dramatic, with each passing moment. And even when it’s over, Polonio enters, and the music tries to put up a false happy front, Faccio is up to those demands as well.

There are also some interesting harmonic shifts in the beginning of the next scene, the “Gran Marcia Danese,” which then again becomes more serious (with interesting high strings and harp accompaniment) in the Amleto-Gertrude duet. In the ensuing ensemble scene, Faccio uses some very creative cross-rhythms, not unlike the Act I finale of Don Giovanni, but more modern. Towards the end of the scene, he uses rising chromatics, rolling timpani and swirling strings to create real dramatic tension behind the singers.

More dark-sounding music, played lightly by the basses, violas and winds, opens Act III. The music here is also quite dramatic, combining Italian lyricism with a quite dramatic interpretation of the scene. Again, Faccio used interesting falling chromatics in Gertrude’s lines, and interesting cymbal “washes” behind the re-appearance of the Ghost. Ofelia’s mad scene is a bit of a disappointment—she just sings a fairly conventional aria and ends on a trill—but it’s a huge improvement on the bel canto “mad scene” of Ambroise Thomas. In one section, you hear a typical Boito wind voicing behind Ofelia, similar to that used in the Prologue of Mefistofele.

The last act is equally good and equally interesting, despite some fairly ordinary secco recitative between Amleto and the Gravedigger. Ofelia’s funeral march is, unfortunately, nothing special, in one ear and out the other, but at least it’s not offensive. The scenes following return us to very good, interesting music, with great climaxes when called for. The play-within-a-play is somewhat minimized in this performance but the ending is particularly good, subtle and understated, with good vocal acting from the principals.

Bottom line: it’s a very interesting opera defeated to a considerable extent by the defects of the singers—clearly superior to Thomas’ very stupid, bel canto-oriented Hamlet. If someone were to record it with first-class voices, it would be a real gem because the music is mostly good and dramatic. It should never have been neglected for more than 130 years, particularly when opera houses today keep reviving third-rate rubbish by Rossini and Donizetti. Alas, the only alternate performance is the one from Opera Southwest, available for free streaming on YouTube here, and damned if that cast didn’t have the same strengths and weakness as this one: an excellent conductor (Barrese), good tenor (Alex Richardson), so-so soprano (Abla Lynn Hamza, actually even weaker than Dan), a wobbly baritone (Shannon DeVine), a pretty good mezzo (Caroline Worra), etc. etc. I didn’t expect much of a smallish opera company in the Southwest U.S., but I certainly expected better of this production, particularly since it’s out on DVD. Well, you know the drill: in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. If you want Faccio’s Amleto, and it is clearly a very interesting opera, this is your only real choice, mostly because Dan has much better breath support and vocal control than Hamza.

Complaints have been made that the booklet doesn’t include the libretto, but surprise, surprise! You can find the complete libretto online, in both Italian and English, at You’re welcome.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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