Nardin Looks Ahead


WP 2019 - 2LOOKING AHEAD / NARDIN: Colours. Just Easy. Look Ahead. Three for You. Prelude to “Memory of T.” Memory of T. Prelude to “In the Skies.” In the Skies. Prayers. PARKER: New Direction. HANCOCK: One Finger Snap / Fred Nardin, pno; Or Bareket, bs; Leon Parker, dm / Naïve NJ6992

And here’s another (the latest) album from French pianist Fred Nardin, whose previous CD I raved about. This one is a little more intimate in feeling but no less innovative; Nardin is, quite simply, a fascinating improviser. Nonetheless, I found the opening track, Colours, to be a fairly mundane tune, saved only by Nardin’s fine solo work, but he makes up for this with an attractive piece taken at a nice medium swing tempo, Just Easy. Leon Parker plays some nifty yet subdued drum breaks on this one, and bassist Or Bareket tosses in a sly reference to Lullaby of Birdland at the beginning of his first solo behind the pianist. Nardin’s own solo is extraordinarily imaginative, completely re-composing his own piece and making something much more complex of it.

The title track is a fast, complex little line (really no more than a couple of bitonal riffs), but once again Nardin and his trio make not lemonade but a lemon soufflé with a cherry on top out of this insignificant snippet, at one point converting the rhythm from a straight 4 to a slow 3 which he also plays at one point as a 6/8. Three for You opens with a little cymbals, Nardin playing repeated chords, and Bareket playing a fairly complex line which is the tune’s melody. When Nardin comes in, we hear that the tempo is not in 3 but in a slow 4, with the quirky melody played lovingly before the improvisations come around.

New Direction is just (I think) Nardin vocalizing in very rhythmic scat, including handclapping, before moving into a very fast-paced version of Herbie Hancock’s One Finger Snap. Nardin almost sounds like Bud Powell on this one. Parker is very busy on this one, too. The Prelude to “Memory of T” sounds just like a Monk piece, but it’s not, likewise Memory proper. Apparently, Nardin just likes Monk, which is fine by me because I do, too.

Prelude to “In the Skies” is mostly a bass solo, whereas the piece itself—which starts with the bass plucking repeated A-flats—is a rather wistful tune played by Nardin very softly at the keyboard. The music also develops oddly, in stages like a classical piece rather than in a linear style. Towards the end, Nardin plays a repeated four-chord pattern while Parker improvises over him.

The closer, Prayers, is a slow, quiet piece played solo by Nardin until Bareket comes in behind him at the 1:36 mark to make a duet. The bassist’s lines are played double time pizzicato, acting as a sort of counterbalance to the serenity of the lead line.

This is a splendid disc and a fine addition to Nardin’s growing discography!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Learning Swing Theory from Andy Mac & Will Dickerson

Swing Theory

SWING THEORY / Medley: DONALDSON-KAHN: Love Me or Leave Me/SHEARING: Lullaby of Birdland. REINHARDT: Minor Blues. Place de Broukère. FURBER-BRAHAM: Limehouse Blues. GREEN-SOUR-HEYMAN: Out of Nowhere. UNKNOWN: Zazu’s Waltz. JONES-KAHN: It Had to Be You. RICHARDS-LEIGH: Young at Heart. BROOKS: Some of These Days / Will Dickerson, Andy Mac, gtr; Ethan Cohn, bs / self-produced album available at Bandcamp

I actually ran across this album by accident while trying to find out, on the Internet, who wrote the song Swing Theory, but I’m glad I did. The Django Reinhardt Sound marches on in this 2016 album by guitarists Andy Mac, British-born and also known as MacKenzie (who comes at you out of your right channel) and Will Dickerson, who was born in Maryland but now lives in Montreal (who attacks your left) and bassist Ethan Cohn. What makes this album special is that both guitarists are adept at simulating the Reinhardt style (though the master still had some technical tricks up his sleeve that they don’t) and that the arrangements are consistently splendid, providing some melodic-harmonic twists and turns that the listener simply doesn’t expect.

Neither guitarist quite has the flash of Frank Vignola or Stocholo Rosenberg, but they don’t have to. They’re excellent musicians and they have the ability to make you smile, something that most of today’s wimpy, non-Reinhardt-influenced guitarists simply cannot do. I am SO sick of listening to guitarists, jazz and classical, who play as if they’re scared to death to break the strings by playing with some force and excitement, I can’t even begin to tell you, so for me a band like this is home cookin’. And the duo really sparkles: listen to the way Mac comes in to double Dickerson on one break in Minor Blues and you’ll be hooked. These two musicians actually listen to one another, and their communication is instantaneous.


Will Dickerson

My one and only caveat is that bassist Ethan Cohn almost seems like s fifth wheel on this set. Yes, he plays the bass fairly well, but he’s unnecessary. Mac and Dickerson propel each other rhythmically, They don’t need no stinkin’ bass, if you know what I mean.

Nor are they mere imitators of Django. They give Place de Brouckère a very contemporary feeling with strong backbeats, and in Limehouse Blues they really stretch their imagination, opening with a medium-tempo funky beat which they continue into the first eight bars of the melody, switching to a straight swing beat on the next 4, then alternating again. In this one, too, bassist Cohn actually has a say, contributing a nice solo while Dickerson plays soft scrubs in the left channel. When Mac comes back in, he tosses in a brief quote from Undecided before moving on to his own improvisation. Very nice touches! Dickerson throws in some rising chromatic chords in his solo just for fun.

I have no idea who wrote Zazu’s Waltz—no credit is given—but it’s one of those minor-key but lively-sounding tunes that seems quintessentially French, and they have a ball with it. The duo uses some unusual modal harmony under the opening few bars of It Had to Be You but otherwise give it to us straight (well, until the improvisations, anyway). They may not have all of Django’s technique, but they certainly have his musical imagination.

Johnny Richards’ famous mid-1950s pop tune Young at Heart surprised me, not because I don’t like the melody but because I’ve never heard anyone try to play a jazz version of it. Dickerson and Mac play with the rhythm, the former giving us a straight 4 while the latter slightly pulls back on the beat while playing the melody. When Dickerson comes in for his solo he’s bending strings and also laying back a little on the beat. Mac answers his half-chorus with one of his own.

Both guitarists give us a bit of “walking” on their guitars before launching into the finale, a lively yet tricky version of Some of These Days, replete with unexpected harmonic and rhythmic shifts. As I said earlier regarding their imagination vs. their technique, ‘tain’t whatcha do, it’s the way howcha do it, that’s what get results. And Swing Theory certainly does that. Great summertime fun jazz, lively and innovative!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Dave Bass Has No Boundaries

WCS116 - cover

WP 2019 - 2NO BOUNDARIES / TRISTANO: Lennie’s Pennies.1 BASS: Spy Movie End Credits.1,2 Agenbite of Inwit.1 Danzon #12,3 Hallucinations.1 RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: If I Loved You.1,2,4 RODRIGUEZ: La Mulata Rumbera.2,3 MONTESANO: Tango Adagio.1 PREVITE-MARKOWITZ-DeNICOLA: Time of My Life.4 LECUONA: Siboney.2,3 SEEGER: Neither Have I Wings.1 ROE: Swing Theory. HESTER: In the Rain1 / Dave Bass, pno; Ted Nash, fl/al-fl/cl/bs-cl/s-sax/a-sax/t-sax; Carlos Henriquez, bs; 1Jerome Jennings, dm; 2Carlos Caro, guiro/bongos/bell; 3Miguel Valdes, bata/conga; 4Karrin Allyson, voc; 3Mauricio Hernandez, timbales/maracas / Whaling City Sound 116

Some jazz musicians, having career problems, temporarily turn to other occupations to make some bread. Charles Mingus worked for the post office for a few years in the early 1950s. Doug Mettome went into carpentry and remodeling. Mel Tormé actually applied for and got a pilot’s license at one point because he was seriously thinking of giving up his career to fly planes.

Pianist Dave Bass’ story is even more unusual. He was Attorney General of the Socialist State of California until 2015, but has now returned to the jazz world with this neat little quartet (some member of which play several instruments, and a couple of which are revolved here with fill-ins in the percussion section). This is his third album since his comeback and second on the Whaling City Sound label. And they’re REALLY good! I was especially impressed by their snappy arrangement and performance of Lennie’s Pennies, which sounds for all the world like a track from the early 1950s post-bop/early cool school. Ted Nash plays alto sax in the opening but then switches to flute for the remainder of the track, sometimes in unison with Bass, whose pianism is just splendid. This is followed by the slow Latin-tinged Spy Movie End Credits, here with Nash on tenor. The highlight here is Carlos Henriquez’ bowed bass solo, which is followed by a leisurely-yet-tasteful piano solo by Bass.

Agenbite of Inwit (whatever that means) is an uptempo romp in the same style as the opener, except that it’s in the minor instead of the major. Nash is back on alto here with a smooth, nifty solo that flies through the changes like a hot knife through butter. When Bass enters, he starts his solo with the last few notes played by Nash, a nice touch. The Rodgers and Hammerstein tune If I Loved You, seldom the subject of a jazz treatment (most jazz musicians prefer Rodgers’ hipper, more interesting songs that he wrote with Lorenz Hart), is also given a slow Latin beat. Vocalist Karrin Allyson, one of those whispery lounge singers who pretend to be jazz artists, does the insipid vocal. This one I could have lived without. I skipped it after about a minute and a half. Yukh!

Fortunately, the all-Latin La Mulata Rumbera is up next, cleansing our ears of Allyson’s unctuous vocal, but as is often the case with Latin jazz, it sounds like 1,000 other Latin tunes, nothing really distinguishable about it until the solos begin. Bass throws in some quotes from de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance in his solo, a nice touch. Nash’s flute solo is really hip here, too, and the Latin percussionists fill in nicely. Tango Adagio fits its title, being a tango taken at an extremely slow pace, with another bowed bass solo by Henriquez and here featuring Nash on the bass flute. It ends on an unresolved chord.

Allyson is back on Time of My Life, but she sings out more here and swings a bit, so she didn’t annoy me quite as much. Another bass solo here, this one plucked, before the leader comes back in for his turn at the keyboard. We also get a nice little chase chorus between Nash and drummer Jennings. Then they jazz up Ernesto Lecuona’s old hit tune Siboney, to good effect; Bass’s solo here is a gem, and Nash is splendid on soprano sax. We’re back to a Latin groove on Neither Have I Wings, with Nash sounding a lot like Stan Getz here and another fine bass solo. Danzon #1, a fairly innocuous tune, is also a Latin piece. Oddly, however, Nash’s clarinet solo here almost gives it a klezmer flavor.

We return to the cool-bop axis with the hip little tune titled Swing Theory. Nash is back on flute here, and in stating the melody Henriquez often doubles his line on bass, a nice touch. Bass plays a subtle but tasteful single-note solo, following which we get a bass break and then a flute solo from Nash. In the Rain starts out, appropriately, with rain sounds, followed by Nash playing the theme on clarinet with piano and bass underpinning. Bass plays some nice basso continuo phrases underneath him.

The catchy, upbeat Hallucinations is the closer, and this focuses on Bass and his trio to the exclusion of the others. He takes the simple theme and builds and builds on it like a master.

My sole complaint is that there are NO composer credits for any of the songs on this album, thus I had to go scrambling around the Internet trying to find out who wrote most of these songs (I already knew who wrote Lennie’s Pennies, If I Loved You and Siboney, but the rest were a mystery to me).

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Trouble With Artie



Arthur Arshawsky, known publicly and professionally as Artie Shaw, was clearly one of the greatest clarinetists of the 20th century. He was also an excellent jazz improv-iser, but his improvisations always seem to stop just short of his tech-nical prowess on the instrument. It’s not that he wasn’t interesting: in fact, during the years of his greatest fame (1938-1945) he was acknowl-edged to be more interesting and a bit more advanced in his use of harmony in his solos than his biggest rival, Benny Goodman. Yet except for the first year or so of Shaw’s big swing band (1938-early 1939), Goodman’s band usually outpolled Shaw’s and was in fact preferred by both jazz fans and certain musicians. As drummer Buddy Rich put it in a TV interview with Goodman in the 1970s, “I played with Artie Shaw but you were the one I wanted to play with. Artie had a great sound, but it was just one sound. You had several different sounds.” (In case you’re wondering, Benny’s reply was honest but typical: “I thought you were too loud and played too much drums. You weren’t a good fit for me.”)

Goodman seemed to be Shaw’s bête noir throughout his career. Both got their start in the mid-1920s, but Goodman always seemed to be a step ahead. While Artie was still struggling to establish himself as a first-class musician in New York, Benny was the star clarinetist of Ben Pollack’s jazz orchestra by age 17. While Artie was still free-lancing in 1935, Goodman already had his own big band and hit the big time in Los Angeles in August of that year. By the time Shaw decided to scrap his small band with strings and start what he called “the loudest goddamn band in the world,” Goodman had already Begin the Beguineachieved major success, made Hollywood films and gave the first-ever jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. When Shaw decided to integrate his second major orchestra by hiring trumpeter “Hot Lips” Page, Goodman was featuring no less than six African-American musicians in his live performances (Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Cootie Williams, John Simmons and Sid Catlett). By the time Shaw decided to make some classical recordings in 1949, Goodman had already established himself by being the first jazz clarinetist to record Mozart with the Budapest String Quartet, commission modern composer Béla Bartók to write a piece for him, and recorded Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No. 2. Shaw formed his big bebop band in 1949; Goodman had done so in late 1947, and by 1949 was on the verge of giving up on it. All of this played on Shaw’s head like a bounty hunter he couldn’t shake.

In his biography of Shaw, Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake, Tom Nolan painted a very sympathetic picture of the clarinetist. In an online interview with Scott Timberg ( he explains much of Shaw’s arrogance and many of his foibles this way:

He was brilliant, self-centered, very protective, even a bit shy. From a young age, he never felt safe in the world.  He didn’t like crowds, but he was dependent upon them for his living.  All things considered, I think he did fairly well. (And he didn’t call all his fans ‘morons’ — just the obnoxious jitterbugs who’d jump onstage and disrupt the show, something all the bandleaders were upset about in 1939.  Artie was almost the only one with the guts, or poor judgment, to complain in public. And he paid a big price.) 

But there was more to it than that, and some of the pieces of the puzzle—publicly available but seldom quoted in profiles of Shaw—are in his 1952 autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity. I don’t own a copy of the book; I took it out of the library nearly 30 years ago and read it, along with a book of Shaw’s short stories; but I remember the salient points because they struck me like a sharp stick in the back. I could never forget them.

It’s undoubtedly true that he never felt safe in the world, but the seminal incident that made him feel that way occurred in 1929, when he was 19 years old. He had finally landed a good-paying job with a rather commercial “hot” band of the time, Irving Aaronson’s Commanders, but one day a pedestrian stepped off the sidewalk right in front of Shaw’s speeding car and was killed. The ensuing police investigation cleared Shaw of any real blame—it had happened in the blink of an eye—yet he lost his license for six months and his valuable cabaret card for two years. Unable to play professionally in New York during this period, Shaw haunted the jazz clubs of Harlem, where he would sit in with black musicians. The one he credited the most with teaching him how to improvise was stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith.

But this is where Shaw picked up some sociopathic tendencies. It is indeed possible for someone to exhibit such tendencies without becoming an actual sociopath, just as it is possible for someone to pick up psychopathic tendencies without becoming an actual psychopath. Shaw, lonely, broke and depressed, would (by his own account in the book) wander the streets of white, affluent New York at night in the winter, hungry and cold, and look up at those windows that didn’t have their shades down. He would see and often hear people laughing and having fun, and imagine that they were laughing at him, and hate them for it. And I mean real, deep-down hate, as surely as if they were the ones personally responsible for his misfortune. Moreover, he then admitted that he carried the same feeling into his glory days as a big band leader. He would look out from the bandstand while playing a clarinet solo, not directly at them but over their heads; he would purposely allow his vision to make them blur so that he could impose on them the same faces and voices he saw and heard from those apartment windows in New York in 1930 and ’31. This is not the normal thought pattern of someone who is merely depressed or “a bit of a loner.” This is the thinking of a borderline sociopath.

Following his return to performing, Shaw worked briefly with the band of Roger Wolfe Kahn. Although somewhat pop-oriented, Kahn loved and appreciated jazz. His earlier orchestra, known as the “million dollar band” because of the extraordinarily high salaries he paid to such stars as trumpeter Tommy Thow, trombonist Miff Mole, violinist Joe Venuti, guitarist Eddie Lang, pianist Arthur Schutt and drummer Vic Berton, played a surprising quotient of authentic hot jazz for a high-society band, thus he was quite happy to have this rising star in his ranks. Shaw was making good money again, but as he had done in 1928, Kahn suddenly disbanded his orchestra because he was more interesting in being a pilot. Dissatisfied with the jobs now open to him in the Depression, Shaw quite music for the first time in his life. He bought a farm in Bucks County, New York and went there to write a half-novel, half-documentary on one of the musicians who influenced him the most, the late cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.

Shaw with Roger Wolfe Kahn

Shaw with the Roger Wolfe Kahn orchestra in 1932

It was the first of many literary projects that Shaw would abandon. Ever the loner, it never occurred to him to contact some of the people who had actually known and worked with Beiderbecke, such as Jimmy MacPartland, Bill Challis, Frank Trumbauer, Vic Berton or Venuti and Lang. He tried to go it alone, and as the British like to say, came up a cropper.

Back in New York, he landed an unusual recording date with one-armed trumpeter Wingy Manone. The mixed band included white musicians Bud Freeman on tenor sax, Shaw, and guitarist Frank Victor along with black bassist John Kirby, trombonist Dicky Wells, drummer Kaiser Marshall and—of all people—Jelly Roll Morton on piano. His prowess on the clarinet soon made him a welcome visitor on a number of important recording dates, including the Boswell Sisters and Billie Holiday (his solo breaks on No Regrets are still breathtaking to hear today), but he was restless and wanted to have his own band. Joe Helbock, owner of the Onyx Club, had amateur nights in which local musicians would come and play a number or two: it was his way of auditioning new talent in front of a live audience to see how they did. Shaw hired a string quartet and wrote two numbers, which he played to great applause. The problem was, the audience wanted to hear another piece, but Shaw and his string had only rehearsed those two, so they played them again. Nonetheless, it helped to launch his career.

Before we go on, however, we need to look at Shaw’s use of strings, both in quartet form and, later, in his use of a larger string section in his big bands. Although he supposedly studied the scores of Bartók in the early 1930s, he apparently didn’t learn anything from them. As Gunther Schuller pointed out in his book The Swing Era (Oxford University Press, 1989)

As for the use of a string quartet, I’m sure that Shaw felt that he was integrating the strings—or at least trying to—into a jazz context…The problem is…how they are almost always used. The moments in jazz when strings were used contrapuntally, for example, or in fast-moving passages—something strings happen to be able to do extremely well—can probably be counted on one hand. The usual rudimentary block writing, alternating with lush melodic lines, all played in a tasteless style using excessive vibratos, slides, scoops, and other similarly banal effects, is bound to produce a soggy, syrupy result, And, of course, such writing has nothing to do with jazz.

Yet although a proper use of strings in a jazz context was rare, they did exist on records, and some pretty famous ones at that which Shaw should have known about, specifically Paul Whiteman’s From Monday On and Whiteman Stomp (the latter arranged by the brilliant Don Redman). In 1938, the year Shaw organized “the loudest goddamn band in the world,” Whiteman had again returned to some really jazzy string writing with his “Swinging Strings” recordings for Decca, among them “Oh Lady Be Good” and “Liza.”

But Shaw never did learn this lesson. He was hired at a local dance hall and began playing with his string-based band, yet he wasn’t packing them in. One day the manager complained to him about the poor clientele. “How is that my fault?” Shaw asked, quite reasonably I would say. “I’m providing quality music—that’s my job.” He never forgot the manager’s answer:

Your problem is to get people in here. And if you want to take your pants down on that goddamn bandstand every night and take a crap up there, and if people’ll pay to come in here and see you do it—I’ll pay you to take a crap up there every night.

Thus did the sleek but anemic-sounding strings give way to the blaring brass and smooth reed sounds of his successful swing band. Like his rival Goodman, Shaw was adept at editing the arrangements his band played to fall in line with what he wanted; unlike Goodman, Shaw could actually write full arrangements on his own, which he did for pieces he composed himself, among them Non-Stop Flight and Any Old Time. But he was wise enough to hire a young violinist-turned-arranger named Jerry Gray who really helped set the tone for the Shaw band with his sharp, clean-no-nonsense arrangements.

Shaw and his 1938 band

Shaw fronting his 1938 band

It has long been noted that just about the only piece Shaw wrote and arranged himself that had any resemblance to modern classical music was his theme song, Nightmare, which consists primarily of a repeated rising and falling four-note motif played by the trombones and a four-note theme played above it by trumpets, after which Shaw would come in on the clarinet and improvise. To a certain extent, it resembled some of the experimental jazz that Stan Kenton would get into in the mid-1940s, but its repetitive nature and lack of any real development other than Shaw’s clarinet solos really don’t make it much of a composition. It’s more like a gesture, albeit an ominous-sounding one, yet Shaw was inordinately proud of this piece. At one point, he likened it to Picasso’s painting of Guernica. I suppose that Nightmare does kind of evoke the images of Guernica for about eight bars, but that’s about it. Like so many things that Shaw considered real accomplishments of his, it was only half-formed. Some were even less than half-formed. Again, to quite Schuller:

The hard evidence of his actual work—his recordings and airchecks that have survived—when disentangled from all the post-facto rationalizations, self-analyses and protestations of one kind or another that seemed always to be a part of Shaw’s life—reveal that Shaw was seldom an accurate judge of his bands’ merits—or demerits. He was also apt to misjudge the nature of and reasons for his popular successes as well as for his failures. Moreover, the evidence shows that he found it difficult to distinguish between his arrangers’ contributions to his successes (and failures) and his own. He often took credit for achievements that belonged, at least to significant extents, to others—or, as in the case of some of his biggest commercial “hits,” to luck and chance as well.

Shaw took credit, for instance, for reviving composer Thomas Griselle’s charming 1929 orchestral piece, Nocturne. His recording of it is indeed beautiful, and it was the first big-band version, but the John Kirby Sextet had in fact recorded it a year earlier. He took credit for the few times his own band used a string section in a jazz context, but those successes were really the work of William Grant Still (Frenesi), Ray Conniff or Paul Jordan (Suite No. 8). Moreover, for someone who was apparently always searching for the best in music, he clearly recorded a lot of charts that would, a decade later, fall into the category of Middle-Of-the Road music or MOR, such as Dancing in the Dark, Moonglow, Temptation, Star Dust, Dancing on the Ceiling etc. His motto in the early 1940s seemed to be: When in doubt, throw in a string section, soup it up and make it sappy, it’ll sell. It was a very cynical approach for a man who prided himself on his intellectual capacities. But there are still some people, largely non-musicians, who are bamboozled by this into thinking his use of strings was a form of art, among them biographer Nolan:

And his orchestral conceptions, his periodic use of strings and classical horns, and the arrangements he commissioned from such talented men as William Grant Still and Eddie Sauter changed the nature of big-band jazz. 

No, it didn’t—at least not until Kenton’s arrangers began using strings in a jazzier context in the early 1950s, and even then there were some duds.

Yet just as Shaw had taught himself to read music at age 15 in order to get a paying job, his “intellectual” side was also catch-as-catch-can, the result of compulsive reading and of sitting in as a non-matriculated student at Columbia and New York Universities. Unfortunately, he also picked up his snobbism there as well which, when added to his low opinion of people as a whole allowed him to consider himself intellectually and morally superior to everyone he met—including the musicians in his band. Shaw looked down on almost everybody, which is why musicians seldom stayed with him very long. The day after he “retired” from music for the second time, in November 1939 when he fled to Mexico, Glenn Miller called up Jerry Gray and hired him as a staff arranger. Years later, when asked about it, Gray’s response was typical of just about everyone who ever played for Shaw: “I was happier musically with Artie, but happier personally with Glenn.” Tenor saxist Jerry Jerome, who had also played in the big bands of Glenn Miller and Red Norvo, was a member of Shaw’s early-‘40s band as well. His comment about the leader was:

I still wonder whether part of it wasn’t just some need to see himself as above being just a musician. He didn’t want to be on the plane of ordinary people; he wanted to be an intellectual, in the worst way.

Of course, his most famous sarcastic comment, which he himself didn’t see at all that way, was made to rival Benny Goodman who, when he met him, began asking about what reeds he used to get such great control of his instrument. “You know what your problem is, Benny?” Shaw asked him, then giving the answer: “You play the clarinet. I play music.” In later years, repeating this incident, Shaw added, “He looked at me kind of oddly, as if the idea never occurred to him. He just couldn’t see that he was hung up on technique as such and not as concerned with the musical results. But I don’t think he was a very deep thinker.” One more shot at Benny after he was gone and couldn’t defend himself.

At the end of 1942 he, like Glenn Miller, disbanded in order to help the war effort in the armed forces. Miller went into the Army Air Force; Shaw went into the Navy, but was just giving concerts stateside near the training bases. Upset, he went AWOL and traveled to Washington to talk to one of the top Admirals, telling him he wanted to go where the action was. He was quickly commissioned to the South Pacific, where he played on aircraft carriers with his band. By 1944, however, he was suffering from shock and battle fatigue and had to be released on psychological grounds. After a couple of months, he formed another great band, this one without strings but featuring more innovative arrangements by Conniff, Buster Harding and Eddie Sauter.

Yet even while in the Navy, Shaw continued his high-handedness towards his musicians. In one of his short stories, obviously based on a real event, an incognito bandleader (obviously Artie) is talking to one of his trumpet players on a ship at night. Instead of encouraging him, the leader is planting seeds of concern and worry in his mind, telling him that after the War is over things aren’t going to be the same stateside, that he’ll probably have trouble finding work, and then what will he do for a living? It’s exactly the kind of incident that Shaw thought was terribly funny but the recipient of his sarcasm found deeply disturbing—yet another example of his sociopathic tendencies. Many people, reading this story, thought that the trumpet player was probably Max Kaminsky, the great trad-jazz musician who could also play swing. Decades later, when I became somewhat friendly with Kaminsky by phone, he admitted that it was indeed he. And he wasn’t amused.

Years later, asked if he didn’t think it was a tragedy that Glenn Miller had died in the war, he just had to get another shot in with a comment he again probably thought was funny. “I wish that Glenn Miller had lived,” he said, “and Chattanooga Choo Choo had died.” In 1992 he added, “Maybe I should just drop dead—it would be a good career move. Look what it did for Glenn Miller.”

Shaw band 1945

Members of the 1945 Shaw band: trumpeter Roy Eldridge is fourth from the left; trombonist-arranger Ray Conniff is on the far right, next to Shaw.

Shaw’s almost pathological need for attention and to be famous probably had a lot to do with his multiple marriages, particularly to beautiful actresses who were so far from his intellectual level that he must have known they would fail, particularly to Ava Gardner but also to Lana Turner, Kathleen Winsor, Doris Dowling and Evelyn Keyes, all of which ended in divorce, some quite quickly. Asked about this in later years, he pulled out the old Jewish-male excuse: “Hey, when I was young I was a good-looking guy. The ladies wanted me and I was flattered,” to which he added, “If you want to attract beautiful women and you’re a good-looking stud, learn to play an instrument and get yourself a band. It’ll make you irresistible.” But what good did it do him to marry “trophy wives” just for the sake of getting your name splashed in the media for doing so? And he later transferred his eventual loathing of these women to the children he had by them, refusing to contact or see them as they grew up. “Why should I bother?” he said. “I didn’t get along with their mothers, why should I try to get along with them?” Everything was always about Artie. No one else in his life existed as far as he was concerned.

Shaw and Ava Gardner

Ava Gardner and Artie Shaw in 1946. Just examine the snide, pompous look on Shaw’s face. It says it all.

Although none of this affected his clarinet playing, which remained spectacular throughout his career, it did affect his musical product. Following the demise of his “arranger’s band” in 1945, he next formed a particularly dreary orchestra right about the time he divorced Gardner and married Winsor. Nearly everything they played was MOR garbage with a few exceptions: two pieces by Buster Harding, The Hornet and The Glider, and a particularly excellent arrangement (I don’t know by who) of What is This Thing Called Love? The latter was one of a handful of records that he made with one of the hippest jazz vocal groups of all time, Mel Tormé and the Mel-Tones—but once again, Shaw later took credit for this as if it had been his idea when in fact it was instigated by Walter Gross, the A&R executive of Musicraft records for which Shaw recorded at the time. The Mel-Tones were never hired by Artie Shaw. They were not a part of his band; they did not tour or do broadcasts with him. They just made the records.

After divorcing Kathleen Winsor in 1948, being temporarily single again, Shaw formed his greatest big band the following year, a mostly-bebop outfit with arrangements by Al Cohn and other gifted musicians. He adapted his playing style to bop with great alacrity, having already been a pioneer during the Swing Era in his use of extended chords and rather tricky chromatic passages which he threw into his solos. It was undoubtedly the artistic pinnacle of his career as a jazz musician, but audiences hated it. They disbanded after only five months. Interviewed in 1992 for the release of Artie Shaw: The Last Recordings, Rare & Unreleased, he said that “The 1949 band was the real reason I got out of the music business. It was a bust! All the public wanted was Beguine and Frenesi…Jesus! It can drive you crazy.”

But if the 1949 band was his real reason for quitting, why did he hang in there for five more years? In 1950 he started one last band, and one of the earliest recordings they made, in January of that year, was a very advanced George Russell arrangement of the Desi Arnaz hit tune Similau. It was probably the greatest recording in terms of musical sophistication and harmonic interest that he ever made. But the rest of this band’s output was purely vanilla music, goop like Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, Foggy Foggy Dew, I’ll Remember April, Love Walked In, These Foolish Things and even the quintessential “drunk” song, Show Me the Way to Go Home. It was a gigantic comedown for the once-proud Shaw, and during an interview before 1992 he said that this was the band that made him quit: “I had to parade and skip on the stage while playing the clarinet, wear funny hats, etc. It was demeaning.”

Yet during this same period he formed what many consider to be the best of his small groups which he named “Artie Shaw and his Gramercy Five.” He took a lot of heat from musicians when it first started in 1940 because he used Johnny Guarneri on harpsichord, and this was considered to be a “gimmick,” but to be honest I’ve always loved those recordings. They had a lightness and joie-de-vivre that several of his big-band performances lacked, and the way Guarneri played the harpsichord was anything but pretentious. He replaced the harpsichord with a piano in the 1945 edition of the Gramercy Five (Dodo Marmarosa), and in the early ‘50s, after making a recording with a lineup of trumpeter Lee Castle, tenor saxist Don Lanphere, pianist Gil Barrios, guitarist Jimmy Raney, bassist Teddy Kotick and drummer Dave Williams, in 1951 he hit on a splendid combination in which he could really shine. This last version of the Gramercy Five had Hank Jones on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, Joe Roland on vibes, Tal Farlow on guitar and Irv Kluger on drums. At the very end, in June 1954, Roland dropped out and Farlow was replaced by Joe Puma.

When the MusicMasters CD of this group was issued in 1992, the cover focused on the word “unreleased,” giving many collectors—myself included—the impression that no one wanted too issue poor Artie’s best small-group performances during his active career, but this was not the case. In addition to two 7-inch vinyl 78s being issued by the small Bell Records company in 1952 (Besame Mucho b/w That Old Feeling and Tenderly/Stop and Go Mambo), Norman Granz’ Clef label issued no less than FOUR 10” LPs of this Gramercy Five. But the über-proud Shaw was undoubtedly embarrassed that he had to resort to a cheapo label (Bell) and a jazz specialty label (Clef) rather than having them issued by Decca or RCA.

Clef LP coverBesame MuchoClef Vol 4

One thing I’ll give to him, though: in that last year his once-flourishing mane of hair had gone but he just continued to play and appear balding and made no attempt to cover it up with a wig. And another thing I’ll be the first to give him credit for is that it was an insult for some music critics to claim that because his improvisations sounded so perfect that he wrote them out in advance. In addition to comparing airchecks vs. studio recordings from the 1938-49 period, one can also compare the Bell recordings to the same pieces recorded by Clef to see how he changed his solos. The bottom line is that those who wrote that about him were jealous of his talent, which was formidable. If you listen to ANY modern-day clarinetist play his Concerto for Clarinet, for instance, you’ll note that not one of them can combine his fluidity of both swing and a full tone. They either play “out” and fudge the triplets and turns or, more often, they reduce the volume in order to get through those passages without making a mistake.

Shaw in 1954

Shaw in 1954

But the Concerto for Clarinet is a prime example of Shaw’s need for public love vs. his artistic instincts. When he was asked to write the piece for his Paramount film with Fred Astaire, Second Chorus, he was skeptical and eventually dismissive of the results, which he said were just “a couple of good riff tunes held together by pseudo-classical passages,” but once the sales of the recording took off he embraced it as one of his best records—largely because of the spectacular finale in which he played an altissimo high C. But so what when that high C followed nearly a half-minute of pretentious quasi-classical devices? Similarly, his 1953 Decca recording of These Foolish Things is mostly just clarinet-with-mushy strings in the accepted MOR style of the day, but suddenly, at the end, the orchestra stops and he plays a spectacular 11-bar cadenza, topped off by yet another “impossible” high note, which he later said was the high water mark of his entire 30-year career as a clarinetist, “the only time I played exactly what I wanted to and it came off perfectly.” But it still follows a banal performance of These Foolish Things.

Shaw Capitol LPWhen Shaw retired at the end of 1954, he turned his clarinet into a lamp stand and became a real estate broker. He did good business for a few years due to name recognition, but eventually business dropped off and he stopped that as well. In 1968 he allowed Capitol Records to assemble a band and make a stereo album titled Artie Shaw Re-Creates his Great ’38 Band, but he didn’t pick the musicians or direct it; he just gave his approval to release the takes. He was very happy with it because clarinetist Walt Levinsky did a superb job of emulating Shaw’s tone and technique, and drummer Don Lamond did a near-perfect Buddy Rich imitation. By this time, however, he was busy writing, mostly short stories, of which two volumes were published. As Terry Teachout put it in his March 2005 article on Shaw in Commentary, “Music’s loss was not literature’s gain,” his writing being “the work of an intellectual manqué, an autodidact eager to show off his hard-won knowledge. Unfortunately, Shaw had little to say about anything other than himself—he was in private life a garrulous, self-obsessed monologist—which undoubtedly explains why he had no success as a writer of fiction.”

Tom Nolan, of course, simply loved the guy and makes excuse after excuse for his behavior. He never saw his children grow up? He never called his friends directly to talk to them, but had a factotum phone them and announce, “Please hold. Artie Shaw wishes to speak to you”? Well, he was just very private and shy, you know. But the man’s pettiness went far beyond that. I still remember a time, back in the 1990s, when some American record collector ran across one of Shaw’s rarest records, an English Brunswick 78 of his 1949 band. Apparently the local newspaper and TV station had nothing better to report that day, so his find hit the news. A few days later, he got one of those “Please hold. Artie Shaw wishes to speak to you” calls. He was thrilled, assuming the great man wanted to congratulate him. No such luck. Shaw told him that he didn’t have a copy of that record, that it was his intellectual property, and if he didn’t send it to him—gratis, mind you, no reimbursement—he would sue him. Even Tom Nolan can’t explain that one by claiming shyness or a persecution complex.

Some great artists are simply jerks. Gesualdo was one; so too were Benvenuto Cellini, Richard Wagner and several others. Artie Shaw fits into that category. We just have to “disremember” his foibles and incredibly crass statements when enjoying his recordings, which are clearly the product of a supreme master of his instrument.

You can read more in detail about Shaw’s good and bad musical judgment in my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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More Trio Arbós

Trio Arbos cover

WP 2019 - 2SONATA CONCERTATA A QUATRO / BAUTISTA: Secondo Sonata Concertata a Quatro. TURINA: Piano Quartet in a min. REMANCHA: Piano Quartet / Trio Arbós; Rocío Gómez, vla / IBS Classical 42013

This Trio Arbós CD features the talented piano trio with guest violist Rocío Gómez playing piano quartets by three Spanish composers. The opener is the most modern in style; written by Julián Bautista (1901-1961), it won the International Chamber Prize of Brussels. As they put it in the notes, it is rather Stravinskian albeit with a Latin tinge. Bautista varies the tempo, alternating between various time signatures, providing a driving rhythm in the first movement with unusual stresses on offbeats. The second movement has “rootless” chords and is more impressionist in its demeanor, almost slightly sinister despite the long lines for the strings. Later on in the movement, Bautista used falling chromatics that played against the development of the theme in an effective manner. The last movement is perhaps the quirkiest, alternating both themes and tempi in a strange route to the finish line along with more descending chromatics.

Predictably, the Turina quartet is late-Romantic with themes that sound Andalusian to me. Turina wrote for the strings to play at times in unison, which created a richer sound than one is accustomed to from a piano or a string quartet. The first movement thus sounds, at times, like a miniature piano concerto. The composer also made effective contrasts of dynamics and tempo in the first movement, while in the second (“Vivo”) is more like an allegro, with sweeping themes informed by Andalusian folk melody. The third and last movement opens with a sweeping violin solo, followed by the piano playing solo for several bars before the rest of the quartet comes in, again playing like a string section.

The quartet by Fernando Remancha (1898-1984) lies somewhere between the other two in terms of style. There are indeed elements of Neoclassicism as promised in the notes, but its progression is more informed by a development of the lyrical themes; the Stravinskyisms occur primarily in the use of harmony. Here Remancha alternates the lyrical with the rhythmic, giving a fairly extended solo to the piano while the three strings play a repeated 15-note rhythmic motif above it. In another passage, the three strings play in counterpoint with one another. In the second movement, Remancha also plays with counterpoint, only in a slower mode, and here his lyricism comes more to the fore—albeit with shifting chord positions underneath it.

In the third movement, written in a lively 6/8, Remancha uses the bouncing rhythms of the piano as a springboard for the energetic string figures that ride above it. Once again he has the pianist vary the beat so as to continually keep the listener on his or her toes. A little before the three-minute mark, he reverses this, giving the rhythmic figures to the string trio while the piano spins out its own variant.

This is yet another wonderful album by this extraordinary trio. Regardless of the period of music they play, it’s hard to resist their enthusiasm.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Yves Léveillé Steps Out With “Phare”

FND155 - cover

WP 2019 - 2PHARE / LÉVEILLÉ: Phare. Sang-Froid. Gestation. Centaure.* Toujours est-il. Eau Trouble. La Lune dans sa Bulle. Gratitude / Yves Léveillé, pno; Yannick Rieu, s-sax/*a-sax; Jacques Kuba Ségui, tpt; Guy Boisvert, bs; Kevin Warren, dm / Effendi FND155

This album by French Canadian pianist Yves Léveillé and his quintet is unusual to say the least. Many of the tracks here start out as if they were “ambient jazz,” a genre I detest, yet most of them quickly begin to morph into something else—more modern, more individual, more interesting. In part, this is due to Léveillé’s unusual harmonic changes, but also due to his unique sense of musical construction. Each of these pieces is a real composition that evolves, like flowers, from their musical buds. Bassist Guy Boisvert, for instance, uses his instrument more like a ground bass in a Baroque ensemble, moving the harmony up and down with his well-chosen notes as the music progresses. The solos, Léveillé’s included, are well spaced out in note choices and make musical sense. To reiterate: these are real compositions, not just a jam session.

Moreover, as one can hear on the opener, Phare, Léveillé scores his works with taste and precision. Not a note or phrase is wasted; everything falls into place, and the soloists listen to one another and build on the evolving musical structure. Even trumpeter Yannick Rieu’s rather extroverted solo never gets so far out of hand that you can’t hear how it fits into the surrounding material.

Sang-Froid is a more aggressive-sounding piece even from the outset, the opening theme played in out of tempo before moving into a sort of broken boogie woogie on the piano. The effective use of backbeats in the percussion with forward movement in the top-line instruments makes an effective contrast, and during the piano solo Boisvert plays single-note fills that complement the ongoing improvisation rather than just supporting it with rhythmic thumps. Trumpet and soprano sax play an atonal lick in thirds, then the tempo decreases almost to a standstill. The drums play quiet rolls and cymbal washes as Rieu plays his solo, then the tempo returns to normal as Ségui plays counterpoint to him on the trumpet.

In Gestation Léveillé returns to a soft opening on piano, playing a sparse four-note rising motif in the right hand. Bass, drums and soprano sax enter in a sort of slow, rolling 3 with the drums fairly aggressive in the background. Just before the three-minute mark the whole piece seems to fall apart; the tempo slow down to a crawl while Boisvert plays a bass solo and the others fill in around him. Much of Léveillé’s music put me in mind of the more experimental 1950s and early ‘60s jazz, only in slow motion. I like it!

One could easily provide such detailed descriptions of every track on this CD, but to what purpose? The listening experience supersedes anything I could put in words anyway. Besides which, the verbal descriptions can’t convey the emotional impression of this music and, besides, they may actual spoil your sense of discovery and enjoyment. With that being said, I must also praise Léveillé for his very effective programming. He contrasts moods well, for instance following the rather upbeat Centaure with the strange, ominous-sounding Toujours est-il. In Eau Trouble, he builds the piece around a couple of five-note licks in the bass line played 5 against 4. There are so many little variables like this in the album that I’d rather you discovered them for yourself; you’ll appreciate them all the more.

Phare is, quite, simply, a remarkable album of jazz compositions skillfully arranged and expertly played. You really should check it out!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Borissova Plays Vladigerov, Poulenc & Seabourne


WP 2019 - 2VLADIGEROV: Violin Sonata No. 1. POULENC: Sonata for Violin & Piano. SEABOURNE: A Portrait and Four Nocturnes / Irina Borissova, vln; Giacomo Battarino, pno / Sheva Contemporary SH226

This is an interesting program by the young (b. 1985) Bulgarian violinist Irina Borissova: the Poulenc Sonata, a new work by the enterprising and highly talented British composer Peter Seabourne, and a fairly obscure work by late-Romantic Bulgarian composer Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978). What works in Borissova’s favor is her very passionate playing. This is not an artist who coasts through anything: for her, every note and phrase is imbued with passion, and this helps particularly in the Vladigerov work, which is resolutely tonal and sounds like something written in 1880 rather than 1914, but when you realize that he was only 15 years old at the time, it’s a pretty fine achievement.

Vladigerov was clearly influenced by Brahms, though his soaring melodic lines are, naturally, more Bulgarian than German. Borissova spins the music out in fine form, and Italian pianist Giacomo Battarino is just as passionate in his playing as she is. Like Brahms, Vladigerov was adept at taking a fairly brief motive and working it skillfully into the succeeding material. Like so many Slavic violinists, she has a very brilliant tone, the kind that can cut through an orchestra when playing concerti with ease. One thing that impressed me is that the fast passages are played smoothly and with equal feeling as the broad melodies. She is not the kind of performer who tosses things off perfunctorily. Naturally, the slow second movement is the most “Romantic” of all, and here I was less impressed by the young composer’s ability to make something interesting out of it. Nearly every phrase ended in predictable fashion. The final third movement, however, is not only quite lively but has some interesting extended chords and chromatic changes.

It will, undoubtedly, come as a shock to many listeners to hear Borissova playing the music of the whimsical but often cool-sounding Poulenc with similar Slavic passion, just as there are listeners who’d be shocked out of their minds to hear Jascha Heifetz and Toscanini romp through the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in a similar fashion, but I loved it. Borissova, in fact, is even more passionate here than in the recordings by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Arabella Steinbacher, both of whom I admire. She plays the tricky first movement at white heat, the second with smoldering feeling, and the third with a combination of both.

Seabourne’s A Portrait and Four Nocturnes is his tribute to Frydryk Chopin, but don’t expect too many hearts and flowers here. Seabourne is too good a composer to fall into the echt-Romantic trap, and in fact I would have thought less of him if he had. The opening section, titled “Chopin,” is far more harmonically sophisticated than anything the Polish composer ever wrote; rather, as Seabourne tells us in the notes, he used as inspiration the composer’s “ill-fated visit to Majorca in 1838 with George Sand,” and admits what I must admit, that “this composer’s music is not particularly dear to me.” (The Chopin recordings I recommend in my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide are mostly faster, more vital performances than the usual flowery goop we get over and over again on the radio.) Indeed, Seabourne modeled this opening section after Schumann’s Carnaval, and as he admits, “With the possible exception of the second, the following four Nocturnes are far from gentle dreamsongs. Instead they paint a quartet of night terrors.” Take THAT, Chopin! But I enjoyed every moment of them.

The self-described “dreamy” second nocturne is more harmonically conventional than the second. I hope Peter realizes that THIS is the one they’ll play on classical FM radio ad nauseum because it’s accessible. Well, almost: at the 2:21 mark, Seabourne indulges in some rather modern harmony for a few bars. (Maybe the radio show host will warn everyone not to get scared and turn off their radios at this point.) But he makes up for it with the next two “nocturnes,” titled “Nightmare” and “Invictus.” Be forewarned, Chopin-lovers!

I was so engrossed in the music as such that I almost forgot to “review” Borissova’s violin playing, but here, in music where she has less to show off and more interpretation to be concerned with, she acquits herself beautifully. Both she and Battarino sound as if they are very deep into the music, and in fact the stranger it becomes the deeper they go. I was absolutely riveted by their playing.

This is clearly one of the most interesting violin discs of the year, Highly recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Lucio-Villegas Pays Tribute to Manuel Castillo

Perpetuum Castillo cover

PERPETUUM CASTILLO / CASTILLO: Suite. Sonatina. Ofrenda. Para Arthur. Preludio, Diferencias y Toccata. Perpetuum. TURINA: La Andaluza Sentimental. ALBÉNIZ: Navarra. El Puerto / Cristina Lucio-Villegas, pno / IBS Classical 12015

The website Classical Net tells us that Manuel Castillo (1930-2005) belonged to “The Iberian wing of the Franco-Prussian school, except that where someone like Rodrigo took after Stravinsky, Castillo, particularly in his more ambitious work, seems an Hispanic grand-nephew of Prokoviev,” but of course he was also influenced by some of his countrymen. In this splendid recital, pianist Cristina Lucio-Villegas includes one piece by Joaquin Turina and two by Isaac Albéniz in order to show some of Castillo’s roots. As the pianist put it:

It is now ten years since he died, and this disc is intended to provide a true homage to and remembrance of the composer from Seville, Manuel Castillo, offering an opportunity to hear a selection of his works for piano, two recorded for the first time (Ofrenda and Para Arthur), along with scores by Turina and Albéniz which provided Castillo with the inspiration and model for the creation of various of his compositions, specifically Turina’s La Andaluza Sentimental, and Navarra and El Puerto by Albéniz, which can aid the listener in an understanding of the Castillo repertoire presented.

The opening suite is, as Classical Net promised, very much a cross between Prokofiev’s style and Spanish music: lively and energetic, with sharply-etched rhythms and those quirky little harmonic twists that we associate with the Russian composer. Lucio-Villegas runs through the rapid passages with aplomb, but also has sensitivity for the lyrical moments. Her piano tone is bright and excellently recorded, giving her instrument great presence. Although this is by no means a deep work, it is well written and very engaging for the listener.

The Sonatina picks up where the Suite leaves off: more jolly music, well crafted but not challenging listening although the “Adagio” is particularly nice. Following this, we hear Turina’s La Andaluza Sentimental, which sounds almost Debussy-like in its delicate opening section before opening up into a more assertive, Spanish-styled section.

The newly-recorded Ofrenda, written in 1982, is a more modern, almost Impressionist Castillo. His harmonies are more like late-period Debussy and his musical expression has become much more in line with contemporary musical thinking. It’s an excellent piece, with occasional tone clusters that reminded me of the Cartas Celestas of Almeida Prado. So too is the previously unrecorded Para Arthur with its tone clusters and similar Impressionist feeling. It’s so good to know that Castillo was a composer who grew stylistically without sacrificing his own identity.

Lucio-Villegas plays Álbeniz with surprising vigor and a strong attack, taking his music out of its normal environment of “classics lite” and making us realize (as if we didn’t already know) what an excellent composer he was.

I think the modern style of the Preludio, Diferencias y Toccata, which dates from 1959, surprised me the most. Although not quite on the level of Ofrenda or Para Arthur, this is clearly music that is harmonically several steps beyond Prokofiev, yet still featuring a clear musical form. Once again, Lucio-Villegas alternates between strong attacks and soft, Impressionist sounds, which bring the form of the piece into clearer focus. For all of the Impressionist tendencies of the Preludio, the Diferencias has a strong Spanish rhythm which, in places, sounds very much like folk music, though there are soft sections which are interspersed with the busier ones. The final Toccata is rhythmically strong, featuring repetitive chords interspersed with some brief but effective chord changes, and the 1992 Perpetuum is a bitonal romp in a brilliant tempo with running modal figures in the bass line played against rising and falling rapid chords in the left.

This is a very interesting CD showing Castillo’s growth as a composer as well as providing us with some of his very finest music.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Fred Nardin Has an Opening!


WP 2019 - 2OPENING / NARDIN: The Giant. Parisian Melodies. New Waltz. Hope. Travel To. MONK: I Mean You. Green Chimneys. BROWN: Don’t Forget the Blues. GIBSON: Lost in Your Eyes. PORTER: You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To / Fred Nardin Trio: Nardin, pno/el-pno; Or Bareket, bs; Leon Parker, dm/perc/body rhythm / Jazz Family (no number; available as digital download)

French pianist Fred Nardin, winner of the 2016 Prix Django Reinhardt as French Musician of the Year, is a blistering bop player in the Martial Solal mold. It’s the kind of jazz you can sink your teeth into. Nardin doesn’t mess around, and his improvisations, in addition to being brilliantly played, also have substance. He is truly a composer of choruses, not just the kind of pianist who fills space, and his assisting musicians are on his wavelength.

From the very beginning of The Giant, Nardin is on form, churning out a blistering couple of choruses before relaxing the tempo a little and allowing New York-based bassist Or Bareket some solo space. Parisian Melodies is a jazz waltz, not as harmonically sophisticated as Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby but attractive in its quirky way just the same. Here, Nardin deconstructs the melody during his improvisation, picking out single notes in the right hand while Bareket provides the ground bass and harmony. When he starts increasing the speed of his playing, the tempo changes to a straight 4 as the rhythm section falls in behind him, changing back to a slower 3 once again. We again encounter 3/4 time in New Waltz, a more melodic piece played quite sensitively by Nardin and the trio. Again, he proves himself a real composer of choruses and not just a filler of space, and once again the waltz is transformed into a 4/4 piece in places.

Thelonious Monk’s I Mean You is up next, and Nardin attacks it with gusto, spinning out brilliant variants based partly on the chords and partly on the melody itself. The rhythm is also deconstructed during Bareket’s bass solo, with drummer Leon Parker providing great accents behind him. Ray Brown’s Don’t Forget the Blues is up next, and amazingly enough, Nardin also plays this in Monk’s style, which I liked very much.

Hope is sort of a medium-slow piece, but its simple riff lines scarcely constitute a melody. Even so, what Nardin does with the chord changes here is amazing, creating a real melodic line over what at first appeared to be relatively simple changes. Bareket’s solo, though quite good, is not nearly as perfect. At one point, Nardin just plays a sequence of simple repeated chords while Parker hums behind him. Travel To is quite different, a spacey piece featuring a lot of rolling figures on the keyboard and a tendency to stay on one chord for some time before shifting gears. Nardin opens this a cappella, but at 1:28 he suddenly picks up the tempo, creates a new melody and has his rhythm section fall in behind him. He then switches to electric piano for a samba-based middle section, to interesting effect; Parker does body slapping behind him and Bareket. Later still, he just repeats a four-note motif while Parker plays some very complex drums behind him.

Nardin has fun with the old Cole Porter standard, You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To, playing it in a nice, relaxed medium tempo that has all but disappeared from American jazz. This one swings lightly, with the pianist creating entirely new single-note melodies in the right hand. Lost in Your Eyes gets the slow ballad treatment, yet Nardin and his mates never let you feel that he’s about to descend into ambient jazz and stay there.

The set ends on an up note with Monk’s Green Chimneys, and again Nardin and his musicians are ever-alert for new ways to play old material, thus reinventing it. Nardin is not an avant-garde musician but, like Joey Alexander, he has an astonishing ear and a fertile mind that helps him create real music as he plays, not just fast, random note-patterns to fill up space. This is a great album and a musician you need to keep your eyes and ears open for in the future!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Trío Arbós Plays Evocations of Old Madrid


EVOCACIÓN DEL VIEJO MADRID / BLANCO: Trio in C. POMPEY: Manolas y Chisperos (Evocation of Old Madrid). GOMBAU: Trio in F# / Trio Arbós / IBS Classical 22015

Trio Arbós, whose recordings of works by Bautista, Kapustin and Remancha I have previously praised, present here an unusual program by three composers unknown to me: Evaristo Fernández Blanco (1902-1993), Angel Martín Pompey (1902-2001) and Gerardo Gombau (1906-1971). The first of these, a piano trio in C, is certainly a lively affair, the first movement of which is subdivided rhythmically as 3-3-2, then two bars of 4, then back to the 3-3-2. Blanco has other surprises in store for us as well: the music is largely tonal but takes some unexpected twists, including augmented chords. The second movement has a fast-running bass line on the piano that almost sounds like a Spanish version of boogie woogie while the two strings play a more lyrical theme consisting of whole and half notes above it. This is clearly not cerebral music, and from the point of view of classical construction it just barely passes muster, but it surely is fun to listen to. There’s a slow section in the middle where even the piano relaxes a little, playing what sounds like café music. This leads without pause into an equally lively third movement.

Pompey’s Manolas y Chisperos is an entirely different affair, lyrical if slightly bitonal in the tradition of modern French music of the 1920s and ‘30s with a Spanish accent. I don’t think I need to point out, at this point, that Trio Arbós is absolutely outstanding in their interpretations and, more importantly, their rhythmic accents. Too often, even today, chamber groups (and larger forces) that try to perform music like this stumble over the rhythms, making them too foursquare. Just listen to almost any modern group that tries to play Artie Shaw’s Concerto for Clarinet and you’ll immediately know what I mean. Unlike Blanco’s piece, which is quick and almost breathless in its excitement, Pompey’s takes its time, developing more traditionally but not without imagination. At 6:30 into the first movement, we suddenly shift to very Spanish rhythms while still maintaining the flow of the music set up earlier, and again Trio Arbós handles this rhythmic shift beautifully. The second movement is “Tiempo de bolero: Allegretto,” and this, too, is played with perfect rhythmic acuity. (Note: one of the great misunderstandings among musicians, old and new generation, is that Ravel’s Bolero is not meant to be played at the traditionally fast bolero tempo, but rather in a slow, dragged-out bolero with blues inflections. This error is made over and over again by virtually every conductor with the exceptions of Ravel himself, Arturo Toscanini [his NBC broadcast] and Simon Rattle. Everyone else completely misses the point.) My complaint about this work, however, is that for me Pompey dragged everything out too much. Not only do the movements overstay their welcome, but there are too many of them (five), and to my ears they don’t say very much, being too repetitive in material.

Gombau’s Piano Trio in F# is written in much more modern harmonic language but, again, not forbidding to the casual listener, particularly since it is steeped in Spanish folk rhythms. His music’s style lies somewhere between the works of Blanco and Pompey: more structured than the first but livelier and not as long-winded as the second. Each of its four very terse movements runs less than five and a half minutes, the last one being only 3:47, and Trio Arbós digs into this music with zest and enthusiasm. This piece would make a great closer on the program of just about any piano trio, provided that they can play it as well as this. Surprisingly, the second movement begins as a very gentle waltz played solo on the piano before the strings move in with unusual harmonies to take over one’s attention. Eventually the piano simply plays slow arpeggios while the strings develop the theme in front, with the piano occasionally adding stronger chords of its own before returning to the sad little waltz, now transformed.

The third movement, marked “Allegro scherzando,” is in a sort of a resolute and slightly uptempo march rhythm, played marcato by the pianist while the strings swirl around him with the theme(s) and variants. In the trio section, the tempo relaxes a bit and the music is more reflective before we pick up where we left off. The last movement, “Allegro assai,” takes off like a rocket with its zippy but irregular syncopated rhythms which include backbeats. This, like the Blanco work, is a real tour-de-force and Trio Arbós is fully up to the music’s demands.

With the exception of the first and third movements of the Pompey work, this is an exceptional CD, full of life and energy. Well worth checking out!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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