Trio Marvin Performs Weinberg & Shostakovich


WEINBERG: Piano Trio in A min. SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Trio No. 2 in E min. / Trio Marvin / Genuin GEN 19678

Following on the heels of Trio Khnopff’s new recording of Weinberg’s Piano Trio, we have this new one by Trio Marvin, a group founded in Leipzig in 2016. Trio Khnopff filled out the rest of their CD with other works by Weinberg, while this one fills out the disc with the Shostakovich Trio No. 2.

Had I not heard Trio Khnopff’s rendition first, I would probably be very enthusiastic about this release. Trio Marvin plays with a good sense of the legato line and energy when the score demands it, but in a side-by-side comparison Trio Khnopff comes out ahead. The slow first movement just has an extra ounce of sadness in Trio Khnopff’s performance, and in the explosive second movement Trio Marvin seems just a shade less explosive. I realize that this is a fine line to draw between the two performances, but I have to be honest about my reactions.

Which is not to say that Trio Marvin’s performance is at all bad. If the Trio Khnopff recording did not exist, I would give it very high marks. I was especially impressed by pianist Vita Kan, who plays with a great deal of feeling, particularly in the long piano introduction to the third movement (“Poem; Moderato”). In this section of the trio, both performances are on an equal footing, and indeed here violinist Marina Grauman and cellist Marius Urba dig deeper into the music than they did in the first two movements; but the overall impact of Trio Khnopff’s reading is just that much more intense and personally felt, in my view.

Yet Trio Marvin does an excellent job on the Shostakovich trio, particularly in the first movement where they draw out a fine filigree of tone, giving it very expressive playing. In each and every movement, I felt as if Trio Marvin was touching a raw nerve, literally wrenching emotion out of the music without overdoing it or being hysterical. There was not a single moment in this performance, save perhaps in the opening of the “Allegretto,” where I felt that any of it could be bettered, and for this reason I recommend this CD.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Sakari Oramo Conducts Ethel Smyth

cover - CHSA5240

WP 2019 - 2SMYTH: The Wreckers: Overture. Mass in D / Susanna Hurrell, sop; Catriona Morison, mezzo; Ben Johnson, ten; Duncan Rock, bar; BBC Symphony Orch. & Chorus; Sakari Oramo, cond / Chandos CHSA5240

From about the mid-1980s to the early ‘90s, I discovered and collected recordings of Dame Ethel Smyth’s music. Much of it came out on a small German label called Trouba-Disc, but in 1991 Minnesota-based conductor Philip Brunelle, who had recently issued the first complete recording of Aaron Copland’s wonderful opera The Tender Land, put out Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D on Virgin Classics. The album also included Mrs. Waters’ aria from Smyth’s opera The Boatswain’s Mate and The March of the Women, a piece written for the British suffragette movement then led by Smyth’s friend and part-time lover, Mrs. Emmaline Pankhurst.

It was a wonderful performance of the Mass, and awakened even more interest in me to hear Smyth’s most celebrated opera, The Wreckers, but it would take more than a decade before I heard Odaline de la Martinez’ splendid recording of this still-obscure work. I’m convinced that the reason the opera is still obscure is because the plot is not only rather strange but, really, tied very closely to British history and tradition, and thus doesn’t have a very strong universal pull, because the music, as you will hear in the overture which opens this recording, the music is really outstanding. Smyth was raised in the late Romantic period and came to admire both Brahms and Tchaikovsky, polar opposites who in real life detested each others’ music. But her fusion of their opposing aesthetics in addition to her own inspiration produced some truly remarkable music that still needs to enter the standard repertoire: songs and chamber works galore, the “Double Concerto” for violin and horn, and of course this Mass and The Wreckers.

Comparing the Brunelle performance to this one, there are several slight but important differences. One is that Brunelle used the orchestra and chorus of the Plymouth Music Series, which were not chamber groups by any means but not as large and not quite as powerful as the massed BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. In addition to Welsh soprano Eiddwen Harrhy, Brunelle’s other three soloists were all “chamber opera” singers who he had used in his excellent recording of The Tender Land: mezzo Janis Hardy, tenor Dan Dressen and bass James Bohn. Oramo’s soloists, though previously all unknown to me, all have excellent voices. In fact, I prefer tenor Ben Johnson’s timbre to that of Dressen, and Catriona Morison has a much more appropriate, rich-sounding “British oratorio” contralto voice compared to Janis Hardy’s very pretty but light and high-sounding mezzo. Soprano Susanna Hurrell has a noticeable flutter in her voice, but it’s an even flutter and not too close to a wobble and her timbre is very pretty.

In terms of tempo, these performances are not far apart. Some of the movements in this new recording are conducted a bit quicker than Brunelle, some a bit slower, but none are so far apart as to make a huge difference except for the opening “Kyrie eleison.” Here are the comparisons:

Brunelle Oramo
Kyrie eleison 10:16 9:14
Credo 16:48 17:00
Sanctus 4:41 4:33
Benedictus 5:49 6:00
Agnus Dei 8:16 7:34
Gloria 16:35 16:37

The music, and its genesis, is actually quite remarkable and unique in Smyth’s oeuvre. Never a very religious woman, she claimed to have been suddenly overtaken by the “stress of a strong religious impulse,” inspired by her crush on the beautiful and devoutly Catholic young Pauline Trevelyan, that inspired this Mass. But writing it and getting it performed was two different things, and Smyth had no luck finding any orchestra and chorus in England to put it on. It was only through the good graces of Queen Victoria, to whom she introduced it in 1891, that the Mass was finally performed. This was partly due to the influence of the Duke of Edinburgh who was not only Queen Victoria’s son but also President of the Royal Choral Society. The debut performance finally took place at the Royal Albert Hall on January 18, 1893. The first two parts of Haydn’s Creation were also on the program. Smyth thought the performance “a really fine one” and the chorus “first rate,” but as usual at that time, she received condescending reviews. particularly one who said he was “entertained” to see “a lady composer attempting to soar into the loftier regions of musical art.”

Ethel and Marco

Ethel Smyth and her beloved dog Marco, “a huge sprawling yellow-and-white puppy of the long-haired kind generally seen dragging washerwomen’s carts.” She was actually able to let him live with her in a small apartment, and loved him because, unlike her father, he “never complained about my work.”

Those unfamiliar with Smyth’s music would do well to start with this work, not because it is typical of her work but, on the contrary, because it is not only different from her usual style but different from any late-19th-century British music I’ve ever heard. Smyth’s music takes twists and turns in rhythm, harmony and thematic development that are constantly unexpected and exciting. Being dull was one thing you could never accuse Ethel Smyth of being, and nowhere is she more original or exciting than in this Mass. Just when you think that you know how the music is going to proceed, it suddenly slashes and burns through exciting passages that seem to come out of nowhere but are, in fact, exceedingly well planned and written. (When shown one of her chamber works by his close friend Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Johannes Brahms accused him of slipping in a piece of music by a male composer. He refused to believe that a woman could have written such a bold and original piece.

One will also note that the layout of the Mass is unusual, with the “Gloria” coming at the end rather than before the “Benedictus” and “Agnus Dei,” but here again Smyth was unconventional. Perhaps one reason why she chose to end with the “Gloria” was because all four vocal soloists sing together here, and she felt it was a better, more effective finale.

By and large, however, if you already own the Brunelle recording of this work, you may not want to add this, particularly because I, for one, would not be without The March of the Women, but if you don’t, this is clearly the better performance, and improvements in digital sound quality over the past 28 years are remarkable enough to make a big difference.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Haneine Returns in “The Mind’s Mural”


WP 2019 - 2THE MIND’S MURAL / HANEINE: Once a Thought. The Seventh Layer. The One Eleven Tale. Just Because. Motionless Passage. Hidden Mirrors. Reality Shape. Like a Bronco. While You’re Away. Life of It’s Own. Komet / Anna Webber, t-sax; Catherine Sikora, t-sax/s-sax; Carlo de Rosa, bs; Enrique Haneine, dm/cymb / Elegant Walk Records 002

This CD, the follow-up to Enrique Haneine’s Instants of Time, features a quartet rather than a quintet. Gone are the two brass instruments (trumpet and trombone) as well as guest vocalist Lori Cotler; in their place is tenor saxist Anna Webber to complement Catherine Sikora on both tenor and soprano sax. The rhythm section of de Rosa on bass and Haneine on drums remains the same.

If anything, the music here is even a bit more angular in form and shape than on Instants of Time. The opening track, Once a Thought, contains elements of both Mingus and Ornette Coleman in its circuitous melodic shape and irregular rhythmic construction. Without a piano, Haneine can move the harmony around fluidly just as Ornette did and the melody around the way Mingus did. The one difficulty I had as a reviewer, however, was that the soloists are not identified on any of the tracks, thus unless Sikora was playing soprano I had a hard time telling the tenor saxists apart. With that being said, the first tenor solo up in Once a Thought didn’t really sound like Sikora’s work to me, thus I am tentatively attributing it to Anna Webber since the playing sounded more aggressive and more tied to scalar figures than those I am used to from Sikora, but I might be wrong.

The rhythm is so irregular, in fact, that it never does establish a pulse that can be followed by the ear. Our two soloists work around this problem by creating their own rhythmic space within the context of the very busy bass and drums, occasionally playing in synch but more often than not playing their own feel for what is going on rhythmically. Things are a bit less convoluted in The Seventh Layer, where the irregular rhythm at least bears the semblance of a beat the ear can follow. On this track, the two tenor saxists play the broken melodic line in unison while the bass and drums work around each other. There are no solos on this one until 2:17 into the piece, and here the soloist sounded like Sikora to me. Haneine’s unusual combination of Middle Eastern harmony and rhythm with a Latin beat occupies a unique space in today’s jazz music or, indeed, in any era of jazz that I can recall with the exception of Rabih Abou-Khalil’s arrangement of Juan Tizol’s Caravan on one of his Enya albums. Sikora (if that is indeed her) works her way around this mixed-media minefield skillfully, finding interstices in the music in which to pour her ideas. By 5:20 we hear a tenor saxist, possibly Webber, playing a repeated series of two notes in varying rhythmic stresses against the rhythm section. Towards the end, the two tenors play again in unison, weaving a variant on the opening melodic fragments.

The One Eleven Tale opens with just the cymbals; when the two saxists enter, playing the catchy but quirky melody, they are underpinned by the bass, which follows them both melodically and harmonically as Haneine’s cymbals continue to support them all. A more lyrical and somewhat conventional melodic line is heard next, with the two tenors weaving their way around each other before playing in thirds and leading into a bass solo for de Rosa, and a very fine one it is, too, improvising on both the melody and the harmony. The first tenor soloist, again, sounds like Sikora to me; she just has, to my ears, a warm tone and a very individual style that is at once creative and sensuous. The music slows down to a dead stop before Haneine’s cymbals pick up the tempo again and our two tenors return in unison then in thirds, for the final chorus.

Just Because bears no relation to the old Bob and Joe Shelton tune later sung by Elvis Presley, but is rather another very amorphous piece, this time very much in the Ornette Coleman tradition but for the Middle Eastern feel to the rhythm. The melodic line, such as it is, consists of just a few upward-rising gestures of two notes played in harmony by the saxists as the rhythm section works furiously to create a complex web beneath. After the three-minute mark, there are moments where the reeds return with their metaphoric melody while the rhythm continues roiling actively underneath. In Motionless Passage, Sikora (on soprano sax) plays a haunting melodic line over the bass with a few light snare drum and cymbal comments. Her soprano continues to meander through the piece, creating a delicate tracery, until Webber joins her around 3:08 with her own take on things. The two then continue in a duo-improvisation before coming together in unison near the end.

Hidden Mirrors begins with a Latin beat that sounds normal to the ear but, as we quickly learn, is anything but. The tenors play the serrated melodic line, really just a series of simple gestures, together as the rhythm section continues to work out. Then Sikora and Webber (I’m pretty sure in that order) play a chase chorus, following and building on each other’s ideas. At times they become quite complex, inventing snaky, quadruple-time figures that weave in and out of each other. De Rosa gets another solo here, less inventive at the outset but no less swinging, as Haneine plays his sticks on the rim of his drums along with cymbals behind him. The reeds return to work things out once again, singly and together, until the end.

Reality Shape has a nice, funky, medium-tempo lope to it although again in an asymmetric rhythm. It occurred to me, while listening to this track in particular, that one of Haneine’s influences might have been the Art Ensemble of Chicago, who I saw in person once (at the Chicago Art Museum, naturally) back in the late 1970s. The best way I can describe this piece is that it has a “shapeless shape,” which is to say that the two tenor saxists play pretty hot and heavy in what seems to be a rhythm of their own while the bass and drums go their merry way, playing their own thing. Yet the two reeds slowly increase the tempo and become quite hot and heavy as the whole thing appears to be reaching a boiling point before exploding into a free jazz free-for-all. They then pull back on the intensity, return to the opening line, and ride it out.

Like a Bronco is aptly titled, its pushy, rocking rhythm sounding much like a bucking horse at a rodeo (provided that said horse was a hip jazz steed and not a C&W aficionado), perhaps ridden by a Beat Bop Cowboy. “Wow, man, this horse is like REALLY messed up, y/know?” (Just a little joke!) Our two saxists take their turns playing solos, Webber sounding more fluid and fluent, Sikora sounding meatier as well as thoughtful. Here, more than in the previous tracks, it seemed to me that their playing contrasted more and blended less, probably intentionally. De Rosa’s bass also sounds like a Beat Bronco trying to shake off his rider. (“Hey, man, you’re crowding my space, OK? Like, go ride a pony at the corral!” It ends suddenly, not so much as if the bronco has thrown the rider off as if it was just bored by all the bucking.

When You’re Away opens with a bowed solo by de Rosa, beautifully played an articulated. Sikora comes in on soprano while Haneine plays cymbal washes underneath them. At 1:35, Webber enters on tenor, interweaving her own little story around Sikora; they continue in this manner until 3:25 when Webber’s tenor is heard playing solo. Then Sikora on soprano with de Rosa, bowed, playing under her and no drums. Haneine returns, first on cymbal and then also on drums, around 5:22 to complete the quartet. This whole piece has a rather melancholy sound about it.

Life of It’s Own is another of those asymmetrical belly dances, like the ones we heard on Instants of Time. The two tenors again play in unison on this one at the outset, move into thirds, then return to unison. Oddly, there are no solos on this piece, although there is a chase chorus beginning at 4:53 that eventually moves into a duo-explosion. A weird piece, to say the least. We end our adventure with Komet. a Middle Eastern-Latin fusion piece that almost sounds like a continuation (or development on) the previous piece, except at a slightly faster tempo.

This is yet another excellent album by Haneine. I look forward to his future projects!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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John Allee is a Bardfly


WP 2019 - 2BARDFLY / ALLEE: Bardfly Blues/Samingo. Until the Break of Day. Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day. Philomel/Hold the Peace. Mistress Mine. Sigh No More. The Hungry Lion. Green Willow. Full Fathom Fivr. Heigh Ho the Holly. Come Away Death. Never Come Again. The Wind and the Rain / John Allee, voc; Matt von Roderick, tpt; Javier Vergara, sax; Mahesh Balasooriya, pno; Dominic Thiroux, bs; Aaron McLendon, dm / Portuguese Knees Music PKM 9413

John Allee is an actor best known for his role as Pasha on a Starz limited (whatever that is) series called “Flesh and Bone,” but he is also trained in Shakespeare and a firm fan of jazz. In this unusual CD, due out October 11, he combines both loves in a series of self-composed pieces in which he is backed by a solid jazz quintet.

Strictly as a singer, Allee doesn’t have a great voice, but then again, neither did Bob Dorough or Mose Allison. Like them, Allee comes across as very hip and at times very funny, spinning out verbal fantasies as well as sing-speaking lines from Shakespeare’s plays to a jazz beat. It’s difficult to exactly explain his style or how it fits into a jazz context; it’s not the same as Cleo Laine’s Shakespearean “Wordsongs” or Ottilie Patterson’s blues tunes using Shakespeare’s lyrics. As I said, Bob Dorough comes immediately to mind, but only if Dorough was also a Shakespearean, which unfortunately he was not.

The album opens with a long monologue (with music background) setting the scene for the rest of the set:

Now entertain conjecture of a time—maybe it’s 1958, maybe it’s 1598, maybe it’s today. The date’s ambiguous, but the locale is definitely seedy, and out-of-the-way jazz club called “We Three Kings,” about which the best thing you can say is that the piano is in tune and everybody’s been vaccinated. Dusty “The Barfly” Johnson has been holding court at a sit-down gig every Saturday in February. Two shows nightly. During Leap Year they make up for the lost time by playing all the tempos twice as fast. Sharing the elevation with a tight little combo he met when they were all working downtown at Jack’s Slacks-For-Less over on East Cheap Boulevard—free tailoring with every purchase. Hey, Jack! Take up the slack!

And so on for a while, before moving into a bit of Shakespeare. This sets the tone for the tone for all the tracks to come. Allee can swing; he has a good sense of time despite the fact that his voice is somewhat nasal. Luckily, his backup combo can carry the weight and help push him along, so that the overall effect is fun to listen to. In the Samingo bit, for instance, they suddenly swing into Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy for two bars, and somehow it fits. All of the players are good, but I was particularly impressed by trumpeter Matt von Roderick and pianist Mahesh Balasooriya.

I also have to give Allee points for having been able to construct good tunes around the Bard’s lyrics. This is not very common in the jazz world nowadays, when so many jazz composers seem to think that creating a “melody” out of two gestures or a couple of licks equates with creativity. Once in a while, as in the case of Until the Break of Day, the tunes seem to be more related to Broadway or MOR pop, but at least they’re real melodies with a real construction, and when Allee hits the nail on the head, as in Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day (which has a beat that sounds borrowed from the late Dr. John), the results are wonderfully refreshing. Trumpeter von Roderick is especially fine in this latter song, and Balasooriya is also quite good. The bassist and drummer are notable for their tasteful understatement in accompanying Allee and the band.

In Philomel/Hold the Peace, Allee presents his own spin on the poem from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Ye spotted snakes with double tongue,” giving it a medium-uptempo beat. On this one, tenor saxist Javier Vergara throws in a few good licks to complement von Roderick, and Allee scats in one chorus. Von Roderick plays a wonderful muted solo in Mistress Mine while Vergara has his best solo on Sigh No More.

The Hungry Lion is given a slow but bluesy beat, sounding a bit like the “hip detective” music from those late-1950s shows like M Squad and Peter Gunn. Allee allows the horns plenty of space to play and speaks rather than sings the lyrics. Green Willow is again given a ballad treatment, but this time closer related to conventional pop music while Full Fathom Five has more of a beat to it and a less regular, predictable melody (also with another excellent trumpet solo). In the second half of the song, the beat suddenly switches to 3/4, then back again for the last couple of bars.

Heigh Ho the Holly is hipper and more uptempo, which suits the lyrics, while Dominic Thiroux gets a rare bass solo in Come Away Death. We end our Shakespearean jazz journey with The Wind and the Rain, introduced by von Roderick’s hip, muted trumpet with the rhythm section underpinning both him and Allee. This, too, sounds like hip detective jazz of the late ‘50s.

By and large, this is an interesting and creative album, certainly something off the beaten track, well conceived by Allee and well executed by him and his pickup band.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Enrique Haneine’s “Instants of Time”


WP 2019 - 2INSTANTS OF TIME / HANEINE: Bordeaux.* Angularity Within. If You Know What I Mean. Houston. Esperanza.* Slippery When Dry. Inside the Journey.* Color and Space. By Choice. The East Side of Lloyd. The Tear and Smile of an Angel. Let the Cedar Tell the Story. Who’s Willing / Lex Samu, tpt; Catherine Sikora, t-sax/s-sax; Michael Rorby, tb; Carlo de Rosa, bs; Enrique Haneine, dm/cymb/udu drum/tamb; *Lori Cotler, voc / Elegant Walk Records 001

Although Enrique Haneine acts only as a drummer and percussionist on this CD, he holds four degrees, including his Masters in Jazz Piano Performance from The Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music, and is known for his versatile performance and leadership roles in both Mexican pop and the New York jazz scene. He has also studied privately with Jerry Bergonzi, Joanne Brackeen, Kenny Wheeler and Danilo Perez, among others.

On this CD, his band includes the superb modern jazz saxist Catherine Sikora, whose own releases of Chrysalis and Warrior I have praised on this site. The connection is not accidental; Haneine’s music is indeed modern, and if one simply went by the listening experience rather than his background one would be hard-pressed to find anything resembling “Mexican pop” in this music.

Yes, the opening track, Bordeux, has a sort of Latin beat, but only “sort of.” Despite its Latin feel, the rhythmic base is in 5/4 (or a mathematically reduced permutation of 5/4, i.e. 2 ½ beats per bar), which skews the tempo from the very beginning, and the quirky melodic line sounds more like Middle Eastern music than Mexican. (Here, as in several other pieces, I went by my ear since I don’t have access to the scores, but I should mention that the publicity sheet accompanying this CD states that some of the time signatures used here include 17/4, 21/4 and 29/8, all of which are normally beyond the naked ear to catch.) The first soloist up is trumpeter Lex Samu, who is very much an outside player in the Don Cherry mold. Vocalist Lori Cotler sings a wordless vocal following Samu’s first outing, and I was thrilled to hear that she sings with a full tone rather than giving us the ubiquitous soft lounge jazz schtick that seems to be all the rage nowadays. To be honest, however, I couldn’t tell if Cotler’s vocal was written out or improvised, but it make little difference; it fits well into the context of the piece and swings. Next up is Sikora, here playing soprano sax rather than her more common outings on tenor, and her improvisation sounds definitely Middle Eastern in its harmonic bias. Samu returns, this time using a cup mute, first playing minimalist figures before going off into an entirely different sort of solo than his previous one, almost minimal in form and context, before the ensemble ride-out.

Angularity Within is well named, starting out with Samu and trombonist Michael Rorby playing a very angular line in unison, again over an unusual rhythmic base, in Db minor using a modal scale. In the second chorus, this line becomes more complex rhythmically even as the harmony now sticks to the Db chord without any changes. Bassist Carlo de Rosa, along with Haneine on drums, gets a brief workout for eight bars before the ensemble returns. This time, it is Sikora who is first up as soloist, here playing serrated lines on her tenor sax, at times sounding like a cross between Sonny Rollins and Coltrane. Rorby then enters on cup-muted trombone, with Samu following close on his heels, shouting in his upper range, as they play a duo-improvisation of great complexity. Haneine continues to ramp up the excitement from his drum kit, adding press rolls and asymmetrical stick shots while further dislocating the original rhythm. Trumpet and trombone then return to ride us out on the original melodic line—then it just stops dead.

If You Know What I Mean is the kind of jazz compositions that almost sounds like a head. Haneine opens things on the drums, closely followed by Sikora’s tenor playing odd rhetorical phrases that don’t quite coalesce into a melodic line. De Rose’s bass is then heard for a few bars, followed by the three horns playing the quixotic lead line in unison, now with variations on it. Rorby finally gets an open horn solo of his own, his burry tone reminding me of Frank Rosolino or Jimmy Knepper and also showing off his phenomenal breath control as he takes the melody and changes it to suit his own lights. Samu and Sikora then engage in a chase chorus that is simply brilliant; they really do listen to each other, and thus complete each other’s musical thoughts. At 4:20, the complex rhythm suddenly straightens out into a more conventional 4/4, but not for long. Soon enough we’re back to the quirky opening rhythm as the strange melodic line returns to close things out.

Houston opens aggressively with a menacing line before moving into what I felt was a sort of “belly dance” rhythm and melody. There is clearly something compelling about all of Haneine’s compositions on this CD. Rorby and Samu both solo in their personal and distinctive ways, although on this track I felt that Samu was just shooting high notes into the sky and not really saying anything. Happily, Sikora comes to the rescue with one of her typically brilliant and cogent solos on tenor, here including some double-time downward runs in the Coltrane manner.

Esperanza is a ballad, but not a romantic or sappy one. It opens with Sikora playing a repeated five-note phrase, broken up asymmetrically, with a very sensuous, breathy, almost Ben Webster-like tone. At about the 50-second mark, bassist de Rosa comes in behind her to move things along, followed by Cotler in another wordless vocal with Samu playing muted trumpet behind her. This time, I definitely felt that Cotler was improvising in her solo, and a very fine one it is, too, while de Rosa and Haneine fracture the beat behind them. Sikora winds her sax into the mix, as does Rorby, now with a mute. The ensemble thus creates a sort of jazz canon or fugue, which smoothes itself out when Cotler returns for another chorus, this time sticking close to the melody. A strange piece, then!

Slippery When Dry returns us to the Monk-like vibe of Angularity Within, only this time with an even more complex opening line. (It’s always nice to hear a modern jazz composer channel Monk; so many other modern musicians talk about Monk and claim to admire him without really sounding anything like him.) Sikora’s tenor solo retains the angularity of the original line while Samu flies into the stratosphere, doing his own thing.  Then, suddenly, the tempo doubles for a few bars as bass and drums have their own workout. We then return to the Monk-like line, this time with variants on the middle eight, for the finale.

Inside the Journey opens with Haneine playing what sounds like electronic drums, with Cotler coming in with a scat vocal using hard consonants in a style that immediately reminded me of Sheila Chandra, the Indian scat vocalist of the 1990s whose music, though based on jazz, was completely written out. Cotler’s hypnotic vocal-rhythmic patterns eventually move into a sort of melody, following which the whole band comes in behind her, again sounding like belly-dance music except this time with a much more complex and more difficult-to-follow beat. At 2:43, the group suddenly starts playing a stiffish melodic line, most of the notes only on the first beat of each bar, in 3/4 until it suddenly moves back to a sort of 4 as Sikora plays a sinous, sensuous solo on soprano. This woman is a gem, folks, one of the truly great saxophonists of the modern era, and I commend each of her solos to your rapt attention. Listen to the way she deconstructs the rhythm here, which helps slow things down a tad so that, when Samu enters, he is able to indulge in his low-range gutsiness and high-range screaming and make it sound like a response to her siren song. De Rosa plays an excellent bass lick, with Haneine fracturing the beat on drums, as the horn trio returns, now playing the stiffish melodic line louder and more aggressively than before.

With Color and Space, Haneine returns to the same vein as Angularity Within and Slippery When Dry. In this one, he uses luftpausen to break up the line and add interest. To be honest, however, I felt it was just a little too much like the other two pieces mentioned above and, coming so quickly on the heels of Slippery When Dry, did not give enough contrasting music to divide them. This one doesn’t really sound as Monkish as its predecessor, however, and the solos are typically excellent, particularly those of Samu (here not screaming so much up high) and Sikora, the latter also using luftpausen in her second chorus to tie her solo into the main theme. Haneine also solos here, partly in tandem with de Rosa.

In By Choice, Haneine returns to the sort of beat one heard in the opener, Bordeaux, but here he Rorby’s trombone opens things up in his lower register, almost giving the effect of a baritone saxophone, and the melodic line sounds eerily like something Charles Mingus would have written, complete with a contrasting line in asymmetric rhythm in the middle eight. It’s a wonderful piece, and a real challenge for the soloists, but Sikora is up to it, entering with surprisingly soft, slow, sensuous lines before moving into busier sections with runs and trills. Samu enters on a trill of his own before branching out, and here, despite his usual tendency to just play high, overblown notes, he also creates some very interesting patterns. This is one of his finest solos on the record. Rorby is next, playing up and down the range of his horn with his attractive, burry tone and phenomenal breath control. (I actually played trombone for about a year when I was younger, thus I’m well aware of the instrument’s strengths and weaknesses and how much it takes for a player to cover up the latter.) We then get an ensemble variation on the theme, and this is really brilliant albeit surely written out.

The East Side of Lloyd is written in 5 but with the beats broken up as one note on beat one, two on beat two, one on beat three, two on beat four and three on beat five, played by the trombone. Sikora (on soprano) and a muted Samu enter playing yet another Middle Eastern-sounding line over this odd rhythm, breaking it up even more oddly in their second chorus. After a brief drum break, Sikora plays her sinuous solo, followed by Samu in particularly fine form, keeping his high note blips to a minimum and playing more interesting in his mid-range. After a trombone-with-rhythm-section interlude, the horns re-enter to play the quirky melody as a ride-out.

The Tear and Smile of an Angel is clearly one of the most rhythmically complex pieces on the CD, possibly in one of Haneine’s more outré time signatures such as 21/4 or 29/8. What amazed me was how easily the musicians involved adapted to these difficult rhythms, and on this track, in addition to solos by the horns, de Rosa gets his most extended workout on the entire disc, playing an absolutely dazzling extended solo that might even have given such virtuosi as Mingus and Eddie Gomez trouble. When the horns return, playing a smeared melodic line reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, they lead into a rhythmic chorus in which the beat is fractioned going into the ride-out.

Let the Cedar Tell the Story returns us to our sort of Latin belly-dance feel. On this one, the lead line is even more minimal than usual, riding over a repetitive harmony. Most of the interest is in the way the ensemble breaks up the rhythm in ensuing choruses, followed by a typically excellent Sikora solo (on soprano again) with excellent bass underpinning. In her second chorus, she breaks up the rhythm even more asymmetrically, with Samu coming in while she is playing and continuing on his own after she finishes. After a bass-drum interlude, the minimal opening line returns to finish the piece.

Our journey ends with Who’s Willing, in which Rorby plays the opening theme a cappella, joined then by a muted Samu before the rhythm section kicks in. The music becomes more minimal, Sikora weaves her tenor into the mix, and then, suddenly, time seems suspended over the bar lines for a short while before resuming the opening theme or motif returns. Rorby is the first soloist here, actually playing what I would call a duo-solo with de Rosa who plays an opposing beat beneath him. Sikora’s tenor underlines the last few bars of Rorby’s solo, then goes out on its own (including some lip buzzes on her reed), after which Samu comes in, again showing off his distorted high range in an otherwise excellently-crafted solo while de Rosa plays a contrasting solo beneath him and the other horns join them in strange double-time breaks here and there. As usual, the opening motif, now played in unison by the horns, rides us out.

Instants of Time is an outstanding album, but I would caution the listener to not listen to the entire album without a break. This music is so intense that you really need to stop every two or three numbers and let it all sink in before moving on to the next two or three. Yet this is clearly the product of a creative mind thinking outside the box, thus providing us with intellectual challenges in addition to auditory delights.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Hear The Duke at Fargo 1940 for Free!

Duke at Fargo cover

THE DUKE AT FARGO 1940: SPECIAL 60th ANNIVERSARY EDITION / ELLINGTON: It’s Glory. Sepia Panorama (2 tks). Ko-Ko. Pussy Willow. Harlem Air Shaft. Warm Valley (2 tks). Stompy Jones. Bojangles. On the Air. Rumpus in Richmond. The Flaming Sword. Slap Happy. Oh Babe! Maybe Someday. Cotton Tail. Across the Tracks Blues. ELLINGTON-MILLS: The Mooche. SNYDER-WHEELER-SMITH: The Sheik of Araby. SILVER-SHELLEY: There Shall Be No Night. BIGARD-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Mood Indigo. DiLAZZARO-ADAMSON: The Ferryboat Serenade. MORET-KAHN: Chloe. UNKNOWN: Chaser. Fanfare. LAWLOR-BLAKE: The Sidewalks of New York. ELLINGTON-RUSSELL: Never No Lament [Don’t Get Around Much Anymore]. TIZOL-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Caravan. BIGARD-ELLINGTON: Clarinet Lament. STEWART-ELLINGTON: Chatterbox. Boy Meets Horn. CREAMER-LAYTON: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans. GANNON-MYROW-IRWIN: Five O’Clock Whistle. ELLINGTON-CARNEY-MILLS: Rockin’ in Rhythm. ELLINGTON-MILLS-PARISH: Sophisticated Lady. HILL: The Call of the Canyon/unknown title/VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: All This and Heaven Too. FISHER: Whispering Grass. TIZOL-ELLINGTON: Conga Brava. WALLER-RAZAF: Honeysuckle Rose. DURHAM-MILLER: Wham (Rebop Boom Bam). CARMICHAEL-MILLS-PARISH: Star Dust. WARREN-GORMAN-LESLIE: Rose of the Rio Grande. HANDY: St. Louis Blues. BERLIN: God Bless America / Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra: Ray Nance, tp/vln/voc; Wallace Jones, tp; Rex Stewart, ct; Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Lawrence Brown, tb; Juan Tizol, v-tb; Barney Bigard, cl; Otto “Toby” Hardwick, cl/a-sax; Johnny Hodges, a-sax; Ben Webster, t-sax; Harry Carney, cl/bar-sax; Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, pno; Fred Guy, gtr; Jimmy Blanton, bs; Sonny Greer, dm; Ivie Anderson, Herb Jeffries, voc /   Storyville STCD 8316/17, available for free streaming on YouTube or Spotify

I’m sure that at least some of my readers may already be familiar with these links provided above, and/or the interesting history of these tracks, but for the benefit of those who may know the music exists but not really know what it was all about, I’m composing this article.

cover2I would say that at least 85% of Duke Ellington fans know that his 1940-43 band, when he had the groundbreaking Jimmy Blanton on bass (though Blanton had to leave by early 1942 due to failing health and died of tuberculosis that year) and Ben Webster on tenor sax, was one of his absolute greatest and, coincidentally, one of his highest and most consistent peaks of creativity, on a par with the so-called “Jungle Band” (1927-1931) and his orchestra of 1962-68. He certainly had spurts of great creativity at other times, particularly in 1938, but these were his greatest orchestras. Of course, the neophyte who is less familiar with Ellington needs to know that Duke always operated on a different level and in a different sound world than any other bandleader. He once said that he really wanted to have an orchestra like rival Fletcher Henderson’s, a group of virtuosi who could play with perfect section blends and in difficult keys, but I don’t think he really meant that because, particularly as he grew in fame, wealth, and stature, he never put such a band together when he most certainly could have, which was from the mid-1950s, when he revived his career, onward. The reason for this is that Ellington delighted in very bright sonorities—to his dying day, he preferred trumpeters, trombonists, clarinetists and saxists with piercing tones—as well as what critics called “freak sounds” and Ellington described as “geechee.” This meant not only reed players with acrid timbres but brass players who growled and smeared their tones. His first such players were trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley and trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, both of whom specialized in plunger-muted growls, but note that when he fired Miley in 1929 for severe alcoholism and replaced him with Charles “Cootie” Williams, he made Cootie forsake his pure, full trumpet tone and learn to growl with the plunger. He also hired such odd ducks as trumpeter Artie Whetsol, who played with a wispy, “fugitive” tone as if blowing air into the side of his mouthpiece, and one of Henderson’s former stars, Rex Stewart, who could play the cornet conventionally but also with a half-valve or cocked-valve effect that produced notes on the edge of microtonalism. Literally, Ellington had a hard time writing his unique music for an orchestra that didn’t have characters like this in it, and even in his later years, when it became harder to find such iconoclasts, he went out of his way to find the ones closest to this and encourage them to do what they could to emulate their earlier models.

Ellington band 1940

The Ellington band in 1941. Back row, L to R: Ray Nance, Wallace Jones, Sonny Greer. Front, L to R: Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Otto Hardwick, Ben Webster, Barney Bigard.

Yet in some ways the 1940-43 band was the most “orchestral” of those he had. In part this was due to Blanton’s powerful bass, which even on these old acetates sounds like a cannon behind the band, and Webster, who in those days had not one but two sounds, the raucous “hot” player of Cotton Tail and the smooth, creamy-toned ballad player. All of this is captured on their RCA Victor recordings as well as on the 1943 Carnegie Hall concert, but this album remains special for one big reason, and that is sound quality. Here, in 1940, we have the equivalent of mid-1950s high fidelity, removing the boxiness of the RCA Victor studios and presenting the band with live hall ambience.

In a way, it was accidental. In 1940, two USDA workers and former South Dakota State College students Jack Towers and Richard Burris, asked for and were granted permission by Ellington’s agents, the powerful William Morris firm, to record the band at an upcoming concert in Fargo, North Dakota. The Morris agency agreed on the provision that they also asked permission from Ellington and the owner of the hall.

The show was given at the Crystal Ballroom (long since demolished) on the second floor of the Fargo City Auditorium at First Avenue South and Broadway. Towers and Burris used a Presto portable recorder that could use 16-inch blank acetates and record at the then-unusual speed of 33 1/3. They placed the recorder near the foot of Ellington’s piano, but wherever they placed the microphone, they really lucked out because for the most part the sound they preserved was spectacular.

As for the music, it clearly marked an advance on much of what he had previously written though one must remember that Ellington always liked to keep things simple, not to shoot over the heads of his listeners. He had really only learned the rudiments of composition from Will Vodery, Florence Ziegfeld’s principal arranger, and although there were some pieces that did go beyond the understanding of much of his audiences, i.e. Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937), he stuck primarily to recognizable tunes. It was in the arranging and voicing of those tunes that he excelled over most of his competitors,


Billy Strayhorn

but in 1939 he had the good fortune to be approached by a young and rather shy pianist with a solid classical background, Billy Strayhorn, who became his assistant and eventually his amanuensis. By his own admission, Ellington wrote a great deal of music up through 1967, the year Strayhorn died, that was not merely influenced by but co-written with the younger man. Strayhorn’s sensibilities lie predominantly with the French school of music, which meant that he introduced more pastel shades to the orchestration of many tunes. In this broadcast we can hear one of his very first arrangements for the Ellington band, There Shall Be No Night. Two months later, Strayhorn would write and arrange a much peppier and more popular tune that became Ellington’s biggest hit record and also his theme song, Take the “A” Train.

According to Jack Towers, Ellington told him that his trumpet section was in “rough shape” because of the sudden departure of Cootie Williams for the Benny Goodman band and the equally rapid hiring of his replacement, Ray Nance, the first of Ellington’s lead trumpeters who did not growl with the plunger mute. As a result, Ellington had to scrap several pieces in his book that were Williams specialties, particularly the Concerto for Cootie which later, with lyrics added, became Do Nothin’ ‘Til You Hear From Me, but it was evident that he liked what Nance could do that Williams couldn’t, such as sing (Wham) and play good jazz violin (Honeysuckle Rose). Nance was to become an indispensable part of the Ellington orchestra; except for a brief hiatus of three or four months in 1946, he remained with Ellington through 1963, a year after Cootie Williams returned to the fold.

As for the performances, they remind me of several comments I read years ago. When the Ellington band was on form, they were hot and there was none better, but very often in their string of one-nighters (a pattern which he continued almost to the very end) there were nights when the band sounded flat; and there were also nights when they blew hot and cold. The one time I saw Ellington in person, in the early 1970s at the Meadowbrook, was such a night. The first five or six numbers they played sounded mechanical. They didn’t really catch fire until Rockin’ in Rhythm, when the full sax section, led by Harold Ashby, came down to the apron of the stage, stood in a line from left to right, and started blowing their brains out. From that point on, the band sounded terrific. Since Duke was already quite sick at the time (but hid his ailment from the press and public), he didn’t come out until the second set. He looked awful, but played well and was as cheery as ever to the audience.

There are a few performances in this more than two-hour recorded session that come out a bit flat, but for the most part the band sounds like they’re having fun. Perhaps because they were new to the repertoire, Conga Brava and the Flaming Sword just miss the kinetic excitement of the RCA recordings. By the last set, the band sounds, as one reviewer put it, “happily smashed.” But even when the band is smoking hot, there are peculiar gaps in the recordings that shouldn’t have been there since they were recorded on long-play 16-inch acetates. Poor Ben Webster suffers the most; just as he begins soloing on a few numbers, Towers and Burris had to change the acetates and lose much of his work. The best piece for him is Star Dust, also new to the Ellington book despite being around for a decade. The recording starts near the end of one of Webster’s choruses, but he plays several more and they are wonderful. Another problem is that, somehow, permanent skips worked their way into the acetate grooves. This badly afflicts The Sheik of Araby and, to a lesser extent, St. Louis Blues, which is a shame because both are really hot performances. Happily, the newcomer Nance comes off pretty well: both his vocal showcase, Wham, and his big outing on violin, Honeysuckle Rose, are complete.

By far, the strangest piece on the album is an excellent swinger that had no name. The compilers of the set simply decided to call it On the Air because, while playing the piano vamp, Ellington says, “We’re on the air.” Apparently he thought it was too ordinary of a swing piece and junked it shortly after this session, but it’s really good, with solos by Blanton, Hodges, Stewart and Bigard. Towards the end, with the band swinging like crazy, you can hear Ellington shout “Yeah!” But apparently his “Yeah!” wasn’t enough to save it for posterity except for this acetate.


Herb Jeffries

Ironically, although the microphone placement caught the band’s sound beautifully (particularly bassist Blanton, whose huge tone almost sounds like an amplified bass guitar in places), the other vocalists are generally off-mic. The only vocal solo that’s really audible is Ivie Anderson’s on The Ferryboat Serenade, and that was because, since that was part of the half hour that was broadcast, they moved her microphone to a more advantageous position. Personally, I don’t mind that goopy, molasses baritone Herb Jeffries is almost inaudible, but it’s frustrating to hear Anderson’s three other vocal numbers sound as if she’s singing in a canyon. The worst of all the performances, in both respects, is the minute and a half compilation of sound clips (that’s really all you can call them) from three songs: The Call of the Canyon, an unidentified swing tune, and a brief snippet of All This and Heaven Too.


Ivie Anderson

Yet even considering these disappointments, the Fargo session is remarkable in so many ways. In their remastering of the entire session, Storyville has removed all of the ticks and pops (there were MANY in the original issues of these performances) and most of the background acetate noise. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, in many cases, they rolled back the top on the treble to minimize whatever acetate noise was left, which gives us a false sound picture of the band. The copy I had of about half of this session, on a 1990 pirate release, had a much brighter top end on all tracks, but this can be rectified by recording them and boosting the treble by anywhere from 0.5 to 2 decibels, depending on the track. Several tracks were left alone and don’t need a treble boost at all.

The great thing about this session is, no matter how many versions of it are issued, no one has to pay royalties since it’s not a commercial recording. When Towers first got it issued in 1978, it came out (incomplete) on Book-of-the-Month Club LPs, which was not really a commercial label, though they did pay some royalties to Mercer Ellington (who, incidentally, joined his father’s band the following year), and when Storyville issued this set in 2000 it was with the permission of Lena Ellington, so they probably paid some royalties to her as well. But technically they didn’t have to. Thus you don’t have to feel guilty about listening to or even recording the full concert and burning it to CDs.

As for the liner notes, I’ve discovered that these are available online too. They were reprinted by the Rutgers University Journal of Jazz Studies in 2012, and can be downloaded HERE. So there you have it, the best of both worlds: the best transfer of the recordings and the liner notes for the reissue.

You’re welcome.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The IN Trio’s “Cascade”

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WP 2019 - 2CASCADE / ARMACOST: Cascade. Green Doll’s Phone. Circuitous Route. Alawain. FINGER: Niemand. Waterfalls. SWARTZ: Courage. Bass Guajira. Good Ole Days. Now I Know. Island / IN Trio: Tim Armacost, t-sax/s-sax/a-fl/electronics; Harvie S [Swartz], bs; Christian Finger, dm/perc / Centaur CRC 3718

Centaur Records doesn’t really release many jazz albums, but here is one featuring one of my favorite bassists. I couldn’t discover on the Internet when Harvie Swartz just started using his last initial—the records I have of him with Sheila Jordan spells out his last name—but thankfully his playing doesn’t short-change us.

The opener, Tim Armacost’s Cascade, sounds like a New Age or Soft Jazz piece except that the structure is unusual, but Christian Finger’s Niemand is an atonal work which opens with Harvie on bass, followed by Armacost on alto sax with underpinning by Finger. In places, it sounds like a Mingus piece, but alas, it ends all too soon (only 1:25 long). This, however, leads into Armacost’s Green Doll’s Phone, an odd piece in an odd meter in which both alto saxist and bassist play the melody together before it moves into the improvisations, at which point Harvie sets up a nice walking tempo while Armacost improvises above him, now in a straight 4. After Harvie plays solo for a while, Armacost joins him in a sort of chase chorus (or couple of chase choruses). Harvie plays very inventively indeed, following which Armacost returns for his own licks with drum breaks by Christian Finger.

Harvie S’s Courage opens with the bassist playing in 4 but with the stress beats broken up irregularly, then Armacost comes in with the principal tune before they begin playing variants on it. The saxist really swings by the time they reach the 2:40 mark, with Harvie pushing the rhythm with his bass and Finger playing very interesting drums behind them. Towards the end, Swartz plays a repeated rhythmic motif while Finger solos in the foreground.

Circuitous Route has a quasi-Latin sort of beat and is played in A minor (with some transpositions here and there). Armacost switches to soprano sax on this one, and Finger has some drum licks which he tosses into the mix. The solos are again excellent. Bass Guajira opens with Harvie playing very high up on the bass, soft plucked notes that create an interesting ambience before moving down to his lower range. He stays there for a couple of minutes, playing by himself, until Armacost enters in the low range of his alto and Finger plays finger cymbals behind them. There’s a certain forlorn quality about this piece that I just couldn’t shake.

The Good Ole Days is a medium-tempo swinger with just a bit of a modern feel to it, played tastefully by the trio. At 1:26 the tempo suddenly doubles, but then returns to the original a few bars later. At 2:50 the tempo doubles once again in the midst of Armacost’s alto solo. Eventually it just becomes Armacost and Finger playing together at the brisker pace. Now I Know is a ballad, made somewhat interesting due to Armacost’s fine soloing.

Island is an interesting piece written by Swartz, opening with Armacost on soprano sax and the composer underpinning him on bass as the drummer tosses in some percussion effects (including a tambourine). The Swartz-Armacost duo becomes more complex and agitated, developing the music in tandem. By contrast, Alawain is a very complex piece with the rhythm distributed irregularly and both the bassist and alto saxist in top form. Finger also gets his licks in with some exceptional drumming.

In the finale, Waterfalls, Armacost is back to playing electronics while Harvie S plays bowed bass, again emulating ambient jazz but with just enough of a twist in the melody line and rhythmic distribution to make it interesting. Finger also gets an extended solo on this one, following which Swartz switches to pizzicato bass, interjecting some nice atonal figures.

This is an excellent album that should not be underestimated!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Unusual Music of David Sawer


SAWER: Rumpelstiltskin – Ballet Suite. Cat’s-Eye. April\March. Between / Birmingham Contemporary Music Group; Martyn Brabbins, cond / NMC NMCD251

This disc opens with the suite from David Sawer’s unusual ballet based on the story of Rumpelstiltskin. (Microsoft Word has apparently never heard of Rumpelstiltskin as it keeps underlining his name in red as a misprint.) A while back, I reviewed a musically excellent opera based on the story of The Thirteenth Child by Poul Ruders and made the comment at that time that it’s always a little dicey doing an opera based on a fairy tale because fairy tales normally appeal to children (e.g., Hansel und Gretel), but ballet is an entirely different art form. Ballet is not intended to present DRAMA on the stage, just a balletic interpretation of a story; ballet is not meant to make you think, only to appreciate how the composer and choreographer make things work together. Thus we have such “classic” ballets as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty and an excellent modern one based on Alice in Wonderland. In this milieu, Rumpelstiltskin fits in just fine.

Sawer has also written operas, none of which I’ve heard (From Morning to Midnight, Skin Deep and The Skating Rink), thus I cannot comment, but the music for this 2011 suite, based on his complete score for ballet written in 2009, is definitely on the strange side. Even the rather quiet opening of the first piece, “The Idle Boast,” is full of bitonal passages that have a peculiar effect on the listener, and as the music progresses it just gets odder, with lumbering rhythms, biting trumpet fanfares, and even a French horn solo. This Rumpelstiltskin is apparently made of broken machine parts that were cobbled together by some drunken alchemist!

But really, I liked it very much, though I have a hard time imagining a ballet company actually dancing to this. One thing I particularly liked about it was that the music went somewhere; it wasn’t just lumbering effects without structure. In “Straw Into Gold,” Sawer uses lightly-played pizzicato strings to simulate the spinning wheel that the little gnome used to make his treasure. There are some very interesting backbeats in the music as it progresses, with just a hint of jazz rhythm that I liked as well. Mostly, this movement is scored for just strings and harp, at least until 2:32 when a blaring trumpet suddenly appears, followed by a tuba playing an odd melodic line while trombones and trumpets play above it.

“Wedding and Coronation” opens with high winds and brass playing a six-note falling motif around which the tuba and trombones insert their own commentary. The falling motif is then transformed into a repeating pattern of notes, with squawking clarinet around it, before the tension relaxes and we hear soft clarinets playing a melody above the lumbering brass. I was particularly struck by the way Sawer was able to split his orchestra up, using only a section or two at a time rather than as a homogenous unit as so many composers do. This movement develops strangely as well, with atonal flourishes and chords tossed in before moving on to an almost minimalist theme played by the clarinets in their lower register with string figures up top and other instruments moving the music along in the middle. At 5:15 in, we hear a solo flute playing a quirky figure against soft strings playing an awkward, almost backwards rhythm. Sawer certainly knows how to keep things diversified.

“Guessing Games” presents us with more asymmetrical brass figures, more or less developed with lightly-played string figures and the omnipresent tuba. Again, the orchestra sort of deconstructs before our ears, using such odd combinations as harp, piccolo and bassoon in one very quirky passage. Muted trumpets play a repeated fanfare, echoed by the clarinets, as a string bass temporarily replaces the tuba down below. “Rumpelstiltskin’s Last Dance” is equally bizarre, built around a lumbering and rhythmically asymmetrical figure that slowly builds in intensity. A very unusual and creative piece, which builds to a strong climax.

The second work on this disc, Cat’s-Eye, is described as follows in the publicity blurb:

Cat’s-Eye is inspired by the fantascope projector, with its spectacular optical tricks that shocked audiences in the 1800s. A simple device, called “l’oeil-de-chat,” caused these images to appear and disappear: as the eye closed, the source of light was extinguished.

220px-Prof._Stampfer's_Stroboscopische_Scheibe_No._XThe fantascope was also related to the phenakistiscope, the first “moving image” projector (left). The piece is divided, on the recording at least, into seven little parts lasting between 57 seconds long (the first one) and 5:22 (the last one), named according to the bar numbers in the score. I enjoyed this piece but felt , in a way, that it was just a bit more contrived than Rumpelstiltskin n that Sawer was purposely using rhythmic “winking” effects in the orchestra to simulate the effects of this optical illusion. Of course, you can’t replicate a visual effect in purely auditory terms; perhaps, in performance, spotlights on the performers go off and on as they play (which would surely be effective). Nonetheless, the music is striking and. even in the soft passages such as the third part beginning at bar 90, absorbing to listen to. At about the 2:46 mark in this movement, Sawer has the clarinets play odd figures in their lower range while “buzzing” on their reeds, followed by what sounded to me like scraping sounds in the background while piano, xylophone and strings play odd, edgy figures. The next section opens with a classical variant on wah-wah brass, the trumpets using plunger mutes to create an open-and-close effect in short staccato motifs. As the piece progresses, we hear Sawer using a great many unusual timbral effects and rhythmic shifts to keep the listener off-balance. By the time we reach the section beginning at bar 300, the music has split up, becoming more and more fragmented and terse.

April\March is described as describing “a reversal of time” exploring past and present. The music here is, for Sawer, more pastoral and a bit less edgy than the two preceding pieces, though it is constructed in a very interesting manner using short, lyrical violin motifs against which the clarinet in its low register, biting muted trumpets and pizzicato bass interject their own commentary. By the 6:44 mark time, or at least the tempo, is indeed “running backwards” as Sawer continues to use isolated, edgy figures. Ten minutes into it and all of the music is running backwards, at least from a rhythmic standpoint. At 14:30, he uses “punchy” figures in the brass to dislocate the rhythm still further. The one problem I had with this piece is that I felt it went on too long and repeated too many ideas.

The finale, Between, is a relatively short (5:42) but quirky piece for harp. It was an OK piece, nothing to write home about.

A mixed review, then. I really liked the first two works, but had reservations about the last two.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Shifrin Plays Clarinet Quintets “For Our Time”


CLARINET QUINTETS FOR OUR TIME / ELLINGTON: Ducal Suite (arr. Schiff): Clarinet Lament; Air-Conditioned Jungle; Heaven; Kinda Dukish/Rockin’ in Rhythm. ROGERSON: Thirty Thousand Days. V. COLEMAN: Shotgun Houses / David Shifrin, cl; *Dover Qrt; +Harlem Qrt / Delos DE 3576

Veteran clarinetist David Shifrin presents us with clarinet quintets “for our time,” the first of which reaches way back to the early 1930s when Duke Ellington first wrote and recorded Rockin’ in Rhythm, 1935 for Clarinet Lament, then moving forward to 1943’s Air-Conditioned Jungle and 1968’s Heaven, the latter written for star vocalist Alice Babs who sang it at his Second Sacred Concert.

Almost immediately, we are aware of the dichotomy that still separates many classical musicians from an access to jazz. Shifrin’s playing in Clarinet Lament is entirely correct insofar as classical clarinet playing goes, but his performance bears only a superficial resemblance to the way Barney Bigard played it on the original recording. Not only is he missing the wonderful “wood tone” in the lower register that Bigard and many other New Orleans clarinetists were able to draw from the instrument, but also a certain amount of swing. Ironically, the Dover Quartet does swing, and thus saves the day. Air-Conditioned Jungle is a bit better for Shifrin because it calls for more virtuosic and less tonally expressive playing, but once again, it’s the Dover Quartet that shines.

I particularly liked David Schiff’s arrangement of Heaven, more complex than Ellington’s original, particularly the string quartet part which has some music not in the original. Schiff actually makes an entirely different piece of it, and here Shifrin is more at home stylistically if somewhat clinical of tone. I’m not sure. Kinda Dukish is a piece that Ellington sometimes used as a preface to Rockin’ in Rhythm, which had an interesting history. Originally written and recorded in 1931, in two parts, it was a medium-tempo piece with the old-fashioned “stomp” rhythm of that time, but after bandleader Charlie Barnet updated it as a hard-swinging charger in 1940, Ellington completely revamped his arrangement and made it equally fast and even more furious than the Barnet recording. (When I heard Duke and his band play it in 1973, he used his entire saxophone section, standing in front of the band in a row, playing the lead melody like a sort of musical bulldozer.) Schiff’s arrangement is closer to the 1931 original but a bit faster, using transparent textures in the string writing that, again, are excellent. Shifrin tries to swing but only approximates the proper rhythm.

Chris Rogerson’s Thirty Thousand Days, written in 2017 on a commission from Chamber Music Northwest, was premiered by Shifrin and the Dover Quartet. The title alludes to what Rogerson’s father considered to be the average lifespan, 30,000 days divided by thirds. The music is melodic and tonal with a slightly modern bent. The first movement is not music that would be banned from classical FM radio stations. Overall, the effect of the music is soft and calming. Rogerson becomes much more interesting in the second movement, marked “Prestissimo, con sordino,” where fast, edgy eighths played by the quartet are contrasted by the clarinet line with is in turn melodic and quite busy with a slow, mysterious section in the middle. In the last movement, “Quasi una ciacona,” Rogerson begins with a soft, slow melody played a cappella by the clarinet, with the strings entering at 1:03 playing a soft cushion of chords beneath him. The music here is autumnal, reflecting one’s slowing down in the last third of one’s life (unless your name is Arturo Toscanini or Paul McCartney). It’s a somewhat interesting piece but, to me, a bit of a downer.

The last work on this disc, Shotgun Houses, was written by Valerie Coleman as a tribute to the late Muhammed Ali, as both grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. The title and opening movement are meant as an allegory of the “row houses” in hers and Ali’s childhood neighborhoods. It begins with a sustained string quartet chord with Shifrin coming in above the group, playing a series of brief motifs as the underlying support shifts to portamento string passages, then tremolos, before the quartet breaks up into four individual parts to make commentary before regrouping behind Shifrin. Then the tempo picks up and the music becomes livelier, albeit with an irregular beat. The quartet then plays edgy bitonal chords behind the clarinet’s solo line, which meanders a bit in syncopated eighths up and down the range of his instrument before ending quietly.

The second movement, “Grand Avenue,” is much more lyrical, described by Coleman as “a love ballad to his mother.” Since I don’t care much for love ballads, let us move on to the last piece, “Rome 1960.” This begins with “a young Cassius Clay, Jr. training with a boxing bag,” reflected in the music by the fast rhythmic figures played by the viola and cello. The crowing clarinet part represents his youthful bragging to news reporters. The second half of this movement depicts his championship boxing round in the Olympics, with the music emulating the ebb and flow of a boxing match. The clarinet simulates his jabs and punches as the strings play short, stabbing chords behind it. The music also simulates the sound of the “bell” at the end of each round. My sole complaint was that, to my ears at least, none of the performers sounded as if they were very motivated or excited to be playing this music, which is quite ingenious.

A mixed review, then, both for the music and its performance. I’d love to hear the Ducal Suite played by someone like Don Byron, however!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Merel Quartet Plays Mendelssohn


MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet No. 1. Octet for Strings* / Merel String Qrt + *Castalian String Qrt / Solo Musica SM293

Here is yet another new CD of old classical music. I can only presume that the reasons these recordings keep coming out in bushel-basketsful is because this is what hipster and millennial classical “aficionados” want to buy. As it turns out, these are fairly good performances, but I’m using this as an illustration of my perennial question, “Why bother unless you really have something different to day about the music?”

The Merel String Quartet plays with a good feel for the musical line and a certain amount of energy, but alas, they subscribe to the Religion of Straight Tone. For this reason I prefer the recordings by the Pacifica Quartet, but within their own preset limitations, the Merel Quartet plays well with particular care taken of the dynamics. Their collective incisiveness in the fast movements, particularly the last one, is simply delightful.

Much to my surprise, however, the performance of the famed Octet by the combined forces of the Merel and Castilian String Quartets is much better despite (not because of) the use of straight tone. I am not ready to cast my recording of this work by the wonderful octet assembled by the late Jascha Heifetz around 1967, a group that included (are you ready for this?) Israel Baker as second violinist, William Primrose and Virginia Majewski as violists, and Gregor Piatagorsky as first cellist. Very often, such all-star ensembles don’t work well together as a unit, but this one does, to great effect. Nonetheless, this performance is not that far behind in musicality and energy, and yes, that did take me back a little after hearing the quartet.

For this I must credit the “second” quartet here, the Castalian. Founded in 2011, this still-young group consists of first violinist Sini Simonen, second violinist Daniel Roberts, violist Charlotte Bonneton and cellist Christopher Graves, and they are something special. In the second movement of the Octet, I heard a bit less energy and feeling than I would have liked, and I attribute this to the reticence of the Merel Quartet which, after all, is the “head” group on this CD. The finale, however, is quite good.

So there you are; and now you know why I back off from reviewing the umpteenth new recording of old material. Believe it or not, there were outstanding musicians in the past and they did know what they were doing!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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