Lisa Rich on the Highwire

Rich - Highwire

HIGHWIRE / COREA-COHAN: High Wire the Aerlialist. Contella. Bud Powell. Stardancer. The Jinn. Medley: TOWNER-WINSTONE: Celeste/ELLINGTON-GORDON: Prelude to a Kiss.* COLEMAN-GURYAN: Lonely Woman.* McGLOHON: Songbird. LAINE-FISCHER: We’ll Be Together Again. R. TOWNER: The Silence of a Candle / Lisa Rich, voc; Marc Copland, *David Kane, pno; Drew Gress, bs; Michael Smith, dm / Tritone Records 002

For those of you who don’t know, or were wondering why I don’t review more jazz vocal albums, I’ll tell you. I’m actually offered a ton of them to review, but 99% of them are by what I categorize as whispery lounge singers who think they’re singing jazz because their pianists can swing a little, even if they don’t. Now, this seems to be the big trend of the present and perhaps for the foreseeable future, but I just cringe when I hear these whispery singers, especially the women, because as a feminist I bristle at the sheer sound of some chick doing a “come hither” act with her voice. On top of that, I grew up in the 1950s listening to way too many of these kinds of singers (Helen Merrill, Caterina Valente, Julie London). I thought they sucked back then and I still think they suck now. My idea of a female jazz singer is one with some backbone who sings out more: Ella, Alice Babs, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, Connee Boswell (most of the time, anyway), Carmen McRae, and later on, Cheryl Bentyne and Diane Schuur. Those are my kind of jazz singers. (Lorraine Feather is a special case; her voice is soft-grained but she always swings, sometimes sings out, and her songwriting skills are off the charts.)

Thus I was not expecting much when I received this CD, scheduled for release next week, in the mail for review, but I did note that Lorraine Feather herself praised her earlier recording in the Los Angeles Times, so I gave it a whirl.

I’m glad I did. Lisa Rich was a very fine talent.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I use the term “was.” The answer, which I got from reading the promo material accompanying this album, is that Lisa Rich “experienced serious health issues…She stopped performing altogether. She opened up a music studio working as a teacher…gave private lessons and conducted workshops.” She cannot perform any longer, but last year, “after working tirelessly to find the strength to rise up again, she returned to mix the music she had begun so long ago.”

The downside of this album is that it includes a lot of ballads. The upside is that she clearly had outstanding talent. Apparently she also made an album with the late Clare Fischer, Touch of the Rare, and my estimation of Clare Fischer is extremely high. Go back to the beginning of my blog and you’ll find reviews I wrote of new releases of music by both Clare Fischer and his son, Brent.

But because of the preponderance of ballads, I will give an overview of the album rather than my usual track-by-track analysis so as not to offend an obviously talented woman whose career was cut short by illness.

Although she did not have a phenomenal voice in the sense that many other female jazz singers of her time did (i.e., Maureen McGovern, Cleo Laine. Diane Schuur), Rich had a very pleasant timbre and excellent diction and she swung very well. Despite her limited vocal resources, she could and did sing “out” at times where her modern-day sisters would continue to sing softly. Another plus is the presence of five tunes by Chick Corea, including the uptempo High Wire the Aerialist and The Jinn. In addition, her backup band could really swing, particularly drummer Michael Smith who is both propulsive and understated, a rare combination.

Corea’s ballad Contessa has a better-than-average musical shape: its melody line resembling the improvisation of a wind instrument, and Rich negotiates its unusual shape with taste and skill. I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out the excellent playing on this track by pianist Marc Copland who, though he uses a fairly narrow dynamic range, has some really superb musical ideas. His solo on this number is really a gem, growing and developing through a couple of choruses before Rich re-enters. The choice to make a medley out of Ralph Towner’s Celeste and Duke Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss was a good one, though the latter is a better song than the former.

Another real gem on this disc is her performance of Chick Corea’s tribute to Bud Powell. Her relaxed, understated ability to swing reminds me a bit of Cheryl Bentyne. I was particularly interested to hear how she would do Lonely Woman since this was a piece written by Ornette Coleman without the idea of a piano, which is used here. The harmonization of the tune is clever but, to some extent, smoothes out the unusual qualities that the original recording possessed. The Jinn, an unusual song with shifting time signatures and tempi, is given an excellent performance.

Lisa Rich is certainly worth hearing. Her phrasing and beat were superb, and I would surely rather hear her than most of the lounge singers we get nowadays.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Preminger Presents Lampert’s “Zigsaw”

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LAMPERT: Zigsaw / Noah Preminger, t-sax; Jason Palmer, tpt; John O’Gallagher, a-sax; Rob Schwimmer, haken continuum/clavinet; Kris Davis, pno; Kim Cass, bs; Rudy Royston, dm / private release, no number

I’m familiar with the extraordinary talents of tenor saxist Noah Preminger from his earlier releases, but to be honest the name of Steve Lampert was entirely new to me. It turns out that he has had an eclectic and wide-ranging career, having played with Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton, Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Griffin, Randy Weston, Art Blakey, Mel Tormé, Roy Haynes, Thad Jones and others. He also studied at the Mannes College of Music. By the late 1970s, according to the bio on his website, he began to develop “a more personal compositional conception of music within which to frame improvisational work.” This piece was written for Preminger at his request.

I was a little leery about it for one reason, and that was due to its inclusion of electronics, but as it turns out the electronic instruments used are more of a background and do not scream and screech in your ear. Moreover, the music is so amazingly complex that you get sucked into its vortex early on.

Zigsaw, due for release on October 4, is a continuous piece lasting a little over 48 minutes. It opens with an incredible note sequence that would be sure to give most jazz musicians fits to even think of improvising on. First, there is a bell sound (electronically produced) that plays a high F and the Ab below, then moving downward to Eb and then to A natural—and it’s that A natural that doesn’t “fit” the sequence. But it continues on to another Ab, the B below that, then the F and D below that. Daunting to say the least! You can visualize the notes like this, except that they are played as whole notes, not quarters:

Lampert

When Preminger enters, it is to play rapid eighths in a seemingly crazy pattern around the synthesizer, but the pattern is not crazy; it’s just atonal, and fits in between the cracks of the notes. Meanwhile, the synth is playing those notes in a faster and different pattern than initially while the bass and drums fit in.

Yes, it’s atonal, it’s complex, but the music develops and makes sense. At 1:08 Preminger begins improvising over the rhythm and electronics, maintaining its atonal bias while still swinging. At 3:29 the tempo and intensity eases, but just for a few bars; then, after another lick played by Preminger, bassist Kim Carr enters the picture, improvising over an ambient sound from the electronics. The intense sections now come and go intermittently; at 6:27, alto saxist John O’Gallagher plays a somewhat lyrical atonal like while Carr interjects behind him, followed in turn by trumpeter Jason Palmer. All of the soloists complement the underlying electronic basso continuo.

The piece continues in this vein, pulling back on tempo and intensity and then ramping up again. Pianist Kris Davis has a solo during one of the “lulls” before Preminger returns for more intense, fast playing. Nor does he just play circular chromatics as John Coltrane did, although the figures he plays do use accidentals in his flurry of 16ths. The electronics sound like a didgeridoo behind Palmer’s second solo, which is wonderfully constructed and more tonally consonant than most of the surrounding material. At 23:07, we hear a woman’s voice, apparently spliced in.

And so it goes. My principal caveat with the piece is that it goes on far too long and, after about 23 minutes, doesn’t really grow but rather repeats and repeats ideas and memes already explored in considerable depth. If the piece were only half as long, it would have been twice as effective. That is always the danger with exploratory works like this, made from complex but repeating building blocks. You run out of ideas, particularly when the harmonic base is relatively static, no matter how complex the top line is. At 29:28, for instance, we once again hear the opening lick played by Preminger, as if once wasn’t enough.

But Zigsaw is certainly a piece worth hearing once. It has a certain fascination despite its repetitive nature.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Chamber Works by Veress and Bartók

Veress - Bartok - Lonquich

WP 2019 - 2VERESS: String Trio / Vilde Frang, vln; Lawrence Power, vla; Nicolas Altstaedt, cel / BARTÓK: Piano Quintet / Frang, Barnabas Kelemen, vln; Katalin Kokas, vla; Altstaedt, cel; Alexander Lonquich, pno / Alpha 458

Everyone knows at least some of the music of Bartók, but I doubt that many even know who Sándor Veress was, let alone know what his music sounds like. Veress (1907-1992) was also a Hungarian, born in Transylvania, who studied with Lajtha, Kodály and Bartók who taught music theory and composition at the Conservatoire in Berne from 1950 onward. His String Trio is considered to be his serial masterpiece but, like so many such works, Veress presents a fairly conservative approach to serialism, integrating the 12-tone system into his own pre-existing model of composition. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating piece.

Veress’ Trio is only in two fairly long movements, “Andante” and “Allegro molto.” Both of the note-rows he chose have expressive, melodic qualities, making the piece fairly digestible for those classical lovers who generally shun serial music. In fact, I would say that this trio has a certain kinship with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in its original form for string sextet though it is much closer to later Schoenberg (say, of the Serenade) than to that pre-serial work. I did, however, very much like the form and shape of the work, and if I have any caveat about the actual performance given here it is that the players have, to my ears, too “lean” of a sound, as if they were playing with straight tone. Only cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, whose brainchild this CD was, plays with appropriate warmth. This is not to say that the performance is entirely cold, but it is a bit on the chilly side. The second, fast movement is much more objective in quality; here, the tone row chosen produces a more obscure and harder-to-grasp melodic line, yet it is still one that sounds to the naked ear more consonant harmonically than it really is. The music is highly syncopated but in a Hungarian rather than in a jazz sense, and there is a great deal of pizzicato playing as well as passages where the musicians knock on the wood of their instruments. Eventually the music becomes quite busy and complex indeed, with two instruments at a time playing edgy rhythmic figures while the third (generally the cello) plays a melodic line above. At the 7:27 mark, all three strings participate in some peculiar, almost backwards sort of syncopation.

Although Bartók is a known quantity in the musical world, this Piano Quintet is not. Dating from 1904, when the composer was only 23 years old, it is very much in the late Romantic tradition, so much so that it might almost be a very late work by Brahms—at least until about 3:16 into the first movement, when we get the first of several outbursts of rhythmic and harmonic daring that point to the mature composer to come. But I will say one thing, and that is that in this piece the performers do not sound cold at all. On the contrary, they play with uncommon heart and spirit, as if they themselves were giving here the world premiere of this unusual work.

The odd thing about it is that parts of it sound somewhat musically schizophrenic. At 8:45 into the first movement, Bartók suddenly switched gears and wrote some surprisingly edgy (but not quite yet fully Bartókian) figures that make the music suddenly explode. After a dozen or so bars he calms down and returns to more harmonically consonant territory, but that outburst tells us that he had something very different percolating in the back of his mind even then. There are also some interesting rising chromatics at the 11:05 mark—and the movement ends very abruptly. The second movement is not the slow one—that is the third—but rather a lively “Scherzando” within which Bartók repeats some rhythmic figures for a few bars (a technique he would return to in his maturity) and adds some pounding, driving chords in the piano part. This frenzied activity suddenly breaks off at 2:47 to present us with another very lyrical, Brahmsian melody, played broadly by the first violin and cello, even tossing in a phrase borrowed from Richard Strauss, before the return to the scampering figures.

But then there is the strange, modal opening of the slow movement, and this sounds like the Bartók we know. True, he makes it more consonant via the piano part, but when the strings re-enter the melodic and harmonic progression remain rather strange for 1904, at least until we hear a typically “Gypsy”-type melody played by the violins and viola. This is altogether strange music for 1904. The “Adagio” begins in a fairly conventional style before moving into more daring harmonies and rhythms around the 10:30 mark. The finale, marked “Poco a poco vivace,” presents us with a theme that is constantly interrupted, bits of it repeated and doubling back on itself before moving on to the next idea.

No two ways about it, this is a very offbeat album, particularly in today’s world when so many classical listeners want music to soothe them and rock them to sleep. This one will wake you up, guaranteed!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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…And Here Are Arnold Cooke Symphonies!

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COOKE: Symphony No. 4* / BBC Symphony Orch.; John Pritchard, cond / Symphony No. 5+ / BBC Northern Symphony Orch.; Bernard Keeffe, cond / Lyritas REAM.1123 (live: London, *January 15, 1975; +July 17, 1981)

I hadn’t known, before reading the back of this CD, that Lyritas Records began through the pioneering work of one Richard Itter, who began recording BBC broadcasts on high-quality tapes beginning in 1952, and yet never played them in order to retain pristine sound. So here we have two live performances of symphonies by Arnold Cooke, the first of them (from 1975) the first performance of that work.

The notes for this release rave about the fourth symphony in that it “has a certain Brucknerian grandeur.” I beg to differ. Cooke’s symphony lacks the boring repetition and pomposity of Bruckner, a composer I consider to be one of the biggest frauds and blowhards in the entire history of classical music, while retaining his adventurous sense of harmony which Bruckner completely lacked. Indeed, the opening movement has a certain quality reminiscent of Walton at his best, except that the thematic and harmonic language are clearly Cooke’s own. He sets up a wonderful motor rhythm in the basses against the high strings, brass and winds, and this again sets him apart from Bruckner, who had no motor rhythms at all—his music just lay there like a giant lump of crap from start to finish. (I used to joke with my musical friends that of Bruckner saw God, he must have been bored to tears by the experience because his symphonies and organ works are so awful.) Even the slow second movement, which has its own sort of grandeur, has movement and energy behind it. It isn’t half as uninteresting as Bruckner, and at the halfway point Cooke set up a wonderful passage in which the low strings play against both high strings and brass in a very exciting manner. Counterpoint is the name of the game in this symphony, and this theme continues into the very jaunty third movement (Bruckner and jaunty are two words that never go together) as well as the lively fourth.

What surprised me most about this performance, however, was not the music but the conducting. My prior experience with John Pritchard has mostly been in opera, and primarily that of Mozart, where his conducting was about as stodgy as the average Bruckner work, but here he is wide-awake and quite scintillating. Well, every dog has his day and all that.

The fifth symphony, from a 1981 performance, still has traces of Cooke’s lyrical qualities and harmonic adventurousness but is even more concise in expression. Apparently his style never really changed, but as he matured he found ways of having his say with greater brevity. Perhaps he might, as a composer, have been aware of the similar change that occurred in the 1940s to Havergal Brian? But Cooke’s music never assumed the austere intellectual coldness of late Brian; it always had life and blood in it—as I mentioned in my review of his violin music, a happy sort of energy. Yet the second movement does bear a certain resemblance to Brian’s symphonies; though cleverly written, the musical progression seems a bit more clinical and less “personal,” if you know what I mean. But he returns to form in the “Scherzo” with its quasi-Spanish flavor, and the finale starts with a trumpet fanfare that would seem to be the start of a Rakoczy-type march but instead turns into a typical Arnold Cooke-styled movement, complete with shifting tempi ad rhythms as well as the occasionally quirky harmonic twist. Towards the end we do get a sort of march tempo for the finale.

This, too, is a superb disc and a good introduction to Cooke’s orchestral music. Both pieces are well played and, for their time, stunningly recorded.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Arnold Cooke’s Violin Sonatas

Cooke cover

WP 2019 - 2COOKE: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Sonata for Solo Violin. Duo for Violin & Viola / Pleyel Ensemble: Benedict Holland, vln; Susie Mészáros, vla; Harvey Davies, pno / MPR 103

Arnold Cooke? Who’s Arnold Cooke?? That was the question that went through my mind when I saw this CD, just waiting to be reviewed…by someone.

Born in 1906, Cooke learned cello, piano, organ and a bit of composition at the Repton School. In 1926 he went to Caius College in Cambridge where he received a BS degree…in history. He then studied with the noted musicologist E.J. Dent at Cambridge before spending three years studying with Paul Hindemith in Berlin. The liner notes tell us that “After a season as Director of Music at the Cambridge Festival Theatre in 1932-33, Cooke taught harmony, counterpoint and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music but went to London in 1938 before being enlisted in the Royal Navy during the war,” and didn’t resume composing again until 1946. Truly a Careerus Interruptus! But like Havergal Brian, he took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’. He taught at the Trinity College of Music until his retirement at age 72, but kept on writing music until 1996, when he was 90. He lived to be 99, dying in 2005.

Despite his studies with Hindemith and his living through several changes in the shape and form of classical music, Cooke remained steadfast in his own style which was perched somewhere between late Romanticism and neo-Classicism. Moreover, it is wholly traditional in form and shape; Cooke’s themes are clearly defined, never ambiguous, and developed in a crystal-clear fashion along tried-and-true lines. You might think of him as a sort of 1930s-1960s version of Ethel Smyth or a more modern-sounding York Bowen.

The interest in Cooke’s music comes from his unfailing enthusiasm for his own work, which comes through in every page of his scores. This is not the same as saying that he was a narcissist although, as we have seen, even truly great narcissistic composers such as Wagner, Liszt and Sorabji could indeed turn out great works; rather, Cooke really enjoyed what he did and put his whole heart into it, and this is evident in the finished products. Soaring melodies—but not cloying or sugary ones—alternate with edgy fast passages using harmonies that move either stepwise or chromatically, all of it sounding natural in a way that flows. There never seems anything precious or self-conscious about this music. It just moves along at its own pace, giving great pleasure while stimulating the mind.

Moreover, the musicians of the Pleyel Ensemble evidently enjoy this music as well. Their performances are loving and joyous; they delight in every quirky change of harmony or rhythm, playing with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. They want you to enjoy this music as much as they do. In the second and third movements of the Violin Sonata No. 1, Cooke played with his listeners’ expectations by constantly changing tempo and rhythm, and these features are brought out brilliantly in these recorded performances.

Someone (I forget who) once said that all solo violin sonatas owe a debt to Bach, but in listening to Cooke’s solo sonata I doubt this. Except for the fact that the violin accompanies itself with chords on the lower strings while playing melodic lines on the top ones, there is almost nothing here of Bachian counterpoint or counter-voices. Rather, it sounds like a very fancy cadenza in a concerto, lyrical and singing although with good thematic development in a non-fugal manner. The amazing thing, to me, is this combination of styles. Not knowing as much about violin playing as I perhaps should, I always wonder how on earth a single performer can play sustained chords on the lower strings while playing a moving line above. I mean, you only have one hand to manipulate the strings, only four fingers because the other hand is using the bow, so how do you do these two different things at once? As a pianist, I know the trick of playing Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs so that it sounds as if three hands are playing  (you split and overlap the hands to reach certain passages), but as a non-violinist I’m still puzzling this one out.

From a compositional standpoint, the solo violin sonata is not markedly different from the first one with piano accompaniment. Cooke was still alternating lyrical passages with fast, edgy ones, and doing so in a clear pattern that all can follow. He achieved a somewhat haunting sound for the soloist in the third movement, played wistfully in the upper range without supporting chords, and in the finale he used rapid 16th in a serrated pattern, interspersed with pizzicato chords.

Oddly, the violin-viola duo almost sounds like a continuation of the solo violin sonata despite the fact that it was written 34 years earlier. It starts with an Introduction before the first movement proper, and Cooke managed to link his thematic material splendidly. In the Allegro first movement the two instruments engage in a Hindemith-like musical conversation, objectively pursuing variations on the theme and accompanying each other in counterpoint. The Andante second movement almost has, at times, a Russian feel about it while still pursuing the same objectivity in counterpoint.

The second violin-piano sonata, dating from 1951, begins with the kind of ostinato rhythmic figure that Cooke normally reserved for the middle of his movements, alternated here with somewhat more lyrical lines for the violin. This movement sounds eerily like something that Shostakovich might have written. In the second movement, at the 2:10 mark, Cooke used the same sort of descending passage of alternating notes that Mussorgsky used for the chorus in the Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov. In the rapid last movement, he throws caution to the winds, creating a swirling series of interlocking figures for the violin and piano.

An excellent CD, well worth investigating.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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