The Album That Killed Shorty Rogers’ Career

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THE SWINGIN’ NUTCRACKER / TCHAIKOVSKY-ROGERS: Like Nutty Overture. A Nutty Marche. Blue Reeds. The Swingin’ Plum Fairy. Snowball Waltz. Six Pak. Flowers of the Cats. Dance Expresso. Pass the Duke. China Where? Overture for Shorty / Big Band: Shorty Rogers, fl-hn/arr/cond; Conte Candoli, Jimmy Zito, Johnny Audino, Ray Triscari, tpt; Frank Rosolino, George Roberts, Harry Betts, Kenneth Shroyer, tb; Art Pepper, a-sax; Bill Holman, Bill Perkins, Bud Shank, Richie Kamuca, t-sax; Chuck Gentry, bar-sax; Lou Levy, Pete Jolly, pno; Joe Mondragon, bs; Frank Capp, Mel Lewis, dm. *Sax Quintet: Bill Hood, a-sax; Holman, Kamuca, Perkins, Harold Land, t-sax (same rhythm section; Zito or Audino play tpt) / RCA Victor LSP-2110, briefly available on CD, available for free streaming on YouTube

Milton “Shorty” Rogers was one of the greatest jazz composers and arrangers of his time, a man who was up there with the very best: Duke Ellington, Eddie Sauter, Tadd Dameron, George Russell and Marty Paich, to name just a few. He recorded for several different jazz labels under his own name and as a sideman, but once he came to RCA Victor in 1954 he pretty much stayed there for seven years despite the occasional LP for M-G-M or other labels.

But in May of 1960, he and a splendid band assembled personally by him recorded a grand project, his own jazz version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Interestingly, back in New York at the Columbia studios, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn began recording their own version of the Nutcracker suite on the very day (May 26, 1960) that Rogers finished his project. Whether or not the two major labels caught wind of the other’s project and spurred their top jazz talent to come up with a competing version, and whose was actually finished first, is a matter of conjecture. Yet there is no question that Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker sold in the millions of copies over the years while Shorty Rogers’ version soon disappeared from the record shelves, never to be reissued on LP and only once on CD (also now out of print).

The reason is clear when comparing the two different jazz versions of the holiday classic. Even though Ellington and Strayhorn did a fine job of producing swinging jazz versions of different tunes from the Nutcracker, each and every selection on their album was recognizable by lay listeners who only had a familiarity with the suite. Rogers’ version is far more complex and complicated, a jazz arranger’s tour-de-force of almost staggering proportions. The Ellington-Strayhorn version held listeners’ interests because they could recognize the tunes. Rogers’ version alienated lay listeners because half the time they couldn’t.

Part of this is due to the material used. Rogers selected one piece from the complete ballet not normally excerpted, the Pas de Deux, and in several of the others he changed the rhythms, tempo and harmony to such an extent that even some sophisticated listeners who did know the entire ballet were left scratching their heads.

I think Shorty knew he was in trouble because he uncharacteristically introduces the album himself, saying that “I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we did making it.” That, in itself, should have been a warming that Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.

The first two selections, titled Like Nutty Overture and A Nutty Marche, are fairly recognizable despite Rogers’ rewriting, though they are not as easy to recognize as they were in Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s version. Where he began to lose his listeners was in Blue Reeds (Reed Flute Blues). This is an adaptation of the Dance of the Mirlitons, a piece sometimes but not always excerpted from the complete ballet. Here, it is thoroughly disguised by means of displaced rhythms and saxophone scoring which changes the harmony of the original.

The first clue that Rogers is intent on throwing the listener off the track is The Swingin’ Plum Fairy. Here the melody is played first by the solo bass, straight, so it is recognizable, but Shorty again reharmonizes it, adding sax section punctuations and again displacing the beat. If you were to start listening to this about 1:45 in, you’d probably be lost. This is followed by Snowball (Waltz of the Snowplakes), another section not normally excerpted. This is a rather amorphous melody even in the Tchaikovsky original, a piece not normally recognized out of context anyway. Rogers brings it uptempo, sets it in 4 instead of 3, and immediately begins improvising on the melody. I doubt if 50 purchasers of this album recognized it at first listen. I don’t think I would without looking at the title on the back cover of the album.

Six Pak (Trepak) – What was a kazatsky in the Tchaikovsky original is transformed here into a fast-paced piece in 8/8, divided up as 3-3-2 in each bar at the outset, then 6/4 for the principal melody. The muted trumpet does play the original tune, however, so there is something to hang on to. Once past that, however, Tchaikovsky is abandoned for some Latin-inspired jazz interspersed with the full band swinging in 4.

Flowers of the Cats (Waltz of the Flowers) – More easily recognizable despite the switch from waltz tempo to a swinging 4, but again with broken rhythms in the piano and brass under-figures. Once past the theme statement, and again you’ll be lost in the maze of orchestration. Shorty takes a great flugelhorn solo on this one, however.

Dance Espresso (Coffee, a.k.a. Arabian Dance) – A solo bass intro, interspersed with the rhythm section, leads into a permutation of the original theme played by the sax quintet. A muted trumpet, either Jimmy Zito or Johnny Audino, plays an improvisation based on the original theme but not the theme itself. It’s not until 1:35 in that the sax section plays the theme in a somewhat recognizable form.

Pass the Duke (Pas de Deux) – Again, not one of the more easily recognized melodies from the ballet; it’s a fairly simple tune in a slow Adagio tempo with the harp playing constant, fast triplets behind the lower strings (mostly low violins, violas with a cello thrown in for color). Shorty ramps the tempo up, way up, to produce a high-pressure swinger. If you can recognize the original melody without being told what it is, you’re ahead of me. It was only by seeing the title and trying to recall the original (which at first wouldn’t come to my mind, though eventually it did) that I was able to dope it out, but this was guaranteed to baffle 95% of record buyers in 1960.

China Where? (Tea Dance) – This one is so completely rewritten that NO classical listener will recognize Tchaikovsky’s original melody in it. I seriously doubt that anyone would even think of Tchaikovsky when listening at all. Not once is the original melody played; Rogers has transformed it from the get-go and reharmonized it completely.

Overture for Shorty (Overture in Miniature) –This one is recognizable from the melody played by the sax quintet after the intro, but it’s more like a bone thrown to a starving dog in musical terms, because after one chorus they’re off to the races and Tchaikovsky is left behind.

No wonder Shorty felt the need to return at the end of the album and say, “This is Shorty again. Thanks for listening.” I don’t know what the total sales of this LP were, but I’m willing to bet they were underwhelming, because this was Rogers’ last recording for RCA. Three years later, after a couple of other LPs for other labels, he was working full-time in Hollywood as an arranger-composer, mostly for TV and film soundtracks, where he was to stay for the next 20 years. (He also wrote arrangements for The Monkees, among them Daydream Believer.)

Ironically, it was the Ellington-Strayhorn Nutcracker that came in for some heavy criticism from jazz reviewers, who thought it too simplistic for Duke and Billy, but it sold pretty well on full-priced Columbia and, when it was reissued in the 1970s on the Odyssey label, sales really took off. It is now considered a jazz Christmas classic; one of our local ballet companies here in Cincinnati even did a new choreography of it back in the early 2000s. It is considered a perennial jazz Christmas favorite on FM radio stations while Shorty Rogers’ version isn’t even available any more on CD.

But you can listen to it on YouTube (in mono rather than stereo, but very good mono) and judge for yourself.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Ivo Perelman’s Ineffable Joy

ESP5036 front cover

INEFFABLE JOY / PERELMAN-SHIPP-PARKER-KAPP: Ecstasy. Ineffable Joy. Jubilation. Ebullience. Bliss. Elation. Rejoicing. Exuberance / Ivo Perelman, t-sax; Matthew Shipp, pno; William Parker, bs; Bobby Kapp, dm / ESP-Disk 5036

From the notes for this album:

Prolific tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman wanted to be on ESP, because ESP’s 1967 Gato Barbieri album, In Search of the Mystery, was an important record for Perelman, both being South American tenorists of an avant bent. So it is no coincidence that the drummer on In Search of the Mystery, Bobby Kapp (who’s also on Noah Howard’s second ESP-Disk’, At Judson Hall [1968]), mans the kit for the present album. For that matter, the bassist, William Parker, made his recorded debut on ESP as well, playing on Frank Lowe’s Black Beings (1973). And Perelman has a twenty-three-year/thirty-three-and-counting-albums collaboration with pianist Matthew Shipp, who’s been associated with ESP since 2015. Kapp and Shipp are on Perelman’s 2017 Leo album Tarvos, Parker and Shipp have made multiple albums with Perelman, and this is even the second time out for this quartet, after 2017’s Heptagon (Leo).

In my review of the superb Perelman/Shipp collaboration on Leo Records, Efflorescence, I noted that this duo keeps each other “grounded.” What I mean by this is that Shipp, since he plays an instrument on which chords can be played, feeds Perelman more than just abstract, single-note lines. He feeds him harmony as well, and Perelman responds to this with some of his most structured playing—which is not to say that it is more in the vein of standard jazz, only that since it has structure it is more interesting. Whether due to this facet of Shipp’s playing or just his own proclivities, Perelman often (but not always) plays with a warmer tone and more lyrical style.

Although bassist Parker and drummer Kapp contribute to the overall ambience of each performance, they seem to be more out on a limb than Perelman and Shipp. They are “doing their own thing” almost independently of the Perelman-Shipp duo. This adds an extra element of spontaneity as well as out-of-center rhythms to the already experimental work of the sax-piano duo. In a piece like the title track, which is a fast-paced, atonal exercise in rhythmic and harmonic stasis—for all the energy and fast-moving lines played by Perelman and Shipp, the rhythm almost seems to be counted in 1 and there really is no settled harmony to build on—the results can sound chaotic. It is in moments like these that I wonder what they are really doing other that throwing notes out into the ether in the hopes that some of them will adhere to one another and form some sort of structure. I can accept all sorts of jazz and modern classical music as long as it makes some sense to me. When all it does is create an abstract pattern in which no two notes have any relationship to each other or any other notes, I get restless and subconsciously begin tuning out.

Fortunately, the group gets back on track in Jubilation, where Shipp’s lines, though abstract, reveal some underlying structure, and when Perelman enters he is surprisingly lyrical against this tone-clusterish backdrop. Parker and Kapp revel in this environment, roiling underneath to keep the pressure on the other two, which results in an apex of ominous energy around the 3:45 mark. Perelman and Shipp extricate themselves from this tightly-tied knot of sound to return to a more structured and even lyrical vein, albeit with some frantic outside playing, for the second half.

One critic said of Kapp’s contribution that “he’s very sensitive to time and space. He is dancing at the drum kit,” but if this is dancing he must have three legs and one of them is broken. Yes, I’m just being a bit facetious, but I think you get what I mean. No normal human can dance to these rhythms; they are angular, abstract jazz rhythms. I like them very much most of the time, but dancing? No, not really. To hear a drummer who “danced” at his drum kit, you need to go back to Vic Berton. No other drummer, not even such greats as Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Kenny Clarke or Roy Haynes, really “danced on the drums” the way Berton did (although Clarke came the closest). Berton was the Bojangles Robinson of drummers.

But Parker can, and does, dance occasionally on the bass…listen particularly to Bliss, which he pushes forward with the happy energy of Milt Hinton or Charlie Haden. As much as Perelman plays freaky, outside music on this track, he swings harder and better with Parker behind him. There’s a wonderful synergy between these two and Shipp that you can feel clear down to the ground. In the slower middle section, for a brief period of time, Kapp does “dance” on his drums, but the feeling is fleeting. Kapp rides the cymbals and snare drum behind Shipp’s piano solo, however, to good effect while Parker plays double time. When Perelman re-enters, he is screaming in his upper register. It generates a lot of excitement but, to my ears, sounds a bit out of place by contrast to what he have just heard. It’s almost as if he is trying to shout down a good three-way conversation.

After this uptempo explosion, Elation almost sounds like a ballad, but without the sentiment of one. Shipp’s playing has more “space” between the notes and chords and Perelman responds with some of his most interesting and attractive lines. Parker spaces his notes carefully while Kapp again seems to be in a world, and rhythm, of his own. On this track, it doesn’t quite fit or complement the proceedings, but one can tune it out and focus on the other three-way conversation. (My cat Midnight really liked this track. She’s a jazz kitty and has good taste!)

Matthew ShippRejoicing sounds entirely different from any of the preceding tracks, almost like a ragtime piece gone haywire. On this one Kapp does indeed dance on his drums, though again in an asymmetric rhythm that most people couldn’t dance to. Parker plays a brief solo very high up, bowed, on his bass that sounds for all the world like a viola. Shipp slowly but surely breaks up the rhythm so that, by the two-minute mark, we are no longer in a pseudo-ragtime feel, though he returns to it from time to time. (The reader may well assume, correctly, that the more I hear of Matthew Shipp the more I admire his musical acumen. He has a brilliant mind, I would almost say of a genius level.) The tempo slows way down at 4:24 as Kapp takes a drum solo, creating an abstract, non-dance-like pattern that I liked very much.

Exuberance opens with just Perelman and Parker, with the bassist playing an opposing rhythm to the saxist’s lines, yet somehow they come together. By 1:26, Shipp and Kapp come roaring in behind them to create a sort of steamroller of sound. Perelman plays a sequence of two-note flutters on his horn before proceeding in a more linear fashion. Shipp plays his solo at a slower pace, pulling the music into an entirely different tempo and feel, but at 5:25 he suddenly doubles it just before Perelman returns, and the ensuing two choruses have a hectic feel to them. The piece, and the album, ends suddenly on an open fifth.

This is quite a ride, but despite my few misgivings listed above I liked most of it very much. Another triumph for the Perelman-Shipp duo.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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David Murray Comments

David Murray

In August, I reviewed an exceptional CD of (mostly) compositions by jazz genius David Murray, played by Murray himself with trombonist Paul Zauner’s Blue Brass (Roots ‘n’ Wings). I was so impressed by Murray’s compositions and arrangements that I asked Mr. Zauner if he would like to do a brief email interview. Zauner said yes, I sent him the questions, and he forwarded them to Murray—who didn’t answer me.

I wrote back to Paul Zauner twice asking about them; He said that Murray did receive the questions and would be answering me soon…but no answers ever came. I figured the interview had fallen through, as did a previous one I had set up with composer Mohammed Fairouz.

But then, when I sent Zauner the news that Roots ‘n’ Wings had received one of my blue ribbons for a major jazz recording of the year, he told me that Murray had answered me, and sent the following to me. Although not a series of systematic answers to my questions, Murray summed up most of what I wanted to know, which was how he approaches the composing and arranging process, and put it into one long, eloquent paragraph, which I am hereby proud to share with you:

 

When I sit down to arrange a composition, like right now I’m working on 8 compositions for my new octet, I make sure first that I truly understand the form of the piece even if I have played it on many gigs with my band. Sometimes I change the form by creating a vamp out front that can supply a groove to warm up the band before the actual song appears. I know this works from many hours in front of an audience. The next is to find the right sonorities, harmony to fit the piece, to give it an edge if the song is too poppy or too correct. Some songs need dissonance in arrangements, some need to be even more popular to strengthen the song. Writing a bass line is always a good idea, as Ellington always wrote bass lines in his ballads to control the bottom of the piece and establish his Ellingtonness in the arrangement. I was lucky to be able to witness a great composer and arranger in Julius Hemphill. He taught me to envision an arrangement like building a house, from the bottom up. I learned to write songs away from any instrument in order to see things afresh and not something I practiced on the horn or piano. The paper is all you need if you know the blends of the horn section, study great arrangers like Tadd Dameron—he teaches you how to use different sonorities. The way I arrange now is much better than my earlier works as I am a student of many masters. You must practice arranging every day just as you practice your instrument. Don’t be afraid to borrow these tricks from other people because you will learn to make them your own. Playing with Paul [Zauner] is a pleasure because he is like a sponge, he learns very quickly and absorbs the music spiritually, his heart is in the right place so we fit together well. I have written three Operas and have worked with several big bands and various string ensembles like my album Waltz Again that I made in Havana, also Now is Another Time in Cuba. Big Bands with 20 Strings is my preferred ensemble but hard to do these days, easy is my quartet or trio. I need more financial support to show my enthusiasm for my large projects.

 

I think that every jazz lover, student or professional arranger should read the above a couple of times and understand how brilliant his words are. This is a man who knows what he knows because he keeps practicing it—arranging and writing—just as he practices his horn daily. More importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, note his comments. He learned from master arrangers…Julius Hemphill, certainly, but also from Dameron and Ellington. (He could just as easily have listened to Charles Mingus, George Russell or Pete Rugolo for the same reasons.) I don’t know how many times I have reviewed a CD of new jazz compositions and arrangements that is supposed to be “groundbreaking” but follows the same basic patterns of scoring for the brass, the reeds, etc. that have been in use since at least the time of Woody Herman’s First Herd in 1944. Yes, the compositions are different, but too many modern-day jazz arrangers seem to have no idea of sonority, of how to create interesting textures, and zero concept of layering the sound. I have been an admirer of Murray ever since I first heard 3-D Family, his 1978 album, around 1981.

Of course, Murray is also an exceptional jazz soloist in addition to being a great jazz composer and arranger, something Mingus also was but Dameron and Russell were not. (Ellington was an excellent band pianist, one of the best, but he’d be the first to tell you that he “just played the gingerbread around the arrangements.”) This is why he is so successful. He understands not only his own role within a composition/arrangement but how others in the band would fit in as well.

I want to thank David Murray for letting me in on his creative process. I’m not even sure that too many other jazz critics have ever asked him these kinds of questions, in part because they just take his skills for granted. As someone who has been involved in music since I was 12 years old, I know only too well not to take them for granted. I know how difficult they are to develop, and when I hear music as complex and interesting as Murray’s, I like to know how he puts it together.

One final thing, however. I disagree with him slightly that “The way I arrange now is much better than my earlier works.” Yes, he may be able to fit the pieces together more easily and resolve a few issues where before he just let them work themselves out, but his early work, even when he recorded with the Butch Morris Big Band back in the 1970s, was so far above the average, even the “average” of good, well-known jazz arrangers in that era, that I would daresay that he has always known instinctively what to do. Now, he knows intellectually what to do. I’m sure it comes easier to him now because of his years of practice; perhaps that is what he meant; but better in terms of the quality of the finished product, maybe so in certain details but not in the overall picture. At least, that’s how I feel.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Never Weather Scores in “Blissonance”

never_weather_blissonance_wallet_final_v2

BLISSONANCE / VADO: Never Catch Up. Transient. Mask. J. ROCK: There is No Secret. VADO: Resolute. Blissonance. Medium. Always Setting. No Grasp. Morbique. Bring Back the Color. MONK: Introspection / Never Weather: Josh D. Reed, tpt; Aaron Wolf, a-sax; Justin Rock, gtr; Tyler Harlow, bs; Dillon Vado, dm / Ridgeway Records RRCD013

The only clue to this album’s title comes in the brief liner notes, which claims that Blissonance is “When an otherwise blissful experience in nature is wedded to or disrupted by the recognition that one is having an adverse impact on the place they are enjoying being there.” Which to me suggests someone enjoying a pristine beach by dumping sandwich wrappings and beer cans on it, or perhaps mountain climbing by using dynamite caps to blow hand holes in the mountain as they ascend. If not, I’m in the dark as to the meaning of the word.

But the music in this album, due for release on January 17, 2020, is excellent. Part of it, like the opening number, has a bop feel except with irregular tempo that constantly shifts. As is often the case nowadays, the only element in the band that I object to is the occasional rock-styled guitar playing of Justin Rock (aptly named!) which muddies up the generally clear textures. I was especially impressed by Josh D. Reed’s crisp, imaginative trumpet solo, which seemed to combine the inner logic of a Clifford Brown with an imaginative use of chromatic harmony. I also liked how, when Reed ended his solo on a sustained A-flat, alto saxist Wolf entered on the same note, briefly holding it with the trumpet before taking off on his own solo.  The guitar and bass fell away at this point, leaving only drummer-leader Vado to play behind him. The rest of the band re-entered for the finale.

Transient and Mask, played with no break as a continuous piece, is a very nice ballad with an interesting line, initially played by Reed, sometimes a cappella and sometimes with the rhythm section beneath him. On this piece, Rock plays a more appropriate guitar style, mostly in short phrases or in support of Reed’s solo. Wolf has a very nice solo in 3/4 time that is slowed down and broken up in rhythm for an amorphous section played only by him and Rock. There’s a certain Mingus-like feel to this composition as it develops, particularly in the free-rhythm passage played by the trumpet and alto sax in unison over the ever-shifting rhythm. It ends on a resolved chord.

Rock’s There is No Secret returns the guitarist to a rock style, but at least it’s not screaming guitar. Trumpet and alto sax play quirky, circular figures in and around the rhythm section before playing the brief but quirky melodic line around the 1:20 mark (it almost sounds Celtic in character, like a clog dance for a dancer who can’t keep time). Much of this belongs to the guitarist, however. (What can I say? I don’t want to hear rock-styled guitar in jazz. Period. I eventually just stopped this track in the middle and skipped to the next one.)

Resolute, another slow number, is a brief but a dolorous bass solo. This leads directly into the title track, which starts with soft drums before leading into a sustained bass drone on a low B as the guitar plays some fills and chords, later joined by the trumpet and alto playing in unison, first just sustained notes but then moving into something of a melodic line. The tempo then suddenly gears up to a fairly rapid pace, albeit with (God help us!) another rock beat, this time generated by the leader on drums. Reed plays an excellent trumpet solo, although it does devolve into screaming. I skipped the rock guitar, thank you very much.

Medium, which immediately follows, is played with a gentler touch on the guitar by Rock, followed by Wolf’s alto playing what I suppose passes for a melody. Always Setting is another slow piece, again beginning with solo bass. A sort of water sound is heard behind him after a while in addition to cowbells played by the leader. Rock plays a softer styled guitar on this one, but to be honest, I didn’t “get” this piece at all. In one ear and out the other…background music to nothing in particular, at least until Reed comes in at the halfway mark to play an excellent solo. But the piece goes on too long and says very little.

No Grasp begins with the band sounding as if they were playing on a little transistor radio, after which the sound becomes more forward but muddier. A trumpet fanfare, however, kick starts them on their way, but this turns out to be a sound loop that doesn’t really go anywhere. A bit of a musical joke, then, and a fairly witty (if dry) one. This, too, blends skillfully into Mortique, which comes across as a development and expansion of No Grasp, with interesting development and form. Towards the end, another rock beat from the drums, mercifully brief.

Bring Back the Color begins as a sort of jazz samba played by guitar and drums. The tempo picks up at 1:34, by which time the horns have entered and things have changed and begun moving. Eventually we move into a fascinating, irregular rhythm, with Vado merrily banging away on his drums as Wolf plays an excellent alto solo and Rock strums in the background. Both tempo and intensity increase as we head to the finish line.

The album ends with Thelonious Monk’s Introspection, which opens with a crisp trumpet solo before moving into Monk’s tune, played with some vigor. Rock behaves himself here and sticks to a jazz-oriented guitar style. The band stops and starts Monk’s tune several times, pausing the tempo in between. Then—it just stops.

Overall, an interesting album with few weak spots. Very interesting!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Bru Zane Presents Hahn’s Complete Songs

Hahn Songs

HAHN: Études Latines: Néère; Salinum; Lydé; Vile potabis; Tyndaris; Pholoé; Phyllis. Venezia: Sopra l’acquoa indormenzada; La barcheta; L’avertimento; La Biondina in gondoleta; Che pecà!; La primavera. Chansons grises: Chanson d’automne; Tous deux; L’Allée est sans fin; En sourdine; L’Heure exquise; Paysage triste; La Bonne Chanson. Unpublished melodies: Adoration [Hymne à Cléo]; Fleur de mon âme. La Dame aux camellias: Mon rêve était d’avoir un amant; C’est à Paris; Au fil de l’eau. Premier Recueil: Rêverie; Si mes vers avaient des ailes; Mai; Paysage; L’Énamourée; Seule; La Nuit; Offrande; Trois lours de vendange; Infidélité; Fêtes galantes; Cimetière de champagne; Fleur fanée; L’Incrédule; Les Cygnes; D’une prison; Dernier Vœu; Séraphine; Nocturne. Rondels: Je me metz en vostre mercy; Le Printemps; L’Air; La Paix; Le Pêche; Quand je fus pris au pavillon; Les Étoiles; L’Automne; Le Souvenie d’avoir chanté. Les Feuilles blesses: Dans le ciel est dressé le chêne sêculaire; Encor sur le pave sonne mon pas nocturne; Quand reviendra l’automne avec ses deulles mortes; Belle Lune d’argent; Quand le viendra m’asseoir; Eau printanière; Donc, vous allez fleurir encore; Compagne de l’éther; Pendant que je médite; Roses en bracelet; Aux rayons du couchant. Second Recueil: Quand la nuit n’est pas étoile; Cantique; La Délaisée; La Chère Blessure; Théone; Chanson au bord de la fontaine; Sur l’eau; Les Fontaines; À Chloris; Le Rossignol des lilas; À nos morts ignores; Ma jeunesse; Le Plus Beau Présent; Puisque j’ai mis lèvre; La Douce Paix. Troisième Volume: Aimons nous!; À une étoile; Dans l’été; Au pays musulman; Oh! For the wings of a dove!; Adieu; J’ai cache dans la rose en pleurs; Naguère, au temps des eglantines; Danse, petite siréne; La Marchand de marrons; Vocalise-Étude. Neuf Mélodies retrouvées: Je me souviens; La Vie est belle; L’Amitié; Chanson; Naïs; La Nymphe de la souree; Au rossignol; Ta main; Sous l’oranger [Tango habanera]. 5 Little Songs: The Swing; Windy Night; My Ship and I; The Stars; A Good Boy. Love Without Wings: Ah! Could I clasp thee in mine arms; The Fallen Oak; I Know You Love Me Not / Tassis Christoyannis, bar; Jeff Cohen, pno / Bru Zane BZ 2002

Palazetto Bru Zane in Venice, though specializing in older music, has one of the most interesting and eclectic catalogs in the business because they are always exploring between the cracks to bring out lesser-known works in generally very fine quality performances. This, their latest project, is a four-CD set covering the entire song output of Reynaldo Hahn, a composer who is indeed well known but only for about six or seven of his many songs.

The excellent liner notes by Alexandre Dratwicki reaffirm this popular but limited niche that Hahn has fallen into, but also gives some interesting insights that explain a bit of why his reputation always seemed to be lower than that of his contemporaries Debussy, Ravel, Koechlin and Poulenc. The main reason was that he was a stylistic reactionary. Although many of his songs are well constructed and quite beautiful, it is a beauty belonging to the generation before him—the generation of Massenet (one of his teachers), Saint-Saëns, Chausson, Gounod and Godard. He won few major prizes when in the Paris Conservatoire and his first major successes were set up for him by Massenet in the “aristocratic salons” of his time. In other words, his music appealed to older people and the musical reactionaries of his day who did not like Ravel, Debussy or Koechlin. It was the age-old battle of the Old Guard vs. the New that continues to this day, only worse because there are millions more listeners now who insist on the old tonal stuff, even when it’s sentimental and treacly, over even the very best of modern works.

But of course I personally like Hahn’s songs regardless of their retro status, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing a review of them. They are sensitively and cleverly written and have real substance about them—at least, the seven or eight songs I’ve heard for most of my life.

Interestingly, most of the “core” Hahn songs by which he is known were recorded for G&T, Victor and Columbia in the acoustic era by some of the biggest names in singing—Victor Maurel, Nellie Melba, Alma Gluck, Marcella Sembrich, Jeanne Gerville-Réache, Mary Garden, Maggie Teyte, Emma Eames, Ada Crossley, Carmela Ponselle, Lillian Nordica and Geraldine Farrar—which is probably why only those specific songs lodged themselves in the consciousness of classical music lovers. Hahn’s own recordings, however, were not given “star” status either on G&T (the early version of HMV) or Victor, being issued in the U.S. on their cheaper Blue Label discs rather than on Red Seal. I merely point this out because I find it interesting. His songs sung by big names got the royal treatment, but the composer himself was demoted to a lesser label. Incidentally, there’s a treat awaiting you if you are so inclined: Hahn himself singing and playing three songs by Chabrier (Toutes les fleurs, Les Cigales and L’ile heureuse) and two songs of his own (Offrande and Venezia – Chè pecà) by clicking HERE.

The liner notes include some interesting comments by Hahn on singing in general. He stressed three facets of singing: Vocalise, phrasing and lyric declamation. Later on, he said that it would be a nice extra but not necessary for a singer to master such elements as “messa di voce, ornaments of all kinds, arpeggios, ascending and descending diatonic and chromatic scales sung legato or staccato, etc.,” but “it cannot be denied that vocalise is a first-rate exercise for the very singers whose voices, talents and roles do not require agility.” Interestingly, Toscanini took the same view, telling baritone Giuseppe Valdengo how Mattia Battistini always warmed up by repeating the two opening phrases of “Da quell di” from Ernani over and over again but without the words, just singing the phrase using different vowel sounds.

If I had one complaint about the set, it was that Jeff Cohen underplayed his accompaniments too much. At times, you’re only vaguely aware that there’s a pianist present at all, whereas if you listen to Hahn’s own recordings his piano playing is full of richness and color, much like Alfred Cortot. But of course, in songs it’s the singer who really counts, and in that respect the set is in good hands.

Tassis Christoyannis has what I’d describe as an archetypal high French baritone voice, complete with the light flicker-vibrato so typical even of good French singers, which is surprising because he is Greek and studied singing with Italian baritone Aldo Protti, who generally sang with unsteadiness in sustained tones. Christoyannis’ voice has no unsteadiness whatever, and his timbre is exceptionally beautiful, belying his age of 52. His singing of these songs is of the “old” French school which took root in the late 19th century and persisted until the mid-20th, which is to sing the lyrics straight with no sense of a dramatic interpretation à la German lieder singers. Gérard Souzay, Régine Crespin and Gabriel Bacquier were among the first French-language singers to change all that, I personally think for the better. If you don’t believe me, check out excerpts from the 1926 recording of Bizet’s Carmen sung by Perelli, De Trevi and Musy. It’s sung without any dramatic inflections whatsoever, and it’s as dull as dishwater.

In these songs, however, Christoyannis is not dull, merely poetic, which is not the same thing. Listen to the way he sings L’Incrédule, for instance, in a melting half-voice, perfectly poised, as he limns the words of Verlaine’s poem with exactly the right expression, or the way he floats L’Heure exquise in half-voice, almost as if in one breath. This is the work of a great artist. We are indeed fortunate to have him singing Hahn’s complete oeuvre this well. Needless to say, I judged his interpretations of the unfamiliar songs by paying close attention to the familiar ones, and at no point in this long recital did he disappoint. Nor does he lack vocal flexibility when needed; he sings several of the mordents in the scores perfectly, and even manages a light trill in one.

So many of these songs are little jewels, musically perfect if not melodically or harmonically challenging, that it would defeat the purpose of this review to describe them all, or even most of them (though I was a bit surprised by the café style of Rêverie). A few are rather plain and not worth remembering, but not many. They all ride smoothly over Christoyannis’ perfect legato and beautiful tonal emission, which is uniform in quality from the top to the bottom of his range. Hahn wisely avoided texts that had a deep, penetrating or dramatic meaning to them, preferring songs of love, flirtation, longing and “long sobs of the violin” because his range of expression was indeed limited. The notes mention his larger works such as the Piano Concerto, the ballets La Fête chez Thérèse and Le Dieu bleu and both operas and operettas, but his Piano Concerto is available for streaming on YouTube and it’s pretty forgettable, common-garden-variety Romantic music, in one ear and out the other. As in the case of Samuel Barber, Hahn’s real milieu was the song. It was brief, compact, made its point and didn’t overstay its welcome. Thus this set is the perfect place to begin and end your interest in Hahn as a composer. Recommended to all lovers of late-Romantic French chanson.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Record Winners of 2019

golden CDEven though I wrote an article on this blog in December 2016 railing against the annual Grammys, Prix du Disques, etc. that all the record labels (and sometimes, but not normally) the artists seem to covet as if they actually meant something, I’ve decided to do my own annual retrospective on what I felt were indeed the most exceptional albums of the year in both classical and jazz.

Why?

Two reasons. #1, December is the worst month of the year for reviewing, because so many of the albums released are Christmas-theme-based and, as a Buddhist and a Deist, I don’t do Christmas. (Not knocking you if you do, it’s just not my thing.) #2, since no one in the industry pays that much attention to me anyway, it’s kind of a poke in the eye of the establishment for me to say what I felt were the best records of the year because I’m sure that 99% of my picks won’t be theirs. I say that because, for the most part, I gravitate to more modern music than they do and, when I do gravitate to older music, it’s generally edgier, less romantic performances than those everyone else likes.

There’s some French guy on YouTube who calls himself Professor Fabre—maybe he’s a real professor, maybe he’s not, who can tell?—who has a channel he calls Classical Music / /Reference Recordings in which he presents the “Recording of the Century” for a great deal of the standard repertoire. A few times I agree with him, as in the case of the almost-complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas by Walter Gieseking, but most of the time I tear my hair out because this guy is always pushing the “warmest” and “most human” performances, which often translates to mushy Romanticism. (Klemperer’s Fidelio is a perfect example). But eventually I figured, What the heck, it’s his taste, not mine, and if hundreds of people want to click on his links and enjoy what he has to offer, that’s their thing.

WP 2019So maybe you’ll agree with my thing, maybe not. I’m not ranking any of these recorded performances like the others do. No categories and no first-second-third-fourth place. Every record I really loved from start to finish (that’s the key) gets my WHAT A PERFORMANCE! award. Pretty simple, huh? Maybe it’ll catch on. If I had enough money, I’d probably start a podcast called WHAT A PERFORMANCE! and offer my weekly discoveries of the things that move me to the world, but I’m also not that egotistical. The late jazz composer Alonso Levister used to rib me for putting the word “I” in my reviews. “Boy, you’re such an egotist!” he’d say, No, I replied, I’m not an egotist, it’s just that everything I write about music reflects my own personal tastes and reactions, not anyone else’s, and many are the times when I say, “but you may feel differently” because it’s true. No two people in the world hear all music exactly the same, certainly not me and Professor Fabre. And possibly not even me and you.

So anyhow, here are my first annual WHAT A PERFORMANCE! awards. I’m going to go back through my reviews for the year and add the award image on those that won. In the future—meaning, starting in January 2020—I’ll just put the blue ribbon on each CD that merits a rave, then put out the list at the end of the year, but for 2019 I have to work backwards.

Since I’ve already written what I wanted to about these discs, there will be no recaps. Just click on the links below to read the full reviews. Enjoy!

Classical

Pomegranate/Kosmos Ensemble

Supernova/Atom String Quartet

Ana Maria Alonso Plays Spanish Music

Korstick Plays Franck

Thompson: The Mask in the Mirror

Tsintsadze: Preludes / Inga Folia, pianist

Fiddler’s Blues/Philippe Graffin (incl. Ysaye sonata)

Wolfgang: Vienna & the West

Schnabel: Violin Sonata/William Harvey

Grace Williams: Chamber Music

Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies, Flute Concerto/Anna Duczmal-Mróz

Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: String Quartets/Nordic String Qrt  

Bons: Nomaden/Ed Spanjaard, cond

Messiaen: Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus/Martin Helmchen

Copland: Billy the Kid; Grohg/Leonard Slatkin

Rathaus: Piano Music/Daniel Wnukowski 

American Concertos/Michala Petri 

Bach: Orchestral Suites/Karl Richter

Elfman: Violin Concerto; Piano Quartet

Spontini: Olympie/Jeremie Rhorer

Ligeti: Masterworks

Chabrier: L’Etoile/Mortagne, d’Oustrac, Guilmette, Fournillier

Jenny Lin Plays Schnabel

Falla: El amor Brujo etc./Ordonez

Piano Music of Bacewicz/Morta Grigaliūnaite

Transformations/Morgenstern Trio

Works for Solo Cello/Rohan de Saram

Wolpe: Music for 2 Pianos/Quattro Mani

Voice of the Viola/Ásdís Valdimarsdóttir

Schubert: String Quintet; String Quartet No. 14/Quartetto di Cremona

Wilson: Symphonies/Rory MacDonald

Alberga: String Quartets Nos. 1-3/Ensemble Arcadiana

Partch: Sonata Dementia

20th Century Harpsichord Concertos/Vinikour

Weinberg: Symphonies No. 2 & 21/Gražinyte-Tyla

Michael Gielen, Vol. 8 (Schoenberg-Berg-Webern)

Weber: Euryanthe/Sutherland, Vroons, Stiedry

Erika Fox: Paths/Goldfield Ensemble

Stravinsky: Perséphone/Wunderlich, Dixon

Groslot: Chamber Music

Silenced Voices/Black Oak Ensemble

Carlos Álvarez Live at La Monnaie

Borissova Plays Vladigerov, Poulenc & Seabourne

Sonata Concertato à Quattro/Trio Arbós

Frid: Symphony 3, Double Concerto/Gazarian

Kurtág: Scenes/Vitrenko, Grimal

Kurtág: The Edge of Silence/Susan Narucki

Herbania/Silvia Marquez

Weinberg: Viola Sonatas/Dinerchtein

Lindroth: The Wilfred Owen Songs/Eleby, Jansson

Messiaen: Harawi/Sarah Maria Sun

Crumb: 3 Early Songs, Vox Balanae

Schubert: Winterreise/Peter Mattei

Dalberg: String Quartets/Nordic Quartet

Kodály: Sonatina; Cello Sonata/Julian Steckel

Michell-Menuhin “Compassion Project”

Cooke: Violin Sonatas/Pleyel Ensemble

Veress: String Trio; Bartók: Piano Quintet/various artists

Weinberg: Piano Trio; Cello Sonata 1/Trio Khnopff

Cooke: Piano Trio, Quartet, Quintet/Pleyel Ensemble

Mozart: Don Giovanni/Stich-Randall, Gencer, Petri, Molinari-Pradelli

Grange: Homage/Gemini

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7/Mariss Jansons

Smyth: Mass in D/Sakari Oramo

20th Century British Works for Cello/Rohan de Saram

Lutosławski & Szymanowski Works/Alexander Liebreich

Jérome Billy Sings Britten

Martino Traversa: Hommage

Philippe Jordan’s Monumental Beethoven

Robert Groslot’s Concerti

The Orchestral Music of Winterberg

Raymond Lewenthal: Complete RCA & Columbia Albums

Berlioz: Messe Solennelle/Hervé Niquet

Berthomé-Reynolds Plays Bacewicz Sonatas

Eötvös’ “Three Sisters”

Palester: The Wedding Cake, 3 Poems by Czesław Miłosz, Letters to Mother

Jazz

Pablo Aslan’s Jazz-Classical Quintets

Hakan A. Toker/Messing Around with the Classics

Mark Lomax: An Afrikan Epic – Part 1

Mark Lomax: An African Epic – Part 2

Mark Lomax: An African Epic – Part 3

Justin Morell: Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Orchestra

Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet

Magela Herrera Jazz Flute

Jason Palmer: Rhyme and Reason

Ivo Perelman: Strings 3 & 4

Svenska Jazzhistoria Vol. 3: Rytm och Swing

Joey DeFrancesco: In the Key of the Universe

Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Stuttgart, 1969

Uncompromised/Michel Berthiaume Quartet

New York Trio/Angelika Niescier

The Rhythm of Invention/Wayne Wallace

Time Gone Out/Sylvie Courvoisier, Mark Feldman

Hokusai/Aki Takase

My Americana/Ernest Turner

Opening/Fred Nardin Trio

Phare/Yves Léveillé

No Boundaries/Dave Bass

Look Ahead/Fred Nardin Trio

Dark Matter/Lafayette Gilchrist

Grits, Beans & Greens/Tubby Hayes Quartet

Bass’d on a True Story/Brandon Robertson

Warrior/Catherine Sikora

Blue Brass/Paul Zauner, David Murray

Ceiling/Dana Saul

There From Here/Tune Town

How We Do/John Yao’s Triceratops

Wabi Sabi/Enrico Fazio

Cinémagique 2.0/Pago Libre

Baritone Madness/O’Rourke, Belliveau, Bane

Cascade/IN Trio

Instants of Time/Enrique Haneine

Bardfly/John Allee

The Mind’s Mural/Enrique Haneine

Hittin’ the Ramp/Nat King Cole

A Throw of Dice/Rez Abbasi

The Many Open Minds of Roger Kellaway

Dream Notes/Giorgia Santoro, Pat Battstone

Efflorescence/Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp

The Golden Rule for Sonny/Eric Wyatt

Erroll Garner’s “Dreamstreet”

Embargo/Toronto University Jazz Orchestra

Kasumi/Aki Takase, Ingrid Laubrock

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Petitgirard’s “States of Mind” for Alto Sax

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PETITGIRARD: États d’âme (States of Mind).+ Solitaire. Le Marathon.* Flaine / +Michel Supéra, a-sax; Balász Kántor, cello; Hungarian Symphony Orch. Budapest; Laurent Petitgirard, cond / Naxos 8.574034

French composer Laurent Petitgirard, born in 1950, is described as an “accessible” modern composer of classical works. I was a bit wary of this description because, in my experience, “accessible” normally equates with Romantic or drippy music, but Petitgirard really does write fascinating pieces.

The principal piece on this album is his saxophone concerto États d’âme or States of Mind for alto sax and orchestra. This way well be the most intelligent use of the saxophone in a purely classical context I have ever heard. The soloist plays lyrical but bitonal lines around which the orchestra swirls in rising and falling figures, shifting in intensity from quiet to roiling and back again. Like many of the old-time concerti you may be used to, what the instrument plays is not always a reflection of what the ensemble plays; it is as if the soloist were giving a soliloquy to a fairly large and somewhat hostile audience that didn’t much like what he had to say. And yet, at the same time, Petitgirard uses contrasting themes in a very creative way, sometimes developing and sometimes juxtaposing them, to create an overall ambience of sound that keeps morphing and shifting as the music goes on.

In the brief liner notes, Petitgirard explains that he has long been “disturbed by the ‘vocal’ dimension of the saxophone,” and thus saw creating this concerto as a natural extension of his thoughts. Both soloist and orchestra certainly explore a certain moodiness in the slow second movement, which contains more purely lyric moments for the orchestra as well as the soloist yet often shifts towards subtly disturbing harmonies. The restlessness one feels in the music comes not from its complete abandonment of tonality, as in the case of so many modern composers, but rather the fact that tonality is but one more place the music “visits” in its course and that it does not visit for long periods of time. When you reach a consonant passage, even if it lasts a minute or two, you know that sooner or later you’re going to have a shift in an unexpected direction.

In the third movement, Petitgirard abandons whatever moments of comfort one felt in the second movement to produce music in a fast tempo, seemingly combining modern classical and Middle Eastern harmonies. A constantly repeating drum beat pattern is also set up, with a few moments of respite, behind the orchestra, and at the 2:25 mark he cleverly combines the solo alto sax with other reed instruments from the ensemble for a few bars. One of the many reasons why I liked this piece was because of its varied approach to composition in addition to the fact that Petitgirard knows how to pull these various elements together to create a cohesive whole.The music slows down around the 5:45 mark to allow the soloist to play a cadenza before resuming its drive towards the finale.

Solitaire, which follows, is described as a cyclical and intimate work, “a progression towards a central idea that appears in the middle of the work.” Petitgirard insists that the title is not descriptive of the music, only of “the composer’s state of mind in front of a blank piece of [score] paper.” The swirling figures in the opening are played by flutes and clarinets against woodblocks, then the music calms down for a bit as the clarinets play a melodic line against odd, soft string figures in the background. As is Petitgirard’s wont, the music then calms down for a bit before little swirls or gestures well up from different sections of the orchestra, almost like the opening of the thunderstorms created by Beethoven and Grofé. You just know something is about to happen, but in this case Petitgirard pulls back from the mounting storm to provide moments of quietude, indeed reducing the forces to an oboe duet with soft woodblocks in the background. Soft string passages are played against what sounds like a drinking glass being struck by a spoon; then the string section alone ruminates for a while—this, indeed, is the very center of the work. My sole complaint is that this central idea is both soft-grained and difficult to grasp as it consists, really, of short gestures built around a limited number of notes, which although changed a little are repeated often enough that one wishes that the composer would get on with it. Petitgirard himself describes this repetition as “obsessive,” and it is. Eventually we move on to other things, yet we keep returning to variations of this string figure.

Le Marathon is a symphonic poem that arose from an opera that Petitgirard never wrote about three men running an Olympic marathon who represent birth, love and death. The idea, we learn, was inspired by a play by Claude Confortès of the same name. Here, after a dolorous opening played by the reeds, we hear swirling string figures that repeat themselves as the rest of the orchestra slowly comes to life in the foreground, playing more rhythmic figures. At times these figures themselves become repetitive, but not for long. There is a strong suggestion of “running” in the music, but since music is not in itself a representational art it is difficult for the listener to discern what, if anything, in the music is supposed to “represent” birth, love or death. Taken on its own merits, however, it is an interesting work that does not get as bogged down in the middle section as Solitaire did. At the same time, I found this work incredibly boring, as little changed in the music from this point on. I hope death won.

The album concludes with another symphonic poem, Flaine. The rather hyperbolic premise of this work is that it “evokes the adventure of the conception and construction of a resort at Haute-Sevole from the dreams of Eric and Sylvie Boisonnas,” an enterprise that interests me even less than picking lint out of my navel. This one opens with what sounds like a contrabassoon playing low, deep grumbles on his instrument while high strings and winds play around it. At about 1:25 faster, scurrying string figures come in, playing around a solo clarinet in ambiguous harmony. At 3:23, the music becomes a bit busier and edgier, relaxes for a while, and then resumes a somewhat energetic pace around the five-minute mark. I suppose this represents the industrious building of the Boisonnas’ exciting, adventurous resort. Apparently building unnecessary resorts does not impact Globals Warmings or Climate Change. After all, it’s adventurous! Where’s your send of adventure, huh?

The promise of an album’s worth of interesting music given by the Saxophone Concerto was, then, not fulfilled by the remaining three works, which I found to be disappointing and pedestrian, in one ear and out the other. What a shame that Petitgirard should be such an uneven composer. Recommended for the opening work only.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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