Adès Conducts Adès

Ades Conducts Ades

ADÈS: Piano Concerto.* Totentanz+ / *Kirill Gerstein, pno; +Christianne Stotijn, mezzo; +Mark Stone, bar; Boston Symphony Orch.; Thomas Adès, cond / Deutsche Grammophon 0028948379996

I like some of the music of Thomas Adès without really loving it. Once the enfant terrible of classical music, back in the days when his pieces were issued on the EMI label when it was still really EMI, he pretty much invented the New School of Modern Music Writing in which one begins most pieces with an extraordinary noise, be it a bang, a scream, someone playing a violin with a chainsaw or a pistol shot, before moving on to edgy, metallic-sounding figures that were then developed a bit. It was extremely novel in its day but, as I say, it seems to have now become a template for most modern composers, the reason being is that it was successful for Adès and put him on the map.

Here we are now, almost two decades on, and Adès is still writing music. The interesting thing about these two compositions is that they show that he has grown as a composer. He no longer slams the listener upside the head with metallic sounds or screeches at the beginning of his works, and although they have a lively rhythm he seems to take more care with creating themes and really developing them well. This album is, as you can see, being released by Deutsche Grammophon, a name that once signified a prestigious and long-standing classical record label but which now represents some faceless, soulless corporation that only provides hard copies of its progeny for review to Major Magazines, of which I believe there are only four in the entire world, Gramophone, BBC Music, Fanfare and American Record Guide, and the latter two are on their last legs.

Thus I had to review this jolly little record from streaming audio on the Naxos Music Library, which provided no more than the cover art and the names of the performers. Without liner notes, I haven’t a clue as to when Adès wrote these pieces, when their premieres were, or who these soloists were. Thankfully, I do know who and what the Boston Symphony Orchestra is, although that, too, is now a soulless corporation and not the good old Boston Symphony of the Koussevitzky-Munch-Leinsdorf-Ozawa days.

Just as Adès composition style has changed, so too has the sound of the Boston Symphony. Once noted throughout the world for its plush, well-manicured sound, it has become a generic-sounding orchestra. Yes, it is still a very fine orchestra, but so are orchestras from such unexpected locales as Usbeckistan, Lapland and Outer Mongolia. Times have changed for the symphony orchestra business as well as for the record business.

As for the music, it still has its shock moments here and there—note in the third movement of the piano concerto—but as I say, it is music that is better planned and well bound. The downside is that without his trademark sound, Adès is now just another modern composer trying to make a buck in a classical world that generally keeps modern composers at arm’s length. Yet I did indeed like what I heard here. In that same third movement of the piano concerto, for instance, I detected some moments that I felt were a bit tongue-in-cheek. Well, I hope he meant them to be tongue-in-cheek. One never knows, do one?

Now that he has become just another modern composer plying his trade among others, Adès has ironically become more mainstream. The Piano Concerto is a good, solid piece, but oddly it reminded me more of music from the past, particularly the 1950s when such composers as William Schuman were plying their trade. I think this is a fair comparison. If you liked the music of Schuman and Walter Piston, you will surely enjoy this concerto. I place it as a “mainstream modern work” that should, and probably will, be programmed by some orchestras around the globe.

As for Totentanz, this is closer in style to the earlier Adès as well as the Adès who wrote The Tempest which was performed at the Metropolitan Opera several years ago. The problems with The Tempest were two, however. One was that Shakespeare’s story was used merely as a starting point for some utter nonsense that became the plot. The other was that the music was not only next to impossible to sing, particularly the soprano role of Ariel, but that it emerged as sort of jumbled in places. In Totentanz, a much shorter work (it only lasts about 34 minutes), Adès is able to write music that is, to my ears, more coherent. Totentanz was written in 2013 to a commission by Robin Boyle to honor the memory of Witold Lutosławski and his wife. According to Wikipedia (remember, I have no liner notes to go by), Totentanz “is set to an anonymously authored text that appeared under a 15th-century frieze in St. Mary’s Church, Lübeck, that was destroyed by a British air raid in World War II. In the score program notes, Adès wrote, ‘the frieze depicted members of every category of human society in strictly descending order of status, from the Pope to a baby. In-between each human figure is an image of Death, dancing and inviting the humans to join him. In this setting, each of the humans in turn is represented by a low soprano, and Death by a baritone.’”

Totentanz is a very interesting piece. Since it is harmonically more daring than the Piano Concerto, it will surely receive less performances, but in a way its music is not only more like the old Adès but considerably more imaginative than usual for him. The problem here is that both singers have wobbles and that mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn also possesses an extremely ugly voice. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only commercial recording of it. There is a live performance of the premiere on YouTube with the same mezzo but Simon Keenlyside as the baritone. Keenlyside has a much more attractive voice, but is too weak in his lower register for the music, so I suppose you can have your cake but not eat it. Stotijn’s voice is clearly indigestible in both performances.

Adès’ conducting is genial and even a bit lyrical in the Piano Concerto, powerful and dramatic in Totentanz. It’s really a shame that the singers suck because otherwise I would easily give this entire venture a better recommendation. Alas, to use a favorite phrase of the Millennials, It is what it is. You pays your money and you takes your chances. The sound quality is excellent but not nearly that of old DGG sound, but then again…

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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De Saram’s New Recital Disc

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CASSADÓ: Requiebros. GRANADOS: Goyescas: Intermezzo. DE FALLA: Suite populare espagnole (transc. Maréchal). O. FRICK: Chasse au moment. RAVEL: Pièce en forme de Habanera. HOSOKAWA: Lied III. FAURÉ: Après un rêve (transc. Casals). SAINT-SAËNS: The Swan (from Carnival of the Animals). Allegro appassionata. SCHUMANN: Fünf Stücke im Volkston / Rohan de Saram, cel; Junko Yamamoto, pno / FHR 97

This CD, scheduled for release in April, is the latest in cellist Rohan de Saram’s large body of work on records. The intrepid cellist, noted for his promotion of modern music, here takes a step back to play several established classics by older composers, including such chestnuts as Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera, Fauré’s Après un rêve and de Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs while including first recordings of works by Oliver Sascha Frick and Toshio Hosokawa. (On his Wikipedia biography, it says, I think with a great deal of irony considering the staid tastes of most listeners, that “Until his thirties he made his name as a classical artist, but has since become renowned for his involvement in and advocacy of contemporary music (bold print mine),”  the implication being that contemporary classical music IS NOT CLASSICAL!)

In this program, he is partnered by Junko Yamamoto, a superb pianist who is on his wavelength from start to finish. Her lyrical yet exciting keyboard approach spurs the now-aged de Saram to some of his most exciting playing in all of these works. That is the good news. The bad is that, for reasons known only to themselves, First Hand Records has recorded these two great artists in a booming sea of reverberation, which undercuts the immediacy of their playing and in fact thins out de Saram’s usually full, beautiful tone. He almost sounds as if he is playing in an empty gym locker room. If you have an audio editor, I recommend copying a small sample of the reverb, reducing its volume by about 11 db, and then filtering the recording so that most of it is removed before burning the files to a CD-R.

But what fiery performances these are! As much as I’ve admired de Saram in the past, he is absolutely on fire in these works, most of which are based on Latin rhythms and/or themes. He digs into this music with the passion of a man to the manner born despite the fact that he is a British-born Sri Lankan by heritage. His deep feeling and legato playing in “Nana” from the Seven Popular Spanish Songs is absolutely exquisite.

Frick’s Chasse au moment, according to the notes, was inspired by “Yukihiro Taguchi’s short film Moment performatives Spazieren, a room’s wooden floorboards journey through a summery Berlin,” whatever on earth that means. The music is in your now-patented edgy modern sound, with the cellist playing atonal eighth-note figures on the edge of his strings with his bow while the pianist limps behind him a fraction off the beat. It’s an interesting piece and doesn’t overstay its welcome, but hey folks…why are so many of you modern composers locked into the exact same style of writing? Have you gotten marching orders from the Boss Composer or something? I did, however, like the slower, slightly syncopated figures the cello played in the middle of the piece, and overall it works pretty well without really fitting into this program (it seemed to me an odd fit between de Falla’s and Ravel’s Spanish-themed pieces).

Hosokawa’s Lied III, also modern, is a slow, brooding work that requires great breadth of phrasing from the cellist, which de Saram provides. The composer says in the notes that although his music stems from an aesthetic quite different from Western classical music, he has always been drawn to Schubert’s songs and so tried to channel a bit of Schubert in this piece. I will say this: unlike Frick’s work, Hosokawa’s is unconventional in form and emotionally quite moving, and I liked it very much despite his tendency here to work with one particular drone note most of the time, only moving into other notes when the cellist’s line becomes more agitated. Nor do the effects he calls for—pizzicato and spiccato playing—sound contrived, but rather part of the overall design of the piece. In short, I really liked it very much. The ending fades away into nothingness.

After excellent performances of Après un rêve and The Swan, we get the not-as-well-known Fünf Stücke in Volkston by Robert Schumann, written the year before his famous Cello Concerto. The first of these is very rhythmic, with a nice swagger about it, using a brief but catchy theme in the minor. The fourth piece, in the major, is also lively and energetic with a secondary theme in the minor that veers back to major, while the fifth—also in a minor key—is highly dramatic, veering sharply away from the mood of the others. The program ends with Saint-Saëns’ lively Allegro appassionata.

Except for the two modern works and the odd Schumann suite, this CD is almost “De Saran Plays Cello Favorites,” but he does such a great job on them that you thoroughly enjoy the ride.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Lucy Stevens Channels Ethel Smyth

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SMYTH: 4 Songs for Voice & Chamber Orchestra.* Songs & Ballads, Op. 3. Lieder, Op. 4. The Clown. Possession. On the Road: A Marching Tune / Lucy Stevens, alto; Elizabeth Marcus, pno; *Berkeley Ensemble, cond. Odaline de la Martinez / Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0611

I’ve been a firm fan of Ethel Smyth’s music since the late 1980s, when I first read her autobiography and heard a good deal of her music—the chamber music issued on TroubaDisc CDs, and her Mass in D as performed by Philip Brunelle on Virgin Classics—but have, sadly, watched her star (such as it is) come and go, wax and wane, briefly shine as yet another CD of her music is released only to see her fall back into oblivion.

Part of the reason for this is that she is often viewed, musically, as a Brahms clone who wasn’t as good as he was, yet Brahms himself thought very highly of her talents. Another reason is that her largest-scale opera, The Wreckers, has a very uncomfortable and disturbing plot which is not the sort that can be applied to other people and situations. But the third reason is Ethel herself, a very mannish woman who rode bicycles, smoked cigars, cursed like a soldier and was bisexual leaning towards full-out lesbian. She had affairs with Lisl von Herzogenberg, wife of the burgher who helped her career in Germany and introduced her music to his friend Brahms, Emmaline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement, and late in life, with Virginia Woolf. But she also had a long and torrid love affair with poet Henry Brewster, author of her Wreckers libretto, which wrecked his marriage and for which she was never forgiven. Although Ethel lived a long life, it was not a happy one. By the 1920s her music was rarely performed except a short piece, once in a while, by Thomas Beecham who happened to like her for her outspokenness. Later on she went deaf, and ended up a pretty lonely old woman. Just about the one constant love of her life were her dogs, of which a particularly large specimen named Marco was her absolute favorite.

Taken from http://www.interlude.hk/front/girls-best-friend-ethel-smyth-marco/?platform=hootsuite:

Ethel Smyth and MarcoDuring the sojourn in Leipzig, a friend of Ethel’s went on a trip to Vienna and brought back a dog named Marco. Marco was…unique. According to Ethel, he was “half St. Bernard, and the rest what you please,” and “a huge sprawling yellow-and-white puppy of the long-haired kind generally seen dragging washerwomen’s carts.” Unfortunately, her friend already had four sporting dogs, and Marco had a tough time fitting in with the pre-existing pack. Ethel fell in love and begged to take him. And so began Ethel and Marco’s happy life together!

Marco living at Ethel’s home posed its own challenges. For one thing, they lived in a small apartment, and for another, said apartment was on the third floor. So every time Ethel needed to take Marco out, they’d have to traipse down several flights of stairs. In her memoirs, Ethel remembered the torture of a cold winter when Marco had digestive problems.

But despite the unconventional arrangement, it was a match made in heaven. Ethel even wrote, “For twelve years that dog was the joy of my life.” In her memoir she described how she spoiled Marco rotten, and how his head would rest luxuriously “on the pedals of a seldom silent piano, as if washerwomen had never been heard of.” At one point she told her young nieces and nephews how similarly large dogs were used by washerwomen to drag their carts. They tried harnessing him up, but Marco protested.

Stevens as Ethel Smyth

Lucy Stevens as Ethel Smyth

The present album is apparently a labor of love by Lucy Stevens, who has not only given programs impersonating Smyth but also Kathleen Ferrier and Virginia Woolf. She has a large, rich, booming British contralto voice of the kind we used to hear from Helen Watts back in the 1960s. It opens with four songs for voice and chamber orchestra, dated 1908, written in her later French-influenced style. This was the influence of Brewster, himself a big Francophile, and one can hear how cleverly she wedded her German-based concept of melodic structure with the advanced French harmonies of her day. Stevens has a rich and powerful voice but not, alas, very clear diction. Several consonants are swallowed, but her singing is so good that one simply turns to the texts in the booklet and lives with it. As in her landmark recording of The Wreckers, de la Martinez’ conducting shows a sure and steady hand as well as an excellent understanding of the music. The first three songs are based on the poems of Henri de Régnier while the fourth is based on a poem by Leconte de Lisle. Smyth’s music is consistently interesting and yes, in its own way quite original, with the harp replacing the piano in providing the rhythm while the flute dances above the light string writing to produce a quite novel effect. The last song is the fastest and liveliest of the set, making a nice finish to this mini-cycle, and around the 2:30 mark she throws in some nice chromatic changes.

The remaining songs are all with piano accompaniment, with the Op. 3 and 4 sets coming from her early years when she was still studying in Germany. The melodies of the five Op. 3 songs are fairly simple, though attractive, showing the composer in her early stages when she was still getting her feet wet, so to speak, yet already showed here a good sense of matching words and music. Many a 19th-century composer would be happy to claim them as his own. These are their first recordings in English.

The Op. 4 set opens with “Tanzlied,” a song which, despite its minor key, is a somewhat cheerier tune than any of the Op. 3 set. It is also more developed a piece of writing, showing an advance even at this early stage. In the second song, “Schlummerlied,” her writing is nearly as sophisticated as that of Schubert in his prime—a remarkable advance. Her song about the nightingale is also quite original. Her song about the clown is also very good, while Possession, dedicated to suffragette leader Emmaline Pankhurst, has a simple but passionate tune set to words by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth about a linnet that flew into her apartment, was caged, but then pined away because it was not free.

We end our survey with one of Ethel’s marches, On the Road, dedicated to Emmaline Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel, with words about the ongoing feminist struggle: “O to fight to the death with a hope through the strife / That the freedom we seek shall be ours!” It is a more sophisticated tune than her March of the Women, which appeared as an extra track on Brunelle’s recording of her Mass in D.

All in all, an important as well as educational and enjoyable release, a must for all Ethel Smyth aficionados.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Hayoung Lyou’s “Metamorphosis”

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METAMORPHOSIS / LYOU: Reason. Metamorphosis. Animus I. Night Person. Demian. Animus II. Heaven.* Busan. Animus III. Solitude. A Sunny Day at Yankee Stadium / Hayoung Lyou, pno; Jasper Dutz, a-sax/cl/bs-cl; Jacob Shulman, t-sax; Simón Willson, bs; Dayeon Seok, dm; *Wonmi Jung, voc / Endectomorph Music, no number

This CD, scheduled for release on April 17, is pianist Hayoung Lyou’s first as a leader after playing for many years with others. All of the compositions are hers, and as the liner notes indicate, she gave several of these pieces great thought in their creating and naming. Demian is a tribute to a Hermann Hesse novel in which he explains that good and evil are two sides of most people’s natures, and each coexists with the other in different balances.

Although the opening track is soft-grained, it is not music without a backbone. There is a strong pulse to Lyou’s music, even when—as here—the basic meter is constantly shifting. Most of the first 90 seconds are played solely by Jasper Dutz’ bass clarinet with the piano, bass and drums. Lyou then takes a solo accompanied by the bass, with occasional light cymbal touches behind her. Her melodic lines are simple but attractive, and although her solo is not particularly busy it is very meaty and says quite a bit. In short, it is quiet music but not mindless or “ambient” jazz. There’s quite a lot going on here. Dutz’ extended solo is busier and more energetic than Lyou’s, which adds interest to the piece, and Seok’s drums are much busier behind him as he builds to a tremendous climax. When Lyou returns, she brings the quietude back with her.

Metamorphosis, inspired by an Ethan Iverson performance at the Village Vanguard, opens with soft but slightly ominous-sounding bass notes in the piano. Dutz, now on alto sax, and Shulman on tenor then come in for their own discourse, sometimes playing in unison, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes answering each others’ phrases. There is a strong sense of composition in Lyou’s music into which off-the-wall improvisations just do not fit. It is music that is logical and makes sense, but also an incredible flowing feeling. You almost get the mental picture that this music is being washed along on gentle but insistent swirls of water in a stream.

In Animus I, Lyou produces a livelier if no less shifting rhythm, in fact coming to a dead stop before the band moves on to Night Person which is also a lively number. Her music reminds me a little bit of Mingus and a bit of George Russell. I wonder if she counts either of them as influences. Her piano solo here relies primarily on single-note lines in the right hand with a few gentle chords added in the left, and again her sense of progression makes great sense. Our sax duo plays a laconic, almost tongue-in-cheek duo-chorus, prodding each other while purposely slurring downward portamenti before they both take off in a sort of outside-jazz duo of great intensity. The bass and drums then have their own duet, and a very tasteful one it is, too.

With Demian we return to a more relaxed, flowing pace, here combining Shulman’s tenor with Dutz on a regular clarinet. The latter then gets his own solo, playing with a very soft, liquid tone, after which Shulman plays a somewhat harder, grittier solo before they again combine to play together. The leader follows with a nice, relaxed solo of her own, here combining single-note lines with rich chords.

There are similar delights and surprises in most of the other pieces here, too, such as the odd rhythm and double-time, outside playing of Dutz’ alto on Metamorphosis, which turns out to be a very brief but intense piece, or the lively but elusive beat that she sets up in Busan.. I could have lived without the slow, sad, and very drippy tune Heaven with Wonmi Jung’s slurred, sappy, pathetic-sounding vocal (in which one cannot make out a single word because her English diction is terrible).

The only thing I could fault in this album is that Lyou hasn’t yet discovered a way to make all the pieces in the album fit together. Much of the time, it sounded more as if she were jumping around with the music rather than trying to make connections, and in a program with three brief linking passages (the Animus pieces), this is something that I think she needs to work on. Otherwise, it is a very auspicious debut for her as a leader, and I look forward to hearing her musical growth in the future.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Chiara Plays Messiaen

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MESSIAEN: 8 Préludes. Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas. Fantaisie Burleske. Quatre Études de rythme: Ile de feu I & II. Prélude posth. 1964 / Chiara Cipelli, pno / Piano Classics PCL10200

Italian pianist Chiara Cipelli, who studied at the Conservatory G. Nicolini, Piacenza, the Musikhochschule Freiburg i Br. and the Ecole Normale de Musique Alfred Cortot, presents us with a program of some of Olivier Messiaen’s more unusual piano pieces. In fact, as it turns out I had none of these in my collection.

I’ve often said that I generally like Messiaen’s piano pieces but find his organ music dark, muddy and ugly, which is odd because he was a noted organist, but this is true. Perhaps it is because the piano has a “crisp” sound and attack whereas the organ has a slow, somewhat soft attack, but whatever the case, Messiaen’s organ music just makes my skin crawl. I can’t give you a rational explanation for it, but it does. In this program, Cipelli starts with one of the composer’s earliest works, the 8 Préludes of 1928-29, when the composer was only 20-21 years old. You can hear that he is working towards his own personal style, but has not quite arrived there yet. The music of the first two preludes, for instance, consist primarily of chime chords played in a slow succession, using the sort of harmony that Debussy used in The Engulfed Cathedral while adding a few personal touches here and there. Another thing that strikes you at this early stage of his development is that Messiaen was then still using a regular pulse and forward momentum in his music. It would be a while before he would start blurring the line of rhythm, producing music that floats along in the listener’s mind while the harmonies swirl and clash to produce his unique effects, though you can hear some of this in the second half of the second prelude. Cipelli is fully engaged in this music, and in fact I think her being Italian helps her understand Messiaen’s use of rhythm at this point.

From the point of view of technique, I noted that Cipelli generally plays with a very strong attack and uses the sustain pedal frequently but judiciously. In this respect she differs from most, but not all, piano interpreters of Messiaen I have heard, who tend to use softer contours in order to bring out the delicacy and “mystery” of his music. In short, it is very wide-awake Messiaen, and at least in these early works I don’t hear that as a detriment. It’s sort of like listening to Debussy play his own works; despite a few moments in soft passages where he deliberately blurred notes, much of his own playing is surprisingly strong-fingered and rhythmically acute. On the other hand, however, her avoidance of the sustain pedal except in those brief instances where she wishes to sustain a particular note or chord gives the music a bit less of a legato flow. Notes and chords tend to stand out like cacti in the desert sun, and while I can accept this sort of thing in most music, I find it less conducive to Messiaen than, say, to Beethoven or Stravinsky. I suppose it’s a matter of taste. I’m not saying that Cipelli misrepresents the music, only that she gives it a very different perspective from what I’m used to in his music. Joanna MacGregor’s Messiaen (Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jesus) has the same quality, and although I liked her recording of this long piece I was much more drawn to Martin Helmchen’s recording with its sonic “washes” and more flowing style. For just one example of what I mean, listen to her playing of the sixth prelude. All those chime chords are supposed to blur into one another to create a sort of sonic “wash,” whereas here they simply follow one another in succession, which in and of itself isn’t very interesting. Even Arturo Toscanini blended his sounds in French impressionist music better than this. Her performance of the eighth prelude, “Un reflet dans le vent,” seemed to me to work much better, and the Fantaisie-Burleske is also quite fine.

So that is my take on this particular release. Interesting music, sometimes played well and sometimes played in a choppy, disconnected style.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Eschenbach Begins a Hindemith Cycle

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HINDEMITH: Kammermusik Nr. 1, + 2,* 3. Kleiner Kammermusik, Op. 24 No. 2 / Xi Zhai, Christopher Park, pno; Bruno Philippe, cel; Kronberg Academy Soloists, Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orch.; Christoph Escehbach, cond; *Christoph Park, pno; +Xi Zhai, pno;  Bruno Philippe, cel / Ondine ODE 1341-2

This is the first volume in a projected series of CDs covering the chamber works of Paul Hindemith. The Kammermusik has received several recordings in the past, including one by, of all people, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau conducting the Ensemble VARIANTI on Hänssler Klassik, but it’s nice to have new ones.

It’s funny how perspective can change your view of certain music. Hindemith has always been considered a rather knotty composer, but after listening to an hour-plus of Luciano Berio, Hindemith sounds like Poulenc—particularly in the lively style that Eschenbach uses in these performances. Everything is crystal-clear in texture, but what sets these performances apart from the average run is their joie-de-vivre. Eschenbach clearly loves this music, and he wants to convey that love to you, the listener. The result is a series of almost infectious readings in which a good time is had by all. In his hands, these small-orchestra pieces by Hindemith almost seem like a modernist equivalent to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

In the slow movements of these works, Eschenbach conducts in a smooth style, almost “floating” the music, but not with any noticeable tempo modifications. This does not harm the music any, but provides an effective contrast to the livelier sections.

One thing is quite clear, however, and that is that, since modern musicians are far more comfortable playing harmonically complex music than their forebears, they are able to play such composers as Hindemith with far greater fluency. In his time, only Hindemith’s own Amar Trio and Quartet was able to really engage with this music in a way that was pleasurable to the ear; most performances of his music sounded leaden and uncomfortable. A perfect example is his Horn Concerto, which sounded lumpy and dull even in the hands of such a paragon of musical art as the late Dennis Brain, but sounds quite lively when played by Marie Luise Neunecker. The reason? Neunecker grew up in an era where modern music was all around her whereas Brain did not—even with Paul Hindemith as conductor—and in fact didn’t even like the piece.

This disc, then, is delightful throughout. I can’t wait to hear the next release in this series!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Jon Schapiro Celebrates “Kind of Blue” at 60

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AwardNEW SHOES: “KIND OF BLUE AT 60” / SCHAPIRO: Boiled Funk.+ Boiled Funk 2: Dark of Night.+ Boiled Funk 3: Worth Your While.* Boiled Funk 4: Old Feet, New Shoes.* Boiled Funk 5: A Smile.* Boiled Funk/Theme.* PIKET: Foiled Bunk.+ DAVIS: So What.+  Blue in Green.* All Blues.* Flamenco Sketches.*Freddie Freeloader* / Schapiro 17: Bryan Davis, Andy Gravish, Eddie Allen, Noyes Bartholomew, tpt; Deborah Weisz, Alex Jeun, Nick Grinder, tb; Walter Harris, bs-tb; +Rob Wilkerson, *Ben Kono, Candace DeBartolo, a-sax; Paul Carlon, Rob Middleton, t-sax; Matt Hong, bar-sax; Roberta Piket, pno; Sebastian Noelle, gtr; Evan Gregor, bs; Jon Wikan, dm; Jon Schapiro, arr/cond / Summit Records DCD 756

I get so weary of reading press releases for jazz CDs that claim that the arrangements on said albums are “innovative” when in fact they are nothing of the sort. Far too many modern-day jazz orchestras, in my view, pay little or no attention to the great jazz arrangers who preceded them, whether they be Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Eddie Sauter, Tadd Dameron, Charles Mingus, George Russell, Shorty Rogers, Gil Evans or the many excellent arrangers who worked for Stan Kenton, among them Gerry Mulligan, Pete Rugolo and Johnny Richards.

But this album, scheduled for release on April 3, is considerable different. Here Jon Schapiro has taken the five pieces that debuted on Miles Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue album, rewritten them completely in terms of harmony, rhythm and melodic structure, and surrounded them with seven originals—six by him and one by the band’s pianist, Roberta Piket—which bear titles beginning with “Boiled Funk” (or, in the case of Piket’s piece, “Foiled Bunk”), which is an acronym of “Kind of Blue.” At first sight I was a bit skeptical about these because normally, when I see the work “funk,” I expect those kinds of pieces that have a sort of R&B beat to them, complete with a heavy electric bass, but such is not the case here.

Yes, there’s a bit of an R&B feel to the opening Boiled Funk, but both the pulse and the very clever orchestral arrangement are closer in feel to the kind of work that Mingus and Clare Fischer were doing in the 1960s, with brass and reeds often playing together rather than in the established brass-vs.-reeds configuration. Moreover, Schapiro, like Mingus, uses the bass line to move the top line, making it an integrated part of the orchestration, and at the 2:20 mark the tempo relaxes to present an outstanding sax solo over a cushion of mixed brass and reeds. These are real compositions, not just “tunes” thrown together with the usual big-band sound, and it shows. Even the scored improvisation played by the entire trumpet section fits in musically, adding to the progression of the music and not just filling time and space. There’s also a very “dark” feel to this music, with the piano often playing in its low range and the bass trombone very audible in the softer ensembles. And, wonder of wonders, every soloist fits into the surrounding structure rather than just playing for him or herself. Every little bit and piece of this nearly 12-minute-long composition adds to one’s enjoyment as well as to an excitement of discovery. The finale almost has the feel and power of a freight train pulling into a station.

After this extended masterpiece, Piket’s little (3:06) Foiled Bunk almost sounds like a miniature, opening as it does with fairly quiet solo piano playing what sound like sparse, disconnected lines, which then slowly coalesce into something resembling a tune and developed by the pianist. Eventually the music becomes quite complex indeed, with cross-rhythms and pungent crushed chords adding to the mix until it just stops. This is followed by Schapiro’s complete reworking of So What?, opening with more crushed chords from Piket and followed by Gil Evans-like orchestration with Mingus touches. Although I liked the Kind of Blue album, I was attracted to it more for the solo work than for the compositions themselves, and this particular one was so minimal that it almost annoyed me. It does not annoy me here, as Schapiro has substituted rhythmically complex constructions played by the brass and/or reeds in place of the original solo spots, and making much more of an integrated piece of it. Take the solo trombone, for instance, which plays an improvised solo before suddenly becoming a counter-voice to the ensemble that enters immediately after, or the alto sax solo (sounding much like a soprano) that then fits into the more complex ensemble writing. As the alto solo grows in intensity, the background figures begin to charge like a freight train, pushing the music into entirely new directions, which are then temporarily interrupted by a bass solo. The orchestra then takes charge, developing the initially simple theme into a complex web of ideas. The solo piano then returns, playing a simple repeated motif over soft drums, into which the trombone interjects a few wry comments—and the bass trombone is then heard doubling what the piano is playing with the reeds and brass play high-lying, busy figures that interlap almost like a canon. Then, as the bass plays a repeated riff, the drums work out while the orchestra plays increasingly excited brass figures, after which the tempo doubles and the whole band begins to swing. It then comes to a roaring finish at the 14-minute mark.

Following this masterpiece is Boiled Funk 2: Darn of Night, which again opens with solo piano and then alto sax with soft drums and equally soft trombone figures in the background. Even when the band textures become slowly richer, adding a bass clarinet to the mix, the background remains quiet while alto saxist Rob Wilkerson works out. This then blends, magically, into Blue in Green, scored in a similar manner and retaining the dark, mysterious sound of its predecessor. I won’t spoil some of the surprises in this track for you, but they are there albeit much subtler than in So What. One really delightful moment comes when the band stops playing and alto saxist Ben Kono, who replaces Wilkerson on the remainder of the album, comes in with an extempore cadenza that eventually works its way into a secondary theme, backed by the bass, into which a solo trumpet plays a counter-figure, followed by trombone, then other instruments. But since this track lasts over 10 minutes, of course there are other nice things going on here, and the orchestration resembles Mingus mixed with a bit of Gil Evans.

CD 2 opens with Boiled Funk 3: Worth Your While, an uptempo romp that opens with a crackling trumpet solo by Andy Gravish, who dominates this brief (2:26) opening fanfare to the second half of our concert. Amusingly, it stops in the middle of nowhere, followed by low, fluttering figures played by brass and reeds together, again with the bass trombone coming in behind them. This is how Schapiro’s arrangement of All Blues begins. A soft but uptempo drum figure presages the melodic line, its meter broken up and redistributed, played again by a combination of brass and reeds, with pianist Piket sprinkling notes in the background. The piano then drops out as the drums set up a slightly different pace; the trombones play a figure in 3 quarter notes to each two beats in the score, followed by an excellent tenor solo (here sounding almost like an alto) by Paul Carlon. Trombonist Alex Jean then follows while pianist Piket softly plays background figures with rising chromatics à la Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train. Asymmetric ensemble figures predominate in the second half of this arrangement, constantly catching the listener’s attention and building excitement by Schapiro’s clever use of off-kilter counter-figures. A quirky piano figure played in the bass range also comes and goes, but except for the afore-mentioned solos the second half of this one is built around the extraordinary ensemble writing for the orchestra. We end with the muted brass playing a figure in 3 over the quirky bass-note figure on the piano.

Boiled Funk 4: Old Feet, New Shoes opens with an a cappella baritone sax solo by Matt Hong, to which altoist Candace De Bartolo adds her own comments, then takes over as others enter behind them. This is indeed the funkiest of the Boiled Funk pieces. Schapiro’s scoring here is sparser than on most of the other pieces but very effective nonetheless, creating a lean sound profile on which the soloists skim along while the rhythm section cooks behind them. The pi9ece ends quietly, followed after a brief pause by Flamenco Sketches, one of the more developed tunes from Kind of Blue. Again, Schapiro’s scoring is light and airy at first in this slow-tempo piece, built around a nice extended guitar solo by Sebastian Noelle and, later, orchestral figures that resemble those that Gil Evans wrote for Miles Ahead. These continue to build in volume and intensity; the guitar does so as well, and even (unfortunately) starts playing like a rock guitar, which I could have lived without. (Will someone please tell me why jazz musicians feel this urgent need to incorporate shitty rock sounds into their music?)

Boiled Funk 5: A Smile starts out sounding like anything but a smile. It is strange and mysterious, at times even dark in feeling. Even Piket’s piano solo has menacing undertones, though as it develops she also incorporates some elements of Gospel and soul music. Schapiro’s opening of Freddie Freeloader is even slower but not as dark in feeling, with a nice, Miles Davis-like solo by Andy Gravish along with a Mingus-like bass solo by Kozlov and some nice piano licks by Piket. The whole piece assumes a nice, relaxed, loping sort of beat as it wends its way along. Walter Harris’ bass trombone also solos, tossing in a lick from Santa Claus is Comin’ the Town before he and the whole band quadruple the tempo just in time for Carlon’s glib tenor. Schapiro then creates an interesting counter-melody which is played by the brass for a few measures before the band develops it, then the tempo relaxes for the baritone sax solo. The ensemble then returns, as does Gravish, now quite uptempo himself. The tempo then downshifts to a loping medium tempo for the ride-out.

The final Boiled Funk is another uptempo piece, this time with a less definable melody but nice solos by Piket, Middleton, Carlon, Grinder and Gravish, including a polyphonic passage played by all of them—followed by the ensemble playing in a polyphonic manner.

New Shoes: Kind of Blue at 60 is quite an achievement, in my view one of the finest jazz albums ever recorded. With the sole exception of the rock guitar nonsense, there isn’t a weak moment in the entire enterprise. I am in awe of what Jon Schapiro has done here, and urge you to really listen to it carefully.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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