Ronny Graupes’ “Spoom” Returns

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BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD / GRAUPES: Launching Pad. Merge. Sic Erat Scriptum. Ped Xing. Weltecho.* Bridge Ices Before Road. To Whom it May Concern / Christian Weidner, a-sax/*s-sax; Ronny Graupe, gtr; Jonas Westergaard, bs; Christian Lillinger, dm / Shoebill Music SB19016

Guitarist-composer Ronny Graupes’ group Spoom presents here its first new CD in three years. After 15 years working as a trio, Graupes has expanded it to a quartet with the addition of saxist Christian Weidner.

The music heard here is eclectic in style and defies easy categorization. Yes, it’s jazz, but with a sort of techno beat and format. Launching Pad, for instance, opens with a fast, atonal, multi-note motif that “straightens out” once the improvisations begin, but the modal underlying harmony remains. So too does the irregular, difficult-to-pin-down meter, to which drummer Christian Lillinger adds more complexity by playing beats different to those the lead musicians are improvising on. Graupes is the first soloist up, and I really liked his somewhat edgy guitar playing. The newcomer, Weidner, is an “outside” player who also uses a harmonic base for his improvisations. When Graupes is not playing lead, he integrates his guitar into the rhythm section to help propel the music.

Merge is a slow number but not really a ballad. The atonal line flirts with lyricism, played mostly in unison with Graupes. Before long, the bass and drums enter to add complexity to the music. By the 2:20 mark, Graupes has shifted the rhythm pattern once again, to the point where the placid feeling of the opening is completely gone. He alternates solo lines with Weidner as well as playing hard downstrokes to create an unusual effect for a few bars. By the end of the piece, the rhythm pattern is almost impossible to discern with the naked ear.

By the time one reaches the third number, Sic Erat Scriptum, one is aware that this highly creative group has actually merged modern classical and modern jazz patterns to create their own unusual style. There’s a certain Stravinsky-Monk-Ornette Coleman blend going on here that I found immensely intriguing. Spoom seems to be a group that works with complex rhythm patterns but delights in deconstructing and rebuilding them as they go along. Even when the rhythm sounds fairly straightforward at the start of a piece, as for instance the long bass solo by Jonas Westergaard that opens Ped Xing, to which he is joined by Graupes at about the 1:25 mark, the drums almost immediately loosen up and complicate the rhythm with unusual figures that are outside of what Graupes and Westergaard are playing.

In Weltecho, Graupes reverses this trend, starting out with an amorphous beat before moving into a fast, swinging and steady 4. It’s an unusual break from his normal routine, and although the tune itself is harmonically interesting it’s not nearly as complex as the preceding numbers. Weidner switches to soprano sax on this one, but unusually he plays the instrument with an edgy “bite” to the sound as he does his alto. The title tune reverts to his more normal style of hard-to-grasp, serrated atonal themes over an equally complex rhythm. One could give similarly detailed descriptions of the remaining pieces in this set, but you get the idea. This is tricky music, played expertly by a group well attuned to this genre. The final number, To Whom it May Concern, almost sounded to me like a modern, more complex version of John Lewis’ tune Django—ir, at least, it used a similar rising chord pattern in the underlying harmony.

I also liked Graupes’ sense of humor in titling this album. I don’t know how prevalent these signs are in his native Germany, but “Bridge freezes before road surface” is the official state sign of Pennsylvania, being posted on its major highways every half-mile or so in certain areas. This is clearly an interesting, complex and innovative album, one that deserves repeated listening to catch everything in it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Spalding & Hersch Perform at the Vanguard

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LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD / G. & I. GERSHWIN: But Not for Me. HERSCH: Dream of Monk. TROUP-HEFTI: Girl Talk. CAHN-STYNE: Some Other Time. GISMONTI: Loro / Esperanza Spalding, voc; Fred Hersch, pno / private label EP, available only as a download at Bandcamp for the month of June 2020 (minimum donation $17). (live: New York, October 19-21, 2018)

This intriguing set of five vocal and piano duos, being released to benefit the Jazz Foundation of America and the organization’s efforts to assist members of the jazz community impacted by the Coronavirus, intrigued me as soon as I listened to But Not for Me. Hersch plays here in a loose, straightforward style that I found very attractive, and Spalding, thank goodness, is a jazz singer who sings “out” with the voice instead of whispering her lyrics in a lounge style.

This was my first exposure to Spalding, who has apparently been around for more than a decade. As a bassist-singer, she has performed in a number of different venues and styles from funk to Latin to a sort of soft, classicalized style (a YouTube video of Little Fly). Although she sang On the Sunny Side of the Street at a White House concert in 2016, she normally stays away from standards. But according to the publicity sheet accompanying this release, she so enjoyed working with Hersch that she gave herself over completely to others’ tunes. “Playing with Fred feels like we’re in a sandbox,” Spalding says. “He takes his devotion to the music as serious as life and death, but once we start playing, it’s just fun. I like to live on the edge in my music, but I find myself trying things that I usually wouldn’t when I play with him, finding new spaces to explore.”

Although a jazz EP with only five songs, the program runs more than 46 minutes, which is pretty near the length of many a “regular” jazz CD. This is because Spalding and Hersch really play out these songs, with two of them running about 7 ½ minutes, two at 9 ½ and Girl Talk running about 12.

What I liked most about Spalding’s singing was its completely natural and artless delivery. Whether just singing the melody straight, bending the notes or scatting, she almost sounds as if she is singing for one person in the audience at a time. It’s a feeling of intimacy that you almost never hear from jazz singers past or present. The only other female singers I’ve heard who could emulate this kind of intimacy were a little-known 1930s singer named Jeanne Burns and the legendary Billie Holiday, but the way Spalding sings is entirely her own and owes nothing to any other jazz singers I’ve heard except in terms of her scatting. At times, particularly in her high range, the voice thins out; it sounds as if she is having trouble reaching her upper notes; but again, everything is so well integrated—music, words and mood—that you just absorb the experience without analyzing it too much.

Yet with that being said, there’s an almost magical, intimate interplay between Spalding and Hersch on Dream of Monk that defies description. Hersch begins playing witty, pointillistic figures on the piano while Spalding scats around the edges and in between the notes that Hersch is laying down, sometimes following the beat and at other times singing notes between beats.

Esperanza_Fred.–Jazz_Standard_photo_by_Christopher_Drukker

Spalding talks at the beginning of Girl Talk about a scene in Mission: Impossible where “some guy is saying one thing but he really means another thing,” and then relates it to the lyrics of Girl Talk. Yet as a girl, I think that only a small percentage of girls and women actually mean something different when they’re talking about dresses and gossip. Most of those I know mean exactly that and nothing else. But apparently Spalding means something else when she talks about those things.  By leaning into the rhythm of the songs more and improvising more sparingly, Hersch creates a sort of rhythmic-polyphonic web of sonic strands that supports Spalding’s singing as a safety net protects a high-wire walker.

The only song I really didn’t care for was Some Other Time, a minor Sammy Cahn-Jule Styne tune that didn’t have much going for it either in terms of the music or the lyrics. Not too surprisingly, Hersch couldn’t make much of it, either. Spalding tried her best to liven it up but, as the saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The program ends with Loro, a song by Egberto Gismonti which they somehow, miraculously, convert from a Latin tune to a fast-bop scat number. In his long midpoint solo, Hersch plays one of the most fascinating solos of his career, bouncing opposing rhythms and meters (the left hand generally lags behind the right by a fraction of a beat), later changing the pulse to make it more Latin-sounding. It’s absolutely marvelous and, somehow or other, they manage to stretch it out more than 9 ½ minutes.

This is a simply marvelous album, quite aside from the fundraising aspect. You really need to acquire it while it’s available.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Trio Eclipse Presents “Spheres”

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GERSHWIN: An American in Paris (arr. Schröter). ROTA: Trio for Clarinet, Cello & Piano. DEMENGA: Summer Breeze II. HEGGEDORN: Siena. HICKEY: Tiergarten. SCHNYDER: A Friday Night in August / Trio Eclipse: Lionel Andrey, cl; Sebastian Braun, cel; Benedek Horváth, pno / Prospero PROSP0002

This is the first recording by a fairly new chamber trio from Switzerland on a likewise new label, Prospero Records. Trio Eclipse consists of three prizewinning soloists who decided to team up as a chamber group and made their debut at the Lucerne Festival last year. The purple praise for the group in the liner notes goes over all sorts of nonsense about Holst’s Planets, Cage’s Atlas eclipticalis, and how this plays into the group naming itself after an astronomical phenomenon.

Without casting aspersions on their evidently high musical skills, I believe that they made an artistic misstep by opening their debut disc with a clarinet trio arrangement of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, and that for two reasons. First, despite the obvious popularity of this piece, one of Gershwin’s more successful jazz-classical hybrids, it doesn’t work particularly well as a clarinet trio. The music was orchestrally conceived, and orchestrally played it must be to make its proper impact. And second, with Gershwin being done to death—my local classical music station plays both American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue on a WEEKLY basis—wouldn’t it have been more adventurous of them to play a piece of music by one of the composers who Gershwin ripped off to create his style, William Grant Still, whose music still lies mostly fallow in the backwaters of classical culture? A nice arrangement of a few pieces from Still’s Lenox Avenue Suite would have been perfect for the trio, particularly if it included the “Blues” which Still arranged for Artie Shaw back in 1940. This would have been a far bolder and more original statement for Trio Eclipse, a way of saying, “We’re honoring a great American composer from the past but not one whose music you undoubtedly have burned into your brain as a template for pops concerts.” With that being said, arranger Stefan Schröter did an amazing job, often transferring string figures to the clarinet and closing as many holes in the score as he could.

But things pick up with Nino Rota’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello & Piano. Although primarily recognized as a film composer, like Gershwin himself from 1933 onward, Rota was a well-schooled musician and here turns out a lightweight but very well-structured piece. By this point, I began to feel that Trio Eclipse was born to play rhythmic music moreso than “music of the spheres.” Their accents in this and the Gershwin indicated to me that they also listen to jazz. The second movement, with its unusual harmonic changes, was particularly interesting, and the ultra-lively third movement, with its constantly shifting harmonic center, was very amusing.

Next up is Swiss composer Thomas Demenga’s Summer Breeze II. This is a very modern and atmospheric piece, which opens with an ambiguous harmony, dark piano chords and the clarinet and cello playing very softly. After a pause, the piano plays a repeated series of three chords, followed by the cello again playing on the edge of his strings. This part of the score is repetitive, reminiscent of minimalism, but Demenga then changes harmony while retaining the same rhythm in the development section, whence the clarinet enters playing its own quirky, repeated melody. Again we become mired in minimalism with a change of key at 3:45. Eventually the volume increases, a crushed piano chord brings us to a stop again, and then we hear a faster tempo with atonal clarinet swirls over the piano and cello, the latter now playing pizzicato.

Simon Heggendorn’s Siena is yet another rhythmic piece, this time using an irregular 6/8 or 9/8 tempo with ambiguous but not really atonal chords. It’s more of a showcase for the cello, which gets the principal melody to himself, following which the piano plays a variation while the cello bounces pizzicato like a jazz cello. The clarinet comes and goes, sometimes in brief solos and sometimes as an accompanying instrument, as the rhythm becomes even more complex. The piano then takes over during the slow section, which has a quasi-bluesy feel to it, before the cello starts playing short, bowed notes, the clarinet takes over, and the tempo increases once again. This piece was commissioned by Trio Eclipse and is its first recording.

Sean Hickey’s Tiergarten opens very atmospherically and mysteriously, with short, amorphous figures that never seem to coalesce. For a composer who got his start playing rock guitar, it is an amazingly fine piece of music, related to his beginnings only via a quote from King Crimson’s Three of a Perfect Pair and an even briefer motif by David Bowie (neither of which I know, since I don’t give a damn about most rock music). Yet even so, Hickey manages to classicalize these excerpts and make them fit into the overall structure, even when the tempo increases and the mysteriousness dissolves for a while. The rest of the piece alternates between this mysterious sonic landscape and the rock-infused music, although the beat is played here a bit less stiffly than most rock bands did, and do.

Happily, we end with a real masterpiece, Daniel Schnyder’s A Friday Night in August, and if this once-very-popular “jazzical” composer has faded a bit from sight in recent years, his music is no less brilliant and engaging. This piece, written in 1996, was inspired by his residency in New York City during the early 1990s, when he could hear Caribbean music being “raucously” played and sung by residents having a barbecue on a little rocky hill outside his apartment window. As usual with Schnyder, everything is neatly and tidily written in a strict formal style yet it constantly gives off the vibes of jazz and, in this case, Caribbean music in its rhythms. Although the cello gets a nice little solo here, the piece is largely dominated by the clarinet and piano. Since I didn’t have this piece in my collection, I was more than happy to both hear it and have it. At about the 6:47 mark, Schnyder tosses in a weird little waltz with the cello playing fast figures on the edge of his strings, but it’s not long before we return to our Caribbean festival.

This is clearly a very fine, interesting and mostly entertaining CD, yet the entertainment aspect never quite overshadows the very committed playing of these three musicians. Trip Eclipse has clearly set out to cut their own swath in the classical world, and I sincerely hope to hear more from them in the future.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Theodore Kuchar’s Amazing Nielsen

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NIELSEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-6 / Janáček Philharmonic Orch.; Theodore Kuchar, cond . Brilliant Classics 94419 or 95932, a 13-CD set that also includes the music of Smetana, Dvořák & Shostakovich

It’s so seldom that critics agree on a particular recording of anything that I found myself drawn as if by a magnet to hear this set of the Nielsen Symphonies and compare it to those I have heard by Douglas Bostock and Herbert Blomstedt. Prior to hearing this 2012 release, I would have told you that Blomstedt’s was the best of the six complete symphonies, but now I find myself in full agreement with Jack Lawson of MusicWeb International, Blair Anderson of AllMusic.com and David Hurwitz of Classics Today.

I probably should have known better. Many years ago, I reviewed Kuchar’s set of the complete orchestral music of Smetana, also on Brilliant Classics, and raved about it. My “fellow critics” immediately began to lambaste me because I had not heard Flippity-Doo-Dah’s recording of the Smetana such-and-such, so how dare I rate it so highly? Until they, too heard it. Then they backed down, because they realized that Kuchar and I were right and they were, unfortunately, wrong.

I have read a few (and only a few) snarky comments by Amazon.com buyers that the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies are too fast, but I have looked at the scores and they’ll full of banana oil. What THEY want is not what NIELSEN wanted; the scores are quite clear on this. But you’ll always run into pompous windbags who feel that no music is “spacious” enough unless you d-r-a-a-a-g-g-g it out like a taffy pull.

So why didn’t I review this when it first came out in 2012? Why, because my editor wouldn’t let me. One of the other “Nielsen Experts” in his stable of critics had dibs on it. I, on the other hand, was offered yet another pile of Chopin and Liszt piano music CDs to review, most of which I turned down. But, as in the case of several other releases I’ve reviewed on this blog, better late than never.

Kuchar combines a lyrical approach with an exciting and dynamic one, similar to that of Thomas Dausgaard in his new recordings of the first two symphonies. While I agree with David Hurwitz that the Janáček Philharmonic is not quite as fine an orchestra as some others, I personally heard nothing much to complain of except that the strings were not particularly silken-sounding—but for me, silken-sounding strings can sometimes impede the visceral impact of music, and in my view Nielsen was, to a great extent, the Danish Mahler. His music needs excitement because the scores demand it.

But who is Theodore Kuchar? He’s a Ukrainian-American conductor born in New York in May 1963 who originally started on the violin, switched to viola, and then moved on to conducting—but overseas, not in his home country. After stints as a violist at Tanglewood, Cleveland, Helsinki and Cape Town, Kuchar became music director of the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra in Australia where he stayed until 1993. In 1992, he was named Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine, and then Conductor and Artistic Director in 1994. Returning to America, he became Music Director of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra from 1996 to 2006. From 2002 to 2016, he was music director of the Fresno Philharmonic, and from 2003 to 2018 was music director/conductor of the Reno Chamber Orchestra. He is currently Artistic Director of the Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra, a post he has held since 2011.

Interestingly, his Wikipedia page (from which the above information was gleaned) does not list these Nielsen Symphonies at all among his discography, and only Ma Vlast from his massive Smetana set. Even more interestingly, Brilliant Classics seems to have taken this 3-CD set out of their catalog and replaced it with a 13-CD set of Kuchar conducting Eastern European composers of which Nielsen is one. The entire set is, however, available for free streaming on YouTube, and I highly recommend it to your attention. In actuality, Kuchar is the most-recorded conductor of his generation, having made over 130 compact discs for Naxos, Brilliant Classics, Ondine, Marco Polo and Toccata Classics. Kuchar has also received numerous awards for his recordings such as the BBC Record of the Year, Australian Broadcasting Corporation Record of the Year, Chamber Music America Record of the Year, Gramophone Magazine’s Editor’s Choice, the WQXR Record of the Year and a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Instrumental Album of 2013. The 2016-17 season saw the release of seven new compact discs, devoted to the complete symphonies of Ukrainian Boris Lyatoshynsky and Yevhen Stankovych (National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine), orchestral works by the Turkish composer Ulvi Camal Erkin (with the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra).

One reason why some listeners probably don’t like these performances is the very sharp, almost clipped attacks on forte chords, particularly in fast passages. Many listeners are so used to the more rounded, “soft” attacks on chords provided by many of today’s conductors, particularly British ones, that hearing such a muscular approach unsettles their equilibrium. In only one movement did I feel that Kuchar was too slow, and that was the “Andante malincolio” of the Second Symphony, which he played more like an Adagio.

Where Kuchar scores over Blomstedt, in particular, is in the “turnarounds” of phrases, which he conducts much more elegantly. A perfect example is the sudden switch from a soft volume and medium tempo to the sudden blare of trombones and the full orchestra at the six-minute mark of the first movement of the “Inextinguishable.” He also brings considerable delicacy (and subtle humor) to the second movement of the same symphony and, in the finale, pulls out all the stops to show his similarity here to Mahler. I haven’t heard details like that since Michael Gielen conducted the Nielsen Fourth with the Cincinnati Symphony eons ago. Blomstedt played Nielsen as a modern-day Beethoven, and that’s not entirely bad, but the Danish composer had a touch more elegance in his phrasing the same way Mahler did. (Many people forget that Nielsen was a musical polyglot who toured Europe and heard all the new music of his time, and thus absorbed influences that were not Danish.) Jascha Horenstein, a first-rate Mahler conductor who also recorded Nielsen (the Third, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies), also brought the same sensibility to both composers. Incidentally, I’m pleased to report that our unidentified soprano and baritone who sing in the second movement of the Third Symphony have fine voices. I just wish I knew who they were.

A dissenting voice on Amazon.com complained of Kuchar’s interpretations of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, claiming that they lacked “mystery,” but if one looks at the scores he does everything the composer asked. This is like those people who claim that Toscanini is not “mysterious” enough in Sibelius whereas, if you listen to the symphony recordings by Sibelius’ favorite interpreter, Robert Kajanus, they are just as swift and powerful as Toscanini’s own. I had no problem at all with these performances. As a matter of fact, I liked the grotesque quality of the clarinet solo in the first movement of the Fifth very much, and Kuchar gets the multilayered, conflicting rhythms in the second half of the long first movement just right (some conductors don’t).

This is a superb set of performances, highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Dawson and Kay

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AwardDAWSON: Negro Folk Symphony. KAY: Fantasy Variations. Umbrian Scene / ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orch.; Arthur Fagen, cond / Naxos 8.559670

In the wake of the media hoopla over Florence Price, a female African-American composer of the 1930s, we now have the Negro Folk Symphony of one of her contemporaries, William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), who I had never heard of, and Ulysses S. Kay (1917-1995), who I had. Yet whereas I was only slightly impressed by the music of Price, who was clearly an accomplished technician but completely unoriginal in her method of writing, I was very much struck by the originality of Dawson.

His symphony, written in 1932-34 but revised in 1954, utilizes African-American themes in a completely different manner from that of his more famous contemporary, William Grant Still, who I have written a profile of on this blog. Like Price, Dawson “classicalizes” his black themes somewhat more thoroughly than Still, a composer who has not yet been adequately assessed or properly represented on records (most of the existing recordings are too polite and miss the point of his rugged orchestration), but the manner in which he develops his themes and knits the music together is far more interesting. There is a real energy in Dawson’s music that I find missing in that of Price.

Premiered by Leopold Stokowski in 1934 and broadcast nationally, Dawson’s symphony garnered initial enthusiasm from critics but both the work and the composer were soon forgotten. I found the work masterful on so many levels that it’s difficult to describe. Of course, we are hearing the revised version of 30 years later, by which point Dawson had traveled to seven countries in West Africa, from which he garnered authentic African themes and especially rhythms which he used to infuse the music, but a work of genius is a work of genius. I wholeheartedly agree with Frank K. DeWald’s liner notes:

In a detailed study of the Negro Folk Symphony published in the Black Music Research Journal, musicologist John Andrew Johnson describes the work as “masterful on many levels. Each of its three movements, while cast in a traditional form, is ultimately not controlled by these predetermined structures; rather, a continuous process of variation and development shapes its course.” Dawson applies his own highly individual touches in a work that is both structured and freely programmatic.

William Dawson

William Dawson

Moreover, unlike Price whose music was conventionally pretty (probably what attracted so many people. but I do not respond to “pretty” unless there is something underneath of interest), Dawson had a ruggedness, an earthiness, in his writing that lifted it above the mundane. In the second movement, for instance, titled “Hope in the Night,” Dawson breaks off his initial musical discourse suddenly with a crashing chord, following which we hear a plaintive, melodic theme emerged played by a cello and viola that eventually expands to include the French horn and flute against a pizzicato string background. When the tempo picks up again, the winds introduce another theme which is then developed. Everything about this music is arresting and original in both approach and orchestration. The movement ends in a mysterious haze.

The third movement, “O le’ me shine, shine like a morning star!,” is based on a spiritual but once again expanded in such a way that it opens up like a supernova. By the 3:30 mark we are in highly rhythmic territory, sounding like one of the themes from the first movement of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, one in which the Czech composer emulated, but did not directly copy, American Indian and African-American songs and themes.

Although Ulysses Kay was born only 18 years after Dawson, his music is clearly more modern in its use of harmony—which is not to say that he is blatantly atonal, but rather that he uses unusual chord positions as the underlying basis of his music. In the opening, it is The Fantasy Variations of 1963, in fact, opens with the Phrygian mode, and later vacillates between the diatonic scale and chromaticism. This unusual harmony is used as a springboard for the underlying rhythmic figures that arise about 3 ½ minutes into it. DeWald points out, a bit humorously, that “It might also be called Variations in Search of a Theme since the actual theme does not appear until the end, after an introduction and 13 variations.” Despite the fact that I had heard of Ulysses Kay previously, this was my first experience in actually hearing any of his music, and I was much impressed. His is another name that clearly should be found more often in symphony programs. The Umbrian Scene, also from 1963, was commissioned by the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony as an example of “musical beauty.” Kay responded with a piece that is indeed beautiful, but in a modern way, like some of Samuel Barber’s short works for orchestra. The opening resembles 12-tone music but is not, despite the fact that it clearly sounds modern and, at the 4:45 mark, uses close seconds played by soft brass. One thing I found very interesting in Kay’s music was that he seemed to borrow nothing from Stravinsky, who was still alive and active at the time, and very little from Schoenberg other than his use of mood in his early orchestral works. Kay was clearly “his own man” in terms of musical construction, and I greatly admire him for that.

This is, of course, not the first recording of Dawson’s Symphony; the Stokowski recording, issued on a DGG CD, preceded this one; but it is, so far as I can tell, the first digital recording of the work and clearly much easier to find. This is a major release.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Carty Presents Schubert’s “Four Seasons”

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SCHUBERT: Viola. Ganymed. Die Sommernacht. Romanze. An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht. Litanei aus das Fest Allerseelen. Greisengesang. Der Winterabend. Klage der Ceres / Sharon Carty, mezzo; Jonathan Ware, pno / Genuin 20697

This is a classical concept album with an interesting twist. Irish mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty has selected nine mostly lesser-known Schubert lied (only Ganymed jumped out at me as a title I had seen before) arranged in a manner celebrating the four seasons. The arrangement is as follows:

Spring: Viola, Ganymed.
Summer: Die Sommernacht, Romanze.
Autumn: An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht, Litanei aus das Fest.
Winter: Greisengesang, Der Winterabend, Klage der Ceres.

It’s an interesting program, particularly since it opens with one of Schubert’s longest songs other than Der Hirt aus dem Felsen (which, of course, could also have been a spring song if she included a clarinetist). Carty has a very pretty voice with next to no vibrato and very fine phrasing, but her deficit is that she doesn’t interpret much at all except in a generic way. This puts her recital in the same category as Elly Ameling’s Schubert. For those of you not old enough to remember, Ameling had one of the prettiest soprano voices of the 1960s and ‘70s, but couldn’t interpret if you put a gun to her head. Of course, this didn’t stop critics, particularly the British critics, from falling all over her while such superior female song interpreters like Carole Bogard went practically unnoticed.

Granted, the words of Viola aren’t exactly terribly dramatic or poetic. They exalt the melting of the snowdrops to make way for the “happy time” of spring, “So that the flowers of the earth / Rise from their dark nests / And to prove worthy of the bridegroom / Adorn themselves for the wedding feast,” but she could have tried to sound happy at least. Nor does pianist Jonathan Ware help her any; his playing is as bland as her singing.

So I’m rather down on Carty as an artist but very high on her as a vocalist. I wish her well and hope that someday she does develop some interpretive skills. Voices as pretty as hers don’t exactly grow on trees. But as of right now, she’s a cipher.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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An Interview With Silke Eberhard

Silke Eberhard

I was so much taken by Silke Eberhard’s wonderful album, Potsa Lotsa XL Plays Silk Songs for Space Dogs, that I felt compelled to interview her, at least via email. And I’m very glad I did, because her answers to my questions reveal so much depth in this young German musician that listening to the record might only suggest. Here is the full interview for your reading pleasure, and I hope that you come to admire this remarkable musician as much as I do.

Art Music Lounge: First of all, I wanted to congratulate you on this particular CD. So much of the music was, in my view, both thought-provoking and well written. None of the pieces seemed to me to ramble or go out of control, no matter now wild the improvisations; there is a solid sense of musical structure in each and every piece. Did you, by any chance, study composition?

Silke Eberhard: Thank you for your kind words. The thing is I have always been composing, but I did not study it academically in this sense. I studied jazz saxophone at the university, and there I had some music arrangement courses. During that time I began to try out a lot and wrote really strange and sometimes naive stuff, my friendly teachers encouraged me to continue. I got great advice from Steve Gray, who was a visiting professor for a semester – (and I deeply regret that I missed some of his lectures because I was too busy with nightly jam sessions). Some things I got only from records, manuscript books or directly from fellow musicians. So I still feel almost like an autodidact when it comes to composition, and in my pieces there are probably passages that you wouldn´t find in the schoolbooks or they would appear as examples for a mistake or so. But that’s what makes the magic for me, all in all I have always liked to construct and build and search for different or unusual ways of musical performance. For me, composition is extensive and should go further, the charm lies in sounding out the limits, even in areas of unknown or so-called unwanted sounds.

AML: Although your charts sounded very original in terms of construction, there were moments when I felt that the orchestration was similar to some of the arrangements that Eric Dolphy wrote for John Coltrane (the Africa/Brass Sessions) or the charts that Charles Mingus wrote for his quintet when Dolphy was in it (the Candid sessions). Did any of that music influence you?

SE: These records are masterpieces. The whole work of both musicians – Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus – has left a big mark on me. In my view, the collaboration between the two even takes on a potentiation, for example concerts/recordings like “Mingus in Oslo” or “Live at Antibes,” these are milestones. But in addition to these works, I have also dealt with the compositions of Eric Dolphy, from which an album with “the complete works” of Eric Dolphy was created, in a quartet instrumentation of four wind players. Later then also the Love Suite, which seemed to have been lost for decades. On my search I got in contact with Gunther Schuller, he had the original manuscript and sent a copy to me – in Dolphy’s own handwriting. It was sensational to actually see the work of the genius right in front of me. I was also in Washington D.C. at the Library of Congress to study his estate. Dolphy was a great composer – and there’s also the closeness to Third Stream… Also Mingus’s compositions, on the other hand, touch me deeply, in a different and very emotional way. With the collaborative trio “I Am Three”, consisting of trumpeter Nikolaus Neuser, drummer Christian Marien and myself, we arranged and interpreted Charles Mingus’ pieces. Meanwhile there are two CDs, also released on Leo Records, the second one is with the wonderful singer Maggie Nicols, on which we approach the text-based work of Mingus.

AML: It was also evident to me that you think of your 10-piece band more in terms of an orchestra than as a large improvising ensemble. Was there anyone who influenced your decision to use the band this way?

SE: No, it just developed into that because I just love writing. It was clear to me that I wanted to write out more musical material for a larger ensemble than for my trio, for example, where we develop the arrangements for pieces together through improvising – but strangely enough, I first selected trio pieces and then arranged them for the larger ensemble, adding many new parts and voices. So some of the pieces were created from the smallest form, others were intended for the orchestra from the beginning, and both approaches then came together.

AML: I’m curious to know if any other sax players influenced your style, either before you discovered Dolphy or afterwards. You have a great sense of lyricism in your playing that seemed to me quite different from Dolphy.

SE: Yes, there are. So many. The first influences were Charlie Parker and very early on Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, also Lee Konitz. But also players as different as Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Lyons, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Steve Lacy, just to name a few…

AML: I’m wondering how you found the other musicians for your band and whether or not they, too, were in some ways influenced by either Dolphy or the Mingus quintet with Dolphy? I thought I heard a little bit of Ted Curson in Nikolaus Neuser’s playing.

SE:  Yeah, that’s right. Nikolaus Neuser loves Ted Curson, I also hear a lot of Booker Little in his playing, which gives almost a double connection to Dolphy. Most of the musicians in the band are longtime musician friends, we all live in Berlin and know each other from the scene. Every one of them is an individual, it’s not that it’s just any cello, it’s Johannes Fink who plays it – he could play any instrument, it doesn’t matter. Or Jürgen Kupke, he is the clarinet itself, or the wonderful Taiko Saito, the most fearless vibraphonist of all. The music is actually tailor-made for exactly these people, not just the instruments.

AML: Are there any other modern jazz musicians or arrangers who have influenced your solo and writing style?

SE:  Also many… But some are Ornette Coleman, Gunther Schuller, Mal Waldron, Carla Bley, Gil Evans, Igor Stravinsky, Alfred Schnittke.

AML: I also wondered about the inclusion of the cello. Just about the only well-known jazz cellists I know of are older musicians, specifically Oscar Pettiford and Fred Katz. Who influenced your decision to use a cello as both a solo and ensemble instrument?

SE: I have always loved the cello. And maybe Chico Hamilton’s group sounded a little bit in my ear, where Fred Katz was also part of, this instrumentation was fantastic. Johannes Fink plays the cello in our group, it’s a five-string cello, in a very special way, he changes between soloist or can also be part of the rhythm section, he has a great style.

AML: Are there any upcoming recording plans that you would like to share with my readers?

SE: In August I will receive the Berlin Jazz Award 2020. This will be a public concert that I will play with my trio (with Jan Roder on bass and Kay Lübke on drums), and I have new pieces for it. The concert will be recorded by Radio Berlin Brandenburg, and it is planned to release an album later.

AML: Thank you for your time!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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