The Greatest Beethoven Quartets Ever…for 99¢!

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BEETHOVEN: Complete String Quartets. Grosse Fuge / Colorado String Quartet: Julie Rosenfeld, Deborah Lydia Redding, violinists; Marka Gustavson, violist; Diane Chaplin, cellist / Musical Concepts Classical Library, available for download at Amazon.com HERE for just 99¢

This is the bittersweet story of one of the very first all-female string quartets in America, their up-and-down career which lasted 31 years, and their greatest legacy: the finest performances of the Beethoven String Quartets you are likely to hear.

From the Classical.com webpage:

Founded in 1982, the Colorado Quartet rose to international attention with back-to-back first prizes in the Naumburg Competition and the First Banff International String Quartet Competition in 1983. For the next thirty years, the quartet would remain prominent artists on the American and international chamber music scene before disbanding in 2013. The ensemble was one of the first all-female quartets to gain significant stature.

Founding member Deborah Lydia Redding, who was second violinist with the ensemble from its founding to its last performance, said during an appearance on WNYC’s “Around New York” that the quartet’s name came from the fact that she grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and was one of a team tasked with putting together a resident quartet at the University of Colorado. That ensemble subsequently went to the Juilliard School, “and the rest is history.”

The Colorado Quartet was based in the New York City area, became Quartet-in-Residence at Bard College, and appeared as artists at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and Great Performances series. Members also taught at Yale University, Oberlin College, and the Banff Centre.

The quartet premiered dozens of works, including major quartets by Karel Husa, Richard Wernick, Ezra Laderman, and Tamar Muskal, and many other works, including a substantial number of commissions.

The Colorado Quartet recorded frequently, with releases on many labels, including Albany Records, New World, Fidelio, Mode, and Bridge.

Their recordings for Bridge, one of America’s finest and most exploratory classical CD labels, included Irving Fine’s String Quartet, Richard Wernick’s String Quartet No. 6, and a piece with guitarist Sharon Isbin. For Mode they recorded Henry Cowell’s String Quartet No. 3, and for Albany they recorded Laura Kaminsky’s Transformations and Jan Krzywicki’s String Quartet. On all these recordings, the Colorado Quartet played but one work; the only album I could find completely devoted to them was an Albany CD of the string quartets of Karel Husa, Ezra Laderman and Mel Powell. . But now for some additional info. Perhaps because they identified so much with contemporary music, the Colorado Quartet was sometimes overlooked for their insightful performances of the standard repertoire. Yet Alexander String Quartet founder Sandy Walsh-Wilson told me, upon hearing of their disbanding, that he was very sorry to see them go. They were so good that they sometimes subbed for the Alexander Quartet and vice-versa. Perhaps it was simply age that caught up with them and led to their disbanding in 2013, but one of their greatest achievements was this set of the complete Beethoven quartets, recorded for the small Parnassus label from Woodstock, New York, for which they also recorded Brahms’ String Quartets as well as a disc including Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet and Mendelssohn’s Op. 80 Quartet. The latter won the Chamber Music America/WQXR Award but, for whatever reason, their Beethoven set flew under the radar. I was fortunate enough to be selected to review the last installment in the series, which included the Op. 95 quartet plus all of the late quartets, with the Grosse Fuge firmly in place as the last movement of the Op. 130 Quartet (with the published finale following it, as should be).

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L to R: Marka Gustavsson, Julie Rosenfeld, Diane Chaplin, Deborah Lydia Redding.

To say that the set bowled me over would be an understatement. Here, at long last, was a set of the late quartets to stand comparison with the legendary 1960 recordings by the Yale Quartet for Vanguard. Every note was in place; they played with a rhythmic bounce that was infectious; they dug into each quartet, bringing out just exactly what Beethoven put into it without exaggerating or trying to be too cute by slowing down the Adagio and Andante movements to something resembling a funeral march. I had found my ideal set of these quartets—yet, somehow, locating copies of the rest of their cycle proved elusive, and when they broke up in 2013 Parnassus just deleted all of their recordings from its catalog.

Just how good is this set? Well, let me give you my own journey for an example. My first set of the complete Beethoven Quartets was the one made by the Hungarian Quartet for EMI, issued in the U.S. on their budget Seraphim label. I even saw the Hungarian Quartet play a few of the Beethoven Quartets in person in 1969 at my college (Seton Hall University). After a few listening, however, I began to realize that although their playing was correct and had a good tone, they were just too reserved for Beethoven.

I then sampled a couple of discs in the Guarneri Quartet’s series on RCA Victor, and although they played them with a bit more energy there was something wrong with their sense of rhythm. It was just too foursquare for me; their pacing sounded stodgy, not so much because of their tempi but because of their plodding, clomp-clomp sense of pacing. In 1970 I discovered the Yale Quartet’s phenomenal set of the Late Quartets, but alas, that was all they recorded of the series. Later in the 1970s I listened to the highly overrated Alban Berg Quartet’s recordings for EMI, which I found, and still find, to be a strange combination of blistering tempi and icy-cold playing.

On and on I went. I loved the Tokyo Quartet’s performances of the Middle Quartets, but both the Early and Late Quartets just didn’t have enough of a straightforward zest and drive. In the 1990s I explored the Vermeer Quartet’s series on Teldec. Great playing, good energy, but nearly every tempo in every single movement from start to finish was too slow. After that it was the Kodály Quartet, whose performances I reviewed in my article on Naxos’ Complete Beethoven Box. Quite good, better than the Hungarian, Juilliard, Berg and Vermeer Quartets but not quite getting under the skin of each movement in each piece. Then I went through the Emerson Quartet’s series. I loved their performances of the early quartets, but they just brought the exact same approach to the middle and late quartets: sprightly but not under the skin of the music. I felt the same way about the overrated Tákacs Quartet series on Decca. A couple of years after hearing the Colorado Quartet’s album of the late quartets, I also heard the complete set by the generally wonderful Alexander String Quartet. I liked their early quartets though not on the same level as Emerson, their middle quartets were nearly as good as the Tokyo Quartet, but the late quartets somehow lacked energy. Then there was the Belcea Quartet’s series: plenty of energy, a nice, edgy quality that suits Beethoven, but the violinists’ insistence on playing with constant straight tone robbed the music of richness and made all their soft, sustained notes sound scratchy and anemic. Plus, they dragged out the slow movements to ridiculous proportions; the Molto adagio; Andante of the Quartet Op. 132 is extended from its normal length of about 16 minutes to a ridiculous TWENTY minutes.

So here I am, at long last able to review the Colorado Quartet’s complete series thanks to the anonymous beneficence of either the performers or Parnassus Records—or both—in offering the entire series for sale for a paltry 99 cents. This is clearly the greatest complete set of the quartets ever made, and now I am going to tell you why.

  • Score accuracy: The Colorado Quartet observes all of Beethoven’s tempi exactly as written or pretty close to it. There are no quirky or funny moments in these performances; they’re not trying to score points by over-accenting certain things or wringing pathos or bathos out of the slow movements as other quartets are wont to do.
  • Great tone. Each member of the quartet plays with a light, fast vibrato, which is EXACTLY how 18th and 19th-century string players performed—at least, the best ones. Not for them the scratchy, undernourished sound of straight tone (perhaps this was one reason why they broke up; by 2009, straight tone had become more than regular performance practice, it had become a religion).
  • Perfect recorded sound. I’ve already alluded to the bizarre acoustic of the Alban Berg Quartet’s recordings, and should add that some of the Kodály Quartet’s performances sound as if they were recorded in an empty high school locker room. Producer-engineer Judith Sherman knew exactly how to record this group so that their sound was forward and visceral while still putting a bit of natural room acoustic around them.
  • Consistent style and energy. I’ve already alluded to the fact that these performances by the Colorado Quartet have a wonderful springy “bounce” to the rhythm that no one else has ever achieved, but I should also add that despite their being recorded over a period of years, not just months (the late quartets alone were recorded in May 2004, June and December 2005, and May 2006. Without liner notes, I have no idea what years the other quartets were recorded in), it is they, and not the stodgy Juilliard Quartet, that sounds as if the entire set was made, as the RCA publicity put it, “in a marathon session from dusk to dawn.” The four women of the Colorado Quartet are so laser focused on this music, and the performances just so consistently perfect in feel, tempo and energy, that you almost get the feeling that they did indeed start recording at five o’clock in the evening and just finished at six a.m.

Details abound in these performances that point to their complete absorption of Beethoven’s music and their unique ability to reproduce it in sound—too many, in fact, to discuss or enumerate, but for just one example of a perfect fast movement listen to the finale of the Quartet No. 2 in G. If you can name me even ONE other string quartet who pulls this off with the insouciance and complete unity of sound, as if they were four instruments played by one mind and pair of hands, I’d like to know who. No, not even the Alban Berg or Emerson Quartets were this good, and they were quite good indeed. And in the late quartets, who other than the Colorado Quartet has been able to make the Quartet No. 13 in B flat, the one with the Grosse Fuge, sound this cohesive? Listen to the Belcea Quartet’s recording, which gets a heap of praise. Each movement sounds discrete, almost as if Beethoven had written a suite rather than a unified work which many (myself included) consider to be his masterpiece.

In short, the Colorado String Quartet’s performances of these works are not just excellent; they are perfect in every respect—execution, rhythm, musical style and interpretation. As in the case of some of Toscanini’s Symphony performances or Michael Korstick’s Sonatas, you get the feeling that you’re hearing Beethoven directly, not an “interpreter” trying to score points with his or her cleverness. And in these specific works, which I believe are Beethoven’s most difficult to pull off properly (just read my comments above for the list of failures), Colorado’s astounding readings, which sound deceptively effortless, are just that. It’s like listening to Beethoven without a middle man (or woman).

Fortunately, you needn’t take just my word for it. Here are a few other comments on this set:

The quartet pays meticulous attention to Beethoven’s markings while interpreting them in ways that I have never heard before, I know these pieces extremely well; I have played them, analyzed them, and listened to many excellent performances and recordings of them; yet these recordings reveal elements in the music that I have never noticed before.

Elaine Fine, American Record Guide

Purchased this out of curiosity and, of course, the low price. Having never heard of the Colorado Quartet, I didn’t have very high expectations but what a pleasant surprise! The skill and execution of the Colorado Quartet leaves little to be desired. The interpretations are fairly straight forward, allowing the music to breathe and speak for itself and does it ever! Couple that with very competent recording and it makes for a highly enjoyable listening experience.

I have other performances of the Beethoven quartets by higher profile ensembles (Alban Berg, Tokyo, Julliard, Lindsay, Italian, Guaneri). This set compares very well and would go so far as to say that listening to these recordings offered new insights into Beethoven quartet writing.

To wrap this up, to say that this Colorado Quartet cycle is a bargain is an understatement. Whether you already have other recordings or this is your introduction to Beethoven string quartets, this is well worth your time. Beautiful music that is beautifully played and recorded.

“Goldenrod,” Amazon reviewer

My new favorite quartet cycle…I can’t get over how great this set is. The performances have lots of nuances that make many other sets, by comparison, sound rigid and driven. Perhaps the fact that the quartet is all women is the reason they bring a new sensibility to these works. There are occasional moments of less than perfect intonation, but nothing worse than you would hear in a live recording, so don’t let that deter you. So for now this will be my go-to set.

As others have remarked the sound is excellent, warm and close, as if they were playing right in front of you. I heard inner lines that I never heard in other recordings, which was especially exiting in the Grosse Fuge.

This would be a bargain at 10x the price, and even more (I don’t want to give the publishers any ideas tho :-)). Buy it!

Chris, Amazon reviewer

Whether you take my word for any of this or not, what have you got to lose? Will 99¢ really make or break your budget? This is clearly the greatest bargain in classical music. Nothing else even comes close.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Duo Maiss You Plays 20th-Century Europeans

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AwardBARTÓK: Violin Sonata No. 2. LEISTNER-MAYER: Viola Sonata. JANÁČEK: Violin Sonata / Duo Maiss You: Burkhard Maiss, vln/vla; Ji-Yeoun You, pno / TyxArt TXA 19130

Duo Maiss You consists of German violinist-violist Burkhard Maiss, a founding member of the Jacques Thibaud Trio whose prior experience include first-chair positions (in moth instruments) with various chamber orchestras, and Korean pianist Ji-Yeoun You who pursued a solo career which won her awards before working as a chamber musician. Under Maiss’ leadership, they have truly become a “German duo” in the traditional sense of the term: they employ a warm, rich sound on all three instruments and tend towards a lyrical, legato style of interpretation.

This is immediately borne out in their recording of the Bartók Second Violin Sonata. Maiss plays with a languorous warmth and relaxation in the first movement, more than I was used to from other recordings, while You plays with a rich, deep-in-the-keys approach that belies her previous successes in the delicate, wispy music of Mozart and Chopin concerti. Nor do they let the dramatic aspects of this sonata go by without great attention to detail and robust playing. I particularly like the fact that Maiss’ violin retains its fullness in the upper register while using a quick, fast vibrato; this neither undernourishes his tone nor overdoes the throbbing vibrato that other violinists bring to the music. His playing, however, is not as lean and angular as that of Bartók’s favorite violinist, Joseph Szigeti, though he comes surprisingly close in the second movement. (Bartók favored Szigeti because of his somewhat tight, wiry tone, which he felt was perfect for the Magyar folk music on which many of his works were based.) According to the liner notes, part of the naturalness of sound of this recording came from a combination of digital and analog (tube) microphones. I would attest that this combination worked perfectly to capture a natural sound.

Roland Leistner-Mayer’s Viola Sonata, of which this is the first recording, is early Modern in style. The composer, born in 1945, has never been a fan of the atonal or bitonal schools of composition, but one can hear within this basically tonal work a number of fascinating details, such as chromatic movement of both the top line and the harmony as well as the occasional use of modality. It surely resembles the work of Sibelius or Bartók quite strongly. Like them, Leistner-Mayer is not a composer who wallows in pathos or bathos; rather, his music clearly has a backbone and avoids easy categorization. I would also toss in the solo violin sonatas of Ysaÿe as another example of early Modern music that still holds considerable interest today. Duo Maiss You is deeply involved in this music, drawing out every bit of raw emotion in it. Perhaps the fact that they recorded this work in the composer’s presence has much to do with this.

I was utterly fascinated by the music from start to finish; occasionally, Leistner-Mayer uses strong motor rhythms to propel the music, as in the explosive second-movement “Scherzo,” but rhythm is not his only or primary device. Rather it is, as suggested by the expansive first and third movements, more involved with bringing out a deep melancholy rather than trying to entertain audiences with easy-to-assimilate devices. Indeed, this third-movement “Adagio” is almost a little world in itself, rising from melancholy to a volatile outburst of passion, after which the sadness is somewhat mitigated, as if he has discovered a way to internalize it and help it pass through him. Yet later on, he returns to the melancholy; he just can’t shake it.

The sonata ends with an “Allegro agitato” that sounds so Eastern European that one will have a hard time believing that he is a German composer. Here, as in the “Scherzo,” the strong rhythms return, and his use of modes (combined with chromatic key shifts) sound so much like Bartók that I think you’ll be amazed. But he is only like Bartók, not a carbon copy of him, just as the music of Giuseppe Martucci was like Brahms without using a single quote from the German master he admired so much. The mood also shifts in this movement, but away from the explosive opening towards a sadder theme reflecting inner anguish. Surprisingly, it ends abruptly, almost in the middle of nowhere.

The Duo also dives deep into the Janáček Violin Sonata, one of the few chamber works by this excellent composer (great instrumental music, ugly operatic music) I hadn’t heard before. One thing about Maiss and You is that they seem to never play anything at less than 100% intensity, something I appreciate in any artist. The dramatic moments are highly explosive and the lyrical ones sweeping, with a broad legato feel that nonetheless never lacks feeling. The slow second movement of this sonata, though quite interesting, is not angst-ridden but, rather, almost a love song, but even here the Duo approaches it with a view to bringing out as much emotion as they possibly can. In the occasionally edgy, occasionally lyric third movement, they alternate between the musical moods with stunning emotional shifts, and they continue their attention to detail in the slow but by no means placid fourth movement.

This is clearly one of the best chamber music releases of the year, highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Gabriela Lena Frank Spreads Her Own Wings

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HER OWN WINGS / FRANK: Milagros.* Leyendas+ / Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival: Sasha Callahan, *Greg Ewer, +Megumi Stohs Lewis, vln; Bradley Ottesen, vla; Leo Eguchi, cel / Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0136

Gabriela Lena Frank is a composer who believes in messaging her music. In this release, we are told, she “tells a story of place and identity, of family and friendship.” Normally this type of verbiage means nothing, but in this case Frank is exploring her personal heritage through music, since she is the daughter of a mother of mixed Peruvian-Chinese descent as a father of mixed Lithuanian-Jewish descent, thus she combines a bit of the music of all of these cultures.

Frank’s music is essentially tonal but imbued with chromatics. To this end, she can shift the tonal center at will without sounding as if she were writing bitonally. She also has a strong sense of lyricism within this chromatic structure. The opening of Milagros is typical of her work: a few serrated, downward chromatic motifs, interrupted by strong chords, which lead into more melodic material with a strongly tonal bias. In Milagros, one encounters a more atonal sound world in the second piece, titled “Zampoñas Rotas,” which also has what I would describe as a rock beat. Why, Lena, why? Please tell me what is so wonderful about a rock beat. I just don’t get it. Towards the end of this movement, one hears long-held, edgy, high-pitched violin notes with thumps from the cello and viola interjections. In the next section, “Mujeres Cantando,” could best be described as edgy Latino music except that it lacks a Latin rhythm. This section was very creative, however, and attests to a creative imagination. In “Adios a Churín,” she even tosses in brief moments of jazz cello.

Compared to earlier works of hers that I’ve heard, Milagros sounded to me like a much more unified and interesting piece despite the various influences involved. Whereas previously Frank’s work struck me as a potpourri of ideas juxtaposed in a seemingly random fashion, here she exhibits a much stronger sense of structure. In short, the contrasting bits fit together better, at least in Milagros, because she has separated them into the different sections of the work, even though one can still hear a cultural mixture here and there. What was one, for her, a mosaic has become a melting pot, and this is all for the better. Sometimes, as innovative composers mature, they stay the same; at other times, they tend to become more conventional; but occasionally they grow and expand on what they had experimented with earlier, and this is the case with Frank. Except for the repetition of those strong downbow chords—not repeated frequently, but often enough—I hear tremendous growth in Frank’s music here.

In Legends, she opens with a bow to her mother’s Chinese side. “Toyos” sounds for all the world as if it were written by a Chinese-born composer who had also studied Western form, while the second section, “Tarqueada,” almost sounds like American hoedown music with its sliding chromatic violin playing despite the Hispanic-sounding title—at least until the edgy string playing comes in to transform it into a piece with strong backbeats. I should mention, at this point, that the playing of the quartets of the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival is exceptional, alert to every shift of mood and style and playing with strong emotional commitment. The Chinese influence returns in “Himno de Zampoñas,” oddly enough…or, perhaps one should say, a Chinese-Peruvian influence.

Occasionally, like so many modern composers nowadays, Frank gets hung up on effect in Legends, such as in the second half of “Himno de Zampoñas” where we get somewhat meaningless repetitions of edgy string gestures. This was a weakness of her earlier work which she avoided in Milagros for the most part, but to her credit she does not keep it up. “Chasqui” also has fast, somewhat edgy string playing, but all of it is of a piece, contributing to the musical evolution and not so much an “effect.” I really liked this piece in and of itself; it could easily be played as an encore at any string quartet concert and be assured of great applause, as it is both effective on the surface and well written. The music even swings a bit towards the end.

“Coquetos” is another Latin-inspired piece, and here Frank does indeed simulate Latin rhythms but with twists of her own. The meter is irregular and seems to constantly shift in the introductory section, although once the piece starts in earnest she switches to a sort of driving, pulsating rhythm in 3 (or perhaps 6/8) using a minor mode as its primary harmonic setting. This is another excellent piece. By and large I found Leyendas to be a mosaic of contrasting pieces and less of a melting pot, but each individual section is fascinating and well constructed despite the surprising elements within. “Canto de Velorio” is almost an ambient piece, slow and moody, but with an underlying edge to it and a fascinating, slithering cello line that pushes things along. I would say, too, that the sliding chromatics and occasional lack of harmonic grounding in this piece also refers to her mother’s Chinese heritage, but I could be wrong. Eventually, this piece devolves into a long-held series of screaming strings (a bit of effect here) before the viola pushes the violins with a strong motif of its own before the volume drops and we hear a slow 3 rhythm as one violin plays soft tremolos, the second pizzicato, and the viola and cello play a theme. Even this falls to the wayside as more changes occur towards the end.

An unusual album to say the least, but for the most brilliant music and consistently well played and recorded.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Joey Alexander’s “Warna”

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WARNA / ALEXANDER: Warna. Mosaic (of Beauty). Lonely Street. Downtime. Affirmation I. We Here.* ‘Tis Our Prayer. Our Story. Affirmation III. The Light. HENDERSON: Inner Urge. SUMMER: Fragile / Joey Alexander, pno; *Anne Drummond, fl; Larry Grenadier, bs; Kendrick Scott, dm; Luisito Quintero, perc / Verve 0848840

Jazz phenom Joey Alexander, the Indonesian-born pianist who became a sensation at age 13, is now a few years on in age (17, though this album was recorded when he was 16) and has graduated to a major label, Verve.

He is still an interesting improviser; so much is clear from the opening track which, like the album itself, is named after the Indonesian word for color. This is an apt title for both the song and the album as a whole, because as he had matured Alexander’s playing has become warmer and more colorful. It also retains a certain amount of the surprising energy that he had a couple of years ago on his last release; like the late Filipino pianist Bobby Enriquez, Alexander has some particularly wild outbursts in his improvisations. But “a certain amount” is all he has retained. With age has come, to my ears at least, a lessening of the kind of explosive playing he exhibited two years ago. It is not a serious impediment in today’s jazz world, where laid-back jazz apparently sells like hotcakes; I’m sure that this album will take off in sales; but somehow, Alexander’s inner tiger has been tamed.

Mind you, he’s still a fine jazz pianist. I’m not disparaging his skills in the least. It’s just that his wildness has been supplanted by a somewhat more sedate approach. Not all, but much, of his individuality is now suppressed in favor of a more reflective musical persona.

Perhaps the better integration of his trio is either a cause or a symptom of this. On his earlier releases, the bass and drums almost had to work overtime to catch up to Alexander’s explosiveness, but here they are tightly interwoven into the fabric of his playing. This, too, may be a result of maturity, but I certainly miss the old Alexander. The only earlier example who comes to mind at the moment is George Shearing. Those who have heard Shearing’s wild and unpredictable playing during his bebop years, 1946-49, will understand what I mean. By 1951 or ’52, give or take a few months, Shearing had settled into a cooler groove with his famous combo (the one with Margie Hyams on vibes) that took the world by storm—the Lullaby of Birdland group. The difference was that Shearing had a very distinctive touch; he almost sounded like a classical harpsichordist playing jazz, and his improvisations remained unique. Many tried to sound like Shearing, but almost none succeeded. Alexander does not sound as unique here as he formerly did, although there is a wild half-chorus on Lonely Street that sounds like his old self. The tiger is tamed, and only occasionally does he shed the leash and halter of conventional jazz to reclaim some of his younger vitality.

The question then arises, Why? Is it Alexander himself who has chosen to play this way, or was it perhaps a directive from Verve Records to fit in more? Considering the rather tame opening tracks, I was actually surprised to hear much more of the old Alexander come through on Downtime. This could pass for how he played a couple of years ago, but immediately following is Affirmation I, a ballad so insipid that at first I thought it was a mistake. Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge is next, a great performance that momentarily recaptures the Alexander of two years ago. For seven minutes and 16 seconds, I thought I was listening to one of his earlier albums, but by and large this set just sounded conventional. In We Here, flautist Anne Drummond is actually more interesting and exciting than the pianist.

I certainly wish him well in his career; he earned his jazz stripes early and proved his mettle legitimately. I just wish he could recapture more of the magic he had.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Gritskova Sings Prokoviev

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AwardPROKOFIEV: The Ugly Duckling. 5 Poems: No. 2, The Little Grey Dress; No. 3, Trust Me; No. 5, The Sorcerer. 5 Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Remember Me!—A Malayan Spell. My Grey Dove is Full of Sorrow. Anyutka. The Chatterbox. Mark, Ye Bright Falcons [The Field of the Dead]. The Rosy Dawn is Coloring the East. Katerina / Margarita Gritskova, mezzo; Maria Prinz, pno / Naxos 8.574030

Although this recording was released in May, somehow I missed it in the New Release Catalog, possibly because I was very tense about the Coronavirus and desperate to get my hair cut. (Sometimes these little stressors in life interfere with your reviewing.) But I’m sorry I did, because this is a very interesting CD on three counts.

First, of course, is the fact that Prokofiev’s songs are rarely if ever heard in concerts, no matter how many recordings may exist of them. Secondly, our singer, Margarita Gritskova, not only has a steady, interesting voice but also crystal-clear diction, both features being rarities nowadays. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly of all, Gritskova is a really interesting interpreter, and this is a quality sadly lacking from even the most famous and highly touted of today’s singers. I ignored the blurb in the booklet about her being “one of the leading singers of her generation” (which means absolutely nothing…which generation do you think she’d be a leading singer of?), or which conductors she has sung with. What captured my eye was that “Nelly Lee sparked Gritskova’s love of chamber music, to which she has devoted special attention ever since.” This explains her attention to musical detail and interpretation.

One other rarity about this CD is that Naxos has included all of the lyrics of all of the songs within, in three languages no less (Russian/Cyrillic, English and German), which easily widens the appeal of this album and, I would think, makes owning the physical disc much more appealing than if they had not.

Another interesting feature about this recital is that all of the songs are presented in chronological order, from 1914’s The Ugly Duckling to Katerina of 1944, with most of them dating from 1916 to 1934. The only song given out of order is Mark Ye, Bright Falcons of 1939, given before 1936’s The Rosy Dawn is Coloring the East. This gives us a chance to hear Prokofiev’s growth as a composer from an era when he was influenced by Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov to his more mature and original style, but even in Trust Me of 1915 one can hear him formulating his own voice, particularly in the oft-complex piano part with its chromatic, shifting harmonic base.

In this respect, then, Prokofiev’s song output is considerably more musically interesting than that of Rachmaninov, despite the fact that the latter wrote many more songs (108 to Prokofiev’s 62). As one follows the lyrics of Nikolai Agnivtsev’s bizarre little poem The Sorcerer, for instance, one notes how brilliantly Prokofiev matched the mood of the words to the mood of the music, clearly the equal of Mussorgsky’s Field Marshal Death in a more modern style. Considering that this disc only runs 66 minutes, I’m a little sad that Gritskova didn’t record all five songs in this cycle.

Listening carefully to the way Gritskova sings these songs, I would go so far as to say that she is an even greater lieder singer than her great predecessor, Irina Arkhipova—and Arkhipova was very good. Fritskova is simply more detailed, more intimate; in many of these songs, such as Remember Me!—A Malayan Spell, you almost get the feeling that she is singing for you alone. It’s almost like comparing the lieder singing of Fischer-Dieskau or Gérard Souzay to German and French recitalists of the 1920s and ‘30s. With the exception of an interloper like Ukrainian basso Alexander Kipnis, most of whose career was in Germany before the Nazis took over, you seldom heard this kind of intimacy combined with intensity from even such excellent singers as Gerhard Hüsch, Heinrich Schlusnus or even Elena Gerhardt, possibly the most interpretively interesting German lieder singer of her time.

Possibly due to her personal love for and commitment to chamber music and lieder, Gritskova has trained herself to have perfect control over every facet of what she does with the voice (as did Kipnis and Souzay). Each note has its own color and timbre, yet you never feel that she is over-accenting the words, and the same goes for her vocal placement. She can easily descend into the mezzo depths, and those notes have a full, rich sound, but once again you don’t feel that she is trying to show off by laying into any portion of her voice. In songs like My Grey Dove is Full of Sorrow or Anyutka, she also accents the words rhythmically in a way that makes the notes “bounce off” the piano line like someone dribbling a basketball in slow motion. And everything she does, every little detail, contributes to the interpretation of the words. It’s almost miraculous listening to such a young singer with this much intelligence.

From start to finish, this is a great album, clearly one of the best of the year to date.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Juraj Stanik Turns Inside Out

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INSIDE OUT / STANIK: Moving Forward. Onmo. Soul Eyes. Second Line. Early Bee. I Sing This Song for You. Who Cares. Inside Out / Juraj Stanik, pno; Frans van der Hoeven, bs; Roberto Pistolesi, dm / Challenge Records CR 73488

Pianist Juraj Stanik, a former classical cellist, dedicates this CD to Dutch pianist Rob Madna (1931-2003). Quoth Stanik:

He was not just a piano player and arranger. In fact, he was quite an influential musical character. Thad Jones asked him to write for and play in his famous Thad Jones, Mel Lewis orchestra. This indicates the level of his mastery. Bass player Frans van der Hoeven played in Rob Madna’s band for years. When I got back to the Netherlands, Frans and I decided to record at least one of Rob’s original compositions. Jazz musicians learn from listening to others. I have definitely learned a lot from listening to Rob’s music.

Having just finished reviewing Enrique Haneine’s stunningly creative new album, Unlayered, before hearing this one, my immediate thought was that these pieces were all quite good but much more conventional in structure. They hark back to the late bop era of the 1950s; there’s a bit of Bud Powell in them, a bit of Lennie Tristano, and a touch of bitonality. In short, they’re not bad at all but they are somewhat retro.

It’s difficult to imagine Stanik as a classical cellist; he plays jazz piano as well and as fluently as anyone I’ve ever heard, and as we all know, the cello and the piano take very different skills. The trio is also a very tight one; despite some cymbal washes on the offbeats, the bass and drums are very tightly connected to both Stanik’s own playing and each other. Van der Hoeven plays very light bass, almost understated, in true cool jazz fashion. None of the pieces here have really melodic or memorable themes/lines, yet all are well written. Stanik often uses asymmetric phrases, dropping a beat here and there as well as using turnarounds and contrasting themes that are gentle and melodic, providing a contrast with the stronger rhythmic material surrounding them.

Soul Eyes is a ballad, which contrasts with the two uptempo numbers preceding it. This almost has a Bill Evans feel to it except that Evans generally encouraged a looser interrelationship between the instruments in his trio. As in the first two pieces, Stanik dominates the solo space, but van der Hoeven does get a solo of his own here, interesting, gentle and understated.

I liked Second Line very much, a medium-tempo piece with a bit of New Orleans funk to the beat—but only in the theme statement. In the middle eight of each chorus, the rhythm irons itself out into a more conventional 4. Yet in his solo, Stanik plays some very complex figures and rhythms, really stretching himself out nicely, and Early Bee is a nice, if ambiguous-sounding, jazz waltz. I Sing This Song for You is another ballad, but Who Cares is a nice, uptempo jump tune handled with great deftness by the trio; Stanik is particularly good here.

The CD ends with Inside Out, a medium-tempo walking tune of ambiguous melody that contains some really creative playing by Stanik and van der Hoeven—possibly the latter’s best solo in the entire set.

In toto, this is a good CD of solid jazz pieces with some excellent solos, but not as excellent as I hoped it would be.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Enrique Haneine is Unlayered

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UNLAYERED / HANEINE: Behind the Missing Whisper. Luculent Jiggle. Thriving Ring. Queen of the Underground. Dance of Endless Encounter. Seldom Disguise. The Sweetest Finding. Illustrious Bickering. Oust No More. What of What We Are. Once / Thomas Heberer, tpt; Catherine Sikora, t-sax/sop-sax; Christof Knoche, bs-cl; Jay Anderson, bs; Enrique Haneine, dm/cymb/Udu dm/tamb / Elegant Walk Records 003

Jazz drummer-composer Enrique Haneine, whose first two releases I have praised on this blog, returns here with a new one, Unlayered. Although I am very much in awe of his musical talents, I hope he will forgive me for saying that I didn’t understand much of what he wrote in the publicity sheet for this release. The only part that registered with me was his description of “The jazz, Latin and Middle Eastern influence persists in the compositions, immersing into innovative complex rhythms and harmonies in a lyrical context.” After that, he lost me:

Dismantle to achieve a state of clear harmony. What of what we are, feel, do, say, want, does really belong to us, defines and captures who we are, contributes to our well being and direction of our evolution…Unlayered is about unveiling the manufactured essence of the sympathetic existence. Cutting through the shadows of the dusty transparent illusion. Grounding deeper, flying higher, dancing to the raw laughs around the source, drawn into the possibility of the possibility.

My apologies, but I just don’t get that.

Fortunately, I do get the music, and as in his prior releases it is wonderful. Haneine is a genuine composer who happens to work in the jazz idiom, as was Charles Mingus, not a “jazz composer” in the traditional sense of the term. His music is layered, structured and extremely well-balanced between the written and improvised passages; indeed, most of the opening track, Behind the Missing Whisper, is written out, a slow, repeated dirge in which Catherine Sikora’s sensual tenor sax appears to be the lone improvised voice. She begins as part of the ensemble, playing minimally along with the drones of the trumpet and bass clarinet, but as the piece evolves she becomes more creative little by little. In true Mingus style, the rest of the band suddenly melts away at the midpoint, leaving only trumpeter Thomas Heberer playing a solo in the middle range of his instrument against a sparse background of bass with occasional drum and cymbal accents by Haneine. A bit later, Sikora joins him to add her own comments, then Christof Knoche on bass clarinet; what started out as a sort of repeated canon now becomes a three-voiced jazz conversation, with each instrumentalist listening carefully to what the other is playing to create a unified whole. After a pause, we return to the opening phrases as a closing.

Luculent Jiggle is an uptempo Latin-based piece using a repeated four note, upwards-moving and repeated motif that sounds a little like Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz. This, however, turns out to be just that, a rhythmic lick and not the theme; that is played by Heberer before the four-note licks return. Despite the strong accents on each of the four notes in the recurring lick, we can only grasp the beat a bit; there seems to always be an extra beat or two per measure to throw the listener off. Keeping the harmony in but one place, our intrepid soloists then improvise over the churning rhythm, and it is in their solos that a bit of harmonic variance is heard. Jay Anderson also gets a nice bass solo in this one, surprisingly melodic in structure rather than strongly rhythmic like everyone else’s, though it does become much busier in his last chorus—which again leads back to the four-note motif, which then just suddenly ends.

Thriving Ring is a slowish piece that moves forward in stutter-steps, even more asymmetric in rhythm than the previous pieces. Bass clarinetist Knoche channels his inner Eric Dolphy in this one, and trumpeter Heberer does a pretty good Ted Curson in the first half of his first chorus. After Hebeber slows down, however, Sikora enters and picks up where he left off; the bass and drums suddenly shift to a stomp beat behind her, pausing between their rhythmic accents to create a somewhat lurching effect. Haneine the takes a drum solo, proving that he even thinks like a composer when he is playing his instrument. There is nothing flashy here, but the layered rhythms he produces add to the quality of the music.

Queen of the Underground opens with a neat, uptempo series of beats played on the rim of the snare drum, then cymbals, before the bass and bass clarinet enter. The latter certainly does seem to be playing the tune’s melody, a curious, twisting sort of three-bar phrase repeated sometimes verbatim and sometimes with variants. Muted trumpet and tenor sax play soft held chords behind him as he progresses, improvising ever-so-slightly. Unlike Haneine’s previous two releases, in which the music was exceptionally complex, this one seems to stress simple musical gestures and motifs which somehow fit together to produce a complex piece of musical art. Knoche’s solo on this one is a gem. Haneine’s solo is a bit strange; he almost sounds as if he’s playing spoons (probably the Ubu drum).

Dance of Endless Encounter switches to a Middle Eastern rhythm. Once again, the building blocks of this piece, the small musical cells that Haneine uses, somehow coalesce to produce a unified piece…or, at least, a piece in which the various pieces overlap to create continuity. Heberer’s solo on this one is especially interesting and well constructed.

The remaining pieces on this album follow a similar pattern; perhaps describing each in detail would be a bit of overkill. Each follows a similar pattern, yet each is different. Haneine has a lot of ideas up his sleeve, and on this album he lets them drop one at a time; I was particularly struck by the form and shape of Illustrious Bickering with its twisting, turning melodic line set over a sort of Middle Eastern rhythm.. Overall, the album creates a hypnotic effect on the listener; once drawn into his simple-yet-complex webs of sound, the listener is able to follow every strand because nothing stands in the way of their essential clarity, though the rhythm remains complex throughout.

This disc is a worthy successor to Instants of Time and The Mind’s Mural, both of which I reviewed last September. Enrique Haneine is clearly a talent worth watching, and listening to.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Frank Martin’s Song Cycles

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MARTIN: Sechs Monologe aus “Jedermann”1 Drey Minnelieder.2 Trois Chants de Noël.2 Poèmes de la Mort 1,3 / 1Volker Arendts, bar; 2Susanne Thomas-Martin, sop; 3Christian Mücke, ten; Wolfram Schild, bs; Hugo Germán Gaido, Andreas Berg, el-gtr; Gerhard Koch, e-bs; Wolfgang Weigel, cond / Cantate CAN58013

This is a reissue of a CD recorded in 1998 and originally issued in 2000 containing four song cycles by that most original and interesting of 20th-century Swiss composers, Frank Martin. One of the more curious things about this release is that the second cycle, Drey Minnelieder, was written for soprano with guitar and flute, yet it is presented here with only piano accompaniment. The upside is that the liner notes for these pieces were written by Martin himself or by his wife Maria, which gives us a much closer look into their genesis.

Martin’s music fascinates me because it was a successful combination of tonality and atonality. As far back as the early 1930s, he developed his own thematic and harmonic style that kept lyrical top lines afloat over a sea of atonal accompaniments, and no two of his compositions really sound alike. Moreover, he was able to keep up this high level of creativity almost until the time of his death in 1974. Yet he is still rarely played outside of Europe; most Americans can only discover his superb music through recordings.

The Six Monologues for “Everyman” were written in 1943 at the behest of baritone Max Christian, using Hugo von Hoffmansthat’s Everyman as its basis. At first, Martin tells us, he didn’t think they could be adapted to song—he considered himself very sensitive to words and how they were to be put to music—but eventually found six that he could use. This is the most problematic performance on this album, since baritone Volker Arendts had a very wobbly voice and was not really an interesting interpreter, but happily I discovered a live recording of this cycle given in 1960 by the great baritone Gérard Souzay with pianist Dalton Baldwin. It is available for free streaming on YouTube in six individual segments under the names of the songs: “Ist alls zu End das Freudenmahl,” “Act Gott, wie graust mir vor dem Tod,” “Ist als wenn eins gerufen hatt,” So wollt ich ganz zernichtet sein,” “Ja! Ich glaub; solches hat er vollbracht” and “O ewiger Gott! O gottliches Gesicht!,” and they are absolutely magnificent performances in every respect except that of the sound quality of the piano.

The music is surprisingly “gray” and somewhat colorless for Martin, and in fact both the melodic lines and the piano accompaniment sound very Germanic, almost like the music of Schreker. All the songs are on the slow side and mostly in minor keys, or at least tonality tending towards the minor.

Drey Minnelieder is a short cycle written in 1960 on mediaeval texts of the Nativity and Pontius Pilate, taken from the Mystère de la Passion of Arnoul Gréban (15th century) and Ode à la Musique of Guillaume de Machaut (14th century). As noted in the first paragraph, there is also a setting of this cycle for flute, guitar and soprano, but here they are presented only in the piano-accompanied version. Soprano Thomas-Martin, who at the time of recording was working as a singer in the Cologne Opera Chorus, had a solid (no wobble) but edgy, slightly nasal voice, but she was also a very intense interpreter who performs these songs with great intensity. Here the music also sounds Germanic, but rather more lyrical, at least in the top line, almost like a cross between Strauss and Hindemith. Thomas-Martin also sings the 3 Christmas Songs of Albert Rudhardt, a poet from Geneva who had previously provided the libretto for his satiric opera La Nique à Satan. These were written as a Christmas present for his then 15-year-old daughter Françoise as well as for his wife Maria who was a flautist. Interestingly, a flute is used in this recording but the player is unidentified. This music sounds very French in a somewhat modern style (think of Poulenc) but is by no means atonal.

Martin’s Poèmes de la Mort, written between 1969 and 1971, may be the first real classical piece ever written for electric guitars and bass. Martin admits being fascinated by their timbral possibilities when he heard them in pop music, but here they are used in a strictly classical fashion. However, when I say “strictly classical fashion,” I certainly don’t mean that they are used like acoustic guitars would be or in a soft-relaxed classical style. They retain their edginess and, in fact, are set to music that uses modal scales and odd harmonies, a shifting rhythmic base and strophic top lines for the singers. Here, again, Martin presents us with an entirely different style, this one almost sounding like something by Harry Partch with its sliding, uncertain harmonic underpinning. In its own peculiar way, this is a real masterpiece, and for whatever reason Arendts’ voice has no wobble here.

I should also mention that there is a recording of Drey Minnelieder in its original setting for guitar and flute by soprano Barbara Vigfussen. Her voice is much prettier and less edgy than that of Thomas-Martin, but oddly, she often sounds as if her voice is sagging a bit in pitch. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting alternative.

For the most part, then, this CD is well recommended. The booklet contains full texts and translations of all the songs as well.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Khristenko Plays Krenek’s Odd Music

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KRENEK: Toccata & Chaconne, Op. 13. Eine Kleine Suite von Stücken. 2 Suites, Op. 26. Piano Sonata No. 5. Sechs Vermessene / Stanislav Khristenko, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0399

Ukrainian pianist Stanislav Khristenko presents here Vol. 2 of his survey of the piano music of Ernst Krenek (1900-1991). Those familiar with Krenek’s compositional style will, of course, need no introduction to him, but for those who are unfamiliar with his music, it was very modern-German in style and scope. Like Hindemith, Krenek—a pupil of Franz Schreker—used a lot of bitonality and occasional atonality, but never crossed over into full-out atonal or serial music. Thus in the opening Toccata & Chaconne, the listener feels enveloped by a pianist playing in two keys at the same time without ever going all the way over to atonality or resolving the clash either. What I liked about it, particularly the toccata, was its vital rhythmic thrust; at least in Khristenko’s hands, the music almost bounces off the walls in a sort of moto perpetuo.

As a sort of music joke, Krenek then composed the Little Suite, using variations on the theme of the above and splitting it into six small movements in an imitation of dance forms (the last of them is a foxtrot, and a very clever one at that). This is followed by the Two Suites of 1924, much more serious works. One of the problems I have with Krenek is that, though his music is well written, it tends towards the turgid without offering very much to appeal to the listener, as in the case of Max Reger. I did, however, like the opposing two-handed runs in the fast part of the opening movement of the first suite, and the concluding Allegretto is another sort of fox trot.

Interestingly, the Piano Sonata No. 5, though very much in Krenek’s bitonal style, is actually rhythmically lively and uses at least halfway attractive themes, which Khristenko plays with wonderful lift and drive. Though the development is somewhat thorny, here Krenek’s use of lighter, almost dance-like rhythm holds one’s interest better than in some of his other works. But yes, the music does get rather thick at times, for instance near the end of the otherwise accessible first movement. The second movement isn’t too far out, either, but then there’s the third movement with its jagged, asymmetrical rhythms, beat displacements and persistently bitonal progressions. I had a strange reaction to this piece in that I liked each movement individually but felt that, somehow, it didn’t add up to a cohesive piano sonata. So shoot me.

Ah, but then we reach the Sechs Vermessene of 1958, and this is a real odd gem, a suite of six kaleidoscopic miniatures that sound for all the world like Webern. The back cover inlay to this album claims that they sound “as if advanced musical modernism were meeting the freest of free jazz,” but without a scintilla of a jazz beat I have to disagree. What they do sound like are pieces that Krenek improvised into being, perhaps while recording them on tape, and then transcribed them for publication. That is certainly possible, but one most remember that not all improvised music is jazz-related.

Nonetheless, even with the weak moments in the music mentioned above, this is clearly a fascinating album, perhaps more representative of Krenek’s musical thinking in a nutshell than any other single disc I’ve heard. He may well have been more a craftsman than a genius, but taking this album in toto one is impressed by his range. Even when he’s not great, he at least never really fails.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Søndergaard Plays Brubeck, Desmond & a Little Tizol

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BRUBECK: In Your Own Sweet Way. Brandenburg Gate. Kathy’s Waltz. The Duke. Why Not. The Basie Band is Back in Town. It’s a Raggy Waltz. Dzekuje (Thank You). Broadway Bossa Nova. DESMOND: Embarcadero. Bossa Antiqua. Here Comes McBride. TIZOL: Perdido / Jens Søndergaard, a-sax/s-sax; Ole Kock Hansen, pno; Lasse Lundström, bs; Aage Tangaard, dm / Storyville SVL1014332

Dave Brubeck seems to be a jazz composer not much in favor with today’s musicians, perhaps because his unusual combination of classical formality and the blues doesn’t have a parallel niche nowadays, but here is Danish saxist Jens Sondergaard and his quartet tackling several of his pieces along with three by Paul Desmond and Juan Tizol’s Perdido, a Desmond favorite.

Søndergaard doesn’t sound like Desmond and in fact doesn’t even try. He pours his own warm alto sound into the Desmond method of phrasing, sometimes switching to soprano sax for a number or two. For those who forget, or haven’t heard him, Desmond used a very hard reed, drawing an almost clarinet-like sound from his alto.  For that matter, pianist Ole Kock Hansen doesn’t try to emulate Brubeck’s chunky, deep-in-the-keys approach, playing in a smoother, more conventional style. And yet it’s an interesting set that gives a new feel to these old chestnuts.

To my ears, however, the star musician in this quartet is bassist Lasse Lundström, whose playing is more interesting and harmonically daring than either Norman Bates or Eugene Wright of the old Brubeck quartets. He does, however, emulate the light, bouncing swing of Wright, who was a big improvement over his predecessors in the famed Brubeck Quartet.

The Sondergaard group does an especially fine job on Perdido, rewriting it somewhat and giving Lundström plenty of room, which is all to the good. His solo following the opening statement of the tune is simply astounding in its virtuosity and ingenuity, and in fact it seems to spark Søndergaard to one of his best solos as well. Two pieces from the famous tour album are included, Brandenburg Gate and Dzekuje (Thank You), and these are given nicely swinging performances. In the former, Hansen and Søndergaard give us a bit of Brubeckian classical counterpoint in a nice duo-chorus before the end. Kathy’s Waltz begins in 4, with the bass and drums providing a really nice, swinging support for the piano and, later, saxophone in 3.

Needless to say, Hansen’s piano dominates Brubeck’s tribute to The Duke, and he does a fine job with it. Hansen also sets up and maintains an excellent beat on Bossa Antiqua, which features yet another tasteful solo by Lundström, who then introduces the next number, Here Comes McBride, all by himself.

I also liked the programming of the tunes on this album, with the somewhat laid-back Here Comes McBride followed by the very perky Why Not, then The Basie Band is Back in Town on which the quartet sets up a really nice, swinging groove, including a rare (but brief) drum solo by Aage Tangaard, who keeps excellent time throughout. I was also quite happy to hear It’s a Raggy Waltz, one of my all-time favorite Brubeck pieces, done to a turn. After doing a nice job on the lyrical Dzejuke, the quartet wraps the program up with Broadway Bossa Nova.

This is a really nice recording: nothing fancy, mind you, just good, solid musicianship mixed with a healthy dose of imagination.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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