Quinsin Nachoff Goes “Jazzical”

Pivotal Arc Cover

awardPIVOTAL ARC / NACHOFF: Violin Concerto.1-3 String Quartet.2 Pivotal Arc 2,3 / 1Nathalie Bonin, vln; 2Molinari String Quartet; 3Ad hoc orchestra: Jocelyn Couture, Bill Mahar, tpt; David Grott, tb; Bob Ellis, bs-tb; Jean-Pierre Zanello, pic/fl/cl/sop-sax; Yvan Belleau, cl/t-sax; Brent  Besner, bs-cl; Michael Davidson, vib; Mark Helios, bs; Satoshi Takeishi, dm/perc; JC Sanford, cond / Whirlwind Recordings WR4761

Quinsin Nachoff, whose CD Flux I reviewed in August 2016, is a Canadian tenor saxist now residing and working in New York City. In that earlier review, I noted that Nachoff’s fusion of jazz and classical leaned more towards the former in terms of sonority although, like the late Nikolai Kapustin’s music, the forms are actually classical underneath it all. This disc, scheduled for release on August 7, is a rather different kettle of fish.

His Violin Concerto opens with a cadenza by the soloist that includes references to several classical composers, including Berg and Ligeti, before launching into the concerto proper. And here Nachoff bypasses the conventional classical orchestra to present us with a hard-driving, biting wall of sound that resembles Stan Kenton, combining flute and clarinets with “heavy” brass sounds and piledriver percussion. What I particularly liked about it was that Nachoff has found his very own method of instrumental voicing; at times it resembles Kenton, at other times Eddie Sauter or Charles Mingus, yet in the end the scoring is entirely his own.

Quinsin Nachoff - bohuang.ca - Photo 7Also in this album, Nachoff fuses the various elements to a much higher degree than in Flux. I would even suggest that this concerto is a work that should be performed by modern classical orchestras, except that the majority of them, though excellent, well-trained musicians, often don’t have the ability to capture a real feeling of jazz “swing.” The second movement, which is the slow one as is traditional in most concerti, is scarcely relaxing or soporific, retaining in many respects the edginess of the first but at a slower pace. Nachoff himself describes it as “Where Berg meets Ellington,” and indeed, for those of us who grew up with the Duke’s music and followed its evolution through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, this makes sense. Despite a few moments and phrases out of tonality, Ellington remained an essentially tonal composer, but his sense of rhythm was always looser and less regular in pulse than most of his fellow musicians, particularly in his own piano playing but also in the way his musicians played as a unit. Nonetheless, the emphasis on the high strings and low clarinet sounds, with the trumpets playing in their middle register to fill the hole, is again Nachoff’s own conception.

I should point out that throughout this concerto the soloist is on her own musical plateau, setting the pace with extended lines that hold together as well as morphing and changing as if they were improvised, while the orchestra—as rich and complex as the writing is—is merely the commentator. This, too, diverges from the strict classical concept of a concerto, where the orchestra normally dominates the soundscape and dictates both the direction and the formation of the soloist’s contribution (think of the concerti of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms, even those of Stravinsky and Berg). This split-level concept of musical progression seems to me unique to Nachoff. Some violinist could easily play the solo part of this work alone and call it a solo sonata, just as some orchestra could play the orchestral part alone and call it a jazz symphony. For earlier examples of what I mean, think of Sauter’s Focus or Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. In both cases, the orchestral score was conceived independently while the soloist overlaid his part. I’m sure Nachoff composed both solo and ensemble at the same time, but the end result strikes the ear the same way. In the third movement, there is a fascinating bass-and-drum duet about two and a half minutes into it and this, too, seems an independent element until the pause, after which bass and drums lead back to supporting the solo violinist as the rest of the orchestra slowly coalesces once again behind it. A series of riffs then build up tension in the ensemble before the violin comes back to add its own commentary. At about 10:45 we get, believe it or not, a vibraphone solo over the orchestra. Although I liked this, I wasn’t really sure that it fit into the concerto either musically or conceptually. The cadenza in the last movement is another strange bird, comprised mostly of whistle tones in the extreme upper register and not the usual bravura showpiece that most cadenzas are. I might also add that this concerto is a massive work, running over 45 minutes and thus taking up more than half the length of the CD.

In the String Quartet, which runs a total of 16:21, only 21 seconds longer than the first movement of the concerto and approximately three minutes shorter than the concerto’s last movement, Nachoff uses a sort of sinfonia concert ante approach. In the first movement, the principal soloist is the second violinist; in the second, it is the viola; in the third, the cello, and in the fourth and last movement it’s the first violin. Here he owes a debt, whether he knows it or not, to the pioneering Turtle Island String Quartet whose work in the 1980s and ‘90s set an entirely new standard for jazz quartet writing, although again his particular voicings and sense of rhythm (often irregular) are entirely his own, occasionally using microtones which Turtle Island did not. Let’s call it a fusion of Turtle Island with Harry Partch and a bit of György Ligeti. If one were to hear this work divorced from the other pieces on the album, one would probably identify it as a modern classical piece, albeit one with a strong rhythmic foundation. The Molinari String Quartet is an outstanding group of highly-trained musicians who capture the flavor of the music but do not swing, although to my ears this wasn’t Nachoff’s intention in this piece. Despite the focus on one instrument at a time in each movement, the ear hears the music as a “regular” modern string quartet. Nachoff clearly knows how to write idiomatically for such a group. The legato sections tend to dominate here despite the edgy solo and chord interjections, and the entire piece has a wonderful cohesive unity about it. The last movement is the most highly rhythmic but, again, in a spiky modern classical manner rather than in a jazz style.

The final, title piece of this CD, Pivotal Arc, is described as “Nachoff’s extended reflection on the critical position we currently find ourselves in regarding climate change.” I, too, am deeply worried about the change that most genuine climate scientists are predicting, which is a mini-Ice Age due to the monstrous hole in our sun (the size of none planet Earths), and do not see a way we’ll be able to stop it. We’ll probably just have to hunker down and adapt. The piece opens with the string quartet playing a rather lachrymose theme with an underlying slow march tempo, emphasized by the bass drum, before the flute and clarinets enter along with the trumpets to complete the musical idea and move things along. Here, as opposed to the Violin Concerto, Nachoff’s writing is entirely homogenous, including all musicians in the ensuing musical development. There is an extended percussion solo primarily using the cymbals and other clattery percussion before the low brass re-enter with a different theme, bolstered by the strings playing brief, edgy tremolos underneath them. I think the only thing that bothered me about this piece was the unrelenting depression of it all. C’mon, Quinsin, buck up! Humanity has survived quite a few “climate changes” over the centuries, you know, including blistering heat nearly double what we have now, ice ages worse than the one that’s coming, and who knows how many meteor storms and other things. No need to act so fatalistically about this.

Some of the string writing in the middle of the piece I found to be a little too high for its own good, since what was played was an essentially lyrical passage and it sounded rather thin to me. But there’s an excellent tenor sax solo (by Nachoff himself) that picks up the mood a little, in the second chorus with interjections by the brass, bass clarinet and vibes as the orchestral sound builds in volume, richness and tempo, with the bass suddenly playing quadruple time as the music finally reaches a true jazz feel. Some of the orchestral writing in the second chorus consists of “melting” atonal chords, reminiscent of George Russell’s Living Time from 1972 except with more structure and focus. A bit later on, however, the tenor begins playing rapid, broken figures, occasionally screaming in the upper register before dipping down into the lower. When the orchestra returns, it is focused on the brass section and has a much more jazz-centric sound, at least until a solo violin enters and the pace slows down considerably. All in all, despite my few caveats, an excellent piece.

I cannot praise this album highly enough, and it’s sad that it will undoubtedly be much more appreciated by lovers of modern classical music than jazz aficionados. This is music that not only deserves to be heard on this disc but played in live concerts!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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