Historically-Informed Brahms Lieder?

cover PC10419

BRAHMS: Heimkehr, Op. 7.1 Liebestreu, Op. 3/1.1 4 Lieder, Op. 43: Nos. 1 & 2.1 Lieder und Gesänge, Opp. 57-59: Excerpts.1 8 Lieder & Gesänge, Op. 59/5.2 3 Duette, Op. 20.1,2 4 Duette, Op. 61: 1, 3 & 4.1,2 Lieder und Gesänge, Op. 32.3 5 Duette, Op. 66.1,2 4 Balladen und Romanzen, Op. 75: Nos. 2 & 4.1,2  6 Lieder, Op. 86: Nos. 1-3.2 5 Lieder, Op. 94: Nos. 4 & 5.2 8 Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103.2 5 Lieder, Op. 105: Nos. 1-4.2 4 Lieder, Op. 96: Nos. 1-2.1 5 Lieder, Op. 106: Nos. 1 & 3.1 5 Lieder, Op. 104: Nos. 2 & 5 1 / 1Rachel Harnisch, sop; 2Marina Viotti, mezzo; 3Yannick Debus, bar; Jan Schultsz, pno / Panclassics PC 10419

The premise of this album is explained in the liner notes written by pianist Jan Schultsz:

For decades, when we picture Brahms we think of this one image – a serious old man with a big beard. And this is exactly how we have got to know his music: not too cheerful, a little melancholic, let’s say, rather grey. But if we imagine that Brahms did not actually wear a beard at all until he was 45 years old, we can also ask ourselves, was Brahms really the man we always thought he was, and is his music really the way we have always heard it? Especially the young Brahms and the music of his early years? To this day there are no historically informed recordings of Brahms’ Lieder which take research and new insights into account, yet if one adheres to his original articulation and phrasing, an especially charming interpretation of the music can be found, revealing many new aspects of his compositions. Our attempt at emphasizing the lightness and transparency of the works has shown us Brahms as a composer who insists on text-expression, and this has given us a picture of the composer as we may not yet know him.

A personal note: Anyone who doesn’t know that the young Brahms not only had a sense of humor, or that he kept his sense of humor into middle age, are obviously ill-informed about him. If you read any biography of Brahms, you’ll know that he made most of his money as a young man playing piano in the whorehouses at the Leipzig docks and that he was an avid fan of gypsy music. What do you think his “Hungarian Dances” are? Certainly not the folk dances of the native people who lived in the country, but rather of the gypsies that passed through. Moreover, his light touch is also evident in the Liebeslieder Waltzes, which come from later in his career. (Music critic Eduard Hanslick absolutely detested them; he thought they were “beneath” Brahms’ “lofty” goals.) And let us not forget the gypsy tune and rhythms that he used in the last movement of his Piano Quartet No. 1, a piece that was later orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg (and which, for a while, was referred to as “Brahms’ Fifth Symphony”). Brahms always had a dual nature, deadly seriousness and playfulness, but rarely did he put both into the same piece of music.

This album is essentially split between soprano Rachel Harnisch and mezzo-soprano Marina Viotti. Baritone Yannick Debus gets but one group of songs, the nine Lieder und Gesänge, Op. 32, but he is excellent as well. To be perfectly honest, the opening song, Heimkehr, isn’t exactly the lightest or most cheerful Brahms on this set, and Harnisch’s voice isn’t really warmed up on it: she sounds almost uncontrollably fluttery, although with a lovely tone and relatively good interpretive qualities. Schultsz plays an 1871 Streicher model piano from 1871, to which I say, big whoop-de-doo. A piano is a piano. We don’t really need to hear a piano from the composer’s own era in order to appreciate his or her music, but he is an excellent player and accompanist despite having a smaller sound palette to work with.

The lighter Brahms really emerges in the three Op. 20 duets, although it is mostly Schultsz who provides that lightness. Although I like Harnisch’s voice quite a bit, it is a “creamy” soprano and not a bright, tightly focused one. Had they been able to find a modern equivalent to Elisabeth Schumann’s voice, Panclassics would have been able to project the lightness of the music just a bit better.

Debus has a flicker-vibrato in his voice, but it is even and controlled and, like the two women, he has excellent diction. His timbre is really nice, with a touch of Hermann Prey in it. These, too, are not really “jolly” Brahms songs, being mostly in minor keys.

Bottom line: it’s a very nice album but not a keeper. Although each singer tries his or her best to interpret these songs, none of them really gets more than surface-deep as a rule. But it is a pleasant album to listen to!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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A New Recording of Rameau’s “Les Boréades”

Les Boreades cover

RAMEAU: Les Boréades / Deborah Cachet, sop (Alphise); Caroline Weynants, sop (Sémire); Mathias Vidal, tenor (Abaris); Benedikt Kristjánsson, tenor (Calisis); Benoit Arnould, bar (Adamas); Tomáš Šelc, bass (Borilée); Nicolas Brooymans, bass (Borée); Lukáš Zeman, bar (Apollon); Helena Hozová, sop (L’Amour); Pavla Radostová, alto (Polymnie); Anna Zawisza, sop (1st Nymph); Teresa Maličkayová, mezzo (2nd Nymph); Collegium 1704; Václav Luks, cond / Château de Versailles CV5026 (live: Versailles, January 22 & 25, 2020)

Born two years before J.S. Bach, Jean-Philippe Rameau led a rather different musical life though he did compose a great many pieces for harpsichord. Then, at the age of 50, he wrote the opera Hippolyte et Aricie, which became a hit, and later wrote Les Indes Galantes and Castor et Pollux, which became even bigger hits. This opera, written when he was 80(!), was scheduled to be produced, but was replaced by Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s Ismène et Ismènias.

The problem was that Rameau’s previous opera, the “comédie-ballet” Les Paladins, had been a dismal failure when it premiered three years earlier. My guess is that the theater chose not to take a chance on such a long opera, running two and a half hours and covering five acts, fearing another failure and this time an expensive one. In addition, the sort of complex music that Rameau wrote had lost popularity in favor of the simpler Italian opera style.

At first I thought that this was a world premiere recording, but then I tripped across the cover of a 1990 release of this work, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, on Erato. This was the world premiere recording of this opera. The singers were sopranos Jennifer Smith and Anne-Marie Rodde, tenors Philip Langridge and John Aler, and basses Stephen Varcoe and Gilles Cachemille. The recording garnered five stars from Amazon buyers. Obviously, I’ve not heard it.

The plot is your typical ancient gods mythology stuff with a willful Queen tossed in who chooses to defy them. According to Wikipedia:

Alphise, Queen of Bactria, is in love with Abaris, whose origins are unknown. According to the traditions of her country, Alphise must marry a Boread, one of the descendants of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. Determined to marry Abaris, Alphise abdicates, angering Boreas who storms into the wedding and abducts Alphise to his kingdom. With the help of Apollo and the muse Polyhymnia, Abaris sets off to rescue her. He challenges Boreas and his sons with a magic golden arrow. Apollo descends as a deux ex machina and reveals that Abaris is really his son by a Boread nymph. Therefore, there is no longer any obstacle to Abaris and Alphise’s marriage.

Well, one thing I can say about this performance is that it is very powerfully conducted. Václav Luks, founder and director of the orchestra Collegium 1704, is also a harpsichordist, French horn player and musicologist. I had to wait to hear how he treated the strings because the overture, which is a bit simplistic and not really Rameau at his best, is full of trumpets, horns and drums. When I did hear strings they were of the lower variety, celli and basses, although later on the violins did show up, but they, too, played with so much energy that the matter of straight tone seemed moot.

The opera proper opens with sung recitatives that are surprisingly melodic, accompanied by harpsichord, basso continuo, and, believe it or not, French horns. This is a duet between Alphise and Sémire in which the latter learns the Queen’s dilemma. The two sopranos are not only excellent, but have contrasting timbres which makes it easier to distinguish between them. The second scene is a short orchestrally-accompanied recitative by Borilée, followed in turn by a duo between Calisis (Benedikt Kristjánsson) and Alphisa, followed by an aria for the former. Kristjánsson has a marvelous high, light tenor voice, very French-sounding in style and timbre despite his being from Iceland. And this, in turn, is followed by a short ballet sequence, then by an aria for Sémire which does not range too far upwards but contains plenty of grace notes. Then we resume the ballet. Remember, folks, in France sticking ballets into operas was a convention that lasted 200 years.

The point I am making is that, typical of Rameau, he wrote continuous music that morphed and developed without allowing singers to “stop” their arias and duets and wait for applause, and in fact it is this continuous musical development that makes Les Boréades so fascinating.

But I noticed that, in track 13, Calisis’ short aria was supposed to be followed by a scene in which Sémire sings with the chorus. This was omitted from this recording for reasons that are not explained, but then, lo and behold, this solo with chorus suddenly pops up between the “Rondeau vif” and “Gavotte vive” of the ballet. Yet since there is no description of the edition used or why pieces were moved around a bit, I have no idea why this is. Moreover, Luks seems to be rearranging the opera throughout the performance, so you really can’t go by the track listing to know what is played or sung next. This is the one detriment of this album. Whoever was in charge of naming the individual bands should have actually listened to the recording and listed what was being played or sung at that moment instead of what their score or libretto told them.

Alphise’s heartthrob, Alphise, doesn’t show up until the beginning of Act II. He is sung by Mathias Vidal, whose tenor voice has a bit of a flicker-vibrato but a very even and controlled one, as well as a richer and somewhat more powerful upper range than Kristjánsson. Our Borilée, Tomáš Šelc, has a rich bass voice.

I suppose the main way to approach this opera is not in the sense of sung drama, as was the case of Hippolyte et Aricie, Castor et Pollux or Les Indes Galantes, but as a sort of musical fantasia based on the situations of the plot and the moment-to-moment emotions of the protagonists. In other words, it is a musical “interpretation” of the drama and not always a specific projection of the emotions of the principals; and yet, in a piece like Alphise’s aria “Un horizon serein,” Rameau seems to be suddenly dipping into operatic convention. And always, always, his orchestra remains powerful and expressive, foreshadowing Gluck and, in turn, Méhul, Spontini and Berlioz.

But then again, let’s be honest: this plot is dragged out to epic proportions without being rich enough to bear the length. Of course, Rameau had the option of simply omitting much of the text and writing a shorter opera, but I think he saw it as a challenge to his powers of invention to “push the envelope,” to use a modern term. He obviously felt inspired to write all of this music and to make it as inventive and colorful as he could. Considering where music was at in 1763, he did an excellent job. Rameau at age 80 couldn’t be expected to write the sort of exciting, dissonant music that opens Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, for instance, but what he accomplished within a strictly tonal framework is excellent. He does use “leaning” notes that tend outside of the basic tonality here and there, and honestly, that was about as much as you could expect of the old man. It may be much ado about nothing, but at least he had fun and used his imagination to fill out that nothing.

For a live performance, this recording is exceptionally well balanced and recorded, with the voices always forward and close to the microphones while the orchestra (probably miked separately) also clear and crisp (and the chorus, when it is heard, likewise). If anything, this recording has an almost 3D sound about it; I can imagine that it would sound terrific for those of you who own surround-sound systems. And I’m happy to report that each and every singer has a very good voice, an interesting voice, that most of them at least try to interpret the silly lyrics dramatically. They also have crystal-clear diction and do not wobble; and, thank God, there are NO COUNTERTENORS!!!!!!!!!! (Historical footnote: the French never cared for the castrati; that was an Italian-British thing to them; and therefore, their composers did not write roles for castrati, thus French opera of the period has no place for countertenors. Can I hear an “Amen”?!?)

In addition to constantly shifting the tempi and occasionally the harmony and meter, Rameau wrote here an exceptionally colorful score. Indeed, the orchestral sound here is just as fresh and interesting as it was in Les Indes Galantes, which is saying quite a bit. Nonetheless, Les Boréades is a bit of an acquired taste. If you like Rameau you’ll respond positively to it; if you’re used to the good ol’ aria-duet-ensemble form of 19th century opera, you probably won’t. As for me, I loved it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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An Interview With Matthew Shipp


Having reviewed several recordings featuring pianist Matthew Shipp (b. 1960), including his most recent trio recording, I took the opportunity to do an interview with this fascinating musician. Shipp, whose mother was a friend of the late Clifford Brown, was born in Delaware, where he began playing piano at age six. Although he later moved into jazz, he also played in rock bands and attended the University of Delaware for one year. Then he moved on to the New England Conservatory where he studied with avant-garde saxist Joe Maneri, a friend of the late jazz pianist Jack Reilly. After moving to New York in 1984, he became assistant manager in a bookstore from which he was eventually fired. In time he became active in jazz groups during the early 1990s, becoming closely associated with saxophonist David Ware’s quartet, which featured avant-garde bassist William Parker. In recent years he has played in a variety of settings, being especially noted for his many recordings with tenor saxist Ivo Perelman (of which I’ve reviewed a few).

Art Music Lounge: Thank you so much for granting me this interview! I’ve admired your playing so very much over the last few years, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to interview you. To begin with, I guess, I’m interested to know at what point in your career you moved into free jazz, or is that what you’ve been playing from the beginning?

Matthew Shipp: As far as the genre that people think of as free jazz –I did not start playing in that way till my early 20s though I had known that was the direction I had wanted to go for years. As a teen I played in a style that was somewhere between  Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner. That is how I played  before my own style fell together, which happened when I was 22.

AML: Were you trained in classical music first and then moved on to jazz, or were you always a jazz player?

MS: I  started in classical music . The first music I was interested in was church music –[my parents were Episcopalian] so it was Protestant hymns –and the church organist was my first piano teacher .. Started when I was 5 –got very, very serious around 10 . Started becoming interested in jazz at around 12 . As a kid I had an intense love of Beethoven  and Chopin . Well, the Jackson 5 also.

AML: Who were some of the pianists who influenced you most?

MS: The first jazz piano album I really paid attention to was a solo album by Phineas Newborn Jr. McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, and Monk were my major go-to people. I was always interested in the drama Ellington created at the piano. Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, and Andrew Hill opened my mind to the possibilities. Also at one point I was mesmerized by the world of Lennie Tristano, with his student Sal Mosca becoming one of my favorite pianists.

AML: How did you first hear Ivo Perelman, and what was it about him that drew you to play and record with him so frequently?

MS: In the 90s I saw Ivo’s name around a bunch, and ended up at a concert of his one night at the Knitting Factory –which I liked but never thought about playing with him . He ended up a while later in a conversation with my wife at the place where she was working and when he mentioned he was a jazz musician she mentioned she was my wife, and he said I have always meant to play with him—she put us in touch—we went in the studio and felt a connection from the first note.

AML: When you begin playing a free-form duet, how do you approach it? What I mean is, you really can’t improvise on, say, just a few random notes that come from a horn, so what is it you think of when a piece begins that way? Are you “hearing” a harmony that could fit those few notes, or what?

MS: From the first note there are decisions to be made –both in terms of tonal areas or implied tonal areas what the harmonic implications are –and in terms of direction and how the landscape will unfold. It is really hard to explain in words how the unfolding of this goes or what the thought process is.  Let’s say you know what the possibilities are-you are hyperactive to every aspect of it: the note—the attack—what the attack implies as far as the direction of the improvisation goes –what your partners vocabulary is etc etc etc . In a duo like this, there are 2 wills to meld in one and there is a desire to sculpt an experience that is satisfying both as far as musical logic goes and emotion goes . But it is really hard to talk about this process. There are also certain praxis’s that exist in free jazz since it is a few generations old now and if you play this music you are aware of those praxis which can also be looked at as playing attitudes . Of course you are always trying to explode those or let’s say expand them.

AML: I’ve also recently reviewed your album with Rich Halley, The Shape of Things. How is it that you came to play with Halley?

MS: Rich is the curator of a jazz festival that happens in California . He invited my trio to play the festival. I heard Rich play with his trio when I was there and was blown away by him . We kept in touch and he asked my trio to be a rhythm section on some recording projects with him.

AML: Now let’s talk about your new trio album. The thing that struck me when I first started listening to it was that the first number on it, “Blue Transport System,” sounded much closer to standard piano trio music, as did a couple of other pieces on that CD. Is this something you enjoy doing once in a while?

MS: At the end of the day I am a jazz pianist . I love the jazz tradition –it is my DNA. As far out as some think I am in my brain, there is no breakage between this aspect of my playing and the usual perception of me.

AML: When you compose, or improvise, do you think of the music in terms of from the top (melody line) down or from the bottom (bass and/or harmony) up? I’ve known musicians who have done it both ways.

MS: Both ways –I would say what gives me many faces is that I try to find many, many ways to think through these things. I want to have as many looks as possible within my vocabulary. So at different times I approach things in different ways .

AML: This is kind of an off-topic question, but I’m curious. I read once that you had worked in a bookstore but found it oppressive and left the job. Normally, one would think that working in a bookstore would be a good position to have for an artist because it’s not usually that stressful. Can you share with us what happened to make you leave?

MS: I worked at bookstores for years. There was a switch of store managers in this situation –the old manager had been a friend and I had a lot of freedom –whereas the new manager had a very controlling aspect and a corporate style –this did not work out .

AML: Were there other non-music jobs that you worked at during your early years?

MS: Messenger –Art school model.

AML: I’m also curious as to how the job market is (I’m talking about normally, not now during the Coronavirus crisis) for a free jazz pianist. I know there are special festivals devoted to this kind of music, but are there normally enough jobs for you to make a comfortable living?

MS: Well, I have been lucky—when I played in the David S Ware quartet, we toured the whole world and I was able to parley that into gigs for my trio and solo gigs. I also worked with Roscoe Mitchell those years. I have recorded a lot –and with some of my labels I have had a relationship that is more like patronage than a commercial relationship. I have also put myself out there in a ton of other situations . So I hustle and have been able to make a living at this .

AML: Since there are no longer any jazz radio stations where I live, I was curious as to whether or not free jazz gets much airplay nowadays. What has your experience been like?

MS: College radio has been the key –they usually have at least 1 jazz show and tend to play this side of the music. Also sometimes if they don’t have a jazz show some free jazz might get airplay in an alternative music format .

AML: Can you tell my readers of any future projects you have in mind?

MS: My next project is to get out of bed in the morning and to fight the good fight for another day. I am taking everything 1 day at a time now. I am turning 60 so in some ways I am set in my ways and my major projects are solo piano, my trio, and duos with Ivo .

AML: Thank you for your time!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Janczarski-Siddik Quartet in Contemplation


CONTEMPLATION / TYNER: Contemplation. W. SHAW: Sweet Love of Mine. MINGUS: Self-Portrait in Three Colors. J. PEPPER: Witchi Tai To.* CHERRY: Complete Communion. SIDDIK: Dedication. J. HENDERSON: Caribbean Fire Dance / Rasul Siddik, tpt/fl/*voc; Borys Janczarski, t-sax; Michael Jaros, bs; Kazimierz Jonkisz, dm / For Tune Records, no number (live: Warsaw, January 24, 2020)

Tenor saxist Borys Janczarski, whose album with co-leader Stephen McCraven I praised way back in September 2016 (the first year of this blog), returns here with an almost entirely different lineup except for the new co-leader, trumpeter-flautist Rasul Siddik, simply a sideman in 2016.

And except for the fact that both CDs include one composition by Siddik, the focus here is also different, leaning on compositions by famous jazz musicians. The only name I don’t recognize is Jim Pepper, but I would think that most serious jazz listeners are familiar with McCoy Tyner, Woody Shaw, Charles Mingus, Don Cherry and Joe Henderson.

Talk about coincidence! In my review of the Matthew Shipp Trio album I mentioned Tyner as a vastly underrated pianist. As a composer, he was good in a solid 1960s sort of way, and this piece, built on very simple 11-note motifs, is a good example of his work. As in his previous CD, Janczarski’s dry, tubular sound on tenor is reminiscent of ‘60s players as well though again his improvisations are entirely his own. It’s a somewhat “higher” tenor sound than that of Coltrane, but you can tell that Coltrane is one of his main inspirations. He also plays with incredible intensity and, best of all, no rock beats!!! Siddik’s sound and style, on the other hand, are reminiscent of Don Cherry, perhaps with a bit of Woody Shaw thrown in for good measure.

Except for the opening themes which are played in unison by the two horns, this is pretty much a free-blowing date. This almost sounds like the kind of jazz record that would have been issued back in the ‘60s by Impulse! or Blue Note. Pure jazz, devoid of tricks, cutesiness and fooling around. They dive right in and give you the pure stuff, and by that I mean that every note and phrase on this album is played from the gut as much as from the heart.

Woody Shaw’s Sweet Love of Mine, a piece I was not familiar with, is a medium-tempo minor-key swinger, again firmly in the Blue Note tradition. I don’t know if this set was edited for the CD, meaning that some performances were left out, but if it isn’t it surely puts this little band at or near the top of improvising European quartets. Bassist Jaros and drummer Jonkisz don’t fool around, either; they lay down a solid, swinging beat and just keep plugging away at it, with Jonkisz playing some extremely complex patterns as Jaros maintains a solid 4. And all of the solos are interesting; they make musical sense and go somewhere, particularly the leader’s. Jaros gets a solo on this piece, too, and although not flashy it’s right in step with the music. Jonkisz’s solo is wonderfully complex.

The group’s performance of Mingus’ Self-Portrait in Three Colors would have made its composer proud: a warm, loving treatment of the theme and a series of improvisations. Jaros plays bowed bass behind the two horns, as Mingus himself did at times, before launching into a pizzicato solo that starts off the proceedings. Here, Jaros is more imaginative that on Sweet Love of Mine, perhaps inspired by the composer’s own playing on performances of this tune. Pepper’s Witchi Tai To is a simple, funky little piece on which Siddik speak-sings the strange lyrics (printed in the booklet) while Complete Communion is a typical Don Cherry sort of line, sounding very much like the kind of music he made with Ornette Coleman. Siddik’s muted solo is a gem, reminiscent of the way Dizzy would play with a mute in. Janczarski later joins him for a two-way improvisation that is endlessly fascinating.

Siddik’s Dedication is a simple hard bop line taken at a medium tempo, and the composer is the first soloist up. His second chorus is the real gem, inventive and exploratory. Janczarski is slow and meaty in his solo, building slowly but surely to impassioned climaxes. Then comes the drum solo, and it too is a gem.

The closer is Joe Henderson’s Caribbean Fire Dance, which has an irregular pulse at times and a simple but ever-shifting melodic line. Again the solos are excellent and the overall performance, well, fiery. Janczarski tosses in a few Coltrane-like licks.

This is an excellent album for those who are tired of over-fancy arrangements and cute tricks in jazz playing nowadays—a real antidote to the “new” West Coast jazz scene here in the U.S., which seems to be overloaded with tinkly pianists and female jazz singers who whisper songs from the heart. It’s music played with real heart and soul.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The JCA at the BPC (It’s a Boston Thing)


RABSON: Romanople. Super Eyes – Private Heroes. HARRIS: The Latest. PILKINGTON: The Sixth Snake. HARRIS: Orange, Yellow, Blue.* KATZ: A Wallflower in the Amazon + / JCA (Jazz Composers’ Alliance) Orch.: Mike Peipman, Dan Rosenthal, Jerry Sabatini, tpt; Jason Camelio, Bob Pilkington, tb; David Harris, tb/tuba; Jim Mosher, Fr-hn; Mimi Rabson, Helen Sherrah-Davies, 5-str vln; Junko Fujiwara, cel; Hiro Honshuko, fl/EWI; Rick Stone, a-sax; Lihi Haruvi, a-sax/s-sax; Phil Scarff, t-sax/cl/s-sax; Melanie Howell-Brooks, bar-sax/bs-cl; Vessela Stoyanova, vib/marimba; Maxim Lubarsky, pno; Norm Zocher, gt; Jesse Williams, bs; Tony “Thunder” Smith, dm; Gilbert Mansour, perc; Rebecca Shrimpton, voc; Tino D’Agostino, *David Harris, +Darrell Katz, cond / JCA Recordings 1805 (live: Boston, October 4, 2018)

Although I like this album very much, I have to put in a small complaint. Please don’t assume that every reviewer knows your regional acronyms! The JCA part was explained on the back cover of the album as well as in the promo sheet as “Jazz Composers’ Alliance,” but it took me a while to find, in teeny tiny print on the album notes, that BPC stands for the Berklee Performance Center. Tell us where you’re playing and make it plain!

The album consists of six pieces, two written by violinist Mimi Rabson, two by David Harris, and one each by Bob Pilkington and Darrell Katz. The opener, Romanople, has an arresting 12/8 beat and the kind of Middle Eastern melodic line that one associates with Rabih Abou-Khalil…at least until the 2:10 mark, when we suddenly shift over to a sort of Middle Eastern polka, complete with tuba playing the bass line, which them turns into Klezmer with Phil Scarff playing the clarinet…followed in turn by a slow, free jazz interlude. One thing you’ve got to say for the JCA, they are one wildly eclectic bunch. And I love it! Although cellist Junko Fujiwara does indeed play an improvised solo, this is largely a through-composed piece and a good one. Its eclecticism reminded me very much of the kind of music that the Willem Breuker Kollektief played in the 1980s and ‘90s. Perhaps fittingly, it explodes in a free jazz free-for-all, with every musician for him or herself before the violin returns to finish it off.

The Latest, by trombone/tuba player David Harris, starts out with soft wind and brass mixtures playing a slow melodic line. The bass comes in playing double time while the top line continues, then piano and drums suddenly turn it into a medium-tempo swinger with a Latin beat. The development section includes a wordless vocal by Rebecca Shrimpton and a bass clarinet solo by Melanie Howell-Brooks. Harris explains that he used the pentatonic scale in this work as a nod to his love of Thai music, and although he uses no traditional melody he uses the Thai practice of adding new textures and phrases to the repeating melody. Once again, I want to point out, the composition is itself the star of the show here despite solos by violinist Melanie Howell-Brooks and guitarist Norm Zocher (the latter playing in a disgusting rock style that absolutely ruined the piece for me while he was performing).

Next up is trombonist Bob Pilkington’s The Sixth Snake, which starts out with soft vibes, bass and drums before going into a smeared slow motif played by the trombones overlapping one another. Pilkington admits that this piece began its life as a composition exercise using a number sequence, but he completely reworked it to create this music. Eventually the trombones (now joined, I think, by one trumpet) play a pleasant if ambiguous melody; the piano softly but surely doubles the tempo in the background while the foreground remains the same; a bit of a soft rock beat enters the picture (again, folks…stop putting rock music in jazz. It doesn’t belong. R&B beat, fine; that started out as a jazz beat. Rock beat, no; I don’t care what the hell Miles Davis and the Brecker Brothers were up to in the 1970s, it was an aberration and it doesn’t fit). Things then slow down for an out-of-tempo piano solo by Maxim Lubarsky, kind of nice but somewhat meandering for my taste. After going pretty much nowhere for a while, Lubarsky finally stops and the trombones re-enter with their theme. Pilkington himself plays a nice, burred solo. By and large, however, I found this piece rather static, in part due to the recurring rock beat, but Lihi Haruvi’s soprano sax solo is really awful: whiny, repetitive, and saying absolutely nothing. Do yourself a favor and just skip this track.

David Harris’ Orange, Yellow, Blue starts off, oddly enough, in the same vein as The Sixth Snake except that here we have the trumpets playing the slow motif instead of trombones. This morphs into an irregular-meter beat with a Latin touch to it. I think I also heard Shrimpton’s voice singing along with the high-lying melodic line that follows, after which Dan Rosenthal plays a very good trumpet solo. Then, alas, we again move into a rock beat. It morphs into a Middle East sort of rhythm, but again back to a rock beat.

Music lesson for the JCA: rock beat ≠ jazz beat.

Darrell Katz’ A Wallflower in the Amazon uses a text by his late wife Paula Tatarunis. This is a truly strange, impressionistic piece that opens with violin, cello and muted trumpet playing atonal figures. The text tells of a bookish but intrepid person’s visit to the Amazon jungle. Although Rebecca Shrimpton has a fine voice, I had trouble understanding several of the lyrics and thus couldn’t get much out of them, but the music is utterly fascinating. This is clearly one of the finest pieces on the entire album; even the solos are good, particularly Hiro Honshuko on the EWI. But once again, our drummer felt inclined to return to a rock beat.

The CD wraps up with Super Eyes – Private Heroes by Rabson, and entirely different kind of piece from Romanople. This one is a hard-charging, straightahead jazz tune with an equally hard-charging baritone sax solo by Melanie Howell-Brooks. Shrimpton’s voice is again woven into the fabric of the orchestra, and there’s a certain something about this piece that reminded me of the Stan Kenton band at its best. Helen Sherrah-Davis again takes a solo on the five-string violin, and a superb one it is.

So there’s my opinion of this disc out of the clear blue sky. I liked a lot of it but heartily disliked some of it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Chadwick Plays Music of “The Blue Sea”


MESSIAEN: Catalogue d’oiseaux, Book I, Nos. 1-3. Song Thrush and Thekla Larks.* Golden Oriole &Garden Warbler.* GORTON: Ondine. SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Sonata No. 3. ANON.: Postlude* / Roderick Chadwick, pno; *Peter Sheppard Skærved, Shir Victoria Levy, vln / Divine Art 25209

British pianist Roderick Chadwick has chosen here music of birdsongs by Messiaen, a piece by David Gorton based on the water nymph Ondine, and Karol Szymanowski’s Third Piano Sonata, interspersed with two independent pieces by Messiaen and ending with an original Postlude. These latter three pieces are played with two violinists.

Chadwick takes an unusual approach to Messiaen’s music, more angular and “”wide-awake” and less softly impressionistic, but this is an approach that I liked very much, as it brings out the structure in the works without sacrificing a legato feeling. It is similar to the way Joanna MacGregor plays this composer’s music. In addition to bringing out the structure better, it also brings the composer’s music more in line with contemporary works which are built around the same sort of atonal framework combined with a rhythmic pulse. His touch on the keyboard is also more delicate than MacGregor’s in this sort of music. But the one thing it does not do is to evoke a mood; thus, if this was Chadwick’s intent, it misses the mark.

The Messiaen pieces played by the violins, however, are also crisp performances, in fact using straight tone. Straight tone in 20th century music? I have no idea if this is what Messiaen called for, but somehow I doubt it but, again, it is effective in its own way.

Gorton’s Ondine sounds a bit like atonal Debussy, and is actually played with more atmosphere than the Messiaen pieces. It’s a fascinating work, an early piece by this composer and very interesting in the way he carefully places his notes so that they make an attractive pattern despite the atonality.

Chadwick’s performance of the Szymanowski Piano Sonata No. 3 is absolutely superb, catching the breathless feeling and ambiguous feeling as if one were floating in a sea of atonality perfectly.

A good album, then, well worth exploring.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Huberman Duo & Trio Play Polish Works


SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Sonata, Op. 9. PANUFNIK: Piano Trio.* BACEWICZ: Violin Sonata No. 4 / Huberman *Duo & Trio: Magdalena Ziarkowska-Kolacka, vln; Barbara Karaśkiewicz, pno; Sergei Rysanov, cel / Divine Art 25206

The Huberman Duo (and Trio) Aare named after the great, and still vastly underrated, Polish-Jewish violinist Bronisław Huberman, whose work I reviewed on a reissue CD in July of this year, but alas, violinist Magdalena Ziarkowska-Kolacka’s playing bears no resemblance to his. Which isn’t to say that she isn’t good—she is, and very good, in fact—but she uses a consistent light vibrato and a sweeping legato that are worlds apart from Huberman’s edgy style of playing and constant vacillation between straight tone and vibrato. Just saying.

Nonetheless, she and pianist Barbara Karaśkiewicz really tear into the early Szymanowski Violin Sonata with passion and sweep. At this stage of his career, Szymanowski had not yet found the more harmonically modern style that would make him both famous and infamous (musicians loved his music, but he died broke); it is, rather, in a late-Romantic vein which owes much more to Schumann and Brahms than it does to Scriabin and Stravinsky, whose music informed his own work later on. The second, livelier theme in the second-movement “Scherzando” is particularly interesting. The lively third-movement “Allegro molto quasi presto” sounds the most like the Szymanowski we know from the mazurkas. The last section features some fancy fast tremolo playing in the violin part and just a hint of the Szymanowski harmonies to come.

Normally I’m not crazy about the music of Andrej Panufnik, but I really enjoyed this piano trio. Written in 1934, when he was only 19 years old, it is an extremely interesting work, sort of a combination of Polish and Stravinskian rhythms with Debussy-like harmony. Here, Panufnik alternates between sweeping lyricism and fast, angular passages, but does so in a way that makes musical sense and develops logically. And suddenly, in the midst of the first-movement “Poco adagio,” Panufnik suddenly introduces a lively dance rhythm with bitonal harmony which relieves the mood of the piece. The liner notes indicate that, around the time he wrote this piece, he was also drawn to American jazz, but to be honest there is no jazz influence in this work.

Interestingly, although the cello is present in the first movement, it doesn’t really seem to play that big of a role in the music. It isn’t until the second movement that you really notice it, but even here it only plays occasionally. Sergei Rysanov is a good cellist but, to my ears, not possessed of a particularly rich or interesting tone. This movement goes right into the “Presto” without a break, and here Panufnik is particularly inventive, playing with the 6/8 scherzo rhythm in various permutations, even shifting away to a regular 4/4 after the opening theme statement. And the entire movement is playful and shows great imagination. Well done!

I can’t say for certain that Bacewicz’ Violin Sonata No. 4 is the best-known work on this program, since her music is still not played half as often in the West as it should be, but I do have two other performances of it, by violinists Piotr Plawner and Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds in sets of her complete violin sonatas. This performance is also a good one, leaning more in the direction of a legato flow but still bringing out all the salient details of the score. It still irks me that she is so marginalized in England and America but, then again, so are Szymanowski and Weinberg (though the latter composer is finally picking up in performances).

A very fine and enjoyable CD, then. If you don’t have the Szymanowski and Panufnik pieces in your collection, this is clearly a disc you will want.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Farhat & Tafreshipour


PERSIAN AUTUMN / FARHAT: Toccata. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. TAFRESHIPOUR: Yasna. Shabahang. Pendar for Piano. Celebration at Pasargadae / Mary Dullea, pno / Métier 29610

This unusual album features Irish pianist Mary Dullea playing the music of Iranian (Persian) composers Hormoz Farhat (the booklet says b. 1928, but Wikipedia says b. 1930) and Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour (b. 1974). The connection is that Farhat is a fellow at Trinity College in Dublin while Tafreshipour works primarily in Great Britain.

Judging from the opening selection, Farhat’s Toccata, the composer tends to combine melodies and rhythms from his native country with Western harmony and form. The result is indeed curious, combining simplistic and complex features. Farhat uses passing tones a great deal in this work, indeed often changing the rhythm and meter as the piece goes along. This creates an unusual tension between the melodic line and its development against the oft-shifting harmony and meter.

The same aesthetics are brought to bear in the two piano sonatas; perhaps Farhat has a different “voice” that he uses for non-piano works, but in his keyboard pieces he pursues a similar style. Yet the music is very interesting and, to judge from this recording (the only one I’ve heard of his music, obviously), Dullea plays it with passion and drive. Also interesting, the music seems to be constructed from the top line down rather than from the bass line up, meaning that the harmony and the lower notes are led by the melodic contours of these pieces. This is rather the opposite of a lot of Western music, particularly that of Bach and Brahms, where the bass line is developed into the harmony and the top line follows. (This is one reason why newcomers to these two composers sometimes have a difficulty in grasping their music, since the “melodies” are not conventionally melodic as in the case of Beethoven or Schubert.) The second movement of the first sonata is particularly sparse; though this sonata was written between 1955 and 1957, when Farhat was studying with Lukas Foss, it sounds like some of the “spacier” music of today. In the third movement, Farhat indulges in some interesting bitonality, having the left hand play in one key and the right hand in another, though they do come together for moments of harmonic consonance. Nonetheless, his music has a distinctly exotic sound. The last movement, with its stiffish rhythms, shows some of the influence of Stravinsky.

The second sonata dates form much later, in 2010 when the composer was 80 years old. The liner notes tell us that the music is “more expansive, melodious and less abrasive that the short movements of the First Sonata,” but what I hear is simply a better-integrated use of Asian harmonies and rhythms within a more legato, but not necessarily more melodious, framework. Farhat was still juxtaposing different meters and still building his music from the top down; it’s just that the result is a bit more flowing, that’s all. Which isn’t to say that it’s not an interesting work—it is—only that it’s not necessarily more melodious. Whereas the first sonata is in four relatively short movements, the second is in three, but the longer first movement (10:57) is only about 2 ½ minutes longer than the first two of the first sonata combined. Here, too, Farhat includes some right-hand trills here and there which were not part of his vocabulary in 1955-57. At times the development is very tightly constructed while at other times it ruminates a bit.

The second movement has a spaciness about it that is similar to the second movement of the first sonata but, again, the melodic flow is just a bit more legato. The third movement is a quirky, bitonal scherzo, turning into a fugue around the 3:05 mark.

Tafreshipour’s Yasna is a slow-moving piece using similar harmonies and melodic lines to Farhat’s music but, at least in this piece, is less quirky in its rhythms. Indeed, this is almost a “mood” piece, delicate and with space between the notes. In the notes, the composer states that the piece was inspired by his travels to the Iranian city of Yazd, where several Zoroastrians live; “Yasna” is the term given in the Avestan language to their central form of worship. It goes on far too long and says very little. Pendar is even slower, Shabahang a little quicker in tempo, but much of the same, although there is more going on in the latter piece. By and large, Tafreshipour is a one-mood composer, and it’s not a mood I respond to.

A split review, then, since I really liked Farhat’s music and Dullea’s playing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Emerson Quartet Plays Schumann


SCHUMANN: String Quartets Nos. 1-3, Op. 41 / Emerson String Quartet / Pentatone PTC869

Oddly enough, despite the huge amount of Schumann’s music I have in my collection, I had never heard his String Quartets before, thus this new release by the Emerson Quartet was most welcome to me.

Because of my lack of exposure to the music, I investigated the recordings of these pieces by the Takács Quartet (Nos. 1 & 2) on SWR Music. The Takács Quartet played the slow introduction to the first quartet with a more incisive sound and less  of a “droopy” feeling, and when they came to the “Allegro” section, there was more of a rhythmic “lift” to the music. My general impression is that the Emerson Quartet plays with a heavier vibrato, which normally doesn’t bother me, but in a way I felt that although their emphasis on this vibrato made the music sound more robust, it took a little away from the rhythmic drive. In the second movement, their tempo was virtually the same as the Takács Quartet and the results not that far apart; here, the Emerson Quartet finds a nice groove for the rhythm and plays with a sharper attack.

The real problem with the first two movements of the first quartet, however, lies with Schumann and not with the interpreters. Compared to the last two movements, and indeed with his piano and orchestral works, the music here is rather ordinary and predictable, which is not like Schumann at all. But all this changes when you reach the “Adagio,” an extraordinarily diverse and fascinating piece, and the “Presto” finale is extremely interesting. This sounds like the Schumann I know and love, and by this point the Emerson quartet has overcome its slightly sluggish reading of the first movement.

The second quartet begins “Allegro vivace” with no warm-up via a slow introduction. Emerson’s performance of this movement is on a par with the Takács Quartet, in fact even more sprightly. In fact, their performance is also better than that of the Fine Arts Quartet on Naxos, which frankly doesn’t seem to be all that energetic, but the added ambience around the quartet may have mitigated some of their playing. In terms of musical invention, again the first two movements struck me as “ordinary”-sounding. Once again, it is in the third movement that the music really comes alive for me and says something out of the ordinary. The last movement is also imaginative, with several surprising turns of phrase.

The third quartet is a bit different, for here the first movement is interesting and quite innovative, particularly in terms of rhythm. There are several sections here, some of which seem to spring up spontaneously yet are somehow knitted into the whole. The second movement, too, is quite interesting, with Schumann taking little luftpausen here and there before propelling the quartet through a fast-paced series of triplet figures. In this quartet, it is the slow third movement that sounds the most ordinary and least Schumann-like in the beginning; as we get into the development section, there are numerous surprises. And once again we get a lively and interesting last movement, so by and large, I’d say that the third quartet is certainly the best as well as the most consistent.

My verdict, then, is that these are very fine performances with the exception of the introduction to the first movement of the first quartet, but the problem for me is the music. Schumann was obviously inspired only intermittently in the writing the first three quartets.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Matthew Shipp’s “Unidentifiable” Trio


THE UNIDENTIFIABLE / SHIPP: Blue Transport System. Trance Frame. Phantom Journey. Dark Sea Negative Charge. The Dimension. Loop. The Unidentifiable. Virgin Psych Space 1. Virgin Psych Space 2. Regeneration. New Heaven and New Earth / Matthew Shipp Trio: Shipp, pno; Michael Bisio, bs; Newman Taylor Baker, dm / ESP-Disk’ 5039, available at http://www.espdisk.com/5039.html

Having been greatly impressed by pianist Matthew Shipp’s playing with avant-garde saxists Ivo Perelman and Rich Halley, I was curious to hear him in a somewhat more “standard” piano trio setting. As the notes put it, “In this setting, a non-mainstream player such as Shipp can infiltrate Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and other Establishment bastions in a familiar format and then unleash his ideas on audiences that might not normally be exposed to his style. Thanks to hearing it in the communal language of the piano trio, they can better understand the message the Matthew Shipp Trio has to deliver.”

Even in the opening, the regular-meter Blue Transport System, the discerning listener can tell that there is much more to Matthew Shipp than just the lovely melodic line he creates or the way he develops his theme. Although using fairly simple blocks of sound in this piece, and a regular meter, his harmonic sense is restless and diverse. He subtly moves the harmony to the right and then to the left, then somehow sideways. In this respect, one might think him a disciple of Bill Evans, and perhaps he does like Evans’ playing…after all, Bill himself was at times a much more modern, even avant-garde pianist than most of his fans realized (listen to him play on George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age or Living Time Orchestra albums). By contrast, Trance Frame is an extended drum solo by Newman Taylor Baker, with the pianist picking things up again in Phantom Journey. Here, Shipp presents more complex rhythms; in fact, the piece itself is an experiment in working around repeated rhythmic chords played in one key, mostly Eb, with occasional crushed chords and irregular meters being played by bass and drums. The one big difference between Shipp and Evans is his touch on the keyboard. Whereas Evans almost always preferred a soft touch, even when swinging mightily, Shipp plays with more force in addition to a deep-in-the-keys sound which owes more to McCoy Tyner, another pianist who I admire greatly. (In fact, although he did indeed become famous, particularly during his tenure with John Coltrane, I never felt that Tyner has ever gotten his just due as one of the greatest pianist of our time, particularly when compared to the highly overrated and often boring Keith Jarrett.)

Dark Sea Negative Charge is a slow piece but, despite the brief, almost truncated opening melody, not a ballad in the strict sense of the word. It’s just a slow piece in which Shipp explores the sounds of chords held with the sustain pedal in a sequence that sometimes sounds planned and sometimes sounds random. This is a man who really listens to music as he plays—a musician who, in the parlance of jazz musicians, has “golden ears.” It’s an experiment in sound itself, how the sustaining of certain notes and chords around which the bass and drums add their own ideas resonates with the listener, rather than a “composition” in the strict sense. Towards the end, piano and drums fall away to allow bassist Bisio to have his say, also played sparsely, repeating the same two or three notes over and over in slightly different rhythms.

Very cleverly, this piece moves into The Dimension without a break. This presents Shipp in single-note playing in both the treble and bass, sometimes dislocating the beat between his two hands so that one hears two rhythms at once. The bass and drums do not appear on this track. Loop is a faster piece, and here we have Shipp and his trio at their most explorative and least conventional-sounding, scattering notes hither and yon in a mosaic of sounds to which the bass and drums contribute. This is music on the level of what Shipp normally plays with Perelman.

The title track returns us somewhat to a more conventionally swinging piano trio sound, albeit one in which the harmony is often bitonal or at least moves around more than normal. It’s a piece that could almost pass in a regular jazz club, and wisely, Shipp tries to avoid playing in a cluttered fashion, sculpting arching, nicely swinging lines, later interspersed with double-time runs and licks. Halfway through, however, Shipp becomes ever more daring in his improvisations. At 4:51, Bisio plays a wonderful and swinging bass solo with a rich, powerful tone.

Virgin Psych Space 1 is a drum solo; Part 2 is a free-form piece which opens with Shipp’s piano, exploring atonal and extended chords as the bass and drums play around him. With Regeneration we again return to somewhat more conventional rhythms and a very attractive, minor-key melody played by Shipp over a sort of calypso beat. This, however, becomes a bit more complex as it moves along, with Shipp later playing a combination of chords with single-note passages.

The finale, New Heaven and New Earth, opens with a distorted bass solo by Bisio, after which Shipp plays what sounds like almost random atonal lines, single-note style, on the keyboard. Then he moves into tonal chords (at least briefly) while the bass plays frantically around him. Eventually the music moves into the kind of fast-paced free jazz for which Shipp is known, only to then fall back into soft chords at half the tempo while the bass plays around him before ramping up the tempo yet again. At the 8:50 mark, Bisio again plays a distorted solo, this time bowed in the bass’s highest range. It’s a fascinating piece.

This is a tremendously interesting and diverse album for Shipp, highly recommended for free jazz fans.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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