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AMRAM: Violin Sonata / Elmira Darvarova, vln; Tomoko Kanamaru, pno / Theme and Variations on “Red River Valley” / Carol Wincenc, fl; Face the Music Ensemble / Giants of the Night, a Concerto for Flute & Orchestra: II. Andante / Wincenc, fl; Hsin-Chiao Liao, pno / Portraits / New York Piano Quartet / Blues & Variations for Monk / Howard Wall, Fr-hn / Five Readings from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” for Speaker & Jazz Quartet / Ekayani Chamberlin, Adira Amram, Douglas Yeager, narr; The David Amram Qrt: Amram, pno; Rene Hart, bs; Kevin Twigg, dm; Adam Amram, congas / Urlicht AudioVisual UAV-5987 (live: New York, September 7, 2012)

This CD, a reissue of an album originally released in 2014, is one of the very few to contain the chamber music of a real individual who carved his own career out over more than a half-century. David Amram, French hornist, pianist and guitarist, who holds the world’s record for the most performances given of the Brahms Horn Trio (when he was in the Army during the 1950s), composer, arranger, conductor, and honorary member of the Beat Generation (he appeared in the film Pull My Daisy with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, for which he also wrote the score), is as of this writing still with us…he’ll be 91 years old on November 17 if the Dreaded Coronavirus doesn’t finish him off. I’ve loved and admired him for years because his music is always wholly original as well as delightful. Just think of him as Gunther Schuller’s non-evil twin. One of his most famous quotes is, “I can be high all the time on life…Anyone who expects me to be an introspective cosmic sourpuss to prove I’m a serious composer had better forget it!”

Surprisingly, for him, the Violin Sonata is a fairly thorny work harmonically, being largely bitonal, yet with a strong underlying syncopation to the rhythm which is typical of his music. The recorded sound is surprisingly dry and “tight” for a digital recording, but what the heck, I’m still happy to have it, and both Elmira Darvarova and Tomoko Kanamaru play the piece with energy and enthusiasm. There are a few allusion to jazz rhythm in the last movement, but for the most part this is a serious work.

Amram, still hip

By contrast, the variations on “Red River Valley” is lyrical and fully tonal, played with exceptional beauty of sound by flautist Carol Wincenc and a string ensemble called “Face the Music.” After the theme statement by the flute, the strings pick it up with some nice alternate harmony; then Wincenc returns to play the variants, some of which swing a little. A bit later on, the flute plays the melody straight while the strings play a variation underneath her; this section ends on an unresolved chord. Then the strings begin to swing, as does the flute—not as hard as a jazz musician would swing, but still better than most such groups.

The slow second movement from his Flute Concerto, here reduced to piano accompaniment, is also played very well by Wincenc. This has some blues inflections in the top line that are quite nice, and when we reach the variations they are quite jazz-like indeed. You also note one of Amram’s great gifts as a composer: no matter how involved the music becomes, it is always engaging one way or another. It’s difficult to say, however, whether or not the piano’s variations are meant to be jazzy because pianist Hsin-Chiao Liao doesn’t swing at all. From a compositional standpoint, Amram also takes great care to keep the individual “voices” clear and uncluttered. At the 13:47 mark, he introduces an entirely new, lyrical and very American-sounding theme for the flute.

Portraits is played by the New York Piano Quartet; the title doesn’t tell us who the portraits are of, however, and I didn’t get a booklet for download with the music. This, too, is a fairly serious piece and also with an “American” sound about it. In the variation section, Amram is both complex and accessible at the same time, combining two divergent themes in different keys with a pizzicato violin accompaniment in yet another key. As the tempo increases, the music stays bitonal but clears up a bit, and there are some passages that swing.

Next up are the Blues and Variations for (Thelonious) Monk, played on Amram’s old instrument, the French horn, although not by him. For much of the opening section there doesn’t seem to be much of Monk in the music; it’s fairly serious and somewhat complex music, but it doesn’t have Monk’s unusual rhythmic sense. Then, at the 1:43 mark, it slowly begins to change, including the hornist spitting through his instrument to create a rhythmic pattern and playing some passages slightly distorted by moving the player’s hand inside the bell. It’s a very ingenious piece although, to be honest, I’d have a hard time thinking this was a tribute to Monk had it not been for the title.

The program finishes with his Five Readings from “On the Road” from “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. This is very much a jazz-drenched piece with Amram himself playing the piano and actress Adira Amram, an actress who appeared on The Sopranos, doing three of the readings. But all of them are hip and all of them swing. During “On the roof of America,” we hear a flute playing along with humming—possibly the same person, but since no flautist is mentioned I’m assuming it must be Wincenc (there is no other instrument accompanying her in this piece). Amram returns on piano for “On hearing Shearing,” but in order to appreciate this track you need to hear his bop recordings of the late 1940s (believe it or not, on both piano and accordion!) to understand how he impacted Kerouac. His later cool sound from his Lullaby of Birdland days was really a different Shearing. We end with the rather cynical voice of Douglas Yeager reciting “So in America,” a fairly dour piece reflecting Kerouac’s darker side.

This is quite an album. For Amram lovers, indispensable.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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