In Real Time’s Blue Shift CD

Blue Shift cover

LIEBOWITZ-LANE-DRURY: Crosstown. Curve. Blue Shift. Sequoia Moon. Passacaglia / Carol Liebowitz, pno; Adam Lane, bs; Andrew Drury, dm / Line Art Records LA1005CD

In today’s jazz world, you’ve got to find out which is the group’s name that made the record and what is the album’s title. Apparently, no one wants to be pigeonholed into just calling their group by the leader’s name, “The So-and-So Trio or Quartet” or whatever, so they come up with odd names in order to “brand” themselves. Thus the name of the group that made this CD, scheduled for release March 4, 2022, is not the Carol Liebowitz Trio, though it is, but rather “In Real Time,” and the title of the CD is “Blue Shift.” Got it so far?

Good. As it turns out, In Real Time’s goal is completely spontaneous music “with no preconceived material.” As I’ve pointed out in reviews of such groups on the Leo Records label as well as some of Ivo Perelman’s and Satoko Fujii’s releases, this can be a dangerous road to walk down because, as Charles Mingus once famously said, “You can’t improvise on nothing.” Truer words were never spoken. Even the most out-there jazz musician needs to have some idea of form as they go about their business, even if the initial material is just a small motif. In order for music to be effective, it must have some kind of structure, even if that structure evolves spontaneously from small cells. Pianist Matthew Shipp, for, one, is a master of this because he also plays more conventional, non-“free” jazz, and thus always has the full range of chord changes in his mind before he walks the musical plank and jumps off.

Fortunately, this is one of those CDs that works because the two principal melodic players, Liebowitz and Lane, understand what musical structure is and thus never completely abandon it. Liebowitz, in fact, originally studied classical piano, shifting to jazz, after which time she studied with Connie Crothers (1941-2016). Crothers, sadly, is virtually forgotten today, one of the early pioneers of spontaneously improvised jazz from the late 1960s who had studied with the man who created free jazz, Lennie Tristano. Perhaps the reason for this is that Crothers’ own playing always stayed relatively “cool,” seldom using the wider range of dynamics in her music that Tristano did so effectively, but she was a superb musician nonetheless.

To judge from this record, Liebowitz clearly learned a lot from her but plays with more passion. The opening piece, Crosstown, is a succession of chunky, rootless chords knitted together by means of common notes within those chords. This gives her playing an organic feeling despite its wholly spontaneous nature, and bassist Lane, listening carefully to what Liebowitz is playing, creates excellent counterpoint and counter-melodies as she changes tempo and mood, eventually moving away from all chords to single note playing in the right hand against a repeated chord in the left. Eventually Liebowitz moves into a series of tremolos, at which point Lane goes a little crazy, flying into his altissimo register, before they move into a quiet ending.

Curve opens with Lane playing high, atonal figures on the edges of his strings, sounding almost like an electronic instrument; Liebowitz likewise enters high up in the piano range, playing sprinkled notes against his edgy figures. Unfortunately, the music rather stagnates in this one for a period of time, being more a succession of edgy noise and going nowhere. Fortunately, things quiet down as Lane drops out, leaving Liebowitz’ soft, sparse piano note a chance to coalesce as drummer Drury creates complex patterns around her with his snare and tom-tom. As the volume increases, all three engage in a collective improvisation, all playing against one another rhythmically as the music builds to a climax, although after a while things become wild and chaotic. It does recede in tempo, volume, intensity and complexity, however, as Liebowitz’ steady hands again take over.

The title track, Blue Shift, also opens with the bass, but this time in its normal register playing a series of slow pizzicato notes as piano and drums fill in deftly around it. Eventually the drums assume a sort of uneven but regular loping beat, which slowly increases in speed, as Liebowitz plays a series of circular atonal licks. Again, the tempo increases little by little, but with the pianist firmly in charge, some musical form is established and maintained. Tempo and volume again recede incrementally as they actually play together like a normal piano trio for a spell before winding down to a quiet ending.

More edgy bass playing is heard in the opening of Sequoia Moon, this time sounding like a trumpeting elephant, though the pianist is again firmly in charge of the proceedings and establishes some order despite one moment where the tempo is suspended and everyone goes haywire. Liebowitz then plays a sequence of chords that, although they do not form a melody at all, establishes both a harmonic and rhythmic pattern that bass and drums can work around. By the 5:25 mark, an odd but regular sort of rhythmic groove has been established, and all three musicians work around it deftly. Eventually, a nice but asymmetric rhythm dominates the proceedings as the musicians continue improvising.

The final track, Passacaglia, opens with the drums and bass, into which Liebowitz pitches in with some very strange crushed chords before straightening the harmony out at least a little bit, continuing to build on this with minimal development as the other two work around her. A real passacaglia it is not, though in the long second section Liebowitz does her best to make it so, but it’s an interesting finish to this album.

I’m just guessing here, but since the entire album is only 46 minutes long, and it took the group two years to release it since they recorded it in September 2019, that there was more material put on tape that was rejected before deciding on the issued tracks and their sequence in this album. If so, they chose well for the most part, and in fact I give them credit for trying to put their best foot forward as a spontaneous jazz group. It is clearly an auspicious debut disc, and one that all lovers of spontaneous improvisation will want to hear.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Casadesus’ Great “Werther”

Naxos cover

MASSENET: Werther / Marcus Haddock, tenor (Werther); Béatrice Uria-Monzon, mezzo (Charlotte); René Massis, baritone (Albert); Jaël Azzaretti, soprano (Sophie0; Jean-Philippe Marlière, baritone (Bailiff); Jean’Sébastien Bou, baritone (Johann); Jean Delescluse, tenor (Schmidt); Maîtrise Boréale Children;s Chorus; Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casedesus, conductor / Naxos 8,66072/73 (live: Lille, June 19-25, 1999)

Little by little I run across these gems from the past that I unfortunately missed when they were originally issued because I had to work for a living and not sit and listen to recordings most of the time, which I now do in retirement.

Previous to my discovering this set, my favorite recording of Werther was an Italian-language recording an acquaintance of mine sent me with soprano Leyla Gencer as Charlotte, tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini as Werther, Giuliana Tavolaccini as Sophie and Mario Borriello as Albert, conducted by Carlo Felice Cellario, and the reasons I preferred it to all others I’d heard (going as far back as Elie Cohen’s 1931 recording with Ninon Vallin and Georges Thill) was that the Charlotte (Gencer) really sounded engaged and dramatic, all of the supporting singers were excellent (not always the case in recordings and performances of this opera), and—perhaps most important of all—the conducting was taut and linear, not over-Romantic and gooshy as is so often the case (check out Michel Plasson’s, Antonio Pappano’s and even Georges Prêtre’s recordings if you do’t believe me), and to me this was a crucial factor because Werther can so easily turn into bathos and thus completely ruin the opera, which has several weak moments along with the very good ones.

But this recording really surprised me because American tenor Marcus Haddock, in the title role, sang with just the right combination of lyric effusion and neurotic edginess in the character. Werther is not an easy role to perform; you can’t just sound conventionally dramatic in it. You have to sound as if you’re suppressing a nervous explosion just under the skin, and that’s not easy to do. Even Rolando Villazón, who has had his own real-life bouts with nervousness and depression, did not fully bring out the character in either his 2009 live performance with Susan Graham as Charlotte (superbly conducted by Kent Nagano) or his 2014 studio recording with Pappano and soprano Sophie Koch. Haddock, a tenor I’d never heard before, combined, for me, the best qualities of a singing actor with a really beautiful voice, something that Georges Thill, Alfredo Kraus or Placido Domingo never had.

In fact, the only slight disappointment I found in this set was the children’s chorus, which sounds rather matter-of-fact and not up to the energy of the children singing in the Nagano and Pappano performances. That’s it. Otherwise, this is a linear, no-nonsense Werther that has just the right combination of beautiful singing and dramatic commitment.

Uria-Monzon & Haddock

Uria-Monzon & Haddock in early 2009

Along with Haddock, the star of this show is mezzo Béatrice Uria-Monzon as Charlotte. It took me a while to figure out who her voice reminded me of, but I finally came up with the name: Tatiana Troyanos. She has the same kind of voice, a good-sized mezzo with both a ringing top and a rich, full bottom, a fast vibrato that is prominent but never out of control, not even when he attacks her forte high notes, and the same kind of emotional commitment to the character she is portraying. The only difference is that her voice has more of a French timbre than Troyanos’, which is to say a little drier and not as fruity-sounding, but it is clearly a good quality instrument, well under control at all times.

The microphone balance is a little odd, however, favoring the voices over the orchestra, which always sounds a bit receded in the soundspace. This may upset more listeners more than it did me although I certainly would have appreciated a little more “bite” from the strings and winds than I hear on this recording. Yet, as I say, Casadesus’ firm grasp of the score keeps things moving, and in a sense the de-emphasis on the orchestra brings out the chamber music quality of the writing. Even more so than Manon, Werther is Massenet’s most intimate opera; his focus is on the emotional development of the characters, thus everything in the score is geared towards backing the singers without covering them. Even in the slow, soft passages, Casadesus never lingers so much that you start to feel your skin crawl and an urge to yell, “Move it, for God’s sake!”

No matter where you turn in this remarkable recording, the drama feels alive and real. And I tell you what: for live performances, the audience is as quiet as churchmice. You not only never hear a cough of a sniffle, you don’t even hear anyone breathing, and the singers are always miked clearly and properly. If it wasn’t for the applause at the end, I’d have had a hard time believing that this was a live stage performance, and that’s meant as a very high compliment.

Sadly, some of the singers in this recording are no longer performing. Tenor Marcus Haddock’s career seemed on the rise after making his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2003, but shortly after singing Don José in Carmen (with Uria-Monzon) at the Houston Grand Opera in early 2009, he suffered two massive strokes in 24 hours which so damaged his system that he had to stop singing. Baritone René Massis, who was one of the oldest members of this cast, has since retired to teaching voice. Béatrice Uria-Mozon is still singing, and in fact moved up to the soprano range in 2012 with a performance of Tosca, yet still somehow fails to hit the big time internationally. (There’s a very good video Carmen with her on YouTube from the 1990s, disappointing only in the underpowered final scene.) But this Werther stands as a superb moment in time when all of them came together to produce, on balance, the finest performance of this opera yet committed to discs.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Malinverni Pays Tribute to Bernstein

Cover_Malinverni On the Town

BERNSTEIN: New York, New York. Lucky to Be Me. Somewhere. Cool. Simple Song. I Feel Pretty. Lonely Town. Some Other Time. It’s Love. A Night on the Town / Pete Malinverni, pno; Ugonna Okegwo, bs; Jeff Hamilton, dm / Planet Arts Recordings, no number

Following in the tradition of Bobby Sanabria’s 2018 recording of West Side Story with the Multiverse Big Band, we have this neat trio album of Bernstein songs which also includes pieces from On the Town. But Malinverni was more fortunate than Sanabria because once, at a “swanky restaurant in New York” many years ago, he happened to be playing Lucky to Be Me when Bernstein himself popped in and enjoyed his rendition.

Simple though the instrumentation is, Malinverni’s arrangements of these Bernstein chestnuts are not only swinging but very clever and inventive. I think Bernstein would really enjoy this album, scheduled for release on January 14, because of these two things. Though a more traditional player than many of the pianists (and other jazz musicians) I’ve been reviewing of late, Malinverni’s playing is neither simplistic nor predictable. He seems to combine some elements of Tristano and Brubeck in his style (and just a touch of Monk), albeit with definite twists of his own, thus he makes real jazz pieces out of this material and not just simplistic “lounge jazz.”

And boy oh boy, does this trio swing! Bassist Okegwo and drummer Hamilton function most of the time almost as one instrument behind him, laying down a solid beat, propelling the music forward, and never getting in the pianist’s way, and when they do get their solos (as on Lucky to Be Me) they feed into the surrounding material with aplomb. There’s a wonderful joie-de-vivre in each and every track on this delightful album that makes you happy just listening to it, and heaven knows that we can use this sort of vibe in today’s maudlin, downcast culture of Covid fear.

The best description I can give of this album is “deceptively simple.” Nothing that Malinverni plays will scare off a mainstream jazz buff, but his ability to play between the cracks of the rhythm in each and every solo keep one listening. You just never know where he’s going to go next, and that’s the fun. His arrangement of Cool, which opens with a nice little drum solo, is then launched by a repeated four-note lick in the bass. It’s one of the best arrangements on the entire CD, and in his solo beginning at the 4:12 mark, Malinverni definitely channels his inner Monk.

Malinverni uses an odd sort of rhythm on Simple Song to make it sound less simple, and in I Feel Pretty he uses a Brubeck-like intro to this deceptively “plain” tune., which switches from its original 6/8 to a more swinging 4 in the improvisation.

Throughout the set, in every piece he plays, Malinverni takes the same care to try to find something just a bit different in it to give it interest, and for the most part he succeeds beautifully. Some Other Time is given a beat similar to Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme, while on It’s Love we’re back to swinging.

A very enjoyable album; perhaps not the apex of great art, but it’s inventive and will put a smile on your face. Better than listening to Chopin!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The William Parker Trio’s “2 Blues for Cecil”


CYRILLE-PARKER-RAVA: Improvisation No. 1. Blues for Cecil No. 1. Improvisation No. 2. Blues for Cecil No. 2. RAVA: Ballerina. Overboard. CYRILLE: Top, Bottom and What’s in the Middle. Enrava Melody. PARKER: Machu Picchu. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine / Enrico Rava, fl-hn; William Parker, bs; Andrew Cyrille, dm / TUM Records CD 059

Bassist William Parker, famed in the avant-garde jazz community for many years, here presents an album dedicated to the memory of pianist Cecil Taylor who died in 2018 at the age of 89. In the liner notes, Parker pays tribute to Taylor as “a human being who would not allow his spirit to be broken by an oppressive racist society. He did not cow down to the jazz system.”

But these are really two entirely different issues, because the society of jazz musicians is not and never was inherently racist. Even as far back as the 1920s, most white jazz musicians openly credited black musicians for their inspiration. What Parker really means is that Taylor would never modify his approach to jazz piano in order to be more commercial, and that is certainly true. His style of playing was that of a modernist who had studied modern classical music very closely and applied many of its principles to jazz piano. The problem that most audiences had with him, even those who knew and understood where he was coming from, had nothing to do with race. A white pianist who played like Cecil Taylor would have had the exact same problem fitting in. His problem for listeners was that he gave them fast-flying, complex figures that essentially erected a musical building without walls or floors. It was up to you, the listener, to mentally supply those walls and floors to the structures he threw out at you, and this became a tiring mind game for many and an alienating approach to jazz for many more. Was Cecil Taylor a genius? Absolutely. But was his genius too far over the heads of most listeners? Also absolutely. His playing was like a Sudoku puzzle without hints, a Rubik’s cube with little squares missing. You might be able to fill in parts of it, but you couldn’t solve it unless you were on his genius level, and most people just weren’t.

Cecil Taylor also happened to be gay. In today’s enlightened society, that means very little, but when he first came up in the 1950s, and even into the 1970s, it meant quite a lot. Other gay or bisexual jazz musicians like Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy McPartland, Billy Strayhorn and Ralph Burns were heavily closeted for most of their lives. Strayhorn was outed a few years before he died and Taylor came out on his own in the 1970s. It didn’t help in the gay-hating jazz world.

Here are some salient quotes from the liner notes for this album:

This record references pianist Cecil Taylor in several ways. There is no piano here, and no attempt to reanimate or imitate Cecil Taylor’s style of playing…Andrew Cyrille and William Parker had deep histories with Taylor, almost exactly the same profile, in fact, for non-overlapping stages of CT’s career. Cyrille and Parker are respectively the rhythm players who spent the longest “continuous” spell of time in the Cecil Taylor Units and related groups. They were the firmament while other band members came and went. Andrew was the drummer of choice for the Unit for close to 12 years starting in 1964. William was the regular bassist for Taylor groups (including the last Unit and beyond) for the baker’s dozen of years beginning in 1980. Their role in his music is simple to express, though profound in its impact. Both musicians’ voluminous discographies with and without Taylor fuel a study that we will carry on as long as listeners make their way to this music.

Enrico Rava was an occasional visitor to this spectrum…The 1984 Orchestra Of Two Continents, with both Rava and Parker on board, gave early proof that Taylor’s approach could be effectively applied to a set of players who hadn’t been indoctrinated inside the Cecil Taylor system, but had grown up in the greater field of music that his concepts had fertilized.

Mostly, 2 Blues For Cecil honors Cecil Taylor by demonstrating some of the sterling music-making that continues to be done in the post-Taylor diaspora. In contrast to what Taylor wrought, this is how the rest of us do music the rest of the time. It benefits from the establishment of a free space in music (CT did that) and exercises that benefit to float, to stream and course onward.

So there you have it. This disc, scheduled for release on January 21, is indeed rather different from Taylor’s own playing. While using the same basic pattern of amorphous rhythms and free-form improvisation, the walls and ceilings of these musical structures are supplied for you, mostly via Parker’s very busy and imaginative bass playing. Even when he is repeating figures, he is still supplying the listener with harmonic patterns, and these in turn help Rava negotiate his way through his own solos, which also have more structure to them than Taylor’s playing did.

Not only do we have walls and ceilings, we also have doors to other rooms in these musical buildings. Both Rava and Parker, but especially the flugelhornist, move around the imaginary building with impunity. At times, it seems as if you are viewing two rooms at once; there is a kaleidoscopic perspective here that takes some getting used to, but once you’ve figured it out you can follow the trio’s train of thought without too many problems. Just always keep in mind the old adage from those shopping malls you’ve visited: “You Are HERE.” Wherever that is at the moment. Drummer Andrew Cyrille becomes quite busy and comes to the fore at about the 9:40 mark in this track, but then he recedes into just a few snare drum interjections as the music quiets down for the finale. Rava blows some air through his mouthpiece to end it.

Ballerina is an uptempo piece with what sounds like a meter in which one beat out of, say, 16 is left out, but my ears may be playing me tricks. (That often happens when listening to meters with added or missing beats in them, and unless you’ve seen the score you really don’t know for sure.) For an old guy—and the photo of this trio indicates that he is an old guy—Rava plays with the fire and imagination of a musician many years his junior. Back in the old days, jazz used to be “young men’s music,” in part because the imagination of the human mind is often at its best when one is in their 20s or 30s, but by the late 1950s it was pretty much conceded that many older musicians who had continued to grow as artists, and embraced newer forms of jazz, were just as good if not better than many old-timers who were stuck in the same musical rut they had traveled (and in some cases pioneered) when younger.

What impresses one in every track on this album is the continually creative interplay of the three musicians, and in this respect they reminded me much more of Ornette Coleman’s groups (sans saxophone, of course) than of anything else in my experience. And, in the first Blues for Cecil—a piece which, like many jazz works with “blues” in the title, is not really a blues at all—the trio actually swings, in this instance reminding me more of Mingus than of Coleman (though the two musicians were friendly towards each other and even played together once, at the Newport Rebels’ Festival of 1961). There are so many little subtle things going on in this track, not least of which is Cyrille’s sudden shift to a quasi-march beat on the snare drum at the four-minute mark, that you have to stay alert when listening. This is music that demands intellectual interaction from its listeners. It is NOT passive lounge jazz.

In Improvisation No. 2, both time and the tempo seem to stand still. This is mostly a quiet duet for flugelhorn and bass, with only a few very soft and minimal strokes from the drums; Top, Bottom and What’s in the Middle seems to grow out of this, with the focus shifting to Parker playing bowed bass, then to Cyrille who plays a series of unusual patterns on snare, woodblocks and cowbell, before both rhythm players remain tacit during Rava’s solo, with Parker returning for some odd double-time figures played pizzicato, some of them purposely distorted at the ends of phrases. Cyrille follows with rapid figures played with the sticks, Rava spurts out some fast atonal licks, and Parker is all over his bass. A very strange piece, indeed!

Blues for Cecil No. 2 is indeed a more conventional blues in form, beat and tempo. This one, despite Rava’s strange solo, could almost be played on a standard jazz radio program. As one goes through the album, many little moments like the ones described above come and go, somehow coalescing into musical shapes and forms, and the musicians’ imaginations never seem to flag or become formulaic. It just all keeps developing and morphing, holding the listener’s interest because it is both good and unpredictable. Overboard, for instance, is an even sparser piece than Improvisation No. 2, with Rava playing a cappella followed by Parker and Cyrille engaging in a brief duet before all three come together for some very “outside” jazz.

Oddly, the program ends with an old jazz standard, Rodgers and Hart’s My Funny Valentine, and although the tempo is distended and it begins with some very strange brushwork by Cyrille, it is recognizable in Rava’s opening solo. In tot, then. a very fine recording, then, particularly for lovers of free jazz.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Merry Christmas From Bird, Bud, Miles & Tristano


CHARLIE PARKER & THE STARS OF MODERN JAZZ AT CARNEGIE HALL, CHRISTMAS 1949 / FREED-BROWN: All God’s Children Got Rhythm / Bud Powell, pno; Curley Russell, bs; Max Roach, dm / BEST-WALSH: Move. DAMERON: Hot House. PARKER-HARRIS: Ornithology / Miles Davis, tpt; Sonny Stitt, a-sax; Serge Chaloff, bar-sx; Benny Green, tb; Powell, pno; Russell, bs; Roach, dm / BERLIN: Always. WINDING-GARREN: Sweet Miss / Stan Getz, t-sax; Kai Winding, tb; Al Haig, pno; Tommy Potter, bs; Roy Haynes, dm / GETZ: Long Island Sound / same, but omit Winding / EDWARDS-GREEN: Once in a While. TURK-AHLERT: Mean to Me / Sarah Vaughan, voc; Jimmy Jones, pno / GILLESPIE-COOTS: You Go to My Head. TRISTANO: Sax of a Kind / Lee Konitz, a-sax; Warne Marsh, t-sax; Lennie Tristano, pno; Billy Bauer, gt; Joe Shulman, bs; Jeff Morton, dm / PARKER-HARRIS: Ornithology. PARKER: Cheryl. Ko-Ko. PARKER-KERN: Bird of Paradise [All the Things You Are]. PARKER: Now’s the Time / Charlie Parker, a-sax; Red Rodney, tpt; Haig, pno; Potter, bs; Haynes, dm. “Symphony” Sid Torin, ann / Jass Records JCD-16, available for free streaming on YouTube (live: New York, December 24, 1949)

I have my Facebook friend Marie Lamb, classical music host and producer at WCNY Classic FM in Syracuse, to thank for introducing me to this fabulous concert, which I had never heard before. It was originally issued on a Jass CD in 1989, then reissued by them in 2007, then issued by Hi Hat records in 2016, but is no longer in print. If you’d like to buy a physical copy, be prepared to shell out some big bucks. A copy of the Hi Hat issue is going for $57.99 on Amazon; copies of the Jass CD are selling on eBay for anywhere from $25.99 to $117.95, but since you can stream it for free on YouTube (or download it by using a You Tube-to-MP3 converter), you can hear it or even own it for free, which is how it should be at this point in time.

Technically speaking, as you can see from the date, this wasn’t a Christmas concert but a Christmas Eve concert, but it’s musically stupendous just the same. And what a lineup! First you get the Bud Powell trio, then the same group playing with Miles Davis (still in his bebop style—he had already recorded his first “Birth of the Cool” records by this time, but temporarily reverted to her earlier, hotter style for this concert), Sonny Stitt (the best of Charlie Parker’s disciples), Serge Chaloff and Benny Green, and then we just go on from there. A Stan Getz quintet with Kai Winding, Al Haig, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes, Sarah Vaughan (not in great voice, but still, it’s Sarah Vaughan) with Jimmy Jones on piano, then two numbers by the Lennie Tristano Sextet with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh before the star of the show, Bird himself, closes out the concert with a half-hour of fabulous playing in a quintet featuring Red Rodney on trumpet with the same rhythm section that Getz used. The only major bop figures not present at this shindig were Dizzy Gillespie, who of course was still fronting his big bebop orchestra at the time, trombonist J. J. Johnson, and Thelonious Monk, who was already leading his own quintet elsewhere.

Aside from hearing a live set with Miles in bebop mode, it’s also interesting to hear Getz play with a bop rhythm section and Serge Chaloff, the self-destructive baritone sax star of Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” band, also playing bop. And happily, only one performance is incomplete, the Davis-Stitt version of Ornithology.

Although Getz was clearly one of the finest tenor saxists of his day, a white disciple of Lester Young who expanded Lester’s style, he and his group only really sound fully “boppish” in the second and third tunes in his brief three-song set, and in Sweet Miss trombonist Kai Winding (a star of Stan Kenton’s big band) and Al Haig, a pianist who was a favorite of both Bird and Davis, play their best bop style. Although never as flashy as Powell, Haig’s solos were harmonically and rhythmically interesting, and he plays very well in both Sweet Miss and this rare recording of Getz’ own composition, Long Island Sound.

In addition to sounding a little rough in tone, Sarah Vaughan’s two tunes suffer from the worst sound in this collection. Apparently, her performances came from a different sound source than the rest of the concert, which is unfortunate, and since both tunes she sings are ballads and neither is a bop piece she doesn’t really fit into the theme of the program. But it’s still Sarah Vaughan, and she was always worth listening to.

Lennie Tristano’s set also suffers from dull sound on top; I recommend a 3 decibel treble increase. Once you do that, you’ll notice that, for whatever reason, the personnel listed in the CD booklet omits guitarist Billy Bauer, a mainstay of Tristano groups into the early 1950s. Lennie’s playing on You Go To My Head is for the most part quite relaxed, exploring harmonic relationships and not trying to compete with Bud Powell for dexterity. In Sax of a Kind he basically just comps while the rest of the group is flying in an uptempo romp. Incidentally, Lee Konitz never really considered himself a disciple of Parker, and Bird once told him that he appreciated the fact that he didn’t try to copy him. “I didn’t have the nerve to tell him that I couldn’t play his shit, because his shit was too hard for me!” Konitz once admitted.

Parker’s set has not only some of the best playing in the entire concert (well, of course…he was Bird!), but also some of the brightest and cleanest sound, thank goodness. Only a little over a year out of Camarillo State Hospital, where he had gone to dry out, Parker is in fabulous form, and although Red Rodney was really no match for Gillespie he was certainly a good bop trumpeter and acquits himself well, particularly in Cheryl where he almost does come close to his idol. The rhythm section is ideal for Bird, including both Haig on piano and the vastly underrated Roy Haynes on drums. Parker is absolutely flying on Ko-Ko; this beats his commercial recording of it by a country mile. Haig also has a fabulous solo on this one, as does Rodney.

Bird of Paradise is a contrafact of Jerome Kern’s All the Things You Are, and I was surprised to hear, in this performance, the same introduction that Charles Mingus later used for his own version of the song, which he titled All the Things You Could Be if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother. The same changes, for the most part, are also used, but Bird’s version is slower than Mingus’. Although Haig is pretty good, it’s Bird himself who really shines in this piece. The concert closes out with his own piece, Now’s the Time, another excellent performance by all concerned.

A simply fabulous jazz concert, my little Christmas gift to you jazz fans who read this blog from me and Marie Lamb. Dig it!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The 2021 “What a Performance!” Awards


Well, here we are again, at the end of another year of reviewing, and these are my 50 picks out of the hundreds of reviews I’ve written in 2021. If that seems an excessive amount when compared to what Gramophone, Jazz Times or the New York Times would select, remember that I review both jazz and classical and they don’t, and 10 of these awards went to jazz CDs. Also remember that I review a LOT of modern and offbeat music that classical magazines either don’t review at all or, if they do, don’t give awards to (I’d say at least 20 of the classical CDs in this list fit that category).

But most importantly, remember that my awards are based sheerly on musical merit. I don’t play politics. I’m not swayed by what other reviewers or publications give awards to. When I put this image on a review, I really mean it; these are recordings you need to have in your collection because they’re really great in terms of both repertoire and performance quality.

So here is my 2021 list, ten days before Christmas:

  1. Ivan Ilić Rediscovers Reicha (Chandos)
  2. Cruz Montero’s Rapsodia Cubana (Naxos)
  3. Holloway’s & Seabourne’s “Moments of Vision” (Sheva Contemporary)
  4. Friedrich Gulda’s Lost Symphony (SWR Music)
  5. Clare Hammond Plays Variations (Bis)
  6. The Invisible David Angel Emerges (Basset Hound Music)
  7. Will Liverman’s Dreams of a New Day (Çedille)
  8. Richter’s Lively Monteverdi (Pentatone Classics)
  9. Levental Sings Medtner, Vol. 2 (Brilliant Classics)
  10. Schapiro 17’s “Human Qualities” (Summit)
  11. Moreno Valiente’s Mahler Fifth (IBS Classical)
  12. Contemporary Music from…Luxembourg! (Naxos)
  13. Petri & Friends Play “Territorial Songs” (OUR Recordings)
  14. Catriona Morison’s First Lieder Recital (Linn Classics)
  15. The Piano Music of de Hartmann (Nimbus Alliance)
  16. De Hartmann’s Chamber Music (Nimbus Alliance)
  17. Oppens Plays Kaminsky (Çedille)
  18. Kopatchinskaja Speaks & Plays Schoenberg (Alpha Classics)
  19. Yet Another Perelman-Shipp Album
  20. Frank Huang Plays Medtner (Centaur)
  21. Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo Trumpet Recital (Tum Records)
  22. Fredrik Malmberg’s Excellent “Orfeo” (Bis)
  23. Karol Rathaus’ Piano Trios (Dux)
  24. Sochaka Plays Bacewicz (Dux)
  25. Martial Solal’s Last Concert (Challenge)
  26. Miles Osland’s “Collaborations,” Vol. 2 (Mark Masters)
  27. Marek Janowski’s Great New “Fidelio” (Pentatone Classics)
  28. Dunér & Pritsker’s “Eclectic Songs” (self-produced)
  29. Coburn & Brownlee Star in “I Puritani” (Delos)
  30. Get Ready for Duo Della Luna! (New Focus)
  31. Beverly Beirne’s “Dream Dancer” (33 Jazz Records)
  32. Ingolfsson Plays Rathaus, Tiessen & Arma (Oehms Classics)
  33. Jonah Kim Plays Kodály, Abel & Grieg (Delos)
  34. Jon Gordon’s “Stranger Than Fiction” (self-produced)
  35. Lupu “Rediscovers” Ysaÿe (Divine Art)
  36. Dupree Plays (and Conducts) Kapustin (Capriccio)
  37. Sol & Pat Hit the Music Trail (Alpha Classics)
  38. The Dover Quartet Plays Schumann (Azica)
  39. Korstick’s Lively Scarlatti (CPO)
  40. Claire Booth Sings Unorthodox Mussorgsky (Avie)
  41. Winterberg’s Unusual Songs (ArcoDiva)
  42. The Alexander Quartet Plays Brahms (Foghorn Classics)
  43. Gaia Sokoli Plays Fanny Mendelssohn (Piano Classics)
  44. A Stunning French “Macbeth” (Dynamic)
  45. Barone Plays Crumb (Bridge)
  46. Quilico Plays American Works (Navona)
  47. Darrell Katz Introduces Oddsong
  48. Smith’s Superb “Chicago Symphonies” (Tum Records)
  49. Dausgaard Conducts Mendelssohn (Bis)
  50. Tania Gill’s Disappearing Curiosities (self-produced)

And that’s it until next year!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Tania Gill’s Disappearing Curiosities

10 - 01 TaniaGillQuartet-Cover

2021GILL: Marsh Music. To Montreal. Jaunty Woo. Tangled Branches (for Geri Allen). Climate Striker. Apology. Frisbee. Knocked Over. ANON.: People Gonna Rise Like the Water / Tania Gill, pno/MG-1 synth; Lina Allemano, tpt; Rob Clutton, bs; Nico Dann, dm / self-produced CD/digital download

This nifty little album, due for release on March 11, 2022, features Toronto-based pianist-composer Tania Gill and her quartet playing a series of very strange jazz compositions by the leader plus one piece with no named composer.

When the opener, Marsh Music, started, I almost stopped listening since this is a slow, somewhat meandering piece, not my usual taste, but once the trumpet (playing sub-tone) entered, followed in a few bars by the bass and drums, both the harmony and the melodic line changed, became more interesting, and I started listening in earnest. I can’t say that there’s much improvisation on this opening piece—it sounds more through-composed to me—but an excellent and deceivingly “simple” piece it most assuredly is. At the 2:30 mark, Gill adds high-pitched synthesizer sounds to her piano playing, the tempo almost comes to a halt, and the music (again, mostly written) develops in a strange, atmospheric way. Then, at 3:40, the drums break up the rhythm as Allemano plays an improvised trumpet solo, and a very strange one at that, but this, too doesn’t last long. The tempo subtly shifts in its accents as Gill and Allemano play a variant on the theme as the ride-out.

To Montreal is more uptempo, using an asymmetric rhythm and some bop overtones. Again, though this is clearly a jazz piece in terms of tempo and rhythmic feel, the music sounds very much composed except for another Allemano solo, this time quite flashy but also substantive, over the propulsive bass of Rob Clutton and the drums, with Gill providing short, stabling chords to punctuate the rhythm. It continues to build in excitement, even as Allemano pulls back a bit on the flash to play a sequence ot held notes. Gill’s single-note piano solo is that of a composer improvising on her own piece, very explorative without being splashy. The piece then comes to an abrupt end.

14 - Tania Gill by Jeremy Mimnagh

Tania Gill (photo by Jeremy Mimnaugh)

Jaunty Woo swings more than the preceding two tracks in a boppish way, but again the underlying rhythm is broken up into little pieces by Clutton and Dann. More and more as this CD progresses, Allemano take charge of the proceedings with her superb solos, but Gill’s own solo on this track is also quite exceptional. Tangled Branches, a piece dedicated to the great Geri Allen, opens slowly with an amorphous melodic line played by Allemano with a bowed bass counter-line by Clutton before Gill plays an out-of-tempo solo, then the drums enter and things become quite complex. The tempo then decreases, comes to a full stop, and resumes with trumpet and piano playing against one another. Climate Striker is a hard-driving, uptempo piece using bitonal harmony, the most “outside” piece so far in this set; this sounds mostly improvised to me, with Allemano again brilliant on trumpet. Again there is a full stop, after which the music becomes slower and darker in mood.

Apology opens with a beat that sounds Latin, almost like a samba, but this, too doesn’t last long as the piece morphs and changes. Clutton plays an extraordinary bowed bass solo, pushing his instrument up into the altissimo range; in the latter part of this, Allemano plays high, fluttering figures on trumpet before descending to her normal range. Frisbee opens with muted trumpet before moving into a sort of quirky, asymmetric march rhythm. It has a quasi-comical sound about it, playful but in a highly artistic way. Knocked Over almost sounds like a continuation of the previous piece, a fitting close to this extraordinary program.

I was very highly impressed by this recording, both in terms of the compositions and the way the quartet was able to dovetail the solos into the written portions. You really need to hear this one!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Brito and Luiz’ Amazing CD

Brito-Luiz CD

PIXINGUINHA: Gargalhada. BRITO: Esquina  de São Paolo. Salsito no choro. Chvia. BANDOLIM: Feia. Benzinho. Primas e Bordöes. SOUTO: Despertar de Montanha. Perigoso/ Danilo Brito, mand; João Luiz, gtr / Zoho ZM202110

This highly unusual CD—not quit jazz, and not quite classical, yet containing elements of both—features two virtuoso Brazilian musicians whose technique and musical ideas will take your breath away. Much of this music stems from Choro, music of their shared native country that “has the same cultural parents as jazz and blues, “according to the promo sheet, “European forms melded with African ideas to produce [music] marked by virtuosity, syncopation, counterpoint, and improvisation.”

The opening track, Gargalhada, is a Schottische written by Pixinguinha, the professional pseudonym of Brazilian composer, flautist and saxophonist Alfredo da Rocha Filho (1897-1973), in 1917. It opens in a jaunty tempo and clearly sounds more classical than jazz-related. Brito’s mandolin dominates in this one, displaying a technique equally as impressive as that of the legendary Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt…and the music resembles some of the folk tunes that Django recorded when he was 18 years old, before the caravan fire that crippled his right hand. The second section of the piece, though in a slower 4, is harmonically and musically quite interesting. But here, from the outset, the question arises: is this really a jazz CD? Of course, to me it doesn’t matter; good music is good music; but we all know that CDs sell due to marketing niches, not the high quality of the music or its performance. The third section of this piece is incredibly slow and delicate, almost coming to a stop a couple of times before gradually regaining speed almost up to the opening.

The album’s title track, Esquina de São Paolo (or São Paolo Street Corner) is in 3/4 time, but a sad, slow 3/4, and once again I was reminded of some of Django’s pre-accident, non-jazz recordings. It sounds a lot like folk music, and although there is an improvised solo for Brito there is no hint of jazz rhythm—which, again, does not upset me because the music is so good, but again, it lives on the border of folk and classical music.

Indeed, there are a number of pieces in this collection that use a waltz tempo that after a while I stopped trying to analyze the music and just sat back and enjoyed it. What makes it so enjoyable is, specifically, Brito’s lively, jaunty mandolin playing. I can’t recall having heard a mandolin player in the past 30 years as thoroughly enjoyable to listen to as he is. Luiz’ guitar generally provides the rhythm, chords and single-line counterpoint to Brito, and although he is a quieter player, his contribution is no less important because of the base he lays down for the mandolin. None of the music presented here is harmonically complex; on the contrary, it is all quite tonal, only occasionally adventuring into neighboring keys for a few notes or a bar or two, but that doesn’t matter.

Brito’s original piece Salsito no Choro is the closest thing to a real jazz rhythm on this disc, thanks largely to Luiz’ guitar accents. The liner notes tell us that the A section “alludes to the salsa, allusion to Cuba, where Paquito d’Rivera was born” (and happily fled, never to return). This is, at 6:04, also the longest piece on the CD.

And so it goes as you move from track to track, entranced by the joyous, virtuosic but never merely flashy playing of these two outstanding musicians. They are simply a joy to hear, a real tonic in the midst of all the maudlin, drippy jazz and classical albums coming out by the double handful to bemoan the Covid-19 pandemic. This is a CD that does not break your neck by crying on your shoulder, but a disc that enjoys and celebrates life. It may indeed be more of a classical crossover album than a jazz one, but it’s exceptional playing nonetheless.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Riccardo Frizza’s Excellent New “Rigoletto”

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2021VERDI: Rigoletto / Antonio Garés, tenor (Borsa); Javier Camarena, tenor (Duke of Mantua); Luca Salsi, baritone (Rigoletto); Roman Kyulkin, bass (Monterone); Davide Piva, baritone (Count Ceprano); Rosalia Cid, soprano (Countess Ceprano); Alessio Cacciamani, bass (Sparafucile); Enkelena Kamani, soprano (Gilda); Valentina Corò, mezzo (Giovanna); Francesco Samuele Venuti, baritone (Marullo); Caterina Piva, mezzo (Maddalena); Florence May Festival Chorus & Orch.; Riccardo Frizza, conductor / Dynamic CDS 7921.02 (live: Florence, February 23, 2021)

There are two schools of thought on the constant mounting of operas a century or more old over and over and over again. One, of course, is that audiences love these pieces because they’re like old friends; they can mentally hum the tunes as they come along, listen to hear if the singers can hit all the high notes, clap for the good high notes and either ignore or boo the bad ones. For these people, opera is not sung drama. It is a form of entertainment on the same level with My Fair Lady, Brigadoon or Cats.

The other school of thought is that, if you are going to perform one of these older works, you might as well do it right. Sing and conduct the music the way it’s written, not the way “tradition” dictates with lots of added high notes, and try to bring some real dramatic feeling to the proceedings. That is what conductor Riccardo Frizza and his mostly excellent cast have done here.

The two “star” names in this cast are tenor Javier Camarena as the Duke of Mantua and baritone Luca Salsi, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses, in the title role. Albanian soprano Enkelena Kamani is an entirely new name to me. She has a bit of a flutter in the voice but not a real wobble; her voice is similar to that of Ileana Cotrubas but somewhat brighter on top. Alessio Cacciamani, who sings Sparafucile, has a wonderfully dark bass voice, perfect for the role. Only Valentina Corò, as Maddalena, is problematic, but she has the least to sing of all five principals. The smaller roles are, to my ears, very well filled.

By and large, Frizza’s conducting is a bit on the slow side, but not too much to be worrisome in the long run. He does build up the orchestral prelude—one of the finest things in the score—to a monumental forte, as he should, and there is an undercurrent of tragedy and menace in the playing of the orchestra in addition to superb inner instrumental detail. He also gets just the right sound and feel from the offstage band in the opening scene, which of course is jolly because the Duke is just a bundle of chuckles, hitting up on women in the court and not caring who they’re married to. Camerena is in excellent voice, as he usually is, and the Borsa (Antonio Garés) also has an excellent voice, almost lead-tenor quality. Camerena also sings “Questo e quella” exactly as written, with one small section near the end quite different from the way we usually hear it. Our Countess Ceprano, however, has a pretty punk voice, nothing to write home about. Salsi has a surprisingly malleable voice, combining mellowness and metal, sort of a cross between Thomas Hampson and Leonard Warren (yes, I know, an odd combination, but that’s what he sounds like). “Traditional” Italian opera lovers will probably complain that his interpretation is too nuanced and subtle, not sung “out” enough, but that is exactly what fascinated me about him. Basso Roman Kyulkin has a slow vibrato but also an appropriately dark and powerful voice as Monterone. Between the subtle dramatic nuances of Salsi and Frizza’s superbly detailed and often powerful conducting, the dramatic portion of this first scene goes much, much better than usual, imparting a truly menacing feeling through Verdi’s music. I think the composer would have been quite pleased by this reading.

Salsi continues his dramatic subtlety into the duet with Sparafucile, in which the darkness of the wind playing feeds into the mood. An interesting detail in Salsi’s singing of “Pari siamo”: at the very end, when he sings “Ah, no! É follia!,” he hits the high note in “follia” softly instead of belting it out. This sent me to the score to check whether or not this is written. Much to my surprise, although there is a fermata over the penultimate note (indicating that it be held longer than the written double-dotted half note), there is NO indication of dynamics and, more surprisingly, the note is just an E and not the high G that every baritone on Planet Earth interjects at this point (see below). Interesting.

Pari siamo ending

There are moments when Salsi’s voice spreads a little under pressure, which from a strictly vocal standpoint I found disconcerting, but his vocal malleability and keen dramatic insight kept me listening to hear how he was going to sing every part of his role. And, from a strictly dramatic standpoint, he never once disappointed me. On the contrary, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat wondering how he was going to sing the next section, and the next, and the one after that. Not a perfect vocalist, then, but an intelligent one.

Being a live performance, Kamani is at her most fluttery in her entrance music, and the voice is not a very pretty one, but she is a very musical singer if not as characterful as her father, and by the time she reaches the second half of this duet her voice has warmed up. I also liked the fact that Kamani’s voice leans more towards lyric and is less of a light “coloratura.” (Toscanini was on the right track when he wanted more of a lyric soprano as Gilda, but way off the beam when he chose a dramatic spinto like Zinka Milanov.) Personally, I’ve always felt that this duet was not only too frivolous in its musical mood but too long for its own good. A tauter structure and less tunefulness would have worked wonders, but Verdi was trying to please audiences at this point in his career and there is no question that this duet is a crowd-pleaser in terms of tunes. The same, of course, goes for “É il sol dell’anima,” but what the heck. That’s what he wrote and we’re stuck with it. I was, however, curious about the slow tempo and broad rubato effects at the beginning of the latter. Checking the score, I saw where Verdi marked this passage cantabile, but did not indicate any particular slow-downs, thus I assume that this was an artistic choice of the conductor in order to defuse the metronomic pace of the duet.

Indeed, you’re going to find all kinds of surprises in this performance in terms of the pacing and shaping of the music as well as “missing” high notes. Some you may like very much, some you may not, but nearly all the differences you hear are actually IN THE SCORE. So if you don’t like  it, complain to Verdi. The ending of the first act is also much more chipper music than I think this scene deserved, another demerit for Verdi.

Act II opens with “Ella mi fu rapita…Parmi, veder le lagrime,” not only a superfluous aria but a completely insincere one. The Duke of Mantua never has such tender feelings for anyone he rapes; if he did, he wouldn’t rape them. A nd then there’s “Possenti amor mi chiamo,” just a peppy little show-off aria, sound and fury signifying nothing. “Cortigianni, vil razza dannata” os, of course, another matter entirely, and this Salsi sings with both great drama and great sensitivity, and there are also less high notes in this aria than you normally hear. “Tutta la feste” also goes well, with Kamani sounding vulnerable and Salso sounding fatherly and tender. And look, boys and girls! There are NO high notes for either soprano or baritone at the end of “Si, vendetta,” and the duet is all the more dramatically effective because there are no high notes.

In Toscanini’s two performances of Act II of this opera, he did not allow tenor Jan Peerce to sing the high B at the end of “La donna è mobile,” but he did allow him to sing the florid cadenza. It turns out that neither is in the score, so Camarena sings neither here, and the aria is, again, more dramatically effective because of this. The quartet opens just a shade slow for my taste, but the tempo gradually picks up. All but Piva sound wonderful in it, and again, there are no high notes for anyone at the end. One small disappointment: Frizza does not really build up the storm scene as well as other conductors have (among them Bonynge, Gavazzeni and Toscanini). Rigoletto does not take the unwritten high note in the scene where he wonders who is in the sack; the Duke sings his written high B in the reprise of “La donna è mobile” and also sings the written diminuendo at the end of it.

I should also mention that I was very happy that they managed to keep the audience from breaking out into applause in the middle of the acts. Yes, if you’re in the opera house and you feel compelled to reward a singer for giving a great interpretation of a particular scene, it’s human nature to applaud, but for repeated home listening I prefer not having it. But here was another surprise: at the end of the opera, we do hear the expected applause, but it’s only a couple of dozen people and you hear the string players tapping their bows against their instruments. Thus I must assume that, although the performance was definitely recorded “live” (you can hear the choristers stomping around the stage here and there), it was probably the dress rehearsal and not the actual stage performance.

In short, this is not a perfectly sung Rigoletto—even Salsi has some moments of vocal infirmity—but it is a great performance because it is so dramatic that it overcomes even some (but not all) of those rat-a-tat rhythms in the score. In terms of Rigoletto as sung drama, this one has it all over every other performance and recording I’ve ever heard.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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George Walker’s Piano Sonatas


WALKER: Piano sonatas Nos. 1-5 / Steven Beck, pno / Bridge 9554

George Walker was pretty nasty to me the one time I reviewed a recording of his music before he died. What hurt me was that I praised his music highly but accidentally misidentified one instrument in the orchestra (I think an oboe). He pounced on this and wrote to tell me that I was a musical ignoramus, that even his little granddaughter knew what the instrument was. In an attempt to ease the pain I felt, my editor explained to me that Mr. Walker was a bit of a churl and had written equally nasty notes (or worse ones) to other critics who had reviewed his music in the past, but it bothered me for a long time, so much so that I almost passed on reviewing this recording altogether.

Which, of course, was not fair to the music, which is thorny and modern but extremely interesting. Walker loved the atonal and 12-tone schools which were all the rage in the late 1940s, when he was a young man and began composing in earnest. I can just imagine how much crap he took from white critics over the years who were upset that he didn’t write more audience-friendly pieces, preferably something based on spirituals. Ethan Iverson indicates as much in the liner notes when he wrote that “Nobody fought the idea that a black composer should sound like a ‘black compos­er’ more than Walker — meaning that they should direct­ly reference African American vernacular styles.” He just didn’t have to take it out on me, who made no such accusation.

Walker (1922 – 2018) was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, in 1996, and the first D.M.A. from the Eastman School of Music (1956). He wrote over 100 pieces for orchestra, chamber ensemble, chorus, piano, voice, and organ. These piano sonatas were written over the course of a half-century, from 1953 to 2003, although the first sonata was revised in 1991 (and the third, which dates originally from 1975, was revised in 1996). A child prodigy, Walker was admitted to the Oberlin Conservatory at age 14 and later studied piano with Rudolf Serkin and composition with Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. (This info from Wikipedia.)

The first sonata opens with a thorny movement using modal-chromatic harmony in fairly rapid right-hand figures, albeit with occasional moments of relaxation in which the harmony almost, but not quite, settles into a sort of tonal pattern. Yet it is the restless eighth-note patterns that dominate this movement. Though not quite as far out as Boulez’ first sonata, it is clearly a piece intended to show his command of structure within an ambiguous tonal setting. By and large, the angular quality of the music establishes a much more rhythmic than melodic framework. At about the 4:08 mark, he temporarily relaxes a bit from the rapid eights to a six-to-the-bar quarter note feeling.

Although Steven Beck’s playing is musically precise and his sense of structure good, I was able to compare his performance of this sonata to one by George Walker himself on YouTube, and the composer introduced a surprising number of rubato moments, stretching the time out a bit in order to relax the forward propulsion, and also using much more legato in his phrasing. Thus I would say that Beck’s reading represents one approach to this movement but not one taken by the composer himself. Walker himself takes 7:27 to get through the first movement whereas Beck knocks it off in 6:12.

The second movement is a set of variations on a folk song. The opening section in particular is more relaxed than the first movement, but then the tempo increases as we approach the variations. Yet again, Beck is more clinical and tighter in his approach to the musical structure whereas Walker is more relaxed, taking an additional 34 seconds to get through the movement. The third movement. a rather brisk, march-like ostinato, is played very similarly by both, with Walker himself actually being a shade faster than Beck.

The second sonata, which opens with an exploration of a minor third, isles knotty and more accessible than his first. Both Beck and Walker play the fast sections with similar motor drive, but again the composer uses a more relaxed and legato approach to much of the in-between music. Both pianists play the brisk, brief second movement with energy, but Walker manages to create a slightly looser feeling in the rhythm, syncopating the passages that Beck plays with a more Stravinskian, strait-laced feeling.

I make these observations not to be ornery but because they are very clear differences between Beck’s and Walker’s performances, and the intellectual and emotional impact of the music is sometimes subtly and sometimes significantly different. Since we live in an are of historically-informed performances, one would think that the modern-day artist who has the good fortune to study the performances of the composer would do so in order to get closer to what that composer intended. Whether or not you agree with or like Beck’s often significant changes to the style, tempo and rhythm of what Walker himself wanted or not, these differences are quite pronounced. (But then again, when Stravinsky got the opportunity to re-record his entire orchestral oeuvre in stereo sound, he often made significant tempo and phrasing changes to not only what he had recorded earlier but also to the scores themselves, so even composers can change their minds in a work.)

To my ears, one thing that impacted my emotional reaction to these recordings was their very bright, dry sound. The microphone placement seemed to me very close to the piano, catching all of the metallic sound of hammers striking strings and no natural reverb at all, despite the fact that Beck was quite clearly using pedal in certain places (such as the “Adagio” movement of the second sonata). The dryness of sound created a shorter “decay” time for each note and chord struck, which impacted the feeling one got from the recording. To his credit, however, Beck captured some of the syncopations in the last movement of the second sonata very well.

I could not find any recordings online of Walker playing his last three sonatas, but the third is available in a 2020 videotaped performance by pianist Jeffrey LaDeur. The first movement, clearly marked “Fantoms,” is played by LaDeur in an alternation of delicate and strong keyboard attacks, and his instrument has some “space” around it. Beck’s performance is not too dissimilar from LaDeur’s, but again the closeness of the microphone dries out the sound and removes some of the decay. The music itself is extremely abstract; the liner notes describe it as a sort of “free atonality.” From a performance standpoint, then, both pianists play it about the same but the feeling one gets from the music itself is a bit different. Yet perhaps the best example of what I mean can be heard in the second movement, entitled “Bell.” This consists of the same complex chord struck over and over again at different volume levels and in slightly different rhythms. Beck keeps his sustain pedal on, but only some of the sustained sound made it onto the record. In the last movement, “Chorale and Fughetta,” Walker modifies his “bell” sound by combining it with more complex figures and a series of rising atonal scales in the right hand.

The Sonata No. 4 consists of but two movements, “Maestoso” and “Tranquillo.” In the first movement, Beck does his best o overcome the dry acoustic with some fine pedal effects, and the music itself, though still resolutely modern, is less thorny than the first two. As the liner notes indicate, “key intervallic ideas rotate around the spectrum of possi­bility from melodic to percussive,” and despite his bristling at the idea of using traditional black themes, he inserted an abstract quote from “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” four minutes into the second movement. Here, I preferred the performance by Frederick Moyer, which is nearly 40 seconds longer than Beck’s and has a warmer sound, but in his own way Beck plays it quite well.

Yet if anything, the singe-movement Sonata No. 5 is even finer. Here Walker not only condenses the sonata form, but he re-introduces some of the counterpoint that was a feature of the first two sonatas yet does so in a way that folds it into a lyric line. Here, Beck is again much faster than his comperes; both Matthew Bengtson and Richard Valitutto, on YouTube, give it more sweep and bring it out to five minutes, whereas Beck condenses it to 4:47.

I should point out that within their own framework, Beck’s performances are quite good. He does not forego the excitement in this music, nor does he overlook any detail in the scores. It’s just that my own personal feelings lean towards the alternate performances discussed above.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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