An Interview With Silke Eberhard

Silke Eberhard

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be in touch, at least via email, with the great German saxophonist, bandleader, composer and arranger Silke Eberhard, who is clearly one of the most interesting performers on the jazz scene today, and she was gracious enough to do an email interview with me for my blog. So here are her own words about her background, how she developed as an artist, and where she is going today.

Art Music Lounge: I was wondering about your musical background. Did you begin as a jazz musician, or did you start by playing classical music? The reason I ask is that your music shows good structure, and that is something closer related to classical music than jazz.

Silke Eberhard: I started playing the clarinet at the age of 11, in the folklore brass band of the Swabian village where I grew up. My first teacher was my father, who also conducted the band. There I first played Bavarian polkas. Later I also practiced classical pieces like the Mozart Clarinet Concerto or played in the Symphonic Wind Orchestra before I switched to the Jazz Big Band of our town. But very soon I became interested in jazz and improvisation.

AML: Who were your early jazz influences? Did you start out by hearing Eric Dolphy, or were there other musicians who influenced you?

SE: My earliest influences were my father’s Dixieland and his red Glenn Miller record and also anything on the radio at the time. I listened to a lot of blues and jazz programs. When I went on my own jazz discovery, I started with Charlie Parker. My teacher at the time also recommended Eric Dolphy, he said I might like that – and I did! I was lucky enough to hear many great players in the ‘80s in my small southern German town, these were Lee Konitz, Charlie Mariano with the Karnataka College of Percussion, Jan Garbarek, the Brecker Brothers about three times and Oregon. All these concerts have remained unforgettable. A little later I heard Ornette Coleman live, that was something else to me.

AML: How did you come to form your band, Potsa Lotsa? Were these musicians you had played with on other gigs who impressed you? I ask this because they all sound to me like quite extraordinary musicians, and I know it’s not that easy to find players of that caliber when forming a large ensemble.

SE: Potsa Lotsa is a grown band. Originally we interpreted the complete works of Eric Dolphy as a wind quartet in 2009. Later I added the Love Suite by Eric Dolphy to the program, but for this work we needed a larger instrumentation, so clarinet, tuba and electronics were added. For the XL instrumentation I asked people in our Berlin jazz community, that I have known for a very long time and with whom I have had experience in other groups. Actually, I thought less about the instrumentation than about musicians with whom I would like to play together.

AML: How do you divide your time up between playing with your trio and playing with the orchestra?

SE: This happens naturally. With the orchestra we play more project-related and plan it more long-term, which is also due to the size of the band. Often there are one or two concerts that we prepare. With the trio we can come together more spontaneously, even if it’s just to try something new or just for a jam.

AML: I know that many musicians had trouble finding work in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, but I also know that small groups like your trio had it easier than larger ensembles. Were you able to perform live occasionally during this time?

SE: I was fortunately able to perform with both groups during those two years, perhaps not as often as I would have liked. We were able to perform at open air concerts in the summer months and there were streaming concerts or hybrid concerts with small audiences in the fall/winter. That kept us going.

AML: I know that you’ve recently gone to Switzerland to play. How are the audience sizes? Are more people turning out for jazz now than, say, a year or two ago?

SE: It is quite different. The concerts are “sold out” more often now, but that may be also because there is an audience limit nowadays. The concerts in Switzerland were all well attended as always. In Berlin, however, there are some places that are fuller now than before, people are really in the mood for music and culture, which is great.

AML: I’m curious about your approach to jazz composition. Do you try to write an interesting line and then work the improvisations into it, or do you think in terms of underlying harmony first and then just tack on some sort of top line? The reason I ask is that your original pieces on Being the Up and Down seemed to me based more on rhythm and harmony and less on melodic lines.

SE: I have different ways of composing. Some pieces start with a structure, a rhythm, in another piece there may be a melodic idea first, which can also be completely abstract. I never actually start with harmonies, like jazz harmony chord symbols or so – but I might add them later-  but it could be maybe clusters of notes from where out of it a melody can develop, or I take a row of tones I am interested in and move it forth and backwards until I like it.

AML: What does this coming year look like for you? Will you be making any new recordings?

SE: The new album Potsa Lotsa XL album will be released in March, we worked together with Youjin Sung, who plays the korean Gayagaeum. The suite I wrote for Youjin is entitled GAYA and it will be released on Trouble in the East Records on Vinyl and digital. Also, our collective trio I Am Three, with Nikolaus Neuser and Christian Marien, will go to the studio for our third album. We have been interpreting the music of Charles Mingus on our first albums, now we will add our own music to the repertoire.

AML: Wow, that sounds interesting. I’m looking forward to hearing it. Thank you for your time!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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The Caruso “Re-Creations”

Caruso and Victrola

TOSTI: Luna d’estate. Di CAPUA: O sole mio. LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci: No, Pagliacco non son! VERDI: Rigoletto: Parmi veder le lagrime. La forza del destino: O tu che in seno agl’angeli. Otello: Ora e per sempre addio.  PENNINO: Pecchè? GIORDANO: Andrea Chenier: Un di all’azzuro spazio. Fedora: Amor ti vieta. DONIZETTI: L’Elisir d’amore: Una furtiva lagrima. ROSSINI: Petite Messe Solennelle: Domine deus. HALEVY: La Juive: Rachel, quand du seigneur. MASSENET: Le Cid: O souverain, o juge, o pêre. PUCCINI: Tosca: Recondita armonia. La Bohème: Che gelida manina. HANDEL: Xerxes: Ombra mai fu.+ GOUNOD: La Reine de Saba: Inspirez-moi, race divine.* BIZET: Carmen: Il fior che avevi a me.* GASTALDON: Musica probita / Enrico Caruso, tenor w/Vienna Radio Symphony Orch., cond. Gottfried Rabl except *Victor Orchestra, unknown cond. & +Devon String Orch., cond. Nigel Amherst / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above

The Victor Talking Machine Company, which had served Enrico Caruso so faithfully and well for 17 years (the real color photo of the tenor above was probably a promotional item created by the company for people who bought a lot of his records; I found it on a YouTube video that had no explanation), had the usual luck that record companies have when a major artist dies in their prime. For about a year after the tenor’s death, they sold a large number of his recordings. But by 1923, times and the market had changed. They could no longer rip off consumers with their cute little “one-sided” Red Seal records, which never was due to the fact (wide rumored even into the 1960s) that they couldn’t cut a record on two sides, but solely due to the fact that they sold Red Seal discs for a higher price than their blue or black label discs, and Caruso’s sold for the highest prices of all, so it was a completely legal yet insidious way of ripping consumers off. Yet, as I say, the market had changed by 1923, and no one was willing to pay double the price of a regular record to get but one song or aria performed by Caruso, so they finally broke down and started reissuing his recordings on two-sided discs. (Yet oddly, these two-sided Caruso 78s never seemed to be as common as the original one-sided ones when I started collecting them around 1967 or ’68.)

By 1932, however, their fortunes as well as those of every other record company had dropped like a rock due to the Depression. At the end of 1930, now owned by RCA, Victor cut the bulk of their Red Seal roster, only keeping a few big name singers that had continued sales appeal: Lawrence Tibbett, John McCormack, Lucrezia Bori and Richard Crooks. Not even Beniamino Gigli made the cut, but he was headed back to Italy anyway because he refused to take a pay cut due to the economic situation. Thus, in 1932, someone at RCA came up with the brilliant idea of re-recording Caruso’s voice with a modern, electrically-recorded orchestra. Surely the novelty of hearing the great tenor in more modern sound would pick up sales. And astonishingly, it worked.

Pearl Fishers labelEven more surprising, however, was the fact that two well-known critics who had heard Caruso in the flesh really liked these recordings because they felt that he had so dwarfed the puny, tinny-sounding orchestras of his day that the records gave an incorrect perspective on how he sounded live. Those critics were Hermann Klein, then writing for the Gramophone in England, and Max de Schauensee. I should also add that Dr. Louis A. Leslie, co-founder of the Gregg Shorthand Method and the man who continued editing new editions of the Gregg manual into the late 1970s, also liked those recordings. Interesting, Dr. Leslie lived long enough to also hear the Stockham Soundstream transfers that came out on LP in the mid-to-late ‘70s, and he liked them too because they brought out the warmth of Caruso’s voice, though he, like me, complained that they diminished the ring of his voice in the upper range.

Then, of course, in the late 1990s something new came along, a method of lifting Caruso’s voice off the old records and completely eradicating any traces of the acoustically-recorded orchestras, then superimposing the tenor over a more modern, digitally-recorded orchestra. By this time, RCA Victor as an independent company was no more; it had been sold to the Bettelman Music Group in Germany, a.k.a. BMG, about seven years earlier, so it was actually BMG that came up with the idea, masquerading as RCA. They hired a young conductor named Gottfried Rabl and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and instructed him to listen very carefully to the old records and match Caruso’s tempi and phrasing—which included a great deal of rubato and rallentando effects no longer considered valid in the musical world—so that they would have a perfect match when they were put together.


Gottfried Rabl (from the artist’s website)

Rabl did his job phenomenally well, so much so that the ensuing CD, Caruso 2000, sold beyond BMG’s wildest dreams. Thus two more albums were released by the same forces, one of Italian songs and another of opera arias. In the latter, Rabl and BMG even reached all the way back to some of Caruso’s earliest recordings, using two of his famous 1902 G&T sides and two recordings he made at his first recording date for Victor in February 1904.

It would be easy to end this story right here and say that although this gimmick might have worked for the peripheral opera lover who may have heard of Caruso but didn’t want to suffer through hours of clunky-sounding orchestras, and leave it at that. But the Caruso 2000 project, like the 1932-39 “re-creations,” is much more complex than that.

As an unnamed online critic opined when the first disc was released, “On most of the tracks, and in spite of anything the RCA engineers could do, Caruso’s voice appears to be in an entirely different acoustic space from the orchestra. Nothing can disguise the dead, hollow, megaphone sound of the old recordings. But if one listens with a willing suspension of disbelief, the music comes off much better than one might expect.” He had a point but, in my humble opinion, not a very valid one, and I shall explain why.

To begin with, the original records themselves were made using a wholly artificial process that was already dated by 1912 but, without anything much better-sounding on the horizon until electrical recording came along 14 years later, continued to exist. The “orchestras” used to back classical singers (as opposed to real symphony orchestras that made acoustic recordings for Victor) were stripped-down bands that used tubas instead of string basses and little horrors called “Stroh violins.” The Stroh violin didn’t even have a resonating chamber like a real violin. They were nothing more than sticks of wood with violin strings on them; they had little acoustic metal horns sticking out of them that “projected” the sound in the general direction of the main recording horn. They also played in the background while the singer (or singers if there were more than one) sang into their own separate recording horns, this even from the beginning singers were “in an entirely different acoustic space from the orchestra.” It just wasn’t as noticeable because, though distant, they were both in the same room at least.

And this, in turn, brings us to another major improvement in the re-creations: the conducting. I have an online friend, an old-school opera lover, who firmly believes that conductors don’t matter as much as the singers in an opera performance. I’ve tried, often unsuccessfully, to convince him that both are equal; you can’t have a great opera performance without good singing, but you also can’t have a great performance with stodgy or indifferent conducting, and God knows that the majority of Caruso records, as well as those of other star singers on the Victor roster, have some of the lumpiest, least energetic conducting I’ve ever heard. The only two conductors who produced genuinely musical results were Walter B. Rogers, a former cornet star with Sousa’s Band, and Josef Pasternack, a well-schooled musician who just didn’t have that extra “something” to make him a first-rank conductor. Rogers in particular spent considerable time trying to “balance” the orchestra so that they produced a somewhat more musical sound on the records than the usual dull, lumpy whining in the background, and the difference is clearly audible.

On all of the Gottfried Rabl recordings and even on some of the 1930s Victor Orchestra recordings, the conducting is far superior, and this often makes a considerable difference in how we hear these old Caruso performances. To name just two, Caruso’s original discs of Ora e per sempre addio from Otello and No, Pagliacco non son from Pagliacci always seemed to me somewhat lackluster, but in the new re-creations Rabl’s conducting has so much more energy and forward momentum that they make these performances sound absolutely terrific.

Caruso & Toscanini 2

Toscanini & Caruso

And finally, perhaps most conclusively, there is the quality of Caruso’s voice in the best of these re-creations. I’ve read and heard many a description of Caruso’s singing in live performances, but the most dead-on accurate description came from, of all people, Arturo Toscanini, who adored the tenor when they performed together at La Scala but had complaints about his musical style after he came to America. Toscanini described the sound that Caruso made as being “like cut diamonds,” and you really only get this impression occasionally when listening to the original recordings as transferred to LP or CD…but you DO hear this “cut diamond” effect when listening to the original 78s when played on an original wind-up Victrola. Why is this? Quite simply, because these two technologies were made for each other…literally. The same process used in cutting the recording onto the wax master was very carefully engineered (though you may not believe it) to reproduce the same sound when the finished record was played on Victor’s equipment. I know, because I owned a wind-up Victrola at one point and played some Caruso recordings on it, and they sounded entirely more lifelike than the LP transfers…particularly the 1909 recording of Bianca al par from Gli Ugonotti, a recording which Hermann Klein likened in phrasing and interpretation to none other than Jean de Reszke. Because the isolated voice of Caruso is devoid of the background hiss and the lumpy accompaniment of the original “orchestra,” this “cut diamond” effect is to be heard more clearly. As I said, there were some bad results in the large group of re-creations that Rabl made, but these often had to do with the poor quality of the originals. Very often, atmospheric conditions, the warmth of the room during recording and the malleability of the wax master had a lot to do with whether or not Caruso’s voice (or those of other singers) came out sounding warm and full or hard and shrill, and even making second or third takes didn’t improve matters any.

This brings us to the greatest mystery of all, which is how Caruso developed such a phenomenal instrument in the first place. Although he studied with a well-known voice teach in Naples, Vincenzo Lombardi, other Lombardi pupils sounded absolutely nothing like him. Among those was Caruso’s close friend at the Metropolitan Opera, baritone Antonio Scotti, and Scotti had a dull, grey-sounding voice with little resonance and no great tonal allure—just the opposite of Caruso. Some of the answer to this question, however, was answered in a book published by one of Caruso’s regular accompanists, Salvatore Fucito, the year after Caruso’s death (Caruso and the Art of Singing, Frederick A. Stokes Co., N.Y., 1922). Fucito explained it thus:

Caruso, like every true artist, felt intensely. But it was the consummate art with which he expressed his deep feeling that enabled him to stir his hearers as few singers have ever done. For back of the deep feeling there was deep reflection; his mind was always in full control of his emotions. Even musicians often overlooked the great role Caruso’s mind played in the development and perfecting of his art, although the fact is that his marvelous voice itself was to a great extent the product of ceaseless and untiring observation and analysis, as well as of constant search for means of improving his mastery of the organs with which nature had endowed him…

It cannot be doubted, of course, that Caruso had been provided by nature with a remarkable vocal instrument and with a powerful pair of bellows; nevertheless we know from our long association with the great artist—and Caruso himself often expressed his own conviction of the fact—that it was his genius for work which made the utmost of his endowment both as regards the physical organs and those native emotional and mental resources upon which his final artistry drew so heavily. Work does not mean unguided labor: nothing could be more ruinous to the vocal organism. To the genuine artist work can only mean intelligent direction, painstaking study, and infinite patience. These are the quintessential elements in any enduring success.

From the physiological point of view, the larynx, the pharynx, the mouth chamber, the nasal passages, together with the trachea (windpipe) and lungs, form the organs of respiration, and at the same time are called upon for the production and perfect rendering of tones, thus constituting the vocal organs. This machinery is to be found in every human body, with a conformation more or less favorable to the production of tone; but into Caruso’s body nature had marvelously introduced an amazingly equal perfection of each of the vocal organs, with the result that no human voice has been able to produce tones of greater richness and poignancy. The diameter of Caruso’s larynx as a vocal organ accorded so precisely with the diameter required for its functioning as an organ of respiration that, while its singing function admirably served the upper ranges of his voice, the breathing function bestowed upon him those ample, rich, and powerful tones. The lateral amplitude of his larynx, by permitting a maximum dilation of the glottis, accounted for extraordinary respiratory powers.

On the other hand, had Caruso failed to use these marvelous organs correctly, intelligently, we can say unhesitatingly that he would have gone the way of many another obscure singer of strong physique blessed with a remarkable instrument—after a brief period in the limelight, a sudden banishment to the land of disappointed tenors. A telling point to recall in this connection is that among the students of the Scuola Vergine—where Caruso received his first serious vocal training—he  was known as il tenore vento (the windy tenor), a .name that hardly suggests richness of tone production or grandeur of style. On the contrary it suggests that Caruso’s greatness was due as much to his correct and intelligent use of his vocal organs as to the actual possession of them.

Because Enrico Caruso knew that the breath is the motive power of the voice, for it is the action of the breath upon the vocal organs which brings about the production of tone—and, therefore, pitch and musical phrasing as well as tone production fundamentally depend on the breath—he devoted a great deal of study and thought to this the groundwork of his art. It must not be thought, however, that he speculated about and labored over fantastic theories which promised overnight phenomenal results. Caruso believed in the gospel of work—not mere labor, but intelligent work—the mainspring of enduring achievement; and he severely condemned meretricious nostrums that purport to lead to rapid success. He knew full well what effort and thought it had cost him, what unsparing pains and patience, to master completely the control of his breath, without which all his other great gifts or attainments would have been of no avail.

Caruso, without any stiffness, would place his body in an erect position, with one foot a bit in advance of the other, as if to take a step. (It is important to note here that his entire body was completely relaxed—no portion of it rigid.) Then he would slightly contract (draw in) the muscles of the abdomen and inhale calmly and without haste. As a result of this deep and slow inspiration of air, his diaphragm and ribs would expand and his thorax (chest) rise. At this point of the demonstration Caruso always called the student’s attention especially to the diaphragm, explaining that when it assumed this position it constituted the principal agent for sustaining the column of air which could be held in the lungs under the pressure required for the production of loud or soft tones (ibid, pp. 109-117).

Fucito’s book was discredited by many critics as an over simplification of Caruso’s singing method, but if you are a singer you will completely understand what he is saying. Caruso was smart enough to coordinate what nature had provided him in such a way that he sang with his whole body, from the waist up to the head, as if it were a single machine, the same way an organ uses all of its bellows and pipes in a single coordinated effort to produce sound. This explains the organ-like resonance of his voice, how he was able to maintain it over a 25-year professional career, and also why it eventually cost him his life.

Caruso had but two vices, sex and smoking. The former probably did him little harm, but we don’t know for sure. The latter surely contributed to the deterioration of his health and eventual death. He smoked two packs a day of strong Turkish cigarettes, which he put in a holder; somehow he felt that smoking a cigarette in a holder helped to mitigate the destructive tar and nicotine he was putting into his system. He was also a notorious workaholic, singing at the Met two to three days a week, almost throughout the entire season. All of these things, plus the enormous effort he put into controlling the complex interaction of his singing equipment, led to problems long before his eventual collapse. Toscanini described a 1910 performance of La Gioconda where the tenor was complaining of soreness in his throat before going on. His doctor came to examine him; Toscanini was in the room, and by his description Caruso’s throat looked red and raw, “like chopped liver.” He said to the tenor, “Enrico, you can’t sing like this,” to which Caruso said to his doctor, “Just put some iodine on it and I’ll be all right.” The doctor did so, and a half hour later Caruso made his entrance, singing so magnificently that Toscanini was left speechless. But none of this could have done him any good.

By the late 1910s, the tenor was also suffering from migraine headaches brought on by high blood pressure, but his idiot of a doctor merely recommended that he place an early version of a TENS unit around his head to help the headaches. This was like pouring gasoline onto a fire. He might just as well have placed a pyramid on his head to focus the sun’s energy and bake his brain.

But to return to the main topic of this article, please do check out the recordings I’ve listed in the header. I think they will convince you that the re-creation experiments are not at all as bad as the purists make them out to be.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Silke Eberhard’s Splendid New CD


EBERHARD: U11. Strudel. Von a Nach B. Laika’s Descent. Hymne. Zeitlupenbossa. Damenschrank. Stray Around. Yuki Neko / Silke Eberhard, a-sax; Jan Roder, bsl Kay Lübke, dm / Intakt CD 365

Technically speaking, I can’t “review” this recording for one major reason, and that is that I was asked to write the liner notes for it, which I did. But I still feel compelled to mention it in one way or another on this blog for two reasons: 1) it’s extremely good music (if it weren’t, I would never have consented to write the liner notes, for which I refused to accept money) and 2) most American jazz journals and websites completely snub European jazz musicians, acting as if they didn’t even exist.

This is a far cry from the 1950s and ‘60s, when such major European jazz artists as Johnny Dankworth, Jutta Hipp, the Mangelsdorff brothers, Martial Solal, Tubby Hayes and Rolf Ericson were included with open arms. This CD, Eberhard’s fourth with the trio (the first two on the Jazzwekstatt label, the third on Intakt), was recorded both in the studio as well as at a live concert at the A-Trane in Berlin. This was the result of her winning the prestigious Berlin Jazz Prize, which affords the winner the honor of playing a concert and getting one or two days at the Radio Berlin Brandenburg studio. Thus on this disc you hear a seamless blend of studio and live performances.

Without going into as much detail as I did in the liner notes, I’d like to bring your attention to Eberhard as a trio performer simply because she is one of the very few musicians nowadays who dares to follow in the footsteps of the late Eric Dolphy. The difference between them is that Dolphy indulged in a lot of wide-ranging intervals, often leaping up and down his alto and bass clarinet in such a way that he created dissonances simply by not “filling in” the intervening notes, while Eberhard enjoys exploring the notes in between the wide leaps. Occasionally Eberhard does indulge in some overblown playing, yet manages to rein it in and move on to some surprisingly lyrical figures. On the other hand, Von a Nach B surprised me because it is in fairly regular meter, using  melodic figures and a style closer to Ornette Coleman than to Dolphy. In fact, the whole performance took me back to the days when Coleman played with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell.

But I won’t quote from myself too much. Just do yourself a favor and go out of your way to hear and possibly purchase this album, You won’t be disappointed, I assure you.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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The Mythos Trio Plays 20th-Century Italians

cover BRI96382

MARGOLA: Piano Trio. GHEDINI: 2 Intermezzi. RIETI: Piano Trio / Mythos Trio: Giuliano Cavaliere, vln; Rina You, cel; Marios Panteliadis, pno / Brilliant Classics BRI96382

Another wonderful album right up my alley, three young musicians really enjoying and digging into offbeat 20th-century repertoire by three Italian composers, two of them (Ghedini and Rieti) pretty well known.

The outlier in this set is the piano trio written by Franco Margola (1908-1992), and the only reason he isn’t as well known as the other two is that he went into teaching relatively early in his career and didn’t write as much. Yet Margola began writing his Piano Trio in A shortly after graduating from the conservatory and, on hearing the piece, Alfredo Casella immediately judged it among the best modern trios and included it in the repertoire of his own piano trio, playing it both in Italy and abroad.

This recording features rarely performed musical works by three renowned 20th-century Italian composers: Franco Margola, Giorgio Federico Ghedini and Vittorio Rieti. Margola was profoundly influenced by Alfredo Casella, whom he met while still a student of composition. After graduating, Margola began to compose his Piano Trio in A, and on hearing the piece, Casella immediately rated it among the best modern trios, including it in the repertoire of his own piano trio and performing it in Italy and abroad. The composition, in three movements, is characterized by drama and darkness, with moments of great expression but also fleeting, volatile brilliance. Its concision of articulation and form, its ability to consistently maintain a tight and fully logical discourse and its modern but comprehensible harmonic language all conspired to make this composition one of the most appreciated in Margola’s catalogue. In Due Intermezzi (Two Intermezzos), written by Ghedini at the age of 23, the sublime mastery of counterpoint and use of forms that would become the composer’s signature are already evident and accomplished. Each intermezzo has a distinct character: the first, marked “tranquillo” (calm), pervaded by an intimate atmosphere giving in to momentary expressive outbursts; the second tinged with irony and a buoyant spirit.

The Margola Trio is simply outstanding in every way; even the dramatic but far-from formulaic opening is brilliantly conceived. Margola wrote in a style that was not as far-out harmonically as the music of Stravinsky or the Schoenberg school; he was, however, clearly influenced by Bartók as well as Casella. The first movement is primarily a headlong rush of ideas, all skillfully blended and developed, with occasional respites of slower, quieter music. In essence, the two strings play together much of the time, either in close harmony or with one supporting the other with counter-figures, while the brilliant piano part seems to be working on themes of its own that complement what is going on above.

And interestingly, the opening theme of the second movement is so closely related to the music in the first that it almost sounds like a continuation, as if Margola thought of them as part of a single-movement work. The string players in the Mythos Trio have very lean, bright timbres, which suits the character of this music perfectly. The third movement, however, is entirely different in thematic material; it is also very lively, using what sounds like a 12/8 rhythm, a bit tricky for musicians of that time to negotiate smoothly. At about the 4:14 mark, Margola uses a pentatonic scale to spice things up a bit.

The Ghedini Intermezzi are early works, written when he was just 23 years old. Although the music is charming, it is also full of interesting little quirks and twists of phrase that tells you this is not a “Romantic” piece. The second movement, a particularly imaginative, bouncy piece, is titled “Bizzarro,” and bizarre is certainly is, full of mischievous little ear-catching twists and turns.

We conclude with Rieti’s trio, a more angular, Stravinskian piece than Margola’s, but still a very fine piece of music. It’s really a shame that these pieces are so little known, but no classical musician ever went hungry playing the old-timey stuff that everyone knows. The first movement also sports several split-second key changes, sometimes from note to note within a bar, which adds to the fun. The second movement, however, is entirely different in character, built on a lyrical theme played in the beginning by the solo cello before the violin and piano enter, the latter playing surprisingly simple block chords albeit with shifting harmony. After a pause at the 2:19 mark, the piano suddenly begins playing an almost Bach-like figure using single notes, to which the violin and cello come in to create a canon, which becomes the last movement.

A truly outstanding CD in every way, featuring music that is both thoughtful and surprisingly entertaining.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra Erupts!

cover Resonance 2XHDRE1225

T. JONES: Back Bone (2 tks). All My Yesterdays (2 tks). Big Dipper (2 tks). Mornin’ Reverend (2 tks). The Little Pixie. Low Down. Ah, That’s Freedom. Don’t Ever Leave Me. Mean What You Say. Once Around. DAVID-RAMIREZ-SHERMAN: Lover Man. RONELL: Willow Weep for Me. BURKE-VAN HEUSEN: Polka Dots and Moonbeams / Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra: Thad Jones, fl-hn; Snooky Young, Jimmy Owens, Bill Berry, Jimmy Nottingham, tpt; Bob Brookmeyer, Jack Rains, Garnett Brown, Cliff Heather, tb; Jerome Richardson, a-sax/s-sax/cl/bs-cl/fl; Jerry Dodgion, a-sax; Joe Farrell, t-sax/cl/fl; Eddie Daniels, t-sax/cl;bs-cl; Pepper Adams, bar-sx; Hank Jones, pno; Richard Davis, bs; Sam Herman, gtr; Mel Lewis, dm / Resonance Records 2XHDRE1225, digital only, also available for free streaming on YouTube starting HERE (live: New York, February 7 & March 21, 1966)

I well remember the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in the 1970s and early ‘80s on their commercial recordings. They played well and had some good solos, but the basic sound profile of the band was somewhat soft and mushy, obviously the victim of engineering at the time, so I only ever owned one of their records. They just didn’t seem to be as interesting a band as those of Rod Levitt, Toshiko Akiyoshi, David Murray or even late Stan Kenton. But boy was I wrong!

This red-hot issue of two live sets from the Village Vanguard in New York in February and March 1966, the first of which was the band’s actual debut. was recorded at the time by 19-year-old jazz enthusiast and self-taught engineer George Klabin, later the founder of Resonance Records, and on these recordings the band sounds crisp, bright and full all at the same time. The miking is close, yet you still get the ambience of the Vanguard, where the Jones-Lewis band played on and off in residencies for 12 years.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, Thad Jones was considered to be one of the hottest young trumpet stars in the business. He was widely considered to be the successor to Clifford Brown when that brilliant young trumpeter died in an auto crash, and both he and his brothers—pianist Hank, who plays with him in the band, and drummer Elvin, who was a mainstay in the John Coltrane Quartet for years—were on the cutting edge of the young jazz lions of his time.

The big band was Jones’ idea; he wanted a venue to showcase his writing and arranging skills, and he got it. All but three selections on these two sets were written and arranged by Thad, although at this early stage of the band’s career they didn’t seem to have that wide a repertoire; between the two sets, four tunes are played twice, sometimes on the same date. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying this music; this is highly charged, explosive big-band jazz, a more modern equivalent of the roaring bands of Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Woody Herman and Dizzy Gillespie from the 1930s and ‘40s. In the years leading up to this orchestra, most newer big bands tended towards the cool side (e.g. Marty Paich, the Gerry Mulligan Concert Orchestra and even the Kenton mellophonium band), thus the Jones-Lewis orchestra seemed both retro and contemporary at the same time.

And what a lineup they had! Just take a look at the personnel: Snooky Young and Jimmy Owens on trumpets, Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion on alto saxes, Joe Farrell and Eddie Daniels on tenors, Pepper Adams on baritone sax. These guys could play, and all of them were available because the general trend of the mid-‘60s was away from their more straightahead style of jazz and more into the more progressive and free jazz sounds of Coltrane, Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders and latter-day Miles Davis. By the time this band debuted, they were considered great players but representatives of a somewhat more conservative strain of jazz.

But they were clearly having too much fun to worry about what the critics thought. They thrived and grew at the Vanguard and, as I say, were making records for Concord Jazz and other labels into the 1980s. The opening night concert of February 7, 1966 was originally issued by BMG in 1997, but it wasn’t until 2016 that Resonance put out the complete two dates on this set. the Resonance issue once included a 96-page booklet with extensive essays and liner notes, but I don’t think that’s available any more. Even so, this is a set to treasure simply because the playing is so hot and the sound quality so incredibly clear and bright.

If I refrain from giving much description of the performances herein, it isn’t from lack of interest or enthusiasm but simply because this was a band of jazz peers playing together as a unit and complementing both each other and the complex ensemble writing of Jones with solos that fit into the context of the music. Despite their enormous talent, none of these soloists were spotlight hogs; their goal was to enhance the whole, not to play a dozen choruses to impress their brilliance on you. Thus, if you are the kind of listener who lives for those “blockbuster” sort of solos that splatter all over the place and dominate the soundscape, you’ve come to the wrong party. This is a band that not only prided itself on ensemble playing but also in playing solos that fit the framework—the end. Brother Hank, for instance, was a pianist who could easily have taken over and given the listener flashes of Bud Powell if he so chose, and once in a while here (as in his surprisingly long solo on The Little Pixie) he gives you a few Powell-like moments, but for the most part he stays within himself and just contributes to the whole, as do the others.

And I tell you what…after several years of listening to jazz groups large and small nowadays that play the most complex, convoluted rhythms you’ve ever heard, it’s nice to hear a band that just swings and isn’t ashamed of doing so. Of course, as I alluded to earlier, this is a more progressive kind of swing, occasionally bordering on bop, like the music played in the ‘40s by the bands named above, but compared to the majority of jazz orchestras of their time (except, of course, the Tonight Show Band led by Doc Severinsen), this band is Swing City. The only thing I can’t quite figure out from just listening is whether Richard Davis is playing an early electric upright bass or just an acoustic bass miked so well that it sounds like one, but either way it’s a pleasure to hear him keeping time in a way that recalls the work of Billy Taylor, Chubby Jackson, Oscar Pettiford et al instead of constantly shifting the beat around so much that after one chorus you’re completely lost.

In addition, there’s the X factor. This band had an absolutely ball playing together; they had so much fun that you can hear it and even feel it on the record, and it spilled over to the audience, completely caught up in the spirit of the moment no matter what they were playing. Just listen to the very opening of the first track, Back Bone, or the opening of the alternate take of Big Dipper at the end of the February 7 set for an example of what I mean.

Thad Jones’ compositions aren’t always brilliant, but some of them are, and even in such tunes as All My Yesterdays and Low Down which are simpler fare the enthusiasm of this band carries the day. The last time I heard a big jazz orchestra played with this much gusto was the one time I saw Toshiko Akiyoshi conduct an orchestra, not her own but jazz students at the 1979 Aspen Music Festival (although hubby Lew Tabackin did play tenor sax in that band). Perhaps the single most imaginative arrangement on this album is that of Ann Ronell’s classic Willow Weep for Me; here Thad Jones, both in his writing and his flugelhorn playing, so completely transforms this song that he almost makes it as personal a piece for him as I Can’t Get Started was for Bunny Berigan. It may well be his musical masterpiece—and yet, except for the chart itself, it’s almost a throwaway performance. He probably played it differently every time out, but this one performance was the one that was recorded for posterity. Once Around is a real gem, a fast-paced, explosive piece that reminded me a bit of the Mulligan band’s Blue Port, and Thad dominates the solo space here, too, as well he should, though Pepper Adams also gets to play a wonderful solo.

An exceptional album in every way. If there is some way you can get it from Resonance with the 96-page booklet without having to waste your money on vinyl LPs, do so; otherwise, get it as a download. It’s well worth the effort.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Eric Nathan’s “Missing Words”


NATHAN: Missing Words I / Boston Modern Orch. Project; Gil Rose, cond / Missing Words II / American Brass Quintet / Missing Words III / Percy Karp, cel; Christopher Karp, pno / Missing Words IV / International Contemporary Ens.; Nicholas DeMaison, cond / Missing Words V / Neave Trio / Missing Words VI / Hub New Music / New Focus Recordings FCR314

Eric Nathan (b. 1983) is an American composer who, like most living composers (and artists) nowadays, apparently had no birthplace and no upbringing. He just sprang full-blown on the world of music, according to his “bio” (why don’t they just be honest and call them “puff blurbs”?). writing works that have been nationally and internationally performed, winning awards and medals and loving cups with his name on them, and beginning a four-year stint with the New England Philharmonic in 2019. So I can’t tell you any more about him than what he provides, which is just that he’s wonderful.

Missing Words is a “work-cycle,” each of its six parts being written for different performing forces, of which only the first is a full orchestra. This would, I think, make it very difficult to play in public, thus n a sense it will probably only exist in this recorded form. According to the liner notes, its conception was “a collection of ‘German’ portmanteau words created by Ben Schott to describe otherwise ineffable human experiences.” These texts are given in the booklet for each movement as follows:

Missing Words I:

I: “The false sensation of movement when, looking out from a stationary train, you see another train depart.”

II: “Kicking through piles of autumn leaves.”

III: “Tiny triumphs of nimble-fingered dexterity.”

Missing Words II:

I: “Stepping down heavily on a stair that isn’t there.”

II: “New Car Smell.”

III: “The sudden, innervating clarity afforded by new glasses.”

I won’t go through all of them, because as purely instrumental music one must take it on its own merits aurally, but you get the idea. I suppose they think these are some kind of haikus.

What I liked about Missing Words I was its use of microtonalism. This, of course, is not a new device—Mexican composer Julián Carrillo was using it in the 1920s—but very few composers work in it because 1) it’s difficult to conceive and notate, and 2) it’s hard to play, yet the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (which performed on the CD I just reviewed of David Sanford’s music) plays it as if such music were second nature to it. Like Carrillo’s pieces, Nathan employs a lyrical sense of phrasing despite the edgy difficulties presented, and even introduces steady if uneven-meter rhythms. It’s very intriguing music, even if it would not be accepted by 90% of the classical music public…which is a shame.

As you listen to each movement of each piece, darned if Nathan doesn’t somehow match the verbal images conjured up by each phrase he used as a basis. This, too, adds to the music’s interest. The third movement of Missing Words I, in addition to representing “Tiny triumphs of nimble-fingered dexterity,” also sounds like little atonal elves romping through a forest. (Hey, he can have his mental images and I can have mine!)

The first movement of Missing Words II conjured up, for me, one of M.C. Escher’s drawings of houses with staircases that go every which way at physically impossible angles. Again, Nathan employs microtonalism, this time applied to a brass quintet. “New Car Smell” has a very humorous feel to it despite the harmonic edginess of the piece, and “The sudden, innervating clarity afforded by new glasses” is a sort of modern polytonal fanfare.

Indeed, if you are open to hearing this music as having a certain amount of dry humor in it in addition to some astounding creativity, you’ll enjoy it on those terms, and I see no reason not to. Not every piece of music need to be so serious that it stultifies the listener’s imagination, and as the old song lyrics went, “imagination is funny…it makes a cloudy day sunny.” Not that every piece is really humorous; the “Exhausting trudge up a stationary escalator” that begins Missing Words III is almost deeply tragic-sounding music, a reaction in excess to the situation described, with the focus being on the cello playing in its most cavernous register. This piece, however, only uses microtonalism sparingly, though it does not have a grounded tonality, although towards the end of the first movement the viola does indeed play some microtonal figures.

Microtonality returns full-blown in the movement titled “Feeling that the thermometer is still under your tongue after it’s been removed,” and here again the deadly-serious mein of the music is much too serious for its lighthearted description—again, a bit of tongue-in-cheek if rather dry humor. Nathan’s wit is even more apparent in the first movement of Missing Words IV for flute, clarinet, percussion, and piano trio, describing a stroll taken for the purpose of contemplation, where the instruments play in a highly percussive, busy manner, as if one simply cannot get into a contemplative mood even when completely alone. Although they do eventually settle into a peaceful mood, the movement ends with a loud flurry of notes. In the third movement of No. IV, Nathan surprises the listener by emulating (but not entirely imitating) traditional Japanese music.

The whole suite, which lasts 84 minutes spread over two CDs, is extremely imaginative and, although there are some heavy-handed moments, Nathan has done a splendid job of keeping the music varied and fresh throughout. No two pieces are really alike except in their common use of atonality and often microtonality, and in this way Nathan avoids the trap of so many modern composers by keeping his techniques fluid and different. Yes, there are a few lumbering moments in this music, but just as many if not more that are whimsical and even enjoyable. It really is a pleasure to hear something that doesn’t fit into a formula or a mold pre-created by others in his field. The sound quality of the recording is consistently bright and uses little or no reverb or echo (which I hate anyway), which gives the whole enterprise a brilliant, forward sound profile even in the quietest moments.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring David Sanford’s “Black Noise”

cover 1

SANFORD: Black Noise. Prayer: In Memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.* Scherzo Grosso+ / *Sarah Brady, fl; Eric Berlin, tpt; +Matt Haimovitz, cel; Boston Modern Orch. Project; Gil Rose, cond / BMOP Sound 1063

Having been very impressed by David Sanford’s big band recording, A Prayer for Lester Bowie, I decided to check out this 2019 recording of his classical works since I had never heard it. BMPO Sound is, unfortunately, not a label distributed by Naxos, therefore it escaped my notice.

Sanford apparently conceived Black Noise as symbolic of the loud character of African-American music in general and specifically the drumming and chanting that slaves used to express their frustration in coded sound. Interestingly, in the liner notes Sanford states that the music for this piece was inspired by Pierre Boulez’ Repons and Olivier Messiaen’s St, Francis of Assisi, and it sounds it. Little if any of the actual music of this 12-minute piece derives from black music; it uses atonality and microtonalism to express his angst, although there are moments (you might call them islands) of lyrical music here and there which act as a temporary foil to the essentially microtonal structure of the work.

But leaving personal politics aside, Sanford’s piece must succeed or fail on its own merits, not its political meaning, and this it does brilliantly. Sanford develops his themes, short and atonal though they are, in arresting and original ways. Much of the music is actually played quietly, and when the music does increase in volume it does so gradually, in controlled crescendos which are them followed by dinimuendos. There’s a fascinating passage for pizzicato basses, and it is here that one finally feels a connection to African-American music, in this case jazz, though primarily through the rhythm; the music is through-composed, including several contrapuntal passages played by clarinet, trumpet and alto saxophone, and does not lend itself to improvisation. Even the faster, fluttering passages for flute, which resemble improvisation, are undoubtedly written out.

The bottom line is that Black Noise is an excellent and highly inventive piece. It makes no concessions to popular tastes, but maintains its edgy quality from start to finish without compromise. Although not really jazz, the jazz-inspired rhythms, mixed in as they are with very complex, unusual meters, is extremely challenging for the performers, yet conductor Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project play it with a sure grasp of the entire structure. One can scarcely imagine a more ideal performance than this.

Prayer: In Memoriam Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. is almost as edgy harmonically, its rather atonal, beginning featuring the tympani played beneath a bitonal solo flute before the winds and brass come slipping in behind it, followed by the cellos playing short lyrical phrases and the violins playing high, soft, edgy tremolos. The flute and trumpet, in fact, have quite prominent and sometimes exposed solos here, which makes it a sort of concerto grosso. The trumpet in particular has slow, lyrical music to play, which temporarily gives the piece a calming effect. There’s also a passage here for trumpet and trombone playing together where Sanford slips in a little jazz feeling, following which the flute plays a cappella for an extended period of time, following which the English horn and a trombone engage in an odd dialogue with backbeat cymbals behind them. One of Sanford’s recurring devices is the sudden acceleration of tempo, in which he employs jazz-based techniques without requiring improvisation, a very clever gambit which he pulls off perfectly each time because he does not use exactly the same rhythms or themes to do so.

Scherzo Grosso is the only multi-movement work on this disc, four movements of an edgy cello concerto commissioned by the soloist here, the great (yet vastly underrated) Matt Haimovitz, whose recordings of modern classical music represent an island of adventurous playing in a sea of Romantic cello music. Interestingly, Scherzo Grosso was commissioned as a piece that could be played by either a big band or a concert orchestra; Haimovitz has, in fact, recorded it both ways with Sanford, this version with the classical Boston Modern Orchestra and another version with the Pittsburgh Collective jazz band. I like both, but to be honest I prefer the classical edition simply because it is more revolutionary and demands attention from a classical industry that still revolves around Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and Dvořák. The first movement, as one might expect, is almost consistently edgy, and although this is written for concert musicians, a big band feeling permeates certain passages, such as the one in which the trombones practically explode as a section behind the soloist.

Although the four movements are discrete pieces, as you continue listening you get the impression that they are outgrowths of the movements before them, thus the soft, lyrical second movement, which opens with an extended a cappella cello solo, almost sounds like an island of calm between the more aggressive first and third movements. Here, too, when the inevitable orchestral crescendo erupts, it is only the addition of strings that keeps it from sounding like a big band piece, although the second explosion is full of crushed chords which take it out of the territory of most jazz bands. The third movement is, predictably, jazz-influenced, but here it is a fast 4 generated by pizzicato bass in true jazz style, over which Haimovitz plays a lyrical, bitonal melodic line.

The fourth movement is the longest and edgiest, opening with smeared trombones playing beneath strings and winds playing an atonal theme, followed by a clarinet in its low register against percussion playing syncopated figures in 4, then the cello re-enters. Suddenly, the musical fracas stops completely to allow the cello to play a moody a cappella solo, followed by the cello playing pizzicato beneath a strange flute solo. Again, jazz is suggested without really breaking out into improvisation. This is then developed in Sanford’s own idiosyncratic style, with different sections of the orchestra coming in and eventually playing overlays. Then, the piece just stops.

This is truly interesting and exceptional music, which I highly recommend to you!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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George Perle’s Chamber Music


PERLE: Violin Sonata No. 1 / Alexi Kenney, vln / 3 Solos for Clarinet. Sonata quasi una fantasia# / Charles Neidich, cl; #Michael Brown, pno / Cello Sonata.* Hebrew Melodies. Solo Cello Sonata. Lyric Piece for Cello & Piano+ / Jay Campbell, cel; *Conor Hanick, +Shirley Perle, pno / Monody II / Edwin Barker, bs / Bassoon Music. 3 Inventions for Solo Bassoon / Steven Dibner, bsn / 9 Bagatelles / Horacio Gutierrez, pno / Musical Offerings / Leon Fleisher, pno / Sarabande from Solo Partita / Curtis Macomber, vln / Ballade / Richard Goode, pno / Bridge 9546 A/B

This excellent two-disc compilation of the music of George Perle (1915-2009) is a reissue of several earlier Bridge recordings, though 73 minutes’ worth (a little over half) are 2017 recordings released here for the first time. The one outlier is the Ballade, played by Richard Goode, which was recorded for Nonesuch in 1984 and was licensed by Bridge for this release.

Although he made it into his 94th year, dying a few months before his birthday, Perle was never very high on most classical listeners’ radar. His music was too thorny harmonically and too edgy melodically, and for whatever reason he never achieved the fame (or notoriety, take your pick) that Elliott Carter did. He was an admirer of the 12-tone school but, like his model Alban Berg, never fully adopted dodecaphonic writing. Rather, according to his pupil Paul Lansky, he believed in “a hierarchy among the notes of the chromatic scale so that they are all referentially related to one or two pitches which then function as a tonic note or chord in tonality. The system similarly creates a hierarchy among intervals and finally, among larger collections of notes, ‘chords.’ The main debt of this system to the 12-tone system lies in its use of an ordered linear succession in the same way that a 12-tone set does (ref: Wikipedia).”

Perle was basically an educator who worked at Queens College, thus his music grew its roots in the world of academia, which is probably another reason why it wasn’t too well known, but in recent years, according to Wikipedia, “A growing number of younger artists have come to express their appreciation for Perle. In the run-up to his 100th birthday celebrations the composer-pianist Michael Brown released a well received CD of a sampling of Perle’s work for piano.”

Basically, Perle’s music was intellectually fascinating but, although there were clearly some lyrical moments in it (e.g., the 3 Solos for Clarinet, the Cello Sonata and, of course, the Hebrew Melodies), it remains somewhat thorny for the average listener; yet some of it sounds pretty “nice” to modern ears used to being assaulted with the edgy-shock style so much in vogue today. Thus this collection is especially welcome, giving the listener a cross-section of some of his finest work. Rare moments of lightness in his music come in the 9 Bagatelles for solo piano.

Each and every performer in this set comes to the music with a feeling of total commitment, both musically and emotionally, trying their best to make it sound as attractive as they possibly can. Even so, prolonged listening to Perle’s music can wear on one since it demands so much in the way of concentration on how each piece is constructed. I would recommend listening to a few pieces at a time, then taking a break before resuming.

An interesting collection, then, and although not all of these pieces are appealing, none of them are bad or poorly written. A fine collection, then, of Perle’s work in the chamber field.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Vol. 3 of Medtner’s Songs Released


WAP 2022MEDTNER: The Angel, Op. 1. Suite – Vocalise. 7 Songs After Pushkin, Op. 41 No. 2. Sonata – Idyll, Op. 56 (pno solo). 3 Unpublished Songs / Ekaterina Levental, sop; Frank Peters, pno / Brilliant Classics 96062

This is the third volume of Nikolai Medtner’s complete songs for Brilliant Classics by soprano Ekaterina Levental and pianist Frank Peters. It includes his Op. 1, The Angel, as well as a Sonata-Idyll for solo piano, ending with three unpublished songs. This might signal to the uninitiated that this may be the last volume in this series, but we still have more songs to cover, so keep your eyes open for at least one more volume to come. But at least we’re getting closer to having the bulk of Medtner’s songs available.

The unusual thing about Ekaterina Levental is that, although she studied both harp and voice at the Royal Conservatory at The Hague, she was a professional harpist for several years before switching over to singing in mid-career, yet except for a few edgy high notes she has an excellent voice and excellent control of it. She also has crystal-clear diction and is, as I’ve mentioned in my earlier reviews, an outstanding interpreter. In The Angel, however, she hits an exceptionally beautiful pianissimo high C in the middle of the song, which shows that she is gaining better control of that part of her range.

The Angel, like most of Medtner’s music, is Romantic in structure and harmonic language but extremely interesting in structure. This is, however, what baffled audiences, particularly in the West after he fled the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and held him back from public acceptance on a scale matching that of his friend, Rachmaninov, whose music was much more conventionally melodic. The more I hear his music, in fact, the more I feel that he combined the harmonic language of mid-period Scriabin with a melodic line closer to Mussorgsky. Listen, for instance, to his Vocalise suite; it is utterly fascinating, musically quite complex for late Romantic music, but not in the same category as Rachmaninov’s much more memorable Vocalise which became an instant “hit” in the classical world. The piano part, as usual for Medtner, is very complex, here including some rising chromatic passages in the middle that would never have occurred to Rachmaninov…and once again here, Levental’s soft singing is absolutely exquisite, flawlessly controlled from start to finish.

None of this is to say that Medtner’s music was as modern as that of Stravinsky or Prokofiev, and it wasn’t, but that was a problem, too. Audiences and critics of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s kept waiting for Medtner to develop a more modern style in order to be in step with those composers, but he never did. He always stayed within himself, thus his music wasn’t conventionally melodic enough to be popular or modern enough to be accepted as “contemporary,” yet his music was truly great, musically inventive and emotionally affecting. It was just out of step with his times, thus he died a pauper.

One is continually astonished by how much originality and invention there is in his scores; just listen to the fairly simple piano introduction to the last of the Vocalise songs, with its subtle use of modes and chromatic harmony, and you’ll understand what I mean. In “The Window,” the first of the 7 Songs After Pushkin, Levental sings a perfectly-controlled crescendo, and in “Spanish Romance” she attacks one held note with no vibrato, slowly adding vibrato to it as she reaches the end of it, which again shows further gains in controlling her voice.

Credit must, of course, go to pianist Peters who, as in the previous volumes of this set, does an excellent job with Medtner’s difficult piano writing, perfectly balancing the virtuosity and energy of his part with the fact that he is also accompanying a singer. The few songs that Medtner himself recorded in the late 1940s (mostly with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) show a similar approach to the music. Interestingly, although the Sonata – Ballade was one of the works that Medtner himself recorded in the 1940s, the Sonata –Idyll was not, thus this is a valuable recording even if the music is, by Medtner’s high standards, surprisingly light in mood and feeling.

This release is yet another feather in Levental’s cap as an artist; for Medtner fans, an indispensable release.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Lovano & Douglas Explore Other Worlds


WAP 2022LOVANO: Space Exploration. Shooting Stars. The Flight. Sky Miles. Midnight March. DOUGLAS: Life on Earth. Manitou. Antiquity to Outer Space. The Transcendentalists. Pythagoras / Joe Lovano, t-sax; Dave Douglas, tpt; Lawrence Fields, pno; Linda May Han Oh, bs; Joey Baron, dm / Greenleaf Records (no number)

Prior to hearing this recording, I was pretty familiar with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who has been on the scene for decades and plays in a multitude of styles, both traditional and modern, but trumpeter Dave Douglas was a new name to me. Eleven years younger than Lovano, Douglas is a jazz composer with more than 500 published titles to his name and a jazz educator in addition to being a performer.

On this recent release, they team up with pianist Lawrence Fields, Linda May Han Oh and drummer Joey Baron to play a program of music that is “spacey” both in concept and construction. Younger listeners will undoubtedly think that this approach is a novel one, but those who know jazz history will hear it as a successor to those space-age pieces written and recorded in the 1950s by the likes of Shorty Rogers and his Giants (Martians Go Home, Martians Come Back and Martians Stay Home), Larry Elgart (Impressions of Outer Space), George Russell (Jazz in the Space Age) and even the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra with their weird ambient-sounding orchestrations.

Nonetheless, this is a splendid disc, the centerpiece of which is Lovano’s “Other Worlds Suite.” Although Sky Miles was the first piece he wrote which set this “space” theme in motion, it is not part of the suite, but Space Exploration, Shooting Stars and The Flight are. Another interesting aspect of this music is that, if you simply don’t think of it or approach it as music with a “space” theme, it sounds like some of the tempo-shifting, harmonically advanced experiments that Charles Mingus pursued in the early 1960s with his small groups and, a bit later, with larger bands. Either way, there’s a lot of jazz music history blended into these original compositions.

Drummer Joey Baron is a key player in all of this music. His constantly mobile, shape-shifting figures and cymbal washes create what rhythmic movement there is in there pieces, and it is to his credit that he never overplays on any of the tracks. Bassist Han Oh is not a powerful presence, but her keen ear for both harmony and rhythm make her often subtle lines fit in perfectly. Pianist Fields keeps to sparse playing as well. In fact, the entire rhythm section, though vitally important to the success of these performances, respects and understands their role as key contributors who are also supposed to be “subtle supporters” of the two horns, and they thus bring more to the table than they would if they were banging and twanging away in a more ostentatious fashion.

Douglas has a fat, rich trumpet tone and, although he shows great chops at times, he too plays in a somewhat minimal style. Only Lovano really takes advantage of all this subtlety to push himself into outside realms at times.

Despite their “spaciness” and lack of melodies that stick to the mind, each of the compositions on this set is an interesting one because they don’t follow any standard patterns. Although Douglas’ pieces have a most regular rhythmic pattern in this set, these too are varied, Life on Earth being in a straight 4 while Manitou is in 3/4 though you really can’t call it a jazz waltz because it alternates with bars in 4/4 and 5/4. According to Lovano and Douglas, nearly every track on this album was made in a single take, largely due to the bandstand chemistry this quintet achieved while playing at the Village Vanguard in New York. Douglas explains it this way: “We played a different set list every night, every set, because the order you play things in has a big influence on how they develop. So each night, different tunes would bump up against different tunes. We really figured out the dynamics of the whole thing, and by the time we got to the studio, we knew.”

Even at the most excitable moments in these performances, the music on Other Worlds has a curiously calming effect, as if one were floating through space but listening to jazz instead of rock or classical. If you can find a video online that has a long, continuous shot of Earth from outer space and watch that as you listen, you’ll get some idea of what I mean. Antiquity to Outer Space is a Douglas composition that opens in a slow mood, with amorphous figures played out of tempo, but once the main part of the piece begins, we get a stronger rhythm, although here Douglas varies not only the tempo but the pace considerably. Fields gets a long, single-note solo that reminded me a bit of early Paul Bley. Han Oh isn’t heard on this track until about the 3:30 mark, when she enters playing bowed counter-figures to Douglas’ beautifully etched trumpet solo.  Then a pause, and it’s Lovano’s turn, accompanied only by Baron playing tom-toms and cymbals. Once again, the intuition that these musicians bred between each other paid off brilliantly on this recording. Is this composed music that sounds improvised, or improvised music that sounds composed? You be the judge. Near the very end, the tempo picks up as the quintet concludes the piece.

On the Flight, the two horns play what sounds like a four-ish tempo while Fields is playing in 3 behind them, then we get some nice polyphonic interplay for a few bars before the solos begin. This one almost has a kind of Thelonious Monk vibe to it. Eventually, both Douglas and Lovano explode in a way that they’ve managed to rein in during the previous tracks, and it makes a very effective contrast. The Transcendentalists slows things down again, to a ballad-like 4, and concentrates on the two horn players while Fields strokes some well-placed chords in the background before taking his own solo and Han Oh walks gingerly through the space debris.

Sky Miles wakes things up again with a fanfare-like opening and a fast-paced melodic line built over descending chromatics from the bass. Then the tempo deconstructs as Douglas plays a free-form solo over roiling piano, meticulously-placed bass notes and cymbal washes. The tempo again moves into slow, amorphous territory for Fields’ solo.

I’ve seldom heard a recent jazz album that has pleased and intrigued me as much from start to finish as Other Worlds. This is truly creative, open-ended jazz at its very best, defying easy categorization despite the occasional reminders of some of their predecessors. This is timeless music that will continue to reach out to people for years to come.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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