Melia Watras’ Far-Out Music

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WATRAS: Kreutzer for String Trio. Black Wing, Brown Wing for Viola. Vetur Öngum Lánar Lið for Voice. Vetur for Solo Cello / Michael Jinsoo Lim, vln; Melia Watras, vla; Sæunn Thorsteindóttir, cel/voc / String Masks for Voices, Viola, Violin, Harmonic Canon, Cloud-Chamber Bowls & Bass Marimba / Sheila Daniels, actor/dir; Jose Gonzales, Rhonda J. Soikowski, actors; Lim, Watras, Thorsteindóttir. string trio; Charles Cory, Harmonic Canon/bs-mar; Bonnie Whiting, Cloud Chamber Bowls / Planet M Records PMR-003

Once again we take a left turn from normality into the world of offbeat music. Melia Watras, born in 1969, is an American violist and composer who works primarily on the fringes of the classical world. Although she has played and recorded the music of J.S. Bach, Zoltán Kodály, Georges Enescu, Rebecca Clarke and Robert Schumann, her main field of performance is in the more modern scores of Atar Arad, Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, Shulamit Ran, Diane Thome, Juan Pampin and her own works, some of which are the feature of this new recording. She is a member of the string trio Frequency, in which she plays with violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and cellist Sæunn Thorsteindóttir, and a Professor of Viola at the University of Washington.

The highlight and climax of this particular CD is her theater piece String Masks, in which actors pretend to be famous violinists (and one violist) from the past—Josef Gingold, Eugène Ysaÿe, Ginette Neveu, Arcangelo Corelli, William Primrose, Niccolò Paganini and Giuseppe Tartini—and in this work she uses three instruments designed by Harry Partch, the bass marimba, cloud chamber bowls and the Harmonic Canon. The latter is probably the strangest, two resonating boxes with 44 strings across the top which are set in a redwood tray. Bridges are placed under the strings so that they can be re-tuned for each composition; Partch also referred to this instrument as “Castor and Pollux.”

Her string trio, Kreutzer, is an homage to Beethoven’s ninth violin sonata, though it uses none of the themes from that work. On the contrary, it’s a very modern piece albeit one in which lyricism is mixed with bitonal harmonies. This is played by Watras and her own string trio, which goes under the name of “Frequency,” and they give it a very impassioned reading. In the first, slow movement, the development is also rather slow-paced yet highly inventive and never mindless or Romantic in style. On the contrary, Frequency’s use of a thin, shallow tone (I believe they’re also using straight tone) keeps the music sounding a bit edgy at all times, and this edginess comes to the fore in the second movement, “Danza,” the asymmetric rhythm of which never really settles into a dance. In the third movement, another slow one (“Lento”), she extends the harmony from bitonality to atonality and uses many strange rhythmic figures which, though played softly, continue the feeling of edginess, while the fourth and last movement, “Allegro agitato,” uses a great deal of polyphony as the three strings all play counter-figures against one another. A fascinating piece!

Black Wing, Brown Wing, a solo viola piece played by Watras, is a rather moody piece in line with the opening movement of Kreutzer, although the composer states that she based it on her cycle Firefly Song. It is a musical tribute to those who have lost loved ones and suffer from the pain of their loss.

The solo vocal piece Vetur öngum lánar lið, based on a poem by the singer’s great-grandfather, Bjarni Jónsson. Although a very short piece, it is entirely lyrical and has great feeling. This is followed up by Vetur for solo cello which is based on this song. The amazing thing is that the same person, Sæunn Thorsteindóttir, performs both pieces. How rare is it to find a cellist who can also sing? Whereas the song was simple, the cello piece is complex, with some very virtuosic passages in it. At nine minutes, it is certainly much longer than the two-minute song it is based on.

In conclusion, we get a major work by Watras, her three-movement theater piece String Masks for voices, violin, and three Harry Partch instruments: his Cloud Chamber Bowls (large Pyrex glasses turned upside-down), bass marimba (which looks like 10 or 12 slabs of wood picked up from Channel Lumber, strung together in a marimba shape, an apparently played by croquet mallets) and the Harmonic Canon, two resonating boxes with 44 strings across the top which rest in a redwood tray. Bridges are placed beneath the strings specifically for the tuning of each composition. In addition to these, Watras uses string instruments (violin and viola) playing atonally.

Harmonic Canon, photo by Steven Severinghaus

The interesting thing about String Masks is that appears to be partly humorous, a “loving tribute” to these string players but not meant to be taken entirely seriously, and Watras’ group has fun with it, though I did find the male actor’s lines somewhat pretentious. They put me in mind of the late Ernie Kovacs’ spoof of modern poetry, a string of pretentious and inane non-sequiturs titled Dearth (“the title alone took me three years!”), but perhaps this in itself was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. The music certainly has a Harry Partch-like feel to it, more a collection of ambient sounds through which one gleans the slow-moving and complex structure. Perhaps the bass marimba and viola duet that opens the second movement is the most consistently musical section of the work, and here Watras maintains a surprisingly tonal and lyrical melody for her instrument. In this movement, too, the male voice (Jose Gonzales) sings instead of speaking, and he has a pleasant voice if not a trained one.

With music this far-out, it made sense that it was released by a label called Planet M Records. Beam me up, Scotty!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Saori Haji’s Neglected Recital Disc

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RAVEL: Jeau d’eau. Le tombeau de Couperin. DEBUSSY: Images Book I (excerpts): Reflets dans l’eau; Hommage à Rameau; Mouvement. CHOPIN: Ballade No. 1 in g min. / Saori Haji, pno / Koberacs KRS462

Saori Haji is a young pianist who has not merely flown under the radar of most classical lovers; except in her native Japan, she is scarcely known at all, yet she is an outstanding interpreter, particularly of French music, and this includes the more demanding scores of Henri Dutilleux in addition to the standard Ravel and Debussy fare represented on this CD.

Although it was released in 2015, this CD is so rare that the only way I learned about it was from the artist herself, who contacted me on Facebook and sent me sound files to listen to. The only place you can find it online is on the HMV.CO website, where it is selling for ¥2,934, which converts to $25.69 in U.S. currency, but the artistic quality of this disc is so high that I felt compelled to review it here.

There are two features to Haji’s playing that immediately grabbed my attention: 1) her varied keyboard touch, which alternates between a gentle caress and powerful delineation of the music, and 2) her wonderful sense of musical structure. Nothing she plays is either routinely batted out in an insensitive reading or turned into merely “pretty” music, although of course the scores of the French impressionists lend themselves to such a reading. Haji not only loves the music she plays but also thinks her interpretations through. Indeed, in the French impressionist music on this CD I find her playing to be much closer to that of the brilliant Michael Korstick than to the often mannered playing of Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

The pearl-like quality of Haji’s touch, tempered by moments of powerful playing when the music calls for it. is utterly fascinating, even hypnotic. There is nothing precious or self-conscious about her approach; all of the music flows like a stream, taking in the smooth and the craggy moments with equality. It is almost as if the music is creating itself from the keyboard without intervention. Listen, for instance, to how well she captures the loping syncopations in “Forlane” from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin; I’ve never heard it played this well in my life.

Her keyboard touch may indeed be quite delicate at times, but it is never soft, mushy or boring, as is so often the case with too many modern pianists. Every phrase is bound, and leads from one to the next like a string of pearls. If I had to compare her to one great pianist from the past, it would be Clara Haskil. At times, Haji uses a subtle rubato to give the music a slightly looser rhythmic feel, and this, too plays to the music’s strengths. Listen, for instance, to how well she plays the “Rigaudon” from this same Ravel suite, and the concluding “Toccata” really sparkles. And in her performance of “Reflets dans l’eau” from Debussy’s Images, you can almost see the water sparkling in the sunlight before your very eyes.

Because Haji’s skilled hands delineate the music in this arresting manner, one must assume that her mind also absorbs it like a sponge, picking up every large or small detail in the scores she plays and mentally fitting them together like a master weaver creating a piece of fabric. What she does is both deeply felt and musically exacting at the same time, and it’s a shame that she is not better known.

Even more surprising to me, she can even make the generally sappy, over-sentimental music of Chopin sound interesting. Her performance here of the Ballade No. 1 is played at the proper pace, yet there is no sentimentality, no pathos or bathos in her playing. It thus communicates with the listener as pure music, not as some overly-Romantic piece of mush. Oh, how I wish that most pianists who play Chopin nowadays would take her lead!

If you like the pieces on this CD as much as I do, you absolutely must hear her play them, but although she does have videos up on YouTube they are primarily of the music of Schumann and Dutilleux, thus you’ll need to bite the bullet and buy her CD, at least as a download, online.

Trust me, it’s worth it.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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David Sanford Prays for Lester Bowie

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SANFORD: Full Immersion. Subtraf. Woman in Shadows.+ # popit.# Soldier and the CEO. V-Reel.* RAGIN: A Prayer for Lester Bowie.+ # GILLESPIE-PAPARELLI: Dizzy Atmosphere# / David Sanford Big Band: Brad Goode or *Tony Kadleck, Tim Leopold, Wayne J. du Maine, Thomas Bergeron, Hugh Ragin, tpt; Mike Christianson, Jim Messbauer, Ben Herrington or +Mike Seltzer, t-tb; Steven Gehring, bs-tb; Raymond Stewart, tuba; Ted Levine, Kelley Hart-Jenkins, a-sax; Anna Webber or #Marc Phaneuf, Geoff Vidal, t-sax; Brad Hubbard, bar-sax; Dave Fabris, el-gtr; Geoff Burleson, pno; Dave Phillips, bs/el-bs; Mark Raynes, dm; Theo Moore, perc; Hugh Ragin, David Sanford, cond / Greenleaf Records, no number

David Sanford leads a 20-piece orchestra, but as you can see from the header above he has at least three subs who fill in for regular players when the latter can’t show up for a recording session. Formed in 2003, they have made several albums, although in toto he has recorded 24 albums (among them Pittsburgh Collective Live and Black Noise), won six Grammy awards and has one platinum and eight gold albums. Yet this is the first time I can recall hearing of him. One online source has suggested that he often “flies under the radar,” in part because he also writes classical and classical-jazz fusion works. My sincere apologies to Mr. Sanford for my not having heard of him before, because this album is a gem all around and apparently typical of the high quality of his output.

Of course, of the various influences in his music the only one I resent is that of rock music, which has about as much place in jazz or classical music as a football game, but I know this stuff is popular nowadays so I can’t blame him for going where the money is.

On this CD, however, he sticks pretty much to jazz, and particularly big-band jazz which is one of my favorite forms of it. Sanford’s use of harmony is sophisticated but rhythm is clearly the main focus in his music, and in the opener, Full Immersion, one hears the range of his aesthetic; the music has strong jazz and funk rhythms, mixed with some trumpet section overlays in a between-the-beats tempo. When the saxes come in, they are mixed with some brass to give them an unusual timbre. In the liner notes, Sanford made it clear that his goal was to capture a “raw”-sounding big band, a band with an edge to it. His own comparison was to some film scores of the 1970s, but it’s also clearly based somewhat on the edgier-sounding big bands of the past including the original Benny Goodman band, Dizzy Gillespie, and a bit of Stan Kenton.

As Full Immersion progresses, you can clearly hear that Sanford has a well-stocked musical mind: note, for instance, the very complex writing for the four trombones (three tenor trombones and bass trombone). Solos lean in the direction of contemporary jazz but, for the most part, do not go “outside” very often; this, too, is the selectivity of the leader, whose focus is on an integrated piece of music and not just a scream-fest. Echoes of modern classical music abound in this and other scores on the album, among them Stravinsky, Ligeti, even a touch of Penderecki. Full Immersion is clearly the appropriate title for this piece!

Fortunately, Sanford provides a bit of an emotional respite with the quiet opening of Subtraf, in which the bass trombone holds a pedal point while a muted trombone (sounds like a derby to me and not a cup mute, à la some of Duke Ellington’s trombonists) plays out-of-tempo extempore figures and members of the rhythm section (electric guitar and drums) fill in softly behind him. Eventually, other horns enter the picture, only to create ever more complex harmonies. Eventually, the electric guitar takes over, but although his solo is edgy it has more of a jazz-blues-funk quality to it than rock (thank God). Eventually, blues-funk guitar and plunger-muted trombone play opposite one another, and eventually you get that Ligeti-sounding orchestra come in behind them, slowly but surely creeping up in volume. Sort of a blues that becomes Nightmare on Elm Street, musical division (it sounds quite a bit like Charles Mingus’ Children’s Hour of Dream, another nightmare-like orchestral piece). Eventually, things quiet down as the solo plunger trombone rides things out.

Woman in Shadows folds a really attractive theme into Sanford’s unusual sound world. This one is reminiscent of some of the great “cool jazz” orchestras of the late 1940s or ‘50s, echoes of Claude Thornhill or Sauter-Finegan imbuing its structure and outer garb; even the alto saxophone solo by Marc Phaneuf has echoes of Charlie Mariano or Sonny Stitt. In many ways, this is a real old-school big band ballad, and here Sanford appropriately keeps his penchant for harmonic audacity under wraps. He does, however, suddenly let the trumpet section explode in one passage before bringing the volume back down.

With popit (all lower case) we return to an explosive big band sound; although the piece is clearly based on hip-hop, Sanford so changes the rhythm around that you’d probably twist your ankle trying to dance to it. Here, the trumpet solo is so much “outside” that it almost sounds as if the player was having a brain aneurism while performing, and the electric guitar does indeed lean towards rock, but near the end the tempo freezes and all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Sanford understands that you shouldn’t keep this kind of intensity going for too long, and it ends before it becomes repetitive or too annoying.

Except for Dizzy Gillespie’s Dizzy Atmosphere, Hugh Ragin’s A Prayer for Lester Bowie is the only piece on the album not written by Sanford. After a lovely, lyrical a cappella opening trumpet statement, in come the Ligeti-sounding chords in a wonderful, original mixture of brass and reeds; then, the tempo quadruples as several musicians start improvising all at once in the spirit of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which Bowie was a founding member of. (I actually saw them perform in person once, oddly enough at the Chicago Art Museum in 1981, but at the time didn’t know who they were, but you certainly couldn’t forget a band that dressed in African garb and had white paint on their faces…except, of course, for Bowie, who generally wore a bloody lab coat.) Since I don’t have a booklet for this CD, I don’t know if Ragin or Sanford orchestrated this piece, but my money’s on the former. It just sounds too much like his work. This is also a multi-section piece where the tempo, themes and mood keep changing and shifting, a mini-suite if you will. I was much surprised to hear a frantic passage that sounded like a modern-jazz version of the old New Orleans polyphonic style, albeit with every musician improvising on his own wavelength rather than trying to keep the melody going. Then the tempo slows down, and once again we hear a plunger-muted trombone solo, this time with Ellington-sounding reeds behind him and, eventually, another plunger-muted trombone playing lower in its range as the first trombonist plays more softly in the background. A wild and creative piece!

Even though Sanford’s arrangement of Dizzy Atmosphere opens with some space-age harmonies, it stays relatively true to the original and again acts as a return to more conventional big-band jazz—except that the bass doesn’t swing, but rather maintains a very stiff, fast march-like beat. The trumpet solos (two of them, at least)) are virtuosic and recapture some of the excitement that Gillespie generated but do not match his genius as an improviser. Interestingly, however, we get a bowed bass solo towards the end that sounds for all the world like Slam Stewart.

Soldier and the CEO opens with an alto sax solo played so high in its range that at times it sounds like a clarinet. The late jazz clarinetist Frank Powers once explained to me that this is made possible by using an exceptionally hard reed, which gives the player greater control of the high range. At the 1:40 mark the guitar enters, very, very softly, eventually taking over from the alto as the band slowly but surely falls into place playing in hocket style. Two trumpets play atonal figures opposite one another, then two trombones do likewise as the tom-tom and bass drum is heard behind them, then the full band playing those wonderfully complex figures that Sanford knows how to create and make work. I could have lived without the crappy rock guitar solo, however.

V-Reel is a piece that Sanford recorded on one of his previous albums; it’s an interesting piece, built around bitonal and atonal harmonies with a complex and ever-shifting beat. It’s not the most original or complex piece on the album, but it ‘s dramatic and makes an effective closer.

Except for the disgusting guitar solo on Soldier and the CEO, then, this is a wonderful, interesting album of complex modern jazz with more than a little modern classical influence. Highly recommended.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Amir ElSaffar on the Other Shore

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EL SAFFAR: Dhuha. Transformation. Reaching Upward. Ashaa. Concentric. Lightning Flash. March. Medmi / Rivers of Sound: Amir ElSaffar, tpt/santur/voc; Fabrizio Cassol, a-sax; Ole Mathisen, t-sax/s-sax; JD Parran, bs-sax/cl; Mohamed Saleh, ob/E-hn; Dena El Saffar, vln/joza; Naseem Alatrash, cel; Tareq Abboushi, buzuq; George Ziadeh, oud; Zafer Tawil, oud/nay; Jason Adasiewicz, vib; Miles Okazaki, gtr; John Escreet, pno; Carlo De Rosa, bs; Tim Moore, dumbek/naqqarat/frame dm; Rajna Swaminathan, mridangam; Nasheet Waits, dm / Outnote Records OTN640 (a division of Outhere), also available for free streaming on Bandcamp

Starting in the late 1980s and into the ‘90s, Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil turned out a number of albums in which he fused traditional Lebanese music with American jazz, but although some of the recordings had some very well-known American jazzers on them, they received scant notice in the U.S. jazz press. Today, only his Arabian Waltz is well known, and that only because Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project played it frequently.

But this album, written and produced by Iranian expatriate trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, has gotten a lot of press even though most of the musicians here are not well known. Why? Because ElSaffar moved to New York, and what is done in this country always takes precedence over anything done in Europe or the Middle East.

Nonetheless, ElSaffar’s accomplishments are very real and extremely fascinating. One thing I found interesting was that he was working from the opposite idea of Abou-Khalil, who simply wanted to create a fusion of Middle Eastern harmonies and rhythms with jazz. In the liner notes, ElSaffar said that he simply wanted to hear what it would sound like to combine traditional Eastern instruments with traditional Western ones like the trumpet, various saxophones, violin, cello, oboe and English horn as well as vibes, guitar and piano. He certainly found out. The miracle is not that you sometimes hear slight harmonic clashes, since Eastern instruments use a completely different tuning, but how often they fit together.

Also, whereas Abou-Khalil used some American jazz tunes like the Juan Tizol-Duke Ellington Caravan, all of ElSaffar’s pieces are originals based on Eastern modes. Several pieces stay in one chord for long stretches of time, sometimes throughout the entire piece, and this can sound challenging to our Western ears, but he was also able to create that hypnotic sound that is a hallmark of Middle Eastern music.

ElSaffar

Amir ElSaffar

With that being said, the opening of Transformations has a funky sort of beat and uses a repeated lick which you think is going to be the melody line but turns out to be the accompaniment to a simpler, repeated lick played by the brass. ElSaffar does a great deal of chanting on these pieces, too, which recalls the sound of a Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Another interesting facet is that, when the Western instruments do solo, they tend to make their instruments sound more Eastern than they normally would. Although the improvised solos are effective, none of the soloists are really standouts as jazz improvisers; the focus here is on the ensemble, with the solo lines emerging from the whole and falling back again. At just about the midpoint, 5:20, the music and rhythm suddenly shift a bit more in the direction of jazz, and one hears a clarinet solo that is remarkably related to klezmer.

Reaching Upward opens with one of the loveliest and most memorable melodies I’ve heard on a jazz recording in ages, a waltz melody that, although based in E-flat, moves through several keys in its middle section. This part of the piece is played primarily by the Western instruments; although a kalimba isn’t listed as an instrument in this orchestra, one that sounds very much like it introduces the Eastern portion of the tune which eventually becomes the dominant theme used. ElSaffar also introduces some interesting counterpoint which also dominates in the development section. So much of this music is through-composed that, at times, its relationship to jazz is tenuous, yet the music remains quite fascinating. At the 11:44 mark, the tempo increases as the rhythm changes once again, and now we are using only one chord beneath ElSaffar’s trumpet solo. Eventually, the rhythm falls apart as we hear a slow one-to-the beat behind a floating sea of instruments.

Ashaa has a somewhat dramatic opening in which one of the stringed instruments plays a vibrating undercurrent on one chord while the various instruments come in; the key then changes as the brass-sax lick is repeated after transposition; then we finally get a very Western-sounding beat as various instruments quietly improvise around it. Here, however, we shift from a strictly Eastern sound to a Western one at the halfway mark.

Indeed, the entire album is a continual collection of surprises, perhaps none quite so surprising as the energetic, bitonal opening motif of Lightning Flash, although it is here that the slight clash of pitch between the Eastern and Western instruments is most clearly heard. After a break, however, we move into one of the most Western jazz portions of the CD, a vibes solo underscored by brushes on the drums and a bass playing what almost sounds like a continuous, open-ended rhythm as an oud is heard soloing above all this. Later on in this track, the bass instruments play a repeated, tonal lick while the brass plays a bitonal, developing figure over it.

One can hear this recording as a sort of multi-cultural musical caravan, working its way across a burning desert playing laid-back but “hot” music over the burning sands. (How’s that for a cool poetic metaphor, hey?) But any way you hear it, this is superbly one of the most interesting, challenging yet enjoyable jazz fusion records ever made. A good time was had by all.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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James Lewis’ “Jesup Wagon”

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LEWIS: Jesup Wagon. Lowlands of Sorrow. Arachis. Fallen Flowers. Experiment Station. Seer.* Chemurgy / Red Lily Quintet: Kirk Knuffke, cnt; James Brandon Lewis, t-sax; Chris Hoffman, cel; William Parker, bs; Chad Taylor, dm/*mbira / Tao Forms TAO 05

This CD featuring rising star saxist James Brandon Lewis was one of Jazz Times’ top 40 jazz albums of 2021, so I thought I’d check it out. Lewis, who is 38, has been playing in New York for several years and has been compared to Albert Ayler; on this recording, his band also includes famed bassist William Parker, who played with Cecil Taylor for 11 years.

Although there are some similarities between Ayler and Lewis, I’m happy to say that I find the younger saxist’s playing more musically coherent. He has, to my ears, a better sense of musical structure and line, and although he does play “outside” quite a bit, it makes more sense. the other musicians in his quintet are also exceptional musicians, particularly cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and his is one of the very few jazz groups to include a cello since the days of Arthur Blythe (whose playing I also liked very much). If anything, the Red Lily Quintet’s music sounds more influenced by Ornette Coleman’s small groups than by Ayler’s, and that’s fine by me.

What puzzled me, however, was the album’s title and the fact that it seemed to reference George Washington Carver. Of course I learned about Carver in school: he was one of the most brilliant botanists of all time, the man who found something like 50 different uses for the peanut, but what was a Jesup Wagon? I had to go online to find out. This info comes from “Extension,” the website of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities:

The Jesup Agricultural Wagon was first used by noted Tuskegee Institute scientist and teacher George Washington Carver in 1906. It was a mobile classroom that allowed Carver to teach farmers and sharecroppers how to grow crops, such as sweet potatoes, peanuts, soybeans and pecans.

The wagon’s name originates from Morris Jesup, a New York banker, who financed the project. However, it was Carver himself who designed the wagon, selected the equipment and developed the lessons for farmers. The earlier model was a horse drawn carriage that was later replaced by a mobile truck. Regardless of how it ran, this successful outreach model was widely adopted by the United States Department of Agriculture. Mobile vehicles continue to be modeled today by organizations like the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Carver’s Jesup Wagon

So now I know, and I’m glad that Lewis’ recording title brought it to my attention. As for the music, it is suitably hectic and excitable, particularly the opening title track, but if you think this is hectic, there’s a live performance of it (and several other numbers from this album) on a YouTube video that makes the recorded version sound tame.

It’s interesting to hear both a cello and bass in the same group, and often playing together at that. I don’t recall having heard this before. When Oscar Pettiford played cello in a recording band in the late 1950s which had Charles Mingus on bass, Pettiford would solo like a jazz horn while Mingus played standard rhythmic bass, but here we encounter Hoffman and Parker actually playing together in what amounts to duo-bass passages.

One reason why I single out Knuffke for praise is that he seems to “ground” the quintet tonally, particularly when Lewis goes out on a limb. Yes, you can play too radically at times, but having someone to pull you back from the ledge is exceedingly helpful. The rhythm section creates a nice, loping rhythm in the second half of this piece, ostensibly suggesting the lope of the Jesup Wagon as it rolled through rural Southern neighborhoods.

Lowlands of Sorrow is set to a 6/8 rhythm, opening with Parker’s bass playing a repeated four-bar lick in D-flat minor before the horns and drums enter. Although Lewis has a rich tenor tone, it is a vibratoless, tubular sound, much like those of Rollins or Coltrane, except that at times his sound has more of an “edge” to it, a bit of a rasp which he adds or removes as the spirit moves him. On this track, after his solo, he repeats a brief motif underneath Knuffke’s solo, then indulges in some honking which, to be honest, didn’t interest me much, but overall his playing and that of the group as a whole is splendid. Arachis begins as a ballad, and a very doleful-sounding one at that, the opening theme stated by Lewis and Kunffke over Parker’s bowed bass, and surprisingly Hoffman’s cello comes in as a third voice to create a sort of canon, but then all hell breaks loose as the piece suddenly increases in tempo, volume and tension and Lewis’ tenor goes haywire in a series of blistering atonal figures. layering one on top of the other. And this time, when Knuffke re-enters, he is not a calming influence but rather joins the fray with excitable atonal figures of his own. Ditto Parker when he enters on bass, redoubled by Hoffman’s cello, as drummer Chad Taylor creates an environment of cymbal washes, followed by a solo using his full drum kit, including playing the rims of his shares with his sticks.

Indeed, this pattern of starting a tune “normally” and then rending it asunder seems to be the modus operandi of the Red Lily Quintet as Fallen Flowers also contrasts a nice melodic line with a jittery motif in what appears to be a 9/8 rhythm, and in fact as the piece develops it is the latter that dominates the musical landscape. Interestingly, this piece’s repeated motif seems to have a somewhat American Indian feel to it. As the album goes on, one begins to feel that this is a sort of a suite, the most structured and interesting piece in it being titled, ironically, Experimental Station, though even here the opening melodic line is blown up by Lewis’ frantic playing.

To be honest, although I liked much of what I heard on Jesup Wagon, I had some reservations. Lewis simply had a few too many moments where it just seemed that he was splattering notes up against the wall to see which ones would stick, and although I like some of that once in a while, I don’t fell you can make it a basis of a jazz style. It doesn’t so much show me your knowledge of musical structure as your disregard for it. But who knows? Lewis may yet mature into a more coherent player in the years ahead. Nonetheless, Jesup Wagon is an interesting experiment, and one certainly has to credit him with being an exciting artist with integrity.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Zuill Bailey’s Prokofiev

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PROKOFIEV: Sinfonia Concertante in E min.* Cello Sonata in C+ / Zuill Bailey, cel; *North Carolina Symphony Orch.; Grant Llewellyn, cond; +Natasha Paremski, pno / Steinway & Sons 30057

This CD came out in 2016, the very first year of my blog, but since I wasn’t yet established enough to receive downloads or physical copies for review I missed it, thus I’m reviewing it now.

Zuill Bailey has been one of my favorite cellists since I first heard him on the old St. Paul Sunday radio program about 15 years or so ago, and he has remained a favorite ever since. His lean, burnished tone and elegant style reminds me a great deal of Emanuel Feuermann, who is one of my all-time favorite cellists (see, in The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music, Collections – F), thus I am generally open to reviewing most of what he records. His Telarc recordings of the Bach Cello Suites and Beethoven Cello Sonatas (plus extras) are my recommended recordings of those works, or at least the Telarc Bach was until I heard his new recording for Octave which I just reviewed.

Like most established classical musicians, however, Bailey is circumspect in the amount of modern music he will play, and this is a shame because his style is perfect for the great modern works out there. Prokofiev was clearly a modern in his day, thus I was glad to have a chance to hear this disc, but I’d love to hear him do more.

The Sinfonia Concertante is a late work, composed in 1950-52 for Prokofiev’s new friend, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered the work. The second movement in particular is very technically challenging for the performer, but Bailey rises to the occasion to produce a performance not only of technical mastery but of emotional power, which I rather expected he would. The sonics are crystal-clear and do not overdo the reverb that seems to be so much in fashion nowadays, and this helps us hear every detail in this splendid performance although in some places the sound is a bit clinical. The highest accolade I can pay Bailey is that, from both a technical and emotional standpoint, he comes very close to Rostropovich though the Russian cellist had a rounder, less pointed tone. This contrast between their personal styles can be best appreciated in the middle section of the second movement, where Bailey plays with just enough vibrato to give the music color whereas Rostropovich flooded the listener’s ear with his deeper sound. Both are valid and effective, thus this recording makes a fine counterpart to the creator’s performance.

I must also praise the work of conductor Grant Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony. Gone are the days when you had to use a “big name” orchestra to play a work like this with a great orchestral sound; the level of playing of orchestras worldwide has risen to such a high level nowadays that you normally don’t even blink an eye when you see a less-well-known orchestra on a record sleeve. The orchestra matches Bailey in both technique and intensity point for point and section for section. Nothing escapes the array or AEA, Senken and Sennheiser microphones used to capture this performance, thus the exceptional orchestral detail that Llewellyn draws from his orchestra is faithfully and clearly etched on the listener’s ear and mind.

In addition to all this, Bailey and Llewellyn bring out the structure of the music in a way that is dazzling; one hears not only all the notes but the way the phrases in each movement complement each other, presenting a unified whole. This is particularly important in this work, where each movement includes different sections in contrasting tempi and moods.

The Cello Sonata dates from a little earlier, in 1948, and was one of the works that brought the serious charge of “formalism” down on the composer’s head. At the opening of the first movement, Bailey does his very best Rostropovich imitation, producing a rich, luscious low sonority that infuses the opening with its quite serious mien. This performance is just as good and just as intense as the one on YouTube by Sol Gabetta, but the Gabetta is a live concert and this is a studio recording. That Bailey was able to maintain such a high level of intensity in the studio says a great deal for him, and he was fortunate to have the equally intense Natasha Paremski as his pianist. She gives her part of the music a tremendous amount of passion and forward momentum, thus providing an ideal accompaniment to Bailey’s almost Russian-sounding interpretation. Oddly, the second movement  sports a theme for the piano that sounds for all the world like a variation on the American song, Dixie (certainly in terms of the rhythm of the notes). Here, then, and also in the last movement, Prokofiev displays a sort of late-period playfulness in his music which we now appreciate much more than audiences did in his time.

This is a splendid CD and will surely be my reference recording of these works.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Bailey’s Bach, Take 2

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J.S. BACH: Cello Suites Nos. 1-6, BWV 1007-1012 / Zuill Bailey, cel / Octave Records OCT-0008 (album contains 2 conventional CDs & 2 DVD audio discs)

Several years ago, I gave a rave review to Zuill Bailey’s Telarc recording of the Bach Cello Suites, thus I was grateful for a chance to review this new recording of them.

These new recordings are even better.

In his earlier recording, Bailey played with a beautiful but even tone; as he told me in an interview I conducted with him at the time, he was trying to “hypnotize the listener” by means of his light but shimmering vibrato. In these new performances, the “shimmering vibrato” is much more sparingly used, but in its place is a far more interesting, even occasionally dramatic interpretation of this oft-played music. Here, Bailey digs in deeper, uses more changes in dynamics (something not indicated one way or the other in Bach’s scores) and, most interesting of all, uses expertly-applied rubato effects.

To explain what I mean to those readers who don’t fully understand rubato: most people recognize it when the performer (or conductor) slows down the music slightly to elongate a note, but true rubato means that the performer should also make certain notes in the same phrase a little SHORTER in order to compensate for the notes that were elongated. After all, loosely translated, “rubato” means to “steal” part of the beat, and if one is going to add a little bit here one must also take away a little bit elsewhere.

In this respect, Bailey’s new recording of these cello pieces resembles Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti’s classic 1955-56 recordings of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, a performance which I have since discovered and placed on my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music as a highly recommended performance. No one today, unfortunately, plays the Bach violin pieces the way Szigeti did, and in my experience no cellist played, or plays, the Bach cello suites the way Bailey does here.

Ironically, according to a review by Larry Lapidus for the Spokesman-Review, these new interpretations came about due to a bout of depression that Bailey was feeling in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. At first, he withdrew from the world, “stopped listening to or studying or making music” and did not touch his cello, but when he did return it was to the Bach Suites. According to Lapidus:

When he returned to it, he turned first to the suites for solo cello by Bach, which he had studied and performed for decades. What poured out of him, however, was something radically new. He describes the experience as one more of “channeling” than performing. Bailey’s identity as a performer was formed within a society that was starkly different from that in which J.S. Bach produced his magnificent corpus of work.

All of these modifications that Bailey made to the music results in a more fluid and less rigid rhythmic feel. The music has a more legato flow in addition to being a far more dramatic and much more sensitive presentation of the scores. In short, his first recording was very good, but this new version is clearly a masterpiece, a benchmark against which all other performers of these suites, even the superb “shoulder cello” recording by Sergey Malov on Solo Musica, which I also dearly love, need to be judged.

The only other recording of these suites that comes close to this, but in a different manner, is the little-known version on Town Hall Records by Yehuda Hanani from the late 20th century, but in an A-B comparison I found Bailey to be even more sensitive and more dramatic than Hanani.

And there is something else that puts these recordings over the top: the sound. Using an array of super-sensitive microphones, Octave Records has captured the full range of Bailey’s sound, so perfectly, in fact, that it sounds as if he is in your living room playing for you. For you techies out there who will understand this better than I, they used the Merging Technologies Pyramix digital audio workstation and Hapi A/D and D/A converters. The mics used were an AEA R88, Royer SF-24 and Sennheiser MKH 800. The microphones were fed to Integer Audio RMP-1 and Forssell Technologies SMP-2b mic preamps. The feeds from the mics were mixed through a custom, modified Studer 962 analog console. ATC SCM50 and SCM 25 loudspeakers were employed for monitoring. (I gleaned this info from the PS Audio website.)

The end result is that you hear everything, including the slight rasp of the bow on the strings, the “zing” of the strings themselves. There were moments in these performances when I swear I could almost see Bailey sitting in front of me, playing (I did see him in person once at a CCM concert with pianist Awadagin Pratt, a frequent accompanist). Thanks to this almost 3D effect of the recording, even the smallest gesture, change of dynamics or phrasing makes listening to these suites a very powerful and emotional experience. You can even heard him breathing; it’s as if Bailey has gone beyond playing music and reached inside his soul, pulling out every feeling, good and bad, that he had within him and putting them into these performances.

Sadly, according to a poster’s comment on the Stereophile website, “The producer of this set, Thomas Moore, died recently of a brain tumor after being ill for a week. He, Friedrich, and Michael Bishop were the principals of Five/Four Productions. Bishop died a few months ago from an unspecified accident at home.”

The price for this set is quite steep, $58, because it also includes two DVD-Audio discs in addition to the two conventional CDs (I checked them on my computer, and the sound is identical in both formats). My regular readers know that I am generally a penny-pincher (you have to be when your only source of income is Social Security), but in this case I recommend that you bite the bullet and buy it. I absolutely guarantee you that, from both a performance and sound perspective, you will NOT be disappointed, but if you’d like to sample them first you can do so HERE on a YouTube video. I think you’ll agree with me. Perhaps, some day, they will be available as just the two conventional CDs at a lower price, but in the meantime, if you are someone who wants the best performances of the Bach Suites, this is it. Forget about the Telarc set; this is Zuill Bailey’s masterpiece as an artist.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Brian Lynch’s “Bus Stop Serenade”

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LYNCH: 24/7. Afinque. On the Dot. Bus Stop Serenade. Clairevoyance. Woody Shaw. Before the First Cup. Charles Tolliver. Keep Your Circle Small / Brian Lynch, tpt/fl-hn; Jim Snidero, a-sax; Orrin Evans, pno; Boris Kozlov, bs; Donald Edwards, dm / Hollistic Music Works HMW19

Since this album was rated one of the best of the year 2021 by Jazz Times, I thought I’d check it out. Trumpeter and tune writer Brian Lynch recorded this as Vol. 1 of his “Songbook” series meant to display his talents in that direction; there’s also a Vol. 2 which contains alternate takes of eight of the nine pieces on this CD.

But Lynch’s compositions, though very complex, are not really original in any way except for his audacious use of underlying moving harmonies. What makes this album a standout are the arrangements, in which Lynch makes his quintet sound almost like a full band, and particularly the solos. This is truly a quintet of jazz virtuosi, all of whom play at an extremely high level, though the only names that were familiar to me were those of alto saxist Jim Snidero and bassist Boris Kozlov, who played for several years in the Mingus Big Band. He won a Grammy for one of the Mingus Band albums, but also for a previous recording he did with Lynch. The honors, in this case, were extremely well-deserved; like Mingus, Kozlov has a huge sound yet handles his instrument with the dexterity of an Eddie Gomez.

This is a band that not only plays in a tight fashion, but also consists of musicians who listen to each other and follow up on each others’ solos in a way that creates an almost continuous narrative of improvisation. What I mean by this is that no one in the quintet goes out of his way to “show off” his chops to the detriment of the music, and that is so rare in today’s jazz environment that just listening to how they complement each other is a special pleasure all by itself. The late jazz educator David Baker was always trying to impress on his students the importance of the jazz solo, not just as a means of personal expression but of something that enhances the composition, and I think he would really have appreciated this album in this respect.

For the most part, Lynch’s music is bop-oriented. If these recordings had appeared in the late 1940s instead of 2021, they would surely be considered jazz classics ahead of their time, but in our modern era of far more advanced and often free jazz, they are reminders of a time when this kind of jazz ruled the roost, which was into the early 1960s but not much further than that. Nonetheless, taken on its own merits, it’s rather astounding that such synergy could still be created in the cold, clinical environment of a modern recording studio, where everyone wears headphones to hear one another, has their separate microphone, and socially distance, Coronavirus or not.

As the drummer in the band, Donald Edwards has the least solo space. Normally, he’s just heard playing breaks, but in a track like On the Dot he clearly shows how much his contribution matters to the whole. Within the context of this collection, the more relaxed, medium-tempo Bus Stop Serenade is a standout because of the more attractive lead melody written by Lynch, but the extraordinarily high level of the solo work and the players’ affinity with each others’ style is evident in every track. Here, it almost seems as if Lynch and pianist Orrin Evans purposely kept some of their virtuosity in check in order to preserve the integrity of the whole piece.

On Woody Shaw, the whole band cooks like bacon on high heat; everything and everyone sizzles from start to finish, and again they way the soloists feed one another is almost beyond description. By way of contrast the next track, Before the First Cup, is extremely laid-back although Edwards’ press rolls and cymbal accents keep things a bit lively.

If I seem to be slighting leader Lynch, this is not really so. Although he has a good technique, his is not a blistering style of bop trumpet. but rather a measured, sensible approach, sort of a Chet Baker style, and each and every solo he plays is cut like a fine jewel. This is particularly true in Charles Tolliver, and here, after his solo, there’s an ensemble break before Snidero enters; and in this one instance, it sounded to me as if the altoist was purposely trying to contrast his playing with that of the leader, for he emerges on a very complex, double-time solo with some outside playing. When Evens later comes in with his piano solo, he takes the opposite route, playing rather minimally as Edwards suddenly shifts the tempo from a straight 4 to 3 for a few bars, and later “nudging” Evans with some deftly-placed drum accents under the beat.

As I said earlier, this is an outstanding album of straightahead jazz, creatively arranged and played to the Nth degree by outstanding soloists. Well worth investigating!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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More “Lost” Jazz Recovered: Art Blakey in Japan

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PARKER: Now’s the Time (2 tks). TIMMONS: Moanin’. Dat Dere. GOLSON: Blues March. ANON.: The Theme (2 tks). MONK: Round About Midnight.  GILLESPIE-PAPARELLI: A Night in Tunisia / Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: Lee Morgan, tpt; Wayne Shorter, t-sax; Bobby Timmons, pno; Jynie Merritt, bs; Art Blakey, dm / Blue Note B003372801 (Vinyl only, but also available for free streaming on YouTube by starting HERE) (live: Hibiya Public Hall, Tokyo, January 14, 1961)

With all of the lost jazz concerts and recordings from the 1950s and ‘60s suddenly being released in recent years—Monk’s soundtrack for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Tubby Hayes’ Grits, Beans & Greens, the Bill Evans Trio with Jack DeJohnette, alternate takes by Eric Dolphy, the Miles Davis Quintet’s final European tour with Coltrane—the discovery of this lost tape of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in Japan during January 1961 may seem a little tame, since this particular group made commercial recordings as well, but it’s certainly a lively pair of concerts and the late Lee Morgan is in absolutely transcendent form here.

This is also part of my favorite period for Wayne Shorter, the early 1960s through the early ‘70s. In time, his very complex style, which leaned even more heavily on extended chords than Charlie Parker did, would become so moored in that terrain that he sometimes left further explorations of the basic tonality out of the picture, but in those days he moved back and forth between these two harmonic worlds with virtuosity and great imagination.

As for Morgan, I always felt that he played with far more originality in his earlier years, from the time Dizzy Gillespie showcased him in his late 1950s big band until he struck out on his own with The Sidewinder. Even so, his loss to jazz was a sad case and something he could have prevented himself. Bobby Timmons was a good mainstream jazz pianist of the time if not on the high level of a Horace Silver or a Bud Powell, who even in 1961 was still capable of playing at his best on occasion, but his solo here on Blues March is really excellent.

One thing you notice about Blakey’s drumming, if you haven’t listened to it in a long time, is that he was very flashy and powerful—musicians used to say that he kept his “boot up your ass” when he played—but by and large he was not a virtuoso drummer in the way that Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Buddy Rich, Joe Morello or Elvin Jones were. Yet he had such a wonderful grasp of both swing and bop beats that he was always in demand even before he formed the Jazz Messengers in the early 1950s, although I’m still not sure that his style really complemented the complex pieces that Herbie Nichols recorded for Blue Note in the late 1950s (but then again, no one in the late ‘50s really “got” Herbie Nichols anyway).

I’m assuming, since both sets bear the same date and both contain performances of Now’s the Time, that the pieces played after the first version of The Theme came from an evening concert at the same venue. Not too surprisingly, the group as a whole sounds looser and more relaxed than in the first set, as does Blakey on drums. The shift is fairly subtle, not as obvious as you might expect, but if you’re as sensitive to these things as I am you’ll pick up on it. Both Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt play looser and more relaxed here but, surprisingly, both Morgan and Shorter play just as well in both sets, as if the slightly stiffer sound of the first set had no negative effect on their own solos. Morgan’s muted solo on ‘Round Midnight (presented here under its alternate title, ‘Round About Midnight) is a good one, channeling his inner Dizzy Gillespie. Shorter also plays on this one, producing one of the most lyrical solos of his entire career.

As good as Blakey’s solo on the opening version of Now’s the Time was, the one he played in the evening set was better; not only did he catch fire, but so did the band as a whole, playing at a slightly quicker tempo and certainly with more energy although, as already noted, both Morgan and Shorter were excellent in both sets. Here, in fact, Shorter’s playing is more in line with the way he sounded about five years later with Miles Davis. Even Timmons sounds better on this version of the Parker tune. The band’s performance of A Night in Tunisia is a really hot one from start to finish, ending with an out-of-tempo extended cadenza by Morgan on trumpet that is simply sensational. Not to be outdone, Shorter has his turn next; he plays a very flashy cadenza of his own, but sorry, folks, it’s not on the level of Morgan’s.

When Art Blakey died in 1990, the world lost an outstanding drummer but also one of the nicest, kindest and most gregarious personalities in the jazz world. He was an indefatigable champion of small group jazz, despite his early affiliations with the big bands of Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine, and would often tell people who attended his concerts, “Go out and buy a jazz record. No, it doesn’t have to be a Jazz Messengers record, just a real jazz record. You need to support all the artists out there and let people know that you know the difference.”

The fly in the ointment here is that if you want a physical copy of this excellent concert to play on your system, you’d better own a turntable and an analog amplifier because it’s only available on LPs. I’ve railed against this nonsensical practice in the past, but from what I understand, there are now basically two kinds of jazz and classical music collectors: those who just download FLAC or MP3 files and play them on their smartphones or computers, and those that have dumb-ass turntables. Those who, like me, still collect CDs and plenty of them are often out of luck. In this particular case, the problem is that the full concert runs about 100 minutes, 20 minutes more than the acknowledged load of a physical CD, but if you can live without the first take of Now’s The Time, excellent as it is, you can fit it onto one CD and not have to waste a second disc for the last 20 or so minutes of the concert.

As a final note, let me inform all of you “vinyl” lovers about a few things. Firstly, “Vinyl” does not produce a warmer musical sound. The “warmth” you hear is just the ambient hum of the vinyl under your needle. Many a sound engineer has proven that, to the human ear, there is absolutely no difference between CDs and LPs of the same record. And secondly, “vinyl” acquires problems that CDs do not have, such as ticks and pops which detract from the cleanness of the sound and, if you happen to be a bit careless with your discs, scratches that cannot be repaired. At least if there’s a scratch on a CD, you can generally retrieve the music by copying the disc and re-burning it. No big deal. But once you’ve committed to buying LPs, your only option is to buy another copy, and modern-day LPs do NOT sell for $5.98 at Sam Goody’s or E.J. Korvette’s like they did in the old days.

Still, a wonderful concert, particularly for Lee Morgan fans.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Turkey: Kober’s Krappy “Götterdämmerung”

Gotterdammerung

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Turkey of the Month: January

WAGNER: Götterdämmerung / Renée Morloc, mezzo (1st Norn); Annika Schlicht, mezzo (2nd Norn); Barno Ismatullaeva, sop (3nd Norn); Linda Watson, sop (Brünnhilde); Corby Welch, ten (Siegfried); Richard Šveda, bar (Gunther); Sami Luttinen, bass (Hagen); Anke Krabbe, sop (Gutrune); Sarah Ferede, mezzo (Waltraute); Jochen Schmeckenbecher, bar (Alberich); Heidi Elisabeth Meier, sop (Woglinde); Annelle Sophie Muller (Wellgunde); Ramona Zaharia, sop (Flosshilde); Duisburg Philharmonic Chorus & Orch.; Axel Kober, cond / Avi Music Cavi8553507D

Although this recording was officially released in July 2020, Naxos didn’t distribute it to reviewers until this month, so I’m claiming dibs on it as my very first Turkey of the Month.

Staunch Wagner collectors will surely agree with me that most of the recordings of his operas in the past decade, maybe decade and a half, have featured incredibly defective and/or underpowered voices for the principal roles, but this one really takes the cake (two-week-old angel food, I’d say). I mean, seriously, how can you even listen to a complete Götterdämmerung in which the only firm and attractive voices are the Rhinemaidens? Yes, folks, if you want a complete Götterdämmerung solely for the Rhinemaidens, you’re in luck ‘cause this is IT.

Of the other singers in both large and small roles, the only ones who kind of pass muster because their voices are at least attractive in timbre and sound like they’re the right size for their roles are Annika Schlicht as the Second Norn, Sami Luttinen as Hagen and Sarah Ferede as Waltraute. Although both Luttinen and Waltraute have some fluttering/wobble problems, they sound like Hans Hotter and Leonie Rysanek on a bad night, so at least they pass muster.

But everyone else ranges from “Are you kidding me?” to “God, I can’t believe these people are on a record!” Our intrepid Brünnhilde, one Linda Watson, not only has a slow vibrato (read: uneven flutter bordering on wobble) and strain, but she is not secure in either her high range or her low range. (By the way, I also found her on an earlier recording of this opera and she sucked then, too…but she’s a voice teacher!!!!) Way back in the 1960s, Westminster Gold issued a budget Ring cycle that featured one Nadéžda Kniplová as Brünnhilde, and critics far and wide dumped on her as if she was a third-rate comprimario soprano trying to sing the role, but by comparison with Watson, Kniplová was Astrid Varnay. Her flutter gets a little better by the time she reaches the Immolation Scene, but not much. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. And then there’s our Siegfried, Corby Welch. He’s so bad that he makes the dry, somewhat strained tones of Stuart “Red” Skelton sound like Wolfgang Windgassen in his prime. He sounds like a third-rate Cavaradossi. Heck, for all I know, he may very well be a third-rate Cavaradossi—and yet, this guy is singing Wagner operas all over the place this year: Heidenheim, Dusseldorf, and last year at Budapest…wherever there’s a third-rate Wagner production, good ol’ third-rate Corby is there to make you figure out a way to get up, out of your seating aisle, and out of the auditorium. But you’re stuck there ‘til the end of the act, absorbing all the wonderfulness that Corby has to offer. Give me a break.

But hey, if you think they’re bad, wait until you hear the Gunther, Richard Šveda, who has a wobble you can drive a truck through; Jochen Schmeckenbecher (this poor guy really needs to change his name) as the wobbliest, least impressive-sounding Alberich you’ve ever suffered through in your life; and, worst of the worst, Anke Krabbe (another name that needs to be changed) as Gutrune. Words cannot adequately describe Krabbe’s voice; I don’t even think that Krabbe can describe her own voice. Imagine a small, thin, shrill voice produced through her nose, with strain galore and not a whit of acting ability to compensate for it, and you’ll have at least a little idea of how bad she is. Way back in the 1930s, the Met used a house soprano named Doris Doe as Gutrune, but although Doe was clearly not a first-rank singer, she could at least produce a pleasant, firm tone, decent projection, and convey at least a smidgen of the character.

Those of you who have bought, or at least listened to, other Wagner CDs or DVDs with similarly rotten casts must surely be thinking, “Well, so what makes this a Turkey of the Month?” Well, I’ll tell you. In addition to all this painful noise that passes for singing, we get stuck with an absolute dead-head conductor, one Axel Kober.

Although Kober has a website devoted to himself and claims to be “worldwide renowned” and has apparently conducted at Bayreuth frequently since his debut in 2013, I don’t hear a single thing in his performance to recommend him. His tempi are as slow as those of Knappertsbusch or late Furtwängler, but unlike those conductors he has absolutely no forward momentum in his conducting. The orchestra sounds as if it was playing the music as a run-through, with no life or energy whatsoever. Not even the “Dawn Music” or “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” comes to life. It doesn’t just sound dead, it sounds embalmed.

But apparently someone at Avi Music thought that this turkey of a recording was worth issuing on CD, so there you are. The listener who can, or would, willingly sit through the entire five hours of his bomb either has little else to do with his or her life, or has no knowledge of what a great performance of Götterdämmerung sounds like. Flip a coin, take your pick. There’s no other answer.

And get this, folks: for a recording that supposedly came out in July of 2020, you can’t find a review anywhere online, not even at Amazon where buyers review complete garbage CDs. Well, I hope Kober and Avi are proud of their non-achievement. I predict that they won’t even be able to sell enough copies to recoup the costs of recording this thing.

Gobble, gobble, gobble! My first Turkey of the Month!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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