Jim McNeely’s “Rituals”

Rituals cover

McNEELY: Rituals: Adoration I; Adoration II; Adoration III; Sacrifice I; Sacrifice II; Rebirth. POTTER: Dawn. The Wheel. Wine Dark Sea. Okinawa / Chris Potter, t-sax w/the Frankfurt Big Band: Frank Wellert, Thomas Vogel, Martin Auer, Axel Schlosser, tpt/fl-hn; Günter Bollmann, Peter Feil, Christian Jaksjö, tb; Manfred Honetschläger, bs-tb; Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn, Oliver Leicht, a-sax/s-sax/t-sax/fl/pic; Toony Lakatos, t-sax/fl; Steffen Weber, t-sax/s-sax/bar-sax/fl/cl; Rainer Heute, bar-sax/bs-cl; Martin Scales, gtr; Peter Reiter, pno; Thomas Heidepriem, bs; Jean Paul Höchstädter, dm / Double Moon Records DMCHR 71404

This is exactly the kind of jazz album I live for: innovative, challenging music that gets into your psyche as much as it gets into your appetite for improvisation. Jim McNeely’s suite Rituals, which takes up the bulk of this disc, is based on Stravinsky’s Le sacre du Printemps. It is not the first jazz version of this complex modern ballet, but it is the latest.

Unlike the first of these I heard years ago, Darryl Brenzel’s The (Re)Write of Spring, McNeely’s suite is based on it but wholly original music, as if the Frankfurt Big Band had been asked to come up with their own “take” on every part of Stravinsky’s masterpiece. As a result, if one did not know in advance that Stravinsky was the model, one would not automatically make mental references to his ballet, although there are clearly several “Stravinsky-isms” in the music to act as slight references, not obvious guideposts.

To a certain extent, Rituals swings more than Brenzel’s (Re)Write of Spring, in part because the music is more of a contrafact on Stravinsky. I was also very impressed by the band’s enthusiastic approach to this music; they are “all in” on the concept, completely unafraid to let loose and dig in.

McNeely is no tyro at writing and arranging for big jazz bands, having worked between 1978 and 1984 with the famed Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, then in the mid-1990s with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. He was also chief conductor of the Danish Radio Big Band for several years, and has worked with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.

One of the more interesting aspects of Rituals is that it doesn’t follow the tempo pattern of Stravinsky’s ballet. The music really doesn’t become fast-paced until some ways into the second section, “Adoration II,” and even then an element of jazz swing is retained, forsaking the stiff ostinato rhythm of the original composer. American tenor saxist Chris Potter, who contributed the remaining pieces on this album, is the sole featured soloist throughout Rituals, thus one can almost call this suite an extended jazz concerto influenced by Stravinsky but filtered through the dual minds of McNeely and Potter.

In the fourth track (“Sacrifice I”), for instance, we encounter a modern jazz ballad, the rhythm of which is constantly nudged forward subtly by the rhythm section, but which eventually becomes a sort of fantasia in which Potter’s tenor sax is intertwined with tenor players Tony Lakatos and Steffen Weber from the orchestra in a fascinating counterpoint section. Nothing in any of this music sounds superfluous, routine, unnecessary or uninspired; every note and phrase is interesting, follows logically from what has preceded it and leads into the next section. In terms of orchestral texture the music is not innovative, but rather uses very similar voicings to the sort that the Jones-Lewis orchestra pioneered back in the ‘70s. Nonetheless, McNeely’s score is so innovative in and of itself that this doesn’t matter. He manages to reinvigorate that sound and make it fit in with a Stravinskian concept. (Stravinsky’s music, after all, used exceptionally bright, almost “metallic”-sounding sonorities, even within the confines of a regular symphony orchestra.) After the gentle opening, “Sacrifice I” picks up in tempo and drive. The final section really cooks just before Potter suddenly puts on the brakes to play a warm, relaxed a cappella coda.

“Sacrifice II” retools the Stravinsky ostinato beat, using the rhythm and some exotic chording to give it an almost Middle Eastern sound in the first section. Later on, the tempo increases, and here McNeely does indeed use a stiff ostinato rhythm, which relaxes just a bit for the rhythm section to comp behind Potter’s solo. In the second chorus, there are punctuations by low trumpets and trombones behind him as the volume increases. Things get really frantic near the end, though once again the tempo is pulled back. The final section (“Rebirth”), which also starts slowly, follows without a break. A bit of microtonal writing finds its way into this one as members of the ensemble intertwine various atonal lines around each other. Finally, at the very end, we get a snippet of the opening melody of Sacre du printemps.

Potter’s own Dawn opens with flutes and other high reeds. Although not quite on the exalted level of Rituals, it is an excellent piece, using its own melody and harmonic base to create an interesting mood piece. A couple of minutes in, Potter also uses some overlapping sax polyphony to enhance his piece. It is by no means an “easy listening” ballad although it is not as complex in construction than the McNeely pieces. The Wheel is a funky-groove sort of piece, a throwback to the soul jazz of the late 1950s-early ‘60s except for the polyphonic scoring. Although a pretty good piece, it somehow seemed out of place in mood and style with the rest of the album. For me, these kind of pieces always seem to get stuck in a static groove with the soloist just sort of wailing in a goofy, uninteresting way over chords that don’t change. Fortunately, Potter redeems himself with Wine Dark Sea and Okinawa, both of which are fine pieces with very interesting lines and construction. Okinawa, in fact, is a very complex piece that fits in perfectly with the mood and construction of McNeely’s suite.

Except for The Wheel, this is an absolutely superb album that I highly recommend. McNeely’s suite will bear constant re-listening and study for even the most advanced jazz lover, and most of the accompanying pieces are worth hearing as well.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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A Tribute to Dodo

Dodo CD cover

MARMAROSA: Mellow Mood. Dodo’s Bounce. Dodo’s Blues. Escape. Opus No. 5. Compadoo. Dary Departs. Tone Paintings 1. Battle of the Balcony Jive. Dodo’s Lament. C. DAVIS: A Ditty for Dodo / Craig Davis, pno; John Clayton, bs; Jeff Hamilton, dm / Manchester Craftsman’s Guild MCGJ1056

Dodo Marmarosa and Bud Powell were probably two of the most tragic figures in jazz, and for similar reasons: both had early beatings to their heads: Powell by private railroad police in 1944, Marmarosa by his first wife when in his teens, then by a drunken gang of sailors in 1943. As a result, both suffered from mental illness which affected their careers. Powell, who was clearly the most brilliant and influential pianists of all time, just kept plugging away until his premature death in 1963, sometimes playing brilliantly and at other times playing rather incoherently. Marmarosa simply withdrew from the jazz scene in 1948, made a few “comeback” recordings in the early 1960s, but then withdrew again, playing very sporadically into the 1970s. He died in a veterans’ hospital in 2002, aged 76.

Although Marmarosa wasn’t as radical in style in his early years as Powell, he was clearly one of the most advanced pianists of his time. His solo on Charlie Barnet’s 1943 recording of The Moose is considered one of the great masterpieces of early bop, as are his solos on a handful of recordings with the bands of Artie Shaw and Boyd Raeburn. His last major recordings as a jazz artist were made in the late 1940s with tenor saxist Gene “Jug” Ammons. Known colloquially as the “Jug and Dodo” sessions, they have remained classics down through the years.

Here, pianist Craig Davis pays tribute to Marmarosa the jazz composer. Unlike Powell, whose original pieces are well known, Dodo’s compositions are not at all part of the standard jazz repertoire, thus it’s really nice to have an album of them released. Those of us familiar with Marmarosa’s own playing know that he, like Powell, played in a relatively fast, feverish style, with brilliant runs and almost incredible two-hand coordination in his solos. Davis plays in a more relaxed, rolling style that is more closely related to Erroll Garner, thus one has to reconcile the artist’s own personal approach to the composer’s aesthetic. One might, then, refer to this recording as “Dodo Relaxed,” although the music itself is what really counts.

Mellow Mood may not be the best introduction to Marmarosa for those unfamiliar with his work, but it clearly suits Davis and his talented trio. Regarding his accompanying musicians, I have a complaint. The CD cover lists them solely as Craig Davis “with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton,” but although it is true that in piano trios the bassist is generally listed second and the drummer third, it would have been nice to identify them as such somewhere in the fold-over CD container. I wasn’t very familiar with either musician and so had to look online to learn that Clayton was the bassist.

Dodo’s Bounce is more like his style, although again played with a smoother legato flow and less busy lines by Davis. By way of compensation, however, Clayton and Hamilton are a lively rhythm team, and they add pep and zip to the performances. On this track, in fact, Clayton takes a solo, and a very adventurous one it is, too, very close to Marmarosa’s adventurous style. Davis’ solo here is also rather closer to Dodo than the one on Mellow Mood.

Davis’ original, A Ditty for Dodo, is another mellow track. There’s nothing really wrong with this except that Dodo Marmarosa was not what you would call a “mellow” jazz artist. He wasn’t Bill Evans. To be fair, however, Davis does a really nice job on Compadodo, a piece I hadn’t heard before. It sounded to me like a contrafact on Sweet Georgia Brown, and probably is. For those of you too young to know or remember, contrafacts were exceptionally popular during the early bebop era because it gave the musicians a chance to completely rewrite an old standard like Whispering by not really touching the original top melody line at all, yet retaining the underlying harmonies. It was a way for them to play music that had some appeal and connection to listeners who were more familiar with older material. (Some swing musicians used contrafacts, too, but not to as large an extent as the boppers.)

For those who know nothing of Marmarosa’s brilliance, this CD makes a good introduction, but an introduction only. To hear how Marmarosa himself played his music, click HERE and download a full album of 1946-47 performances entitled Dodo’s Bounce.)

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Welcome to…Inviting Worlds!

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WINEGLASS: Bonny Doon.1 WITTGRAF: A Marriage of Seasons.3 CAROLLO: Dark Days.2 BELET: Fantasia: Nocturne. R.E. BROWN: Expressions for Orchestra. BUENO: Two Moods: Dusk & Carnaval.3 VAN DER ROOST: Céad Míle Fáilte.3 COPPER: This Full Bowl of Roses, Part I 2 / 1Zagreb Festival Orch.; Ivan Josip Skender, cond. All others by Janáček Philharmonic Orch., cond. by 2Jiři Petrolik, 3Stanislav Vavrinek. Also featured: National Moravian Silesian Theater Choir (Carollo), Jakub Černohorsky, vln & Roman Buchal, fl-hn (Belet), Eddy Vanoosthuvse, cl (Van Der Roost) / Navona NV-6435

This is one of those curious but sometimes fascinating potpourri discs that the Parma-Navona-Ravello boutique label issues every once in a while, a potpourri of works by several different composers when said composers don’t have quite enough material, or money, to produce an album dedicated only to them. As I say, sometimes it works out fine and sometimes the results just sound like a curious mixture of parts that don’t quite fit together.

The only composer here whose work I was familiar with from prior releases is John Carollo, but when I sampled John Wineglass’ Bonny Doon, it sounded so interesting that I decided to take the plunge. The opening wasn’t very promising, a sort of soft string melody, but less than a minute in and the harmonies become quite complex indeed. Brass and winds are added to the mix, and before long Bonny Doon, which sounds as if there is a chorus in the background but doesn’t, had begun to make quite an effect on me. The composer describes it as an escapade through the eyes of birds, but of course it’s really his view of the birds’ view, and it eventually breaks out in a bit of an Irish reel. So these are probably Irish birds. It’s quite a fun piece although, after the introduction, there’s not much in it that’s really original-sounding.

Michael Wittgraf describes his A Marriage of Seasons as combining “musical sensibilities with objective mathematical processes in order to produce a final musical product that speaks to the emotions while maintaining organizational logic. The title of the work reflects this unlikely marriage.” This opens in an even edgier sound environment than the Wineglass piece, the difference being that it stays there and does not morph into an Irish reel. Various themes and motifs are introduced and then dropped, some of them swirling around in a kaleidoscopic fashion. Wittgraf has a keen ear for orchestral sonorities, working here in the “edgy-modern” environment that has become so familiar in recent years. Somehow, he manages to fit all of the pieces together to produce a crazy-quilt whole piece of musical cloth. In that respect alone, it is a remarkable piece, but there is more, such as the way Wittgraf continually shifts the orchestral balances around and the way he creates continuity with his musical material. This is truly an amazing piece, and I must give kudos to the sound engineer who recorded it; listening through headphones, you hear all sorts of unusual spatial relationships between the various groups of instruments. At a little past the halfway mark, for instance, we hear a chorus of French horns for the first time—and then they drop out, leaving it to low trombones (playing muted, I think, but perhaps not) holding a long chord while high winds and percussion create little, broken motifs above it all. A wild and creative piece!

John Carollo’s piece is a paean to all those who lost loved ones during the Covid-19 pandemic, which certainly happened but not, thankfully, on a widespread scale. (The virus was much easier to catch and get really sick from than to die from.) Fortunately, he’s a good enough composer to make it work without sounding too maudlin. It opens with low trombones (and possibly horns) playing a sad motif in the minor with snare drum rolls and chimes behind it. The chorus sings a text written by Carollo about it being “the season of darkness.” Since Navona uses Eastern European musicians and singers to make their recordings, it’s a little funny to hear the Moravian-Silesian choir trying to sing in English (“Eat ease the see-zun of dourk-ness”); fortunately, the words are available online.

Brian Belet’s Fantasia: Nocturne is a dual piece, the first part representing “the play of imaginative invention” in which “the author’s fancy roves unrestricted: something possessing grotesque, bizarre or unreal qualities,” the second inspired by the night, “thought of as being tranquil, often expressive and lyrical, and sometimes rather gloomy.” The first part is a sort of round inwith the rhythmic melodic line repeated several times, against which lower instruments play a slower, more thoughtful theme. A solo trumpet (or flugelhorn or cornet—the sound is rather mellower than a regular trumpet) plays its own theme against the orchestra, then develops it into a sort of extempore solo of its own. It’s quite nice music, not very deep but pleasant to listen to without being saccharine. A solo viola aso steps out from the strings to make a few comments as the tempo decreases. I believe that this is the “Nocturne” section. This develops into a two-voiced fugue or canon, with the trumpet still coming in now and then to make comments. Everything melts into a nice nocturnal sort of glaze.

Richard E. Brown’s Expansion for Orchestra is modeled on “the way the music takes a few short motifs and, without using any of the common musical forms, develops or “expands” them into a complete composition.” It builds from a slow opening to a fast middle section and an even faster, more frenzied final section. I really liked the dark colors and orchestral timbres that Brown used in this piece to create an eerie mood in the first section. With a minimum of musical gestures, he created his own little microcosm. At one point in the first section, the strings, playing very softly, just sort of rise up into the air and evaporate in sound. The faster section grows organically out of the slow, retaining the menacing quality and taking it a bit further, including some contrapuntal effects. Then comes the fastest section, introduced by soft, swirling strings as an undercurrent; but there is suddenly a quiet moment, and the piece abruptly ends.

Two Moods: Dusk and Carnaval were written by Liova Bueno. The first section reflects his memories as a child in the Dominican Republic, and is full of lovely string figures around which some atonal winds swirl. Carnaval is supposed to represent the “big band meringue tunes” he heard, but they are completely transformed into something far more complex and, to my mind, more interesting. Despite the slowly increasing speed, there is very little suggestion of a Latino band playing meringues until rather late in the piece, and then they have a sort of Charles Ives quality about them.

Céad Mile Failte, which is Gaelic for “A hundred thousand welcomes,” is written by a composer with a Dutch name, Jan Van de Roost. The composer describes it best: “Both the clarinet and some solo string instruments display their musical skills via short cadenzas, often accompanied by aleatoric patterns. A short pseudo Irish dance with typical dotted rhythms and bagpipe-like reminiscences is being evoked in the central part, but the main character is contemplative and quiet.” It’s a very nice little piece.

We end our excursion with William Copper’s This Full Bowl of Roses, Part 1 which uses Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Der Rosenschalle as its inspiration. (FYI, This Full Bowl of Roses, Part III was previously issued on the Navona album “Prisma – Vol. 5.”) Rilke’s poem is translated, in part, as follows:

Aren’t they all that way: simply self-containing
if self-containing means: to transform the world outside
and wind and rain and the patience of spring
and guilt and restlessness and muffled fate
and darkness of the evening earth

It opens with the celli playing an odd little theme above medium-soft tympani; the tempo increases as the music becomes more agitated. These must be some pretty aggressive roses, but I liked the music just the same. A repeated, serrated viola theme provides the rhythmic basis for a violin tune that emerges from the right channel. This is very nicely and tastefully done. Copper then develops his jaunty little melody as the roses become a bit friendlier…and then, before you know it, it’s all over!

A very nice CD containing some music that is pretty good, some that is very good, and a couple of pieces that are really outstanding. Welcome to their worlds!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Tishchenko’s “The Twelve” Recorded

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TISHCHENKO: The Twelve, Ballet After A. Block’s Poem. Variations on 3 Themes by Shostakovich* / St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orch.; Pavel Bubelnikov, *Alexander Titov, cond; Estonian State Symphony Orch.; Peeter Lilje, cond / Northern Flowers NF99149

Northern Flowers is an independent Russian label which, until 2016, had very limited distribution—I recall reviewing a CD by an obscure Russian pianist named Vladimir Nielsen back in the early 2000s—but since that year is now distributed by Alto UK. This very interesting disc seems to be the first-ever recording of Boris Tishchenko’s ballet, The Twelve.

Although this CD release is new, the recordings are not. Of the nine sections of the ballet, Nos. 1-3, 5, 6 and 8 were recorded by the St, Petersburg (then Leningrad) Philharmonic under Pavel Bubelnikov in 1976; Nos. 4, 7 & 9 were recorded by the Estonian State Symphony led by Peeter Lilje in 1982. The Variations were recorded by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Alexander Titov at a live concert in May 2006. This crazy-quilt arrangement must have been very frustrating to Tishchenko, who was still alive at the time (he died in 2010), particularly since it is only now that they have finally come to light.

Tishchenko was the pet pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich who had an almost father-son relationship with the younger composer. I confess to only being familiar with a few of his works, three of which—the Organ Inventions, Violin Concerto No. 2 (Violin Symphony) and Yuefu, 3 a cappella Choirs on Chinese Folk Texts—were released on a previous Northern Flowers CD, PMA 99146, but I was evidently impressed by them, thus I looked forward to hearing this CD.

At that time, I described the Violin Concerto as sounding like “Shostakovich lite,” but no such thoughts came to mind when listening to this ballet music. It is surprisingly edgy, generally atonal and bitonal music that has a regular rhythmic base but is by no means predictable. The music is scored in very bright, almost abrasive sonorities, focusing on high winds and brass; indeed, there are only a few moments when one hears a full string section in any of the movements. Yet except for the very abrasive opening, the music is not as off-putting to an average listener as much of today’s modern classical music. If there was one thing Tishchenko learned from Shostakovich, it was that music must have form and substance, it cannot be simply a succession of edgy sounds, thus there is considerable development within its harmonically edgy environment. Tishchenko uses contrapuntal figures here and there; if anything, his music in this ballet is even more colorful than that of his mentor, and there is no attempt at copying Shostakovich’s style.

I found the music mesmerizing due to its constant changing and morphing of meter and harmony. Occasionally, as in the second section, he repeated motifs a few times but not enough to become wearisome. In a way, this music struck me as a very modern version of Kodály’s Háry János Suite, and that’s not a bad thing. Despite the occasional crushed chords, in which half the orchestra seems to be playing at the same time and each section in a different tonality, the music is exceptionally clear. Some of the sections all have humorous titles, e.g. “The reckless driver,” “Boredom most boring deadly!,” and “Wrapped in wild snow, ahead of them goes Jesus Christ!” The music, however, is only humorous in a wry manner, not out-and-out comic relief, although I did get a chuckle out of the accordion that suddenly plays short solos in “reckless driver.” Interestingly, although the liner notes go into great detail about Blok’s creation of his poem, there’s not a single word to tell the reader what the poem or the ballet is about! All we learn is that “it combines the mystic concepts of a revolution as global renewal and God- seeking, tones of urban legends, and cultural contexts of contemporary Russia, popular speech, vulgarisms, and lexical and rhythmic diversity,” which strikes me as gobbledygook. What is so “mystical” about the bloody Communist revolution, which supplanted not the old Tsarist regime but the Democratic Keerensky government? Why am I the only person in the world who remembers Alexander Kerensky and his wonderful, if unfortunately weak, government? This sounds like the old Soviet Union patting itself on the back. Wikipedia gives us a clearer picture of this “wonderful” poem:

The poem describes the march of twelve Red Guards (likened to the Twelve Apostles) through the streets of revolutionary Petrograd, with a fierce winter blizzard raging around them. The mood of the Twelve as conveyed by the poem oscillates from base and even sadistic aggression towards everything perceived bourgeois and counter-revolutionary, to strict discipline and sense of “revolutionary duty.”

Yeah, right. Well, at least the music is better than the poem it’s based on, at least in pure musical terms.

In a way, I liked the Shostakovich theme variations even better. This is a piece that has a clear-cut classical form, in fact which uses two themes playing against each other in counterpoint after the opening, which gives it the feeling of solidly-written older music but with those whimsical harmonic devices which were a Shostakovich trademark. Tishchenko makes this music even more complex as it goes along, yet because of the very clear-cut form he never loses the listener. All of the performances herein are well played and surprisingly well recorded considering that most of them are analog.

A very interesting and valuable CD, then, despite the “We Love Communism ‘cause it’s Holy” overtones.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Dave Slonaker’s “Convergency”

Slonaker cover

SLONAKER: Convergency.* Uncommonly Ground.+ Duelity.+ A Gathering Circle.* A Curve in the Road.* Inner Voices.+ Sometimes a Notion.* Vanishing Point.+ And Now the News.+ GORDON-WARREN: I Had the Craziest Dream+ / Dave Slonaker Big Band: Wayne Bergeron, *Dan Fornero, +Ryan Deweese, Clay Jenkins, Ron Stout, tpt; Alex Iles, Charlie Morillas, Ido Meshulah, tb; Bill Reichenbach, bs-tb/tuba; Bob Sheppard, a-sax/s-sax/fl; Brian Scanlon, a-sax/s-sax/fl/cl; Rob Lockart, Tom Luer, t-sax/cl; *Adam Schroeder, +Jay Mason, bar-sax/bs-cl; Larry Koonse, gtr; Ed Czach, pno; Edwin Livingston, bs; Peter Erskine, dm; Brian Kilgore, perc / Origin 82851

This is apparently jazz composer-arranger Dave Slonaker’s second CD, his first having come out in 2013 when I was still writing reviews for a major magazine but was completely unaware of that disc’s release. Listening to the album on YouTube, however, I found it nice big band jazz but not nearly as original or innovative as the music on this new release.

Trying to find actual information on Slonaker’s background and musical education is like hunting for snarks. There just ain’t any, at least online. If you go to his home page, all you’ll learn is that his first CD, Intrada, was nominated for a Grammy, which means absolutely nothing to me. I don’t believe in Santa Claus, Bigfoot or Grammys. They’re all artificial constructs, the difference being that Grammys are chosen by inner politics plus how much money the artist’s label can give them as a bribe. (Well, maybe Santa Claus was created for the same reason.) I did, however, learn that Slonaker has scored music for a number of movies I’ve not seen or heard of, like Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, A Million Ways to Die in the West and Oz the Great and Powerful in addition to a couple I have heard of but never saw like Spider Man, Air Force One and The Mummy Returns. All of which, I’m sure, made him good money, but don’t have much bearing on his jazz writing. In the liner notes for this CD, however, I did learn that Slonaker began his career as a jazz trombonist.

On this album, as opposed to on Intrada, Slonaker plays around with counterpoint and contrasting voices in a way that I found intriguing, yet at the same time he creates melodic lines that are attractive and at times memorable. What a radical concept! In terms of instrumental voicing, Slonaker is fairly conventional; you won’t find anything here as original as the big band writing of Charles Mingus, Toshiko Akiyoshi or Willem Brueker. It’s pretty much by-the-book scoring, but as I say, Slonaker throws in some very intriguing twists on the same old same old to make his music on this disc sound fresh and interesting.

And all of his soloists are very good. Since he’s involved in the Hollywood score scene, I’m assuming that this band is comprised of first-call jazz pros from the musicians’ union; certainly, even I recognized the names of saxist Bob Sheppard, trumpeter Wayne Bergeron and bass trombonist/tuba player Bill Reichenbach, who is two years older than I am and whose name I recognized from the Akiyoshi-Tabackin Big Band of the early 1970s. Thus I can only assume that all the other names I see here are equally skilled.

This expertise helps Slonaker put his complex charts over with a minimum of effort. Every little twist and turn of his compositions are handled so easily that they sound as if they could play them in their sleep. (For all I know, they probably can!) The twisty-turny melodic line of Uncommonly Ground, for instance, which alternates between a straight 4 and 6/8, comes out as smooth as toothpaste from a tube.

Yet as I continued to listen, I felt that the ultra-professionalism of this band was perhaps just a tad too polished. Without a certain amount of grit in their sound, the playing sounds a little glib but for some of the solos, like Tom Leuer’s superb tenor sax spot on Uncommonly Ground. It was just this sort of slickness that eventually turned me away from Supersax back in the 1970s. In case you’ve forgotten or don’t know what Supersax was, it was a similar band of top jazz pros that played full sax section arrangements of Charlie Parker solos. At first listening, it was thrilling to hear Bird’s conceptions pour out with such richness and drive, but after a while you missed the grit that Bird himself put into his solos. It was part of his aesthetic, and to my mind part of the aesthetic of jazz.

Still, I have to admit that when you listen to the trumpet section coast through their chorus on Duelity, it gives you a momentary thrill, and here again one is caught up in the sax solo, this time by Bob Sheppard on alto. You gotta love these sax players; they keep the flame burning even when the rest of the band is just on simmer. At times, however, the mood marches the piece, as in the excellent Inner Voices where Slonaker managed to come up with a composition that bas its own unusual construction, yet at the same time works as an excellent underlying cushion for the explorative trumpet solo of Ron Stout. On this track, too, the trumpet section actually wakes up when they play their tutti outburst, sounding quite excited to find their groove.

Also, all those intricate passages that enliven each piece on this album are great fun to listen to. I especially loved the way the bass line moves in step with the ensemble on Sometimes a Notion, and bassist Ed Livingston’s later solo on this is a quiet gem. Slonaker’s writing on Vanishing Point is simply extraordinary; for me, this was the finest composition, and realized performance, on the entire album—in part because its quiet demeanor called for exactly the kind of qualities this orchestra possesses. Slonaker makes effective use here of the flute, clarinets and muted trumpets behind the exotic soprano sax solo of Bob Sheppard. It’s just that, overall, the Slonaker band just misses the excitement I heard in Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band back in the early 2000s. Goodwin’s band was also comprised of top Hollywood-area jazz pros, and they were just a recording band at first before the popularity of his records sent them out on the road. But somehow, the Goodwin band just had a little more spunk to their playing, even when just in the studio.

Of course, you reaction may be different from mine, thus I suggest that you give Slonaker a listen. If I were entitled to a suggestion, I’d recommend that Slonaker toss in a few exotic instruments to give his ensemble more tonal variety, perhaps an oboe, bassoon and cello. And perhaps urge the players to give from the gut when they play.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Henry Février’s Lost Opera

Monna Vanna cover

While doing research for a book I am writing, Opera as Drama II, I ran across a work from 1909 I had never heard or heard of before, Monna Vanna by Henry Février, based on the play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck. Intrigued, I immediately began searching for a recording, and came up with only one, a rather ragged-sounding broadcast of a French performance (actually, parts of two broadcasts) from 1958 with largely unknown singers. In addition to having scrappy sound, the performance was incomplete, which I found even more frustrating, but it was all I had.

So who is Henry Février and what is Monna Vanna (pronounced Mah-na Vuh-na)? You won’t find much online…go ahead, do a Google search and find out for yourself. All you’ll get on him are three short sentences on Encyclopedia.com (“Février, Henry (b Paris, 1875; d Paris, 1957). Fr. composer. Comp. several operas incl. Monna Vanna (1909) and Gismonda (1918). Also wrote vn. sonata (1903). Wrote book about Messager”) and a brief bio on Wikipedia. Yet in its time, Monna Vanna was a sensation, both a popular and an artistically acclaimed work.

And here’s another irony. At about the same time that Février was finishing Monna Vanna, Sergei Rachmaninov had decided to write an opera on the same play by Maeterlinck, and in fact completed the first act, but in requesting the rights to compose a full three-act opera, he was turned down because Février had already secured them. Rachmaninov never finished his version, yet his is the one that has received not one but TWO commercial recordings, one in English with Sherrill Milnes as Guido and the other in the original Russian. Why? Well, because he’s Rachmaninov, a very popular composer, while no one even knows who Henry Février was. Yet although the single act that Rachmaninov finished is quite good, the completed Février opera is just as good if not better.

To begin with, the general tenor of this piece is entirely different from Pelléas et Mélisande. Rather than have his characters bottle up their emotions inside, only expressing themselves when they needed to verbalize, the denizens of Monna Vanna are highly emotional, sometimes almost violently so. This is undoubtedly the result of the fact that the characters in Vanna are Italians, and Italians tend by nature to be very extroverted in their feelings.

The story is set in 15th-century Pisa at a time when the city was under siege by the Florentines. At their wits’ end, they are not only out of arms and ammunition but also of food. Since they are slowly starving to death, the commandant Guido Colonna has sent his own father, Marco, to negotiate peace terms with Prinzivalle, commander of the enemy army, but in reality a mercenary and not a Florentine himself. Prone to being gloomy and pessimistic by nature, Guido has little hope of this, but when Marco returns it is with news that Prinzivalle has agreed to peace as well as to provide the Pisans with both food and arms as long as Guido’s wife Giovanna, nicknamed Monna Vanna, will visit him at night clad only in her cloak, the promise being that she will be returned home the next morning. Horrified, Guido refuses although after questioning his father a bit further he learns that Prinzivalle claims to be in love with Giovanna, although the latter claims she has never even laid eyes on him before. Guido asks her directly if she would agree to this strange demand for peace, and much to his surprise, she says that she would. Shocked and disgusted, Guido sends her to her fate.

At Prinzivalle’s tent headquarters, a lieutenant arrives to announce that Marco has not returned to give himself up, which means that Monna Vanna has accepted his request to come. Trivulzio, a Florentine spy, has learned of Vanna’s treacherous mission and so tries to stab Prinzivalle, but latter is too quick and too strong for him and he disarms Trivulzio and turns him over to his guard. When Giovanna enters, Prinzivalle suddenly becomes tender and solicitous, saying he has loved her for years. He then relates how they met when she was a child of eight and he a boy of twelve, recalling each little incident in the times they were together until his father suddenly took him away without giving him a chance to say goodbye. After long wanderings, he finally located her house only to find it vacant and overgrown with weeds…and worse yet, that she was the wife of a Tuscan lord. This, he tells her, was the reason he became a mercenary for the Florentine army, hoping that he could find her again. His obviously sincere and tender relating of this tale awakens long-dormant feelings in Giovanna’s heart, although she still outwardly remains faithful to Guido.

Realizing, however, that he means her no harm and will not touch her sexually without her consent, she puts her trust in Prinzivalle. Suddenly his private secretary Vedio arrives, informing him that a Florentine commissioner who has just arrived in camp has proclaimed Prinzivalle a traitor, and since he has 600 men behind him, Prinzivalle must leave instantly. Monna asks him where he will go; he replies that it makes little difference, that somewhere he will find refuge, but she insists that he return to Pisa with him as an honored guest.

Back at the ranch, Guido is, of course, writhing in misery and despair, assuming the worst of his wife and Prinzivalle while his father Marco tries to keep him from performing violent acts on her or himself. Guido’s response is that he will only pardon her when “that man” no longer lives. He then hears the roars and cheers of a crown outside, welcoming Monna Vanna’s return, accompanied by Prinzivalle who hides his face to avoid being recognized. Marco strews flowers for her to walk on when entering the house, and embraces her. He tries to lead her to Guido, but the latter, in imperious tones, tells both the crowd and his officers to go and leave them alone. He coldly rejects Giovanna’s endearments; catching sight of Prinzivalle (but not knowing who exactly he is), he grabs a halberd from one of his soldiers and moves to hit him with it, but Giovanna intercedes, shouting out that it was he who saved her. “Yes,” replies Guido bitterly, “when it was too late!” Monna explains that this is Prinzivalle himself. This sends Guido’s brain into a rage; feeling that he now has his hated enemy in his grasp, he intends to kill him, refusing to listen to his wife’s insistence that he treated her with the utmost respect and that they did not have sexual relations. Leaning from his wife that Prinzivalle is deeply in love with her, Guido refuses to believe it although Marco accepts it as fact.

Guido begs Giovanna to tell the truth, promising that both she and Prinzivalle will go free if she only confesses to her sin, but since she continues to insist that nothing happened, he orders his soldiers to throw Prinzivalle into the deepest dungeon and tells Vanna that she will never see him again. In order to save his life, Vanna throws herself between them and claims that she lied, and Prinzivalle really did take her sexually as he threatened, that she hates him and only desires vengeance, thus she and she alone will be his jailer. She pretends to bind Prinzivalle’s hands together while actually making the rope loose enough for him to break free of himself. As she leads him away, Vanna whispers to him that she loves him and will rescue him. She then almost faints, being caught by Marco, who alone realizes the meaning of this scene. Marco whispers in her ear that he understands and will help her.

In the very brief fourth and last act, really just a scene, Prinzivalle removes the cords that Vanna had lightly tied around his hands but wonders what Vanna can do: “Doesn’t she know that hatred is stronger than love?” Suddenly the cell door opens; it is Vanna. Prinzivalle rushes forward; after embracing passionately, they disengage as she says in a low voice, “Silence! We have only a moment! They don’t know that I have the key to the other door—come!” Astonished, Prinzivalle lets Vanna lead him to freedom as they leave Pisa together.

The famous American writer Emma Goldman, banned from her native country for 15 years due to her avid support of the Communist Revolution in Russia (she learned her lesson once Stalin took over, and thus begged the American government to let her return), wrote a very curious article discussing her interpretation of this play back in 1914. Goldman, oddly, viewed Monna Vanna as “a wonderful picture of the new woman — not the new woman as portrayed in the newspapers, but the new woman as a reborn, regenerated spirit; the woman who has emancipated herself from her narrow outlook upon life, and detached herself from the confines of the home; the woman, in short, who has become race-conscious and therefore understands that she is a unit in the great ocean of life, and that she must take her place as an independent factor in order to rebuilt and remold life. In proportion as she learns to become race-conscious, does she become a factor in the reconstruction of society, valuable to herself, to her children, and to the race.”[1]

Honestly, I haven’t a clue what she was talking about when she refers to her being “a unit in the great ocean of life”; Vanna is just looking our for herself and the man she loves. No “ocean of life: is involved in this plot. I also have no idea what she is referring to in regards to becoming “race-conscious.” No one’s race is ever discussed in either the play or the opera. The closest she comes to explaining herself, which I don’t think really explains a thing, is to say that, at the end, “It is only at this psychological moment, a moment that sometimes changes all our conceptions, all our thoughts, our very life, that Monna Vanna feels the new love for Prinzivalle stirring in her soul, a love that knows no doubt. The conception of such a love is revolutionary in the scope of its possibilities — a love that is pregnant with the spirit of daring, of freedom, that lifts woman out of the ordinary and inspires her with the strength and joy of molding a new and free race.”[2]

Personally, I see Monna Vanna as a more serious version of Mozart’s comic opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, where Belmonte, going to a foreign land to rescue his beloved Constanze and his servants Pedrillo and Blonde, assumes that the Pasha Selim who is the sworn enemy of his father will kill them all if he is caught and found out, but who, in the end, learns that the Pasha is an educated and humane man who decides to let them all go free as a gesture of peace towards his old enemy. The only really feminist trait in Monna Vanna is her taking hold of the situation on very short notice and concocting a plan to save Prinzivalle and free herself. But I suppose that living in a world where American women weren’t even given the right to vote until 1920, Monna Vanna must have seemed like really hot stuff to the feverish mind of Goldman, who apparently never saw a performance of Fidelio.

The world premiere cast of Monna Vanna featured three major names in the opera world of that time. The title role was sung by Lucienne Bréval, the great Swiss dramatic soprano who was as well known for Wagnerian as for French roles. Prinzivalle was created by Lucien Muratore, a tenor highly regarded as a credible stage actor as well as a singer, and Guido Colonna was given to Jean-Émile Vanni-Marcoux, a bass-baritone widely regarded as “the French Chaliapin.” Both male singers left us recordings from the opera; poor Bréval made no commercial recordings at all, her voice being preserved on but one “live” cylinder recording made at the Metropolitan Opera at the turn of the 20th century, part of the duet from L’Africana with tenor Jean de Reszke.

The one available recording is not so starry. The only name I recognize, having heard her on a couple of other recordings, is that of soprano Suzanne Sarroca in the title role. Our Guido, Georges Le Coz, is a somewhat infirm-sounding bass-baritone, but he was apparently a pupil of Vanni-Marcoux, thus in spite of his vocal infirmities he is an intense interpreter of the role. Baritone Pierre Nougaro sings the part of his father Marco, and we get not one but two tenors splitting the role of Prinzivalle, René Damiro and Pierre Fleta, because the first two acts stem from a performance at Besancon in April 1958 with Damiro while Act III came from a performance at Rennes in May 1958, with mostly the same cast and conductor (Marcel Ficheret) except for the tenor. And unfortunately, the sound quality of both broadcasts is rather poor, congested and tinny but also with the orchestra in particular distorted by the bad radio sound. But it’s all we have.

The vocal music is written in a modern version of French vocal parlando style, which emphasizes the dramatic content of the text over lyricism. Février scored the orchestra during these scenes using low winds and strings; set in a minor key, this emphasizes the import of the drama. Perhaps a bit conventional, but clearly effective. In moments when the dramatic mood tightens up, such as when Guido sees Marco enter and suddenly becomes excitable, asking “What miraculous boon has restored you to us, when I had lost hope!” By contrast with Guido’s nervous-sounding, broken lines when he sings, Marco’s are much more lyrical, almost like an arioso, indicating his much calmer demeanor and more rational, less emotional response to the events going on around him. The recorded performance is an abridged one; certain lines are missing if one follows along with the libretto, and I don’t think it’s because the tapes (or acetate discs) were missing any segments, because the musical continuity in the orchestra is smoothly joined even as lines are omitted. Part of this first Marco-Guido dialogue are also cut; in short, there are numerous small abridgments or “paper cuts” throughout the score. But at least it exists, and for this we must thank baritone Pierre Nougaro, who not only sang the role of Marco in this production but was also the director of the Rennes opera beginning in 1958. It was he who expanded the repertoire by staging both operettas and unusual works like Monna Vanna..

Février’s rapid alternation of meters within monologues, and sometimes even within single lines of music, have by now become commonplace. On p. 14 of the piano-vocal score, for instance, we suddenly shift from 3/4 to ₵ (4/4), with the rhythm distributed with different accents in each bar, then just five bars later, on p. 15, a jump to 5/4. At the bottom of p. 16, one bar in ₵ before returning to 5/4 again.  The predictable rhythms of Italian and older French operas were now very much becoming a thing of the past—albeit a past that the majority of operagoers were tenaciously clinging to like a favorite childhood toy.

In many respects, the operas of this period, including Monna Vanna, were modern versions of the operas of Lully, Rameau and later Gluck, only using more contemporary harmonies and the more continuous musical lines which were the influence of Wagner. We even saw some of this in La Navarraise and Louise, but a decade or so down the road the process was being refined. In Monna Vanna, as in several of Wagner’s works, Février lapses into arias, but the mood and the musical contour matches the words more carefully, there are few if any high notes, and the text always came first. I also noticed that, when Février does use strong rhythms, they are typically French…something like the rhythm of the Marseillaise or something similar, though they do not go on for too long before shifting back to something either slower or more strophic. Sadly, the older French composers who were still around and writing operas at this same time, like Massenet, Saint-Saëns (whose last opera was written in 1904) and Charpentier, couldn’t or wouldn’t learn this lesson; they continued to write operas that became increasingly more vapid, both musically and dramatically uninteresting. But of course they weren’t alone. The “verismo boys” also, for the most part, kept on writing works in the older style, many of which went nowhere unless their name was Puccini.

Interesting, the title character of Février’s opera doesn’t make her appearance until roughly 20 minutes into the first act, but when she does she makes an immediate impact. It’s clear from her music that Février was writing for a dramatic soprano voice, not a lyric who might possibly be able to sing dramatically. Though he does not exploit the high range as the Italian composers did, but rather keeps the tessitura of the role in the middle of the voice, her lines are to ring out with authority. She is not a Mimi or a Butterfly. She is indeed a French relative to Abigaille in Nabucco or Leonore in Fidelio.

And Février keeps on altering his tempi, rhythms, and tonality as the musical drama continues, doing his best to keep up with the mercurial moods of Guido and the reactions of those around him. Guido explodes with rage when Monna says she will accept Prinzivalle’s request to come to him, and this is in the music; so too her calmer responses, knowing that the fate of hundreds of her fellow-citizens hang in the balance. What is unstated, but clearly implied in the dramatic thrust of her music, is that she is a woman who can take care of herself if need be. Perhaps it was this aspect of Monna Vanna’s character that so strongly appealed to Emma Goldman. What I find interesting is that, for whatever reason—probably male ego—Guido does not see (or hear) this in his wife, but automatically assumes that she will be taken advantage of. Guido, monologue in the midst of his confrontation with Monna is very Mussorgsky-like, using the kind of vocal line and sparse orchestration one hears in Boris (which, by 1909, had clearly made its way to the West).

The prelude to Act II is also unusually scored with sparse orchestration, relying primarily on middle-range winds with occasional high string interjections over low strings and brass—again, not far from Mussorgsky (or at least Mussorgsky-cum-Rimsky, which is the way it was first introduced in France and other Western European countries). Prinzivalle’s sung monologues clearly suggest a tenor voice bordering on lyric spinto, a type of French tenor which, though still around in 1909, was slowly but surely disappearing on the world’s stages (the tenor on the recording is adequate but not nearly ideal). When Prinzivalle tells Vanna that he loves her, the music practically explodes out of nowhere. Dramatically we expect it because it’s in the synopsis, but musically, it’s still a surprise when it happens the first time we hear it. The Vanna-Prinzivalle love duet is highly unusual in construction, even by Wagnerian standards, the music consisting of short lyrical lines with brief strophic interludes, somehow strung together to create a cohesive whole. In its latter stages, Février subtly increases the tempo little by little to create tension; this adds to the underlying erotic quality of the music. Unfortunately, the recording runs out before the duet, and the rest of the act, is over.

Février continues in this vein in Act III, giving an interesting arioso to Marco which is part of the duet with Guido. He also builds the scene into the happy sounds of the people announcing Vanna’s return from Prinzivalle’s camp; this is far from the tuneful stuff that Verdi wrote by the bucketful in his early and middle periods. The confrontation scene between Guido and Vanna is also well written, the music heightened by short outbursts from him and strong-voiced responses from her. Once again—maddeningly—the music breaks off in the middle of this duet. To quote Hamlet, “The rest is silence.” A very sad situation.

To help the listener get a handle on this opera, I’ve uploaded a French-English libretto from 1913 as well as the complete piano-vocal score of the opera. The recording can be found on both YouTube and Spotify for free streaming.

If one were to make a modern recording of this opera, I would want a singer like Ludovic Tezier doing Guido, Anja Harteros singing Monna Vanna, and a tenor like Russell Thomas or Anthony Dean Griffey as Prinzivalle. The role of Marco, which calls for a richer, warmer baritone voice than Guido, is harder to cast nowadays because really firm baritone voices of this type are rarer, but I’m sure someone could be found. And this is most definitely an opera that needs and deserves to be recorded in modern sound.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] https://www.theatredatabase.com/19th_century/maurice_maeterlinck_002.html

[2] Ibid.

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Augustyn Plays Bacewicz

Bacewicz album front cover

BACEWICZ: Solo Violin Sonata No. 1. Polish Caprices Nos. 1 & 2 for Solo Violin. Concertino for Violin & Piano. Melody. Stained-Glass Window. Partita for Solo Violin. Scherzo for Solo Violin. Capriccio. Cradle Song.  4 Caprices for Violin Solo / Kinga Augustyn, vln; Alla Milchtein, pno / Centaur 3971

When I reviewed Kinga Augustyn’s previous Centaur CD, Turning in Time, in December of 2020, I referred to her as “a superb violinist, perhaps not as distinctive-sounding as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg or Joshua Bell but clearly a major talent. She knows how to caress a phrase without making it sound too sugary, and she knows how to push the beat when called for without making it sound awkward or abrasive. To a certain extent, her playing reminded me of Josef Szigeti but with a more beautiful tone.” I also praised her repertoire choices, all more or less modern composers, in a program that include Grazyna Bacewicz’ Solo Violin Sonata No. 2.

She returns here with an all-Bacewicz program, and again includes several pieces not frequently recorded, including two—the Partita and Scherzo for solo violin—which had not been recorded previously by anyone. This CD is scheduled for release on September 9, but I just couldn’t wait any longer to review it because it’s so good.

Those familiar with Bacewicz’ aesthetic know that she was not only one of the major composers of music for the violin, but one of the finest of all 20th-century composers. The sad thing is that, except in her native Poland, she was never quite recognized as a major composer of the century until early this century, when a plethora of recordings of her music suddenly began to emerge, but better late than never.

The Solo Violin Sonata No. 1 is typical of her style: music with almost nervous energy. Both of the solo violin sonatas have also been recorded by Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds on a Muso CD, and although I was fully engaged in Augustyn’s performance I would be loath to rid my collection of the Muso disc. Both violinists are fully committed to this music, and both do it justice in slightly different ways.

By and large, I would call Bacewicz’ music bitonal rather than atonal, particularly in her music for the violin, which was her own instrument. If you simply remove the astringent harmonies, the top lines of much of her violin music (but not all) is quite lyrical and pretty tonal. But nervous energy was part and parcel of her physiognomy. She once said that she operated on double-time and was thus able to do things twice as quickly as anyone else she knew. Much of this is in her music, yet when one hears the slow movement from this violin sonata, one realizes that she did not rush things. It’s just that ideas came to her so quickly that she scarcely had the time to write them down. The untitled third movement of this sonata almost sounds like a canon, with a continually evolving theme in a stream of eighth notes.

The Polish Caprice No. 1 is entirely lyrical, consisting of solely a top line for the violin until the fast middle section, which is where some of the spiky harmonies come in. Bacewicz also throws in some rapid key changes into this section, just to keep listeners on their toes. The second Caprice starts out in a fast tempo; at times, its melodic line almost sounds as if it were running backwards.

Much to my surprise, the brief first movement of the Concertino for piano and violin sounds like a Baroque piece, but the somewhat sad second movement, though lyrical, is in a more recognizable style for the composer. Indeed this is a very short concertino…all three movements together run only four and a half minutes! Bacewicz must really have been in a hurry when she wrote this one!

Stained-Glass Window is a very early piece (1932) which starts out very gently and lyrically but, as it goes on, contains some extraordinarily subtle key shifts, musical depictions of the changing light coming through such a window. By contrast, the first movement of solo violin partita is comprised of sharp shards of music, played at full volume, a piece certain to grab your attention, while the slow central movement is again in her lyrical-but-somewhat-bitonal style. The fast third movement combines features of both of the two preceding, using fast eighth-note figures in an asymmetric pattern to create an intriguing musical line. The scherzo for solo violin is a bitonal moto perpetuo, showing off the performer’s virtuosity while including some intriguing rubato touches along the way. It ends, abruptly, in the middle of a phrase.

The Capriccio for violin and piano is also lively, but generally more tonal and playful, though also requiring some pretty tricky bowing from the soloist. This is a real show-stopper, a great encore piece for any violinist, and Augustyn plays it to the hilt. She also gives us a breather between this piece and the equally blistering Caprices with the Cradle Song from 1952. The program ends with the solo caprices from 1968, one of Bacewicz’ last compositions, and here her harmonic sense has become much edgier, bordering on the atonal, with figures that alternate between angular, lyrical and arching in rapid fashion.

This is an absolutely splendid CD. Sometimes I really do wonder why a musically unimaginative violinist like Frank Peter Zimmermann, who can’t play with this kind of intensity in almost anything he attempts, gets so much attention and exposure while Kinga Augustyn, though well respected in the classical field, has nowhere near his reputation. If you want to hear a wonderfully intense violinist playing interesting pieces, you need to hear this CD. Incidentally, the stunning cover art was created by Lukas Wronski, a friend of Augustyn’s who is both a graphic artist and a violin-maker.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Miguel Zenón’s “Music of the Americas”

Cover_Zenón_Música de Las Américas

ZENÓN: Tainos y Caribes. Navegando (Las Estrellas Nos Guian). Opresión y Revolución. Imperios. Venas Abiertas. Bámbula. América, El Continente. Antillano / Miguel Zenón, a-sax; Luis Perdono, pno; Has Glawischnig, bs; Henry Cole, dm, Los Pleneros de la Cresta, Paoli Mejias, Victor Emmanueli, Daniel Diaz, perc / Miel Music, no number

This CD, scheduled for release on August 23, is one of those politically-slanted theme albums that seem to be all the rage nowadays. On this one, alto saxist and leader Zenón wonders about such things as, “What was this part of the world like before 1491? Who was here? For how long? And how did they get here in the first place? What were the short-term and long-term consequences of colonization? And perhaps more importantly: What would this part of the world (or the world as a whole) be like if this encounter had never taken place?”

I was always told that the original indigenous peoples of the Americas migrated across a now-sunken strait or peninsula that once existed between northern Russia/Siberia and what we now call Alaska, and that as a result, the tribes we came to know as Eskimos (Inuit), various tribes of “American Indians,” the Aztecs and Incas and all the others, were descended from them. I’m surprised that Zenón didn’t learn this is school; apparently, the education system has sunk much lower than I thought. How long they were here is a good question, but sometime in the Middle Ages is what I hear on the grapevine. How did they get here in the first place? They walked, Miguel. Maybe some came over in canoes or other boats. They didn’t get dropped off by a flying saucer. Although the full answer is a bit beyond my pay grade, there are numerous historians who can answer your question regarding the short- and long-term consequences of colonization. Suffice it to say that many more Latinos came here than British, Dutch, German or any other Caucasian ethnicity, which is why nearly every country south of our southern border is filled with Latinos. As for the last question, it’s moot. The colonization happened so there’s absolutely no point in playing “What if?.”

And now, on to the music. It’s typical Miguel Zenón music: rhythmically and melodically complex, utterly fascinating from start to finish. Zenón clearly “hears” his own muse and follows it with enthusiasm and zest, as do the other musicians on this set, particularly pianist Luis Perdono who is continually interesting, playing fast, single-note lines that never meander but always have an underlying structure and a sense of purpose, but the rhythm section of Glawischnig on bass and Cole on drums is also quite extraordinary. It’s difficult to say if the very complex melodic line of Tainos y Caribes was written out first or improvised into being, but either way it’s a killer piece. Zenón must do some sort of circular breathing, as his extended solo on this piece doesn’t reveal many spots where he could have taken a breath. Much of it is played in a continuous stream of notes…simply incredible. The bass solo on this one is mostly rhythmic but well-played. A single-note figure by Perdono is picked up by Zenón, acting as a sort of bridge to the final chorus.

Navegando opens with a lyrical, terse theme played on piano while Cole works out double-time in the background. When Zenón enters, the tonality falls through a harmonic trap and down. I must also praise engineer Michael Perez Cisneros for capturing such clear yet realistic sound; you just don’t hear recordings this natural-sounding all the time.

Opresión y Revolución doesn’t sound very oppressed, but the music is surely one of the most complex pieces Zenón has written to date, often sounding bitonal in character and using a remarkable variety of fractured rhythms to propel it. This one never stops moving, and both the rhythm and melody are so complex that you almost feel as if you are caught in a web of sound. Perdono seems to find a few little musical cracks in this complex line to forge another outstanding solo, Imperios is sort of a ballad line although the drums beat out a slick swinging beat to propel it. As the piece went on, in fact, I almost felt as if this was the musical equivalent of an E.C. Escher drawing; the pieces clearly fit together, but in an odd way that defied musical gravity.

Indeed, the more you listen to this album the more intrigued and involved you become. Sometimes Zenón’s building blocks appear to be simple, but deep listening reveals the complexity lying just beneath the surface of every piece. Zenón proves, time and again, that your music doesn’t have to be über-complex in order to be interesting to more advanced jazz listeners. It just has to be good, solidly written, and creative. Venas Abiertas is a perfect example; after a fairly conventional opening, Zenón introduces a theme that is clearly in more than one key, yet he somehow makes it fit like a hand in a glove. On Bambula, both the complex line of the music and the improvisations thereon seem to be continually interacting and affecting one another. It’s hard to put into words; you have to hear it to believe it.

This is Latin-influenced jazz that breaks the mold of typical “Latin jazz.” Each piece somehow seems to be more than the sum of its parts, and those parts are not only ever-complex but ever-changing. It’s not background music to your next Latin-themed party. It’s a listening experience that is enriching and fulfilling, clearly one of the finest jazz albums of the year so far.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Reassessing Mario Lanza

Lanza

Sixty-two years after his death, Mario Lanza is still one of the most controversial singers who ever lived. People either love him or hate him; there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground; but when you grew up, what kind of music you were weaned on, and how you discovered Lanza will have more to do with your emotional and intellectual reaction to his singing than to any other tenor in history.

Born in Philadelphia as Alfred Arnold Cocozza to a family of working-class Italian immigrants on January 31, 1921, the young boy was, for some unexplained reason, given the family nickname of Freddie. Growing up, he was mesmerized by listening to Enrico Caruso’s recordings on the family Victrola. Although Freddie originally studied violin (if you can believe it!), he quickly decided to become a tenor himself. His mother, Maria Lanza Cocozza, took an extra job to pay for his voice lessons with Irene Williams, a local teacher with a good reputation.

Despite anything else that Lanza did later on, it is clear from a set of private recordings (probably with Williams as pianist) made in 1940 that Cocozza had a naturally settled voice, something extraordinarily rare for a 19-year-old. Unless your name was Jussi Björling and you were studying voice with your father starting at age eight, the majority of tenors really don’t mature until they are closer to age 30, but these test pressings show a shockingly well-settled voice for a teenager.

In July 1942, famed conductor Serge Koussevitzky was visiting Philadelphia when he heard Freddie sing. Shocked at the quality of his voice, he offered him the chance to sing Fenton in an upcoming Tanglewood performance of Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sensing the need for a catchy professional name, young Alfred-Freddie decided to use the masculine version of his mother’s maiden name, and so became Mario Lanza.

Although his performance won him critical acclaim, what is often not reported, but which you can find out for yourself by digging up old newspaper clippings (as I did back in the early 1970s), was that the performance date had to be postponed because the young tenor had problems learning his role. This was to be Lanza’s Achilles heel throughout his career. He would quickly and easily learn the most famous arias and duets from popular operas, but had a very difficult time memorizing not necessarily the music, but the words, of the rest of his roles.

Lanza was drafted soon after this performance, but fortunately his singing voice saved him the horrors of having to serve on the front lines. Before he was discharged in 1945 he had sung in two big productions, Frank Loesser’s On the Beam and Moss Hart’s Winged Victory. It was also during this period that he met, fell in love with and married Betty Hicks, the sister of an Army buddy. Eventually, they had four children.

After the war, Lanza took a job (under his birth name, since he had never legally changed it) as a dishwasher at Schrafft’s Restaurant at 54 West 23rd Street in New York City in order to pay for vocal lessons with the famed voice teacher Enrico Rosati, who had previously trained the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. Schrafft’s, though moderately-priced, was famous for having a certain air of gentility typical of an upper-middle-class home. Lanza would sing while washing dishes and, needless to say, both the patrons and the staff asked if management could keep the door open to the kitchen so they could hear him sing.

But Lanza had more things to do than wash dishes and sing for the diners at Schrafft’s. He was also busy making demo recordings and sending them around to both agents and classical radio stations, which led to his being hired to sing occasionally on the radio. By the end of 1946, after 15 months with Rosati, he had auditioned for the all-powerful Arthur Judson, director of Columbia Artists’ Management, Inc. (otherwise known as CAMI). According to one source who claimed to hear this, but insists on remaining anonymous, Judson was floored by Lanza’s voice but dismayed by his role-learning shortcomings. He thus decided to package him with two other promising young singers he had recently signed, American soprano Frances Yeend and Canadian bass-baritone George London, as “The Bel Canto Trio” and send them on a lengthy tour of the U.S. and Canada.

In the midst of this tour, Lanza and Yeend were showcased by Judson at a special Hollywood Bowl concert in the spring of 1947. Louis B. Mayer, head of M-G-M, was present at that concert and he, too was overwhelmed by Lanza’s voice. He was also much taken by his handsome good looks and, after undergoing a screen test, with his charisma in front of a camera. He was signed to a long-term deal to make musicals for M-G-M, to begin after this tour was over in 1948.

Oddly enough, however, Mayer failed to sign him to an exclusive contract to make records on the M-G-M label, as famed Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior was doing. This left the door open for RCA Victor to sign him in 1949—not to their popular black label, but to their prestigious Red Label, reserved for the best classical artists of the day. Yet when Lanza’s first records came out, discerning classical music critics were dismayed by his brassy, overloud delivery of arias, sometimes with musical mistakes or erratic phrasing in them. Because of this plus the intense promotion given to him by M-G-M, he began to be dismissed as a mere showoff and not a serious artist.

Lanza gave only one full, legitimate opera performance in his life, as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly in New Orleans in 1948. Pinkerton is one of the shortest “star” roles for tenor in the entire repertoire; although he sings on and off through most of Act I, his character does not reappear until the third act, and in that he sings very little. This performance has become a source of controversy. An opera buff who I briefly knew in the early 1970s, Bob Kean, told me that he went out of his way to see this “phenom” since he had heard him on the radio and wanted to see how good he was in person. His assessment was that he really only sang well in the known showpieces, the “Dovunque al mondo” duet with the baritone and the love duet with the soprano, in Act I; otherwise, he was barely audible, in part because he kept looking at the sleeve of his Navy Lieutenant’s costume on which he had a great many of the words written in pen! I’ve not read or heard another first-hand account of that performance, but apparently it was not a success because he was never asked to sing another performance again until 1959.

During his early years in Hollywood, both his directors and fellow cast members came to be leery of the exceptionally talented young man in their midst. Lucy Fischer and Marcia Landy, in their book Stars: The Film Reader (Rutledge, 2004), state that Lanza quickly gained a reputation for being “rebellious, tough, and ambitious.” In her 1963 memoir The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that “his smile, which was as big as his voice, was matched with the habits of a tiger cub, impossible to housebreak.” Apparently, Lanza began eating and drinking to excess the more famous he became—not, as with some performers, to steady their nerves (he was apparently nervy enough for three people), but just because he liked to celebrate his newfound success beyond his wildest dreams. And yes, there are moments in his films when you can see this in his eyes.

Apparently, Lanza had the strange habit of treating young, up-and-coming sopranos with kindness but acting in a superior way towards established veterans. Gloria Boh, a young soprano who was hired as the understudy for Licia Albanese in Serenade, recalled that he was very friendly and down-to-earth with her, but veteran Dorothy Kirsten, who sang with him in The Great Caruso, described him as cocky and arrogant towards her…and Kirsten had worked for nearly two seasons on the radio with one of the (supposedly) most arrogant men in show business, Al Jolson. As for his relationship with M-G-M, that, too became strained. During the filming of The Student Prince in 1954, he was fired for a violent disagreement with director Curtis Bernhardt over the singing of one of his songs. Lanza, who thought his stardom made him immune to such an action, sunk into a deep depression for nearly a year, taking refuge in drink. It couldn’t have made his disposition any sunnier.

Yet somehow, despite the drinking, the binge eating and crash dieting to lose weight for upcoming film roles, he never damaged his amazing voice. Veteran soprano Licia Albanese, who sang the Act II duet from Otello with him in the film Serenade, put it best. After debunking the rumor that he had a small voice that had to be boosted by microphones, adding that “He had everything that one needs. The voice, the temperament, perfect diction. … Vocally he was very secure. All he needed was coaching. Everything was so easy for him.” But perhaps that was the problem. Because singing came to easily to him, and he was now rich and famous, he didn’t feel any need to refine his approach, to try to sing in a more legitimate fashion. And he didn’t spend the time he really needed to learn a role unless he had to sing it—and he usually didn’t.

In 1957, he moved permanently to Rome and used it as his base for further films and recordings. The following year he gave a concert tour of England, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, where many Europeans who had never heard him sing “live” had the opportunity to do so—and were floored by the beauty and power of his voice (among them soprano Joan Sutherland and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge). Yet although he gave 22 concerts, he canceled several of them because his health was failing. A year later, diagnosed with heart problems and coming down with pneumonia, he was clearly not in good shape. In September of 1959, wanting a new way to crash diet for another film, he elected to try a medically controversial new program known as “the twilight sleep treatment” in which he was put into suspended animation with drugs. It was too much for his weakened heart, and so on October 7 he died of a pulmonary embolism. His wife Betty was completely devastated by the loss; she and their four children returned to Hollywood, where she died five months later from a drug overdose.

Yet in a sense, Lanza did a lot of good for classical music. He attracted millions of listeners who otherwise would never give the Met Opera matinee broadcasts the time of day, and many of them remained opera lovers for life. The problem was, there was no one with a fifth of his talent to replace him. RCA tried in the 1960s with Sergio Franchi, an Italian-American Las Vegas entertainer with an OK voice who they also signed to their Red Seal label, but who didn’t sell one-fifth as many records as Lanza was still doing after his death. Another singer who tried to fill Lanza’s shoes was Enzo Stuarti, two years Lanza’s senior, who had sung unsuccessfully under the names Larry Laurence and Larry Stuart before picking Stuarti as his professional name. Stuarti, who was one of my customers on a newspaper route I had as a girl in West Paterson, New Jersey, actually sold more records than Franchi, and was more popular on TV, largely due to his affable, down-to-earth personality, but he wasn’t Mario Lanza, either.

But how “illegitimate” was Lanza’s style in its time? Actually, he wasn’t any worse than Gigli had been, adding gulps and sobs to break up the vocal line. He just had a more powerful voice than Gigli’s, sort of a cross between Gigli and Mario del Monaco, another large-voiced tenor who was known for singing everything too loudly. His problem was that he often combined the faults of both tenors in his delivery, but when he behaved himself and tried to be artistic—and he clearly could when he wanted to—there was nothing at all wrong with his performances except that the voice is so instantly recognizable that people know it’s Mario Lanza, thus they automatically start picking his performances apart in a more minute manner than if they were listening to a Gigli, a del Monaco, or a di Stefano (who also had his own flaws and foibles).

For me, personally, and I would assume for several others, the one thing that bothers me in many Lanza performances is the way he will suddenly explode his voice at full volume in passages where it is neither called for nor appreciated. He almost gives one the impression of some guy whose face is turning red as a beet and his eyes become crossed the more he belts out those loud high notes. Yet one can find a fairly large number of pretty cleanly-sung performances that, although loud in places, are not tasteless.

The other problem, however, is the almost overwhelming emotional impact of Lanza’s voice. As veteran opera star Placido Domingo put it, “There was a visceral quality to the Lanza voice which, even to this day, grabs one with astonishing force…his voice remains a force of nature.” And this, too, is what bothers people. One simply does not sing in such an uninhibited manner. It’s as if Lanza poured every ounce of the love, rage, excitement or fear that was inside him every time he sang, and this is very embarrassing to many people. It wasn’t that he was a singer who was occasionally a bit sloppy and overloud, it was more that this outpouring of emotion frightened people, and in many cases still does.

So let’s put aside the many distorted, over-the-top Lanza recordings and focus on the ones he did do well…and explain why they’re good.

Bizet: Agnus Dei – 1948, with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Miklos Rosza. Here’s a performance that introduces us to two of Lanza’s greatest assets: his matchless half-voice—by far the most beautiful since Caruso’s, though the timbre closer resembles Gigli—and his superb breath control. Many times, one doesn’t notice the latter because of his breaking up the musical line with glots and sobs à la Gigli, but when he had a mind to, he actually had better breath control, and phrasing, than Gigli did.

Begin the Beguine – 1952, from the Coca-Cola radio program. An example of Lanza using his superb phrasing and breath control in a pop song. And here we notice one of his greatest assets: his diction. Not only was it perfect, whether in Italian, English, Latin or French, but it was crystal-clear. I’d give anything to hear a modern American or British tenor sing words this clearly. It was one of the things the old singing masters taught their prize pupils: “Put the words on your lips, and let the breath run them out.” Think about that for a minute. Or two.

Puccini: La fanciulla del West: Ch’ella mi creda – 1940 private recording. Here we have the 19-year-old Lanza, five years before he studied with Rosati, and the voice sounds remarkably well-settled for a 19-year-old tenor. And here, the phrasing is clean. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone with his power, so he just sang the aria superbly.

Verdi: La traviata – Libiamo (1949 movie clip w/Grayson) & Parigi o cara (1947 Hollywood Bowl performance w/Yeend) – Excellent performances by Lanza, particularly the latter which he sings very sensitively and tastefully. There’s a commercial recording of the former with the chorus (which, for some bizarre reason, was left out of the movie version), but he sings much too loudly on that one and the soprano lacks Grayson’s charm. She didn’t have much voice, but she did have charm/

Guardian Angels – 1951 studio recording. This strange song, recorded for Lanza’s Christmas albumin 1951, was written by none other than Arthur “Harpo” Marx with lyrics by one Gerda Beilenson. When I first heard it back in the late 1960s, I was overwhelmed by both the interesting structure of the song and the intensity of Lanza’s performance, but couldn’t figure out how on earth Harpo Marx wrote a song for him. It turns out that Harpo originally wrote it in 1945 for a film titled War Bond Drive, with lyrics by Gerda Beilenson, the wife of Marx brothers attorney Larry Beilenson, and it was Larry who was able to show the song to Lanza, who liked it very much. It is an absolutely stunning performance, so good, in fact, that no one else other than Placido Domingo has ever recorded it, and his version is slower, laid-back, and sung as a duet with Jackie Evancho. He was wise not to try to rival Lanza’s performance. No one can.

Der Rosenkavalier: Di rigori armato – 1955 film recording w/Jacob Gimpel, pianist. I’ve heard dozens of legitimate tenors sing, or try to sing, this famous aria. If you can name me ONE tenor other than Helge Rosvaenge who has sung it this well, I’d like to hear it.

Verdi: Rigoletto – Questa o quella (1950), E il sol dell’anima (1949 Hollywood Bowl w/Mary Jane Smith), La donna è mobile (1957) – Lanza over-belted his other excerpt from Rigoletto, the aria “E il sol dell’anima,” but in these three excerpts he is marvelous. I’ve never heard anyone sing the rhythms in the first and third of these with the kind of insouciant syncopation that Lanza does, and it suits the music and the character of the Duke. In “E il sol,” he again shows off his Gigli-like half voice to great effect. Unfortunately, soprano Mary Jane Smith is nothing to write home about: she sounds like a bad church soprano.

Puccini: La bohème – O soave fanciulla (1955 w/Jean Fenn, soprano) – As a soprano, Jean Fenn is a cut, maybe a cut and a half, above Mary Jane Smith but she’s not first-rate. Lanza is. His phrasing is clean, his tone seductive, and he does NOT try to compete with the soprano’s high note at the end—as written.

I’m Falling in Love With Someone (1954 test pressing) – another excellent performance that should have been issued long ago.

Mozart: Cosí fan tutte – E voi sapete (1958 w/Paolo Silveri, baritone, Plinio Clabassi, bass & Rome Opera Orchestra) – Huh? What? Mario Lanza singing MOZART??!? Yes, indeed – a full minute of the trio from Act I of Cosí fan tutte. And he does a great job on it. Play THIS one for your Lanza-hating friends without telling them who the tenor is. They’ll probably choke when they find out.

Romberg: The Student Prince – Serenade. 1946 radio performance from “Great Moments in Music.” I really like this performance, a lot better than his more famous recording from the mid-1950s where he seems to be trying to outshout the entire orchestra. Superb legato phrasing and, as always, perfect English diction.

Roses of Picardy – 1952 Coca-Cola Show transcript. This sweet, touching song from the late Victorian era about a flower seller in Covent Garden has been sung by dozens of tenors, both legitimate and pop, as well as a few baritones, but I’ve never heard anyone sing it this well, and with this much feeling without overplaying his hand. This is truly one of Lanza’s masterpieces,

Giordano: Fedora – Amor ti vieta – Another 1952 Coca-Cola Show broadcast (it may be from the same show as above; I don’t know one way or the other). The most beautifully and rhapsodically sung version since Caruso’s 1902 G&T recording.

For the First Time [Come Prima] – One of his last recordings, made for the soundtrack of the film of the same name. If there is any tenor on earth today who could sing as seductively as this, I’ve yet to hear him.

220px-Mario_Lanza_OtelloVerdi: Otello – Già nella notte densa (1945 broadcast w/Jean Tennyson, soprano), Dio ti giocondi (1955 film recording w/Gloria Boh, soprano), Dio mi potevi scagliar (1955 film recording), Niun mi tema (1958 w/Rome Opera Orchestra) – Jean Tennyson was a popular radio singer of the 1940s who was considered to be an “operatic soprano.” If you know the opera company that would hire this miserable specimen, please post a message on this article. But Lanza is utterly fantastic; his interpretation is sensitive, his phrasing superb. In fact, he sings this difficult duet better than Mario del Monaco ever did. He is also superb in “Dio ti giocondi.” I prefer this outtake with Gloria Boh better than the issued version with Licia Albanese simply because Albanese’s voice was too bright for Desdemona; her tone had no depth or richness. I do, however, like the “Dio mi potevi scagliar” from that session: a bit overplayed, but not much; and Lanza’s 1958 recording of Otello’s final aria, “Niun mi tema,” is also exemplary, forsaking his usual tear-passion-to-tatters style. There is no better way to end this survey than these recordings. From any angle you look at it, Lanza was a superb Otello, far better than anyone I’ve heard in the post-Jon Vickers era.

All the above recordings are available on YouTube for free streaming. Happy listening!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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Laura Catrani Sings…Weird Stuff!

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DE ROSSI RE: Vox in Bestia – Inferno. FRANCESCHINI: Vox in Bestia – Purgatorio. SOLBIATI: Animalia – Paradiso / Laura Catrani, sop / Stradivarius STR 37207

And here’s yet another album that lovers of modern music will lap up while those who just love their Bohèmes and Traviatas with abhor: a solo vocal recital of a cappella modern music. Laura Catrani, a young Italian soprano, has loved singing modern repertoire since she was a voice student, performing Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III which, she says, became her “pièce de resistance.” As she puts it in the liner notes:

Meticulous research, technical abilities and musical intuitions are at the basis of this repertoire. The composers commissioned to write new pieces have to take into consideration my vocality and my proclivities; music tailored for the performer reflects its uniqueness, and singing, today more than ever, draws on personal resources, highlighting musical and theatrical attitudes.

For this recital, she asked modern composers Fabrizio De Rossi Re, Matteo Francheschini and Alessandro Solbiati, all names unknown to me, to compose five short pieces based on Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso that talk about animals.

The Inferno excerpts begin with a fairly long narration, and the first note you hear out of Catrani is a very low one, almost a contralto note. Beyond the opening, there are very few words in the music; most of it is comprised of syllabic sounds. Much of the music consists of yells and outbursts, yet there are arching, lyrical lines that connect it all. And by golly, it DOES sound like something Berio would have written for Cathy Berberian!

The animals from the Inferno start out with a panther, lion and she-wolf, but then move on to creepy crawlies such as flies, wasps and worms (not my idea of animals, certainly) and then birds (starlings, cranes and turtle doves), followed by the Dog of Hell, Cerberus…not my idea of a cuddly puppy. Yet the music, despite its oddity, is fascinating, and Catrani’s performances are utterly startling in the wide range of notes and vocal effects they call for. Sophie Dunér and Sarah Maria Sun would surely take to this music. Purgatorio contains the falcons, curs, and the good ol’ lamb o’ God. If anything, Franceschini’s music is even weirder than De Rossi Re’s; in “The Curs,” he alternates some truly lovely music with vocal sounds from Catrani that sound as if someone is goosing her in the butt as she’s singing.

I don’t mean to imply that I found all of this music comical, only small bits of it. Most of it was really quite fascinating, albeit surely over the heads of most classical listeners. And it clearly suits Dante, whose works are full of bizarre descriptions.

This is a truly unique CD, which you’ll either enjoy and appreciate or hate and deprecate. It all depends on how this music strikes you.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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