Eldad Tarmu’s Fascinating Jazz Quartet


TARMU: Café Sole. Self-Inflicted Wounds. El Hypnotizador. Beneath the Gloss and Shine. Kinda Elegant. No Makeup. A Tale of Dirt and Flowers. Mating Calls. Tall Grass Prairie / Eldad Tarmu, vib; Adam Hutcheson, a-sax; Sam Bevan, bass/e-bass; Cangiz Baysal, dm / Queen of Bohemia Productions J002

Those listeners expecting just another jazz quartet will be surprised and delighted by this debut release of the Los Angeles-born vibist-composer. Initially, all sounds pretty normal to the ear, but as the music progresses one is constantly surprised (and, I would hope, delighted) by the little wrinkles he adds to his compositions.

Even from the opening of Café Sole, one notices the Thelonious Monk-like shape and progression of his musical lines, with the addition of a slightly irregular meter in some spots. Alto saxist Adam Hutcheson has no problem improvising on Tarmu’s quirky melody-and-harmony combination; undoubtedly this quartet has had a comfortable working relationship. In face, another of the pleasures one takes from these performances is the utterly relaxed playing of bassist Sam Bevan and drummer Caongiz Baysal. My sole complaint is that Baysal whacks the snare and the rims of the snare a bit too loudly for the subtly mood that Tarmu and Hutcheson create above him, but that is simply a matter of taste, not a fault of misunderstanding the basic musical conception.

Self-Inflicted Wounds is a more uptempo piece in the same vein, this time with Hutcheson leading off with the quirky melody. On this track, the microphones were reversed, with Hutcheson coming out of the right channel and Tarmu out of the left. More often than not in these performances Tarmu is content to let Hutcheson fill most of the solo space, but on this track he shows his mettle on vibes. He’s not a flashy player, but a highly musical one who understands how to create meaningful solos. Hutcheson goes a bit “outside” on this track, and the quartet as a whole is in fact quite satisfying.

Indeed, as the CD goes along, you begin to realize that it is each performance as a unified whole that impresses you, not just the individual solos. The consistently relaxed feeling gives the whole set the feeling of a very high-grade cocktail lounge set, the kind of music that makes the fnely-tuned listener stop sipping their cocktail to turn around and really listen. Surely, if the strange but funky Beneath the Gloss and Shine doesn’t grab your attention, you really need to be listening to something other than jazz.

Perhaps the subtlest member of the group is bassist Bevan, who never solos but plays a consistently fine accompaniment to what is going on in the top line. His playing also adds buoyancy and lilt to the proceedings, even in a ballad-type piece such as Kinda Elegant, which just may be the closest thing in form to a conventional tune on this CD…yet even here, the band picks up the tempo a bit and the solos are really good here.

One of the things I really liked about this CD was Tarmu’s ability to use funky beats in many of his compositions and still make them sound light and airy. You’ll find this to be one of those jaaz CDs that you play fairly regularly because it has that rare combination of relaxed camaraderie and creativity.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Rediscovering Roland Hayes


Long before Lawrence Brownlee, Vinson Cole or even George Shirley, the most celebrated African-American tenor—in fact, for decades the only African-American tenor—was Roland Hayes (1887-1977). He was not only the first African-American tenor to have an international career, he was the ONLY black singer before Marian Anderson, who emerged about a decade after he did, to have one.

The deck was clearly stacked against Hayes, mostly because of his race but also because he chose to be an art song and lieder singer rather than an operatic one. The choice was smart; he knew full well that no opera house in the world was going to hire a black tenor unless it was to sing Monastatos in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, even though he had a medium-sized voice and, in his early years, a good, ringing top range which lessened in its power and ring as he aged. Of course, he also knew that he had an uphill battle just to do what he wanted to do, but Hayes was proud and stubborn. He was determined to have a career no matter what. According to Christopher A. Brooks, who did a program on Hayes for the Association of Recorded Sound Collections, all those who knew him from adolescence onward were struck “by his remarkable drive and determination.”

As a result of this attitude he made it, in part by loading up his programs with several spirituals to balance out the art songs. It’s not that I dislike all spirituals, but that I find them more closely related to popular music than art music…or, to be more precise, church music of a popular kind. When spirituals are sung by a concerted group of voices, they at least have polyphony and an interweaving of voices (both physical in the singers’ throats and musical “voices”) that add interest, but as recital pieces they are, for me, really just filler or encore material. (I won’t get into the religiosity of their subject matter, to which I simply don’t respond at all.) But Hayes set the tone for black concert singers performing spirituals in an art song manner, and this tradition has stuck through the last century.

Of course, for Hayes spirituals were personally important. As a teenager it was his job to learn spirituals from the elders at Mt.

All Over

An original Edison machine playing Hayes’ cylinder of “All Over This World,” from a YouTube video.

Zion Baptist Church and teach them to the congregation. Hayes loved to sing, and had such a good voice that was admitted to Fisk Institute (later University) in 1906, when he was 19 years old, despite the fact that he only had a 6th-grade education. Hayes joined the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers seven years later, where he stayed until 1914. His very first recordings were two spirituals recorded for Edison in February 1912, but since they were only issued on cylinders (Edison didn’t start his flat Diamond Discs until later that year), they remain very rare recordings. Happily one of them, All Over This World, has been uploaded on YouTube. Due to his vocal superiority, Hayes gets the lead tenor line in this recording, thus you can hear his then-ringing voice from the opening notes of this exceptionally lively spiritual, which almost sounds like a ragtime song (though of course it emerged much earlier, in the 1870s). But this would be the last time a commercial record company issued any of Hayes’ records for general sales until his Vocalion session of 1924. By this time, he had already decided to become a professional singer after having been deeply impressed by Enrico Caruso’s 1907 recording of “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci. Although he knew that he’d never be able to be an opera singer due to racial prejudice,. he was bound and determined to be a professional tenor himself.

Hayes received his first voice lessons from Arthur Calhoun. who exposed him for the first time to art music, but even then he had to fight his mother who thought he was wasting his time and money. When at Fisk he studied with Jenny Robinson, but by early 1912 they had a falling out. Two years later he was kicked out of Fisk. Hayes then went to Boston where he studied with Arthur Hubbard, who was so impressed by his voice that he offered to teach him if he came to his home instead of his studio. To pay for his lessons and support himself, Hayes worked as a messenger for John Hancock Life Insurance. His debut concert was given in 1915, at age 28, in a New York concert presented by conductor Walter Craig. In the summer he would travel to Chataqua and Atlantic City, and early on he put together a quartet which he called The Hayes Singers to perform with at local fairs.

Vesti la giubba labelBut for whatever reason, Hayes was continually being shafted by the record companies.  He had to pay out of his own pocket for his 1917 recording session with Columbia, where they only pressed “personal records” for him in limited quantities. We should be grateful that, somehow, copies survived. If you go to the Discography of Historical American Recordings and enter Hayes’ name, you will see the results of his frustration. In addition to an untitled and therefore undocumented test pressing he made for Victor in 1917, there were three rejected masters from 1923, five from 1927 and four from 1936. Apparently, Victor didn’t think that this voice which recorded so well was marketable.

And it wasn’t just in the recording studio. Although he toured the U.S. extensively in the late 1910s, all of those tours were self-managed, meaning that he made almost nothing financially but was still able to get his voice and name before the public. The real beginning of his international career came in 1920 when he traveled to England. In addition to setting up concerts, he took further voice lessons from the highly respected baritone and conductor Sir George Henschel. Those collectors who are familiar with Henschel’s voice will tell you two things: he kept it forever, being still able to sing without strain or a wobble at age 80, but although the voice remained firm it dried out in tone and began to lose its ringing top as he aged. Eventually, the same virtues and liabilities could be heard in Hayes’ voice. It remained excellent into the 1940s, when he was in his fifties, but by then its power had diminished somewhat and, by the 1950s, the timbre became somewhat “gray”-sounding.

But Hayes worked hard and diligently to be a first-rate interpreter, and this was his calling card—that here was a Negro tenor who could compete with any white man as an interpreter of art songs. As he toured Europe, however, he sometimes met with strong opposition from white audiences who bristled at the idea of a black man singing “their” repertoire. The worst came in Berlin in 1923, where the audience mocked him for ten solid minutes when he came out on stage. Hayes just looked at them, saying nothing and revealing nothing on his face, then began the concert with Schubert’s “Du bist die ruh’,” which wasn’t o the program. When he was finished, the audience exploded in applause and his detractors became admirers mobbed him onstage to congratulate him. There was one American in that group who reached out to shake hands with him, saying “Goddamnit, put it there! That’s the first time I’ve ever seen these Krauts admit that ANYONE American could do their  music right!”

Go Down MosesDuring that same year, Hayes returned to the U.S. to make his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux in a program including songs by Berlioz and Mozart as well as spirituals. By the mid-1920s, he no longer had to pay to put on his own concerts; on the contrary, he was earning around $100,00 a year, which equates to about a million dollars a year in today’s money.

But some hard times lay ahead, particularly in Germany. First, there was an affair he had in 1925 with Bertha Henriette Nadine, Gräfin von Coolredo-Mansfied, a Czech aristocrat who became pregnant as a result. Her husband, the Count, refused to let the expected child bear his name or be raised with the couple’s older children. They quietly divorced in Prague, and Bertha gave birth to Hayes’ child, a daughter. in Basel. Roland offered to adopt the baby, but Bertha, oddly, wanted to continue their relationship while hiding it at the same time. This sad story, oddly enough, had a happy ending; when the little girl grew up, she married Russian émigré Yuri Mikhailovich Bogdanoff.

Song Recital album coverThings did not go well afterward, however, In 1931, Hayes tried to end the practice of segregated seating at several concerts, including Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, but met with hostility and resistance. In 1933 he had to cancel all concerts in Germany and refuse to return once the Nazis took power. But there were others, including an incident in July 1942 when he was assaulted in Rome, Georgia by not the Ku Klux Klan but by the local police. Again according to Christopher Brooks, “The news of this ‘beat-down’ was heard around the world. The New York Times headline read, ‘Beaten in Georgia. Says Roland Hayes, Negro Singer.’ Both he and his wife were put in jail. Civil rights icons like Walter White, Thurgood Marshall, Merrill McLeod Bethune and many others screamed to the top of their lungs about this dastardly deed.” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt chose to work behind the scenes, but she did her part including resuscitating Hayes’ career, which even by the mid-1940s was on a downward trajectory. True to the Henschel method of singing, Hayes’ voice remained firm, showing no trace of unsteadiness even into his 80s, but the high range lost its brightness and the tone became gray in quality.

Columbia labelYet ironically, it was in 1941 that Hayes finally made records in America for an American label that were actually released. This was A Song Recital By Roland Hayes, an album of five 10” 78s on the Columbia Masterworks label, and not too surprisingly considering the demand, it sold pretty well. Despite the winding-down of his career and the fact that he turned 60 in 1947 Hayes continued to concertize, but by the mid-1950s he was only giving one concert a year, a schedule he would keep until his very last concert in the early 1970s. Despite his loss of vocal sheen and power,  this is the period in which he made most of his recordings, a series of LPs for the Vanguard label, and unfortunately this is how posterity has largely judged him.

Yet there were a precious few good recordings to come out of the Vanguard period which, when added to the few acoustics that have surfaced and his 1941 Columbias, give a pretty good picture of this excellent tenor’s art. Here are links to some of the very best, spanning most of his career on discs:

By an’ By (1917 Columbia private record)
Twilight (Harry Burleigh) (1917 Columbia private record)
Pagliacci: Vesti la giubba (Leoncavallo) (1917 Columbia private record)
Go Down Moses (1924 Vocalion)
Sit Down (1924 Vocalion)
Die liebe hat gelogen (Schubert) (1941 Columbia)
Der Musensohn (Schubert) (1941 Columbia)
Du bist die ruh’ (Schubert) (1941 Columbia)
Xango / Micheu Banjo (1941 Columbia)
Maladetto sia l’aspetto (Monteverdi) (1941 Columbia)
La Calamita di Cuori: Eviva rosa bella (Galuppi) (1941 Columbia)
Douce dame jolie (de Machaut) (1956 Vanguard)
L’amour de moi (Quilter) (1956 Vanguard)
Les nuits d’été: Absence (Berlioz) (1956 Vanguard)
Come Again, Sweet Love (Dowland) (1956 Vanguard)
Le Tambourin (Rameau) (Vanguard, 1956)
Amarilli (Caccini) (Vanguard, 1956)
Die rechte stimmung (Telemann) (Vanguard, 1956)
Bist du bei mir (Gottfried Stolzel-J.S. Bach) (Vanguard, 1956)
Sehnsucht (Beethoven) (Vanguard, 1956)
Tamerlano: Figlia mia, non piangere, no (Handel) (Vanguard, 1956)
Le faune (Debussy) (Vanguard, 1956)
Song of Salomon (Mussorgsky) (Vanguard, 1956)
Li’l David, Play on Your Harp (Spiritual) (Vanguard, 1959)
You Hear the Lambs A-Cryin’ (Roland Hayes) (Vanguard, 1959)
Dry Bones (Spiritual) (Vanguard, 1959)

Vanguard coverWhen you finish listening to all of these recordings, you will get not only a good perspective as to the condition of Hayes’ voice at various points in his career—great in the 1917-24 tracks, quite good in 1941, decently good ion 1956-59—but also a perspective on his artistry. Despite the fact that the Pagliacci aria is a carbon copy of Caruso’s phrasing, the state of his voice in those years makes you sad that he didn’t sing more opera arias in his recitals.

As for the various songs of different countries, cultures and eras, Hayes was moderately good as to style but, like everyone who came up pre-1950, not entirely accurate. Historically-informed performance practice was just getting started when he made his 1956-59 recordings, and even in Germany and Austria it wasn’t very accurate until about the mid-1960s, by which time Hayes had stopped recording. His Wikipedia page claims that he was praised for his fluency in several languages, but in listening closely I believe that he learned his German and Italian (and possibly his French) phonetically rather than by using a language coach, thus his pronunciation is only approximate, though pretty good approximate, in his recordings of German and Italian music. Again, he was not alone among North American tenors. The great Jon Vickers, who came up around the mid-1950s, only sang in studied Italian and German, and his German pronunciation was even worse than Hayes’, yet he was accepted at Bayreuth and in German theaters singing the operas of Wagner. Hayes’ performance of Mussorgsky’s Song of Salomon deserves special attention; I’m not 100% certain that it’s the only song he ever recorded in Russian, but I’ve not run across another, and although his command of the language isn’t as idiomatic as that of Paul Robeson, it’s still pretty good…and his interpretation is first-rate.

For his time and place, Hayes was a fine interpreter. I’d place his recording of Schubert’s Die liebe hat gelogen up against anyone’s in terms of interpretation, even that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and several of the other songs in both German and Italian are quite good. This was pretty rare for a non-German who came up before 1960. In some of the Italian songs one hears a little technical device that was typical of singers trained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an elegant and easy use of grace notes (grupetti) coming from above or below the written note. Most singers nowadays simply cannot sing like this because they aren’t trained to do so. Taken as a whole, it is a pretty impressive recital, although I omitted his 1941 recording of Beethoven’s Adelaide because it’s just OK and not really as “inside” of an interpretation as those of Fischer-Dieskau or Jussi Björling (his 1939 recording). I believe that Hayes was wise to limit his recitals to just once a year in his old age. It let him pick a date when his voice was in good condition while still giving audiences who had never heard him a chance to do so in relatively optimal conditions. All in all, this is as good a summary of Hayes’ career as I was able to muster, and I hope you all enjoy listening to it.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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The Art Books of Alain Locke

book covers

THE NEGRO AND HIS MUSIC / By Alain Locke, Ph.D. (Associates in Negro Folk Education, Washington D.C., 1936, 152 pp. available for free reading online at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015009742886&view=1up&seq=152)

NEGRO ART PAST AND PRESENT / By Alain Locke, Ph.D. (Associates in Negro Folk Education, Washington D.C., 1936, 122 pp., republished by Martino Fine Books, 2020, available at https://www.amazon.com/Negro-Art-Present-Alain-Locke/dp/1684225035)

Here is my contribution to Black History Month, a review of two once-important but now-neglected books on African-American art and music by one of the most important  but also now neglected writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Dr. Alain LeRoy Locke, Ph.D.

Born Arthur Leroy (small r) Locke in Philadelphia on September 13, 1886, he changed his first name at age 16 to Alain LeRoy (capital R). After graduating high school, he attended Harvard where he earned degrees in English and Philosophy; then, in 1907, he became the first African-American to be selected as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford—and the last one selected until John Edgar Wideman and John Stanley Sanders were chosen for this honor. Three years later he attended the University of Berlin, so he was clearly a man with a first-class mind.


Alain Locke

After receiving an assistant professorship at Howard University in 1912, Locke returned to Harvard in 1916 to work on his doctoral dissertation, The Problem of Classification in the Theory of Value. He was invited to be guest editor of the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic for a special edition titled “Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro.” In December 1925 he expanded this in a book titled The New Negro which also contained writings by other authors. The book was so positively and powerfully received that it launched what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, in which literate, modern-minded black men and women came to the fore in a cultural revolution against the stereotype of blacks as earthy and funny but dumb and uncultured. Sadly, as we know from history, the national backlash of American society to the Harlem Renaissance was largely negative. Even as late as the early 1970s, the joke was “What do they call a black nuclear physicist down South?…A n–ger!” (That is the actual joke. I do not endorse or approve of the language in it, though it’s true.) I’ve cleaned up and uploaded Locke’s contribution to the book as an Adobe PDF file. If you download it, you will discover that it s formatted to be printed out as 2-sided pages which, when folded in order, will make a neat little booklet. You can download it HERE –The New Negro.

Within these 14 pages you will find an encapsulated version of Locke’s view towards the Harlem Renaissance. It is a rather Pollyanna-ish view of the situation:

The migrant masses, shifting from countryside to city, hurdle several generations of experience at a leap, but more important, the same thing happens spiritually in the life-attitudes and self-expression of the Young Negro, in his poetry, his art, his education and his new outlook, with the additional advantage, of course, of the poise and greater certainty of knowing what it is all about. From this comes the promise and warrant of a new leadership…The day of :aunties,” “uncles” and “mammies” is equally gone. Uncle Tom and Sambo have passed on, and even the “Colonel” and “George” okay barnstorm roles from which they escape with relief when the public spotlight is off.

I understand his enthusiasm, but unfortunately, Locke was wrong. Even by the time this book was published, the white establishment had invaded even Harlem, the largest black bastion in North America, and taken over its entertainment district. The smaller night clubs and bistros formerly owned by blacks after World War I were gone, and the larger venues like the Kentucky Club and the Cotton Club were owned by whites. Except for the cooks, waiters and entertainment, there were no colored faces in their audiences. They were entirely white. And of course we all know now how blacks continued to be treated both in society and in the movies, as servants who had to shick-and-jive their way through the script. Just remember Stepin Fetchit for an example of the black caricature that was still permeated in the film business, or the way Louis Armstrong and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson were portrayed in films, as “yowzah”-spouting servants.

Among the writers and artists who flourished in the New York area during this period were Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Eric D. Walrond, Marcus Garvey and Countee Cullen. Black musicians like Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson were also “grandfathered” into the movement. The oldest member, by far, was sociologist, historian and Pan-African civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, yet it was the younger Locke who was considered the father of the movement. Du Bois and Locke had arguments, however, over the correct social functions of black art. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Du Bois thought it was a role and responsibility of the Negro artist to offer a representation of the Negro and black experience which might help in the quest for social uplift. Locke criticized this as “propaganda” and argued that the primary responsibility and function of the artist is to express his own individuality, and in doing that to communicate something of universal human appeal.”[1]

This was the beginning of the slowly evolving idea of musical and literary artists as social justice warriors, but it took decades for black artists to finally assert themselves in this respect. During Locke’s lifetime, there were precious few who dared buck the system, the most prominent being the great bass and actor Paul Robeson, and he only did so due to his indoctrination in Soviet Communism. But of course the black bop musicians of the 1940s were also rebels, although quieter ones. Their rebellion was in their art, creating a method of playing jazz that was too complex and difficult for most white musicians to absorb. Yet it still took the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to put the finishing touches on what the Harlem Renaissance had started.

Nowadays we still have a split in the aesthetic philosophies of young black artists. A great many follow Locke’s example, which was to use their art, music and poetry to express their inner feelings but try to make it universally appealing, but there are a great many, both black and white (and nowadays also Latino) who feel it’s their duty to expound their personal political opinions in their music. I can’t tell you how many CDs I’ve been offered for review in which the focus of the album is not necessarily the music but a political message. This is even true of some classical CDs, but the overwhelming number are jazz. Nonetheless, I agree more with Locke than Du Bois on this point. Branding your artistic creation with a political message does not just damage it, it dates it. Just to cite one example, does anyone really care anymore about Nelson Rockefeller’s response to the Attica riots that prompted Charles Mingus to name one of his pieces after it? On a larger scale, the Du Bois vs. Locke argument can be compared to two Mexican artists of the 1930s and ‘40s who were lovers, muralist Diego Rivera and painter Frida Kahlo. Nearly all of Rivera’s murals were political, specifically touting the Soviet Communist system as a vast improvement on capitalism and specifically the workings of the Mexican government, while Kahlo’s paintings were intensely personal and almost shockingly powerful. Rivera is still studied in university courses, particularly by those who still hold a pro-Communist viewpoint, but by and large he is forgotten while Kahlo is revered as one of the greatest and most original artists of the 20th century.

Ironically. Locke is all but forgotten today while Du Bois is known almost universally. There are two reasons for this. The first was that Locke was homosexual and spent a great deal of time trying to convert young Renaissance writers and poets (especially Hughes) into being lovers, and this did not sit well with the younger members of the group. The second is that, unlike Du Bois, Locke was no self-promoter. On the contrary, he tended and preferred to stay in the background, so much so that by the time these two books were published by a small publishing house in Washington, D.C., it was a revival of interest in the man in the shadows. The books received good critical acclaim but, due to distribution problems, were not always available for people to buy and read. Arno Press and the New York Times reissued both books as a single volume in 1969, but that, too is out of print. Negro Art Past and Present was reissued by Martino Fine Books in 2020 and thankfully, this edition is still in print. In the header above, I have supplied a link to the full text of The Negro and his Music which can be read for free online.

Locke was a meticulous reader and listener who examined everything he wrote about in minute detail. processing it and rightfully declaring that Negro art and especially music, particularly jazz and the blues, were the wave of the cultural future, not only in American but globally. We now know that is was true insofar as jazz went, but as I pointed out in my book From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, most composers (but primarily Europeans) have fought the fusion of jazz and classical music because of the more advanced and technical aspects of modern classical, including the 12-tone and other modern schools which are incompatible with jazz, yet the trend continues to the present day.

The first of Locke’s books is, of course, the one primarily centered around music, and by and large he does a good job of covering all the bases. He was also one of those rare academics who could write in a style that was attractive and easy to read by the general public. He does not hit one over the head with “academic” writing of the sort that drips from the noses of college-professor books nowadays by both white and black authors but, on the contrary, tells a compelling story and makes his personal views known. Because his writing is so detailed and so compelling, he forced me to examine the recordings—particularly the early recordings of 1909-1926, which preserve a style of singing and method of performance that no longer exists—by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Of course the Jubilee Singers are still around, and it’s wonderful to hear them perform because (1) they’re using the original scores compiled in the 1870s, which were taken down directly from folk (congregational) performances of the time, and (2) you get to hear the whole choir including women’s voices whereas the early recording companies only used a male quartet, but the style of singing group spirituals has changed so drastically in the intervening years, now being influenced by gospel-blues and other modern styles, that to compare performances by the two groups is like night and day. The musical style of the early Fisk singers sounds entirely different from what we hear now, to the point where it is really not even possible to reconcile them. In short, both are good in their own way, but the earlier Fisk singers were much more authentic, presenting the way spirituals (as well as minstrel songs like James Bland’s Golden Slippers and Stephen Foster’s Old Black Joe) were probably sung in their original state.

So far, so good, and Locke’s two chapters on the era of minstrel shows in America are chock full of interesting and important information as well as a clear description of the difference between the two. The earlier style, which ended in the early 1870s (just after the end of the Civil War), was full of good songs, good vibes and respect between black and white performers, while the era 1875-1900 was full of cheap tunes, demeaning lyrics that devalued Africa-Americans, and the use of blackface to present blacks as cheap, ignorant drinkers and gamblers and nothing more. This unfortunately bled into the early decades of the 20th century, yet as Locke points out, the “dumb coon” stereotype of the minstrel shows was carried over to present dumb Italians, Jews, Swedes, Irish and Eastern Europeans during the vaudeville era. He also suggests, which is true, that Jewish entertainers in particular wore blackface not as a means of demeaning blacks but to celebrate their good qualities as well as to subtly signal that they suffered the same prejudice in society that blacks did if they were known to be Jews. (Even as late as the 1950s, Groucho Marx was denied membership in a country club he wanted to join so that his daughter Melinda, who was half-Jewish, could use their pool to swim. Groucho’s retort was, “Can the non-Jewish half of her at least use a part of the pool?”) Of course, today’s revisionists don’t understand this, thus even when they see a film clip of Al Jolson in blackface reading a Hebrew newspaper and winking at the camera, or see Eddie Cantor in blackface introducing the extraordinarily talented Nicholas Brothers to a national audience in one of his films, they don’t make the connection. Plain and simply, these two Jewish entertainers, Jolson and Cantor, were the last two to use blackface even into the 1940s, but they did it to present a solidarity with blacks, not to demean them.

Locke is somewhat sketchy on the ragtime era although he does mention, in passing, Scott Joplin and one or two other composers. Where he runs into trouble is in trying to describe the birth of jazz. He correctly attributes it to Louisiana and specifically New Orleans, but then throws 90% of the credit to blues publisher W.C. Handy. In this instance, however, I don’t altogether blame him. Handy was his own best promoter and liar about his importance in the development of jazz via the blues, and many of the blues he published under his name were simply stolen from street singers who had no legal recourse to sue him. Jelly Roll Morton specifically picks on Handy for telling him, during the early 1910s, that you could not notate the slurs and other rhythmic differences in blues and jazz tunes, Morton showed him how to do it; he had been doing it himself for some years by that time.

But alas, the name of Jelly Roll Morton appears nowhere in Locke’s book, as if he never even existed. This puzzles me for one reason, and that is that Morton’s Victor recordings were well distributed and pretty good sellers. I can understand that Locke probably never heard Morton’s early acoustic records or his few sides for Vocalion, but the Victors were a rich musical legacy that he should have known about. On the other hand, Northern blacks and especially New York residents like Locke often looked down their nose at the Southern styles of jazz. Another for-instance, he raves about Louis Armstrong but doesn’t put in a single word about Joe “King” Oliver, Armstrong’s mentor, even though Oliver’s band played in New York City on a regular basis between 1926 and 1930 (tenor saxophonist Lester Young even got his start in one of Oliver’s bands).

But there are some other strange quirks in the book. Perhaps the most glaring is his insistence that the tango is an “Afro-Cuban” dance rhythm. I don’t understand this at all, since by the time this book came out in 1936 it was well known that the tango originated in Argentina; in fact, Carlos Gardel, the most famous tango singer of all time, had already died by that time, and his records were everywhere. And then there are the strange misdates and wrong names in the book. Depending on what chapter you’re reading, or what portion if a chapter you’re reading, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered in both 1923 AND 1924. He praises, in passing, a group he calls the “Dixieland Orchestra” without saying which one it was, then suddenly identifies it as “LaRocca’s Dixieland Orchestra”—meaning, of course, the Original Dixieland Jazz BAND. Jimmie Lunceford’s first name is spelled either a Jimmie, the correct way, or Jimmy depending on his whim of the moment, but Benny Goodman’s first name is always misspelled as Bennie. He never once mentions the genius jazz pianist Art Tatum in his text, but in the listening guide at the end of one chapter we suddenly see five or six Tatum recordings recommended without a word as to who he was or why we should be listening to them. On the positive side, I was very happy to note that Locke was a fan of white musicians who played in the black style, even if, as he says, they never really get the loose rhythmic inflections 100% right. In this respect he praises Red Norvo, Red Nichols and “Leon” Beiderbecke (he must have known that he went by the name of Bix!) as well as pointing out that the 1926 Goldkette band was one of the great pioneers of ensemble jazz writing and playing. He is also right in saying that, as great an improviser as Louis Armstrong was, that the majority of his improvisations are rhythmic and not really newly improvised choruses that created new melodies, as in the case of Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, and other soloists of the day who he admired. (Come to think of it, in addition to ignoring Morton, he also ignored Sidney Bechet, whose “New Orleans Feetwarmers” sides were released by Victor in 1932. I really don’t think he liked the authentic New Orleans jazz very much.)

Where Locke is truly helpful and educational is in his listing of works he considers to be “classical jazz” in the sense of an integration of at least jazz rhythms (improvisation in any classical music, at that time, was strictly taboo), and in this case he brings up several names who don’t get much attention today, like Otto Cesana, Van Phillips and Reginald Foresythe as well as some heavily jazz-based pieces by Louis Gruenberg that I hadn’t known existed. Here are links to some of the most interesting and original of them:

Otto Cesana: Negro Heaven / Fabien Sevitzky conducting the Indianapolis Symphony Orch.

Louis Gruenberg: The Daniel Jazz / Paul Sperry, tenor; New York Virtuosi Chamber Symphony, Kenneth Klein, conductor

William Grant Still: Sahdji – Ballet / Howard Hanson conducting the Rochester Philharmonic Chorus & Orchestra

Locke correctly states that although he admired Gershwin for his love of jazz, his Piano Concerto somehow misses the mark of true Negro feeling and his opera Porgy and Bess contains too much “Puccini and Wagner.” He also points out that although Liszt was a composer who believe in improvisation, his musical style does not mix at all well with jazz when compared to J.S. Bach. This, of course, was proven not only in his own time but decades later when French pianist Jacques Loussier began his “Play Bach” jazz concerts. All of this reveals a finely-tuned musical mind though he purposely does not get too deeply into technical descriptions of the music. He apparently saw his job as that of a tour guide, not a musical analyst.

The last chapter of this book, “The Future of Negro Music,” lays more heavily into the creation of full-scale concert works, even if they lack jazz elements. Locke explains his reasoning for this and, although history has proven him wrong, I understand how he felt about the matter in 1936, the early years of the Swing Era, that jazz, even the most artistic jazz, was too tightly bound to popular music to be considered true art music, no matter how exciting, vital or meaningful. Since he lived until June 1954, however, he may have changed his views, having seen and heard first hand the bop and cool jazz revolutions which elevated jazz above popular music into its own realm. Yet here he also reverts to his Pollyanna views, expecting the Metropolitan Opera to hire Marian Anderson sometime soon when in fact she didn’t make her Met debut until after his death, and predicting the widespread acceptance of symphonies, ballets and concertos written by black composers to become part of the standard repertoire—which they still haven’t. Despite all of these quibbles, however, The Negro and his Music is a brilliant book, insightful and precisely detailed as to most of the musical styles that evolved from Negro culture, and a must-read for anyone interested in the musical aesthetics of the period 1909 (the year of the first Fisk Jubilee Quartet recordings) through 1936.

Moving on to Negro Art Past and Present, this is a more—how shall I put it?—esthetically complete and integrated (in the abstract rather than the racial meaning of the word) text, in part because the history of art is the history of art. Despite widely different styles and fields of visual art, its trajectory is less cluttered with too many competing styles at any one time, even in the early 20th century when Locke was alive and wrote this. You had your representational art (art that looked realistic), your surreal art (art that looked like real objects but were skewered or presented in a way that defied both perspective and physics), and your abstract art, which ranged from the broken forms of Picasso to the wholly abstract use of geometric shapes like Kandinsky. Yes, there were subtle modifications to these forms, as in the paintings of Arthur Rackham, Gustav Klimt, Tamara de Lampicka and Georgia O’Keefe, yet in one sense or another their work fits into one of the three general styles mentioned above. You might, however, describe the work of these four artists as being halfway between representational and abstract, and this is where much of African art also falls.

Locke makes a strong case in arguing that many centuries ago African artists produced  the most sophisticated art:

at least it is the most sophisticated modern artists and critics of our present generation who say so. And even should they be wrong as to this quality of African art, the fact still remains that there is an artistic tradition and skill in all the major craft  arts running back for generations and even centuries, among the principal African tribes, particularly those of the West Coast and Equatorial Africa from which Afro-Americans have descended. These arts are wood and metal sculpture, metal forging, wood carving, ivory and bone carving, weaving, pottery, skilled surface decoration in line and colorof all these crafts. in fact everything in the category of European fine arts except easel painting on canvas, marble sculpture and engraving and etching.

Thus, Locke argues,. the American Negroes who are the descendants of the Africans, even after three to four generations of enslavement, have at least a proclivity towards these arts that only needs to be brought out through study and practice, that the Afro-Americans are as much “naturals” at this sort of art as they are physiologically adept at physical movement and song. I certainly can’t argue with the latter assertion as it has been proven over and over again not only in my own lifetime but going back, at the very least, to the creation of jazz as a fusion of various earlier black musical forms, but in the back of my mind I can’t help feeling that Locke assumed a bit too much when it came to “racial memory” in the physical arts. Surely there were some among them, as there are in any race, who have that proclivity, but I also have the feeling that just because Joe has a great talent for artwork it doesn’t follow that his brother Jim or his sister Sue will also have anything close to his relent. Many are the families that turned out gifted artists who were complete anomalies when compared to everyone else in that family, regardless of race. I’m not arguing race at all but rather the argument that what your forefathers did well should be something you could also do well with a bit of training.

Where I completely agree with Locke is in his description of how blacks were represented in paintings et. al. until the end of the 18th century, as exotic, highly prized friends, household members or high-grade servants like pages and companions to royalty, then suddenly changed into something sub-human due to the curse of slavery. Slavery dehumanized the black man and woman, took away their intelligence, grace and even many of their cognitive functions, in order to make cotton-pickers, stevedores and “mammies” of them. The result of this dehumanization process was the white overlords’ conception of them as machines that did not require a motor or another human’s interaction to make them work. Locke puts it very well:

When a few Negroes did get contact with the skilled crafts, their work showed that there was some slumbering instinct of the artisan left, for especially in the early colonial days, before plantation slaves had become dominant, the Negro craftsmen were well-known as cabinet-makers, marquetry setters, wood carvers and iron-smiths…But the Negro’s artistry wa turned completely inside out. His taste, skill and artistic interests in America are almost the reverse of his original ones in Africa. [Bold print mine.] In Africa the dominant arts were the decorative and the craft arts…rigid, controlled, disciplined; heavily conventionalized, restrained. The latter [in America] are freely emotional, sentimental and exuberant, so that even the emotional temper of the American Negro is generally credited with a “barbaric love of color,”—which indeed he does seem to possess…What we have then thought “primitive” in the American Negro, his naïve exuberance, his spontaneity, his sentimentalism are, then, not characteristically African and cannot be explained as an ancestral heritage. They seem the result of his peculiar experience in America and the emotional upheavals of its hardships and their compensatory reactions.

Since I’ve not made a detailed study of physical art within all the various cultures, I cannot say how much of what Locke says here is unquestionably true, but although he was clearly too young to have any memory of slavery, he came from a generation that certainly had parents and grandparents who were slaves, thus I take him at his word. He clearly knows much more about this subject that I do, In this book, then, he is the master and I the pupil.

Clearly, there was at that time a rich crop of African-American artists producing quality work, among them Charles Alston, John Biggers, Robert Blackburn, Margaret Burroughs, Elizabeth Callett, Ernest Crichlow, Beauford Delaney, Aaron Douglas, Wilmer Jennings, William H. Johnson, Lawrence Jones, Lois Mailou Jones, Ronald Joseph and it speaks volumes about our modern education system that most of them as well as their ancestors and successors are not nearly as well known as their white contemporaries, both male and female. Perhaps this is because much of their art fell into the already-established categories mentioned above, primarily in the fanciful-representational field or the somewhat abstract style which later came to be associated with the “primitive” art of a white painter like Grandma Moses. Looking over some of the examples available online, I chose the two following because they struck me as among the most original as well as the most arresting visually.

"Can Fire in the Park," Beauford Delaney

“Can Fire in the Park,” Beauford Delaney

Moon Masque by Lois Mailou Jones

“Moon Masque,” Lois Mailou Jones

But I am getting ahead of myself, and Locke. He patiently covers the earliest African-American artists in America and explains how, despite their acquisition of superb artistic skills in both painting and sculpture from European artists, their work portrayed either historical images or portraits of white people. One sculptor who closely studied Rodin’s work was praised by him, yet most of the work thus produced had no black-centric theme. There were, however, two women sculptors who dared to break the mold by producing powerful, Negro-centric works: Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), whose Forever Free depicted a powerful freed black man defiantly raising his left hand holding the broken chains of his bondage and protecting his mulatto wife with his right, and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968), whose Ethiopia Awakening (1914) was probably the first representation of a proud, strong African woman produced by any black American artist (see below).

Forever Free - Edmonia Lewis

“Forever Free,” Edmonia Lewis

Even more interesting, however, was the “Negro Art Revival” which took place almost by accident. A British military expedition sacked and burned the ancient city of Benin in West Africa, Locke tells us,

as punishment for tribal raids and resistance to colonial penetration of the interior of that region…cartloads of cast bronze and carved ivory from the temples and the palaces were carried to England, and accidentally came to the auction block, Discerning critics recognized them to be of extraordinary workmanship in carving and casting…Acting without official orders, a young curator of the Berlin Museum bought up nearly half of this unexpected art treasure….duplicates were traded to form the basis of the famous collection at Vienna, ans the young scholar, Felix von Luschan, by a four-volume folio publication on this art and its historical background, easily became the outstanding authority of his generation on primitive African art.

Equally important was the exposure of a group of young, talented painters and art critics in Paris to excellent specimens of native African fetish carvings from the French West Coast colonies. At first their interest was purely technical and academic, but as they became more familiar with them they spurred the creation of both the Cubist and Surrealist art movements. Thus, just as African-American music permeated into the mainstream via ragtime, the blues and jazz to create an entirely new art form based on a looser use of syncopation and the creation of spontaneously improvised choruses, African-European art works created what we now know as the modern school of art. Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jacques Lipchitz, Chaim Soutine, Salvador Dali and particularly Amedeo Modigliani ALL came out of this art collection, which was given the French title of “L’Art Nègre.”

Ethiopia Awakening (1914) Meta Vaux Warrick

“Ethiopia Awakening” (1914), Meta Vaux Warrick

In a sense, then, at least half of the entire modern world of musical and visual art aesthetics was in one way or another created by black cultures. For better or worse, however, these school os aesthetics have long butted heads with the more cerebral forms of music and art created in Europe, primarily by Germans and Russians, which was far more complex in both structure and form and thus rejected the heady passion of what they perceived as an alien and primitive race. Theodor Adorno, although a brilliant man, was in the vanguard of those culture snobs who did their level best to trash jazz and anything connected with it as an “emasculation” of human intellect—at least, until he discovered Duke Ellington, whose music he liked because to him it represented “stabilized jazz,” its form and structure presenting “tasteful jazz as an appropriation of the conventions of musical impressionism, of the style, that is, of composers such as Debussy, Ravel, and Delius.” Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any such parallel in the acceptance of black-produced art by the culture snobs after the early African-American artists stopped doing wholesale imitations of white art. Of course, the cubists and surrealists met with strong opposition at first, but by the early 1930s these schools had become so mainstream that there was no point in fighting them any further. Whether you liked them or not, they were here to stay, but even in this period the white artists whose styles grew out of Negro art were usually much more highly praised than African-American originals.

Ironically, it was a white American artist, Winslow Homer, who in The Gulf Stream was the first to portray a black man as a strong person, physically (obviously) but also someone in charge of the situation rather than a half-fearful “coon” begging for Whitey to come and save him. This in turn helped such black artists as Robert Henri, George Luks, George Bellows and William H. Johnson, a sort of protégé of Luks who gave him $600 (quite a sum in those days!) out of his own pocket to go and study in Europe when Johnson had a promised foreign scholarship suddenly revoked without warning or explanation. These were not timid artists who stayed within the conventions imposed on them by white culture, but daring men who broke the mold. One of many such powerful works which this group created was Bellows, 1923 lithograph, The Law is Too Slow, showing a black man being burned at the stake by some “good ole boys” (see below).

The Law is Too Slow - George Bellows (1923)

“The Law is Too Slow” (1923), George Bellows

I could go on and on in this vein, but this would be pretty much summarizing each chapter and showing examples. I will only say that the one white artist who portrayed the disgusting dehumanization of slavery who was left out of Locke’s book was, of all people, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), the first impressionist painter in history. His 1840 painting, The Slave Ship speaks volumes of the way blacks were treated by whites. The painting represents a real-life event which took place in 1781when the British ship Zong encountered a typhoon and began throwing their dead and dying black “cargo” overboard. Critic John Ruskin, who first owned this painting, wrote that “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this” (see below).

Turner, The Slave Ship (1840)

The Slave Ship” (1840), J.M.W. Turner

The biggest drawback of this book is that there are no illustrations of the artwork being described, not even black-and-white drawings or woodcuts. This was probably due to the book being put out by such a small publisher, during the Depression, with a small budget to work with. Happily, we now have the Internet, and several (but by no means all) of the artists and/or specific pieces of art named therein can be found online.

One particular portion of a paragraph on p. 94, in the next-to-last chapter, really caught my eye—as much for what he didn’t say as much for what he did. Here is the pertinent section:

The peak of almost every well-known strain of African art is definitely associated with the heyday of some feudal African dynasty that became rich and powerful through conquest of other African peoples [bold print mine], and concentrated their wealth and sometimes their religion on the patronage of some art style and tradition.The famous Benin art thus centers in the rise of the great alliance of the Benin warlords with the priests of the Ifa or Yoruba serpent-cult religion on the West Coast, an empire that was at its height in the Sixteenth Century but lasted in its interior stronghold till Benin’s downfall in 1897 at the hands of a British punitive expedition,

And what did these successful marauding countries do with the people living in the countries they conquered? They either killed them or enslaved them, much as the ancient Greeks did; and just as we now complain that the great majority of Greek art, music and philosophy was created by native Greeks who had the “luxury” of making foreign captive slaves do most of their work, so too the successful African nations were able to produce great art because they, too had slaves from conquered nations to do their work for them.

So tell me, except for the fact that black slaves were extradited forcibly to foreign white-run countries to do the bidding of their new masters, how exactly is this different? Perhaps by degree; since the African oppression was black-on-black, they were at least a similar race oppressing another. But that is all. My point is that many of the outraged modern African-Americans who are stil upset that America had slavery until 1865 should just accept the fact that it’s now over, except that there is one thing that I can understand their being upset about. Once the other slave-owning countries in Europe abolished slavery, they made an effort to integrate the freed slaves and their descendants into their society, whereas white Americans kept demeaning, marginalizing and insulting black Americans into the late 20th century, nearly 150 years after the official end of slavery in America. This is the real basis of their discontent and anger, and I for one don’t blame them, but once again it was their religion that perpetuated racial strife. I clearly remember the chilling sound of a white Southern woman talking on the radio news during the Civil Rights era of the mid-1960s saying, “You know the Bible says that segregation is right,” and of course there is the famous quote from Paul in the New Testament: “Slave, obey your master.” As descendants of Puritans and other extreme religious sects who either escaped or were deported to America because their country of origin had enough of their extremist crap, they simply did not and would not let go of the old attitudes, because their interpretation of the Bible reinforced their mindset. The number of those who still think this way is much, much smaller now than it was even in 1980, but they still do exist. Even so, they have to accept the fact that slavery was the way ALL economies in the world ran into the early 19th century, and then when these countries abolished slavery they simply co-opted other poor countries in both Africa and Asia (primarily India and Turkey, but also Indo-China) as “colonies” that they could plunder, having the natives there do the work and not even have to bother MAKING them “slaves.”

To use a modern-day colloquialism, “Just sayin’.”

To put it succinctly, both of these are really outstanding books that should be required reading in high schools across America. Locke was not only a great wool-gatherer of facts and a good judge of both musical and physical art aesthetics, but he lived at exactly the right time to judge both what had come just before his birth and, more importantly, experience the evolution of African-American art and music first hand, as it happened. I don’t know if he ever wrote an article about John Hammond’s first “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in December 1938, but this, like Benny Goodman’s concert in January of that same year, were breakthroughs for the presentation of jazz as a serious musical art form in one of America’s most hallowed halls. The bottom line is that Locke deserves to be remembered and honored for his invaluable contribution to African-American aesthetics. Ignoring or marginalizing him is a crime against both history and the analysis of a finely-tuned mind.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/alain-locke/


Kalevi Aho’s String Concerti


AHO: Violin Concerto No. 2.* Cello Concerto Mo. 2+ / *Elina Vähälä, vln; +Jonathan Roozeman, cel; Kymi Sinfonietta; Olari Elts, cond / Bis SACD-2466

Although I admit to not having heard every modern composer out there, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard most of them (at least on records), and in my view Kalevi Aho is the greatest composer now living. I say that not because I’ve been persuaded to—in fact, no one has even asked my opinion on this matter—but because he has not only an extraordinary imagination and a good grasp of structure, but because, unlike so many composers out there (even the good ones), he uses far more than just one style of composing. One can go from piece to piece and sometimes be quite surprised that what you are hearing is the work of the same composer.

This new SACD presents two of his latter-day string concerti, the second one each for violin and cello. These have appeared after a gap of several decades since their predecessors: the first Cello Concerto was issued on CD in 1995 and the first violin concerto as far back as 1989! But Aho has continued to grow as an artist, and thankfully he is now finally getting his just due outside of Scandinavia whereas, in those earlier times, he wasn’t even a blip on the classical music radar. Of course, as a composer of modern music that is not easily digestible by the simple-minded, not even those earlier string concerti are often performed in concerts, so don’t hold your breath that these will be performed in a concert hall near you any time soon.

It’s not so much that Aho’s music is “tuneless,” as is often the case with avant-garde composers. On the contrary, he generally stays within tonal boundaries or at least keeps returning to tonality throughout his works, but his means of expression is often so unusual and, to many ears, so disorienting that they find it hard to grasp. The orchestral opening of the second Violin Concerto is one such example. It almost sounds Middle Eastern, particularly in its use of minor-key modal harmonies and that slithering sort of top line that one associates with the East, and when the solo violin enters it is not in a flurry of virtuosic passages but in yet another, quite different Eastern-sounding melodic line. This is yet one more example of what I mean when I say that you can’t pin Aho down stylistically, in addition to my statement that he continually surprises the listener. It’s just that 80% of classical listeners don’t want surprises. They want their “comfort music,” and this Aho resolutely refuses to do. In addition, there is his method of orchestration, emphasizing biting, sometimes astringent mixtures of wind instruments and the way he uses the upper strings. Of course, by now this kind of sound is not new; it harks back to the 1920s in the music of such composers as Stravinsky, Weill, Hindemith and others who used Stravinsky as a model; yet even so, because of his extraordinary musical imagination, Aho keeps finding new ways of producing this sound. I’d love to see some of his scores sometime in order to analyze it in a more technical fashion.

As the first movement continues, we eventually reach a cadenza, not at the end of the movement but rather right in the middle of it. Yet here, too, he undermines our expectations, as it is not a cadenza in the ruminative sort of style that everyone is accustomed to, but actually a complex development of the theme, just played a cappella by the soloist. After the orchestra returns, the violin continues over it for some time, but then when it drops out the orchestra takes over, here, surprisingly, being brass-and-tympani heavy. Cross-currents by the horns play across the lines of the trumpet section. Upon the violinist’s return, the orchestra is reduced to a few chords supporting a solo clarinet. You absolutely have to pay attention and stay on your toes when listening to an Aho composition.

In the cases of solo instrumental music, piano and voice, and chamber music performances, I really don’t feel that Bis’ SACD sonics make any significant change on the way the music reaches your ear. (Bis owner Robert von Bahr and I have been disagreeing on this point for several years now, but I’ve yet to see a review stating that it does make a difference in that kind of music.) It does, however, make a difference in certain opera recordings (such as the Monteverdi L’Orfeo) and in massed orchestral sounds, and Aho’s layered sound textures gain immeasurably as a result of the sonics. Perhaps I should also point out that our soloist here, Elina Vähälä, also employs a bright, lean tone that not only complements the orchestral sound but which I feel is necessary for this work. As a rule, I’ve never been much of a fan of the richer, thicker sound of German violinists like Anne-Sophie Mutter, good though she is. I lean more towards the Russian-French-Italian school of violin playing and, being Finnish in her heritage (though she was born in the U.S.A.), Vähälä, like most Scandinavian fiddlers, leans towards the Russian school, which is all for the better.

Returning to the music, I should point out that one of the reasons I love Aho’s music so much is that it is not at all cold. On the contrary, it is generally bristling with both emotion and energy. This is apparent in the “Adagio” movement where he suddenly bursts out of his reverie with fast, explosive passages for the orchestra which in turn drag the soloist into the fray. And this brings me to yet another reason why I like Aho’s music so much: he always has a “long view” of where his music is going and what it will do once it arrives there. He also has a great instinct for avoiding anything resembling a cliché, particularly in the endings of movements where even some really fine composers tend to either fall back on established patterns or, possibly worse, create their own pattern and then repeat it at least once in every piece they write. The last movement of this violin concerto is, by far, one of the most complex and rhythmically exciting pieces I’ve ever heard in my life, not only different from other Aho pieces but different from the first two movements of this concerto!

Perhaps due to its, lower, deeper sound, Aho treats the cello (at least in this work) very differently from the violin. His themes are more lyrical, set to slower tempi and emphasize a somewhat melancholy mood. Although his treatment of the orchestra is about the same, the scoring is lighter and emphasizes the melancholy of the first movement. Indeed, about two-thirds of the way through, Aho uses a very unorthodox blend of what sounds like three violas spaced against each other in half-tones and, at one point, in what sounds to me like quarter-tones. Here it is the second movement that is the fast one, but again the mood is less celebratory and more angst-filled than in the violin concerto. The fast cello solo passages sound hectic and frenzied; there are a few brief moments of repose, but the orchestra intervenes to re-inject a feeling of unease into the music. This second movement then blends seamlessly into the third, which is yet another “Adagio,” if anything even sadder and more forlorn than the first.

Once again in this work, soloist and conductor work hand-in-glove to produce an outstanding performance, but because of the sparser orchestration it is rally only the second movement that makes a great impact in regards to the SACD sound. Still, this is an excellent release. No Aho admirer would want to be without it.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Gruber Conducts Rare Kurt Weill


WEILL: Der Silbersee: 4 Excerpts.* Sinfonie in einer Satz (Symphony No. 1). Fantasie symphonique (Symphony No. 2) / Swedish Chamber Orch.; HK Gruber, cond/*voc / Bis SACD-2579

Although Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee, the last work he wrote in Germany before getting the hell out of there, was recorded complete for RCA Red Seal in 1999 (a performance conducted by Markus Stenz), little or none of the music has been released on CD since, thus it is good to get these excerpts on this new Bis release. As you can see, the album also includes Weill’s two symphonies. We have the first in performances by Edo de Waart and Marin Alsop, but this new recording is immeasurably more biting and exciting than either of those. So far as I’ve been able to determine, the only other available recording of the Fantasie symphonique [Symphony No. 2] is on the same Alsop recording as Symphone 1. I liked Alsop in her early years on Naxos, but most of her recordings since are too soft-grained, lacking both orchestral clarity and emotional impact. In short, she has become a MOR conductor.

HK Gruber, a name previously unknown to me, is not. He conducts with fire and truly understands the odd nature of Weill’s music, a product of the Weimar Republic and the “jazz age,” which to most Germans of that time mostly meant vaudeville ragtime music with its stiff, staccato rhythms. Those who would claim Weill a “jazz” composer needs to learn something about jazz, but within his own style it was fascinating and clearly unique. Weill’s music sounds like no one else’s, and this is immediately apparent in his Silbersee overture, a fast, pounding piece using atonality except for a strangely lyrical, slow trumpet solo in the middle. As I say, Weill sounded like no one else; even without his name on the album cover, you’d identify this piece as Weill even though you’d never heard it before.

Since Der Silbersee was written for singing actors rather than legitimately trained voices, conductor Gruber sings the one song here and speaks through another. He doesn’t sound any different from the many singing actors who have performed Threepenny Opera, and this is to his credit. Those familiar with Threepenny will immediately recognize the style, an elevated form of German pop music. You may be interested in pursuing the complete operetta, but for me these excerpts are sufficient.

When you reach the symphonies, however, you discover a much more interesting and complex Kurt Weill. The first, written when he was only 21 years old, is in a single movement and was not performed until after Weill’s death, This is a shame, as the music is immeasurably more complex and interesting than even his opera-singspiel The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Listening to this music, it’s clear that he combined elements of some of the lyrical German modernists of his day (such as Zemlinsky and Schreker as well as his teacher, the German-oriented Italian Ferruccio Busoni) with elements of Stravinsky without sacrificing his own style. Indeed, I’m now convinced that the edgy, somewhat harsh orchestration we hear in his opera and operettas is essentially a reduction of Stravinsky’s scoring methods. According to the liner notes:

The autograph score, along with other early works that were not confiscated by the Nazis, had been shipped from Berlin to the publisher Universal Edition in Vienna. It was subsequently preserved in an Italian convent, where the title page was probably removed by nuns. In 1955, the music returned to the hands of Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, after she placed an advertisement in a Berlin newspaper.

As usual, Weill’s thematic material is quirky and idiosyncratic, but far more advanced than one would ever suspect from his more famous works. At about the seven-minute mark he indulges in some very complex counternelodies in the accompaniment. There is nothing predictable or routine about this symphony, and I haven’t the slightest idea why it is rarely performed. (Well, yes, I do have an idea. It’s too modern and complex-sounding for the average classical listener to absorb.) Even the use of heavy tympani in one section does not annoy because the episode is brief, and Weill continually moves things forward. As the notes indicate, this piece has sometimes been compared to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1—except for the “false ending,” which then moves into the real final section.

His second symphony dates from1933-34 and is thus the last serious work he wrote, devoting the remaining 16 years of his life to writing American pop tunes like September Song and Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed (the latter set to lyrics by Langston Hughes). The introductory section sounds much like his lighter music of the time, but once the tempo picks up the music becomes more complex although not as complex or as harmonically challenging as the first symphony. It’s a curious piece; by this time, Weill was so locked into his more popular style that he couldn’t completely abandon it—the slow second movement in particular is especially “pretty” in a popular tune sort of way—but there are some outstanding passages that are complex and interesting. It’s sort of a hybrid symphony, if you know what I mean, and because of this I can well imagine it being far more popular than the First Symphony…if someone would only program it in concert.

I was glad to have the chance to hear these works, but for me personally it’s the first symphony that is the shining jewel of this collection. No serious listener should be without it in his or her collection.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Medtner Songs, Vol. 4 Released


MEDTNER: 9 Lieder from Goethe, Op. 6. 3 Gedichte of Heine, Op. 12. 12 Lieder from Goethe, Op. 15. 6 Gedichte of Goethe, Op. 18 / Ekaterina Levental, mazzo; Frank Peters, pno / Brilliant Classics BC 96066

The latest entry in mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Levental’s ongoing series of the complete lieder of Nikolai Medtner focuses largely on his early works, the Opp. 6, 12, 15 & 18 lieder. One set is taken from Heine, the other three from Goethe. The liner notes assert that “It is not surprising that the language of those emigrated composers like Medtner was German in addition to Russian. Ever since Tsarina Catherine II the Great had brought German peasants, doctors and Engineers to her country in the late 18th century…German had become a second language in everyday life in Russia.” This is not entirely correct, however; although German was accepted among working class Russians, the language of the Russian upper class—of which Medtner was a part—was French since the middle of the 19th century. This was one reason why the majority of Russian artists and composers fleeing the Soviet Union, including Medtner himself, went to France and not to Germany, also the reason why Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe had most of its performances and successes in France. Granted, as a well-educated upper-class Russian, Medtner was drawn to Goethe and Heine because of their immense reputation as great writers, thus this collection features only their poetry as lyrics for his songs, but the booklet’s assertion omits the strong French connection (largely due to both countries’ obsession with ballet).

And although German is assuredly the language of these songs, the musical expression is quintessentially Medtner’s own: tonal but sometimes skirting tonality, particularly in the piano accompaniments, and a musical progression that is unorthodox, using real melodic lines but staying away from cheap solutions just to please a tune-hungry public. It was for precisely these reasons that Medtner’s music failed to please most audiences. It wasn’t off-putting, but it was more advanced and less memorable than, say, the songs of his older contemporary (and admirer) Sergei Rachmaninov, who was immensely popular.

A good example is the “Song of the Elves” in the first set, where Medtner uses rhythms broken up in an asymmetrical manner, rising and falling chromatics against a piano accompaniment that constantly shifts between minor and major. Of course, this is not the only such example; and in several of the songs, particularly “I Roamed the Meadows,” the piano accompaniment is so busy, complex and virtuosic for a song accompaniment that it takes over the music, driving the singer and, in the solo passages, taking over as the lead “voice.” “First Love,” the eighth song in the first set, also plays with the rhythm and tempo albeit at a slower pace.

No matter where you test him, Medtner was clearly an excellent composer, sadly out of step with his time: too tonal and conservative for those who were hungry for modern music, yet too complex for those who like their tonal music to be “lovely” and easily accessible. But this is music that was built to last, and this it does in every note and phrase of these songs. One of the most modern in style is the second Heine song, “Lyrical Intermezzo.” Here, Medtner actually skirts tonality in much of the accompaniment though he ends up resolutely in B major, but his harmonic shifts are so often subtle that it takes a really keen ear to catch them all.

As you listen to this collection you will note the general mood of melancholy, a quintessentially Russian mood. Nor is this confined to the slower songs; the minor keys used in even such an uptempo piece as “Selbstbetrug,” the third song of the second Goethe collection, also suggest an uneasy feeling. In this song, too, the accompaniment is virtuosic and rhythmically difficult to pull off.

Ekaterina Levental is, as she has been consistently throughout this series, an excellent interpreter of the lyrics and unfailingly musical in her phrasing and understanding of Medtner’s unusual musical lines, but after a period of getting her voice settled in its production she here gives us some harrowing high notes, sung too “open”. Perhaps she should have considered pitching the songs containing these high notes a half-tone down in order to approach these notes more comfortably, but in this day and age I can accept her singing on its own terms. At least she does not have a bad flutter in the voice or a wobble and, wonder of wonders, her diction is crystal-clear. As he has been throughout this series, pianist Frank Peters is simply miraculous. Those of us who are familiar with Medner’s own playing through his late-1940s recordings (which include some of his songs performed by him and a young Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) can appreciate how closely Peters resembles his model.

This is yet another valuable and excellent contribution to the Medtner discography, but don’t hold your breath waiting for your local classical FM station to play any of these songs.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Malipiero’s String Quartets

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MALIPIERO: String Quartets Nos. 1-8 / Quartetto di Venezia / Dynamic CDS7976.02

Despite the fact that Gian Francesco Malipiero died a half-century ago, he as his fellow Italian modernists of the 1920s and ‘30s—Ghedini, Pizzetti and Dallapiccola among them—have yet to find their music in the classical mainstream while lesser talents are played continuously, proving once again that the public has beer and pretzel tastes even when caviar is offered to them.

original cover

Original 2007 CD cover

Fortunately, we have these recordings, originally issued by Dynamic in 2007. Quartetto di Venezia, a highly respected group that has recorded the quartets of Cherubini for Decca (well, after all, Cherubini is a dead old-timey composer, albeit a good one, thus his music is safe enough to release on a Major Label), give us all eight of Malipiero’s quartets. Interestingly, only two of them (Nos. 4 & 7) do not have subtitles. No. 1 is titled “Rispetti strambotti,” No. 2 “Stornelli e ballate,” No. 3 “Cantare alla madrigalesca,” No. 5 “Dei capricci,” No. 6 “L’arca di noe” and No. 8 “Quartetto per Elisabetta.” The fifth quartet is considered to be the one most closely tied to his theater works, since it was inspired by the music for his opera I capricci di Callot (1940). conveying “with choreographic power” the story, which was inspired by the strange, imaginative engravings of the painter Jacques Callot (see example below) and a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Callot pic

Yet even his first quartet, written in 1920, reveals the balance between conventionally Italian melodic lines and modern harmonies drawn from both Debussy and early Stravinsky that characterized Malipiero’s work. He was not quit as adventurous as either Ghedini or even the much older Pizzetti, but was clearly moving into a more modern space than Wolf-Ferrari, Respighi or Montemezzi, good though they were in their own styles. This is especially apparent in the first-section viola solo, which skirts tonality in an audacious manner, the harmonies in the supporting cello chords being open ones that somehow defy a set tonality. As the quartet continues, bitonality also crops up here and there; only in the slow section does one hear a lyric line that one can say sounds truly “Italianate,” but even here it is not really conventional. In today’s world, Malipiero’s music would be considered only mildly adventurous, but for its time it is adventurous indeed. Happily, both the virtuosity and the emotional commitment of Quartetto di Venezia put this music over in a way that brooks no argument. They know it is great music, and when you hear them play it, you cannot argue against their viewpoint.

The second quartet is, if anything, even more modern-sounding and rhythmically driving than the first; it clearly has “Stravinsky” written all over it, yet Malipiero manages to retain his own identity. In some ways, however, this second quartet is a bit more schizophrenic in its juxtaposition of themes, jumping without preparation from one to another and sometimes back again. Although a bit disconcerting, it certainly makes for exciting listening since the music never stagnates. This quartet also ends very abruptly; you certainly couldn’t complain that Malipiero dragged anything out!

Much of the opening section of the third quartet is built around little serrated cells of music strung together to make a theme. The harmonies here sound more modal than before; open fourths and fifths are heard with some frequency. At one point, however, we also hear a galumphing theme using rootless chords not fixed in any tonality, and these shift around with impunity. Despite the sometimes juxtaposed nature of this work, Malipiero actually made more of an effort to blend the fast, excitable passages into the slower, more lyrical ones, with the result that this quartet sounds much more continuous in structure. The second slow section of this quartet, quite tonal and reminiscent of 17th-century music, bears out its title of “Cantare alla madrigalesca,” yet this, too, morphs cleverly into another and quite different theme in a faster tempo, a section that includes some percussive sounds made by the string players slapping their instruments. Weird stuff!

The fourth quartet is, for the most part, much more lyrical than its predecessors. By this time (the 1930s), Malipiero had come to grips with his own personal style. The Stravinskian allusions are still present, but much more integrated into the evolving structure. There is less of a tendency to try to shock the listener and more a case of just folding each section one into the other. Yet there are still surprises in store; he was not a composer to produce soporific musical “wallpaper” like the majority of music you hear on classical FM stations. This is music to energize your mind and fill you with emotion, not to numb out your “heart, mind and spirit.” Even the fifth quartet, based on his comic opera and more lyrical than those preceding it, is not quite on the level of your average radio fare; the shifting harmonies are a bit unusual, and the melodic line is not memorable in a Puccini sort of way. In addition, there are uptempo moments set to modal harmonies. The sixth quartet, written in 1947, is almost like a return to his earlier, edgier style but again, more fully developed and integrated.  He also used more bitonality here than in his earlier quartets.

Malipiero’s new tendency towards using atonality is even stronger in the seventh quartet, but even here it is not a consistent feature of his writing. By and large, despite his vivid harmonic and rhythmic imagination, he—like many Italian composers prior to Luigi Nono—was a melodist at heart, thus he never fully abandoned the use of a soaring lyric line. Here and there the melodies are memorable, but they morph and develop so quickly that the moments of “catchiness” are transient. His mind, and his music, worked very quickly and could change direction at a moment’s notice. By the time he wrote his eighth quartet in 1964, he was 82 years old; it’s quite an accomplishment for someone his age, as lively and vital as his previous works in the genre and including even more bitonality as well as touches of atonality. It’s almost as if he wanted to prove something to the younger generation of modern Italian composers, as Dallapiccola did in the late 1960s with his even more modern-sounding opera Ulisse. This older generation of Italian composers didn’t want to sound old-fashioned to a younger audience; they knew they had been pioneers in Italian music, and wanted to remain relevant and competitive. And so he did. If anything, the writing in this last quartet is the most concise of all, and somehow Malipiero managed to combine his various themes in, if not a logical sequence, at least one that made sense from the point of telling a story in sound.

The only other complete set of these quartets I’ve been able to locate is the one by the Orpheus String Quartet, released on ASV in 2006 and by Brilliant Classics in 2007. I haven’t heard these recordings, but the set appears to be out of print; used copies of the ASV version are selling on Amazon for between $203 and $249. Unless these performances were personally approved by the composer, and they weren’t, I say forget them and just go for this superb set. As one anonymous buyer posted on the Amazon set, “I love these quartets. They are absolutely genius with not a moment of stagnation, always moving and reshaping, twisting and turning, alternating solo parts.” Yet the same poster added that he envisioned them played in some future time by musicians wearing tight jumpsuits in a “white sterile spaceship compartment,” so he might not be “all there,” as we used to say.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Daversa & Cohen’s “Art of Duo,” Vol. 1


DAVERSA: Artful Sparring. Little Black Spider. The Fool and the Emperor. Junk Wagon Cameo. Radiant Heart. BURKE-VAN HEUSEN: But Beautiful. BRUBECK: In Your Own Sweet Way. LERNER-LANE: On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever). COHEN: The Art of Sanity / John Daversa, tpt/EVI/voc; Tal Cohen, pno / self-produced CD

This new release is a permanent record (no pun intended) of the duo concerts that trumpeter John Daversa and pianist Tal Cohen have been giving for the past couple of years (see poster below), strictly duo performances of originals and standards. To be honest, I had never heard of either of them prior to discovering this release, but they are both very fine musicians.

Although they are not free jazz improvisers on the level of Ivo Perelman and Matthew Shipp. their interaction is outstanding. They can clearly follow what each other is doing, and in fact they have stated that this album is not, strictly speaking, all jazz as such, but merely a way for them to explore their own minds and feelings with each other in a musical rather than a verbal discourse. The fact that they have had to produce the album themselves, however, speaks volumes for the state of jazz record labels nowadays. The recommended new release lists of online jazz journals like Jazziz and Jazz Times are full of ephemeral New Age garbage that I wouldn’t listen to if you put a gun to my head, yet these marvelous duos—and those of Perelman and Shipp—are discreetly ignored as if they didn’t even exist.

Daversa - Cohen

I would suggest that the only reason why Daversa and Cohen are reticent to call all the music on this CD “jazz” is simply because not all of it swings. The opener, Artful Sparring, is one such example; set in a highly regular meter, it sounds at the outset more like a modern classical composition—albeit an accessible one—and in its course the tempo and meter shift considerably. Yet the music is fascinating, even when they switch into a sort of tango rhythm, and somehow it all makes musical sense. By consciously using relatively simple musical building blocks, Daversa and Cohen manage to create unusual soundscapes that, in the end, sound like no one else’s. Due to its tonal bias and, even in the originals, strong melodic lines, the listener has no problem following what they are doing, yet the end results are clearly on a high level. Toward the end of the first track, apparently playing an EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument), Daversa even manages to create a syncopated bass line to accompany Cohen’s ruminations at the keyboard. (He does the same thing, only throughout the entire track, on Junk Wagon Cameo.)

Daversa plays muted trumpet muted on the second piece, the old Jonny Burke-Jimmy Van Heusen standard, But Beautiful. Here, the piece is completely transformed, and in fact even I had trouble completely following the very complex and diversified rhythms, but they knew what they were doing, thus the performance falls into place splendidly. One can, perhaps, follow the way they deconstruct the music more clearly in On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever). It’s almost more of a “less is more” approach; they subtract as much from the original tune as they add into it. On this one, Daversa is playing open horn. Little Black Spider begins with a slow, drippy tune in which Daversa sing-whispers the lyrics over Daversa’s piano, but eventually opens up into a real swinger.  Daversa’s original, The Fool and the Emperor, is one of the most fascinating pieces on the album and clearly the most complex in terms of construction. It’s also one of the hardest-driving performances here.

I could describe each piece in detail like this, but it would ruin your pleasure in discovering all the diversity and excellence to be heard on this album. There is so much good music here, and no two pieces are alike in either form or content. The Art of Duo is surely one of the best such albums I’ve ever heard, period.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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