The Hausquartett Explores Exquisite Cadavers!

Hausquartett cover

GRAB-BAUMANN-HÄMMERLI-RENOLD: Cadavre Exquis Nos. 2 & 4. BAUMANN: Grossvater Var. 111. GRAB: Schoggimuss. BAUMANN: Cadavre Exquis No. 5, Part I plus Annexe / Hausquartett: Christopher Grab, t-sax/a-sax/bs-cl; Christoph Baumann, pno; Hämi Hämmerli, bs; Tnny Renold, dm / Leo Records CD LR 932

The only negatives I can give to this CD are that 1) it’s way too short at only 38: 58, and 2) the liner notes are in German only, a language I don’t read or speak.

I tried to translate part of it, at least, using my favorite online translator, Deep-L Translate, which usually does a good job, but apparently they, like me, have no clue how German grammar is supposed to go, because this is what I got – and even the parts of it I could understand meant little or nothing to me in relation to the music:

It was raining, an afternoon of handicrafts was ordered for the children. Scissors, folding leg, glue, pens and paper: snippets gathered under the table like traces of silent despair. Resistance was futile.

We had four siblings to “herd”, a nanny once or twice a week. The girl wore a white lab coat and – do I remember correctly? – a kind of nurse’s cap tucked into her hair. There was supervision, no Ritalin yet. The young woman (at that time a “Fraulein” was possible) was called like a children’s princess, maybe Sophia, and was sweet & fine like in a fairy tale.

But, and this was the main thing, she had a father who was the director of those turbulent amusements, which were called here Herbstnesse: with Ferris wheel, merry-go-rounds and ghost train, cotton candy and the call “Wand Si mal schüüsse?”; with the show booth of the magician, who promised to cut up a woman from tarpaulins inside his windingen theater. Still she stood, sequined and intact, next to him. By the way, even as a whole body for the boy’s eyes already confusing enough, her hip play, her pressing bosom.

Update: After trying and failing to access the English version of this booklet using the website address provided, a friend of mine tried to scan the QR code with her cell phone but couldn’t get anything. But eventually I went to the main Hausquartett website, where I found it. Four your edification and mine, then, here is the English translation of the liner notes.

The best I could derive from this is that the music is supposed to pertain to kids’ games, merry-go-rounds and other diversions, though the music is anything but childlike or childish. Unlike a .lot of “free jazz” nowadays, the music contained herein actually has a discernible meter most of the time and is often tonal, but the Hausquartett plays with both to such an extent that the end result seems to run freely and fluidly, reminding me of the way Charles Mingus wrote music. Much of it actually swings, yet none of it is shallow or ephemeral. The quartet members keep interest up by frequently changing the tempo, using rootless chords underneath, and playing around the edges of tonality. What often sounds simple is actually quite complex, just not the most harmonically modern jazz, but to be honest I really appreciated their playfulness and sense of tonality after slogging through the last two Ivo Perelman CDs.

In fact, I liked this music so much that, about halfway into the first track, I just turned my “critic-o-meter” off, sat back, and simply enjoyed it. In addition to reminding me of Mingus, some of it also reminded me of mid-‘60s Sonny Rollins, when he was in the most playful phase of his career. Of course I hadn’t a clue what the German words intoned in the background (rather quietly, as if the microphone was on the other side of the room), but such moments were infrequent and didn’t interrupt my enjoyment.

And when was the last time you heard a jazz album that was both creating AND enjoyable? For me, it’s been years. Albums like these simply don’t come along all that often. Even when things got a little more mysterious, even a bit eerie, as in the bass clarinet opening of the second track, I had no fear that they would leave me in the lurch, and they didn’t. By the 2:50 mark of track 2, the piano trio was swinging, albeit a bitonal theme with just an edge of menace to it. The best description I can make of this album is that it is mostly happy jazz on the surface, but like Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, there are sinister overtones that let you know that thigns aren’t quite what you think they are.

Thus even if you don’t understand the booket or the spoken words here and there during these tunes, I guarantee that you’ll get a kick out of this album. It’s creative music that is also fun to listen to. I loved it!

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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The ‘20s Green Singer Who Was No Plain Jane

Jane Green cover 2

Over the past few years, I’ve been extremely lucky to discover four excellent female jazz and blues singers who previous fell through the cracks of history into oblivion: Lee Morse, Ottilie Patterson, Midge Williams and now Jane Green. The only thing they have in common is that their careers were aborted at the height of their popularity, one because of her violent personality and severe alcoholism (More), the other three due to illness or injury. Patterson lived many years after illness forced her to abort her career, but Williams, who developed tuberculosis, just made one brief comeback in 1946 before dying in the early 1950s, and Green was the victim of an auto accident who lost most of her voice and died just a few years later at the age of 34.

All four of these singers had unique voices and interesting though varying styles, but Green’s voice, though not as spectacular as Lee Morse with her four-octave range, may well have been the best-settled of the four. She also had a remarkably “clean” style, free of any mannerisms, and swung in a way that presaged such future stars as Connie Boswell.

GreenSo who was Jane Green, what was her story, and what makes her recordings so fascinating? Her given name was Martha Jane Greene, born in Kentucky on January 2, 1897 to Charles Frederick Greene Sr. and Lucinda Belle Willis. The youngest of five children, she had four brothers and, though her mother’s heritage, was part Cherokee. Her parents divorced when she was seven years old; mom and her five kids relocated to Los Angeles. In 1911, Jane and her brother Fred began performing together as “Those Kentucky Kids” on L.A. street corners. Lucinda taught young Jane to be proud of her Cherokee heritage and, in addition to her singing, she performed in rodeos as a champion trick horse rider.

Green & Byler

Jane and Jimmy Blyler

Five years later she met a songwriter whose name is variously spelled online as Jimmy Byler or Jimmy Blyler (I’ve not been able to verify either one because there doesn’t seem to be a single song online under either name). They became quite popular as a team, married in 1918, and were hired by Flo Ziegfield to perform in his 9 O’Clock Review and Midnight Frolic. Jane began her recording career with two titles for Pathé in 1920, Wild Romantic Blues and Lonely Blues, but by 1923 was signed by the more prestigious Victor label, where she made most of her records. In 1921, she appeared in the Eddie Cantor show The Midnight Rounders, singing the song If I Knew. By 1923 she was back on Broadway, performing in Nifties of 1923 at the Fulton Theater.

Ron Wilson & Green, 1928

Ron Wilson & Green in 1928 Vitaphone short

sm-If You Knew-1921Blyler died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1924. Devastated and at loose ends, she signed a two-year contract to sing with Isham Jones’ popular orchestra; lonely and vulnerable, she had a two-year affair with Jones, who wrote the song My Castle in Spain specifically for her. She performed in England with the Jones band in 1925 at the Piccadilly Hotel and the Kit Kat Club. Upon her return, she began singing with Nathaniel Shilkret’s popular orchestra. In 1927 she married pianist Ron Wilson, but that year she was seriously injured in New York City when the taxi she was riding in hit a streetcar. She broke her nose and facial bones, and although she recovered physically the accident affected her voice, which deteriorated significantly. In 1928 she tried to make a comeback, appearing in two Vitaphone shorts in which she sang Singin’ the Blues and The Melody Girl with Wilson accompanying her on piano, but her vocal deterioration was noticeable and unfortunately permanent.

Jane was forced to retire from show business. She and Ron moved to Berkeley, California where she died on August 28, 1931 at the age of 34. the cause of death given in her obituary as a “paralytic stroke.” but this was not apparent to some of her friends who visited her shortly before she died. These friends also noted strange behavior by her husband and reported it to the police, but although he came under suspicion for being complicit in her death, nothing came of the investigation.

Wild Romantic BluesAll of which would be meaningless if Jane Green hadn’t had a phenomenal voice, a powerful, rich mezzo-soprano of great beauty, or if her surviving recordings didn’t verify these assets. But as it turns out, the records are phenomenally good in more ways than just her singing. Believe me when I tell you, as a veteran of listening to 1920s jazz, blues and pop recordings since the age of 13, that Green’s recordings are several cuts above the average. Whereas most pop bands on acoustic and early electrical recordings—particularly white orchestras, but also some black ones—played in a stiff, ragged manner that now sounds as dated as the dance crazes they played, all of the orchestras on Jane Green’s recordings play beautifully: in tune, with excellent orch3estral blending and a decent early jazz rhythm. Much of this was due to Somebody Like You labelmusic director Nathaniel Shilkret, a phenomenally talented clarinetist and conductor who vacillated easily between the world of popular and classical music. You will note that the majority of Green’s records were accompanied by orchestras directed by Shilkret. and when he wasn’t present the music directors of her discs included Leonard Joy, who also enjoyed both jazz and symphonic music. On one session, she was accompanied by Paul Whiteman’s clarinet virtuoso, Ross Gorman (who created the opening clarinet glissando in the original Rhapsody in Blue) and his band at the time, “The Virginians.” These were first-class musicians, and they brought to Green’s sessions an astonishingly high level of musicianship without the bombast and stiffness of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The only white band of the time that could have equaled or surpassed their musicianship was that of Jean Goldkette, but no one at Victor had the common sense to put them together.

One interesting thing is that Shilkret didn’t become Victor’s chief director of light music until 1926, but he was already accompanying Jane Green on records as early as 1924 (The Blues Have Got Me, Me and the Boy Friend). Another is that the anonymous orchestra on her lone Pathé disc plays in just as highly polished a fashion. Was this something that Green insisted on in making her records? If so, it may explain why she made so few by comparison with other singers of her time. Perfectionists are not always appreciated.

You Went Away Too Far - labelAs for her singing style, it, too sounds remarkably modern in comparison to other white singers of her time, even by comparison with Lee Morse. Green phrased in a natural, swinging style that was at least a decade ahead of its time. Her way of changing the note-values within a bar was something that not even Cliff Edwards or young Bing Crosby could do in the 1920s. In short, she had a natural sense of jazz “time.” Although this might have been something that came over from her Cherokee heritage—Mildred Bailey, who was also part American Indian, also had a loose, relaxed and natural sense of jazz phrasing—I would also point out that it resembles the work on records by the greatest black jazz singer of this time, Mamie Smith. Although Mamie sang the blues in addition to jazz, she was never really as convincing a blues singer as were Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox or Alberta Hunter; she was more of a jazz singer, and the one jazz singer who influenced Connie Boswell. The difference was that Mamie’s back-up band, the “Jazz Hounds,” played in a much more ragged manner than the slick orchestras that Shilkret led in the recording studios.

I Never Knew music coverThe end result was a series of recordings that are so perfect in every detail that they are practically a summation of the Roaring Twenties. In this respect, Jane Green’s recordings parallel the 1945-50 Decca recordings of Billie Holiday, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, and Harry Nilsson’s superb Harry album as collections of popular music presented in such a way that they come close to true art. Although Green did not interpret the lyrics of her songs with the same kind of penetrating insight as did Bessie Smith in the blues or Lee Morse in pop music, the almost modern sound of her voice and musical approach make her recordings very easy to like despite the dated sound. That is all that stands in the way of their being perfect.

Most online assessments of Green state that she made “over 30 recordings.” This is technically true; she did record 31 songs, most in multiple takes; but 10 of those recordings were never issued and the masters destroyed. Some of them were earlier versions of issued sides, such as Mama Goes Where Papa Goes, but some of them are very popular songs of the day, like Poor Papa (He’s Got Nothin’ at All) and Sweet Georgia Brown that were never re-made. Thus all we have in toto are 21 sides. They are enough to establish her greatness without really satisfying one’s craving for more.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and at least we have these recordings to listen to. They are enough to place Jane Green near or at the very pinnacle of female jazz singing in the Roaring ‘20s, a symposium of songs exploring several different types of man-woman relationships from the most superficial to the deepest. It is enough for me to claim that Jane Green was anything but “plain” She was clearly the best white female jazz singer in the pre-Lee Morse era, in many ways more modern and more appealing than Morse’s delivery with its startling register breaks and yodeling.

This is my preferred order of her recordings, all of which are available on YouTube for free listening and download:

  1. A Mama Like You and a Papa Like Me (Rose-Russell-Woods) Victor 19604 (1/30/1925)
  2. Ida, I Do (Isham Jones-Gus Kahn) Victor 19707 (6/11/1925)
  3. Wild Romantic Blues (Bryan-Schwartz) Pathé B 20480 (12/1920)
  4. Mine, All Mine (Ruby-Cowan-Stept) Victor 21145 (12/8/1927)
  5. Honey Bunch (Cliff Friend) Victor 19995 (3/5/1926)
  6. If I’d Only Believed In You (Akst-Davis) Victor 20391 (11/11926)
  7. Mama Goes Where Papa Goes or Papa Don’t Get Out Tonight (Ager-Yellen) Victor 19215 (11/13/1923)
  8. Got No Time (Whiting-Kahn) Victor 19687 (5/28/1925)
  9. My Castle In Spain (Isham Jones) Victor 19995 (3/5/1926)
  10. The Blues Have Got Me (Abner Silver-Roy Turk) Victor 19609 (11/26/1924)
  11. If You Hadn’t Gone Away (I Wouldn’t Be Where I Am Now) (Henderson-Rose-Brown) Victor 19707 (5/28/1925)
  12. I’m Gonna Meet My Sweetie Now (Greer-Davis) Victor 20509 (2/18/1927)
  13. Lonely Blues (Bryan-Schwartz) Pathé B 20480 (12/1920)
  14. My One And Only (What Am I Gonna Do?) (George & Ira Gershwin) Victor 21145 (12/8/1927)
  15. You Went Away Too Far (And Stayed Away Too Long) (Bryan-Monaco) Victor 20509 (2/18/1927)
  16. Won’t Be Long Before (S)he Belongs To Me (Friend-Woods) Victor 20323 (11/1/1926)
  17. Hard-To-Get Gertie (Ager-Yellen) Victor 20323 (11/1/1926)
  18. Mama Loves Papa, Papa Loves Mama (Friend-Baer) Victor 19215 (12/4/1923)
  19. Me And The Boy Friend (Monaco-Clare) Victor 19502 (11/11/1924)
  20. Somebody Like You (Donaldson-Friend) Victor 19604 (11/26/1924)
  21. We’re Back Together Again (My Baby and Me) (Sid Clare-James Monaco) Victor 19687 (5/28/1925)

Tracks 1, 2, 5, 8-12, 15, 19-21 directed by Nathaniel Shilkret (Dick Schwartz, alto sax featured on track 11); tracks 4, 14 directed by Leonard Joy; tracks 7, 18 featuring Ross Gorman & the Virginians (Jack Shilkret, piano on track 7); tracks 6, 16, 17 directed by LeRoy Shields.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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The King of Musical Mayhem

Spike Jones postcard

Neither audiences nor musicians—and certainly not music critics—ever really knew what to make of Spike Jones and his City Slickers other than that they were very funny, in fact over-the-top, maniacally funny. Despite their displaying an extremely high level of musicianship in their “crazy” playing, it was the end result that was judged and not the extraordinary technique and timing that went into their performances. Famed jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden, who once sat in with the band for a lark in a performance of Chloe, was paralyzed when the band arrived at the hyper-fast break in the middle of the song. Teagarden, reading from the score, couldn’t get more than one note out  before the rest of the band had finished the break. He never underestimated the Slickers’ musicianship from that day forward.

Jones was originally a top studio drummer in the Los Angeles area, sitting in on numerous recording sessions as well as playing full-time in John Scott Trotter’s middle-of-the-road orchestra, the same band that backed Bing Crosby on both radio and records. Although Jones’ most famous session with Crosby was his 1942 recording of White Christmas, his drums can be heard to much greater advantage on Crosby’s 1937 recording of Mr. Crosby and Mr. Mercer, a comic duet with songwriter-singer Johnny Mercer. According to Jordan R. Young, the author of two definitive books on Jones, he enjoyed trying to create funny sounds on his drum kit even back then in his spare time.

On one recording session, Jones accompanied a popular vocal group called The Foursome and had a chat afterwards with one of the singers in that group, Del Porter, who also played clarinet. It turned out that Porter was getting sick and tired of performing the corny pop music of his day and had some ideas for lampooning them. Jones encouraged him to start his own band to vent his feelings, which he did, calling it The Feather Merchants. I don’t think the band ever recorded, but apparently they were well thought of in the L.A. area. The most popular “corny” band of the time was Freddy “Schnickelfritz” Fisher and his Orchestra, which also purposely played songs both popular and folk in a funny manner.

Jones began sitting in with Porter’s band, then became a full-time member while still fulfilling his studio gigs, and eventually took it over. The leadership move seemed inevitable and was done without rancor, since Porter was a laid-back, easy-going guy while Jones was a hyperactive idea man who seemed always to be operating in overdrive. He rarely slept or ate, living mostly on coffee and cigarettes, and was always trying to come up with new gag ideas as well as ways to promote and sell the band. In a late-1950s TV interview with Edward R. Murrow on his Person to Person show, Jones claimed that he got the idea for the Slickers after seeing Igor Stravinsky conduct one of his own pieces at the Hollywood Bowl, where he wore new shoes that creaked audibly every time he went up on tiptoe to emphasize a musical point. Although it was quite probable that Jones did see Stravinsky conduct, the full story just related is obviously closer to the truth.

As for where Jones got the idea for the band’s name from, this occurred in an early 1941 recording session for Standard Transcriptions with country singer Cindy Walker. The song they recorded that day was a Walker original, We’re Gonna Stomp Them City Slickers Down. Spike’s new band, still working as the Feather Merchants, accompanied her on that song, playing in the same style they would unveil in July of that year on their first recording session for RCA’s Bluebird label. Some of the musicians later verified that this is where Jones got the idea for the band’s name—though, of course, it was indeed already formed and performing.

Several of Jones’ early recordings showed a style that was not as complex as they later became but still far in advance of what Fisher was doing with his “Schnickelfritz” band, among them The Sheik of Araby, Siam, and Clink, Clink, Another Drink, on which they were able to feature a rising star in the cartoon industry, voice-over expert Mel Blanc. (Blanc was even featured with the Slickers in a “Soundie” made shortly after the release of the record, a rare early example of an artist using video to help sell an audio recording.) But of course, the record that put him on the map was made in 1942, and that was Der Fuehrer’s Face. In today’s world, this song sounds relatively tame (especially when compared to some of Jones’ incredibly complex arrangements from 1944 onward), but in its day it created a sensation, particularly when “Willie Spicer” (actually, Jones himself) played the “Birdaphone”—a rubber razzer—every time the band shouted out “HEIL!” RCA, in fact, was so worried about a negative reception that they forced Jones to record an alternate take using a trombone in place of the raspberry, but fortunately they eventually chose to release the take with Spicer giving Hitler the Bronx cheer. (After hearing the record, Spike Jones went to the top of Hitler’s enemies list. It’s a good thing for Spike that his USO tours with the band provided plenty of security.)

As in the case of every orchestra then performing, including the serious jazz bands, at least 14 months were lost due to the Musicians’ Union’s strike against the record companies. Decca and Capitol, the youngest of the major labels (founded in 1934 and 1942 respectively), were the first to sign, restarting their recording activities in November 1943, but RCA and Columbia, both industry giants, didn’t settle until around mid-1944. Fortunately, thanks to the Slickers’ newfound popularity, there are tons of broadcast recordings from that period available. Some of them are very funny, particularly As Time Goes By, It Never Rains in Sunny California, The Trolley Song, I Want a Gal and He Broke My Heart in Three Places, some of them featuring a singing duo called the Nilsson Twins who would later become better known singing “straight” pop tunes, but many were just mildly humorous in the vein of Behind Those Swinging Doors. The best of these songs were The Great Big Saw Came Nearer and Nearer and a real gem, Never Hit Your Grandma With a Shovel (It Makes a Bad Impression on Her Mind), never recorded commercially by Jones although it was recorded, at a faster tempo and without much humor in the singing, by some Country guy named Dick Unteed. Yet it is the Jones version which everyone remembers and plays, and somehow the song made it into the underbelly of popular culture. (Tiny Tim sang the first two lines on his debut album.)

The radio broadcasts also show how the band was evolving in 1943 and early ’44. Two major acquisitions during this period were saxophonist and comic vocalist Ernest “Red” Ingle, who had formerly worked for Ted Weems and later formed his own comedy band, The Natural Seven, and trumpet player George Rock, who Jones snagged from Freddy Fisher’s band. Rock was a virtuoso of his instrument, no joke; he could play anything from jazz to classical in its correct configuration, including outstanding double- and triple-tonguing (which you can hear on his “straight” performance of Minka), in addition to being able to imitate virtually every famous jazz or pop trumpeter in the business from Louis Armstrong to Harry James, Clyde McCoy and Charlie Spivak. For years a rumor circulated that Rock had played for a year with Charlie Barnet’s famous jazz orchestra, but this turned out to be a myth. He started with Fisher in the late 1930s (heard to best advantage on Fisher’s recording of Turkey in the Straw), and there he stayed until Spike took him into the fold around late 1943.

Jones’ hyperactive mind and strong intuitive sense of promotion was leading him to create more and more complex arrangements, some of them written by Joe “Country” Washburne, tuba player extraordinaire, who had also been in the Weems band with Ingle but left Spike because he detested air travel. It was an amicable split, however, as were most of those who left the Jones band; the only two exceptions were vocalist Carl Grayson, the master of “glugs,” who was eventually fired by Jones because he was a serious alcoholic who was not reliable in showing up for performance (or being able to perform because he was so inebriated), and Grayson’s successor, Mickey Katz, who walked out on Jones because he felt he wasn’t being paid enough for his talents. Katz, like Ingle, also formed his own comic band, but Katz went even further, modeling his “Kosher Jammers” directly on the kind of sounds that Jones brought out of the City Slickers—omitting only the bulb horns and pistol shots.

As I say, however, Jones’ approach to “musical depreciation” was a much visual as it was aural, and fortunately there are several videos from different periods in the band’s history that show how his visual approach evolved. He always timed the sight gags with the aural ones, but as time went on, both became much more complex.

First, here is the video of the band in 1941, their first year in the “big time,” doing the hillbilly spoof Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy—funny, but visually rather minimal. Then there are two videos of the band doing their wacky arrangement of Hotcha Cornia (Otchi Chornya), one from the Eddie Cantor film Thank Your Lucky Stars and the other from a live performance at a naval base, the second showing how it was done when they really didn’t have the stage room to run around. (Yes, there’s also a video of them doing Der Fuehrer’s Face, but it’s pretty tame, just Spike and Carl Grayson in close-up with no shots of the band.) Next we get the video version of their biggest-selling record, Cocktails for Two. By this time, George Rock was playing trumpet with the band, but they still hadn’t started wearing their crazy plaid and/or checkered suits—everyone was still dressed pretty normally. (But this film clip does capture Carl Grayson doing his famous glugs along with Spike and another band member, and there’s a cute gag near the end where the band is swaying in one direction while Spike, leading them, is swaying in the opposite direction.

By the time they did Chloe in 1946, things were definitely getting crazier. Spike, at least, is wearing a suit with a small checkered pattern, and the whole props-and-gimmicks department surrounding Red Ingle’s vocal is already starting to resemble the shows of his nuttiest years. The band’s performance is also looking looser and more natural. From here we can jump to any number of his 1951-54 television appearances, by which time the act had become so raucous and complex that if you blinked, you missed something—usually something funny.

City Slickers

A 1951 publicity photo – staged, not natural – of the City Slickers to promote their TV show. Top row: Sir Frederic Gas (Earl Bennett) playing his “tree branch” violin, unknown tuba player, Jack Golly on clarinet, Doodles Weaver pretending to play saxophone, unknown saxist, drummer Joe Siracusa “playing” a baseball bat. Bottom row: trumpet virtuoso George Rock, comedian Dick Morgan on banjo, Spike, comedian-banjo virtuoso Freddy Morgan, unknown.

Also by 1946, as one can hear in Cocktails for Two, Love in Bloom and I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, the “serious” introductions to these songs were played on as high a level as any legitimate band in the nation. Proud of what he had accomplished, Jones tried to capitalize on this by turning that segment of his band into the “Other Orchestra,” which didn’t play funny at all. He spent a small fortune out of his own pocket for two years trying to make the Other Orchestra a success, but to no avail. It died a horrible death, leaving him in debt to some of the musicians. The reason was not just that the Other Orchestra wasn’t the City Slickers. Its problem was that the arrangements it played were very good but had nothing interesting or individual about them. For better or worse, even the “Mickey Mouse” bands of Sammy Kaye and Shep Fields had a distinctive style all their own. The Other Orchestra sounded no different from the very generic orchestras of arrangers like David Rose or Axel Stordahl. Had Spike put as much imagination into the Other Orchestra’s arrangements as he did into the Slickers, creating a style that was new and ear-catching, it might have caught on, but for whatever reason he didn’t.

City Slickers 2

A more realistic picture ofthe Slickerws in action, this time with Siracusa on drums (Spike played washboard, cowbells, and his “noise rack” with the band).

Although Jones’ second wife, singer Helen Grayco, later said that Spike’s TV show years were his happiest—and they may well have been—it was actually his half-hour Coca-Cola-sponsored radio show of 1947-49 that presented the band in its best balance between serious and crazy. In the first year, his wife occasionally appeared as a gust singer, but for the last two years Jones’ co-Dorothy Shayhost was Dorothy Shay, the “Park Avenue Hillbilly,” who had a pleasant voice and wrote several funny songs (but not crazy, “Spiked”-up ones) for herself. The format would run like this: Spoken intro over seriously-played theme music, a crazy number by the Slickers (often with a gag thrown in between Spike and some of the band members), then perhaps a short comedy routine with Dick Morgan, George Rock or Sir Frederic Gas (Earl Bennett). Then Shay would be introduced, exchange a little banter with Jones, and sing one of her songs. This would be followed by one more crazy number by the Slickers, then an ad break for Coke. After the break, the weekly guest star would be introduced—usually a popular singer or comedian but sometimes a famous film star. After a little banter, the guest singer would do a song straight, usually one of their recent hits (among his guests were Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra and the tragically short-lived Buddy Clark). Then Doodles Weaver would do one of his confused-spoonerism song parodies. It’s absolutely amazing how many of these Weaver was able to come up with, a new song almost every week, and none of them made it to a record except for The Man on the Flying Trapeze.

If the guest star was a comedian or actor, he or she would be introduced and do a little routine with Spike and possibly with Dorothy as well. Somewhere in the mix the Slickers would play another crazy tune, then sign-off and theme. If the guest was a singer, Spike would do a medley based on a theme: “dream” songs or “home” songs or songs with a Western slant, whatever. Shay would sing the opening song, the guest star would do the second, then the Slickers would tear it up for the finale. The show was so popular, in fact, that it was given the coveted half-hour before the immensely popular Jack Benny Program.

As I noted earlier, throughout the City Slickers’ history, neither RCA nor the public could quite figure out if its crazy antics appealed more to adults or to children. It’s clear that his 1946 expanded version of the Nutcracker Suite was aimed for kiddies, with a chorus singing about sugar-plum land etc., and indeed that album was a favorite with tots, but his inspired-yet-vicious lampooning of Tchaikovsky’s “characteristic dances,” Waltz of the Flowers excepted, were clearly appreciated as much if not more by adults and particularly by fellow musicians. Indeed, it would be good for one to really listen to these arrangements carefully and try to pick apart their components without laughing too hard. It’s difficult because everything moves so quickly, but the closer you listen the more you come to appreciate the genius—and that is the right word for it—that he and his arrangers poured into their crazy concoctions. It not only takes a sharp ear to make out everything they play, particularly when they’re going at warp speed, but if you’re a professional musician just try imagining trying to play these “crazy” arrangements at that speed with that kind of precision. It’s almost like trying to repair a race car while it’s still moving.

And if you don’t want to take my work for it, just ask Peter Schickele. He based his crazy fictional composer P.D.Q. Bach on Jones’ classical lampoons, yet despite a half-century of trying, he never once was able to exactly replicate the kind of musical mayhem that the City Slickers exhibited. In fact, no one has. Many have tried, including his own son Spike Jr. and Richard Carpenter (yes, even the Carpenters tried to do a Spike Jones imitation on their TV show!), but none have ever succeeded. What he did was, quite simply beyond imitation.

There are so many excellent City Slickers recordings that it would be futile to describe them all in detail, but if I had to pick just one to show how brilliant this man and his band could be, it would be his 12-minute “deconstruction” of Bizet’s opera Carmen. Recorded in 1949 when the Slickers were at their very peak, it is both very funny and absolutely virtuosic. Eddie Brandt’s highly imaginative arrangement even went so far as to score the virtuosic “Gypsy dance” at the beginning of Act II for the 12 musicians in the City Slickers—and they played it without a hitch. Take that, Freddy Fisher!

There’s a certain irony in the fact that although Jones’ band was finally heard and seen to its best advantage on his early-‘50s TV show, this is exactly the period when RCA Victor started pushing and not just suggesting more and more childish songs and arrangements. While Spike was still turning out such inspired arrangements as Deep Purple, Pal-Yat-Chee, Dragnet,  I’m in the Mood for Love and others, RCA insisted on recording a string of little kid songs with George Rock doing his little kid voice. They even forced Jones to do one of them, I’m the Captain of the Space Ship, on his TV show, much to Spike’s resentment. His brilliant 1952 recording of I Went to Your Wedding, for instance, had a very brief lifespan on American RCA; it stayed in print much longer on the British HMV label. Eventually, by 1955, Spike had enough and cut ties with the label that had nurtured and promoted him since 1941, telling the press, “I was an RCA victim.”

Shortly after leaving RCA, Jones recorded a funny spoof of Perez Prado’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, which RCA had forbade him to do, on the tiny Spotlite label as “Davey Crackpot and his Musical Jumping Beans.” It’s a dead giveaway that the record is by Spike since Cherry Pink lists George Rock’s name on the label as trumpet player and the flip side, No Boom-Boom in Yucca Flats, features a vocal by Billy Barty. Yet to my knowledge, no one except me has ever put either side in a Spike Jones collection.

In 1956, Jones signed a short-term deal with, believe it or not, Norman Granz’ Verve label. Verve was specifically dedicated to jazz performances, particularly three of Granz’ favorite musicians, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum and Dizzy Gillespie, but suddenly here was Spike Jones with a new 10” single featuring four songs (two on each side): Love and Marriage, The Trouble With Pasquale, Memories Are Made of This (the first “barking dog” record) and 16 Tacos. The following year, Verve released the City Slickers’ only album in hi-fi and, as it turned out, their very last as a group, Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry. Again there were a couple of songs on it that clearly appealed to kids, particularly the very dumb Wyatt Earp Just Makes Me Burp, but also some tracks that were devastatingly funny even to adults. Jones re-used Memories Are Made of This on this LP, which also included the first-ever releases of his radio transcription recordings from 1943-44 of Cocktails for Two and Chloe. It sold enough copies for Granz to break even, but not many more. Clearly, the Slickers’ day in the sun was over.

In 1958 Spike reappeared on TV, this time wearing a tux and white tie instead of his checkerboard suits and with a band that played relatively straight even when he did spoofs like Indian Love Call with soprano Mimi Benzell. I remember watching that program with my parents. I found it pretty funny, but was assured that he was much funnier earlier on. A year later, my Uncle John gave me his copy of Jones’ Liberty LP, Omnibust, saying that he was disappointed because there wasn’t much of the “real” Spike Jones band on it. And indeed there wasn’t, except for a wild one-minute version of Les Baxter’s Quiet Village (a hit at the time for Martin Denny). But I did like Loretta’s Soaperetta, Ah-1, Ah-2, Sunset Strip, I Search for Golden Adventure in my Seven Leaky Boots and a spoof of the Kentucky Derby, even though I later discovered that all but the second of these were watered-down versions of earlier records.

In 1960, when I was nine years old, I finally heard the “real” Spike Jones band…in my Catholic grammar school! One of the nuns gathered all three fifth grade classes into one classroom and played us Spike’s 78 record of Happy New Year. I never laughed so hard in all my life up to that time. A year later, I saved up my allowance (25¢ a week, folks…that’s all my parents would give me) until I could afford to buy a copy of Thank You, Music Lovers!, the RCA Victor album that presented 12 of Spike’s biggest sellers and funniest hits. That’s when I learned how good and how original this band really was…and I also found out that None But the Lonely Heart became Loretta’s Soaperetta and William Tell Overture became the Kentucky Derby spoof. (It wasn’t until years later that I ran across a 78 of Down in Jungle Town to find the original source of Seven Leaky Boots.) I was hooked. I bought every Spike Jones 78 I could find, years before most of them (but certainly not all) were reissued on LP and later on CD.

But by then, Spike had moved on to other projects. One was an excellent spoof of idiotic novelty songs from the past in an album titled 60 Years of Music America Hates Best; another was an unfortunately very childish album of Halloween nonsense, A Spike Jones Spooktacular. Then he gave up funny music altogether, creating a sort of Dixieland-meets-folk-music group to record such things as Washington Square, an album of Hank Williams tunes, and novelty instrumentals like Powerhouse and Frantic Freeway.

He was clearly past his prime, and not just artistically. Decades of chain-smoking had ruined his health, given him COPD and confined him to a wheelchair with an oxygen tank when he wasn’t performing. Then, in 1964, he and eight of the City Slickers (including George Rock, Freddy Morgan and Joe Siracusa) made a surprise TV appearance on which they played spirited versions of Ketelbey’s In a Persian Market and Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. It was the last time that Jones “Spiked” the classics and truly the last gasp for the Slickers.

Slickers 1964

Spike and the City Slickers in 1964

Sadly, I never saw that last TV appearance of the Slickers, but I did see him play a sleazy lawyer on the Burke’s Law program in early 1965. Then, on May 2, 1965, while doing my paper route, I glanced at the front page of the paper and learned that Spike Jones had died the day before at age 53. I was shocked and heartbroken. No one else I knew cared, but I knew that the world had lost a musical comedy genius.

For those of you who haven’t really explored Spike Jones in depth, or for those of you who have been looking for some of his rarest recordings for years without being able to find them, I can recommend three uploads on the Internet Archive.

Thank You Music Lovers

Thank You, Music Lovers. This album was originally released with this wonderful cover art by Jack Davis in 1960 in mono, then reissued in electronically-enhanced “stereo” in 1967 as The Best of Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Adopting the expanded format of RCA’s “Vintage Series” albums, however, I have added six excellent tracks not on the original album.

Spike Jones Conducts

Sir Lindley “Spike” Jones, Bart., Ch., I.O.U, Conducts. I created this 4-CD set myself from some of Spike’s rarest broadcasts, studio recordings and TV clips, including the complete Poet and Peasant Overture. In all but a very few cases, I was able to track down the original mono pressings rather than the botched “electronic stereo” versions that circulated in the U.S. for many years.

Dinner Music

Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry. Recorded and released in 1957, Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry was Spike Jones’ first high-fidelity album as well as the last for the City Slickers. It included the first issues ever of Jones’ original broadcast performances of “Cocktails for Two” and “Chloe,” made well before their studio recordings, thus we get vocals here by two band members who were long gone by 1957, Carl Grayson and Red Ingle. I am particularly fond of this version of “Pal-Yat-Chee,” which features a vocal by Betsy Gay, the “confused coloratura,” who does a splendid job alternating between a “hillbilly” voice and one that sounds like a trained soprano.

Two bonus tracks are included here, “Mairzy Doats” from Spike’s 1960 album 60 Years of Music America Hates Best and “Frantic Freeway,” a 1962 recording in which Jones experimented with instrumental and sound effects overdubbing.

And that, as they say, is that. I sincerely hope that you love these recordings as much as I do. Unlike most comedy records, re-listening to Spike Jones often reveals details you might have missed the first (or second, or third) time you heard it, thus they are among the very few comedy recordings worth keeping in your collection.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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More Chamber Music From Hvoslef


HVOSLEF: String Quartets Nos. 4 & 1 / Ricardo Odriozola, Mara Haugen, vln; Ilze Klava, vla; Ragnhild Sannes, cel / Octopus Rex for 8 Cellos / John Ehde, Finlay Hare, Markus Eriksen, Tobias Olai Eide, Ragnhild Sannes, Marius Laberg, Carmen Boveda, Milica Toskov, cel; Odriozola, cond / Concerto for Violin & Pop Band / Odriozola, vln; Einar Rettingen, pno; Håkon Sjøvik Olsen, el-pno; Peter Dybvig Soreide, el-gtr; Thomas Lossius, el-bs; Sigurd Steinkopf, perc / Lawo LWC1246

This, the latest in Lawo’s ongoing series of recordings of Ketil Hvoslef’s strange semi-minimalist music, presents but four works in a program running less than 50 minutes…but it’s clearly an intense 48 minutes worth of music.


The composer

As is usual for this very eccentric composer, his music, even in the String Quartet No. 4 which opens this disc, emerges in fits and starts rather than in a continuous musical line. Hvoslef is the master of gestures and mood, and although one eventually senses a continuity of form in his music, it is the individual moments that most capture your attention. Nothing he writes could be remotely be called “crowd-pleasing,” but at the same time it is always interesting and engaging despite its atonal (but not 12-tone) bias. Sometimes his music sneaks up on you, taps you on the shoulder, and then scurries to hide in a corner, moaning either defiantly or sorrowfully. In the first movement of this string quartet, he hits you over the head, disappears for eight to ten seconds, then comes back and hits you again before finally retreating into his corner. His musical moods are so schizophrenic that they make György Ligeti sound almost like Beethoven by comparison. If you examine photos of him, he appears to be an older-looking version of E.T.A. Hoffmann, writer of the very strange psychological “tales” in the early 19th centuries.

Sometimes, Hvoslef’s figures seem to be running backwards. This quartet, like so many of his pieces, is written in one long movement with slightly different moods and tempi, which vacillate rapidly and unexpectedly. Near the very end of the last movement, we suddenly hear the quartet break out into fast pizzicato figures, with a few upward war whops thrown in, yet it ends quietly.

Next up is Octopus Rex for eight cellos. Oddly, there is little pause between the end of the string quartet and the beginning of Octopus, and with the cellos starting out in an upper register it sounds, curiously, like an extension of the quartet…except that it’s not. Most of Octopus consists of rapid, edgy figures interspersed with sliding chromatic ones which completely blur the tonality. At one point, Hvoslef has some of the celli playing fast, sliding figures in the background while a few others are slithering around in the foreground in their upper range. Here, he almost delights in suggesting microtonalism, with a few (intended) harmonic clashes thrown in for good measure. Whatever this guy is on, I want some! (And remember, he has spent most of his life in an era when marijuana was illegal! Maybe he’s been growing his own?) Here, towards the end, we hear one lone cello playing in its altissimo register while the others play fast, bowed figures; then a passage in pizzicato before returning to bowed playing, again very fast as a coda.

Odder yet, the String Quartet No. 1 is also set in a predominantly lower key so that even the violins sound like violas, the viola like a slightly high cello, and the cello almost like a bass. Here, the music is much more sustained in places, even what you would call lyrical, but that doesn’t stop Hvoslef from exploding with his edgy, semi-fragmented motifs and musical gestures, eventually forcing the entire quartet into the aural stratosphere. Here, the buzz and scream like a swarm of gnats on acid, eventually quieting down at the 7:18 mark.

I admit that I had some misgiving about his Concerto for Violin and Pop Band, but then I remembered that the great (and vastly under-appreciated) Swiss composer Frank Martin wrote an excellent concerto using a rock band in the early 1970s. Hvoslef characteristically treats the electric guitar and bass as if they were classical instruments, writing pointillistic figures in his usual erratic rhythms. The use of the percussion is very light, mostly sounding like little “ticks” of sound on the periphery of the ensemble. The electric bass plays its own figures while the piano plays a running single-note bass line continuo of its own while the solo violinist runs through its own paces in the upper range. Yet Hvoslef also creates some colorful blends using the electric piano, an instrument that Duke Ellington also used to good advantage in his late years. The whole thing is very classically constructed, pop band or not; these musicians must certainly be not just good at their instruments but highly attuned to Hvoslef’s quirky harmonies and rhythms, and they do an excellent job here. At around 6:30, the violin indulges in some bizarre microtonal playing, then moves into a repeated figure over stiffly staccato piano chords. Finally, at 7:40, the drums begin playing a true rock beat while the violinist stick to his guns, or at least tries to, while the acoustic piano plays in a sort of boogie-woogie style between them and the electric piano plays figures that swoop down from above. Strange, indeed!

Eventually we reach the cadenza, played entirely a cappella by the violin, after which only the acoustic piano enters at first, then the drums, then the electric piano, creating a strange web of sound as the acoustic piano plays a running figure while the others just drop in occasional blips and bloops. But this is a piece so strange that you really need to hear it a couple of times in order to fully appreciate its brilliance within its quirkiness.

What else can I say? Hvoslef has done it again, given us a strange new world of sound to explore and enjoy. So there’s a little bit  of Peter Schickele in him. So what? I loved it!

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Nic Gerpe’s “Makrokosmos 50 Project”


CRUMB: Makrokosmos, Book I. IVANOVA: Karkata. NAVARRO: Crumbling. WOLFGANG: The Patience of Water. GUINIVAN: SIGNAL…In Which We Long for Connection. GERPE: Ghost of the Manticore. ELLIOTT MILLER: The Celestial Crown. CUONG: Scaling Back. HERNDON: Circle Of. LYONS: The Transcendence of Time. T. PETERSON: Aries. BANSAL: …through cracked mirrors. OSBORNE: Supernova / Nic Gerpe, pianist / self-produced album, limited edition of hard copies available at, also available for streaming or purchase at Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Quboz & Bandcamp


Nic Gerpe

Nic Gerpe is a Los Angeles-based pianist whose passion and specialty is modern music, thus you’ve probably never heard of him (I hadn’t). Here, he celebrates the 50th anniversary of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos with performances of Book I, supplemented by original compositions of other composers, including himself, inspired by Makrokosmos.

The title is a reversal of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos or “Microcosm”; Crumb titled his work Makromosmos or “Macrososm.” A microcosm is, of course, literally means “a little world,” figuratively “a world within a world,” whereas a macrocosm means the whole of a complex structure, usually referring to our entire world and the universe it is a part of. When writing this work, Crumb was also inspired by Debussy’s Preludes, what he described as “the darker side of Chopin” and “the child-like fantasy of Schumann.” There are a few other recordings of both Book I and the complete version which runs to four books the fourth is also titled Celestial Mechanics), all by small labels: Musiques Suisses (by Emmy Heinz-Dièmand, Books I & II), Wergo (Enrico Belli) and CAVi-Music (Martin Klett, both of whom combines just Book I with Debussy’s Preludes), Kairos (Books I-III played by Yoshiko Shimizu) and Classico (the only recording which includes all four books, since No. 3 is for 2 pianos and percussion and No. 4 is for two or three  pianists).

As I’ve said many times, one “problem” with most contemporary music is that, unlike the old-timey stuff, there is no “performance tradition,” few if any alternate ways to play the music. It is what it is, the notes and directions for volume, tempo, pedaling and phrasing in the score being the directives one must follow. In one way, this is good; we don’t have to put up with musical midgets like Vladimir Horowitz, Evgeny Kissen, Daniel Barenboim or Boris Giltburg distorting and ruining much of the music they play with their wrong-headed “interpretations,” but on the other hand it means that once you have a good recording of a particular modern piece you’ve pretty much got it, period, and don’t need others.

Since I own the Shimizu recording of Books I-III, this is the version I re-listened to in order to compare it to Gerpe’s performance which, not surprisingly, I found to be very similar. Perhaps the difference is that his forte passages are even more strongly played than Shimizu’s, and the recorded sound of the piano here is even more realistic-sounding, as if the instrument were right in the room with you. But make no mistake, I’d much rather review a new recording of George Crumb’s music than anything by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt or even Beethoven, who has been done to death far too many times. As soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan said when she was auditioning singers for a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress that she was going to direct and conduct, “Just listening to all of this music over and over in auditions convinces me that I made the right choice” because she could stand to listen to this quality music multiple times without wanting to slash her wrists.

In making my comment about Gerpe playing this music more strongly than Shimizu, it reminds me of Marcantonio Barone’s performances of Crumb’s Metamorphoses on Bridge, which are similarly played, and Barone’s performances were praised by Crumb himself (the cover photo of the CD shows performer and composer together). After all, Crumb was an American composer, not a French, Swiss or German, thus he enjoyed emotionally direct performances of his music.

For those who haven’t heard the music before, it is everything Crumb wanted it to be. Mostly using the lower range of the piano to create eerie rumbling chords and an atmosphere of menace, he also occasionally has the pianist play the inside strings of his instrument as in No. 4 (“Crucifixus”), where the performer is also asked to yell out an incoherent word or two. Whether you respond to it or not, this was Crumb’s gift, to capture in sound what I refer to as “the dark side of the moon,” a sound world that us considerably darker than Pink Floyd’s album of the same name. I also wonder if anyone else besides me has ever noticed a strong kinship between Crumb and György Ligeti. At least, that’s how I feel about his music. And such dark feelings and seem all the stranger coming from a guy who was born and raised in West Virginia and looked like the kindly old mom-and-pop grocery store owner down the street from you. (Ligeti, at least, looked like a vampire from Transylvania, which suited his music.) Taken on its own merits, then, this performance of Makrokosmos Book I is a superb one. Just listening to it, you feel as if you’re right there in the room with Gerpe as he plays, shouts, and occasionally whistles the music.

But of course this is only half the album. The second half consists of 12 pieces written by as many composers as a response or commentary on Crumb’s Makrokosmos. The only composer whose name I recognize in this list is Gernot Wolfgang, and the only reason I know him is that he generally writes a fair amount of jazz-influenced classical works, which I happen to enjoy a good deal. But he’s certainly not a household name, just as the others are not.



First up is Vera Ivanova’s Karkata, the Sanskrit word for the fourth sign of the zodiac, Cancer, which of course means nothing because the whole concept of the zodiac is simply a myth, Using techniques similar to Crumb, Ivanova nonetheless creates her own sound-world, using what I would define as more “concrete”-sounding, less “ambient” music. Beneath its hard shell of sound, it also bears a strange resemblance to Oriental music in its harmonic construction. Here, too, Gerpe plays it with a strong attack, bringing out its repeated eighth-note rhythms with some force. The second half of this piece contains some quite busy figures, to which Gerpe imparts an almost Russian feeling of forcefulness and forward impetus.





But if you think Ivanova’s piece sounds forceful, wait until you hear Fernanda Aoki Navarro’s Crumbling. This piece uses syncopation in an extremely unusual manner, at times sounding as if the rhythms were doubling back on themselves to create incredibly dense non-linear rhythms and at other times almost as if it were a jazz-influenced piece. Indeed, the rhythm is the message in this extraordibnary and fascinating piece, although in the coda everything slows down and is reduced to very basic essentials. Wolfgang’s The Patience of Water, based on the third movement of Makrokosmos (Pastorale [Taurus]), is, by contrast, very Crumb-like though concentrating on the middle and upper ranges of the keyboard rather than the bass range. This could easily pass, even to academics, as a formerly unknown piece by Crumb himself, which is a compliment to the composer. It’s relatively wasy to write a piece that sounds like Mozart or Beethoven, but Crumb is truly a different universe.



With that being said, Eric Guinivan’s SIGNAL is also very close in form and spirit to the original, consisting of brief motifs which almost sound like pealing bells, using quite a bit of pedal and a little of playing the inside strings of the piano. The composer states that it is both based on Crumb’s Crucifixus movement and “the WiFi logo, symbolizing our desire for connectedness with one another.” But I’m more convinced that Guinivan is speaking for himself; since I don’t have and will never have WiFi and don’t particularly like “connectedness” with people because all they do, as Carole King once sang, is :use you and abuse you…they’ll take your soul if you let them.” So keep your WiFi to yourself and your friends, Eric. Don’t count me in.



Not too surprisingly, Gerpe’s own Ghosts of Manticore is a strong piece in terms of power and volume in certain passages. It is also quite Crumb-like although, if one compares it to the 12 pieces in this original Makrokosmos set, it is generally faster and more aggressive. Here, Gerpe uses the inside piano strings not to pluck but to run his fingernails over as if playing a zither—an unusual and striking effect—but make no mistake, this music has real structure and is not just a collection or string of effects. Alexander Elliott Miller’s The Celestial Crown is, by contrast, surprisingly delicate, even melodic which is something Crumb avoided much (but not all) of the time in his own set except when quoting Chopin’s tune that later became the popular song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows or the Appalachian hymn Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown.

Viet Cuong




Scaling Back was written by Viet Cuong, an American-born composer of Vietnamese descent who studied at Peabody, Princeton and the Curtis Institute. The music consists mostly of fast figures played against one another. Julie Herndon’s Circle Of is exceptional, a gorgeous piece of modern music using tonality but not mawkish or sentimental in any way, using single-not e lines in the middle of the keyboard. Some of the “halo-like” sounds which she elicits from the lower range of the keyboard are extraordinary, sounding almost like an electric piano.

Gilda Lyons




The next piece is Gilda Lyons’ The Transcendence of Time, and here, too, we get music that sounds so much like Crumb that the similarity is eerie (including shouts from the pianist, playing the inside strings, and those incredible low bass rumbles). Timothy Peterson’s Aries is also very Crumb-like, though here concentrating on the chime-like quality of the piano’s upper range rather than its rumbling bottom. (I hope the reader does not assume that when I say that a piece is very Crumb-like that I am disparaging the composer. On the contrary, I consider it a high compliment since, after all, these works are supposed to complement Makrokosmos, not be in such a different style that they don’t fit in.)





Juhi Bansal’s …through cracked mirrors is more reflective of what Crumb called the dark side of Chopin, but this, too fits into the Makrokosmos mold. Her music is surprisingly florid, somewhat melodic but not conventionally so, and yet this florid style disintegrates into a Crumb-like mood in places. It’s a fascinating piece. We end our excursion with Thomas Osborne’s Supernova, where he channels the last movement of Makrokosmos. It’s a very busy piece, full of spidery fast figures in the upper range of the piano with the right hand while the left rumbles and occasionally crashes chords.

This is, on balance, an extraordinary album, and I give Gerpe all the credit in the world for organizing it, funding it through Kickstarter, and commissioning these eleven other composers to contribute to it. Would that we had more albums like this in the classical world; it would be a much more interesting place to visit.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Kvandal’s String Quartets


KVANDAL: Fugue for String Quartet. String Quartets Nos. 1-3. 2 Norwegian Dances / Engegård Quartet / Lawo LWC1253

This is exactly the kind of CD I most enjoy reviewing, interesting works I’ve never heard before by a composer I didn’t even know existed. David Johan Kvandal was born in Kristiana on September 8, 1919, studied conducting and organ at the Oslo Conservatory, then composition with Joseph Marx and Nadia Boulanger. He worked as a music critic for two Norwegian newspapers as well as an organist at the Välenengen Church in Oslo. Wikipedia (my principal source for this info) tells us that many of his works “utilize folk elements,” but other sides point out the strong influences of Bartók and Stravinsky on his music. Near the end of his life, he apparently write a major opera based on a surrealist novel, Mysterier, but like so many quality operas by modern composers, there is no recording of it. Kvandal died in 1999.

This wonderful CD presents his complete string quartets, three full ones plus a fugue for that combination which he wrote in 1946, when he was 27 years old, and two Norwegian dances. My initial impression of this fugue was that it seemed to combine a melody that could have been drawn from Norwegian folk music with the principles of Bartók. I say “could have been” for thre reasons: 1) I was not provided a booklet with this download, 2) I’m clearly not Norwegian and thus unfamiliar with most folk music of that country, and 3) the harmonies are rather unusual, and my limited experience tells me that Norwegian folk music, mostly that which I know through the music of Edvard Grieg, does not use this kind of harmony. But the “Allegro” first movement of the first string quartet does sound like something that came out of Grieg, thus possibly from his native folk music. It is a jaunty tune that he treats with equally jaunty countermelodies from the other three instruments as the first violin concentrates on his folk-like tune. The music is cleverly developed as well. Indeed, resolutely tonal folk-like melodies dominate this first quartet although there are some unusual falling chromatics in the second movement. Like many slow movements in symphonies and string quartets, there is a faster section in the midst of this slow movement, but this one is unusual in that it is very fast, even faster that the first movement, and quite complex in its construction. When Kvandal returns to a slow pace, the music seems quite different: even slower, much quieter and almost dirge-like in feeling. This gives the quartet a certain feeling of gravitas which, up to that point, it had lacked, and from this point on the movement is not only much deeper but more interesting. Alas, the final two movements are rather shallow music.

Yet this quartet does not prepare you for the much deeper, more serious and more complex second quartet, which is truly a masterpiece. Kvandal obviously evolved quite a bit between his Opp. 27 (the first quartet) and 44 (his second), for this is extremely high-quality music that is deep but not harmonically so forbidding that it would turn off the average listener (though it may challenge him or her). The movements are also linked in such a way that they present not so much a continuity of musical thought as an evolution of it, the music being tied together by mutual keys and, despite the differences in tempo and themes, a general feeling. Note, for instance, how the slow sections of the second movement tie into the slow music of the first, then also how Kvandal moves both his musical pieces and emotional feelings around like chessmen on a board. This is truly excellent music.

With the 2 Norwegian Dances we are back in Happy Land, tuneful and meant to appeal to the masses, but this time with some interesting chord positions that remove the root note and thus make the harmony sound in flux rather than settled.

The third quartet, Op. 60, is another serious work that lies harmonically somewhere between the first and second quartets—not as resolutely tonal as the first but not quite as adventurous as the second—yet it, too, is extremely well thought out and knitted together in its own way. I would also characterize this one as a masterwork simply because of the brilliant way that Kvandal handles his musical materials. He clearly knew what he was doing as a composer, and if he occasionally played to the gallery he at least did so with a certain amount of dignity, as did Nikos Skalkottas.

My impression of Kvandal, based on this small sample size, is of a good composer who occasionally touched greatness. Without much further evidence, I will have to leave it there, but at least these quartets give one a good impression of what he was capable of. Not quite as good as Bartók, but clearly not a Korngold.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Skalkottas’ Concerti for Violin


SKALKOTTAS: Violin Concerto (arr. Mantzourani). Concerto for Violin, Viola & Wind Orchestra (arr. Mantzourani) / George Zacharias, vln; Alexandros Koustas, vla; London Philharmonic Orch.; Martyn Brabbins, cond / Bis SACD-2554

Nikos Skalkottas was a strange sort of composer…well, perhaps not. A prize pupil of Schoenberg, he wrote some extraordinary serial pieces of great depth and complexity, which are the ones I generally like, but since he was a Greek composer who, thanks to the Nazis, fled back to his native country, he also wrote a great many conventional, tonal pieces using Greek themes as their basis. You don’t have to guess which part of his repertoire was the more popular, and to this day it is that side of him that is played in concert on those rare occasions when his music is programmed.

These two works for violin, the second also including a viola part, are clearly in his thornier style. In fact, Skalkottas included an analysis of these works in his Treatise on Orchestration, in which he explained his search for “transcendental sound,” particularly in his appreciation of what the wind instruments could do. According to the liner notes by violinist Zacharias:

Out of a total of 165 manuscript pages, the first 110 are devoted to the meticulous presentation and description of a variety of instruments at the “disposal of the modern orchestrator,” spanning from the piccolo to the harp. Most of these pages, however, concentrate solely on the woodwinds and brass and their ability to blend with the strings.

Slakkottas explicitly differentiates between the “arts of instrumentation and orchestration”; the term orchestration implies a simultaneous and coordinated performance of an orchestral ensemble – as is the case in the Violin Concerto – while instrumentation expresses a coordinated but distinctive individual production of sound by the wind instruments.

The end result in the solo violin concerto is very Schoenberg-like, perhaps even a bit starker and barer than Schoenberg’s music of that time. The opening of the first movement has no real introductory section; it jumps right into the middle of the music as if it had already been going on for a minute or two. There is little here to assist the resolutely tonal-oriented listener; the music is, in fact, far more stark than the Violin Concerto of Schoenberg’s friend and pupil, Alban Berg. In the midst of such a turbulent sea of knotty themes and knottier chords, there ar only two choices for the listener, to completely reject it and walk away or pay close attention to what is going on and at least try to follow Skalkottas’ train of musical thought. I chose the latter, and found that although this music is almost wholly cerebral and not in the least sensual or attractive, it is very tightly and logically written—sort of a super-complex musical equivalent to a drawing by Escher. The parallel is not randomly chosen. Just as Eshcer’s drawings are clever yet somehow strangely logical distortions of reality, so too Skalkottas’ Violin Concerto is a modern construct that has a strong inner logic though it does not fit in with conventional composition methods. Yet every single note in this outstanding work helps to buttress the foundation. Skalkottas took no chances in creating this piece; there are neither “holes” in the music that need filling in nor superfluous notes or passages. His writing here is extraordinarily economical. It is modern music reduced to its essential basics and not a jot more.

And the music is always morphing and changing. Little, if anything, is repeated at any given point. Indeed, this may be the purest and most consistent 12-tone concerto ever written. Insofar as the orchestration goes, I personally didn’t find it “transcendental” in the meditative sense so much as constantly varied and mostly very sparse, using just bits of the full orchestra to back up the soloist. You almost never hear the full orchestra playing together; at times it sounds like a concerto for violin and strings, at others like a concerto for violin and winds only. The brasses are sparsely used and, when they are, mostly for filling in chords; the only time the brass is in the foreground is a brief passage for the French horns in the second movement. Only once or twice do you hear the percussion, and even the basses are conspicuously absent most of the time. All of this gives the listener the impression that this concerto is “floating in the air.”  Perhaps this is what Skalkottas meant by “transcendental” sound.

As I say, however, this is scarcely a concerto to please the masses. Melody and sensuality are conspicuously and, I would think, purposely absent, even when the orchestral plays a quirky atonal waltz in the third movement. Yet despite the virtual absence of anything “normal” to hang on to, Zacharias gives us a surprisingly impassioned performance of the solo part. showing that at least he could find a modicum of human feeling in a primarily mechanical musical construct. It’s a remarkable feat, really, but Skalkottas, who was also a violinist, saw this as a necessary component in his concerto when he wrote

the virtuoso player should shape his own idea; he should demonstrate a unique way of performance and inspiration, in comparison to older times…to achieve a vivid and flowing performance of these [compositions], [as a performer] I would also methodically study the composer, who has in turn been inspired.

Incidentally, the editions of these concertos made by Dr. Eva Mantzourani do not represent a re-orchestration or re-adaptation of the original scores, but rather were based on the new critical edition which “addresses several oversights of prior editions.”

Interestingly, the violin-viola concerto, written two years later, is just a shade more audience-friendly, at least in terms of rhythm. Here, the first movement in particular is quite jaunty, bouncing along almost like a Greek folk dance (or perhaps a German one—you decide). Perhaps because he was writing for two instruments and not one, Skalkottas also produced melodic lines that occasionally lean towards tonality, something that was absent in the Violin Concerto. This is particularly true when he writes for the viola alone; as an instrument whose sound lies between the violin and the cello, he apparently wanted t o complement its richer sound with somewhat less strict dodecaphonic musical development. TO give you a small idea of it, here’s the first page of the manuscript score in Skalkottas’ own hand:[1]

Double concerto p 1

As a result, this concerto has a less strict comparison to an Escher drawing. It combines intellect with a bit of sensuality and even a touch of fun, which leavens its impact on the listener a bit. Not that you’re going to hear any part of this work on your local classical FM radio station, just that I could envision this being programmed in concert at least once every few years whereas the Violin Concerto is one of those works that most orchestras and soloists would try to avoid like the plague because it’s completely non-commercial.

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was that conductor Martyn Brabbins and the London Philharmonic fully enter into the spirit of this concerto as well as the soloists do. I say that because, as a rule, British musicians tend not to be able to relax and have fun with really serious music as well as some Germans and Scandinavians do, but somehow or other Brabbins and his forces really play in a very peppy manner, mirroring their soloists. Only in the second movement does the feeling become more serious, and it is here that Skalkottas’ orchestration leans more heavily on a strange combination of the winds and brasses to create an almost mechanical sound.

To recap, I found the Violin Concerto cerebral but extraordinarily constructed, the Violin-Viola Concerto well constructed but somewhat more appealing to an average listener. Both are very well played and recorded; the SACD sound allows you to hear every little detail and nuance in Skalkottas’ extremely interesting scores. In fact, the sound is so clear that you almost don’t even need to see the score. Kudos to everyone concerned with this project. These are outstanding performances and recordings of two outstanding works.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] Courtesy of the IMSLP Petrucci Score Library,


Lera Auerbach’s Preludes


AUERBACH: 24 Preludes for Violin & Piano / Christine Bernsted, vln; Ramez Mhaanna, pno / Naxos 8.574464

For whatever reason, Lena Auerbach’s name was always one I heard on the periphery of the classical world but not one that I had ever explored before. This was my loss, because she is clearly an excellent composer, far better, in fact, than such hyped-up names as Missy Mazzoli or Kaja Saariaho.

Much to my surprise, this isn’t the first recording of these unusual preludes for violin and piano. The Avita Duo (violinist Katya Moeller and pianist Ksenia Nosikova) recorded them for Hänssler Classic, and famed Russian violinist Vadim Gluzman, with pianist Angela Yoffe, recorded them for Bis, but they are clearly unusual enough to warrant a third outing on silver disc. I’ve not heard the Gluzman recordings, but the ones by the Avita Duo are very similar to these except that their violinist uses straight tone, which only works in a few places, whereas Christine Bernsted correctly uses a light vibrato which gives the music a more sensual quality. (The use of constant straight tone in music of all eras has really has out of hand. Modern-day fiddlers are so hung up on it that they think it “enhances” all music whereas it actually makes it sound cold, clinical, and to my ears, disgusting.)


The composer

For those who have not heard them before, these Preludes are for the most part mysterious, soft music on the edge of a dream world but not “pretty” enough to appeal to the average classical listener. In short, you’re not going to hear most of them played on your classical FM station. Many are in minor keys, and even some of those in the major keys that start out in a surprisingly melodic fashion, such as No. 3, take a turn for the eerie. No. 4, a very last-paced Prelude in E minor, is so edgy that it assails your psyche like a musical razor blade. But there isn’t a single Prelude in this set that isn’t fascinating in one way or another. Auerbach’s harmonic language is often more bitonal than atonal, and there are clearly moments when she writes in conventional tonal keys, but there’s always some sort of underlying menace in her music. It may sound somewhat familiar, but comforting it is not. A perfect example is the quirky, highly rhythmic Prelude No. 6 with its galumphing single-note piano line played against edgy violin trills; the music eventually backs off in both volume and tempo, as both instruments play a bit more conventional sorts of lines, yet the emotional impact on the listener is just a momentary lull in the musical storm. Auerbach clearly takes the listener on an emotional roller-coaster ride in this and, in fact, in all of the Preludes.

One thing I particularly admired was Auerbach’s sense of programming. She changes not only key but mood by alternating Preludes of not only different keys but also of tempo and feeling, and in fact several of these pieces sound so different in mood from the others that one is surprised by how many different styles she can write in. Auerbach is clearly not a composer who is locked into “one voice,” as so many moderns are. And when you suddenly hear the initially jaunty, dance-like Prelude No. 11, which quickly shifts in the harmony which in turn affects the initial joyousness of the melody, you are surprised because it seems “out of character.” But what is Auerbach’s character? That’s hard to say except to point out that it is clearly multi-faceted. Prelude No. 16 is so incredibly creepy, despite its soft, slow-moving melodic line, that you temporarily feel transported into another universe; yet the very next Prelude begins with an explosion of fast-pac3d runs on the violin before settling into a single sustained note at a slower tempo as the piano plays a bitonally-chorded melody against it. We’re clearly somewhere in the midst of a musical nightmare that has its happy moments but is more often edgy and unsettling.

After listening to these Preludes, I investigated some of Auerbach’s other music: the First Symphony, subtitled “Chimera” (2006), the last two movement of which also form a tone poem titled Icarus, her string quartet Frozen Dreams (2020), and the orchestral piece Post Silentium. The symphony and its offspring, the tone poem, are in the modern-edgy style familiar nowadays but with much better inner construction and that strange-edgy feeling, whereas the string quartet is more atonal and again in a different style from everything else. In short, Auerbach is a musical chameleon, and these violin-piano Preludes are part of her but not wholly representative of what she can do.

To say that this CD is highly recommended would be an understatement. It is essential listening.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Bobby Mitchell Plays Late Rzewski


RZEWSKI: Dreams: No. 7, Ruins; No. 8, Wake Up. War Songs. Winter Nights. Saints and Sinners / Bobby Mitchell, pianist / Naxos 8.559928

As Bill McLaughlin, host of the former award-winning radio show Saint Paul Sunday, once described him, Frederic Rzewski was “an interesting creature.” Part saint and part devil, an avowed Communist and a man who separated from his wife but never divorced her, had a different female companion for his last 20 years yet continually hit up on women, Rzewski had one of the most formidable piano techniques of any composer of any nationality. Although his most famous composition is the massive set of variations based on the South American Communist song. The People United Will Never Be Defeated, he also composed such bizarre pieces as Les Moutons de Panurge. written (in Rzewski’s own words) “For any number of musicians playing melody instruments plus any number of non-musicians playing anything.” In this piece, notes are added at every turn until the theme becomes almost too complex to remember. Whatever chaos ensues, however, both the musicians an non-musicians are exhorted to “play loud!” (McLaughlin broadcast a wonderful live performance of this work by eighth blackbird.)

These late piano pieces are technically challenging but mostly quite short, nothing on the level of The People United. Pianist Bobby Mitchell, who knew Rzewski personally, describes the music here as presenting the ideas of “destruction, hope, war, isolation, and hypocrisy,” all of which sounds wonderful but has nothing to do with music, which is an abstract art form and only represents itself. The CD opens with the last two pieces from Rzewski’s piano cycle Dreams, “Ruins” and “Wake Up.” For Rzewski, the music is somewhat more tonal than usual although there is some bitonality in the clashing home keys of the music played by each of the pianist’s hands. It is, to my ears, surprisingly Charles Ives-like in this respect, which is certainly good. (For some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, Ives has pretty dropped off the list of “modern” composers that pianists play nowadays, almost as if he never existed.) Another surprise, to me at least, is that in “Ruins” Rzewski constructs the music using relatively “normal” theme-and-variations, albeit with a few little wrinkles thrown in. But it is surely interesting music. In addition to Mitchell’s outstanding technical abilities, what struck me about this recording is the almost unbelievable clarity and realism of the recorded sound—Mitchell comes across as if he’s playing “live,” right in your living room. Part of this may be due to the recording venue, “The Right Place Studio” in Brussels, but I still give kudos to recording engineer Bastien Gilson for capturing the sound of Mitchell’s piano so perfectly. Even the very best of Glenn Gould’s recordings, for instance, made in the early digital era, don’t sound this utterly realistic. Thus we have the best of all worlds: interesting music, an outstanding interpreter, and world-class sound, all in one package.


The composer at the piano

As “Ruins” progresses, however, Rzewski deviates more often from conventional form, but it is exceptionally interesting. morphing and changing as only Rzewski could do, taking little side-trips as the music eventually becomes so complex that only a master pianist like Mitchell could possibly make something of it. How I wish that other super-virtuosos out there like Argerich and Hamlin would stop wasting their time playing so much of the old-timey stuff and play more music like this!

“Wake Up” starts out very simply, with single notes played high on the keyboard, but very quickly becomes complex as Rzewski throws in a sort of skewered version of a boogie bass into the mix while the right hand begins playing more complex figures of its own. Rzewski never stopped being incredibly creative, it seems. My only regret, considering that this is the first issued recording of anything from Dreams, is that Mitchell didn’t include an extra piece or two. (For those who are interested, however, there is an incredible video on YouTube of Rzewski himself playing the entire cycle, which runs a little over an hour. HERE.)

War Songs, however, is pure, unconventional Rzewski: quirky melodic line, quirky rhythm, and a harmonic base that is not only quite odd but seldom touches a root note in its chords. Here, too, he uses several stoppages of the musical flow, and each of these pianistic songs-without-words has its own unorthodox sound and structure. Once again, Mitchell plays them splendidly, bringing out all of their nuance with near-infinite gradations of touch and volume.

But if War Songs are closer to early Rzewski, the three pieces that make up Winter Nights are not. As Mitchell puts it in the liner notes, they are written very sparsely in extremely slow tempi, “almost on the edge of what is physically perceivable as a pulse.” This is “floating” or “ambient” music, the kind that I normally abhor, but there is a considerable difference when it is written by a master composer because it goes somewhere and says something. Moreover, the music doesn’t stay in this slow tempo, but has episodes at a much faster pace and little filigrees that add interest, as it goes along. These aspects of the score are unusual when you consider that Rzewski considered it to be music that would “help with insomnia” in the manner of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. But as a chronic insomniac myself, I can vouch for the fact that playing music with this much activity in it—not to mention the Goldberg Variations—is not really a “help” for insomnia in the manner of a “cure.” It is a distraction to give you a highly complex activity to do since you can’t sleep anyway. If you want REAL help with insomnia, listen to Stephen Halperin. Yet if you were to excise the louder, busier passages from the recording, particularly the passage with the quasi-boogie bass in the second piece, it would indeed help you get back to sleep to listen to it since 85% of it is quite relaxing.

The last piece on this album, Saints and Sinners, written in 2016 for Canadian pianist Milton Schlosser, is another strange piece that vacillates between quiet, serene music and jumpy, rhythmic, rather dissonant passages. Mitchell played it at Rzewski’s funeral along with the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, which was his favorite piece by an older composer and one he asked would be played at his funeral. It’s in a similar vein to Winter Nights except that the music seems much more episodic, flitting about in a way that sometimes defies common musical sense. I liked parts of it and disliked others, although the parts I liked were really good. It’s just a tad too quirky in places, even for me, but your reaction may differ.

In a way, with the exception of the War Songs, these late pieces clearly point to a calmer, less frantic Rzewski than his earlier work. His internal clock was slowing down and he had found a modicum of peace within himself. This is clearly an interesting and thoughtful tribute to a composer who Mitchell was close to and deeply admired. Well recommended for Rzewski fans, particularly the War Songs and the two excerpts from Dreams.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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Would You Like to Inherit My CD Collection?

Since I have lost the sight in my right eye, I’ve had to cut back on the number of reviews I do each month, but since the detached retina in my right eye was caused by a severe head trauma on that side only, there’s a 90% chance that I won’t lose the sight in my left eye.

Nonetheless, I have several health problems that don’t need to be discussed and, at age 72, I feel that I’m living on borrowed time. I think that, at the most, I have perhaps ten years left, possibly less. I have no living relatives who like classical music or jazz, and most of my friends are virtual and online.

But I would, if it is humanly possible, like to have my CD collection go to someone who might appreciate the decades I’ve spent collecting the best recordings of what I consider to be the best music rather than just have it all tossed into a trash can or recycle bin when I go. Thus I am willing to accept requests for my collection when I go rather than have it disappear into the ether.

If you are interested and young enough to wait another 7-10 years, perhaps less, please write to me at my email address which is on my home page, just below the blurb for the Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music and just above the Peanuts cartoon. If I get more than one offer to take it, I will have my lone survivor (who doesn’t want all these CDs) contact you at that time in the order in which they are received.

Please be aware that, although I am a professional critic, more than half of the CDs in my collection are homemade, burned from downloads. I never did get hard copies of most of my recordings, and in some cases I re-burned a CD to add some music not on the original disc(s). Nonetheless, they all play just fine and there are some extremely valuable recordings in here that can’t be found anywhere else.

If you write to me, I will send you my Excel file catalog of all my classical recordings. I haven’t catalogued the jazz, at least not yet, but although it is an extensive and wide-ranging collection ranging from Jim Europe’s ragtime band of 1913 to the latest free jazz, it only takes up about 8 rows of CDs as compared to 32 for classical (boxed sets included). Included are a fair amount of DVDs , perhaps 35 in all, mostly of operas but also DVDs of such famous conductors as Arturo Toscanini, Charles Munch, Michael Gielen (just a couple of Gielen, alas) and a few documentaries. These are not catalogued but I can make a list if you insist on it.

I’d love to close with one of those lines you hear in radio and TV ads, like “Act quickly! This offer can’t last!”, but I’d be lying if I said that. Still, since this is a first-come-first-served basis, I would like to have at least a couple of inheritors in mind for when I go.


Lynn B.