Jansons Conducts Beethoven

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BEETHOVEN: Mass in C.* Leonore Overture No. 3+ / Genia Kühmeier, sop; Gerhild Romberger, alto; Maximilian Schmitt, ten; Luca Pisaroni, bs-bar; Bavarian Radio Chorus & Symphony Orch.; Mariss Jansons, cond / BR Klassik 900170 (live: *Gasteig, January 11-12, 2018; +Munich, January 29-30, 2004)

Here is a performance of Beethoven’s “other” mass, the one less often chosen for presentation. The Mass in C was written in 1806 and published in 1807, and Beethoven considered it a great advance on the writing of masses in his time. Now, 1806 was still what you would call “early middle period Beethoven,” after the Fifth Symphony but before the Sixth Symphony or the first of his “middle quartets,” so we have a good idea of the melodic-harmonic language he was using at that time.

At first blush, this would seem to be just yet another Romantic-era Mass, but the more you listen to it the more little details jump out at you. For instance, even in the “Kyrie,” Beethoven uses the chorus and solo voices performing individual, interweaving lines, almost like a string quartet, and although the harmony is clearly not as advanced as the late quartets or piano sonatas, it is still Beethoven-like in its restlessness. Both the harmony and rhythm keep shifting and changing as the music progresses, creating a fairly complex interplay that is quite different indeed from the later Missa Solemnis.

Jansons conducts this work with real energy and commitment, which keeps the pulse and the complex interplay of voices moving forward. Sadly, soprano Genia Kühmeier is clearly the only outstanding voice in the vocal quartet. Although Luca Pisaroni has a pleasant voice, he is really a baritone and thus cannot give as much weight to the lower end of the four-voice passages as he should. Both Gerhild Romberger and Maximilian Schmitt have pronounced flutters in their voices, although Schmit is sometimes locked into focus while Romberger is not.

The choral fugue that emerges at about the seven-minute mark in the “Gloria” is very good indeed, using rising cadences in the “Amen” section. The “Credo” opens with serrated triplet figures played by the celli but quickly moves into a somewhat martial tempo with strong tympani underscoring. There is quite bit of variety in this movement, in fact, with “driving” figures much as you heard in Fidelio and would later hear in the first movement of the Eighth Symphony.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this Mass is more dramatic and less “reverent” than usual stems from the fact that he, like Thomas Paine, was a Deist and not a Christian. Beethoven believed in the God of nature, the force that created the universe and everything on our planet, and this was the God he paid homage to. As a result, his music has the sweep of waves and the rumble of thunder in it, but does not evoke some old guy in the sky who, like Santa Claus, knows when you’ve been naughty or nice. It’s a different way of looking at God that I wish most people in the world would get back to. When the “Credo” suddenly increases in tempo at around 6:40, you get the feeling that Beethoven is driving the music towards some unattainable goal, in a sense “storming the heavens” as he did in the recently-completed Fifth Symphony. I was particularly pleased by the singing of the Bavarian Radio Chorus, which gives us an exceptional ensemble blend, along with incisive rhythmic accents, yet still sounds like a group of human beings and not like a MIDI, as most “historically-informed” choirs do.

As the Mass progresses, one notes that although the music is clearly tonal, Beethoven used a wide variety of tempi and occasionally (as at the one-minute mark in the “Sanctus”) unusual key changes. This movement, in particular, is not the least bit predictable or formulaic, but jumps around much like certain modern composers like to do (in a non-tonal way, of course), and its brevity (only 2:51) is as much a surprise as anything else. In the “Benedictus” Beethoven writes one of his most beautiful and appealing melodies, much like the second movement of the “Pathétique” piano sonata. By this time, too, contralto Romberger’s voice has finally warmed up and her pronounced flutter is gone (not so, sadly, in the case of Schmitt).

Perhaps the one disappointment, for me, was the rather chipper “Agnus Dei,” with which Beethoven concluders this Mass. Although the music is still quite good, it sounds a little too much to me like scraps from the previous movements stitched together. Well, hey, not even a Beethoven could be wholly original in every bar of every piece!

Since the Mass is rather short, the CD concludes with a performance of the Leonore Overture No. 3, recorded 14 years earlier. Here, Jansons gives us a very Toscanini-like performance, with a dramatic, forward thrust and emphasizing the astringent texture of the wind passages.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Onslow’s String Quintets

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ONSLOW: String Quintets Nos. 28 & 29 / Elan Quintet / Naxos 8.573887

George Onslow (1784-1853) was described as a “gentleman” musician who was independently wealthy and thus not dependent on making an income from his products. He wrote 34 string quartets, 36 quintets, 10 piano trios, four symphonies and various other works. This is Vol. 3 in an ongoing series of Onslow’s quintets for Naxos.

The music presented herein is actually quite good for its time and place, solidly written and engaging without being saccharine or maudlin. Although tonal, he introduced several little key changes within each movement of his works that add piquancy and interest, and it is to the Elan Quintet’s credit that they play with energy and commitment.

Onslow used the string quartet like a small orchestra rather than having individual lines for each instrument work with or against one another, even in the slow movements. The “Menuet” of the Quintet No. 28 is sprightly and very cleverly written.

Quintet No. 29 is an even sprightlier affair from the very first note, and wends its way along through its four movements. One of the more interesting things about these works is that they use a double bass and not a second cello, although the description “version for double bass” suggests to me that there are alternate scores requesting two celli. The second movement of this quintet is also very well-written music, with very dramatic interludes that wake the listener up and, in the Scherzo, a slow middle section with some interesting harmonic changes. The finale is also quite good.

These, then, are fairly interesting and solidly-written Romantic-era, fare, played well by the Elan Quintet and recorded with a good, clear, forward sound.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Wallen’s Fascinating Orchestral Music

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WALLEN: Cello Concerto.* Photography (A Jelly Bean Extravaganza) / *Matthew Sharp, cel; Ensemble X; Nicholas Kok, cond / Hunger / The Continuum Ensemble; Philip Headlam, cond / In Earth / Errollyn Wallen, voc; Tim Harries, bs-gtr; Quartet X / NMC 221

Errollyn Wallen was born in Belize but has spent most of her life in England. Like Leonard Salzedo, whose marvelous string quartets I recently reviewed, she has written for movies and TV, but in her case this is the lion’s share of her output. Perhaps this is one reason why she is not so well known “across the pond,” yet as I noted in my review of her first classical CD (for a nationally distributed classical music magazine), she is a highly original and fascinating composer. This CD, which came out a couple of years ago, somehow flew under my radar, thus I am taking this opportunity to review it now. Unfortunately, I had no booklet to download along with the sound files, so I cannot tell you the origin or particular meaning of the titles.

The Cello Concerto has echoes of Romanticism about it, beginning with a soaring melodic line played by the soloist a cappella, but like most of her music it quickly morphs into a somewhat more modern vein after the first 16 bars or so. The solo work continues for some time, four minutes and 48 seconds to be exact, before somewhat edgy string tremolos are introduced from the orchestra. Later on, the strings echo and answer the cello before moving on to different music on their own. It is a one-movement work lasting 22 ½ minutes, very tightly structured with no superfluous music in it—one of Wallen’s hallmarks as a composer. By and large, the melodic and harmonic language are reminiscent of late 1940s-early ‘50s classical works, yet her originality shines through the somewhat recognizable structure and format. She uses portamento for both the soloist and the background strings in a striking and interesting manner, and it is truly a one-movement piece; it is not divided, as is often the case in works such as this, into sections in contrasting tempi. An excellent, somewhat dramatic work.

Hunger is a more ominous-sounding piece for orchestra, beginning with soft, grumbling basses, over which edgy viola figures are heard. This goes on for some time, building up tension in a quiet manner before the tympani come pounding into view, upping both the volume and the tempo. The music becomes quite hectic and ever more intense as it develops, then returns to its initial slower tempo for further development. At 17:23: she introduces a sort of ominous march tempo, played by the basses, while the other strings develop the music further above them. An excellent piece!

Photography, subtitled A Jelly Bean Extravaganza, is somewhat explained via a video upload on YouTube of this piece. Visuals of flying jelly beans cover the screen, creating abstract images as they move around, much like one of Oskar Fischinger’s abstract shape films for M-G-M in the 1930s. The music, then, is highly rhythmic while staying in one basic chord for much of its length, which makes it resemble minimalism. Oddly, however, the slow second and third movements, lyrical and effusive, seems oddly out of place with this concept.

Yet it is the last piece on this disc, In Earth, that is the strangest and most atmospheric, using what sounds like electronic drums (as well as electronic tape sounds) in a highly creative manner. In time, I heard small extracts from Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth” from Dido and Aeneas as part of the musical fabric, played by a cello with the bow on the very edge of the strings. This suggestion of the Purcell tune gradually fleshes itself out a bit more, until finally Wallen herself sings the famous aria in a shallow, breathy voice. I can only presume that this was her intention, to remove the aria from an operatic concept.

No two ways about it: Errollyn Wallen is her own person, following her own musical muse. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Nobuko Imai Plays Hindemith

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HINDEMITH: Viola Sonatas: Op. 11, No. 5; Op. 25, No. 1; Op. 31, No. 4; 1937 / Nobuko Imai, violist / Bis CD-571

Paul Hindemith, in addition to being a very interesting composer, was also a multi-talented instrumentalist whose primary instrument was the viola. Now, I admit not being enough of an expert to tell you why the viola is considered harder to play than the violin, but apparently it is because there have always been far more violin virtuosi in any given era than violists, and I keep hearing viola players praised to the skies as if they were playing classical music on a Didgeridoo or a Jew’s Harp. In my estimation—and I’m probably wrong—I would think that almost any world-class violinist could pick up a viola and get the feel of it within a month. Certainly, I have seen many recordings of viola music played by famous violinists over the years (Josef Suk is just one such), yet the few star violists that have emerged always seem to be given superstar status.

Personally, I think the only reason there aren’t more solo violists is that the instrument isn’t really a glamorous one. It has a range similar to a tenor or baritone violin, lying lower than the violin and pretty much above a cello, but whereas the cello has a gorgeous, sumptuous, almost “vocal” tone,  the viola just sounds, most of the time, like a low violin—an unglamorous brother, you might say.

In Hindemith’s time, aside from himself, the two most famous violists were Lionel Tertis and William Primrose, although the NBC Symphony’s Carlton Cooley also made a good showing in concerts as a solo violist (he was lucky enough to sit beside Primrose in the NBC Symphony for a few years). I have recordings of Hindemith playing viola with his own Amar Trio and Quartet, and from what I can hear (the recordings were made in the early electrical period, but on muddy-sounding Polydor records), he was very fine indeed.

But perhaps because he felt he was writing them only for himself and a handful of others, Hindemith didn’t produce a truly sequential group of solo viola sonatas. They are not numbered in order; they just sort of popped up in his output at odd times between 1919 and 1937; yet in the end he wound up with four of them.

Originally, I wanted to review the new recording of these works by Luca Raineri on Brilliant Classics, but the recorded sound was completely unnerving. Raineri’s instrument is absolutely booming off the walls with a harsh, artificial-sounding reverb, as if it were recorded in an empty locker room with metal walls. He played the music very well, but I couldn’t listen to more than one movement of one sonata, so instead I hunted around online and came up with this splendid 1992 recording by Nobuko Imai.

Imai’s style is a little less “musical” and a bit more mechanical-sounding than Raineri’s. Like so many Oriental string players nowadays, she has a fabulous technique but tends to emphasize speed of execution over phrasing. She does, however, accent the music rhythmically in a strong, almost masculine manner, which is very similar to the way Hindemith himself played the viola, and in doing so she proves that the viola can be just as attractive and interesting as the violin in the hands of the right performer.

Even in the first movement of the Op. 11 sonata, Hindemith asks for a great many strong downbow attacks. The music has sharp corners; it is not soft and comforting, but dynamic and forceful, and Imai handles this perfectly. In the slow second movement she does indeed show that she can phrase lyrically, yet once again one hears sharp corners in this music. It is not a soporific. It is bracing.

Indeed, I hear in these sonatas more of a kinship to Paganini’s 24 Caprices for violin than to Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas. There seemed to me much more of a relationship in style, particularly in the fast movements, to the Paganini works. This is not a bad thing, and I would go further and say that they are related to Paganini in another way: Hindemith exploits the high range of the viola far more than most composers for this instrument normally do. I would daresay that, playing the fast movements especially for a listener unfamiliar with these works (as I was prior to hearing these recordings), he or she would almost immediately think that they were solo violin works. By emphasizing the upper register, Hindemith brought out more brightness in playing the viola than many other composers did, or still do.

One thing I found interesting was the leap in style between the first sonata, written in 1919, and the second, written in 1922. The first, though quite dramatic in places, is closer (particularly in the slow movements) to late Romanticism in harmony, whereas the second is already starker, using more modal harmony and form. Hindemith was already beginning to reject Romantic expression, which he felt was “sterile and hedonistic,” yet even here the third movement (“Sehr langsam”) retains a nice legato sound and is less modal than the surrounding movements. Moreover, the fourth movement, “Rasendes Zeitmass. Wild. Tonschoenheit ist Nebensache,” is particularly edgy in a way that surpasses the edgy moments in the first sonata. And this is the style of the next sonata (Op. 31, No. 4), written the following year (1923).

In the second movement of the last sonata, from 1937, Hindemith uses pizzicato across all of the instrument’s strings, creating an effect almost like a guitar (or perhaps a banjo). In this sonata, all of the ideas that had come to him in the earlier sonatas are more fully integrated into the structure, creating a more complete progression and interaction of ideas.

These are wonderful, bracing works, played with a wonderfully bracing style by Imai. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Chris Jentsch “Reviews” Topics in American History

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TOPICS IN AMERICAN HISTORY / JENTSCH: 1491. Manifest Destiny. Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Tempest-Tost. Suburban Disapora. Dominos. Meeting at Surratt’s / Jentsch Group No Net: Michel Gentile, fl; Michael McGinnis, cl/bs-cl; Jason Rigby, s-sax/t-sax/bar-sax; David Smith, tpt/fl-hn; Brian Drye, tb; Jacob Sacks, pno; Chris Jentsch, el-gtr; Jim Whitney, bs; Eric Halvorson, dm/perc; JC Sanford, cond / Blue Schist CD004

Jazz guitarist and composer Chris Jentsch, who also earned a B.A. in History from Gettysburg College, presents here his musical impressions of seven events or moods from the American past. While I thoroughly enjoyed his musical adaptations and compositions, I—who also studied History in college—was brought up short by a couple of his observations. Whether he learned these at Gettysburg College or picked them up from somewhere else, I must make a few comments.

In his liner notes, Jentsch ends his brief summary of the original Lincoln-Douglas debates by noting that Stephen A, Douglas was “not the noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass.” Was this really necessary? Do students nowadays not know this? Yet this is mild in comparison to a couple of his other observations, to wit:

Suburban Diaspora. The idea that people who grew up in an American middle class suburb during the Baby Boom (and then spread to cities or rural areas) share some sort of cultural heritage.

Say WHAT?!? As someone who grew up in a suburb during the Baby Boom, I can assure you that no two families on my horseshoe-shaped, three-street enclave thought that they shared any sort of cultural heritage. We had a very wide variety of families there, and in fact the majority were working class people. Three homeowners—my father and two others—were mailmen. Three others were laborers. One was a fireman. My next-door neighbor worked in a factory in Passaic. Two were indeed pretty well off compared to the rest of us: one owned his own construction company and another sold his home to start, slightly outside our neighborhood, a homemade chocolate candy business. One was an office worker on Madison Avenue in New York—he dropped dead of a heart attack while not yet 40. Our cultures were radically different and no one “shared them,” but for the most part (our neighbor across the street, a laborer, had a pretty testy personality, and another, who lived next door to him, was pretty much a recluse who didn’t talk to anybody) we got along and had fun. We swam occasionally in each others’ swimming pools and the kids played together. That was the extent of our “shared cultural heritage.” We were friendly and, in a pinch, we helped each other. The End. Oh yeah: there was a Jehovah’s Witness family on the short middle street of the U who none of the kids went to for Halloween because they only passed out Bible tracts, not candy. The family that started their own chocolate business was THE BEST!!!!

Dominos: Invokes some of the existential dread of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the Red Scare of the 1950s.

This one is a slippery slope, combining real fears with imagined ones. Yes, anyone with half a brain was a little scared of Nikita Khruschev because he was hot-headed, fairly crude, and threatened to “bury” us. The Red Scare was unfortunately very real, and it included forces from within our own government. Read Whittaker Chambers’ book Witness and learn for yourself how deeply imbedded Communists were—even at the highest levels—from the early 1930s onward. Joseph McCarthy, who was supported by politicians on both sides of the political aisle (the Kennedys were staunchly loyal), actually did a pretty good job until he began drinking too heavily and let power go to his head. Nearly all those he prosecuted were indeed Communists. The Rosenbergs were guilty. Alger Hiss was really a Communist at the highest level of our foreign affairs (he engineered the Yalta Conference and convinced FDR to give half of Europe away to Joe Stalin). What led to McCarthy’s downfall was that combination of alcohol and ego.

With our history lesson over for now, on to the music, which is uniformly interesting.

1491 begins with flute over cymbals, leading into a strange, amorphous series of background sounds that resemble exotic birds and animals. This continues for about a minute and a half before the piano enters, playing a repeated riff in irregular meter, over which the various instruments come in. This has a definite Mingus kind of sound about it—think of Pithecanthropus Erectus. Trombonist Brian Drye plays a surreal, somewhat loping solo in the manner of Jimmy Knepper while the rhythm section works out behind him. A wonderful flute solo by Michel Gentile follows. I especially liked the licks that bassist Jim Whitney plays in the background.

Manifest Destiny also starts out of tempo, with flute and bass clarinet figures over irregular drum and cymbal beats. This one moves into a strange melodic line at a slow tempo, with the horns and winds playing together as a unit. I very much liked Jentsch’s orchestrations and good ear for tone color. This one somewhat resembles those “spacey” jazz compositions of the 1950s. Whitney takes a plucked bass solo, followed by a passage in which pianist Jacob Sacks adds his own commentary around Whitney, then an ensemble horn passage follows, with McGinnis following on clarinet (playing quite a bit in the high range a la Benny Goodman) as the tempo slows to a crawl. Things pick up again with Rigby’s soprano sax solo in double time, which leads to an explosive climax.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates starts out sounding almost like a Dixieland number except for its odd structure and irregular meter. This one is a string of solos and ensemble bits, with Rigby now on tenor sax, although there is another fine trombone solo and David Smith gets a look-in on trumpet, playing some wonderfully irregular figures over the rhythm section before Drye returns. The leader adds his own commentary on electric guitar, then Smith returns, muted, for a few bars. The tension builds when the trumpet returns, now unmuted, and the tempo picks up before a slower, out-of-tempo section that leads to some free-form jamming.

Tempest-Tost opens slowly and out of tempo before leading into a similarly slow melodic line played by the clarinet with interesting textures created in the orchestration. This is absolutely wonderful music of a kind I rarely hear nowadays. Rigby lumbers around in an amusing fashion on what sounds like a baritone sax, Jentsch wails for a while on guitar (but in a jazz-blues style, not necessarily a rock style); afterwards, the band sort of moshes around, but in an interesting way, over Eric Halvorsen’s busy drums and cymbals. A figure played by bass clarinet, flugelhorn, trombone and sax is heard next, followed by a bass clarinet solo with ensemble and percussion punctuation.

Suburban Diaspora has a funky sort of modern rock beat mixed with a little Latin feel, the ensemble playing another strange melody line as an ensemble, although there are brief clarinet and flute solos mixed in. Jentsch returns on guitar, this time picking his way cleanly but slowly in the upper range for the first half-chorus. Sacks almost sounds as if he is playing an old upright or a tack piano on this one, perhaps recalling those beat-up old keyboards that proliferated in school auditoria, church basements and even occasionally in firehouses in those old days. Gentile plays an excellent flute solo on this one, too.

Dominos builds from a slow, moody piano opening into a bitonal figure played by the trumpet and high winds, followed by equally strange piano figures that underscore the development. This leads into a sort of bluesy-funky-slightly rock styled solo by Jentsch, followed by yet another highly creative ensemble passage which does indeed invoke a creepy undercurrent of fear. Rigby’s tenor sax is busy and edgy.

The finale, Meeting at Surratt’s, recalls the arrest of Mary Surratt, at whose home the conspirators who plotted to kill Abraham Lincoln met. It begins, appropriately, with an almost military march-style drum solo before leading into its dolorous, minor-key tune, which is then worked out by the soloists and ensemble. Rigby is especially creative on tenor. Here, however, I felt that Jentsch’s use of a rock sound on his guitar was inappropriate.

Yet this is clearly one of the most creative and original jazz albums I’ve heard in this or any other year. I give it six fish!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Yuko Yamakoa Plays Satoko Fujii

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DIARY 2005-2015 / FUJII: 118 spontaneous unnamed short compositions / Yuko Yamakoa, pianist / Libra Records 201-053/54

This is surely one of the most unusual jazz recordings of this or any other year. Free jazz pianist Satoko Fujii, whose 60th birthday was this year, has apparently spent 15 minutes a day at her keyboard since 2005 improvising new pieces, most of which she has written down in a sort of musical diary. She has used some of them as the basis for fuller compositions, but most of them lay dormant until now. Fujii’s husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, urged her to sit down and review all of these spontaneous compositions during the first decade in which she started this and select the best ones. She did so, and apparently turned them over to fellow-pianist Yuko Yamakoa to play on this new 2-CD release.

The 118 short compositions, each of which bears a date in digital layout (“012805,” 122908,” etc.), are played with great care and skill by Yamakoa, and if we have here a remove from the actual moment of creation we still have a Zen-like portrait of Fujii’s musical mind. Except for the fact that Fujii herself does not play them, this album is analogous to Charles Mingus’ piano album Mingus Plays Mingus. We are listening not to Fujii the performer but Fujii the creator.

Needless to say, these are not full compositions, but rather brief snippets, ideas that flashed across Fujii’s mind, ended up on tape, and were then recreated here by Yamakoa. Most last less than a half-minute, the others about a minute. Thus this is far from being a collection of “complete” works, but rather just musical ideas that flashed across her mind. The interesting thing, however, is that many of them are tonal or at least modal, and in listening one gets a small idea of what any composer may come up with when thinking out loud at their instrument. I daresay that the same process was gone through by all major classical composers from Buxtehude to Berio as well.

A few are really fragmentary, and some others—i.e., track 8 of the first CD, from March 9 of 2005—seem more a juxtaposition of different ideas than one continuous musical thought. And only a few have what I would call a definite jazz feel to them; most actually sound like snippets from modern classical music. And of course, there is no continuity.

Nonetheless, most are quite interesting, and I found it somewhat astonishing to hear two successive snippets, the first from May 16, 2005 and the second from May 19, that sounded like a continuation. Of course, since we don’t have the ideas she came up with on May 17 or 18, we don’t know if that was an idea that she was working out that week, of which these two examples are the most complete in musical thought.

I would like to reiterate that, with so many of these pieces sounding tonal-modal, there almost seems to be an Eastern European feel about them—not so much Russian, I think, as perhaps Hungarian or Czech. This, too, is surprising in the work of a Japanese-American pianist, but this is what I heard. In 020907, Fujii used circular chromatics in a way similar to Nicolas Slonimsky’s exercise book, but in a more musically constructive way. The snippets from 122908 and 011509 almost sounds like a composition by Meredith Monk.

Clearly, this is not an album for casual listening, if for no other reason than that the music breaks off time and again in the midst of an idea. It is an album for very close, intense listening, and as such raises the bar for what constitutes a “jazz” album. Lounge lizards and casual jazz fans should stay as far away from this music as possible, and only a very few pieces (such as 050206, succeeded by 050306) provide any sort of structure that the untrained mind can grasp. Nonetheless, it is great in its own way as a glimpse into the mind of a highly creative artist, one who takes risks every time she sits down to a keyboard.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Abraham Barrera’s Dream Quintet

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QUINTETO DE ENSUEÑO (DREAM QUINTET) / BARRERA: Tributo. Mexicanista. Catarina. Mezcal. Sin Palabras. Atemporal. Bovarismo. Rendir Culto. El Alba / Abraham Barrera, pno; Iraida Noriega, voice; Aarón Cruz, bs; Fernando De Santiago, Vihuela; Giovanni Figueroa, dm / Urtext JBCC284

This CD came to me with no liner notes whatsoever, thus I had to review it “cold,” without an idea of what the concept was. The music is evidently modern jazz with a Spanish bias, and what I found interesting about it, aside from its evident and consistent vitality, was a certain resemblance to Sérgio Mendes’ old Brasil ’66 group, which although pop-oriented had several strong jazz features in it. I was particularly happy with Iraida Noriega; FINALLY, a modern female jazz singer who swings out with a bold, brassy voice and not the whispery, come-hither “lounge” style that seems to be so pervasive nowadays!

Iraida Noriega

Iraida Noriega

One difference between Barrera’s group and Mendes’ is their use of more complex rhythms. Another is that there is even more improvisation going on in the background, though Mendes himself was a very fine improvising pianist. Barrera’s drummer, Giovanni Figueroa, plays quite complex beats that propel the band, and Vihuela player Fernando De Santiago is recorded just well enough to be heard in the ensemble without overpowering it. Interestingly, none of the vocals have words, but are extended scat solos, and Noriega clearly dominates these tracks the way Lani Hall and Bibi Vogel (later replaced by Janis Hansen) did with Brasil ’66, though Mendes’ singers sang lyrics.

Catarina begins slowly with Noriega singing over Aarón Cruz’ bowed bass, somewhat breaks the pop feeling of the album. Here, the Vihuela sounds more like a harp than a guitar, and after De Santiago’s solo the music moves at a fairly quick 6/8. Barrera has an excellent piano solo on this one. Noriega’s vocal improve is also terrific, and as we suddenly switch to Mezcal the tempo shifts again to a rapid sort of Brazilian beat, which later on shifts again to 6/8, now at a much faster pace. I should point out that Noriega’s voice, although clear and well-controlled, has a bright Latin edge to it.

Clearly, this is a hugely talented group of musicians. On Atemporal Noriega and the group indulge in some strongly Middle Eastern sounds which they wed to their essentially Latin style. They almost sound as if they are improvising these songs into being as they’re playing them, which I find intriguing. Well worth hearing!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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