Jürg’s Espresso Galattico is a Real Gasser

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ESPRESSO GALATTICO / GASSER-FREY-ULRICH: Espresso Galattico. Temptations. Ewig Währt am Längsten. Slow Fox. Softly, But… Talking. Joke. Off We Go. Ciao / Gasser 3: Jürg Gasser, t-sax; Peter K. Frey, bs; Dieter Ulrich, dm/bueg / Leo Records LR 845

Leo Records, the indie British label that specializes in recording free jazz, here presents the debut disc by tenor saxist Jürg Gasser and his trio, the Gasser 3, which has been an innovator in Zurich playing free jazz for several years. Like so many such groups, their music tends to ramble at times but, when they are on the same wavelength and all pushing in the same direction, they can also be quite concise and very interesting..

Such is the case in the opening selection, Espresso Galattico, where the leader tosses out double-time phrases and licks on his tenor while the rhythm section plays around the edges. One of the binding elements in this piece is the rhythm itself—that, plus the fact that Gasser seems to have some idea of where he is going even if it is off the top of his head. That being said, I was even more impressed by Peter K. Frey’s bass solo, which was surprisingly well-formed for something crafted out of such fragmented material—a brief but meaningful moment of clarity in a piece in which flying off the handle is the norm. In the follow-up piece, Temptations, it is Frey who tosses fragmented lines out to the saxist, some of them very high up in his instrument’s range. Gasser’s response, however, is to create fast double-time licks similar to but different from those in the opening selection. Interestingly, however, Frey keeps the rhythm moving together, even when he is playing edgy, atonal bowed figures on his instrument. Throughout much of this track drummer Dieter Ulrich is silent, allowing the sax and bass to work most of it out for themselves, though he does enter the fray with cowbells and bass drum at the 3:30 mark. After this point, things become louder and more frantic than before, with the drums contributing mightily to the crescendo of sound.

Ewig Währt am Längsten also begins with the bass, playing staccato figures that he snaps off the edge of the strings, supported by the tenor sax in little dribs and drabs while Ulrich tosses in some cymbal and snare drum work. After the 3:00 mark, they play higher, even more fragmented figures in double time, but it’s over by 3:38. We then enter the dark, mysterious world of Slow Fox, where Gasser relaxes a little on his tenor to play soft, mellow slow notes in an almost Ben Webster style if Ben Webster played free jazz. Frey and Ulrich are also into the feeling of this piece, although the latter cannot resist the temptation to double the tempo. This eventually prods Gasser into doing the same, but for the most part Frey cannon resist tossing in a few double-time licks of his own though he does eventually pull Gasses back to playing softly, albeit not always slowly. Yet they do fall back to relaxation in the last chorus, which fades into nothingness.

The trio pursues a similar aesthetic in Softly, But…, which sounds like a rather more fragmented version of Slow Fox (or perhaps an outtake of it, given a different name). One difference is that, at the 1:37 mark, there is more polyphonic interplay between the three instruments; in fact, this is the most polyphonic chorus in any of the pieces so far. Yet this, too, becomes more fragmented as things progress, moving into the hectic direction of the opening piece. At the six-minute mark, they suddenly stop dead, reduce the tempo, introduce an entirely different theme and move on. It’s almost like a suite. Really wacky stuff!

Wackier still is Joke, which is so off the wall that even I had a hard time following all the various splinters of music tossed into the mix. Here, one hears what appears to be a trumpet, but none is credited on the album; however, drummer Ulrich is credited with playing something called a “bueg,” of which I can find no description online, so this must be it. With Off We Go, we’re back to fragmented lines and edgy rhythms, this time even more splintered than previously. (Hey, maybe these guys need some Ritalin!) In the finale, Ciao, the group plays a much more laid-back piece, still improvised but more structured and less frantic.

This is clearly an interesting album with a few weak moments but many more strong ones.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Reactionaries Who Retard Classical Music

Yair Avidor lute

Lutenist Yair Avidor. I’m not picking on Avidor, and I’m sure he’s a fine lute player, but the image of a relatively young man playing a centuries-old instrument just seemed too good an image to pass up. Sorry, Yair.

Would you go to an art museum to only see paintings made in the Representational Art style? No Goyas, Turners, Van Goghs, Picassos or Dalis or O’Keefes?

Would you only read books written in a clear narrative style that included no allusions or imaginative fantasies? No James Joyce, no Faulkner, no Brautigan?

Would you only go to see plays written before the era of Ibsen?

Do you avoid all buildings using modern architectural designs developed since the 1920s? No Bauhaus, Art Deco, Frank Lloyd Wright or later buildings?

If you answered yes to all of the above questions, then I understand that you want to live in a retro world where nothing changes and anything new, even if it’s interesting and enjoyable, is to be avoided. But if you don’t, and you just listen to tonal music of the old school, I have no respect for you.

And I have even less respect for professional musicians who won’t play modern music of any type.

This is the kind of mentality that runs most of the music world, and it drives me absolutely batty. The worst manifestation of this is the American Classical Radio Mafia. No matter what city you live in, no matter how “modern” they are in other ways, when it comes to the arts, particularly classical music, Reactionary is In. They actually have rules regarding what can be played on classical radio stations (I’ve seen them). Nothing with more than a few dissonances per 100 bars, nothing atonal or dodecaphonic, and during certain hours of the day, NOTHING vocal. On my local classical radio station, I actually heard them play something by Arnold Schoenberg once, and before they did so they apologized to the listening audience in advance and then assured them that THIS piece had nothing dissonant in it because it was his arrangement of someone else’s older music. On their “Morning Edition,” they overload the program with Strauss waltzes, Gershwin, Mozart, transcriptions of operatic arias for harp or bassoon and other such nonsense. And when they play standard repertoire, 90% of the time they use older recordings: Ormandy, Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Szell, Bernstein, Karajan, Böhm, Solti—always the slowest, most Romantic and drippy renditions they can find, as a rule.

So here’s the irony: All you people who record earlier music, even Baroque music, do not get your recordings played on classical radio. You’re stuck in a Catch-22 situation.

But what burns me more than anything are those musicians who make their entire careers playing nothing but old stuff—or, if they include something from the 20th century, it has to be something tonal and “acceptable” to such an audience. And yes, New York City is one of the worst examples of this. Back when Pierre Boulez was music director of the New York Philharmonic and would program something by Webern or Schoenberg, audiences stayed away in droves and those who came to the concerts bitched and complained. (I know: I attended one such concert and heard people in the elevator going to the parking garage gripe all the way down.) This was the primary reason they later hired music directors who they felt would stick to Da Classics, Zubin Mehta and Kurt Masur. When Alan Gilbert directed the Philharmonic, he got in trouble with subscribers and the board of directors for programming the complete symphonies of Carl Nielsen. CARL NIELSEN, for God’s sake!!

As I say, however, it all starts with the musicians themselves, and a big part of the reason they stick to the old stuff, aside from the fact that they can always guarantee themselves work, is that many of them hear “spirituality” or some other kind of “deep meaning” in this music that apparently doesn’t exist in modern music. To me, this is laughable; most of the composers they play, and extol, didn’t even write that music to promote “spirituality” or “deep meaning”—a few outliers like the Mozart Requiem or Handel’s Messiah excepted. Bach’s Passions and Cantatas were music-made-to-order for his church performances. Yes, the St. Matthew Passion has some moments of deep feeling, but the Mass in b minor was primarily an exercise in counterpoint for old Bach, and the cantatas were cranked out as if by a machine. All of Richard Strauss’ operas between Elektra and Daphne were likewise cranked out to please the masses, not to fulfill any personal inspiration or emotional needs. Verdi’s Requiem, clearly one of the greatest scores he ever wrote, was written more as a devotional piece to Manzoni, who he highly respected, and not as a communication with his Creator. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a really lovely work, was written as a humanitarian gift to mankind in order to bond people together by a composer who was a Deist and did not believe in a personalized God.

But these musicians hear all kinds of nonsense in music written to order for various situations: Chopin’s drippy piano pieces, Liszt’s show-off opera transcriptions, even the Dvořák Cello Concerto which some people (including one well-known cellist) have told me is “deeply spiritual” when in fact it is nothing of the sort. And by the way, the Requiems of Cherubini, Berlioz and Dvořák, all of them quite fine music by the way, were likewise written to fulfill commissions and, despite the effect they have on the listener, were not written in a fit of religious ecstasy. The Brahms German Requiem was indeed composed in a fit of grief over the loss of his mother, but the feelings in it are personal, morose and not actually spiritual, any more than Duke Ellington’s Reminiscing in Tempo is spiritual. Get over it.

Of course, the absolute worst field of classical music to resist change, and particularly anything that is really modern in the best sense of the term, is the opera world. When Arturo Toscanini scheduled a production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at La Scala in 1902, audiences were angry that he had the nerve to present something so OLD, particularly a piece from which they heard the arias played by organ grinders in the street. Nowadays, La Scala audiences welcome productions of Il Trovatore over anything new. And even at the Metropolitan—or, to be clearer, especially at the Metropolitan—resistance to most REAL modern operas, or even older operas that push the envelope, are resisted. All their audiences want to hear are Tunes and High Notes, not necessarily in that order. Any operas that do not have recognizable, hummable arias or arias capped off by high notes at the end is frowned upon, unless it is one of those aforementioned Strauss horrors from Der Rosenkavalier onward. Alas, this also applies to several older composers who wrote excellent (for their time) operas that actually deserve revival: Méhul, Spontini, most of Gluck except for Orfeo ed Euridice and Iphégenie en Tauride which are actually performed, most of Cherubini except for Medea, Catel, Chabrier, etc. When modern opera is performed at the Met, with the sole exceptions of Thomas Adès’ The Tempest and the latest Kaja Saariaho opera, it’s usually something with a tonal or minimalist bias that won’t ruffle too many feathers. Even the wonderful little operas of Maurice Ravel and Frank Martin are never heard at the Met. Stravinsky’s Nightingale and Rake’s Progress ARE performed, but these were purposely written by him in a populist style that he knew would appeal to the highest number of listeners. When was the last time the Met produced, for instance, Gluck’s Armida or Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue? Not since the time when Toscanini was music director. Albert Roussel’s Le Festin de l’araignée, Szymanowski’s Król Roger and Martin’s Le vin Herbé have NEVER been performed at the Met, and these are now really old operas.

The list goes on and on and on, far too long, in fact, to recount here. And then we have the Baroque Specialists who only play music from that specific era. Well, of course I enjoy some of the music from that time—I have a good amount of it in my collection—but I actually enjoy C.P.E. Bach as much if not more than his father because, in my opinion, he was even more inspired and innovative. Beethoven was indeed a giant, and I own almost everything he wrote except for Wellington’s Victory (and a few small incidental piece) as well as everything that Berlioz and Mahler wrote. But they were innovators. Their music had spine and backbone. They almost never wrote to pander to the touchy-feely sensibilities of their audiences, which is why none of them were fully appreciated in their lifetimes. Gluck was appreciated in his lifetime, but the dramatic school of opera took a big hit once the “Bel Canto boys” and the frilly French style based on the Bel Canto Boys came into being. I’m still a little shocked that Wagner got such a firm toehold in the standard repertoire pretty early on, and has stayed there, since several of his operas, particularly Parsifal and almost everything in Götterdämmerung except for the Dawn and Rhine Journey scene, Siegfried’s funeral march and the “Immolation Scene,” have no melodies or high notes for people to hang onto. But he had a great P.R. machine, and musicians in particular appreciated and understood how important he was, so there you are.

If you’re a 21st-century musician or singer and you’re not performing music written after, say, 1945 at least 10% of the time (hopefully more), I really feel sorry for you. You are doomed to be a dinosaur in today’s world, and it’s largely because of you that the classical music audience is aging , dying off, and not attracting very many young viewers and listeners. You’re screwing up the timeline as well as the healthy growth of an art form. Now, on the other hand, I have heard several modern-day composers who, influenced strongly by rock music, produce an edgy style of music that, to my ears, really is abrasive and, more importantly, has no real development or form, but this, too, can be blamed on the reactionary musicians who refuse to perform a great deal of contemporary scores that ARE good. It’s not really a slippery slope, it’s more of a sand dune that they’re stuck in and can’t get out of—and don’t want to get out of. They enjoy slipping on the same oil spot and spinning their wheels in the same old same old.

And their dumbed-down audiences just keep on going along with them.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Revisiting Hindemith’s Brass Music

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HINDEMITH: Horn Sonata in F / Gail Williams, Fr-hn / Bass Tuba Sonata / Gene Pokorny, tuba / Trumpet Sonata / Raymond Mase, tpt / Alto Horn Sonata / Larry Strieby, a-hn / Trombone Sonata / Mark Lawrence, tb. All selections: Theodor Lichtmann, pno / Sonata for 4 Horns / Arthur David Kriebel, Thomas Bacon, Gail Williams, Lawrence Strieby, Fr-hn / Konzertmusik for Piano, Brass & 2 Harps / Summit Brass Ens.; Patrice Jenks, Mary Walter, harps; Lichtmann, pno; Carl Topilow, cond / Plöner Musiktag: Morgenmusik / Summit Brass; Topilow, cond / Summit 115

You know, sometimes recordings that you thought back in the old days were the best you’d probably ever hear turned out to be so, but then again, many don’t. This was the case, for me, when revisiting Glenn Gould’s album of Hindemith’s brass sonatas with soloists from the Philadelphia Orchestra. As usual, Gould played in a lively manner with crisp phrasing, but to my ears something just sounded wrong. The brass soloists all sounded as if they were sleep-walking through their parts, particularly horn player Mason Jones.

Fast-forward to 1995, and here we have another oldie (after all, this was 23 years ago) featuring the Summit Brass, whose individual members were all good musicians but lacked famous names, to which the still-lesser-known pianist Theodor Lichtmann was added, and voila! We have a soufflé that rises!

Their performance of the horn sonata, probably the most famous piece in this set, is lively and energetic, a far cry from not only Mason Jones on the Gould set but also the legendary Dennis Brain’s performance. Gail Williams give it some much-needed oomph, as does pianist Lichtmann. Happily, the enthusiasm continues with what can only be termed a jolly performance of the tuba sonata by Gene Pokorny—and not just the opening movement, but the whole thing, even the “Variations” that move at a slower clip than the rest of the sonata. It just bubbles along as Pokorny plays with a bright tone and a nice lilt to the rhythm.

But I could apply the same adjectives to the entire album. Everything here is just so energetic that it lifts the music out of its stodgy Germanic doldrums, giving each movement of each piece an energetic, almost Italianate feel that makes the listener smile in spite of Hindemith’s often bitonal approach. This is less noticeable in the Trumpet Sonata, where he emphasized the brightness of the instrument’s upper range while still writing interesting music. What impressed me more than anything was the way he could write long-lined melodies that keep morphing and changing yet always sound as if they were logical outgrowths of what had come before and a prelude to what will come after. Moreover, his piano writing, though a bit tricky, is less concerned with virtuosity than with structure. In so many places, the Trumpet Sonata especially, one listens as closely, if not more so, to what the piano is doing than to the lead instrument. Their music is almost the opposite of each other’s, yet the two lines dovetail nicely. I also liked the little swagger that Lichtmann gave to the piano solo portion of the Trumpet Sonata’s “Trauermasik alle menschen.”

The Alto Horn Sonata is a generally slower, more introspective piece than the first three, but it, too, does not lag or bog down in this beautifully phrased performance by Lichtmann and Larry Strieby, particularly the sprightly second movement with its dance-like rhythm. Thinking about this, it seems to me that the sheer complexity of the music is what often bogged down earlier performances. In the Gould recordings, the pianist is almost consistently lively and interesting, but not a single one of his horn partners sound as if they really understand, let alone like, the music they’re playing. Joy in performance goes a long way towards making these scores sound as good as they do.

I was particularly interested to hear the trombone sonata for one reason, and that is that the majority of classical trombonists do not have, in my view, a really good timbre. Most of them, in order to cut through an orchestra, adopt a cutting, brassy tone whereas many jazz trombonists from Miff Mole to J.J. Johnson and Jimmy Knepper usually had a more rounded sound. Our soloist here, Mark Lawrence, plays with a sound halfway between these two worlds, while I really appreciated, and he has a phenomenally easy technique that makes even the most difficult passages sound easy (as did Mole and Johnson).

In the Sonata for Four Horns there is no piano accompaniment. Here, Hindemith emphasized the lyrical side of the instruments, often blending two or more of them in interesting, shifting chord patterns. The third movement is particularly complex, calling for two of the horns to play rapid tongued triplets in one particular passage.

The Konzertmusik for piano, brass and two harps is even slower and more lyrical in the beginning than the four-horn sonata; the music is pensive and reflective, and it would have been easy for these performers to wallow in what I call “schlumph,” meaning turgid music that bogs itself down in complexity and morose feelings. Yet once the volume increases and the music picks up a bit, they play with good energy, and even the brief harp-and-piano duet does not sound morose. Even so, this was one piece I really didn’t like very much. The music, though decently constructed, just doesn’t say very much, and even the energetic passages sound to me like pedantic filler rather than interesting interludes.

In the Plöner Musiktag all the cats join in, so to speak. We have here four trumpets, three trombones, four French horns, tuba and piano. The mass of players go under the collective name of the Summit Brass, and here we actually have a conductor, Carl Topilow. This is generally a livelier and, to my ears, more interesting piece than the Konzertmusik, played at times with energy and at other times delicately.

Thus we come to the end of this two-disc survey of all of Hindemith’s chamber music for brass instruments, and although I think they should have ended it with the four-horn sonata because it’s an even better piece than Plöner Musiktag, it is surely one of the best representations of Hindemith’s music as I have ever heard.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Markus Becker Plays Reger

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REGER: Piano Concerto in F min.* Excerpts from “Episoden.” Lose Blätter, Op. 13: Choral / Markus Becker, pno; *NDR Radiophilharmonie; Joshua Weilerstein, cond / AVI 8553306 (Piano Concerto, live: January 2017)

Normally I shy away from the music of Max Reger because I find it—particularly in Romantically-oriented performances—to be thick, turgid music more interesting for its complexity and counterpoint than for its emotional communication, but something told me to take a chance on this CD and I’m glad I did. Pianist Markus Becker and his accompanist, conductor Joshua Weilerstein, take a brisk, lean approach to Reger’s dense music, ramp up the emotional level, and give us a performance of the piano concerto that is gripping and interesting.

There is no nonsense in Becker’s performance, though he does occasionally introduce a slight rubato here and there, and this is all to the good. In a way, this performance reminded me of Ferenc Fricsay’s version of the Strauss Burleske with pianist Margit Weber that I recently reviewed. Both are lean, crisp, brisk performances that pull the structure of the music together better than the more relaxed, loosy-goosey performances you hear.

Indeed, so exciting is this performance that I almost didn’t want it to end. And this is really a massive concerto—even at Weilerstein’s brisk tempi, it runs 36 minutes. Even in those passages where the rhythm becomes a bit galumphing, as for instance near the end of the first movement, Becker and Weilerstein keep things moving and don’t allow it to sound heavy or pedantic, as Reger often does.

The proof of the pudding, so to speak, is the second movement. This is exactly the kind of place where Reger often got bogged down in Romantic B.S., and the themes here are indeed a bit threadbare, leaning on emotional rather than intellectual content. I can’t say that Becker and Weilerstein make the music sound remarkable, but they take it at a sensible tempo for a “Largo” and don’t allow it to drag. In the middle section, around 5:35 where things pick up, they inject some real energy that helps tie the loose ends together. In the final “Allegretto con spirito,” Becker really leans into the syncopated rhythms to provide a lively and spirited romp (although, at nearly 10 minutes, a rather long one). Becker and the orchestra receive a loud, well-deserved ovation when it is finished.

The solo piano works recorded in the studio in December 2017 are less exciting but no less well structured and lacking in sentimentality. I really enjoyed the five excerpts from Reger’s Episodes, which Becker sculpts with loving care—but, again, without overt sentiment.

The final Choral from Lose blätter is a very nice little piece, lyrical and lovely, almost a piano-piece cousin to his most famous piece, the song Maria wiegenlied. In a way, however, I think the programming is backwards. They should have put all the solo pieces first, then ended the CD with the piano concerto. Other than that, however, I have nothing but praise for this excellent release.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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More Weinberg from the Silesian Quartet

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WEINBERG: String Quartets Nos. 11-13 / Silesian Quartet / CD Accord ACD 250-2

The Silesian Quartet’s series of Weinberg String Quartets continues apace with this release of Nos. 11-13. As I mentioned in my review of their previous release, which contained Quartets Nos. 8-10, their approach differs from that of the Quatuor Danel, which recorded all 17 of the composer’s quartets for CPO in that they play with an extremely lean vibrato and sharper attacks. This is immediately apparent, on this disc, in their edgy, almost frantic playing of the first movement of Quartet No. 11, which comes at you in a riot of complex bitonal figures.

Looking into the background of the Quatuor Danel’s members, this makes sense since both violinists in the group are French. The French style of string playing has always been gentler and sweeter-toned than either their Eastern European (Russian and Polish) counterparts or the warmer, oftimes thicker sound of the Germanic school of playing. Think of such past French violinists as Jacques Thibaud, Henry Merckel, Daniel Guilet and Arthur Grumiaux as examples of what I mean. For those who collect historic quartet performances, there was also the once-legendary Capet Quartet of the 1920s.

In addition, recent decades have seen Eastern European quartets being strongly influenced by post-modern Austrian musicians such as the well-known Alban Berg Quartet, which rejected the lusher, warmer string sound of their predecessors in lieu of sharper attacks and lighter, faster vibrato. When the Berg Quartet first arrived on the scene in the early 1970s, their approach was considered quite radical, and it was conditioned by a strong bias towards modern composers although they also brought their aesthetic to the earlier works of Beethoven, which sold more than a million copies, Brahms, Mozart and Schubert. Many of their performances were perceived as a breath of fresh air, but personally I always found them to be energetic but cold.

The Silesian Quartet is not cold, as their performance of the slow movements clearly show. They bring their own brand of lyricism to these pieces, phrasing broadly and imbuing the music with emotion but not sentiment. If I still have a preference for the Quatuor Danel’s versions, however, it is due to a certain relaxation of tone (their tempi are virtually identical in many movements of these quartets) that makes the music breathe a bit more naturally. Once again I refer you to the performances of Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and Debussy by the Capet Quartet. Their tone was so lean that at times, particularly in the fast passages, they were probably using straight tone, but their inflections were highly musical and gave the music more nuance than one heard from the recordings of the Berg Quartet.

And yet there are moments in these performances that are simply wonderful, such as the last movement of the Quartet No. 11 which has a real Polish swagger. They also make a good effect with the gentler but equally insistent syncopated figures in the “Allegretto” of the Quartet No. 12. This reminds you that Weinberg was indeed Polish despite the fact that he spent more than half his life living in the Soviet Union/Russia. This different approach illuminates the music in a different way from Quatuor Danel.

Indeed, the only real weakness I hear in the Silesian Quartet’s performances is an occasionally weak, thin tone in the softest passages, i.e. the fourth movement of the Quartet No. 12, and this may possibly be artistic choice. Otherwise, they could easily stand as reference performances of these quartets if the CPO set did not exist.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Antheil’s Violin Sonatas in a New Recording

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ANTHEIL: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-4 / Alessandro Fagiuoli, vln; Alessia Toffanin, pno / AVI 8553239

George Antheil’s violin sonatas are scarcely at the top of anyone’s favorites list; in fact, they are very rarely performed and almost as rarely recorded, thus I was delighted to get the chance to hear this brand-new take on them.

It’s interesting to compare these performances to the ones by violinist Mark Fewer and pianist John Novacek on Azica. Although Fewer and Novacek play the sonatas at a quicker pace, which I like, their phrasing and rhythmic approach is all wrong. They tend to “smooth out” Antheil’s choppy, Art Deco rhythms, trying desperately to make the music fit into a more conventional Americana feel (sort of like country or bluegrass fiddling), which is completely foreign to Antheil’s style. I much prefer the way Fagiuoli and especially Toffanin, whose incisive staccato touch and driving rhythms propel the music properly, play Antheil’s rhythms in the correct style.

Particularly in the first three sonatas, the music is clearly based in the same aesthetic as the composer’s famous (or notorious) Ballet Mécanique, with its stiffish, mechanical and ragtime rhythms, often in a perpetual motion using repeated chords in a style that, decades later, would be the basis of minimalism. And, even though I am convinced that Fagiuoli and Toffanin take these sonatas too slowly, it’s quite easy with an inexpensive audio editor to speed them up by about 8%, which makes them sound just right.

Of course, there’s much more to this music than just the interesting rhythm. Antheil was very much up on the use of modern harmony, inspired in part y Stravinsky, and had a good, if offbeat, sense of musical structure. His music develops in an interesting way, quirky but musically sound, using serrated figures for both the violin and piano, whole tone scales, chromatic movement (particularly in the later fourth sonata from 1947-48) and a feeling that the music is definitely going somewhere even if you can’t figure out exactly where.

This is, in toto, a fascinating and compelling CD, recommended to Antheil fans with the caveats noted above.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Six Sax Quartets Combine on One CD

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THERE YOU GO THINKING AGAIN / M. WATKINS: I Got Nothin’ But Nothin’.1 The Wrong Tree.2 Ballad.4 Cuidado.4 Lucy the Dog.5 Kilter.5 LINDSAY: To Be in Love.1 INGHAM: Fenella’s Jig.2 GUDMUNDSON: There You Go Thinking Again.3 AREND: Newstime3 / FOUR: Mark Watkins, s-sax; Ray Smith, a-sax; Sandon Mayhew, t-sax; Jon Gudmundson, bar-sax with: 1Miami Saxophone Quartet: Gary Keller, s-sax; Gary Lindsay, a-sax; Ed Calle, t-sax; Mike Brignola, bar-sax. 2Richard Ingraham Saxophone Quartet: Oliver Eve, s-sax; Sam Neal, a-sax; Matthew Kilner, t-sax; Richard Ingham, bar-sax. 3Saxitude: Dominique Gatto, s-sax; Pierre Cocq-Amann, a-sax; Robi Arend, t-sax; Thomas Diemert, bar-sax. 4Utah Saxophone Quartet: Charles Smith, s-sax; Daron Bradford, a-sax; David Feller, t-sax; Gaylen Smith, bar-sax. 5Zagreb Saxophone Quartet: Dragan Sremec, s-sax; Goran Merčep, a-sax; Saša Nestorović, t-sax; Matjaž Drevenšek, bar-sax / Jazz Hang Records JHR701F

This is the kind of CD that, were the participants not as talented as they are, could easily have been a gimmick. FOUR, the rhythm-section-less saxophone quartet, performs here on these 10 tracks with five other sax quartets. As FOUR’s leader and soprano saxist Mark Watkins put it in the liner notes:

The seed for this project was a performance with Saxitude at the Luxembourg Blues ‘n; Jazz Rallye in 2012…It made me think, “What if Robi [Arend, Saxitude’s tenor player] and I each wrote a double quartet for the next time FOUR traveled to Europe?” Robi wrote Newstime and I arranged Jon’s There You Go Thinking Again which we subsequently played at the Strasbourg World Saxophone Congress and Luxembourg Blues Express Festival in 2015.

FOUR then did something similar with the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet and “the project started to fill out.” This CD is the result of that brainstorming.

Listening to I Got Nothin’ But Nothin’, the opening track here, one is indeed reminded a bit of the World Saxophone Quartet, but FOUR’s music is less harmonically dissonant than that once-famous group. Nonetheless, like the WSQ, they create and propel a strong rhythm without the use of guitar, piano, bass and/or drums. The thing that I found most interesting is that the arrangement is so lean-sounding. Watkins’ piece and arrangement does not indulge, as one would assume it would, in rich reed textures. Rather, it almost sounds (pardon the simile) like two very bright classical string quartets playing opposite each other. The first solo, by Ray Smith on alto, is pretty out-there yet still adheres to the general form of the piece, which is a medium-fast blues, and the ensuing solos and written ensemble passages—in the style of Supersax, sounding like scored improvisations—all contribute to the building of the whole tune. This is what I liked most about this set: everyone listens to one another, and models their solos on what has come before. The lone exception here is Ed Calle’s tenor sax solo, which is real “outside” jazz, but a little stretching is not the same as consistently incoherent rambling.

This is followed by To Be in Love, a ballad, with the same partners. Watkins’ arrangement avoids the kind of cheap sentimentality that one often hears in ballad playing nowadays my means of his rhythmic and consistently moving inner voices. That being said, I did feel that a little more harmonic diversity would have helped it a bit more. It also went on a bit too long.

In the next two tracks, Fenella’s Jig and The Wrong Tree, FOUR is joined by the Richard Ingraham Saxophone Quartet. The former piece, written by Ingraham, does indeed start out in jig tempo but later morphs into a somewhat hectic, fast-paced jazz number in which the harmony shifts around a bit. Tenor player Sandon Mayhew has a really good solo here, but this is largely a showcase for the clever and intricate arrangement. The Wrong Tree is kind of a funky uptempo blues piece in the old Blue Note style though Watkins’ bouncing arrangement takes it on a different track. There’s a nice ensemble passage behind part of Mayhew’s tenor solo using the whole-tone scale, too.

Saxitude joins FOUR on There You Go Thinking Again, a cute medium-tempo swing tune made a bit more modern via some of the inner harmonies and the quasi-Latin beat. This is one of the best compositions on the album, written by baritone saxist Jon Gudmundson. Arend’s Newstime is unabashedly Latin-sounding in its rhythm, with a simpler but effective structure, allowing Watkins to play an excellent soprano solo.

Watkins’ Ballad, featuring the Utah Saxophone Quartet, is a more interesting and slightly more intricate piece than To Be in Love, and the arrangement makes the most here of the timbral blends of the reeds, while Cuidado opens with some polyphonic counterpoint that continues as the theme is introduced—not nearly as Latin-sounding as its title would suggest, but rather with some interesting backbeat passages played against Mayhew’s tenor solo. In fact, the intricacies of the interior rhythm (meaning the playing of the “background” saxes) continues to morph and shift as the piece progresses. This, too, is one of the stronger compositions on this disc. Charles Smith of the Utah Quartet also contributes a good soprano solo.

By contrast, Watkins’ Lucky the Dog, played with the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet, bears a strange resemblance to the old Village Stompers’ hit tune Washington Square, only more intricately arranged, including a fairly complex polyphonic passage in the middle. Our little excursion ends with Kilter, an extremely odd piece to say the least, in which a descending chromatic licks played by the two alto saxes and one baritone is played against an eerie but lyrical melodic line. Despite a solo on soprano by Watkins, this one is mostly remarkable for the ensemble conception and execution. I’m not sure that a medium slow piece like this makes an effective ending to the CD (I would, personally, have chosen There You Go Thinking Again), but it’s clearly an inventive piece, sounding much like some of the experimental jazz of the 1950s (think of Allyn Ferguson, Tony Scott, Chico Hamilton etc.).  I particularly liked the double-time passage for the two sopranos played against a chromatically-moving baritone sax line.

All in all, an interesting and inventive album what will surely have you go thinking again.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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