Getting Into Gustavo Díaz-Jerez’ “Metaludios”

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DÍAZ-JEREZ: Metaludios, Books I-III / Gustavo Díaz-Jerez, pno / IBS Classical 182018

This was my introduction to composer-pianist Gustavo Díaz-Jerez, whose Metaludios are essentially piano etudes, but as the composer states in the notes, etudes with an attitude. “I have tried to give each Metaludio its own character,” he writes, “with distinguishing features that define its identity and differentiate it from the next. The titles give them away, sometimes because of the underlying scientific process, sometimes because of a mythological story…”

Some of the Metaludios have strange titles that, to me at least, gave nothing away because I could not comprehend what they meant: “Izar Iluna,” “Kenotaphion,” “Orahan,” “Rule 110,” etc. Others were much clear to me, i.e. “Homage to Antonio Soler,” “Succubus,” “Sisyphus,” “An error occurred,” Microsuite” and “Nonlinear recurrences.” Yet the music is, for the most part, intriguing and highly original. The music is atmospheric in the best sense of the word and modern insofar as it uses unusual chord positions and changes, yet there always seems to be a lyrical feeling to everything he writes and plays. It’s kind of like being caught at a piano recital in your dreams, where the pianist sits down and you think you’re going to get Brahms or Chopin, but instead the sounds that emerge from the keyboard are alien and almost defy description.

Not that I couldn’t describe these pieces technically. They are challenging but, for the most part, not as difficult to play as the music of Koechlin, Szymanowski or Sorabji. I mention those first two composers because, like them, Diaz-Jerez’ music seems to be very much allied to the Impressionistic school…i.e., Koechlin or Debussy filtered through the lens of Stravinsky and Ligeti. Approaching it with my waking mind in the spirit of adventure, I liked it very much because it communicates in its echt-alien way and makes musical sense, but I could understand how Alice, trapped in the Wonderland hallway with only tiny doors to escape from, would find it unsettling and perhaps even a bit creepy. If you orchestrated them, these pieces would make great background music for a surrealist science fiction film (Fantastic Planet comes to mind, or that Twilight Zone episode where a little boy gets trapped in an opaque, formless dimension in the wall behind his bed).

Occasionally, as in “Imaginary continuum,” you get a little bit of a regular rhythm in the bass line or, as in “Homenaje a Antonio Soler,” forward rhythms in double-time in the opening two minutes while the right hand plays its Impressionistic, alien figures above them. Díaz-Jerez has indeed found his own niche, a little trap door in the fabric of the musical space-time continuum, and he delights in misleading the listener’s ear. We approach each Metaludio expecting the music to continue and/or conclude in one way, but each one takes a left turn somewhere along the way and leads you, Pied Piper-like, down a strange and different rabbit-hole where you feel comfortable yet confused. You think you see light at the end of each piece’s little tunnel, but it just leads you nowhere, so you just sit down, puzzled, and try to figure out where to go next. In a piece like “Orahan,” which is slowly-played yet seems to be made up of little melodic fragments that sound alike yet strangely different, you almost feel as if you’re looking at a painting that has been broken up into small pieces like a jigsaw puzzle.

And it is exactly Díaz-Jerez’ frequent use of melody and what sounds to the ear like tonal harmony, but isn’t, that creates these illusions. “I have a nice bedtime story to tell you,” this music says, “so just relax while daddy tucks you in. Once upon a time, there was a fairy princess who walked into a marshmallow field. Her feet sank into the marshmallows and she felt so sleepy that she just had to lay down for a while to rest. That’s when the bog-spirits came and sang her a lullaby, and when she woke up she was in outer space with the flying monkeys and a floating billboard that said ‘This Way to Nowhere.’” In the Book I No. 6 piece, “Stheno,” Díaz-Jerez plays the inner strings of the piano at the beginning, creating yet another strange sound-world, which he alternates with running right-hand figures in a modal vein. At about 2:40, he moves into a jagged but strong rhythm using very low bass notes, against which he plays strange figures with the right hand. “Quantum foam” also features a great deal of inside-piano playing, this time in the lower reaches of the instrument. Indeed, most of Book II includes this technique as the music becomes ever spacier, reminding me of Almeida Prado’s Celestial Charts.

In Book III No. 1, “Prélude non mesuré,” Díaz-Jerez is playing a prepared piano, tuned in such a way that it sounds like neither mean-tone temperament nor equal temperament, but rather like some of Harry Partch’s quarter-tone music. The deeper you get into these pieces, the less chance you have of getting out of his musical rabbit-hole. The last of them, “Nonlinear recurrences,” almost sounds like a giant, neurotic spider trying desperately to escape its own web. Even I can’t tell how he created that continuous ambient sound that permeates this piece from its midpoint on.

This is surely not music for everyone, but I sure dug it and hope you will, too!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Historic Bartók Performances Reissued

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BARTÓK: Piano Concerto No. 2 / György Sándor, pno; Vienna Symphony Orch.; Ferenc Fricsay, cond / Piano Concerto No. 3 / Annie Fischer, pno; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orch., Ferenc Fricsay, cond / String Quartet No. 3 / Végh Quartet / Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta / Camerata Academica des Mozarteum Salzburg; Sándor Végh, cond / Concerto for Orchestra / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orch.; Rafael Kubelik, cond / Orfeo MP 1803

This 2-CD set, which comprises some of Bartók’s best and in some respects most popular works, is largely compiled from older, single discs issued on Orfeo d’Or. The Piano Concerto No. 2 was originally on C276921B, the Concerto No. 3 on C200891B, the String Quartet No. 3 on C317931B and the Concerto for Orchestra on C551011B. The only performance that seems to be unique to this release is the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by the Camerata Academica des Mozarteum Salzburg conducted by Sándor Végh, which dates from May 1995. Although the entire album is designated as stereo on the back cover inlay, the Piano Concerto No. 2 is clearly in mono. Although this performance of the Concerto 3 has more ambience and a certain amount of spatial separation of the piano and orchestra, it could just be very fine mono and not real stereo (it was recorded in 1960). The other performances, dating from 1968 through 1995, are clearly in stereo although only the Music for Strings etc. is in verifiably digital sound. Kubelik’s performance of the Concerto for Orchestra, made in May 1978, was indeed the first year of digital recording, but I’m not sure if this Bavarian Radio broadcast was actually made using a digital recorder or not. The whole process of digital sound was a lot more cumbersome in its early days and not normally used for live radio recordings.

For me, at least, it’s a bit unnerving to consider that we now need to think of a 1995 performance of anything as a “historical recording,” but sadly, time marches on and we tend to forget that what was once contemporary is no longer so. 1995 was nearly a quarter of a century ago, not much different from, say, reissuing the Thibaud-Cortot-Casals trio recordings of 1926 on a “historic” LP label in 1950 or of issuing Artur Schnabel’s Beethoven Sonata cycle of the 1930s on EMI-Angel’s “Great Recordings of the Century” label in the late 1950s. The difference, of course, is in the sonics. Compared to those sonically limited relics of the past, even Annie Fischer’s 1960 performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 sounds pretty darn good, whereas the Casals Trio’s 1926 recordings already sounded boxy and dated by 1950, the year “High Fidelity” came to be a buzzword in the industry even for new recordings by such older performers as Landowska and Toscanini. And by the time Toscanini died in 1957, several major-label recordings had already been made, and some issued on LP, in stereo.

One reason you should take this set a little more seriously than in the case of many such “compilations-from-the-past” is the participation of several genuine Hungarian musicians: Sándor, Fischer, Fricsay and Végh. Only Kubelik, who was Czech, was not from Hungary, but the Czech Republic is certainly close enough geographically and culturally. Normally I don’t make a big deal of such things, but in the case of Bartók it does matter a little more than usual because his music had a very specific underlying rhythm and movement based on the tempo and inflections of the Hungarian language, and this tempo and inflection differs considerably from that of, say, Polish or Russian music. To play Bartók properly you need to know this, else you will misrepresent to some extent what the composer intended. Ironically, of all the modern recordings I’ve heard of Bartók’s piano concerti, the ones that come closest to the composer’s own articulation and phrasing are those of British pianist Peter Donohoe. Not even Hungarian pianist Stefan Kocsis played in the authentic Bartók style.

Regarding the conducting, this, too, reflects the Hungarian style which embraces tempi at their fastest point and uses angular phrasing which, again, reflects their native language. Think of the recordings of all the great Hungarian conductors over the decades, from Artur Nikisch to Adám Fischer, in this music and you’ll understand the aesthetic. During the early LP era it was best represented by Antál Doráti, Eugene Ormandy (Jenö Blau), Fricsay and Fritz Reiner, the latter a friend and supporter of Bartók. Here we have Fricsay, who never let the grass grow under his feet when it came to tempi in almost anything, conducting both the second and third concerti with the Vienna Symphony and Bavarian Radio Symphony orchestras. György Sándor’s playing is a bit “soft” for my taste, but he clearly has the right style for the music, particularly in the second movement where his close attention to dynamics is superb. Annie Fischer, who has rapidly become one of my great idols over the past 13 years, is even better. I own her performance of the Third Concerto conducted by the excellent Igor Markevitch, and this one is just as good. As I mentioned earlier, the sonics seem to have more ambience and a little bit of a “spread” to the sound, but I still think it’s just really first-class mono and not stereo. I may be wrong, however; it might be not-quite-state-of-the-art early stereo. You be the judge. Fricsay, who generally employed the traditional Hungarian conducting style, almost a “cereal-shot-from-guns” approach like Toscanini (who was heavily influenced in his conducting of the German classics by Nikisch), doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet in these marvelous, strongly-etched performances. His sense of balance and impeccable orchestral control is particularly evident in the last movement of the second concerto. As I expected, Fischer is fabulous in the third concerto, her playing almost exploding from the keyboard, and Fricsay is with her every step of the way.

Interestingly, the Végh Quartet’s performance of the third string quartet is not quite as sharply-etched as the modern recordings by the Emerson, Alexander or Arcadia Quartets, but still a very fine performance in its own right. Perhaps some of this is due to the very resonant sound; it’s almost as if it were recorded in an echo chamber of some sort. But I still liked it. Similarly, Végh’s performance of the Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta has warmer, rounder phrasing than one is used to from the famous Reiner or Gielen recordings, sounding to my ears more like the fine but un-Hungarian performance that Guido Cantelli gave with the NBC Symphony and Boston Symphony orchestras.

Yet it is Kubelik’s exciting, dynamic performance of the Concerto for Orchestra that really stands out as a winner. This is very nearly as good as the classic Reiner recording, and in digital sound to boot. Kubelik leaves no stone unturned in this clear, exciting reading of the score. He pulls all the stops out and delivers a simply magnificent reading. Along with the Fischer-Fricsay performance of the third concerto, this is the reason you should own this set.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Jazz Flautist Magela Herrera’s Great Debut Disc

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EXPLICACIONES / HERRERA: Two Sidewalks. Que Te Pedi. Principios.* Explicaciones. Ahora. Danson Para Papa. VELÁSQUEZ: Besame Mucho. WOOD-MELLIN: My One and Only Love / Magela Herrera, fl/voc; *Jean Caze, tpt; Tal Cohen, pno; Greg Diamond, gtr; Nestor Del Prado, Dion Keith Kerr, bs; Hilario Bell, David Chiverton, dm; Philbert Armenteros, bata dm / Brontosaurus Records, no number – available at CD Baby & iTunes

Although Cuban-born jazz flautist-singer Magela Herrera was a member of the Cuban jazz and fusion group Mezcla between 2004 and 2011, and was praised highly for her solo on “Quien tiene el ritmo” on Mezcla’s album I’ll See You in Cuba, this is her debut release as a leader. It features two standards, Besame Mucho and My One and Only Love in addition to six originals.

Herrera’s group is an extremely good and lively one. This is no “shrinking violet,” lounge-lizard jazz CD, but a collection of interesting tunes played with a gutsy style by Herrera and her bandmates. Aside from the complex percussion, always a plus in any Latin-based music, I give a gold star to pianist Tal Cohen for his wonderfully incisive and imaginative playing on this set, but there is no question that Herrera is one of the most exciting jazz flautists I’ve ever heard—and that list includes not only such jazz greats as Herbie Mann, Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef and Paul Horn, but also (believe it or not) Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who I saw live at the 1969 Rutgers Jazz Festival. She not only has a great tone and rhythm, but is imaginative and has a stupendous technique that allows her to play little twists and fills that seem to come from another flute player who is doubling her. She’s that good.

Her compositions are also interesting, playing with time in a way that truncates the beat within certain bars when the spirit moves her. The listener must thus pay close attention to what she is playing since it is all so interesting. Herrera also has the knack, rare among a great many jazz musicians nowadays, to create full choruses that are actually little compositions in themselves. Her musical mind grabs onto musical logic like a master composer; nothing is superfluous or uninteresting. Even in a ballad like Principios, both the written melody and her improvisations on it make perfect sense. Everything dovetails together like clockwork. Trumpeter Jean Caze also has a solo on this track, and much to my surprise his playing is mellow and warm, sounding much like Clark Terry, rather than the usual overly-bright Latin trumpet sound one is used to from many other bands and recordings. Caze also doubles Herrera, playing beneath her in thirds for one chorus to nice effect.

Explicaciones opens with conga drums, played at a medium-slow tempo, and on this one Herrera sings—in the soft-grained kind of whispery voice that is apparently popular today. I really miss singers like Tania Maria. Fortunately, an excellent guitar solo by Greg Diamond and Herrera’s flute chorus pick things up. The temperature rises still further in their smoldering performance of Ahora, a fascinating piece with unusual chord changes that interlock (like songs used to do, back in the 1960s and earlier) in a minor mode. Herrera plays one chorus over an equally smoldering bass line with piano interjections, followed by Cohen playing rolling figures in the right hand until he manages to bring the tempo down to a medium pace. This re-accelerates as the volume increases and Herrera and the band return for the ride-out.

Besame Mucho, a song I’ve been listening to since I was five years old, is given a nice treatment. Despite Herrera’s soft-grained voice, she plays with the time in a brilliant manner, particularly the middle section of the tune where she again truncates time. Cohen’s piano, following her lead, does the same in a minimal but very tasteful solo.

Danzon Para Papa is played at a nice medium tempo and with a strong swing beat underlying the Latin rhythm. Herrera adds stop-time chords and other little twists that enhance the original and make it sound even better than it is, and her solo on this one is clearly one of her finest. Cohen also surprises one with the way he splits time in his own solo, which ramps up the heat as the music crashes to its conclusion. What a great performance!

The album wraps up with the pop ballad My One and Only Love, here sung in English. Again, Herrera plays with the time in an interesting way. This may now be my favorite version of this old tune; she really makes it sound like good music and not like middle-of-the-road pop rubbish, changing the rhythm here and there as well. Diamond has a nice half-chorus on guitar and Herrera’s flute solo is yet another compositional gem. When she returns on vocal to end it, she adds some rubato touches and then ramps up the beat for the finale, scatting over the guitar and drums.

This is a winner, an album I was sorry ended when it did. You can bet I’ll keep my eye out for any further Magela Herrera releases!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Ruggieri & Mesirca Play Modern Flute-Guitar Music

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ROCHBERG: Muse of Fire. Ora Pro Nobis (Nach Bach II). RILEY: Cantos Desiertos. RIBOT: Bateau for Guitar. GOLIJOV: Fish Tale. WUORINEN: Hexadactyl for Guitar. SEEGER: Diaphonic Suite for Flute. DELPRIORA: Elegia for Basil Keiser / Daniele Ruggieri, fl; Alberto Mesirca, gtr / Brilliant Classics 95753

My readers know that I am not normally drawn to solo flute, solo guitar, or flute & guitar records as a rule unless the flautist and/or the guitarist play with some energy. This is sometimes the case with flautists but seldom with classical guitarists unless their names are Julian Bream or Pepe Romero, but here is an Italian guitarist, Alberto Mesirca, who plays with some energy for a change, and the program consists of mostly modern works.

First up is George Rochberg’s Muse of Fire, a fairly long piece (19 minutes) written in 1990. This is an atonal romp in shifting meter, yet still one that attempts to give the flute lyrical themes to play. Ruggieri, like Mesirca, plays with rhythmic acuity and energy, thus their joint performance is a joy to hear. Rochberg adds variety to the piece by changing the rhythms and tempi in addition to weaving other themes into it as it wends its way along.  And dig Mesirca’s sharply-played downward runs on the guitar…simply outstanding. The music then turns lyrical in this mini-suite, but even in the lyrical section there are interesting runs played by the guitarist against the more fluid flute line.

The same composer’s Ora Pro Nobis, subtitled “Nach Bach II,” was written by Rochberg a year earlier. Both works were written for guitarist Eliot Fisk around the time of the Gulf War, which apparently Rochberg was against on political grounds (despite the fact that, at that time, both of our major political parties voted for and supported it, so I’m not sure what Rochberg’s “political” stance was). The liner notes call it “an invocation for peace,” the music based on the theme of the second movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. This is played in a gentler style, but still with interest by the two principals. The piece becomes more interesting, and more like Rochberg’s normal style, towards the end, particularly in the very interesting guitar solo.

Next come the Cantos Desiertos by seminal minimalist composer Terry Riley who, in my estimation, is and was the best composer in that often restrictive style because his music actually developed and didn’t remain static. Mostly written in Mexico and Hispanic in style, the music is also witty and ironic as well as attractive and tonal. The third movement, marked “Quijote,” is the whimsical. The fourth begins in a conventional, lyrical vein but turns edgy about halfway through and ends on an unresolved note while the fifth and last, “Tango Ladeado” or “Tango Off Center,” plays with the rhythm.

Even more interesting is the Bateau for Guitar by Marc Ribot, which begins in a conventionally lyrical vein but adds some dazzling single-note guitar runs as it moves along. Osvaldo Golijov’s Fish Tale combines Latin rhythms with unusual melodic lines over subtly shifting harmonies. Golijov also calls for the flautist to play with just the edge of the hole, producing soft, edgy tones while the guitar plays a rhythmic accompaniment. The fluid harmony continues to morph subtly throughout the piece. Towards the end, the flautist is called upon to hum the melody while playing the flute (the same notes in unison, not chording) over the guitar—a highly unusual yet lovely effect.

Charles Wuorinen’s Hexadactyl (2002) for solo guitar is, not surprisingly, the edgiest piece on the CD, written in his usual complex and somewhat unattractive style. The Diaphonic Suite for Flute is by Ruth Crawford Seeger who, along with her contemporary William Russell, were two of the greatest losses to contemporary classical music, both giving up their budding composing careers of interesting modern music in order to pursue lesser interests. In Russell’s case it was a mania to collect and record old-time New Orleans jazz musicians from the early years of the 20th century, while for Seeger it was to collect and anthologize old folk and bluegrass tunes. She did briefly return to composition in the last two years of her life, but sadly she died relatively young. This is as good an example of any of how interesting and original her music was: though modern, the flute lines are still lyrical and call for an almost superhuman breath control, which Ruggieri fortunately possesses.

We end this recital with a very lyrical piece, Elegia by Mark Delpriora, yet despite its lyricism it has some interesting twists in it.

Overall, then, a very interesting recital, well worth seeking out.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Atom String Quartet Plays New Works

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SUPERNOVA / LENCZOWSKI: Supernova. Fale [Waves]. LUBOWICZ: Toccata. Zawczešnie [Too Early]. KULENTY-MAJOOR: Concerto Rosso for String Quartet & String Orchhestra. ZABORSKI: Melody of the Prairie. SMOCZYŃSKI: Cosmos. Happy / Atom String Quartet (Dawid Lubowicz, vln; Mateusz Smoczyński, vln/bar-vln; Michał Zaborski, vla; Krzysztof Lenczowski, cel); NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra; Christian Danowicz, cond/vln / CD Accord ACD244 (live: Witold Lutosławski National Forum of Music, Wrocław, Poland, December 1 & 3, 2017)

Having greatly admired the work of the Polish jazz group, the Atom String Quartet, there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to review this disc. Like many modern jazz groups comprised of rather young players (Michal Zaborski, its oldest member, was born in 1978), they occasionally lean in the direction of rock or fusion rhythm, as in the case of the opener, Krzysztof Lenczowski’s Supernova, but thanks to the fact that they do not use a drummer the effect is not as deleterious on the musical quality as if often the case.

Moreover, Supernova is a surprisingly melodic work given its title, and in the slower second theme there is a strong feeling of bluegrass music, an influence that has come into the group ever since violinist Mateusz Smoczyński spent several years as a member of the Turtle Island String Quartet. Lenczowski’s writing for the NFM Orchestra’s string section is similarly eclectic, and it is to the orchestra’s credit that they get into the right rhythm for this music. Far too many classical orchestras attempting to play jazz-influenced works get the notes right but not the rhythm. Undoubtedly, having the Atom Quartet work closely with them had a good effect.

First violinist Dawid Lubowicz wrote Toccata, and here the jazz feel is mixed even more with a fusion feeling, but his scoring of edgy, repeated eighth-note figures for the orchestra’s violins and violas once again edge the music closer to bluegrass-jazz, although the string players’ device of striking their bows against their instruments to produce a percussive effect gives the music its stronger fusion-type beat. Yet, surprisingly, this too dissipates in the slow middle section of the work, which bears a much stronger resemblance to, yes, the music of Lutosławski.

I really liked Lenczowski’s composition Fale or Waves, a slow tempo piece that starts with the orchestra’s strings playing pizzicato. When the quartet enters, they are playing repeated rhythmic figures that run against the orchestra’s scoring, and eventually that shifts as well to create a complex web of sound before falling away and allowing either Zaborski on viola or Smoczyński on baritone violin (hard to tell the difference) play a solo, followed in turn by the full quartet with the orchestra.

The Concerto Rosso is the only work on this disc not written by a member of the quartet, but rather by Hanna Kulenty-Majoor, commissioned by both the Atom Quartet and the NFM Orchestra. It’s a minimalist piece in its constant repetition of just a few rhythmic cells, but a bit more driving than most minimalist pieces and harmonically interesting. At the 5:33 mark, the rhythms slow down to held half and whole notes for a while, adding some astringent harmonies, before resuming its forward thrust. Later on, we get a descending chromatic passage with almost metallic sounds produced by the strings (possibly created by rubbing their bows sideways against the strings) and other effects as the piece progresses.

Melody of the Prairie is a surprisingly American-sounding piece by Zaborski, lyrical and expansive, and is beautifully played by the quartet with gentle violin pizzicato behind them. This is followed by celli pizzicato as one of the violinists plays an improvisation in the foreground on the theme. Yet it is Smoczyńsli’s Cosmos that most grabs the listener with its originality; the slow string theme played against swooping sounds as the violins play atonal portamento passages against it. A solo, probably by the composer on baritone violin, is then heard against this backdrop before the tempo picks up, first by one of the solo strings and then with members of the string section behind him in a fascinating contrapuntal passage. This contrapuntal feeling continues as two of the quartet members play against each other in contrasting figures while the body of strings play a modal yet lyrical theme behind them. The edginess comes in with percussive effects while the quartet’s cellist plays a counterpoint figure and brief motifs are played rhythmically in front of it before the whole piece starts to swing. A bluegrass feel comes in at around 5:23 and stays for a while before the whole thing collapses in a sea of rapid, atonal figures, playing helter-skelter against one another like an asteroid storm before moving back to the pastoral theme. This is clearly exceptional writing.

Almost as interesting is Lubowicz’ Zawczešnie [Too Early], which starts with pizzicato cello against shimmering strings in a slow tempo and expands into an interesting lyrical theme, still with the string tremolos behind it. The two musical feelings then intermix as the piece develops. This, too, is a very well-written piece.

We end with Smoczyński’s Happy, an edgy sort of piece in uneven meter, played by the Atom Quartet with its usual energy before moving into yet another jazz-bluegrass rhythm. The orchestra string play “footballs” (whole notes) behind them as they swing and improvise in the foreground. Later, the orchestra takes over the eighth-note theme and develops it a bit while the quartet plays their “chops” (downbow rhythmic attacks on the strings, a technique invented by Turtle Island Quartet founder David Balakrishnan) as the piece comes to its conclusion.

Quite a nice CD, then, full of surprises and contrasting new music. Recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Wadada Leo Smith Honors Rosa Parks

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ROSA PARKS: PURE LOVE, AN ORATORIO OF SEVEN SONGS / SMITH: Prelude: Journey / BlueTrumpet Qrt; drums / Vision Dance 1: Resistance and Unity. Rosa Parks: Mercy, Music for Double Quartet. Postlude: Victory! / RedKoral Qrt; BlueTrumpet Qrt; electronics, dms / Song 1: The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Song 5: No Fear. Song 6: The Second Light / Min Xiao-Fen, voc/pipa; RedKoral Qrt / Song 2: The First Light, Gold. Song 4: The Truth / Carmina Escobar, voc; RedKoral Qrt / Vision Dance 2: Defiance, Justice & Liberation / Anthony Braxton, a-sax; RedKoral Qrt; BlueTrumpet Qrt; Steve McCall, dm / Song 3: Change It! Sing 7: Pure Love / Leroy Jenkins, vln; Karen Parks, voc; RedKoral Qrt / Vision Dance 3: Rosa’s Blue Lake. The Known World: Apartheid / RedKoral Qrt; BlueTrumpet Qrt; Ankhrasmation Panel; perc; Wadada Leo Smith, tpt / Vision Dance 4: A Blue Casa / Wadada Leo Smith, Graham Haynes, tpt; Ankhrasmation Panel; RedKoral Qrt; BlueTrumpet Qrt / TUM Records CD-057

This album, much more of a suite than a collection of “jazz tunes,” is Wadada Leo Smith’s tribute to the late Rosa Parks, who made history in the late 1950s and started a cultural revolution by refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Although it was believed for decades that she acted on her own, she was actually asked to make this social statement by the NAACP because they thought that Parks, a mild-mannered, well-educated woman, would be the best African-American person to survive a court challenge—which she did.

In creating the music, Smith not only participated himself but wrote most of it as a through-composed score for the BlueTrumpet and RedKoral Quartets with additional soloists, speakers, singers, percussion players and a pipa player. He also included some “sampling” of previous recordings by alto saxist Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins. All of this adds up to a complex, multi-movement work that challenges the listener yet rewards him or her for their attention.

The selections as listed in the header above are clearly out of order, arranged to show which performers were used on which selections. The opening Prelude: Journey is among the edgiest pieces on the album, throwing the listener into a maelstrom of atonal sound created by the dual quartets with percussion. The tension eases for the Vision Dance 1, the music reminding me somewhat of both Bartók and Ligeti; parts of it are not only tonal but quite lyrical, yet with edgy overtones. As in the case of Pablo Aslan’s remarkable new CD, this is the kind of music that I love but will undoubtedly baffle and even alienate jazz collectors, who don’t like structural formality or allusions to art music. The violin solo at the outset of Song 1: The Montgomery Bus Boycott is also tonal and lyrical, with the string quartet accompanying the surprisingly lovely voice of Min Xiao-Fen who also plays the pipa. What surprised me in this section was not just Smith’s gentle, lyrical side but his ability to write in a sostenuto fashion for voice and strings without resorting to banality. Bravo!

After the first song we get the second, The First Light, Gold, featuring violin soloist Mona Tian and another fine vocalist, Carmina Escobar with the string quartet. Vision Dance 2 features a brief excerpt from Anthony Braxton’s Composition 8D as recorded for Delmark in 1969, then moves on to edgy, atonal music played by the RedKoral Quartet with percussion. This is followed by the trumpet quartet playing in an antiphonal style, then a drum kit with electronics (mercifully, brief and not very loud). We then hear an edgy, double-time violin solo followed by the quartet and vocalist Karen Parks (not quite as good as the previous two singers) doing the edgy song Change It! The percussion then kicks in as we move into the next song, The Truth, sung by Escobar with the string quartet. Smith does an excellent job throughout of maintaining a balance between the strictly classical elements and the percussion improvisations.

My sole caveat about the work as a whole is that the vocal lines all seem to follow the same very simple pattern, particularly in tempo, rhythm and most of the time even in key. I realize that Smith was trying to create, as he put it, a hymn of love to Parks and her achievement, which is fully understandable, but the sameness leads to a feeling of déjà vu in the listener despite the evidently high quality of the scoring and the originality of his conception. This is not meant as a serious criticism of the work as a whole, but merely a suggestion that Smith may wish to re-write parts of it to more closely mirror the feeling of each song’s text without repeating musical patterns. As what may be his first attempt at such a large musical construction in formal music with voice, however, it clearly has many good qualities, and in live performance it is accompanied by visual images which enhance the music’s impact.

In toto, then, an interesting first attempt at formal music by a modern jazz master, with strengths and weaknesses but still interesting to hear.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Expanded Reissue of Dolphy’s “Conversations” & “Iron Man” Released

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ERIC DOLPHY, MUSICAL PROPHET / WALLER: Jitterbug Waltz (2 tks).2,4 LASHA-SIMMONS: Music Matador (2 tks)1,5. WASHINGTON-YOUNG: Love Me (3 tks). DIETZ-SCHWARTZ: Alone Together (2 tks). HANNA: Muses (for Richard Davis) (2 tks). DOLPHY: Iron Man.1-4 Mandrake (2 tks).1-3 Burning Spear (2 tks).1-4 B. JAMES: A Personal Statement [Jim Crow].6 ELLINGTON: Come Sunday. BYARD: Ode to Charlie Parker / Eric Dolphy, a-sax/fl/bs-cl; 1William “Prince” Lasha, fl; 1Sonny Simmons, a-sax; 1Clifford Jordan, s-sax; 2Woody Shaw, tpt; 3Garvin Bushell, bsn; 2Bobby Hutcherson, vib; 6Bob James, pno; Richard Davis, 4Eddie Kahn, 6Ron Brooks, bs; 2J.C. Moses, 5Charles Moffett, dm; 6Robert Pozar, perc; 6David Schwartz, voc / Resonance Records, no number, available for online order HERE

It has always struck me as ironic that the many jazz lovers who seem to detest anything classical have usually admired the work of Eric Dolphy. Born to Panamanian immigrants (thus he was not technically African-American), Dolphy’s aesthetic was firmly rooted in classical music, first learning the clarinet and then the oboe. Inspired in his young teenage years by the music of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, he switched to the alto saxophone and also picked up the flute. His improvisations, often considered a form of free jazz, were anything but; in their wide-ranging intervals and even much of the structure of his solos, he was always closer in form to the music of Stravinsky and Bartók and, in fact, seldom swung like a jazz musician.

Which is not to say that he wasn’t brilliant, only that he was not a conventional jazz improviser. Yet he was claimed as a “musical son” by two of the most brilliant jazz musicians of his day, saxist John Coltrane and bassist-composer Charles Mingus, both of whom admired him and vied for his participation in their recordings (Dolphy wrote several of the arrangements for Coltrane’s Africa/Brass Session) and live performances. Mingus eventually won out, and in fact it was while on tour of Europe with Mingus that he died in June 1964, unexpectedly, of insulin shock. The German doctors who initially treated him did not understand that he had incipient diabetes (though he told them so) and attributed his condition to drug use, not knowing that Dolphy took no illegal drugs. They gave him Narcan, which sent his sugar levels sky-high. By the time they administered the insulin it was too late; he went into a coma and died. Mingus, stunned and furious, carried on a verbal war against the German doctors for some time afterward.

Dolphy’s albums Conversations and Iron Man, both recorded on June 1 & 3, 1963, several months before his classic Out to Lunch Blue Note session, were great albums originally released by a tiny record label, Douglas International, and later issued on almost as small a label, Vee Jay. They’ve since come out on small bootleg labels like Celluloid, but this is their first official re-release in a 3-CD package that includes a full album of alternate takes. Among the alternate takes included here is the unusual A Personal Statement, a.k.a. Jim Crow, which was recorded in Ann Arbor, MI on March 2, 1964 with an entirely different line-up.

The reason why they aren’t as well known or highly respected as Out to Lunch is their rarity, but the performances are excellent. This reissue is in mono because the producers claim that the original stereo tapes have disappeared, yet reviewer Michael Fremer, on the blog site Analog Planet, explains that the stereo takes have indeed been issued—a few times, in fact—by the bootleg versions of these two albums, and indeed I found the stereo versions of all the issued tracks available on YouTube as listed below (click on the titles to pull up the videos):

Jitterbug Waltz
Music Matador
Love Me
Alone Together
Muses
Iron Man
Mandrake
Come Sunday
Burning Spear
Ode to Charlie Parker
A Personal Statement

Having the solo and duet tracks (with Richard Davis on bass) in stereo really don’t make much of a difference to my ears except that the bass is actually a bit quieter and, separating itself somewhat from the bass clarinet, gives one a little better aural perspective, but the full band performances clearly sound better and far less congested in stereo.

Yet real jazz aficionados will want this Resonance set for the valuable and often stupendous alternate takes and the equally rich and detailed booklet notes, both of which add to our understanding and appreciation of Dolphy. The 100-page booklet explains that the tapes used for this release were in a suitcase of “valuable material” that Dolphy gave to his composition mentor, Hale Smith, just before he left for Europe with Mingus. Not all surviving takes have been issued here, only the very best and most complete, but as Fremer points out in his blog post, the booklet alone is worth the price of the album as it finally gives us a clear picture of Dolphy’s art and career. Just between you and me, however, this could have easily been a 2-CD set, ending the first disc with Burning Spear (which makes the CD run close to 82 minutes) and picking up the second with Ode to Charlie Parker (which runs about 76 minutes), but the producers apparently wanted the CD release to match the gimmicky LP issue in disc length. As has been proven many times on YouTube videos by sound engineers, there is absolutely NO audio difference between LPs and CDs in how music reaches your ears, and I warn you in advance that LPs still accrue ticks, pops, crackle and surface wear that CDs do not, thus I advise against the LP release.

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Original LP cover of “Conversations”

In the opener, Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz, Dolphy actually swings on the flute although, as usual, his lines are unorthodox to say the least. On this track, too, we hear the excellent trumpet playing of Woody Shaw, who atypically follows Dolphy’s lead in his own very angular solo, and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes.

The album takes a left turn into oddness, however, in William “Prince” Lasha’s Spanish-tinged composition, Music Matador, and Dolphy’s playing likewise turns more abstract as he puts down the flute and picks up the bass clarinet. Dolphy established the bass clarinet as a standard jazz instrument at just about the time that the regular clarinet disappeared, due in large part to the emergence of the soprano saxophone which was brought into modern jazz by Coltrane. Prince Lasha plays the flute solo on this one and Clifford Jordan wails on tenor sax. This is a constant feature of these sessions: Dolphy was somehow able to get all the other musicians on the date on his wavelength so the stylistic vein of each solo remained consistent with the others.

Love Me is played by Dolphy a cappella on the alto saxophone in so startling, and strange a manner that one would never recognize the tune in a million years, and the atonal bass solo opening of Alone Together, which leads into an even stranger improvisation by Dolphy on bass clarinet, bears only a superficial resemblance to the original song. This is jazz turned into modern classical music; there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Only at 6:30 into the tune do we hear a jazz pulse, and then mostly from the bass (Richard Davis), but it’s later fractured so much that the jazz beat comes and goes. Davis plays the dual role of rhythmic support for Dolphy and commentator on his ongoing improvisation—and this goes on for 13 ½ minutes.

The previously unissued takes of Muses for Richard Davis (the master take, not included here, was originally released by the Japanese label Marshmallow Export in 2013 on a CD that included Alone Together, Iron Man, Love Me and Mandrake) picks up where Alone Together left off except that it’s a dolorous piece taken at a slow tempo (two takes of it). This was not only a long piece that wouldn’t fit on a conventional LP of the time (which only ran a little over 40 minutes at most—many labels, particularly the small, cheap ones, didn’t like crowding too much music on an LP), but obviously too odd to appeal to most jazz lovers.

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Original cover of “Iron Man”

Moving on to the next album, Iron Man is a very atonal jazz piece by Dolphy that sweeps up the whole band on this session (here including Garvin Bushell on bassoon) in a wild, late-period Stravinskian jazz romp. Dolphy is all over the map, as usual. Woody Shaw’s trumpet solo pulls the music back somewhat towards tonality but is still very creative in its own way. The bassist here is Eddie Kahn, not Richard Davis, and it shows: his solo is just OK, nothing to write home about. In my review of Pablo Aslan’s fascinating jazz string quintets, I mentioned that Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday, so often used by jazz musicians as a basis for improvisation, is not really one of his strongest pieces, but here Dolphy turns this very ordinary little dollop of music into an aural feast, weaving angular, contrapuntal lines around its simple melody in an extraordinary manner.

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Alternate cover of “Iron Man,” art by Abdul Mati Klarwein

Burning Spear is yet another remarkable piece, combining (it seems) two clashing tonalities against one another. It almost sounds like a piece of music by the avant-garde classical composer Harry Partch as anything in jazz. Here, Shaw is more up to the challenge of the music, playing a brilliant solo if not one on Dolphy’s higher wavelength, and Kahn does a surprisingly good job spurring the band forward with some hard, driving licks that fit in. Dolphy had recorded an entirely different version of Ode to Charlie Parker on his album with trumpeter Booker Little; this one is just flute and bass, and although Kahn is not Richard Davis he does a credible job of supporting Dolphy’s fascinating variations.

A Personal Statement is highly unusual, almost sounding as if it combined jazz with Oriental music. Vocalist David Schwarz, believe it or not, is not a jazz singer but a classically-trained countertenor whose voice sounds more natural and less “hooty” than most of his falsetto-trained brethren. I couldn’t find much info about him online except that he was a former classmate of pianist Bob James (there was also a violist named David Schwartz active at the same time…same person?), but it seems that this track first other aspectssurfaced on a Blue Note release in 1987, Other Aspects, which also included Inner Flight I & II, Dolphy’n, and Improvisations and Tukras which were recorded much earlier, in 1960. These, too, came from the suitcase that Dolphy gave to Hale and Juanita Smith for safekeeping. It is in various tempi, like a classical piece, and develops as such, with Bob James’ atonal piano solo a highlight of the side. At 9:08 there is a very strange passage in which Schwarz sings staccato, percussive lines in tandem with Dolphy before the tempo slows down and James plays a brief piano interlude. Schwarz is also called upon to do some vocal portamento slides while Dolphy plays around him. At 12:47, Schwarz moans some slithering lines in his natural voice, which is a tenor, while the tempo increases and the percussion bashes around him, before moving back up to his higher range singing the words “Jim Crow” now and then. A very strange piece indeed!

The alternate takes are all excellent and the solos, especially Dolphy’s but also the others, markedly different from the issued versions—particularly Love Me, both of which are even further-out than the issued take. It’s obvious why this take of Jitterbug Waltz was rejected: the ensemble is very sloppy and not together despite the outstanding solo work. These add considerably to our understanding of Dolphy’s art, which as it turns out is perfectly in keeping with 21st century jazz but much too far in advance of its time for 1960-64 for most jazz buffs to appreciate.

There are no two ways about it: the music on this set is terrific, even with the somewhat cramped mono sound (enhanced as much as is humanly possible via digital remastering), and the booklet even more so. Well worth investing $29 in!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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