Ahonen Plays Affectionate Ives

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IVES: Violin Sonata No. 4, “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting.”1 Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860” 2 / Joonas Ahonen, pianist; Pekka Kuusisto, 1violinist/2violist; 2Sharon Bezaly, flautist / Bis 2249

The tendency of modern classical musicians to soften nearly all classical music from the past, to take the “edge” off pieces that were intended to have it, continues apace with this otherwise fine set of performances. Joonas Ahonen is an outstanding pianist, and does not play the “Concord” Sonata in a cool or dispassionate manner; far from it, he brings the forte passages to vivid life. But in between those passages he emphasizes lyricism and elegance. He clearly wants to impress the work’s structure on you. And, to a certain extent, he succeeds.

In some respects, this is a very fine performance for nowadays. Ahonen really does let himself go in the louder passages, and in some moments—particularly the hymn tune that arises at about 5:35 in the second movement—he brings out an almost wistful, nostalgic quality that surely is not out of place in this music, followed almost immediately by the clangorous and eventually atonal march tune. Moreover, Ahonen has an excellent sense of rhythm, which allows him to play the ragtime passage in that same second movement (around the 7:30 mark) with considerable élan and “swing,” and for that I applaud him. I’m sure that this recording will please a great many Ives fanciers who are put off by the wild and woolly 1960s recording by John Kirkpatrick (which I reviewed here), which almost sounds like a frontal assault on the keyboard, with little concession to such niceties as phrasing or elegance. But then again, that is exactly how Ives himself played this music if we are to believe the few surviving recordings of him performing excerpts from it, and this includes the “Alcotts” movement which he performed complete. Ives and Kirkpatrick sound craggy, even a bit rough, whereas Ahonen is clearly leaning on the nostalgia of the piece. I was also quite pleased to hear that the pianist used both the optional viola in the first movement and flute in the last, which creates an eerie feeling, particularly in the way these instruments are miked, which is in a very distant perspective. This almost gives them the feeling of “ghost instruments.”

As for the fourth Violin Sonata that opens the record, it is played in a lively fashion that again brings out its rhythmic liveliness without emphasizing the work’s edginess. My gold standard in the Ives violin sonatas is the old recording by violinist Gregory Fulkerson and pianist Robert Shannon on Bridge 9024, but in the context of this simpler sonata, written by Ives for his 12-year-old nephew, this is a good performance.

The collector, then, will undoubtedly want to consider this new recording as it is one of the very rare versions to include both the viola and flute passages, but others may prefer, as I do, Donna Coleman’s outstanding recording on Etcetera 1079, a somewhat livelier version that at least includes the flute in the last movement. And every Ives fancier will undoubtedly want to explore one of Kirkpatrick’s recordings, either the original 1945 performance or the stereo remake from the 1960s.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Guitarist Rez Abbasi’s “Unfiltered Universe” a Gem!

Unfiltered Universe Album Cover

UNFILTERED UNIVERSE / ABBASI: Propensity. Unfiltered Universe. Thoughts. Thin-King. Turn of Events. Disagree to Agree. Dance Number / Invocation: Rez Abbasi, gtr; Rudresh Mahanthappa, a-sax; Vijay Iyer, pno; Elizabeth Mikhael, cellist; Johannes Weidenmueller, bs; Dan Weiss, dm / Whirlwind Recordings, no number

It’s not often nowadays that “all-star bands” live up to their hype, but when you have a band that includes three such prominent, powerhouse improvisers as guitarist Rez Abbasi, pianist Vijay Iyer (see my extended comments on his work in From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, Chapter XVI, pp. 438-442) and alto saxist Rudresh Mahanthappa (of Bird Calls fame), it’s difficult to describe it as anything but.

Abbasi’s band Invocation has been working in the field of Eastern music-influenced jazz since 2008, and this is their third album in that style. For those of us with a view of musical history it can be compared to the performances of Don Ellis’ Hindustani Jazz Sextet of the 1960s, which is where the late trumpeter learned to swing in unusual meters, or the large body of work produced over the years by Lebanese musician Rabih Abou-Khalil.

Abbasi’s first album of Eastern music drew from North Indian Hindustani music and his second, Suno Suno, was built around the Qawwali music of Abbasi’s native Pakistan. This album, due out October 6, draws on the Carnatic music of South India which came to Abbasi via his saxist, Rudresh Mahanthappa. Perhaps not too oddly, considering Mahanthappa’s great interest in American jazz, the opening number, Propensity, sounds much closer in musical style to our own jazz with the exception of the complex and irregular rhythm. This already marks a strong departure from the approach and aesthetics of Ellis’ old group, which took Hindustani rhythms and harmonies and threw the American musicians into the mix. This is almost as if Abbasi and Mahanthappa had decided to throw Middle Eastern musicians, and sensibilities, into an essentially American context. Abbasi says in the liner notes that he “trusted the intuitive process to the degree that I did not feel the need to assert specific established ideas into the mix, per se, but rather relied on the ‘nature’ of of my experiences.”

Rez Abbasi band

L to R: Iyer, pno; Mikhael, cello; Abbasi, gtr; Weidenmueller, bs; Mahanthappa, a-sax; Weiss, dm

It also doesn’t hurt that Abbasi, unlike most of his American counterparts, is a powerhouse jazz guitarist who plays with the drive and power of late Django Reinhardt, Charlie Byrd and others who followed in their footsteps. No shrinking violet is he, but a musician who is not afraid to play his solos with power and emotion. Indeed, the one musician in the group who retreats from the sound barrier when he plays is Iyer, which isn’t at all surprising considering his classical background. His solos are remarkably interesting, combining elements of Monk and Bill Evans (two of his early heroes), but they are cooler than the saxist or guitarist. Iyer is particularly effective on the title track, where the voltage is reduced somewhat. Abbasi and Mahanthappa play an interesting yet quirky long-lined melody in unison which then leads into Iyer playing interesting figures while the guitar-sax duo is joined by Elizabeth Mikhael on cello playing a sort of ground bass behind them. Since the Hindustani Jazz Sextet left very few recordings, mostly from live performances, it’s difficult to say what their “book” was really like, but judging from Abbasi’s pieces on this CD the music here consists of real compositions. Much more has been written out and preplanned, using South Indian rhythms with American harmonies. Iyer’s solo is remarkable, a single-note excursion that cuts through the complex harmony and rhythms with ease. His fecund imagination never ceases to amaze me; nothing he plays is trite or derivative, yet it always sounds as if he had the entire solo mapped out in his head before he even got through the first three bars. Following this, Mahanthappa ramps up the tempo in double time with a long string of repeated octave flutters.

The tune titled Rez Intro sounds as if was played backwards on a tape player…maybe it was! Thin-King is a medium-tempo romp for the band, and even Iyer plays here with a higher level of energy to match the intensity of the others. Johannes Weidenmueller contributes a nice bass solo as well. There’s a really nice tricky passage in the coda to wrap things up.

Turn of Events, the longest track on the album at nearly 12 minutes, starts with slow, out-of-tempo musings from the various musicians, mostly guitar and alto sax while piano, bass, cello and drums drop notes in here and there as filler. Eventually it develops into a really lovely tune, essentially in A minor, out of which development occurs with the naturalness of a flower’s petals opening up. Every note played by each band member contributes to the whole, and even the individual solos seems specifically tailored to the surrounding structure. Indeed, the quality of the music is so high that picking apart individual moments here seems counter-productive. Iyer’s solo contains some echoes of Lennie Tristano, which isn’t a bad thing. This leads into some delicate pluckings, and eventually a pizzicato solo, from cellist Mikhael, after which Iyer plays the piano with one hand while damping the strings inside the piano with the other. This is followed by a guitar-saxophone passage which is a variation on the original theme, again sounding preplanned, with nice ground bass bowing from Mikhael. Then, it just stops dead!

Disagree to Agree begins slowly, and here the rhythmic complexity seems particularly dense, especially in the introduction and opening chorus. By 1:50 we’ve suddenly entered a hard bop mode despite the extended bar lines. Iyer contributes another superb single-note solo. By the time Mahanthappa enters for his hard-driving solo, both the tempo and the intensity of the music have been ramped up a couple of notches. What a wonderful player he is! Abbasi plays with equal intensity, taking care to control his instrument’s sound superbly. Then comes another one of those apparently written-out guitar-alto passages, this time turning into the ride-out.

The album concludes with Dance Number, a loping, relaxed piece at medium tempo that almost sounds informal yet shows signs of careful writing and thematic balance. In this one the band seems to be staying in one chord or mode much of the time; there is less harmonic movement as the soloists take their turns, adding interest in the context of their individual choruses rather than in the basic structure. Some of Mahanthappa’s figures reminded me of belly-dance music although for the most part he is playing some very complex double-time passages that go “outside” fairly often. The volume drops for Iyer’s solo, the eye in the midst of this musical hurricane, although towards the end of it he increases the volume as Mahanthappa plays soft long notes behind him. Abbasi and the saxist then ride us off into the sunset.

Unfiltered Universe is an unqualified success for Rez Abbasi, easily one of the most spectacular albums so far this year.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Ketil Hvoslef’s Unusual Chamber Music

Hvoslef No 1Hvoslef No 11

VOL. I / HVOSLEF: Erkejubel. Duo due. Frammenti di Roma. Scheherazade forteller videre. Canis Lagopus / Hvoslef Chamber Music Project: Gary Peterson, Britt Pernille Lindvik, trumpeters; John-Arild Suther, Kjell Erik Husom, trombonists; Ricardo Odriozola, Māra Šmiukše, violinists; Ilze Klava, violist; John Ehde, cellist; Peter Palotai, bassist; Steinar Hannevold, oboist; Christian Stene, clarinetist; Per Hannevold, bassoonist; Marija Kadovič, harpist; Einar Røttingen, synthesizer; Alexander Ulriksen, percussionist / Lawo 1066

VOL. II / HVOSLEF: Duodu / Ricardo Odriozola, violinist; Ilze Klava, violist / Ludium. Flute Octet / Moa Bromander, Sofya Dudayeva, Cecilia Lind, Rebecca Lambrecht, Ingrid Neset, Knut Magnus Bøen, Luana Gundersen, flautists; add Rebecca Lambrecht, flautist on Octet / Dano Tiore / Hilde Haraldsen Sveen, soprano; Odriozola, violinist; Klava, violist; John Ehde, cellist; Hans Knut Sveen, harpsichordist / Accordion Duo / Jostein Stalheim, Kai Hanse, accordionists / Quartetto Percussivo / Torleif Torgersen, Einar Røttingen, pianists; Manuel Hofstätter, Peter Kates, percussionist / Lawo 1081

Unable to download or stream the album I wanted to review, which was Vol. 5 of this series, I turned instead to the above two discs and was glad I did, because they gave me a unique window into the mind of this strange but wonderful composer.

If you’ve previously heard of Ketil Hvoslef (1939 – ), you’re one up on me. Reading the liner notes for Vol. 1, it seems he had an unusual background to say the least. The son of composer Harald Sæverud and Marie Hvoslef, he originally wanted to become a painter but was arrested by the police for sketching a prominent office building in downtown Ljubjana. This apparently led him to music, which he entered as a rock & roll musician, forming Bergen’s first rock band, The Mixmaster. He studied at the Bergen Art Academy where he met and married Inger Flatebø. Thety were still both Sæveruds back then. When their first child was born in 1962, Ketil realized he had to get a real job and not just knock around as a painter or rock star, so he became an organist, studying at the Music Conservatoire. After graduation, however, he couldn’t find a job and so knocked around as a gardener until Gunnar Sævig, the conservatoire’s director, hired him as a music theory teacher.

He obtained some studies in Stockholm and London, wrote his first classical piece in 1964, but did not decide to become a full-time composer until 1979. That was when he decided to change his last name to his mother’s maiden name because he didn’t want people confusing him with his father. According to the liner notes, from which I’ve gleaned all of the above information, he “has worked assiduously at his music, receiving a fairly continuous stream of commissions, never exerting any apparent effort to make himself noticed. The comparatively few times he has been in the media have always been in connection with a specific project. On such occasions, he has always kept the necessary distance, aided by his refined sense of humor, making it apparent that he is interested in the work and does not wish any undue attention directed towards his person.” In short, he’s an eccentric hermit.

Interestingly, the first piece on the first album of his chamber music, Erkejubel, shows him much more strongly influenced by jazz than by rock music. Hvoslef uses a repetitive rhythm to propel the piece, but although his harmony is also a bit static he does not repeat the same melodic cells over and over again as the minimalists do. Rather, there is a continual shift and change, moving from staccato eighth notes to a B theme in half notes, moving back and forth between them for the development section. A strange passage around the three-minute mark is played by muted trumpets, followed by what sounds like bongo drums and open trumpets, while an electric piano plays a repeated single-note motif against this. Sustained organ notes come and go throughout the piece as well. Duo due, which follows, begins with a dramatic, double-time string figure, after which a cello drone is set up against edgy figures in the upper strings. Again there is an insistent rhythm, but here it’s different from Erkejubel. slower and less jazzy in scope. The liner notes describe his style as “the accumulation of latent energy, rhythmical ingenuity and, often, an element of humor.” I would go so far as to say that varied but insistent rhythmic patterns lie at the heart of everything Hvoslef writes, just as they did with Beethoven. The only real difference is that Beethoven was able to overlay his rhythmic devices with extraordinarily long and complex melodic lines and development, whereas Hvoslef is far more economical in his gestures. In Duo due, for instance, he is content to explore a narrow path of development in the violin figures, with each phrase and gesture tied to the rhythm. Beethoven always kept his rhythm going but allowed the top line far more freedom and latitude in its explorations. In other words, Beethoven used his rhythmic energy to propel the music into complex realms whereas Hvosloef ties the music to his rhythms. What keeps one’s interest up are the remarkable variations he makes in his rhythm and the unexpected directions they take.

The Frammenti di Roma, written for winds, begins much more lyrically than the previous two pieces, but by the second segment or fragment he is up to his old rhythmic tricks, overlaying the oboe and clarinet on the bassoon in opposing rhythms which continues even into the slow segment, No. 3. In Fragment No. 5, Hvoslef can no longer contain himself and returns to staccato rhythms played against one another for a whole 58 seconds, followed by a more lyrical and jazzier episode in 40 seconds! It amazes one to hear how varied he can make this technique sound, resistant to repetition or banality, even as he shifts gears in tempo and phrasing.

In Scheherazade forteller videre, Hvoslof has fun sending up Rimsky-Korsakov’s sappy music from over a century ago, deconstructing it and replacing its goopy Romantic tune with edgy rhythmic cells, played only by a violinist and a harpist. The former almost sounds as if they’re playing Hungarian gypsy music, and Hvoslef is able to maintain this musical balancing act for more than 17 minutes. Here, his music does not become more rhythmically complex but, rather, exponentially simpler, eventually reducing it to basic notes that somehow keep returning to Rimsky’s mundane Scheherazade theme. Eventually the violinist explodes into quadruple-time figures, sounding a bit like a country music fiddler, while the harpist ruminates around the edges.

Canis Lagopus begins with what sounds like a snare drum beat in strict military time, but turns out to be someone tapping their bow to their cello. The viola explodes in a sudden outburst of sound as the cello goes to bowing his instrument and woodblocks suddenly appear in the background. Exploding snare and tom-toms are payed against insinuously rising string glissandi, then string tremolos, followed by edgy bowing in the upper strings and pizzicato in the lower as the percussion comes and goes. This is really crazy stuff! A single plucked violin or viola is heard against sustained cellos and basses, then the snare drum returns in earnest. Eventually the tom-toms take over, creating complex patterns while the strings ruminate around them.

In Vol. 2 Duodo begins, again, with edgy violin figures, different from but related to those of Duo due. Interestingly, here Hvoslef finds a fairly nice, conventional melody for the viola while the violins play choppy figures with the edge of their bows. Hvoslef is able to play around with this idea or set of ideas for nine and a half minutes by shifting the beats, moving them around to different instruments within the ensemble, and both reducing and varying the melodic tune.

The rather brief (1:51) Ludium presents us with flutes playing a lovely melodic sequence (it almost sounds Rimsky-ish, once again) over alto flutes. By contrast, the Flute Octet runs 11 minutes, begins with a dramatic flourish like the opening of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, then playing serrated figures by half the flutes over sustained notes by the other half. Once again Hvoslef toys with our expectations of how the rhythmic shifts will go, moving the stress beats around from measure to measure to suit himself. At around the seven-minute mark, he smooshes the flutes together into a weird tone cluster before separating them and moving on to other and different rhythms. Later on the upper flutes scream in protest to the repetitive rhythm set up by the lower ones, and keep on screaming to the end like the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In Dano tiore, Hvoslef mixes a soprano voice in with the strings, reminding one of the many such pieces that Luciano Berio wrote for Cathy Berberian. Hvoslof plays no favorites towards the singer, however, forcing her to jump around her range like a jack-in-the-box. She thus becomes another instrument in the ensemble, standing out only because she gets the most solo space. It helps a great deal that the soprano soloist, Hilde Haraldsen Sveen, has a clear, pure voice with no wobble, a range of close to three octaves, and impeccable diction. Around the 10:45 mark the singer is performing the rhythmic patterns while the strings become more lyrical, then they switch again, followed by a passage in which both voice and strings are performing rhythmic patterns against the harpsichord.

As someone reared in a family that was mostly Polish, and forced me to be their performing monkey playing polkas on the accordion, I cringe every time I hear the instrument, even in the hands of a jazz master like George Shearing or Art van Damme. Nonetheless, Hvoslof plays no favorites and thus attacks the accordion the same way he attacks strings, winds and voices. It’s almost comical to hear accordions play his music, however, kind of like hearing Hawaiian guitars playing Stravinsky. Or something like that.

And like accordion duos, those independent record producers who supply me with review material know that I have zero tolerance for percussion ensembles. I don’t just dislike them, I really hate listening to them, thus I almost skipped the Quartetto Percussivo entirely. I’m glad I didn’t, because Hvoslof uses the percussion in a wholly unique way, and the “percussion” includes two pianos, so it’s not just four guys banging around on whatever they happen to have at hand. Hvoslof sets up a moto perpetuo between the two keyboards, who play joyous if atonal figures nonstop while the two drummers have a field day accompanying them. Eventually a xylophone enters the picture, playing apposite figures against the pianos, followed by a quirky, galumphing rhythm set up by the remaining percussionist. In a way, this piece almost sounds like Ballet Mécanique Jr., alluding to the classic George Antheil piece of the early 1920s. The pianos quiet down to playing isolated single notes while one of the percussionists wails away at woodblocks. A chime is heard, then choppy, rising thirds on the pianos that come and go. We return to the running piano figures and dramatic percussion, once again channeling Antheil, before the volume is reduced to low piano bass notes with triangle while the other pianist softly plucks notes on their instrument. And that’s just the first eight minutes!

Hvoslof has fun playing with rhythm and texture throughout the remaining 11 minutes of this Quartetto, once again enticing the listener and then undermining his or her expectations. By the 11-minute mark, the percussion is really getting into its highly syncopated figures, sounding almost like Gene Krupa on Sing, Sing, Sing. Then we get really quiet, with undulating soft tympani, equally soft, intermittent piano figures, and triangle. This cat-and-mouse game continues through to the end.

If you have a tolerance for musical adventure, discovering the music of Ketil Hvoslof will be a real joy for you. Highly recommended.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Satoko Fujii & Wadada Leo Smith Weave Their Magic

kamij_4P-2D-B_127-127-6_AI10 [更新済み]

ASPIRATIONS / FUJII: Intent. Floating. Aspiration. Evolution. SMITH-TAMURA-FUJII-MORI: Liberation. TAMURA: Stillness / Wadada Leo Smith, Natsuki Tamura, tpt; Satoko Fujii, pno; Ikue Mori, electronics / Libra Records 204-043

Despite the fact that this is the first time these musicians have worked together as a band, Wadada Leo Smith and Ikue Mori had performed together before and thus had a certain kinship and style to bring to this new project by the Japanese-American pianist. This is music-making on a very high level; one might almost say, too high a level for the majority of jazz lovers to grasp; but it’s exactly the kind of album I love the most, not just because it’s edgy and contemporary but because these musicians are masters and know exactly what they’re doing.

I’ve praised Smith twice earlier on this blog and will do so again, every chance that I get. He is surely the greatest “master of space and time,” as they used to say of Leon Russell, active today. His artistry is marked by his wisdom in choosing exactly the right notes at the right time for maximum effect, yet his musical constructions are so logical and developed so brilliantly that they could almost have been written out by a master composer. Fujii’s pianism is both adventurous and elegant; almost lyrical in contrast to the trumpeters’ pungent upper-range playing. This creates a stylistic contrast which works because all of the musicians involved are thinking ahead in a logical way, which makes everything they contribute a valuable part of the whole.

My only regret was that, since their playing mirrored each other so perfectly, I couldn’t always tell when it was Smith playing and when it was Tamura. Yes, I felt that the more adventurous excursions were by Smith and the more lyrical ones by Tamura, but was that a fair assessment? When in the presence of a genius like Smith, everyone’s game is raised a bit. You either rise to his level or fall by the wayside, and this was not a quartet that was willing to give an inch. Just listen, for instance, to Fujii’s ruminating, rumbling piano towards the end of Liberation, a piece for which all four musicians receive co-composer credits. In addition, Tamura has been described by critic Mark Keresman as having “some of the stark, melancholy lyricism of Miles, the bristling rage of late ’60s Freddie Hubbard and a dollop of the extended techniques of Wadada Leo Smith and Lester Bowie.” Thus we have a meeting of peers and possibly equals.

As a free-form jazz album, of course, an exact musical description of each piece is virtually impossible unless one were to sit and analyze every note and each bar, but there is more tonality here than, say, in the music of Ornette Coleman or late-period George Russell. Yet tonality does not equate to banality because there is a great deal of risk-taking going on here. There’s a particularly lovely moment at about the 7:30 mark in Floating where the two trumpeters complement each other in long-held notes, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in unison and sometimes in clashing tonality. I wondered, however, if their chorus in thirds was thought out ahead of time or not. I can’t really imagine that they would suddenly jump into a passage like that without at least some premeditation.

Satoko_Fujii_photoThe title track begins with an extended piano solo by Fujii, showing her as a pianist of considerable charm as well as depth of feeling and imagination. If I say little about electronics player Mori it is because I don’t like electronic music and so would prefer leaving others to discuss what she does here. I personally find her noises obtrusive, but you are free to enjoy her more than I. There only appears to be one trumpeter on Aspiration. Is it Smith or Tamura? Hard to tell, but the playing is outstanding in any case.

Evolution begins with Mori producing what strikes me as very tight and difficult flatulence on her electronics for nearly two minutes. Happily, when the band enters they are playing a lovely tune in F major, following which Mori takes us into outer space for a while. Eventually Fujii enters on piano, playing light bitonal figures, eventually joined by one of the trumpets playing muted. There is a lot of “space” in this piece, making it sound as if it did indeed evolve, and slowly at that.

On the finale, Stillness, Mori produces some really intriguing if somewhat bubbly sounds that put me in mind of an out-of-kilter Theremin. A trumpet (Smith?) plays soft, plaintive notes in and around this for a while, followed by Fujii noodling softly on the keyboard. The trumpets enter one at a time; by this point in the CD, I think I recognized Tamura first and Smith second. Towards the end, it sounds as if Mori is trashing the recording studio.

All in all, a fascinating session displaying the interplay between Fujii and the two trumpeters. Well worth hearing for that!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Ghost Train Orchestra Rolls Along

front

BOOK OF RHAPSODIES Vol. II / SCOTT: Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs. HERZON-LANG: Hare and the Hounds. FORESYTHE: A Hymn to Darkness: I. Deep Forest; II. Lament for Congo. Garden of Weed. HERZON-ANDRE: Pedigree on a Pomander Walk. WILDER: Walking Home in Spring. A Little Girl Grows Up. Kindergarten Flower Pageant.* The House Detective Registers. M. GOULD: Deserted Ballroom. CHOPIN: Fantasie-Impromptu / Ghost Train Orchestra: Brian Carpenter, tpt/voc/tape loops/toy pno; Dennis Lichtman, cl; Ben Kono, a-sax/fl; Peter Cancura, t-sax/a-sax/cl; Mazz Swift, vln/voc; Evan Price, vln; Emily Bookwalter, vla; Curtis Hasselbring, tbn; *Rob Reich, acc; Ron Caswell, tuba; Avi Bortnick, gtr; Michael Bates, bs; Rob Garcia, dm; Aubrey Johnson, sop; Katie Seiler, mezzo-sop; Tomas Cruz, ten; Brian Carpenter, bar; Joe Chappel, bs; Boston City Singers Cambridge Children’s Chorus / Accurate Records

This is the second CD by the Ghost Train Orchestra to bear the title, Book of Rhapsodies, and is due for release on October 20. The first came out in 2013 and, like this one, focuses on new arrangements of “tone poems and chamber music for orchestra and choir” as played by groups of the 1930s and ‘40s: Reginald Foresythe and his New Music, the Raymond Scott Quintette, the John Kirby Sextet, the Alec Wilder Octette and the Hal Herzon Septet. I am intimately familiar with the music of four of these; only the Hal Herzon Septet has escaped my notice, and since I cannot find a recording or even a reference to a recording online I must assume that this group fell through the cracks of time and never made a return Probably the band’s leader, Brian Carpenter, found some old Herzon 78s, was intrigued, and decided to throw them into the mixture.

What I find ironic about the other groups, however, is that despite their eccentric mixture of jazz with classical style and/or form, they have been mostly derided or ignore through the years. Foresythe was a gay black man from England who came to the United States around 1933 and made a good impression on Earl Hines, who used his Deep Forest as his theme song for years; Louis Armstrong, who also recorded one of his tunes; and Paul Whiteman, who recorded several of them such as The Duke Insists and Serenade to a Wealthy Widow (the latter also “covered” by Fats Waller). A jolly but highly addicted alcoholic, Foresythe stayed in Harlem with Duke Ellington for some time but eventually drifted back to the U.K. where his delicate but sad-sounding tunes eventually fell out of favor. He tried to revive his career after World War II but had little success, eventually dying of alcoholism in the late 1950s. In recent decades, his music was often played by the late Willem Brueker and his Kollektief, but following Breuker’s death went into hibernation again.

Both the Scott Quintette and Kirby Sextet came in for some scathing criticism from Gunther Schuller in his book The Swing Era for being “pretentious” and overly cute, but each of these two groups had an entirely different style. Scott, the brother of society bandleader Mark Warnow, had an active and fertile mechanical mind and thus saw music in terms of rapidly swirling passages with contrasting themes in different tempos and/or keys. In the late 1930s his music was extraordinarily popular among schoolmarms who otherwise wouldn’t have listened to a swing band if you put a gun to their heads. Scott came up with a large number of quirky tunes with equally quirky titles, of which the best known is Powerhouse because it made its way into Warner Brothers cartoons. I’ve always gotten a kick out of Scott’s music because it’s so strange that it makes you laugh, but of course would never consider him a true jazz musician because he allowed no improvised solos in his records despite using some of the best studio jazz musicians of his time. Bassist John Kirby, on the other hand, came up with an idea for a jazz sextet that was voiced like a small orchestra, played fast, fleet arrangements of both popular tunes and a large group of original compositions, and featured the dazzling solos of trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, alto saxist Russell Procope and pianist Billy Kyle. Shavers later went on to play with Tommy Dorsey and then had a fine solo career for about 20 years, Procope spent roughly two decades in the sax section of the Duke Ellington band, and Kyle went on to play with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, but by and large the Kirby Sextet was damaged by the draft (both Shavers and Procope went into the service) and when it re-formed after the war its vogue was over.

The Alec Wilder Octet, on the other hand, gained surprising respect from both musicians and critics (possibly because Mitch Miller played oboe in it), though his music walked a fine line between art and schlock. A decent composer, Wilder wrote some great standards that remain in the repertoire of jazz bands like I’ll Be Around, Trouble is a Man and Who Can I Turn To?, but also wrote some exquisite classically-influenced arrangements for singer Mildred Bailey in the late 1930s (Easy to Love, Darn That Dream, Hold On and All the Things You Are) in addition to the cutely-titled pieces by his Octet (Kindergarten Flower Pageant, The House Detective Registers, Dance Man Buys a Farm, etc.) which are the ones taken seriously by many listeners. I like some of Wilder’s music but find that a few of the Octet pieces go a long way.

For some readers this may be too much information, but I think it important to bring all this up before assessing Carpenter’s work on these same tunes. In Vol. 1 the pieces selected were Foresythe’s Volcanic (Eruption for Orchestra), Kirby’s Charlie’s Prelude, Beethoven Riffs On and Dawn on the Desert, Scott’s At An Arabian House Party, Revolt of the Yes Men, The Happy Farmer and Celebration on the Planet Mars and Wilder’s Dance Man Buys a Farm, It’s Silk Feel It!, Children Met the Train and Her Old Man Was (at Times) Suspicious. Hal Herzon was apparently not yet discovered.

Typical of Carpenter’s approach is his re-imagining of Raymond Scott’s wacky (well, all of his music was wacky!) Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs, compressed into a mere 1:53 and featuring atonal harmonies along with a pungent small-band sound pitting clarinet against tuba. But if you think this is weird, wait ‘til you hear Hal Herzon’s Hare and the Hounds, a scattergunned piece in which little tunes chase each other across the soundscape like Elmer Fudd running after Bugs Bunny. This one will have you laughing, it’s just so funny.

We take a step back from the manic music of Scott and Herzon for Part 1 of Foresythe’s “Hymn to Darkness,” Deep Forest. The Ghost Train band, like Earl Hines’ orchestra, dispenses with the single chorus of lyrics that Foresythe wrote into the original, but here Carpenter throws in the high, soaring, wordless soprano of Aubrey Johnson along with the “Book of Rhapsodies Adult Choir.” An excellent alto sax solo (not sure if it’s by Kono or Cancura) is a highlight. Herzon makes a reappearance with his Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, another Ray Scott-styled piece of cartoon music, again played in wacky-cracks style—except this time, the Adult Choir makes a reappearance singing the alternating theme towards the end.

Alec Wilder makes his first appearance with Walking Home in Spring. Here I felt that the Ghost Train Orchestra modified the original a little too much towards their own orchestration. This is not so much a criticism as a matter of personal taste. I just always felt that the Wilder pieces worked the way they did because they were scored for a wind octet. Rescoring them for trumpet, trombone, tuba, violin, clarinet etc. is very clever, and I did like the clarinet and pizzicato violin passage in the middle very much, but in the end I think it loses some of what made Wilder Wilder, if you know what I mean. Nonetheless, the performance is impeccable, and Mazz Swift’s Ray Nance-like violin solo is definitely a highlight.

By contrast, I really enjoyed Carpenter’s re-imagining of Deserted Ballroom, a Morton Gould piece with which I was previously unfamiliar. One of the reasons his arrangement works is that he maintains the underlying staccato rhythms and gets into the surreal, often crazy-sounding top lines. The Adult Choir also sings briefly on this one, and there’s a great electric guitar solo by Avi Bortnick. (In case you didn’t think electric guitars were around in the 1930s, think again. Even before Charlie Christian hit the Benny Goodman band, Eddie Durham was playing electric guitar with Count Basie back in 1937-38.) I also really liked Carpenter’s way of expanding this tune to fill five and a half minutes without being repetitive or uninteresting. A wild, “outside”-type sax coda ends it.

I liked the arrangement of A Little Girl Grows Up even though it tended towards the old Ray Conniff sound of the 1950s, the wordless-voices-with-orchestra style he pioneered (remember the ‘Swonderful album?) before chucking it in favor of the Ray Conniff Singers in the 1960s. The leader plays an interesting trumpet solo on this one over a repeated clarinet-alto sax riff in the middle, and Hasselbring contributes a nice chorus on trombone towards the end.

Despite the fact that later generations of jazz critics dumped on the John Kirby Sextet, one even calling them “race traitors” because their music wasn’t “black” enough, musicians in their day absolutely adored them. They were thought of with awe and inspired a great many groups, not least of which was Fats Waller and his Rhythm, which adopted a Kirby-like sound for many of its later (1941-42) recordings. Carpenter does a nice job of recalling their brilliant virtuosity by retaining the clarinet-alto sax duos and once in a while throwing in a muted trumpet to make it a trio (Shavers normally played muted with the Sextet). A sidelight: in 1940, shortly before he left New York for California, Jelly Roll Morton happened upon the Kirby Sextet playing on 52nd Street and fell in love with the band, even sitting in for one set. The manager offered him a job as intermission pianist, but Morton was too proud to accept it.

Lyrics are added to Wilder’s Kindergarten Flower Pageant, but alas the children’s choir’s diction is so poor I couldn’t make out a single word of it. Maybe they were singing in Esperanto. I couldn’t tell. This arrangement, by and large, was less successful that A Little Girl Grows Up.

I was particularly interested to hear the “Hymn to Darkness Part 2,” Lament for Congo, because it’s one of the few Foresythe tunes I had never heard. This is played in a sort of funky clarinets-over-tom-toms style, not too dissimilar from Artie Shaw’s Serenade to a Savage, but the rhythm relaxes and the texture shifts considerably in the middle section. Bortnick’s guitar dominates the solo space, although Carpenter gets a few licks in on trumpet. Nice counterpoint in the last chorus, too.

Scott’s The House Detective Registers is played less tongue-in-cheek than usual, with the band reveling in the sort of high-pitched scoring (clarinets and muted trumpet) that Scott himself used. Swift plays a violin solo that almost sounds like something Carroll Hubbard might have swung out on one of the Lee O’Daniel Hillbilly Boys records of the late ‘30s. There’s another vocal on this one, by one of the adults, but the lyrics are again indistinguishable. A nice chorus follows, with the guitar playing a brilliant counterpoint behind the solo clarinet.

This Book of Rhapsodies wraps up with Foresythe’s Garden of Weed, one of his more popular pieces and more controversial titles, recorded at a slow pace by his own band and at a slightly brisker one by Lew Stone’s Monseigneur Band. The Ghost Train orchestra takes it even a shade slower than Foresythe himself, laying into its “coochy” feeling with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Nice clarinet and alto solos spice up the second half of the performance.

If I may make a suggestion for Carpenter’s next album, please rediscover the wonderful wind arrangements of jazz tunes by Paul Laval (later Lavalle) and his Woodwindy Ten from the early-1940s radio program, The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. These are peerless examples of early cool jazz arrangements of older tunes that desperately need revival.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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A Potpourri of Pieces for Orchestra and Large Ensembles

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TOMORROW’S AIR / TANN: Anecdote / Ovidiu Marinescu, cellist; State Philharmonic Orchestra of Târgu Mureş; Ovidiu Balan, conductor / BAKKER: Cantus for String Orchestra.1 PERTTU: To Spring – An Overture.2 JÄRVLEPP: In Memoriam 2 / Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; 1Vit Micka, 2Petr Vronský, conductors / SCHROEDER: Late Harvest / Sarita Uranovsky, Zola Bologovsky, Colleen Brannen, Ethan Wood, Julia Okrusko, violinists; Peter Sulsky, Joanna Cyrus, Emily Rome, violists; Leo Eguchi, Dorothy Braker, cellists; Charles Clements, bassist; Yhasmin Valenzuela, bass clarinetist; Karolina Rojahn, pianist; John Page, conductor / OSTERFIELD: Silver Fantasy / Moravian Philharmonic Wind & Percussion Ensemble; Lindsey Goodman, flautist/piccolo; Petr Vronský, conductor / Navona 6108

This is one of those albums I almost dread reviewing: a potpourri of works by several different composers, all contemporary, of which I only know the music of one of them (Hilary Tann). Fortunately, the overall quality of the music herein was better than I had anticipated.

Tann’s Anecdote, written for solo cello and orchestra, is clearly one of her loveliest and most interesting compositions, using broad but interesting melodic lines in bold strokes against an insistent “knocking” rhythm on woodblocks. The solo cello seems to be more of a commentator on the ongoing musical discourse, playing serrated figures against the lush orchestral backdrop. Our soloist, Marinescu, has a rich, lovely tone and full command of the instrument, playing with considerable feeling once the music “opens up.” Eventually the orchestra, too, plays the same sort of fluttering eighths along with the cellist, the music sounding almost like leaves bobbing on choppy water. Eventually the orchestra waxes dramatic, transforming the eighth-note motif into something quite powerful, underscored by pounding tympani, which leads to a cello cadenza before the final section. This is a great opener to this collection, inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” and the longest piece in this collection at 14:39.

Next up is Dutch composer Hans Bakker’s Cantus for string orchestra. Like Tann, his music is tonal but in his case even more pungent in sound thanks to his constant harmonic shifting, beginning in the minor but then moving into the major. A nice sort of syncopated bounce is set up by the strings, the violins and violas playing a repeated rhythmic motif against the “bouncy” cellos. This eventually relaxes as Bakker develops his simple theme and introduces a contrasting “B” section.

Daniel Perttu, currently an Associate Professor at Westminster College, sets up swirling figures in To Spring – An Overture. This is a more conventionally tonal piece than the first two, and in fact almost has the sound of film score music except for its more interesting use of counterpoint (the cellos playing one theme while the upper strings play another) and richer texture of scoring. The only drawback I felt in this piece was that the harmony stayed pretty much in one place for a bit too long.

Canadian composer Jan Järvlepp follows with In Memoriam, written in memory of his late brother. For a memorial work of evidently strong emotion, it struck me as too tonal and melodic, with little feeling of pain to reflect his loss. Were one to hear this piece without knowing its title or inspiration, one would think it a nicely-penned musical interlude, sort of a modern counterpart to that of Cavalleria Rusticana. In short, it’s not a bad piece but not a particularly great one.

French-American Pierre Schroeder’s Late Harvest is described in the notes as “a lush, emotional work for strings, clarinet, and piano that forms a part of his eleven-movement magnum opus Voyage.” Ironically, I felt more emotion in this music than in the previous piece, despite its tonal structure. Schroeder cleverly works his small body of strings—five violins, three violas, two cellos and a bass—with bass clarinet and piano through a melodic structure that is coherent and interesting. Written in D minor, it has an interesting development section and grabs the listener with its emotional appeal. There is also some well-conceived tonal modulation at the 3:35 mark which, when combined with an increase in dynamics, makes the piece sound quite dramatic. Schroeder has an excellent sense of pacing, which holds the listener’s interest throughout.

We end our brief journey with Silver Fantasy by Paul Osterfield, a moody and somewhat mysterious-sounding work for wind ensemble. I’m so happy to finally hear, in recent years, really creative and interesting music written for winds to offset the banal stuff such groups played with regularity in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Osterfield mixes in some unusual timbral blends, using the tuba, horns and trombones to create a dark texture on the bottom over which the flute and piccolo play. To a certain extent, this sounds a bit like the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony in microcosm, although Osterfield is not copying Mahler in style. Suddenly, around 4:45, the music doubles in tempo and becomes quite angst-filled, with spiky harmonies, rolling tympani and occasional tone clusters. Then, surprisungly, the music lightens up a bit in tone as we get a quirky but somewhat jolly piccolo tune played above staccato brass figures. It’s just weird enough that I really like it! After this section, the tempo doubles yet again, riding us out in a whirlwind of sound.

Despite one or two moments where one’s attention drifts, then, this is a surprisingly good collection of contemporary works in contrasting styles and a disc you will return to again and again.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Steve Rouse’s Wonderful Musical Fantasies

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MORPHIC RESONANCE / ROUSE: Violin Sonata No. 2 / Ben Sung, violinist; Jihye Chang-Sung, pianist / Form Fades / Indiana University New Music Ensemble; David Dzubay, conductor / Nevolution / Michael Tunnell, corno di caccia; Meme Tunnell, pianist / Ten Little Things / Matthew Nelson, clarinetist; Greg Byrne, percussionist King Tango / Evelyn Loehrlein, flautist; Sidney King, bassist / Ravello 7973

Steve Rouse, former composer-in-residence and currently Professor of Theory and Composition at the University of Louisville, writes unusual music that does not drift quietly across your mindscape. It is, rather, music that bounces and sings and takes little stabs at the listener, music that challenges and pushes the envelope. So much is evident from his Violin Sonata No. 2, a work that starts as if it’s already in the middle of the movement, the choppy piano rhythms pushing and prodding the violin to virtuosic heights of tension. In his notes, Rouse tells us that he wrote this piece specifically for these performers, who have been professional colleagues of his for several years. In the slow second movement, Rouse essentially plays long-held violin notes against single notes on the piano dropped in here and there—more like a slow summer rain than like the sound of bells which Rouse claims was his inspiration for this movement.

The third movement has a bounce and swagger akin to early jazz or ragtime. Once again the piano seems restricted to single notes and repetitive, choppy chords, while the violin line moves around it like a moth sizing up a night light on your porch. Rouse’s music seldom coalesces into recognizable or graspable shapes; rather, it flits around in strange, angular rhythms and even stranger harmonies that seem neither tonal nor atonal. The rapid last movement is a perfect case in point. The moth-and-flame comparison continues to hold up as the piano plays running single-note lines underneath equally rapid lines, moving in an apposite manner, by the violin. A slow section reduces some of the musical friction but does not stop the flow, which resumes in a more quiet manner as the piece moves into the coda. The violin whispers in its extreme upper range while the piano likewise moves upward, quietly, as the sounds evaporate in the ether.

The five-movement Form Fades is ensemble music in the truest sense of the word. Only a brief spot solo emerges here and there; most of the time, the sextet of flute or piccolo, clarinet or bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion generally play as one. Rouse’s penchant for angular music is even more evident here, and I found it interesting that the percussionist accents the music primarily with woodblocks, snare drum and cymbals, much like a jazz drummer would. Rouse also teases the listener by occasionally ending some of the movements in the middle of a phrase. One waits in vain for the other shoe to drop, but it never does. The energetic syncopated backbeats in “Pulse Frees” also tease the listener by building up expectations of where the music is going and then pulling the rug out. I was particularly intrigued by “Memory Feels,” the third movement, in which light snare drum taps set up a quirky rhythm into which the winds play equally quirky double-time figures that ascend but do not descend. The fourth movement, “Petal Floats,” is less typical of his style, allowing the various solo instruments to play long-held notes that overlap, later having the flute weave in and out of the texture with little arabesque figures. The last movement is a study in heavy rhythms and rhythmic shifts over which the solo instruments play arcing figures, as if trying to ignore the pull of the percussionist.

Rouse describes Nevolution as a piece written “for modern corno da caccia and piano, although is may be performed on any soprano brass instrument in B-flat, including trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn. The natural corno da caccia was a 17th century instrument and early precursor of the French horn. Modern reproductions are sometimes called circular flugelhorn in B-flat, piccolo-horn, or trumpet-horn. Its sound is a haunting mix of horn and flugelhorn.” Rouse also mentions that the piece was composed for the soloist here, Michael Tunnell, who died in 2014. Its three movements are titled “Echo Migration,” “Starquiet” and “Morphic Resonance,” the last of which also gives us the title of this CD. The latter uses “the overtone series, which should be performed to allow the natural out-of-tune-ness of the series to be heard..” Tunnell was clearly a virtuoso on his instrument (his triple-tonguing is superb), which allowed him to play virtually anything that Rouse or another composer could throw at him. Once again, particularly in the opening movement, one notes Rouse’s proclivity to write in staccato figures—you might call it his musical signature—but he varies the technique enough in each piece that it never becomes predictable or wearing on the listener. Moreover, Rouse cleverly varies his rhythmic pulses as well as tempos and musical approach, as in the second movement here which again pits a lyrical top line played by the brass soloist over a repeated rhythmic pattern played by the pianist. The aforementioned “Morphic Resonance” is highlighted by a bass note motif on the keyboard, alternated with downward chromatic spirals, while the brass player meanders about, occasionally playing what sounds like off-center pitches. (Interestingly, early jazz virtuoso cornetist Red Nichols played around with this same technique in his mid-1920s recording, Plenty Off Center.)

Ten Little Things was written for two of Rouse’s university colleagues, clarinetist Matthew Nelson and percussionist Greg Byrne, and focus on different percussion instruments in each of the 10 movements. They are, in order, concert bass drum, chimes (tubular bells), 4 cowbells, vibraphone (mostly bowed), snare drum with wire brushes (yet another technique taken from jazz), tambourine, crotales, 2 conga drums, baritone musical saw (an instrument I didn’t even know existed!) and vibes played with mallets. These pieces almost seem to be a form of experimentation or mindplay for Rouse; with their focus on the percussionist in each piece, the clarinet writing almost seems incidental though it is musically crucial to the layout of each movement. The eeriest music comes in the fourth movement, titled “The Wall,” which features a bowed vibraphone sounding much like a glass harmonica, but Rouse plays with effects in most of these short works. The way Rouse uses the baritone musical saw in the ninth movement, titled “The Cloud,” almost sounds like a baritone theramin, with upward and occasionally downward glisses predominating while the clarinet plays soft, ethereal held tones.

The CD ends King Tango, written for flute and bass. Rouse explains that it is not really a traditional tango rhythm but rather “an abstract impression of the spirit or essence of the tango.” The bassist, Rouse tells us, gives “its flute partner a bold invitation or call to dance,” after which both instruments “take passionate, virtuosic liberties with tradition by stretching, pulling, and floating beyond the bounds of expectations, yet they always return to a subtle essence of the tango.” After suffering through way too many of Astor Piazzola’s pretentious and junky “classical tangos,” Rouse’s take on the form came as a welcome relief. I was particularly delighted by Rouse’s complete deconstruction of the tango form, which, like a polka, can be debilitating to sensitive listeners who choose not to want folk dance rhythms in their classical music. Indeed, were this piece not titled so I’d have a hard time defining it as tango-related. Sidney King, our bass player in this performance, was the dedicatee of the piece. He is former Assistant Principal Bass of the Louisville Orchestra and now Professor of Bass at the University.

All in all, a strange and wonderful album. I felt that the dirft-off-into-space ending of King Tango was an odd choice to end the CD, but all in all it is definitely music worth exploring.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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