Ronnie Cuber Still Groovin’

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RONNIE CUBER LIVE AT MONTMARTRE / CUBER: Tee’s Bag. THIELEMANS: Bluesette. NOBLE: Cherokee. KLENNER: Just Friends. PARKER: Au Privave. SILVER: Silver’s Serenade. LAURITSEN: Jazz Girls. DAVIS: Four / Ronnie Cuber, bar-sax; Kjeld Lauritsen, Hammond org; Krister Jonsson, gtr; Andreas Svendsen, dm / Storyville 1018458 (live: Copenhagen, November 23-25, 2017)

Once in a while, it’s nice to just hear one of the old-timers from the “soul” era kicking up a storm in a program of jazz standards, and that’s pretty much what we have here. Baritone saxist Ronnie Cuber, a veteran of the Slide Hampton, Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman bands, a member of King Curtis’ R&B group back in the day when they were accompanying Aretha Franklin, and a charter member of the Mingus Big Band since its inception in the early 1990s, is still roaring on his instrument in this wonderful live set from last fall.

But not being subtle doesn’t mean that Cuber isn’t good. On the contrary, his grit, drive and continual adventurousness jump out at you in the first track, his self-composed Tee’s Bag, and continue throughout this live set. This isn’t your West Coast, la-de-da soft, ambient jazz. This is your old-time, go-to-the-club-and-get-wired kind of jazz. Cuber and his little band hit you hard and keep on steamrolling.

My sole complaint is that guitarist Krister Jonsson sounds too much like a rock guitarist in Tee’s Bag, but to be truthful, when you’re playing in an R&B style, you tend to lean that way, and his first solo in Bluesette sounds remarkably like late Django Reinhardt (from his electric period). To be honest, I also wasn’t terribly happy about the fade-out in the first tune, either…in a live set? Somehow, I doubt that they actually faded out in performance.

Cuber’s style is informed by both the blues and hard bop, and at age 75 it’s amazing that he still had the energy and drive of his youth. Indeed, the whole set put me in mind of one of those early-‘60s Blue Note albums that Alfred Lion was cranking out at a record pace. The baritone saxist shows off his bop chops in Ray Noble’s Cherokee and Charlie Parker’s Au Privave, playing complex and inventive lines that remind you why he was in such high demand back in the old days. Jonsson is also outstanding on this track, sounding a bit like Charlie Byrd (my favorite jazz guitarist of the 1950s and ‘60s, after Django’s death).

The Cuber quartet’s roaring version of Just Friends has to be the most butt-kicking performance I’ve ever heard in my life, with kudos to Hammond B3 organist Kjeld Lauritsen for his contribution. The afore-mentioned Au Privave moves with energy and muscle, too, turning Bird’s tune into sharply-etched hard bop lines. Lauritsen is absolutely explosive here, reminding me of the great Barbara Dennerlein. Somehow, I get the impression that Cuber would never make a soft or “ambient” jazz CD!

Silver’s Serenade reminds one of the 1996 album he made with the great pianist, titled The Hardbop Grandpop, although, by Horace Silver standards, this is a fairly laid-back ballad. Cuber’s mostly inventive solo includes a brief lick from Ferde Grofé’s “On the Trail” of his Grand Canyon Suite, and if anything, Lauritsen is even more exciting than the leader. The organist’s original Jazz Girls is a slow blues that uses a lick from the Paul McCartney tune Here, There and Everywhere. The solos are quite good if not up to the astronomical standards of the preceding tracks.

The set, and the CD, concludes with a driving version of Miles Davis’ old ‘50s tune, Four. The band is in fine fettle here, again showing off Cuber’s bop skills and his rhythm section’s indefatigable drive and momentum. Lauritsen’s solo drives the beat, but Jonsson is even better and Cuber plays double time for a few bars before drum breaks throw it to the organist, then the guitarist, then back to the saxist who rides out the melody.

The whole album is an adrenaline rush of the highest order. Even when the solos aren’t quite as creative as the ones preceding, the overall effect is that of a runaway freight train bearing down on your Ford Focus. Get that little poopmobile offa the tracks, Jack!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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John Pittman Feels a “Kinship” With His Band

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KINSHIP / PITTMAN: Ties That Bind. For Siobhan. Homio-stasis. Moray Crossing. Reminiscing. Home. TIMBERLAKE-FRATANTUNO-POJON: Where is the Love? WONDER: As / John Pittman, tpt; Shirantha Beddage, bar-sax; Jeff McLeod, pno; Mike Downes, bass; Curtis Nowosad, dm. / Slammin Media SM0001

This is the debut release by Toronto-based jazz trumpeter John Pittman, due out August 24. The publicity blurb for the album contains the usual touchy-feely stuff that is, apparently, de rigueur for jazz records nowadays, i.e. that music is storytelling and that it’s “all about relationships. How characters interact, how they grow or change, and how the audience relates to, responds to or empathizes with those characters is essential.”

But such things are not essential to me, the listener of a recording. What is essential is the music, and in this respect Pittman and his band gave me great pleasure. They swing hard, they’re inventive, they’re not pretentious, touchy-feely or maudlin. The only somewhat weak link in the band, to my ears, was pianist McLeod, whose playing is technically fluent and certainly competent, but not particularly inventive or original. In ensemble, however, he’s fine, helping to drive the band with great tone and touch.

The music itself is pretty straightahead jazz, the first tune (Ties That Bind) being a pretty driving bop piece and the second (For Siobhan) being a sort of funky-blues piece. Pittman’s trumpet solo on this one is logically constructed, built around the melodic line rather than on the changes, as is Mike Downes’ fine bass solo. This is a style of jazz that one seldom hears nowadays, when flying off the handle and going into outer space seem all the rage.

Homio-stasis is, at heart, an old-fashioned swinger, albeit one in which Pittman throws in some odd staccato figures in the breaks. This is clearly one of his most interesting compositions, and once again the solos feed into the tune’s structure, with the leader’s trumpet solo being the most adventurous. Moray Crossing is another interesting composition, overlaying its funky R&B beat with a minimal but well-constructed melodic line. McLeod is very good on this one, along with Pittman.

Kinship starts out as free jazz, but again morphs into a sort of funky groove, this time with staccato piano chords behind it. Where is the Love? is even more complex, using a driving beat that slowly accelerates and sounds at times like a Charles Mingus piece. There’s a similar feel in Reminiscing, which starts with an out-of-tempo piano solo before moving into a ballad melody played by Pittman with the rhythm section softly massaging the background. Ruminative solos ensue, particularly a nice one by Beddage on baritone sax.

The quintet turns Stevie Wonder’s As into an uptempo jazz romp. I think the composer would really like this treatment; so many of his songs have a jazz base at their heart. Pittman’s trumpet solo here is a real gem. With Home, we return to a bluesy groove, this time in  a slow-burning tempo, with the leader playing a smoldering solo with straight cup mute.

This is a fine first outing on record for Pittman; I’m interested to see how he develops as a leader and jazz composer. He has great instincts!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Clipper Erickson’s Russian-Themed Tableau

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TABLEAU – TEMPEST & TANGO / FINKO: Fantasia on a Mediaeval Russian Theme. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3. BRODHEAD: Sonata Notturna (Piano Sonata No. 2). Una Carta de Buenos Aires – Tango Sonatina for Piano. MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition / Clipper Erickson, pno / Navona NV6170

Pianist Clipper Erickson, a pupil of the late John Ogdon and a piano teacher at Westminster Choir College, here presents a program of music by the little-known David Finko and Richard Brodhead in addition to the very well-known piano suite by Mussorgsky. This CD is due for release on July 13.

Finko, a Russian Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1979 for religious and political reasons, writes in a primarily bitonal style, using folk and Jewish music as the basis for his compositions. The Fantasia on a Mediaeval Russian Theme is a sad, dolorous piece, inspired, the notes tell us, “by a grievous poem about the oppression of the Russian people.” Erickson plays it with unaffected simplicity, allowing the music to speak for itself. About four minutes in, Finko begins his development section, using bitonal and atonal harmonies in a very effective pattern before suddenly introducing a quicker bitonal passage that goes on for some time, building in excitement and intensity. As the volume and excitement increase, Finko throws in some swirling triplets, then an almost fugal subject with the two hands playing against each other in opposing rhythms. This is superb music, brilliantly written and extremely interesting.

The first piano sonata, subtitled “Solomon Mikhoels,” also has a folk-like character about it, leaning on Slavic and Yiddish traditions. The first movement is also in a sort of fantasia style, forsaking the stricter formality of a typical sonata, and again the music is emotional and strongly accented with contrasting rhythms. The ensuing movements all seem to be contrasting music for the first movement, again avoiding classic construction and instead focusing on strong rhythmic figures and emotional projection.

The same sort of mood, and use of contrasting themes and rhythms, permeate the second sonata, the first movement of which is an almost violent piece that evolves in jagged pieces. By contrast, the second movement is slow and spacious, with very few notes sprinkled across the keyboard. Finko continues these sort of rhythmic patterns throughout the sonata, and indeed in the brief (nine-minute), one-movement sonata No. 3.

Interestingly, Richard Brodhead’s piano sonata also follows a similar pattern of broken melodic lines, only with more space between the notes than Finko normally uses. I was much more confused by his musical progression, however, which to my ears made little sense. It’s the kind of music a College Professor of Music who doesn’t have to compete in the real world for audiences tends to write. I was similarly unimpressed by his equally abstract and rambling Una Carta de Buenos Aires. He should try to get this piece actually performed in Buenos Aires. I think they’d throw some rotten vegetables at him.

It was thus with a feeling of relief that I greeted the opening Promenade of Mussorgsky’s well-known Pictures at an Exhibition. Erickson plays  it very well with, pardon the pun, clipped phrasing…not normally my taste in this work, but certainly acceptable in a Russian sense. He is particularly gentle with the “Tuileries” section of the work, and likewise takes his time with “Bydlo.” He also imparts a somewhat odd, irregular rhythm to the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells” which I’ve never heard before, but which makes perfect (pictorial) sense. Overall, it’s a very fine interpretation which, despite the heavy competition (Michael Korstick, Yefim Bronfman, Sviatoslav Richter, etc.), is surely one of the better ones available.

A mixed bag, then. Although the first CD, which is all Finko’s music, is well worth hearing in addition to the Pictures.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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West Chester U Wind Ensemble Has “Second Thoughts”

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SECOND THOUGHTS / DANIELPOUR: Toward the Splendid City. BARBER: First Essay for Orchestra (arr. J. Levey). SCHUMAN: New England Triptych. DEL TREDICI: In Wartime / West Chester University Wind Ensemble; Andrew Yovziak, cond / Mark Masters 52989-MCD

The title of this CD refers to the fact that three of these four works were revised for wind band either by the composers themselves or under the direction of the composer (the Samuel Barber Essay). David Del Tredici’s In Wartime is the odd one out, as it was written for the Texas University Wind Band from the start. Richard Danielpour’s Toward the Splendid City, written in 1992 as a tribute to the New York Philharmonic, receives its world premiere recording on this disc.

Danielpour’s work is the most chipper and tonal of the group, but is also marked by unusually complex polyphony. I was surprised and delighted to hear such complexity from him at such an early point in his career. In the liner notes, he claims that, in his view, New York in the 1980s and early ‘90s was similar to Paris in the 1920s, a city at its most vibrant and optimistic—surely a result of the Reagan economic boom and the defeat of the USSR. The various lines and counter-lines in the music keep moving like a kaleidoscope, which holds the listener’s interest, and the moto perpetuo rhythm put me in mind of some of George Antheil’s music. In this revision for winds, Danielpour has done a remarkable job of focusing on instrumental color; indeed, this aspect of the score is another of its glories. I really liked it!

Barber’s First Essay for Orchestra, premiered by Arturo Toscanini and first recorded by Eugene Ormandy, remains one of the composer’s finest works. Joseph Levey’s band transcription, naturally, omits the deep string sound that originally opened the piece, replacing it, surprisingly enough, with clarinets playing in their low or chalumeau register rather than trombones, which I would have expected, as the use of low reeds takes the feeling of heaviness away from the music. Whether due to the scoring, Yovziak’s conducting or the recorded sound, however, the strong dynamic contrasts in the original piece, which are what drew me to it in the first place, are “smoothed out” here. It comes across as a much more pleasant piece whereas the original was very emotionally powerful (both under Toscanini and Ormandy, be it noted). I also found Yovziak’s tempi too fast, which also contributes to the performance’s glibness. Perhaps, with a conductor more sensitized to the work’s underlying drama (it was written in 1937-38, when Europe was on the brink of a World War), this arrangement would come off better.

William Schuman is, in my view, one of the most overlooked and forgotten of all great American composers. This arrangement of his famous New England Triptych is very clever; despite the upbeat mood of the music, it is very well written with several original touches. Once again, Yovziak conducts with a blithe spirit, quick tempi and lack of drama, but in this music such an approach is wholly appropriate.

Del Tredici’s two-movement suite In Wartime was composed in 2003 as a reaction to President George W. Bush’s pointless, money-wasting war with Iraq, surely one of the low points in American history. Seldom has so much money and manpower been wasted on so little of a result, and ironically this war had broad bipartisan Congressional approval. The opening Hymn is quixotic and somewhat ironic in nature, bringing out Del Tredici’s frustrations with the war’s supporters. He uses the old hymn Abide With Me as a basis, around which some pretty wild and crazy contrapuntal figures fly. The second movement, Wartime: Battlemarch continues the same mood, but becomes more aggressive, with strongly contrasting rhythms working against the initial theme, eventually transforming it into something both martial and ironic. In this work, Yovziak gives a very emotional interpretation indeed. Swirling clarinets, flutes and piccolos add to the melee as it nears its climax. This, too, is an excellent piece, superbly played.

Kind of a mixed bag, then. Good music throughout, with outstanding performances of the first and last pieces, but the Barber greatly disappointed me.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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John Wilson Conducts Richard Rodney Bennett

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BENNETT: Concerto for Stan Getz. Symphony No. 2. Serenade for Small Orchestra. Partita / Howard McGill, t-sax; Gordon Rigby, timp; Scott Dickinson, vla; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA 5212

In my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, I made particular mention of Richard Rodney Bennett’s superb Concerto for Stan Getz, yet had some reservations about the performance I chose as an example because the soloist, John Harle, made no attempt to sound like its dedicatee. This is a perfect example of what I claim is the Achilles’ heel in the “historically-informed” movement in the classical music world. If you can’t sound like the artists for whom a work was written, and particularly those who premiered it (Getz, sadly, died before he got the chance to play the concerto), then how can you claim that your ahistorical fiddling around with orchestral sonorities and playing with straight tone are what the composer heard or wanted? Answer: You can’t.

Happily, Howard McGill, the soloist on this recording, does a credible job of trying to sound like Getz, particularly in the second movement where he emulates his model’s warm, breathy tone. But that’s only to be expected since McGill studied both jazz and studio music at the Guildhall School of Music, and in fact won the BBC Don Lusher Prize at age 21 as the best up-and-coming jazz musician in Great Britain. I would call his interpretation here definitive, and a model for many young saxists to emulate. As for the music, it is a happy fusion of jazz and classical, including improvised sections, and may be the pinnacle of Bennett’s writing in a “third stream” style. The afore-mentioned second movement is the most song-like, or one may say the most approachable environment for a jazz artist to work in, particularly Getz himself who did some of his best work in slow tempi, but the first and third movements are densely written and by no means “cheap” or “easy” for the symphony orchestra to play. The odd staccato rhythms that open the third movement may seem antithetical to the Getz aesthetic, but the music quickly changes and opens up, allowing the soloist to play in a much jazzier manner. I can’t say enough about McGill’s performance here; he is in a league of his own, as far as I’m concerned, and unless an American saxist with similar sensibilities comes along to tackle the work, he is surely the best interpreter of it at this moment. Kudos! Wilson’s conducting is also wonderful, similar to that of the excellent Barry Wordsworth in the premiere (I had no qualms at all about his contribution).

Shifting gears, we next hear the early (1967) second symphony. This is a much more modern-classical sort of piece, using piquant harmonies and spiky melodic lines. It almost sounds like a different composer, much more in the line of today’s music. In between the jagged brass figures, however, there is some real musical invention going on to offset the “shock” value. As Bennett himself said, although his music at this time was grounded in serialism, “I am very anxious that people should not be conscious of it…in fact, the more I use serial technique, the less I am inhibited about making sounds which relate directly to tonality.”

This is evident in the symphony’s interlinked four movements, and as one listens one is constantly drawn to Bennett’s tonal palette and its almost magical interweaving of themes. It is even more clear in the wonderful Serenade which, though lighter fare than the symphony, is by no means banal or geared towards low musical tastes. Bennett’s score is delicately crafted but full of rhythmic and textural surprises, with wonderful melodic snippets that he weaves together.

The Partita, too, is light music, but in this case a bit more for popular tastes. This doesn’t mean it’s not well constructed, only that it is less engaging for the sophisticated music listener.

If the music on this CD seems to be a succession of diminishing quality—the Partita is, really, the kind of stuff one hears all too often on classical radio stations, and quickly turns off—make no mistake: the concerto and the symphony are first-class works which you really need to hear, and the Serenade isn’t bad at all. But this is what happens when one decides to record a certain composer’s music complete and that composer worked in different venues for widely varying audiences. At least half the disc is valuable and interesting, thus I can give it a qualified recommendation.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Ismailova Plays Karayev

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KARAYEV: 24 Preludes. 6 Kinderstücke. The Statue in Tsarskoye Selo. Don Quixote (excerpts) / Elnara Ismailova, pno / Avi Music 8553398

This CD presents the piano works of Azerbaijanian composer Kara Karayev (1918-1982), who combined lyrical melodies with modern harmonies. The program here presents his complete series of 24 Preludes, spread over four books, his Children’s Pieces and a few other works.

The Preludes may be thought by some as modern-day tributes to the same style of music created by J.S. Bach, but his stylistic variety is far greater, and Ismailova, who has an energetic approach to playing as well as a fine technique, rips into them enthusiastically. Karayev’s “singing” quality is also on display here, i.e. the second prelude of Book 1, which sounds a great deal like something Prokofiev would have written.

In the fifth prelude, one hears the kind of traditional Azerbaijan harmonies of the country’s folk music, deftly woven into the musical texture. All of this is attractive music that would not unduly upset the sensibilities of the “average” concertgoer, yet still has great interest for the connoisseur. This is especially evident in the minor-key, modal prelude No. 8, where Karayev uses a sinister running bass pattern in dotted quarters and eighths against a strangely sinister top line. The tenth prelude has another running bass line, this time in continual eighths, at a faster tempo while the right hand sometimes joins it and sometimes plays against it. And prelude No. 23 has a decidedly jazzy feel to it.

Indeed, the sheer variety of Karayev’s preludes will delight and astonish you. There’s never a dull moment in his music, and much of this, as I’ve said, is due to the marvelous playing of Ismailova. Indeed, Karayev’s Children’s Pieces are certainly not for kids to play, but the rhythmic energy of them are engaging—at least, for a child who has some appreciation of finer music. The Statue in Tsarskoye Selo is a pianistic fantasia even more than a tone poem, although it bears some resemblance to the kind of descriptive pieces that Debussy wrote—with an Eastern European accent. At one point, he even steals a quote from Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune!

The excerpts from Karayev’s Don Quixote are slow, sad pieces, reflecting the character’s isolation from society, rather than portraying his eccentric madness—except for the last of them, titled “Travels.”

This is interesting, diverse music, and I especially commend this disc to those modern composers who fall into a stylistic rut, where everything they write sounds alike, as an indication of how much can be done with music if you just think outside the box.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Banse’s “Das Marienleben” Deep, Penetrating

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HINDEMITH: Das Marienleben (original 1923 version) / Juliane Banse, sop; Martin Helmchen, pno / Alpha 398

Having given a glowing review to Rachel Harnisch’s recording of the 1948 revised version of Hindemith’s ever-popular song cycle Das Marienleben, I was curious to hear how Juliane Banse, one of my favorite sopranos, would handle the original 1923 version.

What I heard was a complete surprise. Banse, who I’ve long admired for her vocal control and musical phrasing, sings here with the kind of depth in interpretation I haven’t heard from her before; in fact, I would put this performance on a par with the kind of interpretations one heard from such great lieder singers as Elena Gerhardt, Christa Ludwig and Marjana Lipovšek.

If one notes that the three singers I mentioned above were all mezzo-sopranos, this was yet another shock for me. Banse’s voice has become deeper and richer with time; she vacillates between soprano and mezzo singing throughout this cycle, and prior to hearing it I would never have suspected that she had this quality in her voice. Moreover, her accompanist, Martin Helmchen, has a more fluid approach to the music, imbuing a legato flow to the music that Harnisch’s accompanist sometimes missed. The combination of their approach gives the music a deeper, more reflective quality, tying the music closer to the songs of Brahms than one might otherwise expect. Following the text, one notes that every word and phrase is given a deeply-felt, poetic reading. In a song such as “Die Darstellung Maria im Tempel”—a much longer version here than in the 1948 revision—Banse is downright dramatic, opening up her voice with surprising power, and in “Maria Verkündigung” she sings with breathless anticipation.

As one continues through the cycle, one is continually amazed at Banse’s ability to shift emotions and, with them, her shading and coloring of her voice. This is almost a master class in lieder singing; every note and phrase means something, and is different from every other note and phrase. In their capable hands, the music comes alive in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible prior to hearing this performance. She reaches the depths of feeling in “Vor der Passion” and “Pietà,” as well she should. In the latter, Banse’s very first note is attacked ppp, then slowly opens up like a bud into a flower via a slow crescendo. This is astonishing singing, and it is more than just showing off her technique. It is meaningful singing, rather impressive considering that the text is based on a fantasy image of the life of Mary, the mother of Christ.

This is clearly the benchmark performance of this song cycle; I can’t imagine that it has many competitors as strong in both vocal management and interpretation.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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