Thursday, May 31, 2012

Albert Schweitzer – Bach Organ Music

Writing or speaking about Johann Sebastian Bach is never just a particular problem of identifying the ideas and meanings in work of one individual baroque composer, even considering he was the genius one. Understanding he was someone who is far beyond the other, we have to place his music and whole figure in many socio-cultural, religious and musical contexts. This is always a controversial question why Bach’s ideas take the center position in most important areas of music determining almost every dilemma of various styles after him. A great part of Bach’s music is his output for organ. The quantity and qualities of these works makes it possible to be regarded as a reference for many other compositions.
Bach was primarily an organist, trained in traditional way as a versatile musician, a virtuoso performer, efficient composer aware of the rules and consciously shaping his own style, organ master maintaining instrument and choirmaster training voices and teaching music. The core competencies of organist and cantor included the awareness of theological knowledge allowing interpreting the biblical text and prayers. The rich repertoire of hymns, familiar to every believer, was a source of themes used in numerous choral preludes and fantasies. Thus almost every work he composed for organ, was more or less embedded in religious context. And there were no mistake the best Bach’s interpreter was Albert Schweitzer, organist combining high skills in musicology with philosophical knowledge and theological competences.

Albert Schweitzer – Bach Organ Music (1955)

In Albert Schweitzer’s intellectual biography Bach meant far more than any other composer and Schweitzer is the one who probably did for Bach’s heritage more than any other author. He was raised in village of Gunsbach in Alsace, where his father was protestant pastor. The church in Gunsbach was shared in compromise by Protestant and Catholic communities since the thirty years war. And in this atmosphere of religious tolerance and a kind of Christian unity father teach him organ music, basics of religion and humanism. In 1899 he played for Charles-Marie Widor in Paris, who was impressed with his mature interpretations of Bach’s works and encouraged him to write his magnum opus J. S. Bach. Le Musicien-Poète (Leipzig 1905). For German edition he prepared an expanded version with shorter title and in two volumes J. S. Bach (Leipzig 1908). As in was said in preface by C. M. Widor, Schweitzer’s way of understanding Bach can help understand music as a whole. This recommendation has nothing to with courtesy compliment and soon the book became the basic interpretation for Bach studies in 20th century.
Albert Schweitzer recorded only organ works. For Columbia and Phillips labels he recorded Johann Sebastian Bach and César Franck’s music. In thirties he recorded in London on organs of old Queen's Hall and in the church All Hallows-by-the-Tower and then on Johann Andreas Silbermann organ in the church Ste Aurélie in Strasbourg. Late recordings were made on the instrument he was learning as a child in Gunsbach parish church. In mid-fifties Columbia Masterworks label published series of Schweitzer’s performances in boxed set and as separate volumes. Volume V includes four works: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Dorian) BWV 538, Prelude and Fugue in A Major BWV 536, Prelude and Fugue in F Minor BWV 534 and Prelude and Fugue in B Minor BWV 544. Once again great philosopher shows there is no such thing as area of pure instrumental Bach’s music. Timing is perfectly concordant with the style. And style came from protestant songs. This music is vocal as it always was. Cover art is interesting piece of art. It was designed by Ben Shahn (1898-1969), painter born in Kaunas Lithuania and educated in New York University, who was highly valued artist in USA, widely known for his social realism as well as left-wing political views. His graphic printed on covers of Schweitzer’s recordings series shows organist as a mighty person with angel wings, playing organ and glancing at the sky. It’s perfectly aphoristic frame for Albert Schweitzer’s intellectual and artistic approach.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Zbigniew Seifert – Kilimanjaro

After many years of marginalizing sound of violin in jazz and more popular genres because of its softness and subtlety, production of electric violin made possible to play the violin louder and with as much expression as anybody wants.  Jazz scene of seventies was animated by the presence of many new sounds and one of the apparently active was the sound of violin. In few moments it looked like real violin boom, but in fact it was rather back to normal and numbers of violin players were not even close to quantity of guitarists. The group of jazz violinists in seventies was expansive but loose. Some, like Jean-Luc Ponty or Michał Urbaniak achieved great succeses and played for more than one decade, the others left fewer recordings and disappeared. One of them was Polish violinist Zbigniew Seifert.
He was born in Cracow one year after the war, June 7th 1946 and in his hometown learned to play violin and jazz in Musical High School and then in Cracow Academy of Music. Until he graduate as violinist, he payed on violin exclusively classical music. In sixties it was widely believed that playing jazz distorts sense of musical aesthetics in classical genres. This years he was playing jazz only on alto saxophone with his own quartet he founded in 1964. With this jazz quartet and took part in some European festivals wining first prizes. The second step of his career was playing with Tomasz Stańko Quartet and Quintet – those times probably most eminent group in Polish jazz well known widely in Europe – first as saxophonist and in seventies as violin player.

Zbigniew Seifert – Kilimanjaro (1979)

As a violin jazz virtuoso Zbigniew Seifert became welcomed guest on main jazz festivals. After 1973 artist moved to Germany and focused on expanding his solo career. He played with Hans Koller’s Free Sound and with many others as a freelance, including Phillip Catherine, Wolfgang Dauner, Volker Kriegel, Joachim Kuhn, Albert Mangelsdorff and Charlie Mariano. In 1976 MPS Records released first Seifert’s album Man of the Light. The same year he played with John Lewis in Monterey Jazz Festival and next year he recorded album Violin with Oregon for Vanguard label. Capitol Records published his American albums, in 1977 Zbigniew Seifert and in 1979 Passion. When Zbigniew Seifert died February 15th 1979 in Buffalo hospital during the operation to remove a tumor of the forearm, he was barely 32 years old. Last three years when he was fighting the cancer disease, were the most fruitful period in his life. Altough he didn’t fulfill his ideas he was acclaimed as the great master of jazz violin and one of most creative artists of his generation.
Three months before his last operation, Zbiggy visit Cracow and with group of friends on November 14th, 1978 gave public concert in student’s club “Pod Jaszczurami”. The event was recorded by Polish Radio Cracow. The material from radio archives has been published next year became quiute a sensation. Two separate volumes published by PSJ (Polish Jazz Society) own label (PSJ-101 and PSJ-102) consist of one evening live recordings and an interview with Zbigniew Seifert. These records can be seen as priceless documentation of last period in artist’s life. But these two LPs are something more than sound document, carrying a lot of beautiful, fresh jazz music. With Zbigniew Seifert plays modern guitarist Jarosław Śmietana, probably the best fusion keyboardist in Poland Janusz Grzywacz, double bass player Zbigiew Wegehaupt and drummer Mieczysław Górka. They play compositions by Seifert (Coral, Kilimanjaro) and Coltrane (Impressions) whom Seifert considered as his master. The postbop sound of the group is typical for seventies. Strong, driving section, modern, sometimes modal solos and powerful expression decide it is valuable addition to any jazz collection, especially for those who prize Zbigniew Seifert’s music.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Elek Bacsik – Bird & Dizzy

Violin was never typical jazz instrument. It was present in every style of jazz music, but in most cases rather as a margin than mainstream. This was despite the fact that the violin is an instrument for the full possibilities of improvisation. The typical spectrum of jazz instruments and bands sound has been created at a time when jazz was dance music and the subtle, soft sound of the violin did not always corresponded to the expected level of expression of jazz instruments. In early jazz most famous were Snoozer Quinn guitarist and violinist known of being member of Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Joe Venuti known for his prolific recordings of his New York period in twentieth and thirties. In pre-war Paris played Eddie South and Stephane Grappelli streaming European jazz in alternate direction. This time in USA started Stuff Smith, the first violinist who amplified his instrument and first who played violin in the way opposite to classical style. He was known in swing era, but became very active in bop style. And this was the moment for violin to become more and more jazzy.
Elek Bacsik was born 1926 in Budapest family of Romani ethnicity. He started to play violin and studied in Budapest Conservatory. Later he made some musical journeys to Lebanon, Portugal, Spain and Italy. He was known as a cousin of Django Reinhardt, but trifling this relation saying “We Gypsies are all related”. In Switzerland he heard records of bee-bop and this changed his point of view. Interviewed by Leonard Feather he said: “I was fascinated by this music. I bought the whole series – everything I could find by Dizzy and Bird. Finally, in Italy in 1954, I got to meet Dizzy”. He just switched to guitar and begun to play jazz. He was recording as sideman with Dizzy Gillespie on first two of his Phillips albums – Dizzy on the French Riviera (1962) and New Wave (1963), with Serge Gainsbourg – Gainsbourg Confidentiel (1963) and some other French artists. In early sixties he recorded his own four records as guitarist for Phillips and Fontana labels.

Elek Bacsik – Bird & Dizzy – A Musical Tribute (1975)

In 1966 Elek Bacsik went to USA and since 1967 he lived in Las Vegas playing in casinos like Riviera, Hilton, Sahara and many other but he was unable to express himself, willing to play in jazz clubs and festivals. In 1974, playing violin and violectra, he recorded his first American album I Love You for Bob Thiele label. The same year Elek Bacsik played with Dizzy Gillespie in Newport Jazz Festival. And in 1975 Flying Dutchman label published his last album Bird & Dizzy – A Musical Tribute. This record is worth to keep in memory. The level of professional merit can be noticed since the very first bars of this album. Charlie Parker’s Ko-Ko theme and original Parker’s solo transcribed by Bacsik was recorded one layer after another first violin and then octave lower on violectra. The results are astonishing. The sound is thick, intense and expressive but still soft and warm. This warm violin gives the power for beautiful solo in Parker’s Mood. The Night in Tunisia Bacsik introduces playing in Arabic scale, then theme plays trumpetist Oscar Brashear and then Med Flory on alto sax, Mike Wofford on piano and Elek Bacsik on electric violin play solos.
Theme Moose the Mooche is played by Elek Bacsik in unison with Oscar Brashear and Warne Marsh who are are improvising. Warne Marsh is especially worth paying attention. He was a great improviser and one of pillars in Supersax group, though his solos can be heard on very rare recordings. Album consists of great job made by two bass players Chuck Domanico and Buddy Clark and drummer Shelly Mane. Whole material was arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson, jet another great musician. This tribute record was intended also as a kind of comeback to mainstream of jazz scene. Kind-hearted back cover essay by Leonard Feather and whole edition produced by Bob Thiele occurred miscalculation. Record went virtually unnoticed what was artist's personal failure. He died 18 years later, leaving no more recordings. Time has changed the market and only well established names has their places in public mind. And once more artistic quality has nothing to do with the market.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

J. S. Bach – Cantatas BWV 4 & 134 – Hans-Joachim Rotzsch

Construction of the Cantata is exceptional in details and in formal idea. Bach has retained strophic form of Luther’s choral. He set the seven choral verses as seven parts of cantata, and the whole cycle is preceded by Sinfonia – short, 16 bars orchestral introduction. Consecutive verses has been set as the cycle of variations on main theme. Bach and giving every versus its own form and character corresponding with the text. At the end of every versus Bach placed Halleluyah passage according to Luther’s chant. Composing this cantata Johann Sebastian Bach used variational form basing on theme of Martin Luter’s chorale for Easter. 
The melody has in fact much longer history. In oldest known version it is wide recognized sequenze for Easter Sunday Catholic liturgy Victimae paschali laudes and is mostly attributed to monk, poet and composer Wipo of Burgundy, but sometimes also to other authors, Notker Balbulus, Adam of St. Victor and even king of France, Robert II. Martin Luter modifying this popular melody wrote his own choral  in seven verses. This chant was adopted by Johann Walter ans in 1524 published in Wittembergish Geistlich Gesangbuch. Many Reformations composers wrote artistic versions of this Easter choral. Best known are cantatas by Johann Herman Schein, Andreas Hammerschmidt, Johann Pachelbel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Choral preludes to Christ lag in Todesbanden were almost mandatory.

J. S. Bach – Cantates BWV 4 & 134 – Hans Joachim Rotzsch

Among many Bach’s cantata recordings these personally connected to the places and memorabilia of Johann Sebastian Bach look more reliably. The 1981 recording was made by East Germany label Eterna Edition in cooperation with Ariola Eurodisc and is straingtforwardly linked with great history of music. Cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden was most probably composed in 1707 and later in Leipzig Bach copied voices for performance in Leipzig in 1724. This performance was repeated in 1725. On opposite side of the album publisher placed Cantate for third day of Easter Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiß BWV 134. This cantata was written for Thomanerchor and performed in Leipzig in 1924.
Recorded in Studio-Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche in 1981 performance was based on musicians form Lepizig, Neues Bachisches Collegium musicum zu Leipzig (selected musicians of famous Gewandhausorchester) and Thomanerchor Leipzig. This performance was conducted by Hans-Joachim Rotzsch, in 1972-1991 fifteenth chormaster on the post of Thomaskantor after Johann Sebastian Bach. In performance of Cantata Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiß BWV 134 participated vocalists Ortrun Wenkel – alto and Peter Schreier – tenor, these times best voices of the country, though not from Leipzig.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

J. S. Bach – Motett BWV 227 & Cantate BWV 4 – Robert Shaw

In the collection of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach there is quite a challenge to find weaker or just poor works. Of course it’s possible to find some which are not as good as the best ones. It is even not possible to determine what was the real number of cantatas Bach composed. In Wolfgang Schmieder’s catalogue (Bach Werke Verzeichnis - BWV) first 200 numbers are sacred cantatas, numbers 201-216 are secular cantatas and 217-224 are cantatas of doubtful authorship. Religious compositions are quantitative and qualitative dominant of this set. Among many church cantatas only ten are following the texts of church hymns without changes. One of them is Cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4, based on short instrumental introduction and seven verses following original hymn by Martin Luther. It is also a unique work for it is perfectly implementing some ideas of musical semantics in young composers work.
The assignment of Cantata No 4 was the Easter Sunday and considering its style it was composed in period 1707-1713. It is also possible Bach composed this cantata as a part of his application for the post of organist in Mühlhausen. In this case the year would be 1707 and this could explain the reasons for radical aspirations, ambitious artistic assumptions, as well as following framework of some previous compositions, particularly Pachelbel’s cantata based on the same chant. Luther’s choral based on melody of mediaeval sequence Victimae paschali laudes became one of most popular chants in protestant church long before Johnn Sebastian Bach was born. Moving around the circle of German barock church and organ composers it’s realy hard to find the one who didn’t set up or at least cite Christ lag in Todes Banden choral melody. It is present rarely in vocal music, more likely in organ music and instrumental compositions, for examples in choral preludes.

Robert Shaw - Bach's Cantate BWV 4 and Motette No. 3 (1958)

What is specially meaningful, all instrumental citations or musical setups were always associated directly to the words of Luther’s religious poetry. This fact is widely known and understood in Germany and in Lutherans communities anywhere. This gives Cantata BWV 4 special position. Outstanding composers work and perfectly known choral give this music special attention. This resulted with dozens of great recordings. The oldest one is in arrangement by Francesco Pujol was recorded in Catalan in March 20 & 22, 1931 in Barcelona Palau de la Musica Catalana. Then in 1937 in Paris and in 1938 in Boston two recordings of this cantata made Nadia Boulanger. First recording after the war has been done in 1946 by Robert Shaw with RCA Victor Chorale and Orchestra. Published 3 years later started whole series of performances in fifties.
In 1958 Robert Shaw repeated recording sessions aiming the edition of better technical conditions. He conducted Robert-Shaw-Chor and RCA-Victor-Orchestra. This recordings were published one year later in RCA Red Seal series (LM-2273) and Living Stereo series (LSC-2273). Programm of this album featured two works by Johann Sebastian Bach: Motette No. 3 Jesu, meine Freunde BWV 227 and Cantate Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4. Some editions list countertenor Russell Oberlin while others say cantata was performed by choir. On cover and on record label were the names of basso continuo players Hugh Porter – organ, Harvey Shapiro – cello, Alvin Brehm – double bass. This album is very interesting document of past sensibility. And of course the performance is determined by the historical aesthetic criteria. The Robert-Shaw-Chor sounds perfectly, performing this cantata with concentration and tonal precision. Profound emotionalism kept under control gives effect of great powers and then metaphysical tranquility.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Miles Davis – Big Fun


   In sixties Miles Davis with his quintet and with Gil Evans created series of recordings which had the power of defining modern jazz. After 1969, starting with remarkable In a Silent Way, Miles Davis’ electric fusion was the style setting trends in seventies. In this period his artistry flourished with deep quality of pure musical contents. It is characterized by an abundance of excellent recordings, new electrified sound, revised framework for more compositional and improvisational freedom. This qualities can be treated as a continuation of the main trends present in Davis’ music in the sixties. Among the albums from this period, many of which are considered to be brilliant, probably the most underrated is Big Fun, a double LP album, released April 19, 1974. Problem with this album was the moment of publication, over four years after first recordings and diversity of material forming a patchwork of four different pieces recorded during four different sessions in the years 1969, 1970 and 1972. Every piece has length of full record side and takes from 21 to 28 minutes.
   It was three months after album In a Silent Way was released and more than two months after Bitches Brew sessions, when Miles Davis resumed recording sessions continuing his experiments with electric sound and fusion. He started recording along with Steve Grossman (ss), Bennie Maupin (bcl), guitarist John McLaughlin, Khalil Balakrishna playing electric sitar, Bihari Sharima playing tabla and tamboura, pianists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, bassists Ron Carter and Harvey Brooks, drummer Billy Cobham and Airto Moreira on percussion. First session took place in New York Columbia Studio E, November 1st, 1969. Musicians recorded one piece Great Expectations, including Joe Zavinul’s Orange Lady. Almost the same band took part in recording Lonely Fire November 28th, 1969. Changes in line-up were saxophonist Wayne Shorter, double bassist Dave Holland. There was also the second drummer Jack DeJohnette. Lonely Fire was placed as recording closing the Big Fun set with sound and style most close to the opening piece.

Miles Davis – Big Fun (1974)

   Second side composition Ife was recorded during last session June 12th, 1972. The band was almost all new, besides Davis and Maupin all line-up has changed. Soprano players Carlos Garnett and Sonny Fortune (also flute), pianists Lonnie Smith and Harold Williams Jr. (also sitar), bassist Michael Henderson, drummers Al Foster and William Hurt, Mtume (James Foreman) playing African percussion and Badal Roy on table – whole band was almost the same as recorded On the Corner and musical ideas of Ife and other recordings of this period are clearly connected. This was most recent sound of Miles Davis band.
   Although many musicians played on previous albums, the sound of this recording was significantly different. And it was not only the effect of introducing Indian instruments, nor the first use of trumpet mute in electric period. Musicians still presented experimenting approach. The first recordings were done five months before Bitches Brew was in trade. Album In a Silent Way was received very well, but musicians knew nothing about what will be the public reaction for the Bitches Brew album. This situation was for sure in a way uncomfortable but the same way forcing more artistic freedom.
   Since the sixties jazz musicians were abandoning formal rules obtained earlier. Traditional dividing into theme and improvised choruses sections in bop, cool and hard-bop was more and more lousy. In free jazz era this form seemed to be totally obsolete, but Davis didn’t accept this as a new mode. Looking for own way became main narration of albums and concerts in electric era. In 1969 he turned to folk music, connecting sound of Indian and African instruments with muted trumpet (as earlier he used the Harmon mute) and the sound of electric instruments, guitar, organ, pianos and even electric sitar. Most natural way of building musical narration became freely distributed, improvised sections developing over hypnotic rhythm and bass line figures. This gave his music the epic effect of breaking rules and touching the core of human condition.

   Most complex and longest composition on this album is Go Ahead John. Recording March 3rd, 1970 group was smaller than typical Miles Davis’ personnel. This time trumpet’s companion was only Steve Grossman on soprano sax, John McLaughlin on guitar, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. And guitar was only harmonic instrument used. The title evokes guitarist John McLaughlin whose solos plays featured role in introducing and closing parts of the piece. The dominant of the whole construction are still two episodes of Miles Davis trumpet solos. While in Great Expectations Davis played with distorted sound giving him almost rock guitar expression, this time without mute his trumpet sounds mild and silky. The sharper sound of McLaughlin’s guitar paradoxically reinforcing lyricism and abstract calm of blues played as central episode by Davis and Holland. In this part Davis’ trumpet was overdubbed with repetitions duplicating phrases and giving this music spatial and mysterious outfit. Sound space was extremely significant. Even some drums parts were divided in fast cuts into two channels like there were two complementary drummers. In coda comes back initial funky guitar with Grossman’s soprano solo. Whole work credited as Miles Davis’ composition was executed in series of studio treatments by Teo Macero – yet another example of excellent cooperation between Davis and great Columbia producer.
   Considering the diversity, richness and permanent underrating, definitively 5 stars.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Best of Manhattan Transfer

Manhattan Transfer was passenger transfer station situated in Harrison, New Jersey on the main line of Pennsylvania Railroad, 8.8 miles west of New York Penn Station. It served 1911 to 1937 for changing steam to electric locomotives used in tunnel under Hudson River. There were also two car-floor-level platforms for passengers changing to intercity trains. This station was not opened for local access, it served only for changing and transfer purposes. The name Manhattan Transfer was popular and used in various contexts. Strong position in social memory was occupying as the title of important novel by John Dos Passos. In published in 1925 novel writer captured unique character of the Big City with new writing technics inspired by Joyce, Eliot and Eisenstein. In this novel, made as fabric braided with many different stories connecting and overlapping, Dos Passos was trying to show identity and origins of New Yorkers. And to this understanding of popular station name Tim Hauser alluded calling the newly created group. Vocal quartet called Manhattan Transfer shortly became most obvious designate of its name.
Group started in 1969 and in 1971 recorded debut album with Gene Pistilli – Jukin’ (1971). In this first line-up group was keeping out until 1973. After terminating first quartet Tim Hauser completed new group with Janis Siegel, Laurel Massé and Alan Paul. In this formation Manhattan Transfer recorded 4 albums – The Manhattan Transfer in 1975, Coming Out in 1976, Pastiche and The Manhattan Transfer Live in 1978. Last change in the group took place in 1978 after Laurel Massé get injured in car crash and approving Cheryl Bentyne as replacement. In this line-up group lasts until today.

The Best of Manhattan Transfer (1981)

In second half of seventies decade Manhattan Transfer became famous and what was symptomatic, in first years their recognition in Europe was even bigger than in US. The 1975 and 1976 records were perfectly executed vocal arrangements in balanced fusion of smooth jazz and pop music. The group remained in public memory with renewed 1958 hit by Wayne Shanklin Chanson D’Amour. This was number one hit in many countries. 18 years after it was sung by The Fontane Sisters and Art and Dotty Todd the song perfectly met public needs and expectations, giving Manhattan Transfer immediate world recognition. In fact it was neither their first nor the last hit. What's more, it was not even too much innovative performance and lack of innovations was its strongest point. Tim Hauser’s group just tried to get as close as it’s possible to the sound of the Todd’s old recordings. And that they did it perfectly.
In fall of 1981 Atlantic Records label published first compilation including most successful songs of the group. The program of this album contains thirteen songs taken from five prior albums: 1975 The Manhattan Transfer, 1976 Coming Out, 1978 Pastiche, 1978 The Manhattan Transfer Live, 1979 Extensions and 1981 Mecca for Moderns. Difficulty with selecting the best of Manhattan Transfer’s songs is this, almost every song they recorded can be considered as a hit. During period of 1975 to 1981 they published 12 singles what makes about two times more material than could be put on one LP. It seems that the editors choose our songs rather guided by the ambition to illustrate how rich are their relationship with tradition, even if this tradition was fifteen years old. In this case using old style modes of expression was not just pose or empty gesture. From its very beginning Manhattan Transfer is New York group and their multi-layer stylizations were always serving for displaying their unique identity. And this was the idea clearly displayed by designers of the album. Among many reasons to take this record from the shelf is the cover. Maybe it’s the best cover in whole Manhattan Transfer’s discography. Front illustration by Leslie Cabarga, his original typography, style and graphic ideas say more about this music than best reviews.