Friday, June 29, 2012

Chick Corea & Return To Forever – Light as a Feather

   The Return To Forever was Chick Corea’s main project in seventies. Music he made with this band claimed an international recognition, and as style of the group was crossover, the new public was much wider than prior jazz-only auditorium. In span of few years Return To Forever became one of most successful brands in jazz and in a way in new world music. This was the era of new ideas breaking frontiers of styles and genres. Return To Forever along with Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra were synonymous of the fusion jazz and jazz-rock, opening jazz for listeners of progressive rock, psychedelic rock and even some kinds of artistic pop music.
   Second album by Chick Corea and Return To Forever has been recorded in October and released one month later in November 1972. This time the cover indicated distinctly the name of the band and album title – Light as a Feather. Title of this album was taken from song composed by Stanley Clarke to Flora Purim’s lyrics. All other songs were composed by Chick Corea, two of them with lyrics by Neville Potter. While the first record was released in Europe by the ECM and it was not available at this time in the U.S. Thus Light as a Feather published by Polydor was still entirely new vision of fusion music. For many listeners it was actually the American debut of the band. And as it turned out, it was also the last album Return To Forever recorded with this lineup.

Chick Corea & Return To Forever – Light as a Feather (1972)

   Return To Forever was the band changing constantly. The first lineup of Return To Forever was active for the short period of time only. And according to many it was most succesfull as it had greatest artistic achievements. In fact it was the group of great personalities. Bright star was Flora Purim, born in Rio de Janeiro, singing with perfectly clear voice and instrumental precision. Starting international career with Return To Forever she became quickly number one singer of the seventies. And Light as a Feather was her great gig. In many fragments she sings without words in unison with Chick Corea’s electric piano phrases or with flute themes played by Joe Farrell. 
   The flute played by Joe Farrell was perfect match for electric piano so on first Return To Forever Farrell was switching only to soprano saxophone. Here he played with tenor saxophone and his sound is as warm as light. Stanley Clarke who played double bass with virtuosity and inspiration gave Corea counterbalance – both are great and their lines are completing and spinning together like a twin star – Corea’s distance and serenity met with more profound attitude of Clarke. 
   This group of stars was completed by Airto Moreira – probably the best drummer and percussionist of the fusion era since Miles Davis Bitches Brew, through Weather Report to Return To Forever, his contribution was clear. The trio Corea-Clarke-Moreira was basic personnel in Stan Getz Captain Marvel album, the project of great importance for  Return To Forever musicians. As Flora Purim and Airto Moreira were from Brasilia, this lineup of Return To Forever was sometimes called “Latin”. Maybe on second album it was still hart to notice, but main creative characters were Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. And this two artists were axis of all turns, as well on first edition of the group as in future.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Chick Corea & Return To Forever – Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy

   Third album of Return To Forever recorded in August 1973 was turning point in the history of jazz-rock style in seventies. After first year of creative activity and two records published in 1972, Return to Forever (ECM) and Light as a Feather (Polydor), name of the band, Return To Forever was quite a synonymous of soft melodic lines, warm vocal and even warmer dancing pulsation of Latin rhythms. This was more fusion of jazz and pop than jazz and rock. Second edition of the band was totally different idea of Return To Forever. Only Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke remained from the first Latin-oriented lineup of the band. Two more instrumentalists were guitarist Bill Connors and drummer Lenny White. Different was also pure instrumental sound of this quartet.
   The changes become clear when we consider who was subjected on record covers. First record was signed Chick Corea – Return to Forever, the name of the artist and the title of the album. And that was looking just as it was. Return to Forever was actually the title of first track and the whole album. Later this title became the name of the group. Second album was signed Chick Corea & Return To Forever making clear the band was solid artistic entity. Next three albums (1973-1975) were signed by expression “Return To Forever featuring Chick Corea”. And last two studio albums Romantic Warrior (1976) and Musicmagic (1977), both published under the Columbia label, were signed only with the name of the band.

Return To Forever – Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (1973)

   The title composition Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy opens this record with series of phrases played in unison by Corea on electric piano, Connors on guitar and sometimes with Clarke on bass. Also in next compositions precise unisons of Corea and Connors are frequently the way to point and to amplify most important phrases. Stanley Clarke who was still seeking for an optimal expression, used fuzz box for his bass – his solo in After the Cosmic Rain is historic performance. Solo Connors played in Captain Senor Mouse is firmly connected both with post-Hendrix and post-Coltrane attitude to improvisation. This composition was also Corea’s hit returning on several occasions.
   Chick Corea was showing himself both, as the composer and the great improviser. His improvisation on Theme to the Mothership merges post bop avant-gardism with psychedelic rock. In Space Circus, after Corea’a electric piano introduction, this in fact is his Children Song, funk riffs and Connors soloing and dialoguing with Clarke give listener a chance to understand the structure and background of this music. Bill Connors is playing short, powerful phrases with clear sharp, sometimes slightly distorted sound, controlling emotional tension. This time it’s clear this is the different way of playing, clearly new sound and definitely new music, opening new frontiers. Carefully thought-out solos, well-composed themes, precise arrangements, excellent quality of performances, revolutionary recording engineering, and all the elements contribute to the selection of this CD as a key achievement of fusion jazz. It is also extremely important position in discography of the seventies.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kagan, Lubimov & Mikhailov – Chamber Music of the 20th Century

   When romantic music has divided into professional concert music and more popular forms of musical culture, its place in public attention started to decline. Later, in XX century, when great symphonic works were still able to attract, works of less scale, sometimes experimenting with form and highly complex idiomatic language were seen as devoid of deeper meaning. With few exceptions of course, but these were the exceptions that prove the rule. These records as well as concerts of chamber music of the twentieth century composers are rather rare. This applies especially to these works which has crucial importance in creating new approaches and styles. Finally, there are not too many fans listening to the music of this kind.
   The more interest needs to be paid to any attempt of breaking the monopoly of mainstream art. And projects of this kind are sometimes taking place in various countries and in different ways. Most popular forms of publicizing niche works are festivals and independent artists’ recitals, present both in public performances and in recordings. Many of these are really valuable artistic achievements. One of such interesting and almost forgotten albums is Russian anthology Chamber Music of the 20th Century (Камерная музыка ХХ века) pressed in seventies by Mелодия label. One-record edition comprises works by Charles Ives, Anton Webern, Arnold Schőnberg, Krzysztof Penderecki and Alban Berg so it is only a glance at avant-garde chamber music but also quite rich showcase of three Russian artists.

Ives, Webern, Schőnberg, Penderecki, Berg – Chamber Music (1978)

   The three virtuoso artists, playing in duos and in trio, created imposing bunch of modern classics. This set has been performed by violin virtuoso Oleg Kagan, pianist Alexei Lubimov and clarinetist Lev Mikhailov. Oleg Kagan (Олег Моисеевич Каган) as young artist achieved prominent position in concert and chamber music. He was active in various styles and wide spectrum of repertoire. Died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 44 years but left a collection of great recordings. Chamber Music of the 20th Century is one of his early recording projects. In his renditions one can see a concise history of 20th century avant-garde music – selected works are terse and important achievements, from Largo by Charles Ives (1901), through Vier Stücke op. 7 by Anton Webern (1910) and Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment op. 47 by Arnold Schönberg (1949) to Three Miniatures for Violin and Piano by Krzysztof Penderecki (1959).
   Selection of works reveals characteristics of one of the most important trends of 20th century music. Largo composed by Charles Ives in 1901 has many versions for different sets of instruments. This arrangement for violin and piano shows deep lyricism and simplicity being main idea of modern music. Simplicity of language and laconic form can be traced in this program as a leitmotif, although in Schönberg’s Phantasy level of technical complications makes it a virtuoso composition. Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment op. 47 has been composed in March 1949. Arnold Schőnberg wrote his dedication for “Adolf Koldofsky who pleased me with his performance of my String Trio”. In original version this was composition for solo violin, as Schőnberg called it “for violinist with six fingers”. Later he added the piano accompaniment.
   Whole A-Side program is great recital of Oleg Kagan with precise and balanced participation of Alexei Lubimov (Алексе́й Бори́сович Люби́мов), pianist of great merit and importance in modern Russian music. He is the one who took part in all performances on B-Side which comprises two works by Alban Berg Vier Stücke für Klarinette und Klavier op. 5 and Adagio from Kammerkonzert. Chamber Concerto originally written for piano, violin and 13 wind instruments was finished in 1925, but ten years later, in 1935 composer made arrangement of 2nd movement for trio. Berg’s compositions are the program of Lev Mikhailov (Лев Николаевич Михайлов), clarinetist and saxophonist known as great solo and chamber artist. Last composition is a kind of crown for this set of recordings. The three artists made a perfect team, where every one is virtuoso alone and all of them can find their place in synergic relations with the others.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

J. S. Bach – Johannes-Passion BWV 245 – Nikolaus Harnoncourt

   Johann Sebastian Bach was absolute master of every musical forms already existing. At last in all these forms he has chance to deal with. And in addition to one big exception, the opera, almost every musical form known in his times was present in his output. Although he has no chance to receive a request for an opera, he put his narrative ideas into cantatas and oratorios. He used a lots of musical rhetoric means, and he did it in majority of his works. One of most comprehensive narrative works by Johann Sebastian Bach is Johannes-Passion. The Passion According to St. John and double chorus Matthäus-Passion are two survived. There were also preserved many fragments of five composed passions that gave chances for reconstructions of Lucas-Passion and Marcus-Passion
   Just as any other church work of Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes-Passion is deeply religious and perfectly united with Lutheran liturgy. This was normal practice in an era of still strong religious conflicts. In first half of 18th century being part of the congregation was still the primary determinant of individual and group identity. And Bach was aware of how powerful the impact of his music is and how great responsibility rests on him. The only possible solution to this dilemma was to compose in line with Lutheran theology. Therefore, in his vision of Johannes-Passion he strictly obeyed the order of worship. No wonder Passion according to St. John has been performed frequently during a quarter-century Leipzig period. Between premiere in 1724 and last acting in 1749 the work was presented at least four times under Bach’s direction.

Harnoncourt – Bach's Johannes-Passion (republished 1984) 

   In second half of 20th century Johannes-Passion was performed by almost every choir capable to perform this work. It was also interpreted by probably every successful conductor, not even necessary focused on baroque music. It was the era of phonograph, so St. John Passion has been recorded in dozens of renditions in both traditions of romantic symphonizm and modern stylization for original baroque sound. Second option based on original instruments and tuning principles gives wide possibilities for creating modern vision of baroque sensitivity. Probably the first recording on period instruments was 1965 performance of Concentus musicus Wien, and two connected choirs: Chorus Viennensis and Wiener Sängerknaben lead by choir master Hans Gillesberger. Conductor of this rendition was Nikolaus Harnoncourt, great artist and author of seminal books about musical aesthetics. First in the series of his texts was published in 1983 groundbreaking Musik als Klangrede: Wege zu einem neuen Musikverständnis, translated in next decade to many languages. A must read for any who wants to know and understand language of musical discourse.
   The Harnoncourt’s recording of Johannes-Passion was reissued several times in the seventies and eighties, becoming progressively one of the best known renditions of this work. Almost 50 years later, it is still great piece of art and document of moderately radical attitude to Bach’s music in sixties. It shows early stage of restoring the baroque music original sound. Nikolaus Harnoncourt with Concentus musicus Wien created different intellectual attitude and listener sensitivity opposite to previous performings. Closer to natural tune with pure, non-tempered intervals, for romantic long phrasing accustomed ears it sounded rough and only after the years listeners were able to notice how soft and vibrant these phrases are. Kurt Equiluz as Evangelist and Max van Egmond as Jesus are featuring soloists, some solo voices came from chorus members, just the same way Bach did with members of Tomanerchor. Organ parties have been played by Gustav Leonhardt and Herbert Tachezi – both great Bach interpreters on their own. On viola da gamba conductor played himself. The list of phenomenal musicians is long but it’s normal. Great musicians are always main power of any performance. Bach’s music demands the best, but effect is unforgettable.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Polish Jazz Archive Series vol. 3 – From “Improvising Jazz” Series

   Three years after war has ended, despite all the hope and many efforts for recovering the cultural and social life, political situation in Poland occured increasingly worse. In 1949 communist governance immersed the country into new regime. Five next years Poland was enveloped by ideological oppression and Orwellian doublethink. Communistic government tried to make all forms of culture a subordinate of propaganda, but such idea was never enough enduring and its realization was clearly incomplete. It is worth to remember, every decade after the war Poland was the scene of social protests and anti-system rebellion. And this radical Poland was still the country retaining more freedom than any other in “Soviet bloc”. One of very first signs of change, even before the amnesty for political prisoners, was revival of jazz as most characteristic element of American culture.
   Jazz has always been associated with freedom. No wonder this was the first element of American culture accessible for wide public. In the radio and public concerts jazz and blues were presented under the guise of being protest songs as the proof of injustice of Western democracy. After the death of Stalin in 1953 political oppression was gradually diminished. In 1954 jazz was coming out of underground and in 1956 started to operate two official and in future important international festivals – Jazz Jamboree (first two years in Sopot and from 1958 in Warsaw) and dedicated for avant-garde music Warsaw Autumn. This gave artists and listeners a chance of recognizing and observing genres of music that earlier were not acceptable from the positions of party ideologists and official propaganda.

Polish Jazz vol. 3 – From “Improvising Jazz” Series (1976)

   In November 16, 1955 label Polskie Nagrania recorded some portions of Melomani concert in Warsaw Philharmonic Hall. It was the first group in Polish jazz officially published on records. These recordings were republished in forthcoming years on many popular editions. Melomani was the group playing underground whole period of Stalinization in Polish culture to the moment jazz became accepted genre of popular music. In early years, playing jazz and dance music were complementary activities and many musicians were merging these experiences, what was interresting process anyway. Unlike popular dance bands, music made by Melomani was intended just for listening. And generally this kind of improvising music was new in Poland. Music of Melomani indicates some ties with dancing music background but ambitions of the group were substantially above the level of many groups playing popular music.
   Records were pressed with a half-year delay. And 1956 was the moment of serious changes in Poland life and culture. With these Melomani life recordings Polskie Nagrania began publishing the series called “Improvising Jazz” which few years later has been transformed into Polish Jazz series. And twenty years later, in 1975, Polskie Nagrania Muza begin to publish archive series of Polish jazz recordings. Volume three of the series comprise beginnings of this series and selected recordings of five groups. First are legendary recordings of Melomani group with Jerzy “Duduś” Matuszkiewicz on clarinet, Witold Sobociński on trombone, Andrzej Trzaskowski on piano and famous jazz singer Carmen Moreno. Closely in style are Józef Mazurkiewicz Ensemble and Polish-Czech group Stefan Buga Ensemble with vocal duo Gustav Wicherek and Jerzy Kunicki singing Oh, Bop Sh’Bam Be Bop by Gillespie. Their rendition clearly shows strong connection of early jazz was musical jokes and dancing. This volume comprise also recordings of two groups well recognized in fifties, both lead by tenor saxophone players: Jan Walasek Jazz Ensemble and Władysław Kowalczyk Quartet.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Polish Jazz Archive Series vol. 1 – Post-War Dance Bands

   In after war East Europe jazz music blossomed for a while and then it was roughly repressed. In the beginnings of Cold War era, jazz as any other form of American culture was just banned. And as many other forms of independent culture, jazz artists were trying to survive in underground. In the background it was political issue. Every kind of information showing USA as a land of freedom and civil rights was considered to be politically dangerous. Of course not for communistic establishment, as Stalin was spending many nights watching American movies, the same were doing many of his brothers in arms in East European capitals.
   While modern jazz was absolutely absent in official music of early fifties, some more traditional jazz themes were playing by musicians in dancing clubs. Many musicians continued their pre-war activity; some had to work for money in orchestras and smaller groups, where jazz was not loudly promoted but still existing – especially after the hours. De-Stalinization meant the end of banishment for many genres of concert and popular music as well as for huge portions of literature, art and movies. In late fifties jazz began the process of slow developing the position of artistic music.

Polish Jazz vol. 1 – Post-War Dance Bands (1975)

   It’s interesting the first few years after the war communistic regime was not enough strong and in many areas people were continuing their pre-war activities. In the years 1946 to 1948 many recordings of dance orchestras were published and some of them were in the swing style. To bring listeners back this forgotten chapter of the underground jazz, Polish label Polskie Nagrania started in 1975 publishing Polish Jazz Archive Series. In 1975 and 1976 appeared only four volumes. Maybe it’s not great number considering dozens of records in similar series in West European countries, but it’s still impressive how wide in war-devastated and regime-frozen Poland jazz stream was. Every volume of this series has its features and qualities. First has very special meaning because it preserves the sound of first after war swing bands.
   These oldest sound samples come from Jerzy Harald Band recorded 1946 in Cracow and Charles Bovery Jazz Orchestra recorded next year in Poznań. With Jerzy Harald Band Organ Grinder’s Swing sings Kazimiera Kaliszewska – very rare and early jazz vocal recording in Poland. Main parts of the selection are seven different tunes from 1948. This was the moment of great expectations and increasing activity in different areas. Jazz has the moment of short rising. For this album redactors choose well known vocal ensemble Czejand’s Choir, almost forgotten Kazimierz Obrębski Jazz Orchestra, Mieczysław Janicz Jazz Ensemble, Skowroński and Górkiewicz Jazz Ensemble and probably the best band Łopatowscy Bros. Jazz Orchestra with three standards in well sounding swing arrangement – In the Mood, Caravan and Chattanooga Choo Choo – fancy arrangements in Glenn Miller’s style, rhythmic discipline and rich sound are the qualities no communist mass culture was able to resist.
   Last three pieces come from the period 1954-1956 when Polish jazz bands returned to concert halls – Jan Cajmer Orchestra a famous big-band of Polish Radio recorded life in sporting hall concert and two recordings from Warsaw National Philharmonic Hall – Charles Bovery Jazz Orchestra playing Creole Love Call and The Blue Jazz National Music Ensemble with Józef Grabarski playing Trumpet Rhapsody. This was historical moment anyway. Jazz in National Philharmonic, played as professional music was quite a satisfaction for musicians and the audience.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Van Cliburn – Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1

   The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 is top rated concerto in the history of music and the one that made Tchaikovsky so famous composer. Of course the list of composer’s real achievements is much longer, there are some compositions of bigger importance in history of music, like last three of his symphonies, ballet Swan Lake or opera Eugene Onegin, but this is the one always on top of the lists of best selling records and live performances. His first piano concerto Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed between November 1874 and February 1875. Next two concertos for piano, 2nd in G major composed 5 years later and 3rd in E-flat major, published posthumously by Sergei Taneyev, and did never reach the level of popularity even close to the famous B-flat.
   Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is one of the most frequently recorded compositions in the history of music. Since Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Toscanini recordings in forties, it became a kind of requirement every great pianist has to record this composition. Long before the war Russian piano school as well as many piano virtuosos abroad established this work as a part of basic concert repertoire. And since 1958 every four years International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition was festive occasion for developing ideas associated with Concerto B-flat minor. Among great number of different recordings connected to Moscow festival, the one made by Van Cliburn with Kiril Kondrashin sounds very special, deep, and soulful and has hard to ignore historical background.

Van Cliburn – Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 (1958)

   In 1958, during the heights of Cold War, started the quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition started in Moscow. The first winner of this competition and international sensation turned out young, 23 years old pianist from United States Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano concerto B-flat minor with Moscow Conservatory Orchestra and Kiril Kondrashin caused the burst of enthusiasm of the Moscow audience. In subsequent months, the American pianist and Russian conductor had a concert tour all over the U.S. and recorded for RCA. The same year they recorded Tchaikovsky’s Piano concerto with RCA Symphony Orchestra. This recording won Grand prix du disque of Acacémie Charles Cros in Paris and was published by RCA branches in Canada, France and Germany and get platinum status.
   Performance of this concerto is example of brilliant cooperation between soloist and conductor. Pianist joints technical excellence, interpreting skills and pure romantic feeling. Orchestra is precise and gives soloist enough space and solid ground for creating his own vision of this dramatic musical narration. Van Cliburn plays with brave expressive dynamic contrasts and perfect articulation what makes piano sounds heavier than usually and more symphonic than orchestra itself. Sometimes one can feel Kiril Kondrashin lead the orchestra in some kind of loosy way, but maybe it was the best for pianist, who is so much focused on piano any accompaniment can be enough to balance his multidirectional rendition.