Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Yes – Yessongs

   In the history of progressive rock one can find out a simple compound: the more intentionally complex composition is, the better position it occupies in ranking of most groundbreaking attainments. Idea of convergence, crossing over the genres and even ambitions to take succession of the main stream of serious music – all attitudes were readable from the very beginning of so called symphonic rock. Progressive band Yes had tradition to open concerts with passages of Igor Stravinsky's ballet Firebird. In the years of its expansion, progressive rock had more common characteristics with modern jazz. Both are genres of music for listening, giving intellectual and esthetic experience. The most significant of mutual features is tendency to improvise. Although it was taken straight from psychedelic rock, it was also the best possible way to organize musical narration in extended compositions.
   Despite the fact “symphonic rock” was the alternative name of the genre, there was no chance for symphonic structures in typical rock bands. Even orchestras led by rock musicians played non-symphonic music, being nothing more than augmentation of typical rock structures and boring school level arrangements. Much more interesting concepts were presented in recordings of the bands playing with typical rock lineups but complicating rhythmic, melodic and harmonic structures. One of such bands were in early seventies supergroups of British progrock King Crimson, Yes and Gentle Giant. Yes was probably most popular but still creative and hard-shell progressive, especially on its early albums, where the band was experimenting with sounds and rhythmic structures. The first presentation of Yes’ live recordings was 3LP album published May 18th, 1973 and called Yessongs.

Yes – Yessongs (1973)

   Published as a set of 3 LP’s Yessongs is an impressive collection of great moments from tours promoting two studio albums Fragile and Close to the Edge. The lack of detailed informations about dates and places can be annoying. Two tracks from the Fragile album were recorded with drummer Bill Bruford February 19th and 23rd 1972 in Academy of Music in New York. Some fragments were taken from recordings made in Ottawa, Ontario (November 1st), Athens, GA (November 14th) and London Rainbow Theatre (December 15th). In program of this triple-album there are some compositions from the two studio albums mentioned before but also some other pieces. As it had been said before, album begins with fragments of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet music Firebird being the traditional opening for Yes concerts. There are also fragments of great solo presentations, Rick Wakeman playing excerpts from his album The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Steve Howe presented an extended guitar solos in Perpetual Change – and this is third composition played with Bruford. In most shows of 1972 the drummer was Alan White who learned the entire repertoire in few days only.
   Program of this compilation is more than a documentary of group’s public performances. Extended concert versions with advanced solos give listener a chance to feel the deeper sense of Yes’ compositions narrative context. Songs and instrumental pieces constitute together a complementary vision of poetic, musical and philosophical ideas. There are some explications of psychedelic rock ideas in it, but in 1972 it had to be more consequent. This is the reason of progrock bands strong cooperation with poets (like King Crimson with Peter Sinfield) and painters (like Yes with Roger Dean).  By the way, this can be considered as the most progressive idea of art rock. Triple fold-out cover features Roger Dean’s paintings of phantasy world’s view in kind of narrative exposure. The artwork is continuation of series started with Fragile cover and connected with consecutive albums. The sequence of Dean’s paintings inspired also Jon Anderson to create narrative phantasy of his own debut Olias of Sunhillow three years later. What is most impressive in these recordings, it’s the precision timing and perfect sound of the band. This was really a phenomenon worth to consider… Even in times, groups playing on professional level were such common events.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ray Charles – Genius + Soul = Jazz

   Frank Sinatra called him “the only true genius in show business”. Ray Charles was a phenomenon in many genres for more than half of the century, an iconic star of popular music, talented singer, instrumentalist and composer, but most of all he had the great sense of melodic line. Although he was more emotionally driven type than the intellectualist trying to construct the future reality, he influenced the shape of contemporary pop music a way much more than any other star performer. After initial phase of his musical career when he was playing and singing with various orchestras, Ray Charles became famous for his recordings connecting different traditions of jazz, gospel and blues. He played a vital role in the development of soul and rhythm and blues genres, becoming godfather for next generations of musicians.
   This crossover success was in fact a consequence of multiple components, the specific conditions of American culture in 50’s and 60’s and personal traits. After he gets great popularity as leading soul and R&B artist, he made one more step towards the fusion of different pop music genres. He mixed soul music with Latin and country music means of expression. In effect he belonged to these musicians who were aiming to the integration of American musical culture, what gave him the wider society acceptation. In many aspects this was his best years. In 1965 his career has been stopped for a year when he was arrested for the possession of heroin, following rehab in Los Angeles. After a year break and recovery he returned to the stage and to the studio. His career had run with even greater commercial success.

Ray Charles – Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961)

   Since first R&B hits in mid-fifties to his great successes in sixties Ray Charles published the whole shelf of groundbreaking albums. In his discography albums recorded for ABC and its jazz label Impulse! in the years 1960 to 1965 have special position and rich characteristics. One of most significant in this collection is album recorded in New York during two days – December 26-27, 1960 and published under title formulated as equation Genius + Soul = Jazz. The recording orchestra was formed out of Count Basie Band members with such great personalities as trumpeter Clark Terry and Thad Jones, Frank Wess on alto saxophone, Billy Mitchell playing tenor sax and guitarist Freddie Green. Album features arrangements made by Quincy Jones and Ralph Burns. According to big band setup and many solos it should be consider as jazz exposition of great soul singer. But from the first impression it looks the title equation is not always true.
   Mostly instrumental music on this album could be considered as a continuation of his prior blues and jazz recordings, especially The Genius of Ray Charles album published by Atlantic in 1959, where Quincy Jones and Ralph Burns wrote arrangements and the core of the band were Clark Terry, Frank Wess, Billy Mitchell and many others. Released in March 1961 by Impulse! label album reached 4th place on Billboard 200 list. There was also license pressing in France by joint Impulse! and VEGA label (IMP 2). For French market Impulse!-VEGA had also published an EP-sampler with four songs: Let’s Go, I’ve Got News from You, Moanin’ and From the Heart (IMP 55 001).

Ray Charles – Moanin' (VEGA EP 1961)

   The element missing in the title of the album is the blues. Five compositions are based on 12-bar blues changes, while the other five are based on 16-bar chord structures. Blues is inherent part of this program, it is present in melodic patterns and in phrasing, in voice sound and in the way Charles played Hammond B-3 solos. The program of this album is almost completely instrumental with two exceptions – songs I’ve Got News for You and I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town – both in 12-bar blues form. Trumpet solos and great orchestra sound reviving big band era powers. This record was clearly the continuation of Ray Charles’ artistic development, but it’s particularly significant because it has been issued at the turning point and the beginning moment of his commercial success.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lazar Berman – Chopin – Polonaises

   Long before Lazar Berman became the legendary master of romantic piano he was an infant prodigy and then one of many musicians active mainly in Russian concert halls. He started piano lessons at the age of three and his first teacher was his mother. He was picking popular melodies and improvising before he was able to read. Remembering his childhood he said “My first impressions are bound up with the keyboard. I feel I have never parted with it… I believe I began to emit sounds from the piano before I learned to speak”. After the audition in conservatory the jury and its chairman Leonid Nikolayev recognized him as “an exceptional case of a child’s extraordinary musical and pianistic gifts”. The result was in the age of four he became lessons with Samary Savshinsky. As a seven-year he recorded Mazurka he composed himself. When he was nine, his family moved to Moscow giving him a chance to continue his piano education with such a great personalities as Alexandr Goldenweiser, Sviatoslav Richter, Maria Yudina and Vladimir Sofronitsky. Only one year later in 1940 he made his debut with Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25.
   War and later cold war and iron curtain closed many chances for international careers. For years Lazar Berman was active almost exclusively in Russia. One of the ways to play abroad was international piano competitions. He took 5th Prize in Brussels and tried to take his chances in Warsaw Chopin Piano Competitions but he had not qualified. Pianist recalled this fact saying “it was a tremendous blow to my pride, and I vowed that I would never play him again”. In next years Lazar Berman not only played Chopin’s music but he did it achieving great results. In program of his debut Melodia LP in 1956 he recorded Etude B Minor Op. 25 No. 10. He played Chopin in many concert programs and radio recordings before this rejection, these early recordings were published by Brilliant Classics as 7CD set. 

Lazar Berman – Chopin – Polonaises (1982) 

   Lazar Berman got back to recording of Frederic Chopin repertoire when he became internationally recognized after his American debut in 1975. His perfect performance of Liszt Transcendental Etudes became a legendary in many countries and made him overnight a star and the master of romantic piano. With such reputation he had to play also Chopin’s greatest works. In 1977 he recorded for Deutsche Gremmophon set of first six Chopin’s Polonaises released in 1979 (2531 094) and republished in 1982 by Melodia (C10-17141-2). Two of Chopin’s compositions: Sonata B-flat Minor No. 2 Op. 35 and Nocturne E Minor Op. 72 No. 1 Berman played in 1979 Carnegie Hall Concert published as double LP by CBS, also republished by Melodia in 1982. The 1980 was dramatic year in Berman’s career. And when everything looked perfect, KGB found in his luggage banned literature. His concerts have to be cancelled and his career for the whole decade has been stopped by the communist government. After collapse of Soviet Union he settled in Florence, where he lived until his death in 2005.
   The six Polonaises are forming complete set published during Chopin’s lifetime. It is impossible to say too much about beauty of this works. Even though all are stylizations of the same national dance, every one is different. First pair is Op. 26 composed in 1836 – the No. 1 noble C-sharp Minor and narrative, dark in mood No. 2 in E-flat Minor. Second pair Op. 40 is two years older – the triumphant No. 1 A Major “Military” and pessimistic No. 2 C Minor. Last two has been published alone and these are complex and alone standing. Polonaise F-sharp Minor Op. 44 with its heavy emotionalism in tragic main theme has been composed in full ternary form with dreamy mazurka in central section. This huge, composite work became cumulative part of the cycle, giving ambiguous space for conflicting feelings and interpretative freedom. Polonaise A-flat Minor Op. 53 closes this cycle with vigor and impetus standing for hope. Lazar Berman shows the whole cycle of Chopin’s Polonaises in very personal, excellent rendition.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lazar Berman – Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1

   The Russian piano school is probably the most comprehensive phenomenon in the history of international piano achievements. Dozens of best virtuosi and  hundreds of great personalities and devoted teachers, thousands of gifted students, proven and effective methods of teaching, strong artistic and intellectual tradition, conducive social environment and audience able to appreciate good performances, all elements worked together for building one school comprising many generations of artists. Its history dates back to John Field teaching activity in Russia from 1802 to 1829 and the newest chapter is written by successful activity of young pianists from Russia probably on every international piano competition. Without fail one of the best in elite of Russian pianists was Lazar Berman – Лазарь Наумович Берман (1930-2005), the great master of romantic piano music one of best interpreters of most complex and difficult piano works.
   In 1955 Emil Gilels called Berman “the phenomenon of music world” but even opinion of great pianist was not able to help Berman in post war Soviet Union. Despite 5th prize in Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1956 (1st won Vladimir Ashkenazy), concerts in London and recordings for Saga in 1958, some concerts and radio transmissions in late 50’s and 60’s, Lazar Berman was barely unknown in West European countries. In state where every decision has to have political acceptance, he was assigned as an artist of internal cultural life. State Concert Agency (Gosconcert) for years was ignoring invitations and concerts propositions coming from the other side of iron curtain. Changes were always a question of time and in empires time goes slower than anywhere else. Living in a small two-room apartment in Moscow with grand piano occupying entire room, Lazar Naumovich has devoted himself entirely to music.

Lazar Berman and Herbert von Karajan (1976)

   In mid-seventies after he made his great Italian debut in 1971 and widely acclaimed American debut with complete set of Ferenc Liszt’s Transcendental Études, Lazar Berman became an instant star. Series of concert tours all over the world, perfect recordings characterize these years as his best times. He was in his forties, in perfect artistic condition, playing with brilliant and fully controlled technique and with lots of interpretative ideas. Herbert von Karajan after listening to Berman’s Transcendental Études album decided to record with Russian artist and to promote him with Deutsche Grammophon contract. In such moment he recorded one of most spectacular romantic concerto with one of the best orchestras in the world and with conductor of great esteem and rich personality. Lazar Berman playing Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor with Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan – the recording was announced as the first Berman’s album with orchestra, a kind of stronger debut, but in 1976 this was a Mount Everest of musical career for any artist.
   Record was produced by Deutsche Grammophon and like any other records of Russian artists has been almost immediately re-published by Soviet label Melodya. The rendition is perfectly balanced between heroic nobleness and deep sensitivity. Piano plays with symphonic sound and perfect articulation. Berman was able to create a huge range of expression between powerful, strong chords and melodious cantilena, sometimes ethereal legato. His tremendous technical capabilities helped him build lively, very emotional and undoubtedly serious, in some parts clearly metaphysical interpretation. Orchestra had played with more restraint, sometimes even giving more space for pianist, who filled this extra territory with very personal, deep but still intellectual performance. The way Lazar Berman recorded this concerto, the way he reads this work is an example of profound musical sensuality and understanding of this great composition.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Richard Strauss – Sinfonia Domestica – Herbert von Karajan

   Late romantic and early modernist Richard Strauss lived at the crossroads of epochs. His early compositions, mostly chamber and solo works in traditional romantic style, were not remarkable accomplishments. Also his two symphonies composed these years (1st D Minor – 1880 and 2nd F Minor op. 12 – 1883) weren’t noteworthy and now they have historic meaning only. In late 1880’s Strauss evolved to new vision of big scale forms, operas and symphonic poems. Using modern harmonic language and post romantic principles, he constructed musical work with great results. Especially opera and symphonic poems was his remarkable contribution to the history of music, Salome and Electra are highlights of expressionistic music drama, and series of ten symphonic poems and songs are his crowning achievements.
   Richard Strauss created his symphonic poems in span of three decades are elements of the history of German modernism. It was the exact time Wilhelm II ruled in Germany. The time of great social changes found its reflection in consecutive musical pictures Aus Italien (From Italy) Don Juan, Macbeth, Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). And it is not an accident, his last two poems has been called as symphonies. Although Sinfonia Domestica and Alpensinfonie were not in typical symphonic form and the idea of building symphonic pictures was far from classical symphonic development, Strauss used this title as a kind of universal statement.

Richard Strauss – Sinfonia Domestica – Herbert von Karajan (1973)

   Sinfonia Domestica was a tribute to the everyday life, the orderly according to the rhythm of a stable home life. The family and home life were highly valued by Strauss, and his tone poem dedicated to the private part of everyday life was his challenging intention. In first version the score of Sinfonia Domestica has been enriched with several comments. Later Strauss removed most of them. Some critics accused him of self-centeredness anyway, but it’s deeply humanistic and universal. The whole work is extremely difficult. It demands from the orchestra of over one hundred members the perfect sound and rhythmic discipline. Especially the wind section has a difficult task here. Third theme of first movement Bewegt is started with solo of oboe d’amore. It is symbolizing the child and is the one of rare cases of using this instrument in modern symphonic music. Symbolic subjects of this tone poem is a common point of narration presented in many historical and critical overviews of the work, but the best perspective to know and understand the musical composition is to listen it without prejudice. And unlike many works of program music, Sinfonia Domestica is shows deep universal contents of the symphonic poem.
   As a later reference to Sinfonia Domestica Richard Strauss composed in 1925 concert piece commissioned by famous left handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Strauss knew him and even they played duets as composer was frequent guest in his father’s house. Paul Wittgenstein was the World War I veteran who lost his right hand, who inspired many great concertos and concert pieces of Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Alexandre Tansman, Erich Korngold and many others. The 1925 Strauss’ work was titled Parergon zur Symphonia Domestica. There is also transcription of this tone poem for two pianos, recorded in 1995 for Teldec by Martha Argerich and Alexandre Rabionovitch. Thanks to numerous recordings Sinfonia Domestica is well known to listeners all over the world, but the score is quite a challenge for the orchestra and especially for the conductor, so this beautiful tone poem is still hard to find in concert programs. It is worth to remember in 1944 Richard Strauss recorded this work himself with Vienna Philharmonic, and the same year Wilhelm Furtwängler recorded this composition with Berliner Philharmoniker. The recording under Karajan’s direction was 12th on the list and followed by many further renditions.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Art Tatum – The Tatum Group Masterpieces – Vol. 1

   One of greatest jazz pianist ever, influential innovator and sensational virtuoso, Art Tatum was one of legendary figures of jazz scene in 1940’s and beyond. Building his awesome technique on basis of stride piano style, he created the bridge between traditional jazz piano and new expressive means with elements of romantic piano tradition and frequent reharmonizations of standard structures. But it is meaningful he has not accept the be-bop style. His style was very traditional in musical means and too much schematic in structures. Also expanded ornaments were contradictory to modern economy of expression. In critical reception he was playing too much notes and his ornamental output was even seen as ‘unjazzlike’. Died in 1956 in the age of 47, he was the one who has been copied and referenced by numerous masters of jazz piano in next decades. His artistic descendants are so many it is futile to mention all of them.
   Art Tatum was best exhibited in solo performances. Interviewed in 1949 Tatum said the band hampers him. But still along with his numerous solo recordings he made series of recordings in various lineups. In 1975 Pablo Records published series of eight LPs under the title The Tatum Group Masterpieces. Every volume was also published as separate album. Volume 1 produced by Norman Grunz was recorded June 25, 1954 in Los Angeles. Tatum played in trio with Benny Carter on alto saxophone and Louis Bellson on drums. Seven pieces show the trio from typical Tatum’s perspective. Only two pieces, opening both sides Blues in C and Blues in B flat are original Tatum, Carter and Bellson compositions. Other two are Gershwin’s tunes A Foggy Day and S’Wonderful, making the program one more frame of American songbook.

The Tatum Group Masterpieces – Vol. 1(1975)

   In 1954, when the session took place, Art Tatum was one of most prominent personas in American music. For many musicians the mere fact of participation in his band was a major achievement. But the same one can say about Benny Carter who was one of most popular musicians originating from traditional, before the war jazz style and extremely popular in swing era. He was known as instrumentalist, band leader, composer and arranger and his fame was as huge as he was called The King. In Art Tatum Group he played alto saxophone although he is better known as trumpeter and clarinetist. Also Louis Bellson was an artist strongly connected with swing style and number one drummer in the era of first long playing records. He played with all best artists of mainstream jazz including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton and Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic famous concerts.

Art Tatum – Blues in B Flat (1954)

   In the history of jazz styles changed frequently and none reigned undivided. Some were just part of popular and dance music, some were tended to more serious artistic aims. In the bop era most of the musicians were playing in a post-swing style and many of them not tended to take part in avant-garde revolution. And their audience was still significantly larger. Art Tatum and his group played most advanced, although still mainstream jazz. Solos in dancelike Undecided are full of swing inspirations along with clever rhythmic and harmonic alterations. Art Tatum is active and brisk, switching immediately to and fro between accompanying and leading soloing.
   Benny Carter plays with great culture and facility. His solo in Under a Blanket of Blue sounds like he was tired of swinging syncopating thus played with ballade style with some manner of cool distance. Without full acceptance of be-bop patterns, this kind of soloing had to be very uncomfortable so Carter and Tatum turned to the blues and heavy use of pentatonic scale. This is predominantly the idea of whole set of recordings of the album. And most clearly it is displayed in two blues themes credited to Tatum, Carter and Bellson, each placed at the beginning of the side. Closing program with two Gershwin songs and Street of Dreams by Young and Lewis musicians are focused on swing era style and executed this attitude with the best artistic quality one can get.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

John Coltrane – Bahia

   In 1965 John Coltrane was at the top of his career. During the period of early 60’s, his recordings were modern enough to impress critics and creative to influence musicians, while still enough clear to be interesting for wide group of listeners and record buyers. This moment was the time John Coltrane was parted from Prestige and recording for rival companies. And the record company has been published Coltrane’s unissued recordings from late 50’s, when he was playing with Miles Davis Quintet and recording lots of material in various lineups. It was easy money for the company, and those times producers didn’t even bother to ask artist for his acceptance. One of such editions is Bahia published in May 1965 by Prestige and republished in 1989 after remastering by Phil de Lancie in Fantasy Studios, Berkeley. Recordings were made during two sessions in Van Gelder Studio, Hackensak, NJ in 1958, July 11th and December 26th. It is not complete set of material recorded during these sessions and for the Bahia album producers had choose only parts sharing the same idea and stable lineup.
   Recordings included in Bahia disc are firmly connected to the style of Miles Davis Quintet. During the two 1958 Bahia sessions John Coltrane played with two other musicians from Davis’ group – pianist Red Garland and bassist Paul Chambers and this is what makes this lineup the three fifths of the quintet. This connection is enough clear considering the impact of Davis’ quintet on jazz scene in 50’s. And in this album this influence is articulated both in plain references and in attempts to overcome the cool idiom. Davis influences are present also in the style of trumpet player Wilbur Hardin. And drummers Art Taylor and Jimmy Cobb playing different sessions were following Philly Joe Jones of Davis’ legendary first Quintet.

John Coltrane – Bahia (1965)

   Musicians were aiming to build more expressive, stronger and explicit style, what can be observe in Bahia which has been chosen for framing the style of the whole 1965 album. And the title piece has been improvised like it was an attempt of exceeding the style barriers of cool jazz style. It can be heard in all nervously interacted solos by Coltrane, Garland and Chambers, who played the bow with high tension and melodic invention. Even the way Coltrane played the Bahia theme has the new expression outline. This attitude is even more openly demonstrated in Goldsboro Express where exploration reaches the moment of freely dialoguing between Coltrane and Art Taylor. In such context these recordings can be seen as alternative version of quartet and quintet with leading tenor saxophone. This particular moment Coltrane was looking for new structures of musical improvisation, trying to free his expression means of the song structure. In effect he worked out on scalar and modal techniques aiming to create the wider scope of new jazz style.
   Although John Coltrane was forerunner, he was not alone, all musicians playing Prestige sessions were moving the same path. Coltrane was the kind of strong personality and sometimes he was just the one doing larger steps. He was always aware of the overriding meaning of artistic work. As he said in an interview for Down Beat in 1962, “the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe”. His sense of the universe has a kind of religious fervor, the perfect virtuoso technique and the revolutionary theoretical solutions. His fierce solos in Bahia and Goldsboro Express are the chance to look inside his style at the moment of its creation. The counterweight for this eruption of ideas are lyrical solos with rich sound and ballade structure My Ideal and Something I Dreamed Last Night. These promising moments pointed the path to his future creations.