Saturday, November 29, 2014

Classical Creativity and Classy Chanteuse

Igor Stravinsky is enjoying a comeback in 2014, specifically his ground-breaking work "The Rite of Spring."  The piece debuted in Paris in May of 1913 as the score for a ballet choreographed by Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes.  The evening of the debut was marked by the audience reacting violently, although more to the "violent" nature of the dancers than to the fiery music and, within a few nights, the "riots" were replaced by riotous applause.

Earlier this year, The Bad Plus issued their take on Stravinsky's score and now guitarist/arranger Eric Hofbauer has created an arranged for his Quintet.  The Boston-based Hofbauer has gone TBP one better by pairing "The Rite.." with his arrangement of Olivier Messiaen's "Quatuor Pour la Fun du Temps" and titling the work "Quintet for the End of Time" (more on that music below), releasing both CDs on his Creative Nation Music label.

The music is arranged for guitar, trumpet (Jerry Sabatini), clarinets (Todd Brunel), cello (Junko Fujiwara) and drums (Curt Newton). Hofbauer calls the project "Prehistoric Jazz: Volumes I & II", taking the monicker (as the guitarist writes on his website) "inspired by video footage of Leonard Bernstein rehearsing "The Rite of Spring" in 1987 where he instructs the timpanist to play like “prehistoric jazz.” The arrangements allow the band to play in numerous styles from early New Orleans to avant-garde to Chicago-style free. The "Rite.." opens with Brunel playing unaccompanied and sliding down into the recognizable melody like Gershwin's "An American in Paris" in reverse. Ms, Fujiwara moves easily from pizzicato to arco, often locking in with the creative work of Newton to truly drive the piece. Sabatini's trumpet tone is quite clean war he plays "open bore" and pretty funky when he employs a mute. Hofbauer's hollow-body electric guitar mixes the earlier styles of Freddie Green and Charlie Christian with stylistic hints of Mary Halvorson and Joe Morris. The guitarist's approach to the material allows the original music to breathe and expand without losing its power.  The musicians seamlessly blend the written and the improvised music.

Make sure to listen to "The Rite of Spring" in one sitting to get the true scope of what the Hofbauer Quintet is doing with Stravinsky's music and how the seemingly disparate elements fit. There is great power here as well as humor and an occasional touch of pathos. 

The Messiaen work, composed when he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1940 and premiered in the camp in January 1941 by a quartet of prisoners playing piano, cello, clarinet and violin.  The composer, who was a devout Catholic, intended the piece as a work of hope -  yes, some of the music is often dissonant as if the war raging around Europe had stolen the beauty of the artist's creation. Yet, there are also many contemplative moments as if music could shut out the horror by the simple act of playing the notes.

The original work was written over a period of time including sections composed before Messiaen's imprisonment. Even in Hofbauer's arrangement, there are moments that stand out as odd, such as the funky "Intermede", which is the most joyful of pieces. Much of the work is uncluttered, with long stretches of quiet interplay for 2 or 3 instruments. The blend of cello and guitar really stands out, on the  plaintive melody on "Louange A L'eternite De Jesus" which is played by Ms. Fukiwara supported by the sparse, nearly inaudible (at times, guitar chords.  Hofbauer's creative work beneath the searching, keening, clarinet on "Abime Des Oiseaux" is fascinating as is his interaction with Sabatini on "Louange A L'immortalite De Jesus" (with Newton's percussive colors all quietly in support.) The arranger finds the heartache in "Foullis D'arcs-en-ciel", the piece taking on the feel of a New Orleans traditional blues before the Quintet literally turns "Pour L'ange Qui Annonce La Fin du Temps" into a nontraditional "second line."

photo by L Poussard
It's really hard to choose one volume over the other so be wise and purchase both.  This music will bring you hours of pleasure as you listen to the care and attention Eric Hofbauer put into making "The Rite of Spring" and "Quintet for the End of Time." While it's clear the Quintet can and does play with great virtuosity, this music is also emotionally strong and heartfelt. If this is "prehistoric", it's also timeless. Pay attention and the rewards will be many. Also, David Adler deserves major kudos for his superlative and comprehensive liner notes.  Listen to the music first, then read Mr. Adler's excellent essays (one for each CD).

For more information, go to

After a long day, what could more relaxing than curling up with a glass of wine and Melissa Stylianou.  It's quite possible husband Jamie Reynolds (the fine pianist/composer) might get a bit of jealous but, honestly, I was thinking of Ms. Stylianou's delightful new CD, "No Regrets" (Anzic Records). Produced by Oded Lev-Ari and recorded live to 2-track by James Farber in one day-long session, Ms. Stylianou is joined by a splendid trio of musicians - Bruce Barth (piano), Linda Oh (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums - plus guests Anat Cohen (clarinet on 2 tracks) and Billy Drewes (alto saxophone on 2 different tracks).

This is her 5th CD (2nd for Anzic) and is comprised of 9 standards, a smashing take on Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" and a spellbinding duet with Wilson on William Yeats' "Down By The Salley Gardens." What stands out are the intelligent arrangements, the duet tracks, and the wonderful vocals.  If one has listened to jazz singers for any length of time, you have heard some of these songs dozens of times (if not more). Listen to the pleasing take of "I've Got It Bad" for Drewes' exciting alto work, the solid support of the trio and how Ms. Stylianou does not oversell the song.  She's right into the emotion of the love song.  Drewes digs deep into the blues on the delightful "A Nightingale Can Sing the Blues" Same approach with "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" except here it's Barth's ever-so-melodic support than frames and interacts with the vocal.  Ms. Cohen's clarinet is at its bluesy best on "I'll Never Be The Same", one of 2 tracks associated with Billie Holiday.  It's just voice, clarinet and Ms. Oh's expressive bass on the other Holiday treat, "Somebody's On My Mind."  The subdued arrangement, the sweet clarinet phrases and the intimate vocal gives the piece a timeless quality. Ms. Oh, who seems to be showing up on every 3rd CD I receive (no complaints here), opens the Mack Gordon-Harry Warren swinging "I Wish I Knew" by herself and then delivers a knock-out solo in the middle.

The program is bookended by 2 uptempo pieces, the sprightly "Nice Work If You Can Get It" (yes it's a love song but feels like a commentary on the session) and the cheerful duet with Barth on the Monk tune. While it's the final track, it's no leftover.  The duo dig right into with Barth matching the vocalist note for note and laying a forceful and tuneful solo.  Then, Ms. Stylianou "trades 4s" with the pianist, her playful scatting bringing the tune to its final verse and this delightful album to a happy close.

You should have "No Regrets" in your life - judging by this classy production, Melissa Stylianou and her friends don't seem to. This recording is like a warm fire on a chilly night, making you more comfortable, relaxed and satisfied. Can't ask for more than that!  For more information, go to or

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