Stephane Furic Leibovici / Chris Cheek / Chris Speed / Kate Westbrook / Mike Westbrook / Frank Gratkowski / Reinhold Friedl / Uri Caine / Ralph Alessi / Achille Succi

December 3, 2008

The Othello Syndrome

Winter & Winter W&W 910 135-2

Mike Westbrook


hatOLOGY 661

Reinhold Friedl/Ensemble Zeitkratzer

Schönberg Pierrot Lunaire Cheap Imitation

Zeitkratzer Records ZKR 001

Speed/Cheek/Furic Leibovici


ESP-Disk ESP 4048

Notated Music and Improvisation: Extended Play

So-called classic music and jazz have had an uneasy relationship since the beginning of the last century. Notated musicians yearned for jazz’s rhythmic and improvisational freedom, while jazzers coveted orchestral colors and financial support.

Until the late 20th century, most adaptations of each other’s music by jazz or classical players were misguided attempts at popularity. Now a new generation of musicians is comfortable in both idioms. On the improvised music side – as these CDs indicate – performers subtly subvert notated themes producing statements that draw from both strains while adding something extra.

Interestingly, three of the discs here – Mike Westbrook’s Westbrook-Rossini hatOLOGY 661, Uri Caine’s The Othello Syndrome Winter & Winter W&W 910 135-2 and Reinhold Friedl/Ensemble Zeitkratzer’s Schönberg Pierrot Lunaire Cheap Imitation

Zeitkratzer Records ZKR 001 – were commissioned by European festivals eager for original takes on traditional themes. The third – Speed/Cheek/Furic Leibovici’s Jugendstil ESP-Disk ESP 4048 includes a five-part suite influenced by Elliott Carter, who turns 100 December 11.

Reminiscent of the composer’s clear-textured chamber works, the “Carter Variations” played by clarinetist Chris Speed, saxophonist Chris Cheek and bassist/composer Stephane Furic Leibovici replicate Carter’s complex counterpoint. Surging on carefully modulated, well-spaced lines, the program hitches intertwining woodwind harmonies with the bass’s chromatic percussiveness. With organized dissonance expressed by shrilling diaphragm vibrato and adagio glissandi, string pops keep the presentation on even keel.

Clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre is another influence, as “Three Kinds of Folk” salutes his chamber-jazz. With Leibovici producing guitar-like arpeggios, the tonal centre shifts constantly throughout the exposition, development and recapitulation. Even more impressive is “Les Nuits de la Chapoule”, a clarinet and tenor saxophone concerto. Lustrous and liquid, the composition encourages Cheek’s altered pitch vibrations.

More elaborate is Westbrook-Rossini, performed by two saxophones, two brasses, drums, vocalist Kate Westbrook, and the leader/arranger playing piano and tuba. Someone who composes for classical ensembles, big bands and theatre companies, Westbrook took Gioacchino Rossini’s opera William Tell, as his source material – five versions of the “William Tell Overture” are featured. He then contorted others of the composer’s works into the project.

“The Barber of Seville Overture” for instance, finds Peter Whyman shading the his alto saxophone tone as if playing a musette, while the cascading theme displays such dance rhythms as the gigue, the hora and the cha-cha. “L’amoroso E Sincero Lindoro” uses heraldic trombone tones, parade-ground drumming and high-frequency piano chording to introduce Kate Westbrook’s vocals, backed in double counterpoint by rumbling tubas. After swelling harmonies back Whyman’s spiky reed bites and Westbrook’s strummed chords, the track concludes with Kate Westbrook growling syllables in concert with piano syncopation. The most notable “William Tell Overtures” utilizes tuba pumps, sopranino saxophonist Lindsay Cooper’s stop-time Dixieland breaks and slapping drum beats.

An affectionate parody, Pierrot Lunaire plays up the melodramatic and cabaret roots of Arnold Schoenberg’s Expressionist cycle of recitations with music. Sometimes sounding like an adults-only Peter and the Wolf, the two woodwinds, three strings, piano and percussion are as prominent as the satiric yet harrowing narration by male soprano Markus Weiser. Switching from first to third persons and modulating his voice so it resembles a yearning lover, a crotchety elder or a sinister villain, Weiser’s theatricalism personalizes the German lyrics. Along the way his bel canto tone vibrates or stutters contrapuntally along with Maurice de Martin’s vibraharp strikes, Frank Gratkowski’s coloratura clarinet timbres and Friedl’s slapped piano keys. With sporadic pauses as well as cooing orchestral cries, Zeitkratzer’s version honors a composer who stated that in a valid performance “the tone color means everything and the notes nothing”.

Most elaborate of the discs is Othello, created for the 47th Biennale di Venezia. Featuring trumpet, clarinet, violin, drums, guitar, bass, electronics, four vocalists and Caine on keyboards, it’s a idiosyncratic take on Giuseppe Verdi’s opera. Segueing from one interlude to another this Syndrome is conveyed through ever-shifting orchestrations and Caine’s pianism, sequentially tremolo and jazzy or chromatic and dramatic.

Enveloping traditional material from soprano Josefine Lindstrand as Desdemona and lyrical violinist Joyce Hammann, the suite includes a dense electronic soundscape; a street-wise recitation by Julie Patton; and a stop-time “Drinking Song” conveyed by guitarist Nguyên Lê’s amp-distorted licks, plunger breaks from trumpeter Ralph Alessi and Achille Succi’s laughing clarinet lines. “The Lion of Venice” references New Orleans, with a jerky Second Line beat, vamping horns and lavish piano flourishes.

R&B songwriter/vocalist Bunny Sigler assays Othello with emotional verve. Pitch-sliding over trumpet obbligatos, slippery clarinet vamps or chunky beats, his new English lyrics transcend language, while his tessitura expresses yearning and anguish at suitable interludes.

Each of these projects confirms that the jazz-classical rapprochement exists by intricately crafting new forms.

— Ken Waxman

— For Whole Note Vol. 14 #4