June 05, 2014


Lionel Sainsbury: Five Tangos; Canto Ostinato; Sea Storm; Two Cuban Dances; Incantation; Ten Moments Musicaux; Meditation. Lionel Sainsbury, piano. Navona. $16.99.

Bunny Beck: Our Fantasies; Spirit; The Night Is Long; Dark Feelings; Emanon Two; My Heart; Punch Out; arrangement of “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Bunny Beck Jazz Ensemble. Big Round Records. $14.99.

D.J. Sparr: Woodlawn Drive; The Glam Seduction; Sound Harmonies with Air; Fantasia for Flute and Electronics—Sugarhouse; Vim-Hocket, Calm; Vim:Hocket:Calm. D.J. Sparr, electric guitar; Donna Shin, flute; Karen Galvin, electric violin; New Music Raleigh; Hexnut Ensemble. Centaur Records. $16.99.

Patricia Morehead: Alaskan Songs; The Edible Flute; Three French Songs; Sempre un Giorno Nuovo; Two Movements from “Triptych”; Just Before the Rain; The Wonderful Musician. Navona. $14.99.

     There is nothing new about composers performing their own work – it was the norm rather than the exception in classical music for many years. Gradually, though, the roles separated, notably during the 20th century; now, in many cases, they are coming together again. This can be especially useful when composers have specific ideas about how their music – now frequently a blend of traditional classical forms and ideas with those of pop, rock, folk, “world music” and other forms – ought to sound. Lionel Sainsbury certainly knows what he wants from his piano works, which he performs enthusiastically on a new Navona CD. There are two extended works here and five shorter ones. The lengthy pieces – actually assemblages rather than long-form works – are Five Tangos and Ten Moments Musicaux. The tangos partake both of the traditional dance form and of the form as reimagined by Astor Piazzolla, and their tempo variations show just how versatile the form can be. The Ten Moments Musicaux all bear standard tempo indications (although one, ondeggiante or “undulating,” is rather unusual) and are all short, poised explorations of widely varying moods and styles. Some of Sainsbury’s themes are reminiscent of Gershwin’s, but the Two Cuban Dances here only marginally resemble Gershwin’s Cuban Overture – they are simple, rhythmic and effective. Canto Ostinato is brief and to the point as well. Sea Storm is intense and virtuosic; Incantation pulls listeners into an engaging sound world; and Meditation is even more introspective, closing this well-played album thoughtfully.

     Bunny Beck is also a pianist/composer, but despite her classical training, she is primarily interested in jazz, and it is jazz that permeates the eight works on a new Big Round Records release called From the Spirit. Aside from a mellow and not-at-all-countryish arrangement of Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart, all the music here is by Beck herself, and all of it is performed by her on piano along with Matt Blostein (alto and tenor sax), Tom Hubbard (acoustic bass), Ed MacEachen (guitar) and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums). This is middle-of-the-road jazz, the improvisations expressive but not overdone, the handoffs among the instruments handled adroitly, the players working well together without trying to upstage one another, the music itself flowing freely and sounding warm and unchallenging. Only the occasional Latin rhythms hint at something beyond what listeners would likely hear in a jazz club in New York City, where Beck lives. Everything is smooth and rounded, relaxed and pleasant, redolent of the old days of smoky nightclubs even though smoking itself is passé nowadays (and illegal pretty much everywhere in New York). No single track here particularly stands out; all are in more or less the same mood and are more or less the same length. Listeners who enjoy one will readily settle back somewhere comfortable and enjoy them all.

     The music of D.J. Sparr also shows a blend of influences, but here there is more of a classical bent – although other types of music, quite noticeably rock, are also crucial to the effects. Sparr plays electric guitar but composes for a wide variety of instruments, and his range of interests is nicely highlighted on a new Centaur Records CD. Percussion is central to Woodlawn Drive, while a guitar solo starts The Glam Seduction, which Sparr says tries to combine elements of 1980s “glam rock” with the sort of virtuosity exhibited by Liszt and Paganini – an ambitious idea that does not work particularly well, although all players get the chance to hold forth as soloists at one point or another. Sound Harmonies with Air is simply a chord progression repeatedly transposed and repeatedly shortened – one of those pieces that is more an intellectual exercise for the composer than an audience-focused work. Fantasia for Flute and Electronics has an essentially chordal structure as well, using electronic manipulation of the sounds made by plastic balls bouncing against tuned strings as its foundation and adding a flute part above the result – an interesting compositional technique that does not, however, produce a particularly compelling result. The two works beginning with Vim are versions of the same thing, the differing punctuation intended to show that they are similar-but-different. One version is a duet for electric violin and electric guitar, the other an orchestration for a larger ensemble. In both, solid chords are contrasted with their arpeggiated versions, and quicker sections are interrupted by slower and calmer ones. Sparr’s music has a number of intriguing creative elements and is assembled with care, but it appears not to try to make any significant emotional connection with the audience – or if it does try, it does not succeed, despite the fact that the various performers handle their roles adeptly.

     The new Navona disc of Patricia Morehead’s music differs from the others here in that Morehead does not herself perform on it. She is a performer, an oboist, but she writes chamber music for a variety of forces, and none of the works on this disc – which is rather oddly titled “Brass Rail Blues” – calls for an oboe. Alaskan Songs and The Wonderful Musician both use mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley, the former with Dileep Gangoli on clarinet and Philip Morehead on piano, the latter with Philip Morehead conducting the CUBE Chamber Orchestra. Three French Songs are for Bentley and Philip Morehead alone. And there are two other vocal works here: Sempre un Giorno Nuovo with soprano Alicia Berneche and pianist Philip Morehead, and Two Movements from “Triptych” with soprano Susanna Phillips and Philip Morehead conducting an ensemble consisting of Aurelian Pederzoll and Elizabeth Choi on violins, Kristin Figard on viola, and Eric Schaeffer on cello. The CD also includes two instrumental pieces: The Edible Flute (Caroline Pittman, flute; Philip Morehead, piano) and Just Before the Rain (Dimitris Marinos, mandolin; Elizabeth Start, cello; Christie Miller, clarinet). The diversity of forces shows something of Patricia Morehead’s compositional range, although the works themselves are not quite as different-sounding as their instrumentation might suggest. The composer sets poems by Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton and Cathy Ann Elias, sometimes in traditional art-song form, sometimes in settings that are more folklike. She flirts with atonality and dodecaphonic writing, but most of the music here has at least some sense of a tonal center. The balance between voice and instruments, or among instruments themselves in the nonvocal selections, is handled with skill, and the two instruments-only pieces have some very nice writing for the flute and mandolin, respectively. The disc as a whole is perhaps a bit bland, but individual elements of it are more interesting than its totality – this is one of those CDs best listened to piece by piece rather than from start to finish: an hour-plus of Patricia Morehead’s chamber music turns out to be a bit much.

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