Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein
Once upon a time, we had a story here about music on disc that prominent Buffalonians were swooning over at the time. At the time, one of the hippest Buffalo Bills was pleased to report that the disc that neither he nor his teammates could get out of their disc players was by New Orleans jazz/R&B crowd pleaser Henry Butler, an authentic American roots prodigy and favorite for whom any genre over-specificity is impossible.
Butler is not only still around (he’s 64) and utterly inimitable in pleasing crowds and combining neo-New Orleans jazz, R&B and bebop, but he’s turned out to be the musician picked to bring Impulse – one of the greatest of all labels in the history of jazz – back into prominence.
To put it blandly, Butler’s infectious Big Easy Fusion of second-line rhythms, infectious R&B and instrumental solos that sound like gumbo-stuffed beboppers on Crescent City holiday, is not the kind of whoop-it-up audience-pleasing musical color for which Impulse was justly legendary. Bob Thiele’s Impulse was the label for some of best music of John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins, as well as music of the post-Coltrane avant-gardists (Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp) who carried so many listeners into outright bewilderment (and still do).
If you’re an American with ears on either side of your head, you’re unlikely to exhibit any bewilderment listening to Butler’s music with arranger and trumpet player Steven Bernstein – unless, that is, you’re listening to Butler’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” where the blind musician sings with a voice that sounds like a passionate cri de coeur from the vestibule of St. James’ Infirmary. When the lyrics are Bolden’s legendary New Orleans dance-fever plea of “funky butt, stinky butt, take it away,” it’s quite the biggest incongruity on the disc.
Not incongruous at all is the grand old time very hip jazz players are having in Butler and Bernstein’s party-down Hot 9 – saxophonists Peter Apfelbaum and Michael Blake, Marsalisite rhythm stalwarts Herlin Riley and Reggie Veal and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes.
For those musicians, a Henry Butler gig seems as much of a holiday as for his listeners.
– Jeff Simon
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
Helmut Deutsch, piano
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, while an adventurous singer, brings a lot of low-key subtlety to this “Winterreise.” He is wise in not joining the legions of singers who always seem out to reinvent the wheel. Instead, though his delivery is free and he sometimes surprises you, he seems confident that his own lyricism and grace can carry the day, and they do. Helmut Deutsch, a veteran accompanist, mirrors his sensibilities. His cool allows you to marvel at the genius of the accompaniments. Schubert, though no virtuoso pianist, really knew how to use the instrument.
Kaufmann and Deutsch are used to performing together this bleak but beautiful cycle. The result is a kind of eerie calm over the first song, with its magical shift to the major key, and the haunting final song about the hurdy-gurdy man in the snow. In the many more dramatic songs in between, they show fine control and unity of purpose. This is another reason to see Kaufmann as one of the most exciting singers around.
– Mary Kunz Goldman
“Noblissima Visione” and “Five Pieces for String Orchestra
It turns out we haven’t been missing a thing all these years.
Despite a sudden heartening spurt in recordings of the mercurial music of Paul Hindemith, the great embattled 20th century German composer is still not quite as popular on disc or in concert halls as he once was. And that, frankly, makes this new recording by the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Gerard Schwarz, absolutely startling.
The most justly popular orchestral works of Hindemith, by far, have been the symphonies made from his operas “Mathis Der Maler” and “Die Harmonie der Welt,” the symphony in E-Flat and the suite from the ballet “Noblissima Visione.” (The most played Hindemith work now is the well-constructed but inconsequential “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.”)
It was Hindemith who responded to a 1936 request for a ballet by choreographer Leonide Massime with a suggestion on a life of St. Francis based on Giotto’s Frescoes, which Hindemith had just seen and couldn’t get out of his head. When Massime declared the resultant music more concert music than ballet music, Hindemith responded in 1938 with a 20-minute, three-movement suite from the ballet “Noblissima Visione” that is a masterpiece as well as one of his best-known works.
On this, many of us are – somewhat incredibly – hearing the whole ballet for the first time. So it is – to me anyway – a bit of recording history. It’s also a sample of history’s sound musical judgment in never demanding its recorded appearance before. The 20-minute suite is, by far, the best of “Noblissima Visione.”
To hear it complete is, nevertheless, a wonderful curiosity for those who know and even love Hindemith. It is, I assure you possible, as no one knew better than Glenn Gould in one of best essays. The five pieces from 1927 were originally pedagogical (as was so much of his music) and little more than filler for “Noblissima Visione” on this disc.
John Salmon Plays
Pianist John Salmon, like Buffalo, was friends with Dave Brubeck. Salmon likes to perform the music of the master, and he brings his own touch to it, a unique approach that could be called jazz with classical sensibilities. Two earlier CDs, to my recollection, have shown what he can do in this department. A 2006 album, “Nocturnes,” spotlighted ethereal, quiet Brubeck pieces. The other, the 2010 disc “Salmon is a Jumpin’,” had him playing duets with himself.
The chief piece on this disc is Dave and Chris Brubeck’s “Ansel Adams: America,” derived from an orchestral suite commissioned from the Brubecks by a bunch of orchestras. This 22-minute score isn’t as much fun as the shorter pieces that are just tossed off. Listening to it, you have trouble finding its focus. But it swirls through a variety of enjoyable episodes, and it’s interesting to catch echoes of classical and jazz giants, most notably Bach and Darius Milhaud, Brubeck’s teacher. Brubeck’s “Brandenburg Gate” is a sparkling fusion of Bach and Brubeck – well written and played, neither of which is easy.
A variety of short pieces of varying quality, including one by Chris Brubeck, round out the disc. One of them, “We Will All Remember Paul,” is especially lyrical. Dave Brubeck wrote it as a tribute to Paul Desmond. Salmon, who has been heard on NPR and in recitals for the Van Cliburn Foundation, is on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
– Mary Kunz Goldman