The Legacy of the Jazz Messengers (4): Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder

Part 4 now of my mini-series on the Jazz Messengers’ spin-offs.

Lee Morgan

Lee Morgan was famous even before the Jazz Messengers, as he’d already played with Dizzie Gillespie. But his stardom even rose further after playing on the famous Moanin‘ album from the Messengers, which I still need to write about.

The Sidewinder

I was a bit hesitant at first whether I should really write about this particular 1963 album, which obviously is by far his largest commercial success as a leader. Doesn’t he have many other great albums, like The GigoloDelightfulee, Vol. 3, Tom Cat, The Cooker, or Cornbread, all of which I’d highly recommend.

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Well even though I wanted to be creative, and not recommend an album that made it into the Billboard pop charts (heresy!) I gave up in the end. There is something just magical about the bluesy groove of The Sidewinder’s 10:28 title track, that I just had to recommend this first. It may not be the most creative album, nor the most artistically developed, but hey, it is just addictive.

A great rhythm section

Obviously, a great deal of this addictiveness stems from the rhythm section (especially Harris, but also Crenshaw, Higgins), but we also get another taste of Joe Henderson (although his solo on the title track is not very memorable, he get’s better on Totem Pole).

And then there is Lee himself, his playing is fantastic, and he actually wrote all the songs himself. A little bit of trivia on Morgan: he died a rather unusual death for a Jazz musician of the time (i.e. not of drugs or alcohol), but was shot by his long-term girlfriend of the time in 1971 for unclear reasons.

Luckily, this is not a “one-hit-wonder” album, all the other tracks of the album are very good, I particularly like Gary’s Notebook.

Overall rating: Groovy, Baby! (formerly known as 5 stars)

Addendum: Reader Bob Ryan kindly commented here that I omitted to mention “Search For The New Land” as one of the must have albums for Lee Morgan. I absolutely concur with his opinion.

Vilde Frang’s Outstanding Version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto

Let me start a bit off-topic: Why do I write about Sibelius right now?

If you’ve watched this blog for a bit, or if you’ve bothered to scroll down my main page, you’ll see that my blog topic selection look rather arbitrary and randomly selected and doesn’t follow a clear pattern. And to be fair, this is pretty much exactly how I chose my topics, by inspiration. It is very similar to how i decide to which album to listen next, whatever inspires me. The only connecting factor is that I only write about music or related topics that I really care about.

Diskothek im 2 / Disques en lice

So back to the question: Why Sibelius right now? The simple answer is: I just listened to a great podcast about it. Or actually 2. Let me clarify: My adopted country, Switzerland, has rather average public television, but two great classical music radio stations, one German (SRF2) one French (Espace 2) speaking. Both get to produce their own proprietary content, including a show that is based on the principle of inviting a couple of experts, and listening to a select number of recordings of a certain classical work, and have the expert discuss them blindly, and chose a “winner”. This show is called “Diskothek im 2” for the German, and “Disques en lice” for the French version.

Both recently decided to review Sibelius violin concerto, with a slightly different selection of versions. There was one overlap however, the winner, which is the album I’ll be talking about in a minute. And while I don’t always agree with the experts (in the end, it is all also a question of taste), listening blindly is really a good way of seeing if you REALLY like a version or you’re just preferring it because of the great name of the artist.

Sibelius’ violin concerto

Again, I don’t want to be Wikipedia, if you want to find more about the violin concerto, go here or here. Let me just say that the violin concerto is the only piece from Sibelius i really love. I still need to “get used” to the symphonies and symphonic poems he wrote. I fell in love with the violin concerto early on as it was coupled with the Beethoven violin concert on this low-price Sony release from the 1990s. I was lucky, because it included the Sibelius in a version by the great David Oistrakh which is recommended in the second link above, so by chance I ended up having a very good version.

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So feel free to check this version out, it is still very much recommended.

However, today I want to talk about the recording that won both Disques en Lice and Diskothek im 2: the 2009 recording with Vilde Frang

Vilde Frang

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This was Frang‘s first major commercial record at the age of 22. And what a performance it is. It has both the cold/ghostly nordic impressions of what I imagine Finland must look like (I’ve never been) but also at the right moments has all the fire and energy this late romantic concerto needs. She’s from Norway by the way, so geographically not very far from Finland. No idea if this helps or if this is just a cliché. The conductor, that I wasn’t otherwise familiar with, Thomas Søndergård, is as you can see from the Ø’s and å’s in the name also from Scandinavia, Denmark in this case. Only the orchestra being from the nice town of Cologne, doesn’t qualify as Scandinavian at all.

A side note on German radio orchestras (recognizable by the WDR/NDR/HR or whatever abbreviation, the R meaning radio) are usually quite good, albeit not at the level of a Berlin Philharmonic. However, some of them can be really great, like this one. The Orchestra and Søndergård are doing a great job here as well, and soloist and orchestra are really well-integrated.

This being an “album”, a concept which was forced on us by the LP, and later CD, but doesn’t make a lot of sense for classical music, we not only get the Sibelius, which would have been perfectly fine by me, but you also get a violin concerto by Prokofiev, and some minor “Humoresques” by Sibelius. While I like some of Prokofievs piano music and his “classical” symphony, I cannot find a lot of interest in his violin concerto (no judgment on quality here, just personal preference), and the Humoresques are nice fillers.

Overall rating: 5 stars (applies to the Sibelius concerto, the rest of the album I cannot be bothered with)

A nice alternative recording which I also really like, with another young rising star on the violin, is the version with Lisa Batiashvili (We are living in great times with so many fantastic violin players around). On this recording, you even get a Finnish orchestra with it.

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Petrenko @BerlinPhil follow-on – “it just clicked”

Following on to my article below, I was pointed to this very friendly article from the NY times. According to one of the musicians, it “just clicks” with Petrenko (side note: I wonder if it ever “just clicked” when they chose Karajan).

I guess this is what music actually needs to be like in the 21st century, no mediagenic Titan holding the baton, but somebody who really cares about the music (not trying to imply that Karajan didn’t care about the music by the way).

Now I’m taking bets on his first symphony cycle recording, given that he has barely recorded anything yet makes him a total wild card.

Here is mine, based mainly on exclusions: Russian? Too obvious. Schumann? Rattle just released a good cycle. Brahms: same thing (a bit longer ago). Mozart: more relevant for period ensembles these days. Mendelssohn: nobody wants to hear anything but 3 and 4. And finally Beethoven: No way! too risky.

Anton Bruckner?

Therefore, and also based on his experience conducting Wagner in Bayreuth, my bet is on Bruckner. To my knowledge, Rattle never went beyond the 4th and 9th, and even Abbado didn’t do a full cycle with the BPO.

What do you think?

Habemus Papam – Kirill Petrenko to lead the Berlin Philharmonic. One question remains: who the heck is that?

I’ve previously mentioned the search of a successor for Simon Rattle in Berlin. 

Now we have the answer: Kirill Petrenko. 

I assume I’m not the only one barely familiar with this young conductor. He has recorded only a small handful albums and has never formally headed a symphony orchestra before (only opera, at the Berlin Komische Oper, in Munich and also Bayreuth). 

At least this article from the Guardian sounds reassuring. 

Interesting times ahead as of 2018. 

Schubert’s amazing chamber music (1) – The String Quintet played by the Pavel Haas Quartet

Franz Schubert

I’ve previously written about Schubert’s piano music, which I love. As a side note, I’m not a big fan of his symphonies, even his “great” 8th (or 9th depending on the counting system) doesn’t particularly motivate me to listen to it. I occasionally play the Unfinished, but being unfinished it’s over rather quickly. Anything else in his symphony repertoire is really just a bit too juvenile for me (if only he’d lived as long as Beethoven or Brahms…).

In my personal opinion, his late string quartets and especially the string quintet are the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written. Full stop. I know others will prefer Beethoven, but the emotional density and beautiful “singing” (let’s not forget Schubert was also a major composer of “Lieder”) in the music you’ll only find with Schubert.

The String Quintet

This absolute masterpiece beats by far every symphony Schubert has ever written. With over 50 minutes of playing time, it is also longer than pretty much everything he’s written. If length translates into too many repetitions, like with the C-major symphony, it can be boring. None of this you’ll find here. Actually, you’d (or at least I’d) love this work to go on forever, it is that beautiful.

Pavel Haas Quartet

Gramophone has a certain tendency of “hyping” some artist, they can’t do anything wrong, and every album of them gets an Editors-Choice or more. Sometimes, I quite disagree with this assessment. In the case of the Pavel Haas quartet, I fully agree, I’ve yet to hear a bad album from this young Czech quartet named after a Czech composer killed in Auschwitz.

Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden
Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden

This particular recording, which also includes an outstanding recording of the Death and the Maiden quartet no. 14, has been Gramophone Awards winner in the chamber music category in 2014, and very rightfully so. They are joined for the Quintet by the 2nd cello, played by the German-Japanese Danjulo Ishizaka.

What set’s this recording apart is the pure energy level that goes into the playing. This is not music to be enjoyed leaning back sipping a glass of bourbon on the rocks in your favorite rocking chair, this is music made for listening to with constant attention, barely keeping you on your couch any more.

There are many other good to outstanding versions out there, including the Takacs Quartet, the Tokyo Quartet, the Hagen Quartet with Heinrich Schiff, but this one really beats them all. The Czech label Supraphone has done quite a decent job on the recording quality.

My rating: 5 stars (with no hesitations)

You can get it here if you prefer downloads, and here if you prefer a physical disc (or 2 of them to be precise)

UPDATE April 27, 2016: see also my review of the String Quintet by the Quatuor Ebène and Gautier Capuçon here

The Legacy of the Jazz Messengers (3): Joe Henderson – Inner Urge

Not properly speaking a Jazz Messenger Alumni

Putting Joe Henderson into my little Jazz Messengers mini series is probably slightly incorrect, I don’t think Henderson ever played directly at the Jazz Messengers, but he started playing quite a bit with Kenny Dorham, another Messengers alumni, and he also contributes to my previously mentioned Horace Silver album “Song for my Father“, and the hardbop classic “Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan (more about this later).

Joe Henderson

I nevertheless wanted to mention him here, as I believe he was heavily influenced by his first real gigs, including those above (although Henderson himself cited mainly Charlie Parker as a lead influence). He went on rather quickly to lead several albums on Blue Note. Funnily enough, apparently he was “discovered” by another great saxophone player Dexter Gordon (who I personally never particularly liked, as a side note).

The other reason for bringing him up here is that I had the pleasure of hearing 3 out of four of the musicians on the album this post will eventually get to live (albeit all individually) including Henderson himself at a gig in the late 80s in Hamburg, and Elvin Jones and McCoyTyner in the early 2000s in Paris. So there’s a (if tiny) personal connection here.

Like Hank Mobley, Henderson is maybe not one of the real A-league saxophonists, but still better known compared to the former, probably also due to the fact that he continued recording albums up to the 1990s.

Joe Henderson’s greatest albums in my humble (is it really humble? hopefully) opinion, are all on Blue Note, from a short period between 1963 and 1966 (notice a pattern here, how glorious these days were for Jazz…). Namely, Page One, In ‘n Out, Mode For Joe, and, obviously:

Inner Urge

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Why this album? Well, being a pianist (well that’s stretching it, but let’s rather say having played the piano), my answer is called McCoy Tyner. He really does an outstanding job on this album, in the beautiful combination with Elvin Jones on drums. These two obviously knew each other well from playing with Coltrane, including on the legendary “A Love Supreme“.

The title track – Amazing

There is a very simple reason to buy the album: the eponymous title track. Nearly 12 minutes of tension and harmonic complexity that reminds me in some places of the above mentioned “A Love Supreme“. 5 stars plus for this track only.

The other tracks, with the exception of the great “El Barrio“, where Elvin Jones builds a mesmerizing latin groove, are more fillers. Isotope is swinging nicely, but not very memorable, Night and Day is a bit light for an album ending (but Jones drums manage to keep it interesting), but overall never mind, this album is worth purchasing for two tracks only. Or if you have a download site that allows purchasing by track, stick to 1 and 3 and you’re all set.

Overall rating: 5 stars (I’m a bit hesitant here and probably should rather give 4.5 stars, but I don’t want to dilute my rating system even further and just decide that the title tracks on its own is worth the 5 stars).

Georg Friedrich Händel – beyond the Messiah

I’ve already mentioned before that my personal ranking of Baroque composers is Bach first, Händel is second.

So let me write about no. 2 on the list. Händel is German, although he spent quite a bit of his professional life in London and is somehow adopted English, so probably you’re more familiar with the George Frideric spelling of his name.

Most well-known classical music pieces

If you ask the average guy on the street whose typical musical fare is contemporary pop music, chances are he or she has at least heard a couple of ultra-famous classical pieces. These often include the “Da-da-da-daaaa” from Beethoven’s 5th, Bach’s Toccata BWV565 etc. etc.. Somebody even bothered to compile a top 10. Not surprisingly, this top 10 list includes our friend Georg Friedrich (sorry, I’ll stick to his birth name). Guess which one it is? Obviously: “Hallelujah” from the Messiah.

I’m not such a big fan of the Messiah, it’s good, but I can only listen to it ever so often. But it summarizes one of the two things Händel does really well: Glorious Oratorios, often with festive character. His two other rather well-known pieces, the fireworks- and water music, are of similar character.

The other thing Händel is really great at, is related, amazing stage drama. His Baroque operas and oratorios (many oratorios are actually operas, but weren’t allowed to be called opera as the pope Clement XI had some issue with this form of entertainment). I’ll certainly post more about the baroque operas later.

Music for Queen Caroline

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Back to the festive music. Obviously key clients for composers at the time were royals, and royal festivities like the arrival of a new queen, the coronation, or even funerals, required the appropriate musical soundtrack.

This album from William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants ensemble from 2014 brings you all three. Like many others, William Christie, the American turned French conductor has created his own label for this release. By the way, usually you can buy most of Christie’s releases blindly, he’s rather ever done a bad album and many are outstanding. His Messiah is still my personal reference version.

You’ll get three oeuvres on this album, all related to Queen Caroline (another German in the long history of German blood in the British royal family by the way): The Coronation Anthem, a Te Deum that was even nicknamed after her, and her funeral music.

All three are just outstanding pleasure to listen to, and William Christie does an amazing job here. This is 1h12 packed with emotions, with very little time to relax. Furthermore, this album is very well recorded, which makes the impact on a good stereo even stronger.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 4 stars

(this is one potential 5 star candidate, but I’ve only acquired it recently and need to give it some more spins before making u p my mind).

Update Oct 2016: I’ll stick to the 4 star rating. It is really nice to have but not essential.

What is your favorite piece by Händel?