BIS have a knack for unconventional programming - their Kroumata
percussion discs have given me much pleasure in the past - so
I was really looking forward to American Spectrum
the North Carolina Symphony may not be the most visible band
on the planet but then again BIS have made a virtue of seeking
out less-well-known ensembles, such as the Singapore Symphony,
was one of my discs of 2007 (see review
The Welsh-born conductor Grant Llewellyn is also new to me; his
bio includes a spell at Tanglewood, working with the likes of
Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, before he finally took up
the post of musical director at the NCSO in 2004. The saxophonist
Branford Marsalis needs no introduction; born to a multi-talented
family - his brother Wynton is the celebrated trumpeter - he
also has his own quartet, which features prominently here.
The music gets into gear with Sunset Strip,
that iconic mile-and-a-half strip of Sunset Boulevard that passes
through West Hollywood. Daugherty has a penchant for celebrating ‘places
and spaces’, including Flamingo
(1994) and Niagara Falls
(1997). There is an
element of nostalgia in all of these pieces; for instance, Flamingo
the ubiquitous plastic lawn ornaments of suburban America in
the 1950s and 60s, Motown Metal
days of music and motor cars. And even though Daugherty’s
depiction of Sunset Strip is a contemporary one those catchy
trumpet tunes and freewheeling melodies surely speak of a more
This could so easily be bold and brassy, but instead Daugherty
opts for music of urban sophistication, highly polished as a
chrome fender. Speaking of polished, the two trumpeters - Paul
Randall and Timothy Stewart - add just enough dazzle to the proceedings
without ever drawing attention away from the slick orchestration.
The night music is also an eclectic mix, with trumpet-led languor
and animated bongo beats fading to a gentle early morning reveille.
The ensuing rhythms remind us that Mexico isn’t that far
away, the piano and trumpets colluding in a wonderfully wistful,
then high-spirited, display. Predictably the BIS recording is
first class, with a believable stereo spread and a sensible instrumental
perspective that never allows the brass to dominate.
John Williams based Escapades
on his score for retro flick Catch
Me If You Can
, in which the elusive protagonist (a high-school
dropout played by Leonardo DiCaprio) cons his way into various
professions. He is always one step ahead of the FBI, which makes
for fast-moving film that’s big on 1960s detail and atmosphere.
Marsalis plays with grace and sensitivity throughout, and what
a lovely, honeyed tone he produces in ‘Reflections’.
But the back lot beckons, and ‘Joy Ride’ is executed
with all the bravura of a long, smooth tracking shot. Some listeners
may find echoes of John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast
but really Williams’ musical fingerprints are
all over this one.
This is certainly shaping up to be a delightful collection. Llewellyn
and his North Carolina band are always discreet and attentive,
but with Marsalis they play with real verve. As with the Kroumata
discs I mentioned earlier there’s something of a chamber
feel to the music-making; the musicians really seem to be listening
and responding to each other as they play. Sonically both the
CD and SACD layers sound very natural indeed, making this a worthy
demonstration disc in either format.
The venerable Ned Rorem’s Lions (A Dream) for jazz quartet
is based on the composer’s dream and
his subsequent poem in which he finds lion cubs in a cupboard
and wants to play with them. It’s not all innocent frolics,
though, as he dies a strange, exultant death. An unusual conceit
but as music it has the same propulsive energy as ‘Joy
Ride’, with a panoply of instrumental colours and rhythms
thrown in for good measure. Eric Revis’s fluent bass brings
an authentic jazz twang to the piece, as does the cocktail-lounge
piano of Joey Calderazzo. Curiously - but effectively - this
is interleaved with music of moodiness and menace, drumbeats
dragging us back to the more fantastical aspects of this tale.
Intriguing and mesmeric is equal measure.
Christopher Rouse’s Friandises,
made up of an Intrada
and four dances, is perhaps the most concentrated piece here.
There is a rigour, a certain formality, to the writing that is
often imperilled by percussive interjections. The Sicilienne
certainly has a solemn period grace - some lovely harp playing
here - but the more raucous Passepied is clearly filtered through
a more modern lens. The various sections of the orchestra play
with plenty of point and character, the brass and woodwind particularly
so. The gentle Sarabande is soothing after the thumping Passepied,
although the gossamer-light strings are soon overwhelmed by the
Galop that follows. It’s an exhilarating coda, with a nod
towards the Can-Can
and William Tell.
Once again BIS have gambled with unusual programming and it’s
paid off -
big time. The standard of playing is top notch
and the recording is one of the best I’ve heard in a long
time. Nice one, BIS!