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William Grant STILL (1895-1978)
Three Visions (1935) [9.50]
Seven Traceries (1939) [16.39]
The Blues [from the Ballet Lenox Avenue] (1937) [2.50]
A Deserted Plantation (1933) [12.33]
Africa (1928) arranged for piano by Verna Arvey [23.51]
Mark Boozer (piano)
Recorded at ACA Digital Recording Studio, Atlanta, August 2001 and October 2002
NAXOS 8.559210 [65.31]

William Grant Still is often seen as the nexus between European derived classicism and African-African procedures. And thatís something that emerged from his studies with Chadwick and Varèse and his writing for the Paul Whiteman band et al and also of course his espousal of jazz, spirituals and blues in his own music.

This disc collates some significant piano (or piano adapted) works from the 1930s, with the exception of Africa which is in any case an orchestral work heard in this realisation for solo piano by the composerís wife, Verna Arvey.

The notes by Judith Anne Still are very keen to co-opt everything here to the religiose and to black experience so maybe Iím missing something but the Three Visions sound to me pure Ravel-and-water. The jagged impressionism of Dark Horsemen, the first of the three, is followed by big hued romanticism and the radiant chords of the last are attractive Ė but no more. Thereís more Ravel in the Seven Traceries, written in 1939, where the tints of the blues in the second Mystic Pool is more evident. But these are really disappointingly undifferentiated from each other for all the pictorialism and quasi-descriptiveness. Wailing Dawn is perhaps one of the more distinctive with its strong chording, the subtlety of which was a Still speciality.

Many will know The Blues, which is derived from the ballet Lenox Avenue and was so memorably recorded by Louis Kaufman and receives a pleasing reading here, though I prefer the bite of the string and piano arrangement. A Deserted Plantation was one of the works Still wrote for the Whiteman orchestra and he writes a nicely harmonised Spiritual, an echt-Broadway type song and a jazzy dance, with Ragtime hints, in that order. Africa embeds some ruminative bluesy chord sequences with clear impressionism but it doesnít sustain its length and itís no surprise that Still took it apart and recycled it later in other works.

Still was at his finest in his larger scale orchestral music and his piano works, however adeptly done by Mark Boozer, left me disappointed. Iíve no problem with political agendas (they exist to be ignored) but I do have a problem with thinness of thematic material. Much of this sounds like the scraping of the Still barrel.

Jonathan Woolf




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