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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

American Spectrum
Michael DAUGHERTY (b. 1954)
Sunset Strip (1999) [18:14]
John WILLIAMS (b. 1932)
Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra (2002) [14:14]
Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
Lions (A Dream) for jazz quartet and orchestra (1963) [14:24]
Christopher ROUSE (b. 1949)
Friandises (2005) [27:39]
Paul Randall, Timothy Stewart (trumpets: Daugherty) Branford Marsalis (saxophones) Eric Revis (bass: Williams, Rorem) Richard Motylinski (vibraphone: Williams) Joey Calderazzo (piano: Rorem) Jeff Watts (drums: Rorem)
North Carolina Symphony Orchestra/Grant Llewellyn
rec. January 2008, Meymandi Concert Hall, Progress Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
BIS BISSACD1644 [75:28]
Experience Classicsonline

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. Granted, 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, whose Seascapes 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, a portrait 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 (1991), Motown Metal (1994) and Niagara Falls (1997). There is an element of nostalgia in all of these pieces; for instance, Flamingo remembers the ubiquitous plastic lawn ornaments of suburban America in the 1950s and 60s, Motown Metal Detroit’s glory 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 glamorous age.

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 Machine 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 and orchestra 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!

Dan Morgan 


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