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Dance of the Three Legged Elephants
Matthew BARLEY (b.1965) and Julian JOSEPH (b.1966) Improvisation #7 [1:40]
John Francis Anthony (‘Jaco’) PASTORIUS (1951-1987) (Used to be a) Cha Cha [5:33]
Matthew BARLEY and Julian JOSEPH Improvisation #3 [5:36]
Julian JOSEPH  Castellain Sunshine [8:47]
Antônio Carlos JOBIM (1927-1984) Sabia [3:31]
Julian JOSEPH Dance of the Three Legged Elephants [11:53]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Pièce en Forme de Habanera [4:23]
John McLAUGHLIN (b.1942) Miles Beyond [9:57]
Julian JOSEPH Vika [11:40]
Matthew BARLEY and Julian JOSEPH  Improvisation #2 [5:24]
Matthew Barley (cello); Julian Joseph (piano)
rec. Champs Hill, UK, 2-4 March 2009. DDD.
Experience Classicsonline

When I opened my packet of review CDs I wondered why on earth I had bid for a recording with such a weird title and such a surrealist cover. Then I remembered that the appeal came from the combination of cellist Matthew Barley, soloist on the Avie recording of Jon Lord’s Durham Concerto and director of the Academy featured in the BBC Classical Star programme, and pianist Julian Joseph. Joseph is best known as the former presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Line-up and also a distinguished performer and composer. If you enjoyed the Durham Concerto as much as I did (AV2145 - see review and review), you’ll almost certainly like this Signum recording. I enjoyed it so much that it just had to be my Recording of the Month.

Both performers combine an interest in classical music and jazz improvisation, ‘crossover’ music in the truest sense of the word, a term often misapplied to saccharin middle-of-the-road compositions. There’s nothing bland about the programme here, the backbone of which is provided by three improvisations from the two performers, two of them book-ending the CD. The most substantial item, at the heart of the programme, is Julian Joseph’s composition which provides the CD’s title and there are two other substantial works by him. The title piece is followed by the Pièce en Forme de Habanera, one of the most dance-influenced works by a composer whose music regularly shows the influence of jazz. The remaining pieces come from ‘Jaco’ Pastorius, Antônio Carlos Jobim and John McLaughlin. Instead of the lowest common denominator, this recording presents the highest common factor. Yes, I know that the HCF is a smaller number than the LCD in mathematics, but I’m using the terms metaphorically.

The opening Improvisation #7 is a short, quiet, reflective piece ideally chosen to get the listener in the mood for the programme. ‘Jaco’ Pastorius’s Cha Cha which follows provides a lively contrast. Presumably designed originally for Pastorius’s own instrument, the electric bass guitar, it’s here redesigned as a work of homage to a great player, with the cello imitating the sound of a bass guitar. Will Todd’s sleeve-notes aptly describe the effect as devilish fun enjoyed by two brilliant musical personalities: we briefly hear the performers chuckle at the end. Actually three brilliant personalities are involved - the two performers and Pastorius himself, brought back to life, as it were.

Improvisation #3 is another reflective piece to vary the mood again; I almost wrote ‘mournful’, but ‘soulful’ would give a better indication of its qualities.

Julian Joseph’s Castellain Sunshine opens with a hint of a Debussy-like mood before showing its Latin colours. Sunshine it may be - the mood is predominantly light-hearted - but the sunshine is often filtered wistfully through the clouds. I’d have liked a little more help from the notes - where does the castellain come into the picture? To complicate matters further, this piece was listed as Castellaine Sunshine on Julian Joseph’s website when it was broadcast in 2004.

If, to summarise crudely, Barley is a classically-trained musician with a profound interest in bridging gaps which he feels should never have existed, Julian Joseph is cast more in the ‘Duke’ Ellington mould. I remember a Radio 3 concert in which his ensemble brought to life some of the pieces from Ellington’s The River more effectively than the somewhat over-classical Collier arrangement on the only commercial recording of that work, on Chandos. I have strongly recommended that Chandos recording (CHAN9154, see August, 2009, Download Roundup), but the Julian Joseph Ensemble took the music to a completely different level, one that was more appropriate to the memory of Ellington himself. Perhaps some enterprising company will record them in it? For the moment, though, I’m more than happy with the way in which he and Matthew Barley interpret his/their own music and the other pieces on this CD.

Brazilian writer Antônio Jobim’s Sabia is also rearranged to excellent effect; though Barley really takes centre stage here in this smoochie rendition, the interplay between him and Joseph is again excellent. Jobim’s fellow-countryman Villa-Lobos would hardly have been ashamed if his name had been attached to this piece, as it’s performed here.

If Castellain(e) Sunshine is sunlight through clouds, the Dance of the Three Legged Elephants is a lively form of the blues; the effect is almost hypnotic and it forms a very worthwhile centre-piece to the programme. At times it’s almost as urgent as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and as much fun as Saint-Saëns’ Carnaval des Animaux.

The Ravel again forms a contrast; it also illustrates the three-way interplay between an essentially classical work, the traditional Spanish dance form, the habañera, and jazz. Once again the performance brings out all the elements in the music, with the cello in its highest register sounding violin-like. I had feared that the performance might be a little too respectful of ‘real’ classical music, but I need have had no fears on that score. They are a little slower than most performances of the violin/piano original. Otherwise, short of a Swingles-like reshaping of the work, this performance really does offer the best of both worlds.

John McLaughlin’s Miles Beyond is a tribute to Miles Davis by a performer who appeared with him in the 1970s. Like the three-legged elephants, this is blues-influenced music that goes well beyond its model - hence, presumably, the second word of the title. Miles is, of course, also beyond in another sense, but the notes are surely right to imagine him smiling to hear the piece. This was for me almost as much a highlight of the CD as the three Joseph compositions.

The penultimate piece, Julian Joseph’s yearningly beautiful Vika, originally written for Matthew Barley’s wife, the violinist Viktoria Mullova is almost as long as the central work. This is music in a very different mould from the Dance of the Three Legged Elephants but just as attractive in its own way. Once again, it blends influences from many traditions - the notes mention European music and Chick Corea, for example - without ever sounding imitative. Once again, too, the performance is assured and convincing.

Barley and Joseph round off the CD with another of their improvisations, Improvisation #2. I’m not even going to try to describe this wonderful piece, except to say that it was the perfect end to a very enjoyable recording and that it left me wishing for more. They couldn’t have crammed much more on, at over 72 minutes - so when will their next CD be appearing? In fact, there is an eleventh, bonus track unacknowledged on my review copy; I’ll leave you to discover the surprise for yourself.

The recording is excellent. The notes have their deficiencies, such as the lack of explanation of Castellain(e) Sunshine, but they are also very helpful. Several times I have found myself borrowing their words for want of anything better to describe the music. Nowhere in the booklet are the dates of birth of the two performer/composers given. I’m grateful to Sarah Bruce, director of Lomonaco Artists, for furnishing that of Matthew Barley via Len Mullenger, webmaster of MusicWeb International.

Rather oddly, at least two online dealers are showing the CD with a very different cover from that on my review copy, which is identical with that shown on the Signum website. I mention this in case you are fortunate enough to live near a ‘real’ record shop and are looking for the cover in a browser. That doesn’t detract from the fact that the recording beguiles and overwhelms alternately - sometimes simultaneously - and that it’s a worthy Recording of the Month.

Brian Wilson 


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