RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Rhythms & Blues
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Excursions (1942-44) [12:07]
American Progressions (2000-02) [12:27]
When One Has the Feet of Wind (1999) [10:35]
John ADAMS (b.1947)
China Gates (1977) [5:25]
William BOLCOM (b.1938)
The Garden of Eden, Four Rags for Piano (1969) [17:46]
Jelly Roll MORTON (1885-1941)
Finger Breaker (1938) [2:59]
Afterward (four improvisations) (2009) [9:15]
Jocelyn Swigger (piano)
rec. August 2009, Majestic Theatre, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, USA
CON BRIO RECORDINGS CBR21046 [70:33]
This is a fantastic surprise. Every year, it seems a piano recital of unusual material curated by the performer drifts into my shortlist for Recording of the Year, and Jocelyn Swigger’s Rhythms & Blues is no doubt the 2011 contender. Her lineup is a great deal of fun, and essential for lovers of contemporary piano music too: we range from short explorations of American folk rhythm by the great Samuel Barber to a series of living composers - Amy Rubin, Martin Scherzinger, John Adams, William Bolcom and four improvisations by Swigger herself.
The program’s theme, if it has one, is America as musical melting pot; we have here much that is jazzy and much that is altogether new. Amy Rubin’s American Progressions brings together blues tunes, agbadza drumming patterns from Ghana (in the stunning “Grace” movement), and a page in the last movement notated only with chord progressions and demanding the pianist improvise. South African Martin Scherzinger, now resident in New York, contributes a four-movement sonata, When One Has the Feet of Wind, in a single ten-minute arc, impressively built, with moments (like around 3:15) which do seem to take flight. Just as the sonata reaches perilously “easy-listening” territory near the end, it begins to speak a fascinating new language. The first three movements use only white keys; the finale introduces black keys and thrillingly colorful dissonances.
Book-ending these works are two by more established composers: Samuel Barber’s wartime Excursions, and John Adams’ China Gates. Barber explains his work as excursions “into regional American idioms,” and we do indeed get boogie and blues filtered through the sophisticated harmonies of Barber’s classical language. Although the score is carefully notated to mimic improvisation, you would never know it; Swigger excels here in making the carefully planned phrasing really work, really sound not like fake improv but the real thing. In China Gates, Adams’ repeated cells of material take on a wonderfully mystical quality; it’s surely one of the most instantly attractive of minimalist works, and Swigger projects it beautifully.
There are some good old-fashioned jazz numbers, too. William Bolcom contributes four rags, a suite called The Garden of Eden. “Old Adam” is a particularly glorious example of the ragtime art. “The Serpent’s Kiss” is indeed a devilish number, and among its array of ideas (one senses the serpent using every last trick in its book to seduce the hapless couple) are calls for finger-clacking, tongue-clicking, and whistling. Jocelyn Swigger is, I have to say, a tongue-clicking virtuoso. Jelly Roll Morton’s “Finger Buster” is an even more devilish jazz number - for the pianists getting their fingers busted, anyway.
The collection ends with its most daring conclusion of all: four tracks of Swigger herself improvising at the end of the recording sessions. The first improvisation gets off to an unpromising start, with a series of repeated notes that smack of trying to decide what to do next, but it takes off as a sort of upside-down rag: the left hand is there, in the grand old tradition we’ve heard earlier, but the right hand won’t go down without a fight, and plays dissonant, angular lines. A similar story recurs in the movement which sounds most ‘finished’: “Ragged,” the title presumably meant halfway between tired and done playing rags.
There’s really very little competition for this; the Bolcom rags have occasionally been recorded elsewhere, Adams’ China Gates has popped up on a few recital discs - though not as much as one might expect for such an appealing work - and the Barber has been recorded several times though the Naxos performance is more soft-focus than this. But Jocelyn Swigger’s lineup here meshes extremely well, and the pieces she has chosen both go naturally together and make a very satisfying program. She digs into the rags with relish - though, wisely, not too much relish; Scott Joplin warned that the only way to play a rag poorly was to play it fast. She projects the blues rhythms very well, and feels at home in the more abstract visions of Scherzinger and Adams, where the repetition never wears. The Jelly Roll “Finger Buster” does sound rather finger-busting; Jelly Roll himself dispatches it with jaw-dropping ease, but then, as Swigger herself admits in the booklet, the composer “had much larger hands than mine.” There’s also a YouTube clip of Dick Hyman absolutely demolishing the piece on a 1986 BBC appearance. But I can’t imagine better advocates for works like Scherzinger’s, and Amy Rubin’s own recording of her piano music is now very hard to find.
Jocelyn Swigger’s booklet essay is superb and does a terrific job explaining her musical choices; the engineering is mostly very good - nothing spectacular - but I was a little disconcerted by how closely-miked the tongue-clicking in “The Serpent’s Kiss” seemed to be. It’s a quirk well worth living with, because this back-roads tour of the lovely, unexplored bits of American classical and folk music is a one-of-a-kind journey. Rhythms & Blues is my most pleasant surprise of the year so far.
What a great surprise: American rags, blues, and minimalism together in a superb program.