Stefan WOLPE (1902-1972)
Suite from the Twenties [14:23]
Emil František BURIAN (1904-1959)
Suite Americaine, Op.15 (1926) [11:21]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Jazz Suite (1928) [11:25]
Mátyás SEIBER (1905-1960)
Jazzolette No.1 (1929) [3:15]
Jazzolette No.2 (1932) [4:01]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
La création du monde, Op.81 (1923) [16:47]
Ebony Band/Werner Herbers
rec. 14 April 2007, Toonzaal, Den Bosch (Wolpe); 21 May 2007, De Vereeniging, Nijmegen (Milhaud); 27 April 2011 (Burian & Martinů), and 1 July 2011 (Martinu), Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, Amsterdam; 4 December 2001, Doopsgezinde Singelkerk, Amsterdam (Seiber).

The Ebony Band is back, this time with a jazz programme containing known and less familiar pieces recorded at recent live performances. Packaged in a nicely designed foldout sleeve and with a booklet richly illustrated with period dance-themed artworks and portraits of the composers, this is one of those releases with a vibe of anticipation to which you know in advance the contents of the disc will be more than equal.

Berlin-born and bred, Stephan Wolpe’s Suite from the Twenties dramatically links atonal modernist musical tendencies with jazz style. Geert van Keulen’s distinctive instrumentation heightens this sometimes grotesquely theatrical effect in six punchy movements, taking the music beyond what were originally pieces for piano into a kind of distortion of the dance hall. This is a marvellous piece, filled with striking and compact directness of expression. Stravinsky-like syncopations can be heard in the opening Tango for Irma, there is perhaps something of Kurt Weill’s declamatory style in the Marsch nr.1, and the spirit of Webern seems to inhabit the tonal and timbral pointillism of Tanz (Charleston).

Emil Burian was a pupil of Suk and Foerster, working for cabaret theatres and promoting contemporary music as well as composing. His Suite Americaine is distinctive not least for its prominent part for the violophone, a violin whose strings are amplified via a horn rather than the wood of a soundboard. This strange sound floats above the band like a soloist whose part is being sent in via radio relay and projected through an old gramophone player. The music itself is the composer’s sophisticated take on dance numbers like the Charlstonette (Foxtrott) and a Valse Boston. The spooky nature of the instrumentation is heavily in evidence in the restrained Tango Argentino, and the final Fuga-Fox is a miniature tour de force on the initials of the composer’s own name.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Jazz Suite has appeared a few times in recordings, and I first came across it via a Supraphon LP recording which can now be found on CD on a release titled ‘Works Inspired by Jazz and Sport.’ The Ebony Band’s performance is every bit as idiomatic as the Prague players, and with more soulful atmosphere in the Blues. The strings are more prominent in the mix, and accompanying ostinati and sustained notes intrude perhaps a bit much here and there, but this is still a cracking recording. It has plenty of that loungy salon atmosphere in the Boston and all of those subtly swinging rhythms perfectly placed throughout, and notably in the rousing Finale.

The Hungarian Mátyás Seiber is perhaps best known for film scores such as that for the 1954 animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The two Jazzolettes cross witty wah-wah playing with Second Viennese School compositional techniques – the second of the pieces starting with a 12-note row in the trumpet. This is a remarkable pair of works: brief and intense, but full of superb invention and a gasping sense of ‘how does he do that?’

There can be little doubt that Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde is the best known work here, and by chance I recently had the privilege of reviewing the composer’s own conducted recording on the André Charlin label, SLC 17. The Ebony Band is a better bunch of players than the orchestra Milhaud worked with in 1956, but it’s always fascinating to hear a composer’s own rendition of his work. The timings between the versions differs by 20 seconds, and therefore as close as makes no difference. Werner Herbers creates an almost menacing atmosphere in the opening pages, with heavy drums and emphasising the darker side of the harmonies, as well as providing a fruitily warm bed of sonority for the saxophone solo. This is a work for ballet, so fits in with the ‘dance’ theme of this album while differing in its lack of direct reference to dancehall numbers. As African ‘primitivism’ had already hit Paris and Picasso’s fascination with African masks had been launched in previous years, so was Milhaud enthralled by the black operettas he saw in New York, integrating their fashionable American orchestration into the story of creation as taken from African mythology. This is a terrific piece and a marvellous performance – art and music united in sound.

You may or may not know it, but we all really need the Ebony Band. Werner Herbers’ crusade to make us aware of forgotten composers and neglected repertoire has already brought us Józef Koffler and Konstanty Regamy (see review), Weill, Toch and Schulhoff (see review) and many more, and once you’ve widened your horizons with these kinds of programmes you will wonder why everyone else seems so keen to re-record mainstream warhorses over and over again. This Dancing – The Jazzfever of… release is taken from live recordings at various locations, but there are no discomfortingly extreme changes of recorded perspective, and applause and audience noise is absent. We’ve had popular ‘jazz’ discs before now – the kind like Simon Rattle’s London Sinfonietta EMI release way back in 1987, which always sell out in advance of Christmas and have shop owners tearing their hair out wishing they’d ordered more. Let’s hope this Ebony Band achieves the same kind of commercial success – it most certainly deserves it.

Dominy Clements

Top band, top programme, top disc.