The voices of the different types of saxophone are as diverse
as those of the violin family. The idea of a saxophone orchestra
should therefore be as natural as that of the string orchestra,
to which we are quite accustomed. Another thing that aligns
the saxophone with string instruments is the nature of its sound
which is not absolutely even. This adds a certain vulnerability.
Its voice is naturally curvaceous: this is surface of a natural
rock, not the side of a factory-hewn brick. When many saxophones
play together, each creates its own ripple on the water. Together
they build a sea-like picture – a living, moving fabric.
The Apollo Saxophone Orchestra was practically born for this
recording, during a special event – the 2012 World Saxophone
Congress. Rob Buckland and Andy Scott of the more established
Apollo Saxophone Quartet were the kernel. They hand-picked the
team from their ex-students. It is sad to think that this was
a one-time thing. I hope very much that this ensemble will continue
to live. The group is not big – one sopranino, two sopranos,
three altos, three tenors, two baritones and a bass – but it
sounds like a lot more!
Barbara Thompson has had a long and successful career as a sax
player – she was the leader of her own group Paraphernalia,
as well as participated in many other projects. In parallel,
she is a prolific composer, and one will notice the unusually
big role that works for saxophone occupy in her output. If I
say that the music she wrote for this disc is between classical
and jazz, you’ll probably imagine a point between two other
points, something not belonging to either one of them. In fact
this music is more like a superimposition or intersection of
jazz and classical, which incites, in turns or simultaneously,
those receptors in our brain that are responsible for pleasure
when we hear jazz, and those stimulated by classical music –
as in Gershwin’s more serious works. The tracks do not form
a coherent suite with development logic and overall structure.
Rather we hear a sequence of scenes – even though three movements,
Black, Red and Green, come from another Thompson
We may associate the name Perpetual Motion with something
very repetitive – not here. This is a restless run, well-engineered
with steam and muscle working together. The music rolls unstoppably,
complex and unpredictable – a complete attention-grabber. Dear
Bach is a homage to J.S., though not directly based on
his themes or techniques. Slow and warm, the music rises and
recedes like a warm tide. The sonority is organ-like, and Bach’s
Toccata in D minor raises its head towards the end.
Celebration is a cheerful salsa, it brings in the vibrant
atmosphere of fiesta. The bouncy rhythm is infectious, and the
arrangement is light and colorful.
Black starts with rows of bellowing dark chords. The
density increases, as the nervous, shrill high registers join
in. This is a short piece of one musical idea. Listening to
it I imagined gangsters in black alleys. Black, Red
and Green come from Thompson’s Saxophone Quartet No.2,
which is entitled From Darkness to Light. The main
transition is done in the Red movement. We start with
a dialog of gentle yet pleading arpeggios and commanding dark
statements. The next section is militarist, spiky and aggressive.
A few last imperative phrases – and only the soft arpeggios
remain, but now they are contented and tranquil. This piece
is very visual, almost theatrical, and the saxophones produce
an astonishing variety of textures. Green has a minimalistic
air. It is warm and serious, and softly rocks like a lullaby,
with some light melancholy. The music moves slowly, as if tied
or tired. There are moments of trouble and sadness, but the
ending is serene and comforting.
The main theme of iTango is a rather standard one,
but the spirit is in the arrangement. This is unsafe, Pink
Panther-like music, it purrs and meows, but then shows
sharp claws. If the word Adagio makes you think of
something sweet and lyrical, you’ll be wrong here, as this one
is dark and jazzy. This track is an adaptation of a movement
from Thompson’s Concerto for Three Saxophones. The piece is
rough and smoky. This is night-music, at times sparse and mysterious,
at times pressing and wailing. It is mostly based on a 4-note
motif, which undergoes interesting symphonic development. Bulletproof
creates the fascinating effect of a huge accordion. The music
is infectiously raucous. Its rhythm is springy yet strict, as
in Swing, but with subtle Latin spice. The virtuosity of the
soloists and of all the orchestra members is remarkable.
The composer herself performs the solo in the closing track,
Epitaph, improvising over long chords. I am not a big
fan of long soprano-sax solos in such a high register, though
you might be. What I am concerned about is the lack of stability
of the sound. It seems to me shrill and unsteady. It was unwise
to have this as the last track, as the ending is what remains
in the memory after the album is over.
Except for this last track, I really loved this album. I lived
with it for a week, and always enjoyed returning to it. The
Apollo Saxophone Orchestra demonstrates the great diversity
of the saxophone sound in these original and attractive works.
I doubt that it has many scores to perform, so such a set of
high-quality compositions, written specially for them, must
be a real find. I was impressed by the virtuosity of each player
and by its perfect ensemble, balanced and blended. The recording
quality is very good and clear, and the ambience is just right:
it was not done in jazz style, but in a concert hall, which
is good for the grand orchestral sonority. The booklet is well-written
(in English only), with words by the composer and by the writer
and saxophonist Dave Gelly. Biographies of the composer and
of each of the players are included.