Apollo Saxophone Orchestra: Perpetual Motion
Barbara THOMPSON (b.1944)
Perpetual Motion [5:17]
Dear Bach [7:20]
Dear Bach…Epitaph [2:03]
Apollo Saxophone Orchestra
rec. 3-5 January 2012, Royal Northern College of Music. DDD
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6200 [52:06]
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 work.
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.
The Apollo Saxophone Orchestra demonstrates the great diversity of saxophone sound in these original and attractive works.