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Marici Saxes
rec. February 2020, SJE Arts, Oxford
SXR 002 [62:17]

Marici Saxes is a saxophone quartet, and its members are Sarah Field, Fiona Ashbury, Hannah Riches and Josie Simmons. It embraces a wide variety of music in this album from the evocative beauties of R Carlos Nakai, a Native American flautist, through pieces from Michael Nyman’s film soundtrack for Wonderland, via another contemporary British composer James Whitbourn’s White Gold, and traditional pieces arranged by members of the group, along with Aurora by Josie Simmons.

The disc begins and ends with two Nakai pieces. The first is Waking Song in which the wind passes through the trees, a sublime effect engendered here by spatial separation of all four instrumentalists in the church in which the recording was made. The echo effects are irresistibly lovely as they are in Daybreak Vision. Kudos to the ensemble’s Sarah Field for having the imagination to arrange the pieces for four saxophones.

The three pieces from Michael Nyman’s score of Wonderland are perfect examples of his gift for melodic distinction and affecting simplicity. It’s no surprise that the director of that film, Michael Winterbottom, selected the score to use when he directed successive iterations of The Trip, the Steve Coogan-Rob Bryden TV series, and always to sensitive effect. The elegiac Franklyn is the most beautiful of the three, but Debbie’s memorability is undeniable and the chugging vitality of Jack completes a perfect triptych, played with great sensitivity and, when required, gusto.

Juxtaposing Nyman with Maxwell Davies’ Farewell to Stromness is to move from one elegy, Franklyn, to another. Over Josie Simmons’ baritone’s pedal the melody unfolds with a richness that the piano original – you’ll know it if you know the composer’s own recording – can’t possess, but either way each operates with its own sense of colour, refinement and purpose.

Josie Simmons’ Aurora was written for the ensemble and consists of three pieces. She enjoys metric shifts with hints of Reich and Nyman but she is also excellent at running sinuous lyric lines in her music, which pulses seductively, along with moments of calm, contemplative reflection that generate increased textural density, over a pulsing baritone (played by herself). The final panel of her suite is pop-oriented – it actually reminded me a little of the era of the theme tune to Taxi (remember Latka, Alex, Tony, Elaine et al?).

Similarly, Whitbourn’s White Gold is in three sections, but was originally cast as a setting of the poems of Michael Symmons Roberts. This works aptly for sax quartet; the music’s poetry and refinement transfused into the new medium, the Scotch Snap-sounding elements sounding vivid and jaunty, but the lovely melodic distinction of the writing coursing without impediment.

The traditional Chinese piece Tayal offers an evocation of native instrumentation but its colours and incident remain true to the saxophone quartet ensemble whilst Kurt Weill’s Youkali, from his 1934 musical play Marie Galante, sways with sinuous flair - perfect material for the sax ensemble. Francis McPeake’s adaptation of the traditional song Wild Mountain Thyme, also known as Will You Go, Lassie, Go offers balm. Whereas, of course, Jenny Greig’s arrangement of Balkan tunes offers much in the way of tangy rich sonorities, some of them sounding like organ swells, and a hora that will sweep you off your feet. Great dialogues here, terrific tangy ensemble vitality but also clarity of lines.

Nothing here is acerbic, resinous or forbidding. The ensemble instead promotes music of vitality, rich sound palettes, witty twists and communicative brio. This is their second disc, the first of which is called Light and which I can also strongly recommend. But start with the excellent Origin.

Jonathan Woolf

R. Carlos NAKAI (b.1946)
Waking Song (c 1989) arr. Sarah Field [2:38]
Daybreak Vision (c 1989) arr. Sarah Field [2:12]
Michael NYMAN (b.1944)
Wonderland (1999): Franklyn [3:22]: Debbie [4:50]: Jack [1:57]
Farewell to Stromness (1980) [4:12]
Aurora (c 2020): Dreaming [4:44]: Awake [4:53] Journey [4:21]
James WHITBOURN (b. 1963)
White Gold (2004 arr 2020): The Kiss [3:10]: The Gown [2:49]: The Rose [3:10]
TRADITIONAL arr. Simmons
Tayal Chinese Folk Song [3:56]
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Youkali (1934) arr. Sarah Field (2020) [3:32]
Balkan Suite arr. Jenny Greig (2018): Opa Cupa [2:45]: Jovano, Jovanke [4:02]: Gankino Horo [3:15]
Francis McPEAKE (1885-1971)
Wild Mountain Thyme [2:28]


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