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Leo SOWERBY (1895-1968)
The Paul Whiteman Commissions and Other Early Works
Synconata H 176a (1924) [11:34]
Serenade for String Quartet H 137 (1917) [9:36]
String Quartet in D minor H 172 (1923) [29:04]
Tramping Tune for Piano and Strings H 122 (1917) [3:18]
Symphony for Jazz Orchestra (“Monotony”) H 178 (1925) [25:04]
Winston Choi (piano)
Alexander Hanna (double bass)
Avalon String Quartet
Andy Baker Orchestra/Andrew Baker
rec. January 9 and 10, 2020, Kennedy-King College, Chicago (Synconata, symphony); January 23 and 24, 2021, Boutell Memorial Concert Hall at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb (Tramping Tune, Serenade, Quartet)
CEDILLE CDR90000205 [79:11]

These early works of Leo Sowerby span the years 1916-1925 and four of the five required what note writer Francis Crociata aptly terms ‘triage’, given the state in which Sowerby left them. Only the Serenade for String Quartet didn’t require intervention and that’s because it alone was published during Sowerby’s lifetime.

In 1924 Paul Whiteman asked Sowerby, who was prominent in Chicago as a kind of protégé of the orchestra’s conductor Frederick Stock, for a work of symphonic jazz in classical form and Sowerby responded with Synconata. It was well received by the critics, though the Chicago Tribune critic who claimed it was superior to the recently premiered Rhapsody in Blue had clearly been knocking back too many martinis. Though it’s only eleven and a half minutes in length, it still sounds stitched together and overextended with vamp till ready moments, solo trumpet excursions (possibly written originally for Henry Busse) and a remarkable appearance of a prefiguring of Cy Coleman’s tune If My Friends Could See Me Now that was so big a hit in Sweet Charity four decades later. With ragtime elements unmistakable, this is nevertheless an example of a classically trained composer rather slumming it.

The following year Sowerby wrote Whiteman another work, this time a large-scale ‘Symphony for Metronome and Jazz Orchestra’ subtitled, alarmingly, ‘Monotony’. Not the catchiest title in the book. It housed a literary subtext, centring around Sinclair Lewis’ recent novel Babbitt and the symphony’s four movements duly chart the progress of the weary, complacent middle-class Babbitt as he negotiates Nights Out, Fridays at Five, Sermons and then ends with Critics. The work was staged as a theatrical tour de force in which a vast metronome dominated the stage swinging at 40 beats per minute. Whiteman conducted behind the metronome. We also know from Thomas DeLong’s Whiteman biography that the musicians appeared in costume, wearing smocks and helmets of papier-mâché decorated with cogwheels. As if this wasn’t enough, their faces were painted blue. Whiteman was soon to refer to the work, more sensibly, as a ‘Jazz Suite’ but it didn’t catch on. It’s a rather fascinating example of Sowerby’s predilection for eccentric time signatures, instrumental conjunctions, and slinging in elements familiar from Jazz, ragtime and even in places proto-jazz. Bluesy cadences abound as does brass wa-wa, with the piano prominent in the balance. The music draws on the antics of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band as much as on the new orchestral jazz ethos. In the second movement - a scherzo like affair – the banjo and woodblocks appear but Sowerby can’t help but introduce some weird sonorities to draw the movement to an end – not for nothing did some contemporary critics call this piece ‘fourth dimensional jazz’ and ‘a satire on the machine age’ and much else. In the third movement there are some congregational murmurings on the saxophones, Gospel hints running through bluesy cadences. The finale – a real challenge to the critics given its title is Critics – introduces some corny-satiric sounds on the piano, bass drum, banjo and brass bass. It’s clear that the work, in its theatrical context, was not a huge hit and clear too from the reminiscences of Charlie Strickfaden, who played in the premiere and was cited by Whiteman’s biographer, that the orchestra played its way and Whiteman conducted his and the result was a bit of predictable mess.

Sowerby’s 1923 String Quartet is fortunately far removed from the world of 6’5” metronomes and blue face paint. To a friend he wrote, whilst he was completing it, that it was ‘a glorified fox-trot, with plenty of blues thrown in for good measure’. Nevertheless, it’s a large-scale work at 29-minutes, notwithstanding the jovial terms with which he described it. After a slow opening introduction, the music heats up in demotic fashion, ‘heavily: not fast’ according to his instruction, a marking that the Avalon String Quartet follows to the letter. There’s a Debussian element in the central movement and it has a songlike warmth too; in fact, it sounds not unlike You're a Sweetheart, the song Jimmy McHugh was to write in 1937. Maybe Sowerby missed his vocation and should have contributed to the Great American Songbook. The finale is full of nervous energy as Sowerby cleverly inverts the initial theme. This is passionate and decisive music but, really, it could do with serious pruning.

The Serenade for String Quartet is earlier than the quartet, dating from 1917, the same year that he wrote the Tramping Tune for Piano and Strings. If the title of this last work sounds Graingeresque that’s because Sowerby come under Grainger’s direct influence at this time. In the Serenade there’s a vivid, folkloric American seal on the music – genial, witty, with slight French impressionist hues, certainly, but with an abiding breeziness and interesting harmonies. It’s hard for me to hear the ragtime critic James Huneker heard in it. The three-minute Tramping Tune is more explicitly redolent of Grainger’s influence and was originally composed as a song, then as a piano piece and eventually it appeared for the combination of string quartet, piano and double bass.

This is an expertly conceived disc, with superb annotations and an attractive booklet. The performances are memorably vivid. Orchestrally, the British-born, Chicago-resident Andy Baker and his orchestra play Synconata and the Symphony as they can never have been played before and the Avalon Quartet and their ensemble colleagues play beautifully too. Both ensembles have clearly made numerous decisions and musical judgements given the divergences in the existing scores, but they have surmounted these manifold problems triumphantly.

Jonathan Woolf

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