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Big Muddy

Navona Records NV5815




Patrick Beckman
Big Muddy - Suite for Clarinet & Piano (2008)

I - Memphis Nightrain [7:13]
II - Bayou Lament [9:52]
III - St Louie Thunder [7:08]
IV - Natchez Hymn/Gigue [8:26]
V - Catfish Rondeau [7:45]

Patrick Beckman (piano); Richard Stoltzman (clarinet)
rec.: Futura Productions, Roslindale MA USA, 11 November 2008

Composer Patrick Beckman is a new name to me as is that of the company releasing this CD - Navona Records. Navona seem to be a label ploughing a fiercely independent path with discs notable for the individuality (some might say perversity) of their programming. So I should say straightaway that I enjoyed this disc greatly. Big Muddy is an extended suite for clarinet and piano that runs to nearly forty minutes divided into five movements. The idiom is a successful fusion of jazz and contemporary music. Beckman has composed the suite to combine passages of exactly notated music with sections allowing the performers to improvise in true jazz fashion. With the composer at the keyboard (not as technically fluent as some might be but totally in the idiom) and the renowned Richard Stoltzman on clarinet we can be certain that this is an authoritative performance. The Big Muddy of the title is the Mississippi river and the five evocatively titled movements are a kind of musical postcard.

One of Navona's innovations that I like very much is the inclusion on the "enhanced" CD of pdf files of the scores of the music. This is particularly fascinating in a work such as this which has elements of freedom built into it - with the scores on hand you can see exactly where and how the players are "let off the leash". At the same time it is interesting to see that Beckman is more cavalier with following his own dynamic markings than Stoltzman is! Richard Stoltzman is one of those players who has managed to follow a career embracing both the classical and jazz fields. I think of him as a classical player who can swing and certainly that makes him ideal for this kind of project. I can't say that the sound he makes have ever been my favourite on the clarinet - a little edgy and lacking in the mellifluousness I prefer but again I have to acknowledge that it is well suited to the music here.

The first movement gives a good example of how well Beckman catches a mood using relatively few musical strokes (again being able to follow the scores shows how sparse much of the writing is) - Memphis Nightrain - bumps along in a way that manages to be languorous but with a groove. The 2nd movement - Bayou Lament - is the longest in the suite. Again all credit to Beckman for achieving so much with so little material on the page. Stoltzman achieves an ideal blanched tone and with some judicious bends into notes creates exactly the forlorn mood directed by the composer. It has the feel of some late-night improvisation in a smokey bar - too many drinks and too many memories perhaps! As the movement progresses the mood hardens into something with a bluesy slightly funky feel. As with other movements it is clear the scores changed in the studio - many of the 8 bars phrases in the score left "open" for the players become 16 bar breaks or more; through this you do get a sense of work in progress and that the work is a living evolving entity (around bar 127 in this movement what is on the page and what we hear are radically different for about 15 bars). After a reprise of the opening material the dying away coda is really beautiful in its gentle melancholy.

The 3rd movement - St Louie Thunder - is more of a study in mixed bar lengths and contrapuntal writing - the piano has a strange hybrid mix of Bachian passage-work and stride piano in the left hand. Both players are particularly successful at negotiating the transitions in and out of the free sections. The 4th movement Natchez Hymn/Gigue again starts slowly - Beckman uses a rising slow musical figure to bind the different movements together - before diving into a driving compound metre figure that is more chase than gigue. The ensuing hymn has some of the open air feeling of Copland in reflective mood. Again Stoltzman is very affecting with a gently fragile and poignantly nostalgic tone. Together with the opening of Bayou Lament this is my favourite section of the piece. Again, the opening gigue reprises before a final gesture of farewell to the hymn which incorporates the rising figure from the opening.

The suite ends with Catfish Rondeau which reminded in parts of Bernstein's Prelude Fugue & Riffs with its jumpy nervous energy. There is a feel of a jam session which is reflected in the fact that this movement has the most opportunities for the players to improvise and certainly Stoltzman takes full advantage to showcase his considerable technique. I like very much the palpable sense that the players are having fun.

The recording quality is generally good with Stoltzman's timbre well caught. I would have preferred a little more body from the piano but this might well be down in part to Beckman who doesn't seem to be able to draw as much tone from the piano as I would have liked. It is hard to know exactly the market this is aimed at - the music is probably too through composed for most jazz aficionados but too demonstrably jazz influenced for classical/contemporary collectors. Also, by running to just 40 minutes it is positively ungenerous. The packaging is good - the cardboard foldout style preferred for many jazz and rock CDs with the bulk of the information contained on the enhanced CD including composer/performer biographies and session photos as well as the previously mentioned scores. One oddity, no-where on the cover does it make it clear that Patrick Beckman is the pianist as well as the composer. At full price this is a disc that will struggle to find a market I suspect and that is a shame given the qualities of composition and performance that it displays.

Instantly appealing work fusing jazz and contemporary musical language.

Nick Barnard

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