Walt’s Ratatouille 3.

Walt Mundkowsky

[April 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]

These records influenced the course my listening subsequently took. Their CD versions are new to me, and fifteen years have passed since I last lowered a stylus. Can one look back without disappointment?

Paul BLEY: Ballads. Bley, piano; Gary Peacock, Mark Levinson, bass; Barry Altschul, percussion. ECM UCCE-3003. (Japanese import)

Ballads (rec. 3-31 and 7-28-67) was planned as a double album for ESP. Instead, this half became ECM’s tenth release, in 1971. (Bley would later issue the rest on his own label, as Virtuosi [I.A.I. 123844-2].) It reached CD last November, via ECM’s “piano-ism” series in Japan. I recently praised the group’s Ramblin’ (Red Records 123117.2), done the year before. It boasts a wider range of options, but these obsessive moods chill more deeply. Annette Peacock’s skeletal tunes are stretched nearly to snapping, and melancholy settles like fog. Soon Bley would escape; after the slyly named Mr Joy (1968), he spent several years with Robert Moog’s pioneering synthesizers.

Naked instrumental roles and obstinate despair — Ballads could be jazz’s version of the Shostakovich quartets. That isolation is emphasized when each player takes a different tempo. Altschul’s restless, shuffling beat seldom drives events, and his focus on cymbals and snare fits the bare textures. “Ending” comes first, lasts 17:20, and resists resolution. Familiar Bley patterns — jagged phrasing, leaping intervals, plentiful pauses — wander, and awaited climaxes never arrive. Bass and drum solos (i.e., Bley’s absence) don’t quell the anxiety. With its opening tumult, gleaming shards, and rising, abrupt close, “So Hard It Hurts” (12:13) conveys an odd trajectory. The pianist sits out the middle section, for a lengthy bass / drum dialog, then a rapid-fire Altschul solo. Between these pylons stands “Circles” (2:59), more cutting than either. As Bley repeatedly laps the melodic circuit, one imagines “a raw destructive brain that pushes itself trying to get it right” (Benjamin Weissman on Bernhard’s Concrete).

These tapes weren’t ECM originals, but they sounded superb in their day (solid, rounded images). The skillful remastering has preserved the frequency extremes, and a bit of hiss. On “Ending,” bassist Gary Peacock seems more closely miked than (future audio mogul) Mark Levinson does on the remainder, but Peacock’s work has a stronger profile. For me, this is Bley’s most searching period. (Available from Amazon and CDNOW.)

Bob JAMES: Explosions. James, piano; Barre Phillips, bass; Robert Pozar, percussion. ESP CD 1009.

To anyone exploring jazz’s frontier during the mid-’60s, ESP discs were crucial. (Getting them in Denver required both determination and luck, but that was part of the fun.) So-so transfers of many ESP items appeared in 1993 from ZYX-Music, but Calibre bv (a Dutch outfit) promises the entire catalog. The first 20 titles feature Albert Ayler, Bley, Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, and Sun Ra, along with archival collections of Holiday and Parker. Bob James doesn’t fit in that lineup, but Explosions (rec. 5-10-65) will stun both his detractors and fans.

Dramatic gestures and interrupted progress are the keynotes. “Peasant Boy” starts with Debussy-like ripples widened by washes of pedal, but James soon turns to forays inside the piano, and then to left-hand rumbling. The dénouement is strikingly delicate. The title track also offers a bumpy ride, which begins with chimes and well-spaced piano / bass. Spooky harmonic suspensions follow, framed with Phillips’ buzzsaw bowing and drawn-out highs. The promised detonations spotlight Pozar moving decisively through a vast junk shop. Elsewhere, the music has to fight past electronic sludge (credited to Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, and Phillips). The finale seems an Ashley idea, a jazz trio run over by the broadcast of a motorcycle race. Explosions remains a puzzle. James was next seen accompanying Sarah Vaughan, before descending into the mush at CTI Records.

Calibre’s processing leaves one eager to try some of the others. The sound is surprisingly vivid — critical if the sudden shifts are to register, and kick the proceedings along. Notes on the music have been poorly translated, but ESP’s history is told with real affection.

Johannes OCKEGHEM: Missa Mi-Mi. Jacob OBRECHT: Missa “sub tuum presidium. Kurrende der Peterskirche Leipzig; Capella Lipsiensis; Dietrich Knothe, dir. Berlin Classics 0030762BC.

Knothe’s 1966 recording was made in East Germany, and appeared in the West on DG Archiv. No doubt it introduced many of us to the glories of Ockeghem (1410-97) and Obrecht (1457/8-1505), leaders in the Flemish reign over the era’s sacred music.

Both works delight in arcane procedures. Missa Mi-Mi starts each section from a falling fifth in the bass; those tones (e to a) are designated mi in the natural and soft hexachords, respectively. Ockeghem here avoids a pre-existing source and typical signposts, inventing (as Paul Hillier wrote) “an intricate, compelling web of sound out of thin air.” The long, convoluted lines pose a huge test, and even the finest current attempts stray a bit now and then. If Ockeghem does without a cantus firmus, Obrecht employs a pile of them. “Sub tuum presidium” refers to the Marian antiphon heard throughout in the same voice; it’s augmented by six others, and the climax interweaves four different chants.

Despite the Naxos-level price, this CD isn’t attractive. Knothe sets a credible pace in the Ockeghem, but his massive choir simply can’t negotiate the perilous curves. Still, a tenor-bass duet delivers a hint of the music’s grandeur. Serious imbalances mar the Obrecht; the children’s voices on top understandably lack volume, and Knothe summons instruments to provide color and reinforcement as the piece unfolds. Alas, the trombones in the Credo recall Bruckner’s E-minor effort, which might be where these folks belong.

Missa Mi-Mi has been treated well on discs (eight total, four available). Each of the other three advances an arresting case. The Hilliards’ 1984 account (a midprice Virgin Veritas, 61219) boasts stunning intonation, ensemble, and attack. (Back then they numbered eight singers — two per part — which is ideal here.) A decade later, Edward Wickham and The Clerks’ Group (ASV CD GAU 139) achieve fine clarity and impetus, with slightly less polish. Rebecca Stewart’s Cappella Pratensis (Ricercar RIC 206402) presents an integral event, not a concert. The Obrecht mass hasn’t been revisited.

Henry PURCELL: The Fantasias for Viols. Concentus Musicus Wien; Nikolaus Harnoncourt, dir. Vanguard Classics OVC 8091.

During the summer of his 21st year (1680), Henry Purcell created this cycle, in a style no longer current. (Roger North reported that Charles II “had un utter detestation of Fancys” and “could not forbear whetting his witt upon the subject of the Fancy-musick.”) One can detect the influence of Purcell’s teacher Matthew Locke (d. 1677), and of John Jenkins (d. 1678), but it’s unclear what purpose the Fantasias were meant to serve. They represent a stage in Purcell’s self-discovery and a past he couldn’t follow, and are as tantalizing and profound as any chamber music prior to Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven.

The bulk of the 15 are for three (three selections) or four players (nine). Many of them are dated, and the speed at which Purcell set down music of such complexity and finish amazes. Every sort of contrapuntal device is wielded, along with Locke’s penchant for rapid, unsettling contrasts. What’s unique are Purcell’s chromatic harmonies, which add emotional weight or skewer expectations. The Fantasia on One Note (for five) is built around its immovable center — a tenor viol sounds middle-C throughout. Purcell closes with In Nomine fantasias for six and seven voices, capping a 130-year fixation with the plainchant subject of a John Taverner mass.

Harnoncourt et al. taped their landmark version in 1963 for the Austrian label Amadeo. (Vanguard Bach Guild licensed it over here.) The Fantasias had hit vinyl before, but not with so firm a grasp of the stylistic requirements. This view still convinces; it does stress the long span over momentary fluctuations, but never seeks generic answers. Alas, the Vanguard Classics CD lacks detail and dynamic range. DG Archiv’s remastering of the same material (447 153-2, import only) has much greater impact. Both items figured in the Purcell tricentenary (1995). A few months earlier, this magnificent music could not be found on disc.

Notable new readings also surfaced during the Purcell year, or shortly thereafter; the gap has certainly been filled. Fretwork’s keenly anticipated statement (Virgin Veritas CDC 45062 2) doesn’t disappoint — alert to every tremor, and gorgeously measured. Phantasm (Simax PSC 1124) takes a more activist stance, pressing forward without looking hectic. Now at midprice (Auvidis-Astrée ES 9922), Savall / Hespèrion XX brings a lush palette to the pursuit of bipolar mood swings. And anyone curious about the In Nomine tradition on viols should snag Fretwork’s fine 1987 debut (Amon Ra CD-SAR 29).