The title of this review essay comes from F.P. Sturm‘s translation of Charles Baudelaire‘s poem “La Vie Antérieure” (“A Former Life”). While taken slightly out of context here—the full couplet is The rolling surge that mirrored the skies/Mingled its music, turbulent and rich—the individual words convey the essence of the two jazz suites under consideration. Baudelaire’s poem is one of 8 works included in Annie Booth‘s “Flowers of Evil” (self-released), and while Booth is not the first composer to set the words of the influential French poet, she is one of the few to set his poems for vocalist and jazz ensemble. Jazz didn’t exist during Baudelaire’s lifetime, and it is highly doubtful that either Arnold Schoenberg or Anton Webern had heard any form of jazz before they wrote the pieces restructured in Jeff Lederer‘s album “Schoenberg on the Beach” (little i 111). Both of the jazz suites employ a wide variety of genres to bring these old artworks into a contemporary light.
Both works have incubated in their composer’s subconscious thoughts for several years. Lederer’s high school math teacher was Schoenberg’s son Larry. While Schoenberg fils was not too willing to discuss his father’s works to an inquisitive student (We are here to discuss Mathematics), in recent years, he has become involved with his father’s foundation, and he sent greetings to his former student as the jazz project developed. Lederer’s first attempt at setting Schoenberg’s works date back to the late 1990s, but he revisited the idea a couple of years ago, writing the new arrangements fairly quickly. Booth first set Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” in 2010 after taking an intensive French literature class at the University of Colorado. She returned to Baudelaire’s poems a few years later, focusing on the suite during a two-week residence at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. I attended the work’s premiere in Boulder in March 2018, and after a successful fund-raiser, the suite was recorded in May 2021. More money was raised to press the newly-released CD and LP editions.
“The Albatross” opens “Flowers of Evil” in a setting which simulates the wounded bird’s gait through halting, stumbling rhythms. Kathryn Radakovich‘s lovely soprano voice soars over the uneven pulse as violinist Rosalee Walsh provides a rich-toned commentary. In the following movement, Booth reads the French text of “Harmonie du Soir” (“Evening Harmony”) over ominous backdrops by Matt Smiley‘s bass and Dru Heller‘s drums. Then Booth turns back to the piano to accompany Radakovich in a rubato verse of “Les Hiboux” (“The Owls”). The following verse moves the band into a joyous bouncy groove, where the vibrant tenor sax of John Gunther compliments Radakovich’s spirited vocal. The suite’s longest movement, “Le Voyage” features the tasty scoring of violin (Walsh), cello (Kari Clifton) and bass clarinet (Gunther) supporting the vocal. The style moves into progressive rock with the introduction of Tim Wendel‘s electric guitar. Wendel’s expressive solo is accompanied with strong unison horn lines and increasingly intense percussion from Heller. After a reprise with Radakovich and the band, the mood shifts into contemporary jazz with a dramatic trombone solo by Brian Woodbury, and a flowing piano solo by the composer. The coda brings back the rock feel, a brief recapitulation by Radakovich and another taste of Wendel’s guitar. “Beauty (Under Sun, Under Moon)” surges in Brazilian baião rhythm, and the perpetually-creative trumpeter Brad Goode adds to the movement’s complexity with a wild solo filled with unusual notes and audacious cross-rhythms. “Paysage” (“A Landscape”) uses the undulating rhythm section as a porous backdrop to Booth’s passionate reading of the French text. Heller’s mallets on tom-toms open the penultimate movement “The Rebel”. Anisha Rush‘s pristine alto sax engages the drummer into a spirited duet before the rest of the band enters with an urgently driving tempo. Radakovich recites the poem’s English translation, a first-person declaration by an angry angel. The mood switches to straight-ahead jazz (with none of the intensity lost) as Rush and Heller return for effective solo turns. “La Vie Antérieure” closes the suite with another soaring Radakovich vocal, performed over an intricate handclapping rhythm in the outer choruses, and alternating doubles by violin and accordion. Booth played the complete work on Denver’s jazz radio station KUVO to celebrate the album’s release. On that performance, she expanded the final movement, and that gave the work a greater sense of finality. Those readers interested in previewing this fine work should watch the video of that concert while it is still available.
Arnold Schoenberg suffered from asthma, and he found that time near (and in) the ocean lessened his symptoms. Before relocating to California, he would spend his vacations at European shores, sometimes accompanied by his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern. In the liner notes to “Schoenberg on the Beach”, Jeff Lederer cites the archival photos of the composers enjoying their time out in the sun, and finds a similar feeling within the early Schoenberg and Webern songs he arranged for his chamber jazz ensemble. The album opens with a brief audio collage by Arktureye (Noel Brennan) featuring sounds associated with the ocean and the beach. These episodes are interspersed throughout the album and they unify the work into a cohesive whole. The first movement is a powerful setting of Schoenberg’s “On the Beach”. Mary LaRose‘s expressionistic reading of the Rilke poem incorporates sprechstimme (mixed speech and song), wild jumps and slides, and the deviant attitude of punk rock! Cellist Hank Roberts offers an astounding solo before LaRose returns with the final statement of the theme. Webern’s “Blummengrass” offers a calm respite with a recurring vocal line over Matt Wilson‘s gentle bossa nova beat and Lederer’s sweet-toned flute solo. Patricia Brennan fans the waves with a rich vibraphone improvisation, as Michael Formanek anchors the band with a firm beat and a beautiful lyric solo. LaRose accurately word-paints Stephen George‘s text on the opening chorus of Schoenberg’s “Beneath the Shelter”. In the second chorus, Wilson adds a strong backbeat to fortify the groove, and Lederer jumps into a virtuosic flute solo. Roberts adds substantial counterpoint, which eventually morphs into his own solo. “The Pale Flowers of Moonlight” is an excerpt from Schoenberg’s atonal masterpiece, “Pierrot Lunaire“, and Lederer’s expansive bass clarinet solo reminds us that his predecessor Eric Dolphy also loved to play progressive classical works. Webern’s “Heiter” contains a brilliant solo sequence where each of the instrumentalists develop stunning improvisations over a brief chord pattern. Like “Beneath the Shelter”, “I Gaze Upon” comes from Schoenberg’s “Hanging Garden” song cycle. This subdued track is my favorite track on the CD, for LaRose’s nuanced recitation at the beginning, her understated vocal at the end, and the beautiful solos by Roberts and Lederer in between. “Moondrunk” is the most famous movement from “Pierrot Lunaire” but I doubt that it has ever swung like this before. Wilson’s loose-limbed beat pattern is the key to the track’s success, as he holds the relaxed, yet sassy, swing. LaRose’s break in the final chorus is an utter delight! The gently swaying rhythm of Webern’s “Summer Night” inspires lyric solos from Lederer and Brennan and a breathless vocal by LaRose. At times, it sounds like Wilson is going to blow the groove apart, but he holds just before the breaking point to maintain the peaceful mood. “Summer’s Weariness” is the only Schoenberg work included here which is built on a tone row. Lederer’s setting reprises elements from the first movement, and the defiant punk attitude permeates the group’s performance. Obviously, the primary audience for this album are fans of jazz’s outer limits, but I wonder what would happen if groups of neo- and proto-punkers heard this album? It might change a few attitudes.