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Dancing: The Jazz Fever Of Milhaud, Martinu, Seiber, Burian & Wolpe

Ebony Band / Herbers
Release Date: 10/11/2011 
Label:  Channel Classics   Catalog #: 30611   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Emil Frantisek BurianBohuslav MartinuDarius MilhaudMátyás Seiber,   ... 
Conductor:  Werner Herbers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ebony Band
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 1 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DANCING: The Jazz Fever of Milhaud, Martin?, Seiber, Burian, Wolpe Ebony Band CHANNEL 30611 (61: 25)

WOLPE Suite from the ’20s. BURIAN Suite Americaine. MARTIn? Jazz Suite. SEIBER Jazzolettes Nos. 1, 2. MILHAUD Read more class="ARIAL12bi">La Création du monde

This is a stimulating and interesting disc of jazz-inspired classical music of the 1920s and very early 1930s by a band I had not previously known. The Ebony Band is the brainchild of Werner Herbers, former principal oboist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for 35 years. He founded the group in 1990, toured Europe with it for 17 years, but then stopped concertizing. The goal now is to record for posterity a repertoire of jazz-classical hybrids spanning several decades, but particularly focusing on this early period.

It was a heady time, the 1920s, and one of the few in which classical composers wrote jazz-influenced classical music using the actual orchestration of jazz bands: small combinations of brass and reeds, with only an occasional orchestral woodwind (other than clarinet) or strings. The general drawback, for the most part, was that these composers were working at a remove from the actual source of the music. Only French composers such as Milhaud and Ravel bothered to actually come to America and hear jazz first-hand before putting pen to paper.

The somewhat shadowy Stefan Wolpe, a follower of both dada and the Second Vienna School in addition to jazz, leads off with his highly eclectic and quite inventive Suite from the Twenties. In its six pieces, the first two and last two clearly owe their origin to the kind of ragtime rhythm with jazz inflections that also informed the music of his colleague Kurt Weill, but the two middle movements—“Tanz (Charleston)” and “Tango”—are fully developed atonal music in the style of Alban Berg. (As fortune would have it, Wolpe’s ouster from Germany by the Nazis in 1933 eventually led him to studies with Berg in Vienna.) This is really fine music despite its being at a remove from real jazz.

Next we have a five-movement Suite Americaine by the even more eclectic composer Emil Franti?ek Burian (1904–59), better known as a stage director, writer, and filmmaker. In the 1920s, when he was a pupil of Josef Suk and J. B. Foerster, Burian founded the Presence Society, championing the Second Vienna School, the French avant-garde, and the “symphonic jazz” of Paul Whiteman. So much of Whiteman’s music is not only clearly dated but cluttered in style and stiff in rhythm that it’s difficult for us today to take him seriously, but Burian and others apparently did. Luckily, his suite is colorful and imaginative if not on the high level of Wolpe. Burian wrote it as a piano duo, then arranged it for a mixed instrumental ensemble within a month of its completion, and the most unusual feature of the piece is the inclusion of a Stroh violin, invented in the last years of the 19th century as an instrument for recording purposes only: essentially a stick with a violin fingerboard and a protruding metal horn (like than of an old gramophone) through which the sound is projected via a membrane. The particular model used by Burian was called a “violophone,” a photo of which is in the booklet. Recorded digitally rather than acoustically, it has a strange resonance, almost like that of a theremin, and this sound is particularly effective in the third and fourth pieces of the suite, the “Valse Boston” and the “Tango Argentino.”

Following this is an eclectic Jazz Suite by none other than Martin?, which builds through the ragtime-influenced Prelude and first musical entr’acte, a Blues, to much more jazz-rhythmed sounds in the second entr’acte, “Boston” (the name of a very slow waltz form popular in France), and the exuberant Finale, which leads almost seamlessly into Matyás Seiber’s two Jazzolettes. Seiber is an interesting and quite important figure in the early European acceptance of jazz as an art form, as he was appointed head of the first jazz department in a German conservatory, in this case Frankfurt (at the very time, I might add, that “philosopher” Theodor Adorno was working and writing in that city and began his 30-year rants against jazz as anti-intellectual and a music of “false freedom” for soloists). Seiber was later criticized heavily and often in the Nazi press for his associations with jazz, but he was to busy writing a large and eclectic body of music. Late in life, he composed (in collaboration with British jazz band leader Johnny Dankworth) one of the most interesting of jazz-classical hybrids, the Improvisations for Jazz Band and Orchestra. Here, his music has the true jazz rhythm, not a ragtime one, and both pieces—though separated by three years—sound of the same mindset.

Ebony’s program concludes with the most famous and, to many, the most successful of early jazz-classical hybrids, Milhaud’s La Création du monde. The band’s performance of this well-worn favorite breathes new life into it: It is both suave and undulating with the gentle nudge of off-center rhythms, somewhat underplayed at first but building in intensity as it progresses. This is one of the finest versions I’ve heard, next to Milhaud’s own 1932 recording.

The sound quality of the disc is a bit odd for this kind of music, being not only warm but quite ambient, which sometimes softens the rhythmic punch that the Ebony Band brings to the music. I am not sure if this was the result, as is often the case nowadays, in post-production work rather than a result of the recording session itself. This is not a serious detriment, but it does lend the music more softness than it really needs.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Suite for 2 Pianos "American" by Emil Frantisek Burian
Conductor:  Werner Herbers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ebony Band
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1926; Prague, Czech Republ 
Jazz Suite for Orchestra by Bohuslav Martinu
Conductor:  Werner Herbers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ebony Band
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1928 
La création du monde, Op. 81 by Darius Milhaud
Conductor:  Werner Herbers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ebony Band
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1923; France 
Two Jazzolettes by Mátyás Seiber
Conductor:  Werner Herbers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ebony Band
Suite from the Twenties by Stefan Wolpe
Conductor:  Werner Herbers
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ebony Band
Period: 20th Century 
Notes: This selection is a suite of piano pieces arranged by Geert van Keulen. 

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