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The City Of My Soul / Sophie Duner & The Callino Quartet

Release Date: 03/26/2013 
Label:  Big Round Records   Catalog #: BR8926  
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DUNÉR Kairo. The Plot. Marionettes. The City of My Dreams. Hey Doctor. Aurora. Ugly Beautiful. Red Sailor Girl. Silent Revolution. The Singer from Hell. Dizcharmed. Why. Arms Against Reality. Captain Crunch. The Rain in Spain. You. Happy People. TIZOL Caravan. MONK Well You Needn’t Sophie Dunér (voc); The Callino Str Qrt BIG ROUND RECORDS 8926 (63:06)

This CD, Read more which goes under the title The City of My Soul, is the kind of record that could only have existed in a post-Third Stream age, sung and played by musicians who have absorbed (either directly or indirectly) the advances and innovations that came into jazz from the era of George Russell, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman and developed exponentially through its absorption into the classical mainstream. The producer of this disc, Michael Haas, says in the liner notes that he usually turns down requests to work with jazz musicians but felt compelled to work with Sophie Dunér because of the fascinating complexity of her compositions, which he describes as “jazz art-song.”

We hear this immediately from the first track of his CD. Kairo has an oddly loping 4/4 beat with complex writing for both the voice (her opening line, though in C Major, immediately uses G? and A? in the second bar of her vocal line, then in bars 10-11 modulate all over the place—C and D? on the third space and fourth line of the staff, followed by a descending figure of C?, A?, F, and middle C) and the quartet, and even in Juan Tizol’s overly familiar Caravan Dunér takes the music into modal harmonies (quite appropriate for what was, in its time, a pseudo-Eastern tune). What fascinated me about these performances was the fact that, although there are variations sung by Dunér or played by one or more of the string players, most of it is written out. The “enhanced” CD includes scores of each piece (except Caravan , possibly due to copyright restrictions), thus the musically literate listener can follow along—but only if you copy the scores to your desktop before playing the disc, since the scores are on the record!

Vocally, Dunér is more of a mezzo than a soprano (her scores also denote mezzo-soprano and string quartet), but her voice is rich and full. Curiously, she employs more of a classical technique than a jazz one, draining the voice of all vibrato except for held notes at the ends of phrases (what older writers on vocal art used to call “terminal vibrato”), which put me in mind of some well-known singers of the baroque repertoire. Her voice is also very flexible and swings. (On one note in Marionette , she adds a growl to her voice à la Louis Armstrong.) My sole complaint about her singing is that her diction is not very clear; consonants are swallowed. (She sings the words “city of my dreams” as if it were “suit oh mah deems.”) I realize that English is not her first language (Dunér is Swedish), but she could learn a lot about singing in English by listening to the jazz recordings of Alice Babs, who was close to flawless.

The music in each piece bears a different style and shape: The Plot (track 3) has an oddly loping 7/4 time with the cello playing running figures with multiple accidentals throughout; Marionette sounds almost like Kurt Weill; Hey Doctor has an underlying, driving rhythm that sounds like a bit of jazz-funk from the early 1960s…except for the more dissonant harmonies and a wild violin solo in the middle that few, if any, violinists of the ’60s could have (or would have) played—and in this case, both the vocal and violin solos are improvised, not written (though the score does say where to insert the improvisations). Her arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s Well, You Needn’t will really open your ears—she starts off with dissonant vocal whoops that almost sound like another Monk, Meredith. It begins with the D on the fourth line, jumping up to G above the staff, two more Ds in dotted rhythm, then D? jumping to G? above; in the second bar, E on the fifth space to A above the staff, followed by two Es, then E? up to A? and two more E?s. I assume that the Callino Quartet’s lead violinist, Sarah Sexton, is the one taking the solos, and the one on this particular number (again, totally improvised, not notated) is wildly swinging in double time. Except for the extra dissonance, her playing resembles one of the most underrated jazz violinists of all time, Carroll Hubbard, whose almost surrealistic solos graced many recordings by Lee O’Daniel’s Hillbilly Boys back in the 1930s.

The ballad Ugly Beautiful is a jazz waltz revealing a lighter, more tender side of Dunér’s musical personality. An excellent indication of Dunér’s vivid musical imagination may be heard in the construction of Red Sailor Girl , where the melodic line is asymmetric, scored as 3/4 but with the rhythmic displacements simulating a quirky 4/4, and the way Dunér constructs the melodic line abbreviates beats or note-values in various places to further disorient the inattentive listener. (Try singing along with this one and you’ll know what I’m talking about.) Only when one reaches The Singer From Hell does one encounter what I’d describe as a “regular” 4/4 swing beat, but even this is disrupted by rhythmic displacements and harmonic innovations. Dizcharmed has a similar melody, and almost the same rhythm and tempo, as Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll , but once again Dunér takes it into a new and different dimension. The quartet’s introduction to Why? is written in 4/4 but played as rapid triplet figures (quarter note=100). As soon as the vocal line begins, in a quirky rhythm (G? on the first beat; second beat rest, followed by two 16th note rests, then two 16ths, and a triplet figure on the last beat of the bar), the strings follow the singer. The music of You has the kind of beat, and melodic-harmonic construction, that suddenly puts me in mind of Herbie Nichols, possibly the most underrated and ignored great jazz composer America has ever produced.

Haas mentions in the notes that Dunér prefers classical recording techniques, which eschew overdubbing, and how generous she was “when small points of voice leading were pointed out or difficult double-stopping raised eyebrows.” The artist herself says that this recording experience was one of her “most exciting musical adventures,” despite the project involving “a great deal of risk.” Perhaps the lone complaint I have of Dunér’s creations involves some of the lyrics. It seems to me that the kind of phraseology used in the text doesn’t really have the same meaning for American English speakers, i.e., the lyrics occasionally appear surrealistic or at least complicated by the use of words that fit the musical flow but do not “scan” well. Perhaps the best example I can give are the lyrics for Marionettes ; they fit the music, but to an English-speaking listener they don’t make a great deal of sense:

Marionettes are good to have in bed.

Marionettes are good as long as they’re in your head;

They lift you up, they put you down:

Like a puppet theatre going round and round.

Muppets and puppets and guys and dolls—

Don’t let them push you around.

Rainbows and moonbeams and elves and trolls—

Don’t let them mess around with your mind.

They’re the kind of lyrics I’d categorize as “Ingmar Bergman surrealistic.” I couldn’t imagine an American jazz songwriter worrying about marionettes in one’s head, or anywhere else for that matter. But since much of the music on this disc is also surreal, I suppose the lyrics can be too.

Overall, however, this is a stunning album, the music of which certainly opens up new and quite astonishing possibilities for other jazz vocal artists around the world to emulate and expand. Dunér’s seriousness as an artist and a musician are not to be questioned. This is a first-class creator reaching out to expand further the sometimes-uncomfortable relationship between jazz and classical music.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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