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Music Reviews

ART-I-FACTS

ART-I-FACTS

Great Performances from 40 Years of Jazz at NEC

New England Conservatory of Music

How do you know when a musical genre has passed from the popular universe to academia? Why, when they start passing out Genius Grants to the practitioners. A century ago, jazz was a rude, raucous style you had to visit the black part of town to experience. Fifty years ago, it filled an intellectual niche that used to belong to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Today, jazz lurks around small clubs and university practice rooms; and places like the New England Conservatory of Music actually have something to preserve.

So what’s left of this once world-shaking art form? We open with a quiet piano-based composition “Cottontail” by the Duke Ellington Repertory Orchestra. It’s loungy smooth, offering no challenge to the clinking glasses at the bar. Next up, we hear more relaxed piano with Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” performed by Jaki Byard, who returns a few tracks later with “Aluminum Baby” and its slow-moving big band sound. There is a lot of this relaxation on the Art-i-facts disc, but occasional key changes pop up. “All About Rosie” is a fast, more upbeat sound, recalling West Side Story or a low budget ’50s caper film, and “Train and River” slides into the audio tricks that country fiddlers use to replicate the sound of a steam engine. All is calm on the jazz front; the sound on this disc is suitable for introspective meditation. Vocals are rare, but “Go Gently To The Water” sung by Dominique Eade might be a featured number on A Prairie Home Companion. We wrap up with the most energetic tune, a tuba and euphonium-punctuated “Maple Leaf Rag.” Jazz comes in flavors, but not all of them are on this disc.

I would offer that the NEC has properly preserved this jazz. Like preserved fruit, it’s not as crispy and juicy as the original, but it will give you your vitamins through the long winter. Jazz has been described as the only truly American musical form. After a century, it’s still worth a listen if only for cultural historical background to understand hip hop and show tunes.

New England Conservatory of Music: necmusic.edu

Categories
Music Reviews

James Scott

James Scott

The Complete Works

Basta

These days, nearly a hundred years after the fact, about the only name people associate with ragtime (if they even recollect the genre) is Scott Joplin, whose music peppered the soundtrack for The Sting, which in turn gave “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag” a tremendous amount of exposure, bringing these complex compositions into the popular American musical vocabulary. Lesser known (but no less talented) than Joplin were artists like Joseph Lamb and James Scott; as minimal as Joplin’s exposure has been, Lamb and Scott have languished in near-obscurity for a long time.

This two-disc set, as advertised, contains Scott’s complete works, 38 tunes in all, mostly rags but also some waltzes and other popular forms of the time. Scott’s compositional style is unique and “athletic” (to quote the extensive liner notes), and it’s impossible not to marvel at how music like this could have been composed in the first place — at times, it sounds like pianist Guido Nielsen possesses three or four hands, or may be tapping on the high keys with a pointed shoe.

Nonetheless, the torrents and cascades of notes that issue forth from the speakers are a definite source of joy and wonderment. In particular, “Frog Legs Rag,” one of Scott’s most popular pieces, has the jaunty swagger often associated with ragtime, and while somewhat similar to Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” has a unique character in its wanderings up and down the keyboard. Nielsen (who’s had turns in the Beau Hunks) performs with a loving touch — his playing is restrained where it should be, and jubilant everywhere else, without littering these compositions with flash or breakneck speed. Something about the technical challenges in playing ragtime music, with its complicated rhythms and melodies, seems to bring out the worst in many a pianist, but Nielsen shows copious amounts of respect here.

Massive liner notes and graphics (photos and illustrations abound in the booklet) complete this package. Although the notes warn that “details of Scott’s life are not as clearly documented as we would like,” this somehow couldn’t prevent ragtime connoisseur Galen Wilkes from assembling a meticulous history of Scott’s accomplishments as a composer, performer and published musician. Cover artwork by the ultimately appropriate Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library) is the crowning touch on this authentic piece of ragtime history. Well worth exploring.

Basta Music: http://www.bastamusic.com