We have here three very different CDs all of which feature composer/performer Gene Pritsker along with a variety of his colleagues and collaborators. Each of these CDs is a unique production and reflects a marvelously creative group of composers and performers.
I first came to know of Pritsker’s work when he sent me a copy of his wonderful chamber opera, Manhattan in Charcoal and when I began to learn of the scope of his work through his numerous You Tube videos and his website I found myself rather overwhelmed and wholly intrigued. In fact I can’t shake a comment which Leonard Bernstein once made about Igor Stravinsky to the effect that he was able to switch between different styles at different times with seeming ease and certainly skill (It was a comment made on a vinyl disc in which Bernstein spoke of Stravinsky in general on one cut and described the imagery of Petroushka on another.). Pritsker’s Russian origins certainly play a part in reminding me of this association but it is the sheer extent and variety of his compositional visions and techniques that drive me to be reminded of this. His virtuosity on the guitar also puts me in the mind of Frank Zappa at times too. And he seems to be doing it pretty much all at once too, utilizing a wide palette of styles selectively with care and subtlety. Pritsker switches between some very classical sounds to rock, jazz, rap, etc. as though the distinctions don’t exist or matter. In the end they don’t matter really. All is music I suppose and he seems be able to use them all pretty well and these discs are a nice sampling of some of this interesting musician’s various guises and interests.
Fortunately I am not attempting a comprehensive cataloging of all that but rather reviewing a nice little selection of some current releases which Mr. Pritsker was kind enough to entrust to my critical ear. First up here will be a Mozart tribute of sorts. Regular readers may recall another entertaining Mozart-based recording by John Clark (here). Indeed Mr. Clark makes an appearance here both as composer and performer. This curious little disc consists of short, clever glosses on Mozart by Gene Pritsker, Patrick Grant, John Clark, Milica Paranosic, Dan Cooper and David Taylor. Pritsker in particular seems to have a penchant for reworking music by other composers. His Bach-based works also deserve attention as well. But that is another matter.
There are 13 tracks and all have a somewhat improvisational character. Of course variation forms are ubiquitous and varied throughout music history and these are, if not strictly speaking, “variations”, then something close which is why I have chosen the term glosses. But all are entertaining and reflect a sort of new music take on Mozart who appears to have some meaning for each of the composers (Mozart is my desert island composer by the way). I am sure that Mozart himself would have been amused and honored. These are most certainly homage at the very least.
The CompCord Ensemble consists of Charles Coleman, voice; Chanda Rule, voice; Milica Paranosic, voice/gusle; Patrick Grant, voice/harpsichord; Lynn Bechtold, violin; Dan Barrett, cello; John Clark, horn; David Taylor, bass trombone; Gene Pritsker, guitar; Dan Cooper, bass; Javier Diaz, percussion/voice; Gernot Bernroider, drums; Franz Hackl, trumpet.
There are no liner notes here and perhaps that is for the best. I have no doubt that there are a great deal of personal stories here as to how these pieces came about and what they mean to the respective musicians but they do stand on their own as entertainment and to my ear sound like they could even work as a film soundtrack (most likely a non-American film). This is entertaining material, perhaps a bit “inside” with its references but not difficult or obscure. I will leave it to some future musical archaeologist to elucidate those details. The listener need only sit back and be entertained.
Now to the second disc. This is quite different in character being a duo between a guitarist (Gene Pritsker) and a drummer (Peter Jarvis). Such scant scoring tells one nothing about what is to come. Each of the six tracks is by a different composer (Peter Jarvis, Gene Pritsker, David Saperstein, Joseph Pehrson, Jessica Wells and Daniel Palkowski). As with the previous disc there are no liner notes so one is left with nothing but the sound.
This appears to be much more of an improvisational nature than the previous recording considered above. The style here ranges from free jazz to rock and perhaps some contemporary musical styles as well. Each track is a succinct statement and none of the tracks seem to go longer than necessary. The musicianship is superb so if you are fond of the sound of guitars and drums played creatively and well you will enjoy this disc. These musicians extract a great deal of varied sounds from their instruments.
Finally we have this disc of song cycles. Now the only song cycles I know at all well are those of Franz Schubert but that is, I think, an adequate place to begin to understand what is going on here (still flying without liner notes).
Eight composers and eight poets are featured in six song cycles. The first and last cycles (tracks 1-3 and 16-19) are the only ones which include instruments in addition to the voice and piano. Only one song here (Inside on track 15) features poetry by the composer. The rest, like Schubert utilized existing poetry.
Most of these composers are unknown to me which is both the joy and the bane of reviewing such discs. All of these fall roughly into the classical art song tradition even with their occasional blues inflections (as in the Pritsker songs) or extended instrumental techniques. David Gutay, Zach Seely, Patrick Hardish, Luis Andrei Cobo, Eleanor Cory are all new names to me and it Mr. Pritsker is to be commended for his efforts to promote others’ music. The two composers here who are familiar are Mr. Pritsker and, another reason for commendation, Lester Trimble (1923-1986), a man embraced by Leonard Bernstein and cut from similar sonic cloth as both Bernstein and Copland. This recording of Trimble’s Canterbury Tales is a welcome addition to the discography of mid to late twentieth century masters who deserve at least another listen.
The poets include: Tony Roberts, Jacob Miller, Dorrie Weiss, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, Eleanor Cory and Geoffrey Chaucer.
Performers include Elizabeth Cherry, soprano; Thomas Carlo Bo, piano; Katie Cox, flute; Charles Coleman, voice; Derin Oge, piano; Patricia Songego, soprano; Taka Kigawa, piano; Lynn Norris, soprano; Amir Khorsrowpour, piano; Eleanor Taylor, soprano; Christopher Oldfather, piano; Circadia Ensemble consisting of: Melissa Fogarty, soprano; Kaoru Hinata, flute; Christopher Cullen, clarinet; Jenifer Griesbach, harpsichord (in the Trimble cycle).
The performances are uniformly excellent albeit a collection of separate recordings all mastered, as were the previous two discs by Sheldon Steiger. If you love art song this is a treasure trove of current compositions but with a healthy respect for the past.