Archive for July, 2013

Life as Opera: DYAD Plays Puccini

Her skin was the color of milk chocolate with wine poured over it. Always, her mood would dictate how drunk it became. Embarrassment or arousal and there would be a more prominent Beaujolais hue.  Even if we had left off after a fight, the first thing offered up to me the next visit was always her lips so that I had long since stopped trying to remember the circumstances of our previous parting.

We kissed, her lips on mine a thing of liquid and possessing a sort of pull. It felt as if it would go on forever, a sinking which suddenly stopped as my feet hit bottom and she sighs.

“Come on through” she yelled from the living room.

The way her words ran together, my understanding of her language, her sentences often sounded like a series of extended purrs, emitting from the back of her throat and kissed on the way out by her lips if they were not busy holding a cigarette.

She sat at the piano and nodded with her chin. I picked up the glass and put my hat down in its place. One of the appeals of my lyrics for her was tied in with ego. When she sang the songs there was never an attempt to change the “she” which everybody knew was her, to a “he” which would have made the dynamics that of her singing about someone else instead of herself via my thoughts on the matter. Older and wiser, I tried not to mix business with pleasure but we did often inspire each other’s best work and I firmly believed good poetry was meant to be heard. So I was back again just long enough for us to drive each other a little crazy while also reminding ourselves that there would always be a next time.

“What do you have for me?”

I reached into my book bag, my fingertips brushing the ever present edition of Paul Valery for luck. I passed the folio over to her. As she got down the chording I looked around the room to see if anything had changed. Her tongue behind her front teeth, she clucked three times, pleased. We agreed to talk in a few days. Even with all that we had accomplished in our respective roles I still always brought the lyrics to her in person, as it was a sign of intimate respect and to do otherwise would encompass a sort of negative symbolism. The money on the other hand was an abstract for the both of us, her agent and Mickey worked those details out so that we could avoid getting our hands dirty.  I let myself out humming the melody snatched up from the piano along with my hat.

The next day I had nothing to do but still found myself waking early. As I was giving myself the gift of a good shave the phone rang. She was calling to tell me that she would take all the songs;

“These are some of the best, there is an underlying tartness to them, perhaps from the late summer of our youth almost over…”

I told her that neither of us was that old. She chuckled then got serious again telling me that when we were through, truly and forever through, the words I would write…..

I walked up Port Royal, in an expansive mood I stopped for oysters. While lost in thought I went beyond the half dozen I was going to initially do as a snack. Her words came back to me, she had only been half kidding but the melancholy her words produced hovered in the background adding more enjoyment for their piquant quality. The bitter enhanced the sweet as both were so powerful neither reigned over the other, perhaps the best way to live not a longer but fuller life is to live as if in an opera.

She usually used the same group of musicians although always insisting that they were not her “band”. There was a strategy in this, as they knew how she liked to work, each musician would write their own parts which would be incorporated into the song (music) already written by someone else. Although a standard practice, what it meant was that even when the drummer came up with his own parts he was not given co-writing credits but merely a flat fee for the session. There had been a few times that a new guitarist would show up to a session after the regular cat expressed his displeasure a little too loudly. Encompassing all hired guns, regardless of how often she used them, made it far easier for her to replace someone with no debates necessary. None of this affected me but I felt myself in sympathy with the band. A slight guilt and so I would do some reviews of concerts they did with the smaller groups that they lead, that and an article or two just because I always knew the pen must constantly move, the ink must flow.

Jazz and classical (symphonic, operatic et al) have always been blood relatives. There was, starting in the 20th century a cross pollination as modern classical composers including Dmitri Shostakovich, Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc incorporated some jazz devices like unique time signatures and instrumentation into their scores. Within their oeuvre some pieces by Charles Mingus or Duke Ellington could be accurately labeled as suites with improvisatory sections for soloists.

Opera has more in common with jazz than would seem obviously apparent on the surface. Both have their established lexicon whose foundation is built off of, changed according to the artist’s vision of execution or done in meticulous recreation as they were first written/performed. For jazz it is the standards, for opera it is its cannon whose list depends upon which era one is referring to (classical, baroque et al). Rife with extreme feelings, opera is a fertile ground for jazz which also has a strong element of emotions as an important component in its DNA.

There have been opera inspired jazz albums both of the full voiceless translations variety and of collections of songs from various operas by one composer or as made famous by a particular singer.  The best of these show the personality of both composer and musician in equal if not alternating measure. 

The latest foray into the field is by DYAD which is the duo of Lou Caimano on alto saxophone and Eric Olsen on piano doing works from Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) operas. Both musicians show what they can do in their solo statements but the performances remain in the service of the melody of which Puccini can be said to be the king (of his era). The musicians are coming from a not strictly jazz background and this allows for their interplay to have a different type of unity than were they just from the jazz world. The looseness is replaced by emotion which resonates as Puccini had intended yet the template still managing to feel as of our time, valid.

“Musetta’s Waltz” (La Boheme) Has a casual grace akin to someone decked out in beautiful clothes whose quality includes the perfect fit which allows for completely natural movement. At points the alto has a near clarinet cadence. Throughout the album Eric’s articulation is crisp, there are points where some of the decisions in what/how he plays within his solos show some non-jazz choices and it adds to the ability of the album to call one back for repeated listening. Both musicans can play but need not play in a certain way all the time.

“Act 1 Overture” (Madame Butterfly) at the beginning the piano has a regal darkness, a bar decked out in mahogany and Carrara marble. The tempo is quicker than the previous two pieces and shows that speed does not restrict the possibility of beauty. During the middle section the deep voice of the piano does an almost Bach (ish) counterpoint while the sax takes on longer than previously heard lines of a vocaliese quality yet without any discordance. One can almost imagine Cio-Cio San’s fingers caressing the folds of the blindfold. Within each piece there are no drastic tempo changes, there is abundant skill but lack of filigree which can distract or slacken the tension. Just as when translating a work or literature from another language (or from antiquity) the voice and decisions of the translator are important yet they should be in the background a sublimation of the ego for which the work is made stronger. With this project of course there are plenty of solos and three way dialogues, between the musicians and the spirit of Puccini but there is no radical point of departure, one could almost imagine a war privation Puccini using some of these arrangements for reduced performances as he waited out the troubles much the way Igor Stravinsky did with “Histoire du Soldat” (1918).

There is a unified feeling to the album above and beyond all the songs originally coming from Puccini’s pen. To get full enjoyment from the album one need not be familiar with the original operatic source material. The sonics of the album are impressive. The pristine sound when heard through headphones presents a crystalline intimacy of experience without any digital frigidity.  Eric’s playing especially during faster tempoed moments shows him taking different avenues then what would usually be percussive runs falling off the Bud Powell family tree.

“E lucevan le Stelle” (Tosaca) is my favorite track. It starts with a swirling minor chord flurry offered up by the piano. Lou’s tone has the good tartness of a white wine made more enjoyable by being served ice cold. The piece is melancholy yet beautiful, a pretty woman softly crying for joy and the knowledge that the moment like all others too must end. Towards the end of the piece there is lone piano which is cinematic in its ability to call forth images, different for every listener.  The sax comes back at the end, a bluesy lament for two.

I type up my review and gently tuck it into the manila envelope. A blue black shawl of cigar smoke hangs over my typewriter. I figure to go mail this out as it always looks better than waiting to be asked for it.

I stop at the kiosk before the entrance to the metro to buy some flowers. The ones which catch my eye are in a plastic bucket by themselves. The old woman wraps them in green tissue paper for me;

“You are lucky these are left, this time of year most of the flowers in this color go to either funerals or weddings…”

Maxwell Chandler Paris 2013

DYAD Plays Puccini

This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (maxwellachandler@aol.com)

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