, January 2004
Once whilst a student teacher I had a big argument with my mentor - he complained that Jacques Loussier's recordings were neither good Bach nor good jazz. I countered that it was something new, true to itself, and worthy to be argued on its own merits, and I rather liked it. He didn't! and was very forceful in his rebuttal of my claims for the style's validity, not to say irate. I was reminded of this exchange and my defence of hybrid or crossover styles whilst listening to this disc of Claude Bolling's epic suites for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio, because I really wanted to like the music, but can't sympathise as easily with this as with the Loussier. The First Suite was written for the great Rampal and, the sleeve-note informs, performed by him and Bolling in Carnegie Hall in 1975 to ecstatic acclaim. Their recording was for 530 weeks in the US popular charts (464 at no. 1).
What's good: the recording quality is excellent, the sleeve-notes are helpful in placing these creations in historical context, (and also point out that almost all flute students at the world's conservatoires study these works), the performers are exceptionally accomplished, accurate, precise and neatly together always. The music is full of varied models from the baroque - in dance forms, counterpoint, decorations, etc. There are many different jazz pulses and rhythms at work, sometimes side by side, but always clearly laid out.
Roselli's tone is fluid, warm, rich, extremely well focussed in the extremes of register and dynamic and beautifully consistent across the full gamut; the piano playing is equally refined and consistent in touch and rhythm. The bass (one player for each suite) is played with aplomb and discretion (though I'd like to hear more of their part - quite distant on some tracks), and the drummer is an admirable support, with superb brushes work in particular. This lifts some of the sections above the high standard of performance. The sixth track, Versatile, of the First Suite features some particularly fine bass flute playing. The First Suite contains seven movements including Javanaise and Irlandaise indicating the range of models called on to create the varied pattern sans textures of the whole 35-minute piece.
I have heard live performances of these pieces which moved me more, excited my listening, and intrigued my appreciation of the success with which the composer blends baroque, Faure, Duruflé, and more, and several varieties of jazz style side by side. So why do I find this disc unconvincing? Perhaps because the performers are so precise, so careful to be accurate on rhythmic units, so exact in copying each other's inflexions and phrasings, that there is a dearth of spontaneity and creativity. We are listening to recreations of someone's written notation, rather than individuals alert and alive to each other and to the potential within the notes. Perhaps this clinical precision is an acceptable and inevitable statement of our times. However, without flexibility and risk-taking, the raison d'etre - the blending of two (or more) historically disparate styles so something new arises and each element seems essential to this new style and retains authenticity - is mostly absent.
On the compositional level, retaining the key and formal structures more familiar to older music is a hampering device to the freer-ranging jazz modulations: this may be deliberately or coincidentally to retain the listener's involvement, i.e. not to frighten off the non-jazz listener and perhaps beguile him into taking on board something new to him but after all not as frightening or decadent as at first thought. If so, this is an unfortunate compromise. Real jazz doesn't inhabit these forms and stick to these balanced key structures in this way (other balances operate). So this is a case of neither real jazz nor real baroque.
The Second Suite is more naturally jazzy and freer of the baroque constraints, yet the alternative in terms of section and melodic extension is the use of longer sequences requiring more decorative variation, rather than genuine development. Here, the first movement, the longest in the pieces at almost ten minutes, brings out, in the latter pages, some genuine exuberance and spontaneously generated and directed sparkle in the rhythmic vitality and energy. And, yes, the musicians do occasionally not coincide perfectly on every note! The slow movement of three is the film-theme-like Amoureuse, a finely-spun aria. The last movement, entitled Jazzy, is the most successful on the disc for the freedom of the playing, and the original notes provide the most successful combination of different jazz rhythms and effective syncopations and tempo changes. From this, it is possible to argue that the disc moves progressively from strict baroque to free jazz. This is a worthy feature, whether planned or naturally inevitable in these two works.
I am hugely impressed by the fluency and control of the players and in particular the outstanding flautist and pianist, who ensure every note is clearly played and cleanly projected - at all dynamic levels and whatever the rhythmic intricacy. But it's a little like seeing a cross between the front end of a camel, say, with the rear end of a lion - the colour's the same, but nature just didn't intend it to happen. So why do I still like and would I still defend Loussier? He was inventing as he was playing, using a Bach original as a starting point, acknowledging its essence and respecting it, yet simply saying this is my springboard and off I go on my imaginative wing. Bolling provided great tracks with Ellington and Armstrong and for many films, but this hybrid is too formulaic for the free spirit of creative imagination to take wing. I have no doubt it would be different were he playing in the ensemble to provide his own creative urge to the ensemble's invention.
If you want a finely attentive, precisely accurate performance of these pieces, I can't imagine them being more carefully and lovingly recreated; if you like to hear musicians on the edge risking themselves and surprising their listeners, this will leave you short-changed.