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Patrick Hanudel
American Record Guide, November 2009

This release, part of Naxos’s ‘American Classics’ series, is a showcase of contemporary American composers, with two classic pieces as bookends…In this day and age, groups have to demonstrate that they are at home in a range of repertoire and styles, and in this recital the Ancia Quartet does just that.  They indulge in the thick European-style romanticism of Ives, but allow the more transparent American romanticism of Higdon and the colorful minimalist landscape of Torke to shimmer. At the same time, they aggressively spit out the angular melodies, virtuosic licks, and dissonant-polyphony in higdon’s fast movements; and they easily shift between the abstract tonality and the pop rhythms in the Bixler and the Macy. Sturm’s cool jazz and improvisatory feel and Morton’s Dixieland-style dance tune both give the ensemble the chance to ‘let their hair down’ and have some fun; and, indeed, the listener will find it hard not to start tapping his [or her – Ed] toes.

This is well done; the casual listener will enjoy it as much as the curious composer or the record-collecting saxophonist.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, September 2009

This is an excellent collection of modern saxophone quartets written by some notable and exceptional composers. The title track Short Stories is also the best and most substantive piece on this disc. Jennifer Higdon is a much-admired composer—at least by me—and has created some outstanding orchestral and chamber works. It is heartening to see that she has not snubbed her nose at the idea of a sax quartet but has instead written a major work (26 minutes) of import and depth. The piece, from 1995, is a series of vignettes giving aural descriptions of little couple-of-lines stories. In six movements, we have “Chase”, “Summer’s Eve”, “Lullaby”, “Splashing the Canvass”, “Coyote Nights”, and “Stomp and Dance”, each of them as blatantly descriptive as can be without being too obvious. But then again, part of the enjoyment is how redolent the music is of these stories, supplied in depth in the notes. This is an outstanding work.

The others are quite short, the longest (Heptagon) clocking in at just over eight minutes. This work is based on a three-note motive-cell which is used in each of its seven movements creating remarkably diverse music. Picasso Cubed is a “redoing” of Coleman Hawkin’s 1948 unaccompanied tenor sax solo Picasso, dissecting and reassembling the improvisation in an unusual but highly sophisticated (and easily assimilated) way. Elusive Dreams features the only outsider instrument, an accordion, as the five instruments search for a tango buried in the musical materials—you will have to decide for yourselves whether they find it.

Jelly Roll Morton figures legendarily into many compositions these days, but here we have an arrangement of his Black Bottom Stomp inspired by a big band arrangement. It is nicely executed and works well, and if you like Morton you have no reason to avoid this. Finally, and opening the disc, is an arrangement of Charles Ives’s first movement of his First String Quartet, very well displayed here and lacking nothing that Ives would feel is missing. How could he, the master of sonority and eclectic composition that he was? The sound on this disc has just the right amount of air around each instrument. The Ancia Quartet, based in Minneapolis, has been around since 1990, and their unanimity of ensemble and complementary tonal qualities certainly testify to long experience in the field. Enthusiastically recommended.

Mary Kunz Goldman
The Buffalo News, September 2009

…there is nothing a saxophone quartet cannot do when the musicians set their minds to it. The very nature of the group’s sound seems to change along with the various musical styles. In an arrangement of Charles Ives’ string quartet “From the Salvation Army” (bet Ives never imagined the thrift-shop connotations that title would have), the Ancia Saxophone Quartet sounds like a wind band from centuries past. In the abstract, jumpy movements of Jennifer Higdon’s 25-minute “Short Stories” as well as in Michael Torke’s undulating “July,” the group sounds avant-garde and electronic. Music by Fred Sturm, David Bixler and Carleton Macy help round out this bargain-priced romp. Sturm’s whimsical arrangement of “Jelly Roll” Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp” makes the Ancia sound like the Barroom Buzzards.

Wallace Halladay
The WholeNote, September 2009

Borrowing from popular music has almost defined American “classical” music since the time of Ives, and the Ancia Saxophone Quartet has compiled a disc of commissions and favourites that capture Twentieth Century America.

The Chorale from Ives’ String Quartet No. 1 opens this disc, which also includes the third movement of his Fourth Symphony. Ives would have embraced the organ-like sound of the saxophone quartet for his collage of hymns.

The influence of Elliott Carter can be seen in Fred Sturm’s Picasso Cubed (a reworking of a Coleman Hawkins improvisation, perhaps as seen through a kaleidoscope), and in David Bixler’s Heptagon (seven short jazzy Webernesque movements). Accordionist Dee Langley joins for Elusive Dreams, where composer Carleton Macy demonstrates how well the instrument blends with saxophones.

The minimalist movement is represented by Michael Torke’s July. Written one hundred years after the Ives, Torke also likes to borrow from popular music: “Whenever I am drawn to a particular… pop song, I scratch my head and think, ‘I like that, how could I use it?’”

Jennifer Higdon—who is popular now in the orchestral world—wrote the title track, Short Stories, for the Ancia Quartet. Each picturesque movement invokes a film while listening. Higdon knows each instrument, and writes very well for saxophone quartet.

The American Classics Series on NAXOS continues to record a wide range of music and artists, and Ancia’s disc is an enjoyable listen.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2009

Jennifer Higdon’s music has been described as ‘Martinu and Britten meet Bartok head on’, a very apt depiction of the six musical pictures that form the disc’s major work, Short Stories. Now based in New York, the forty-seven year old composer works happily in either tonal or atonal mode, but is at her most persuasive when moving easily between the two. I have heard little of her work, but it has left me in no doubt that she is one of the most immediately attractive new generation composers. In this 1996 score the pictures are wide and varied, the hectic opening Chase giving way to a sunny Summer’s Eve that readily leads to a gentle Lullaby, the work ending in a Stomp and Dance inspired by the Broadway show, Stomp. It is technically very demanding and has a requirement for exact balance between instruments and an agility demanded from all four players. Of the shorter works, Picasso Cubed, by Fred Sturm and Micheal Torke’s minimalist inspired, July, are both pleasing in an energising way. Sadly I couldn’t get into the seven brief cameos of David Bixler’s 2006 composition, Heptagon, but loved the quasi-tango heard in Elusive Dreams, Carleton Macy having intended the work to include a bandoneon—which would make it sound fabulous—but to date it has to settle for an accordion. Quartet member, Matthew Sintchak, had made a persuasive arrangement of part of Charles Ives’ First Quartet, and, as an ‘encore’, we have Sturm’s arrangement of ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton’s Black Bottom Stomp. Throughout the Ancia Saxophone Quartet show themselves as a technically adroit group with a palpable sense that they enjoy everything they play. Strangely part of this disc appears to date back to 2003, but all are recorded at the same location so the acoustic is unchanged.

Uncle Dave Lewis, August 2009

Naxos’ Short Stories is interesting in that in a sense all of its program of six contemporary—and one “classic”—works can be measured to the extent that they relate to jazz, from basically not at all (Ives) to transforming a standard jazz piece into something new (Jelly Roll Morton; Fred Sturm).

This Naxos disc takes its name after the key Jennifer Higdon work on the program, also titled Short Stories though one might wish it had a different title, as there are so many albums out there that share it, including a very well-known one by the Kronos Quartet. Though the title work is a suite made up of several short movements, as whole it is not “short”; it goes through a variety of moods, and its odd numbered movements move from a free jazz-like kind of looseness to a Third Stream-y adventure among pitches. The quiet movements, however, work very well, reminiscent as they are of the French tradition in the saxophone quartet; “Coyote Nights” has attractive qualities of nebulousness as well. Fred Sturm takes Coleman Hawkins’ 1948 tenor solo Picasso and weaves a bewitching texture out of it; Michael Torke’s July—written originally for the English group the Apollo Saxophone Quartet—is a bright, summery meditation painted in mildly minimalistic hues and gentle syncopation. Syncopation also comes to the fore in Matthew Sintchak’s arrangement of the Chorale movement from Ives’ First String Quartet, “From the Salvation Army.” Ives’ combination of open, hymn-like harmony and more chromatic gestures derived from German romanticism is a perfect fit for the medium of the saxophone quartet; the horns afford the piece a bright new dimension in terms of color, and it’s a very good arrangement.

The Carleton Macy and David Bixler pieces are less immediate; the seven movements of Bixler’s Heptagon are all based around a three-note theme; some listeners might conclude that the treatment of the theme works a little better in some movements than others, though all are quite short. Overall, Short Stories is a strong showing even if some of the music isn’t quite up to exposing the gifts of this talented group; it leaves one hoping for more, and it was wise to include the Morton track at the end, as it is a bright, attractive, and snappy sendoff.

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