More than once, I've heard it said that Billy Strayhorn, and sometimes Hoagy Carmichael, was the Erik Satie of jazz. It's almost always composers and musicians who utter the remark. Hmmmm. Being extremely partisan to Satie's near-singular soft-side brilliance, I like to keep in mind that there was also Mompou as well as many folk songs and madrigal, all compelling in their hypnotic simplicities, the latter two the foundation for many modern classicalist opuses (think Bartok, etc.). Regardless, I'm still a bit leery of quite throwing in with that sentiment, yet when I run across CDs like Joe LoCascio (sax) and Woody Witt's (piano) Absinthe: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, I understand why the camp feels the way it does, as this disc's duet format reveals the no-nonsense aspect of the illustrious hallmark Black composer's subtleties.
The feeling is perhaps even better bolstered when one realizes that Satie, now commercially overplayed in marketing underarm sprays and feminine hygiene products, didn't just pen gnossienes and gymnopedies but also got his bad self all raucous 'n itchy when the mood struck, as in compositions like one of my faves, Parade. This begins to reveal why musicians, who are usually much more robust in their listening oeuvres than their audiences, feel the way they do. Thus, if you take Billy's work with Ellington and then glom the composer's only recording away from the big band, the obscure 1961 release The Peaceful Side of Jazz—so unknown that Wikipedia doesn't even know it exists—you'll much better appreciate what LoCascio and Witt are doing here.
A Flower is a Lovesome Thing might be the best venue for that. Thoughtful and introspective, Witt sets the imperturbable baseline while LoCascio jumps things up a notch right from the start of his lines…but always simply expressed, creating a harmonic tension against the keyboard. Witt's only resort is volume emphatics, which he sparely applies while revealing slight variations, once or twice even an ordered near-dissonance, carrying worlds of, to use a descriptive that will at first seem oxymoronic, harmonic contrast. Very discreet, very very clever but totally unavailable to those not closely attentive.
Rain Check totally upends the somber atmospherics of Flower but still resides in carefully planned exposition where nothing is crowded out, everything clear and individual. Chelsea Bridge resumes the mellifluities, Isfahan introduces angularities, and, in fact, Absinthe is really an exercise in finally paring away everything that was oft piled atop Strayhorn's work, even by he himself, to increase audience draw. The paying customers were there to dance and get a bit wistful…but not think, gawd no!, and that's precisely what would've happened had Billy been given his 'druthers. I'm quite convinced of that. LoCascio and Witt show you exactly why, and the experience is probably going to shift your perception of the esteemed composer.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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