Without anything of the spikiness of Stravinsky, the music and title of this CD and the ensemble which plays on it are modelled on his “Histoire d’un Soldat” (A Soldier’s Tale). The thematic material comes from Steve Swallow, the orchestration and arrangement from the Israeli Ohad Talmor, whose admirable lyrical tenor saxophone substitutes for the oboe of Stravinsky’s band. Steve Swallow’s wonted bass guitar substitutes for both the double bass and the percussion. Stravinsky’s composition dates from 1918, when general shortage of financial resources inspired his composition of a stage work for minimal forces—and his emancipation from earlier orchestral influences. He had a new compositional conception involving a stripped-down, different sort of ensemble.
Reviewers commonly say things like “back then, jazz was just beginning to emerge into the musical mainstream”, and thus suggest that they don’t have much idea about jazz. Not many people did in 1918, and the American scores Ernest Ansermet reputedly provided Stravinsky with are unlikely to have been of more than a sort of middlebrow music under certain influences which survived to be part of what became jazz. These various influences, and the music in which they were embedded, were doubtless very novel to Stravinsky in 1918. Presumably, they presented lots of things he’d maybe never have thought of doing. It’s not certain that there would be more than novelty to them for any potential listener to the CD here under review. The music didn’t need to be all that good or all that jazz (or all that music?) to kindle that curious imagination.
It was pre-jazz, a vague category which includes a lot of American music both European and polite. Stravinsky became a contemporary and a spiritual cousin of some pre-jazz, by dint even of only The Soldier’s Tale. His later interest in Woody Herman’s band is quite another tale, but there can be some comparing of the respective relations to jazz of that 1918 work and, say, the Buena Vista Social Club.
The latter might well inspire a contemporary product both European and polite, which is what L’Histoire du Clochard is. It’s founded not on the Stravinsky stage-work with verbal text and programme, but on the subsequent instrumental suite Stravinsky composed. I was sent no information as to any programme and I detect none. It isn’t the story of a soldier tempted by and finally taken by the Devil, presented immediately after a time when too many people had been soldiers. It’s a suite for trumpet, trombone, clarinet, violin, and tenor saxophone, plus Swallow’s guitar-bass, and sounds for the most part like tuneful European concert music. I can have vague ideas of things possible on a model of L’Histoire du Soldat, but have to refer to the few done here.
“Making Ends Meet” has a rhythmic movement of a sort Swallow has previously supplied on other recordings. “Sweeping Up” has a throwaway allusion to Stravinsky before turning into a sort of concerto for tenor saxophone, perhaps not improvised. The other three instruments are played in jazz style, some nice muted trumpet over a bass figure on trombone, which continues under the violin before a trumpet solo conclusion.
The appropriate metaphorical term is pastel; “Chelsea Bells” continues the same sort of thing, contrapuntal and rhythmically varying European concert music with horn-players who’d be mightily impressive in written-out solo interludes of a big band arrangement. Jacob Garchik starts to play something more like a jazz solo on trombone later on this third item, then there’s some violin-led ensemble a little like Igor, and Swallow playing beautifully as ever over more nice but not very jazz writing.
“Some Echoes” begins with Garchik again and more resourceful if not dreadfully interesting harmonisation of violin and the other horns. There are a few downright stock phrases before Russ Johnson demonstrates real quality as a trumpeter.
“Ladies in Mercedes” were perhaps Girls from Ipanema and were watched going by. Greg Tardy plays some clarinet arabesques over rhythm provided by Garchik and Swallow, and continues while the others come in to play ensemble passages in accompaniment. This does not seem stripped back so much as missing a certain something which might have turned it into a jazz performance. Talmor’s tenor saxophone does bring the number closer to jazz, along with Swallow’s provision of a walking bass.
Talmor begins unaccompanied on “Hullo Bolinas” before Swallow comes in, and then there’s something almost magical about the expansion of his line with harmonies from the other players. Meg Okura almost gets something of a workout on violin, but mostly provides a textural orientation for the horns’ subtle harmonies and counter-pointing short phrases. Swallow sounds nearly like an acoustic guitarist. Talmor has considerable feeling for softer textures, but there is something of a sense of, not “what’s going to happen next?” but “is anything going to happen?” The concluding “I’m Your Pal” tempts me to say derivative. In the trumpet-violin interplay which it goes into, with Swallow underpinning, the fiddle seems to be restraining the horn. That’s enough, now, please: don’t do anything more, or near going over the score. The following duo of Swallow and the tenorist does remind me of the most recent Swallow CD I heard before this, and how much more interesting that was than this peaceful and pretty musical halfway house sort of a thing. It just never rises above a certain level, or goes that terribly deep. It might be well worth hearing in a live performance, programmed with something else. It might even be a good option for a car CD player, melodious and accident-free.