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Tethered Moon

Experiencing Tosca

(Winter & Winter; US: 2 Mar 2004; UK: 8 Mar 2004)

Good in Parts

I had a horrible problem with this CD. One of the three musicians starts and sustains a very strange vocalisation when the musical temperature rises, an agonised groaning even uglier, though less directly harsh and less loud, than that fierce croak Bud Powell emitted all too audibly on some otherwise wonderful live performances in non-professional recordings with Johnny Griffin in France. Those lucky enough to know that particular Powell-Griffin will recoil at the thought of anything worse.


If the three musicians—the absolutely top drawer Paul Motian on drums, Gary Peacock on bass, and the very accomplished Masabumi Kikuchi on piano—were delivering their best efforts, why didn’t somebody muffle the awful noise? Sustained often for several successive minutes, it might have inclined one or another record company executive to decree the tapes spoiled and unissuable. Failure to do so was, I am convinced, a mistake—like the even worse failure of anybody in the studio to notice, let alone be narked enough to do something.


Kikuchi sounds something like Geri Allen has in the work he’s done in Paul Motian’s company. The performance of the bassist and the drummer demonstrates their remarkable interplay. This is especially true on what is here called “Ballad”. Gary Peacock’s bass solo is exceptional—and all the more appealing since the moaning has for once and for a while shut up. Motian is as ever awesome. But…


Though “Ballad” was supposedly “arranged” by the pianist, his “theme” statement is no more a real arrangement than any of the innumerable performances, from Caruso to Dennis O’Neill, of Puccini’s aria “E Lucevan le Stelle” from the final scene of Tosca. Kikuchi simply plays a piano rendering of the tune without words, sounding not simple and straightforward, but banal. Why?


The free improvisation which ensues is interesting enough, but is it all that different from the trio’s other improvisations here? These are not founded on the melodic material of the Puccini opera quoted in various stretches by the pianist; they are sheer abstract impressions—whether of the course of the opera, the plot, the character of the heroine, or some overall meditation on it, I don’t know. Why these chunks of piano transcription, some of them plain uninspired? The contrast between one and another of these, and between any one of them and the improvised material, disturbs the concentration essential to discerning any variety among the improvisations themselves.


I do like the adaptation of the very jaunty, almost ragtime tune which opens “Part III”, the fourth track on the CD. The pianist may not be doing many things to or with Puccini’s original here, but he’s found a neat theme should anyone want to improvise on its melody and/or harmony. On similar grounds, the brief “Prologue” had indeed raised my expectations, until it sagged into following too closely the feeling of the ecclesiastical music so important in the opera’s first act. It’s flatly sentimental and not right.


To say little more of the rest, track eight, called “Part IV”, begins with Kikuchi playing “Recondit’ Armonia”, again a major aria from the opera’s first act, far too straight. Yet it does move into a remarkable realisation for piano of some of Puccini’s dark, concluding orchestral harmonies. Why such inconsistency? Lack of thought? Of preparation? Of concentration?


The trio improvisation which follows may have an impressive opening, but it’s not clear what either that very uneven, only half-realisation of Puccini, or the start of the improvisation, have to do with what follows.


Why these uncreative chunks of Puccini anyway, when they distract from improvised material with little or no obvious relation to them? Why didn’t they transmute the Puccini if they had to include it at all? There’s a want of integration. Too much of the Puccini seems to be there not so much as music, but as a series of literary markers which could equally be represented by print on a label or liner.


I have a feeling several classic mistakes have been made, but—since one of these was plainly the inclusion on the tape of somebody groaning away, quietly but irksomely insistent for much of the time—frankly I have to admit that this music didn’t have my undivided attention. I get the impression that its conception and production hadn’t received enough attention in the first place. Very good in excessively separated parts.

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