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Liner notes for Kandinsky Trio: On Light Wings (OmniTone 15219)

For centuries, we have been fascinated by winged things.  The allure of birds in flight is no doubt enhanced by the freedom and adventure that flying seems to afford them.  We are awed by the turn-on-a-dime dartings of the hummingbird and the splendor of high-wheeling eagles.  We may wonder at the diversity of sights, sounds, and challenges faced by the swallows of Capistrano on their trek from Argentina to California. 

That same soaring spirit of wonder, imagination, and adventure is what the Kandinsky Trio brings us — with these three world-premiere recordings — in On Light Wings.  Thanks to its innovative ideas and unexpected collaborations, this classical piano trio has succeeded in redefining the chamber music genre.  With violinist Benedict (Bendy) Goodfriend, cellist Alan Weinstein, and pianist Elizabeth Bachelder, the Kandinsky's wide-ranging projects have taken wing across the musical worlds of France, Spain, Russia, China, and into places in the US rarely visited by classical groups.  From Appalachian storytelling to urban hip-hop, the Kandinsky's travelmates have included childrens' choirs, ex-NFL players, yarn spinners, jazz musicians, a beat boxer, and even a whistler!

On Light Wings takes us on three journeys: one, across a long musical bridge; another, through the haunts of silent film in which a twisted figure makes a pact with the Devil; and, the third, on a search by an iconic, genre-bending American composer to find a personal, universally understandable voice within 20th-century music.

Two of the three works on this CD are written by jazz trumpeter, composer, and educator John D'earth.  In his own words, "Natural Bridge attempts to combine the languages and procedures of two musical worlds: classical/contemporary chamber music and what is inadequately referred to as 'jazz.'"  Throughout his career, this Massachusetts-born composer successfully has spanned both worlds.  As a teenager, he studied with classical and jazz musicians, including the innovative Thad Jones.  He went on to perform with the jazz bands of Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton, and many others, eventually landing in Charlottesville, where he became Director of Jazz Performance at the University of Virginia.

Natural Bridge beautifully demonstrates how D'earth's work as a player and improviser informs his composition.  The balance of through-composed and improvised sections in the five-part suite provides musical wings for the Kandinskys and special guests, jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and jazz bassist Paul Langosch, to cover a lot of ground.

The two musical worlds in Natural Bridge are personified by "Three Preludes."   Two composed preludes were meant to delineate the poles of the piece by contrasting two sides of improvised music: the rhythmic or groove element and the romantic, harmonic, almost classical world of the jazz ballad.  Kurt's addition of a wholly-improvised middle "prelude" creates a "natural bridge."

The additional movements have particular references.  "N'goni" refers to a plucked string instrument used by the djeli in the ancient Sudanese kingdom of Segu.  "Polysketch" presents the Kandinsky Trio alone and is based on a 16-measure, across-the-barline rhythmic figure.  "Quist" (a combination of "quest" and "twist") is an invented or found word meaning "that which you will hear at this point in the music."  D'earth calls it party music.  Vaulting salsa piano montuno, open Latin bass lines, and elements of jazz waltz are featured in the playful "Scherzo," and a fast, tour-de-force of swing and teamwork bring Count Basie-like string motifs winging their way home through the burnin', hard-bopping blues of "Chromaticus."

D'earth's second contribution to this recording, Silent Faustus, encapsulates a two-hour-long piece he wrote to accompany FW Murnau's 1926 silent film Faustus which, along with Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu, was voted among the best horror films of all time by users.  The Kandinskys commissioned the seven-part suite in which D'earth provided more improvisational opportunities than in the original.  In addition to the traditional practice of soloing over set forms, the piece employs other improv techniques, notes D'earth, including "thematic paraphrase that edges over into totally free improvisation and the spontaneous creation of the repetitive loops that occur at the end of Part II, representing Faust's dead-end existence of selfish satiety."  It's clear from the high-flying performances that the Trio truly has made Silent Faustus its own.

The final flight of imagination — which also lends its subtitle to this recording — is Gunther Schuller's Piano Quartet ("On Light Wings"), expanding on a personal connection between this world-renowned composer, conductor, performer, and educator, and Trio members Bendy and Alan who studied at the New England Conservatory.  Schuller's four-movement composition is one of the stops on his journey of rediscovery of "a readily identifiable language, which can communicate all aspects of human late 20th-century music."  Muses Schuller, "Whether we can rediscover such personal vocabularies—dialects, accents, if you will — in our time remains questionable. But that is our task..."

As Trio member Alan Weinstein points out, "The final 'Bagatelle' movement can sound like many forms of music at once: bebop, swing, 20th-century chamber music.   The spirit of this CD can be found in all of these deep roots."

Concluding with On Light Wings was, in other ways, a logical — if not eclectic — choice.  "We hosted Gunther for a week's symposium on his music in the '90s and have played On Light Wings through the years," explains Alan.  "We love the way a twelve-tone piece can be so many different things, and our exposure to Gunther's Third Stream department at NEC is, in a way, the essence of this recording.  It isn't crossover music; it's the expansion of each language into something new."

—Frank Tafuri

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