Reviewed by Tony Mitchell, April 1st, 2014
Not another Kurt Weill compilation, but ‘interpretations of the zodiac suites of Mary Lou Williams and Karlheinz Stockhausen’, this album features the prolific and ever-adventurous drummer Browne with a trimmed down ensemble of Marc Hannaford on piano and Sam Pankhurst on bass. The piano-bass-drums formula here sounds totally fresh and far-reaching, partly due to the sharpness and immediacy of the direct-to-two track recording process, pairing pieces by the late African-American pianist-composer (and mentor to Monk, Parker and Davis) Williams and prolific, radical electronic and classical composer Stockhausen, both related to signs of the zodiac.
While coming from totally different fields of music, the ‘melodic naïveté’ of Stockhausen’s 1975 serial suite Tierkreis, first composed for music boxes in a fairy tale for children, and later drawn on in his last composition before he died, performed in numerous different versions for voices and different instruments, and now played daily at noon on the 48-bell carillon in the tower of the Cologne Town Hall as a memorial to the composer, is atypical. It was performed at the Vortex jazz club in London in April 2013 by the Bruno Heinen Sextet, complete with four of the original music boxes, not long after Browne recorded these versions, in a performance of which UK Telegraph jazz critic Ivan Hewett stated: ‘First impressions were not encouraging … [but] the territory between Stockhausen and jazz — which at first had seemed uninhabitable — turned out to be big, and fruitful’.
Williams’ suite was originally recorded by her in 1945 (and reissued by Smithsonian Folkways in 1995 with six alternate takes) as a set of jazz tone poems with a series of dedications to fellow musicians born under each astrological sign. These included Billie Holliday, Ben Webster, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lena Horne and Art Tatum. Although Browne has recorded versions of only six of the zodiac signs here, the works by both composers of each sign, which are played one after the other, seem to match seamlessly, even if there’s a definite boogie-woogie feel in some of Williams’ pieces, and there’s a definite contrast with the more austere Stockhausen pieces. Both versions of ‘Leo’, for example, begin with drum solos. The Stockhausen pieces are generally only half as long as the Williams pieces, and more atonal and abstract, with percussion prominent, which is understandable, given his aversion to anything melodic, rhythmic or swinging. (He would have hated the walking bass on ‘Cancer’).
The three instruments are equal in the mix, and blend strikingly, although each takes solos at various points, with Hannaford’s piano particularly effective. A bold experiment in jazz reinterpretation which succeeds admirably.