Monday, September 13, 2021

Sowerby's jazzy side: An early 20th-century force in Chicago music gets multifaceted display

Posed for success: Paul Whiteman (center) and his men

 Some of the earliest peeks into the workshop of early jazz were made by European composers, but countrymen of the jazz pioneers here also tried their hands. Encouragement came from the visionary Paul Whiteman, a giant Westerner who "formed his own 'jazz' orchestra in Los Angeles and hit upon the idea of writing out parts for his musicians instead of the usual improvisation."

The concise quotation comes from the program notes of  Francis Corciata, president of the Leo Sowerby Foundation, accompanying Cedille Records' release of "Leo Sowerby: Paul Whiteman Commissions & Other Early Music." 

The scare quotes around "jazz" are called for, but not in disparagement of Whiteman's musical vision,

The young Leo Sowerby was a rising force in Chicago music.

which was respectful of what jazz brought to orchestral music. Even so, he headed in a different direction, picking up the innovative genre's danceable qualities and its melodic cheekiness for middle-class delectation. Furthermore, it's been said that any misrepresentation of the authentic jazz may have been enough to save jazz from being buried under an all-out attack from the musical establishment.

After the success of the concert that gave the world Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Whiteman extended his search for more fully notated jazz-influenced works, commissioning from Sowerby "Synconata," a one-movement orchestral sonata, and a year later a Symphony for Jazz Orchestra, which originally carried the unfortunate title of "Monotony" because it was written to synchronize an orchestra with a metronome.

The music is played by the Andy Baker Orchestra and the Avalon String Quartet.  The former ensemble sounds adept at realizing a score that incorporates Whiteman's love of unusual instrumentation and musicians' versatility. Sowerby's take on modernism relies less on radicalism of the harmonic language than on embracing a pop sensibility and widening the scope of "legitimate" musical meaning. 

The fuller terrain explored in the four-movement "Monotony" (Symphony for Jazz Orchestra and Metronome) also reaches into new programmatic areas: specifically, an evocation of Sinclair Lewis' fictional philistine businessman Babbitt, subjecting the limited hero to being cajoled into an evening on the town, adjusting to the end of the work week Friday afternoon, sitting through sermons on Sunday mornings and, finally, trying to understand what he should get from classical music by reading the critics.

The last in this series allowed Sowerby to caricature music critics without naming them, and tempted him to draw more detailed portraits of newspaper reviewers than Babbitt could have been aware of, especially given his small-town experience. The critics are described in headings, and as I interpret them, we have the stubbornly resistant, the dismissive, the indecisive and hedging, and the sentimental types. Those were the most evident to me, though there are six in all.

"Monotony" is great fun, and even chamber music was a vehicle for Sowerby's lighter side. "Tramping Tune for Piano and Strings" is a lark for piano and string quartet plus double bass. (Winston Choi and Alexander Hanna are the guest players here.) More settled music is capably represented by the 1917 Serenade for String Quartet, persuasively played by the Avalon Quartet, as is the more substantial, more expressively expansive String Quartet in D minor.

Nearly a half-hour of the disc is taken up with that serious work. The movement headings are generously descriptive, though all three have substantial episodes of relaxation. Even at cruising speed, Sowerby is a mostly comfortable composer. The listener immediately understands why he went over so well in his heyday. He conveys what he's about readily. In the finale of the string quartet ("Fast and with passionate urge"), he rather overworks his material: You feel that the catchy quality of his melodies and rhythms is a feature he never wants to depart from; re-emphasis is the key. 

This well-crafted habit makes for what's generally covered by the cliche "accessibility." But it doesn't detract much from the long-range charm of music that is so well represented on this disc, covering the range of a developing American composer's output as a young man making an impact jn the Windy City.

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