Julian Velasco's 'As We Are': New areas of exploration for classical saxophone

It's not surprising that new music for classical saxophone would find ways to fold in the influence of other music for that instrument while honoring the obvious wealth of expressiveness and technical aplomb

Julian Velasco boosts contemporary profile of classical sax.
common in the classical tradition.

Julian Velasco applied his wide experience in premiering new saxophone music to win the first Emerging Artist Competition,  established to celebrate Cedille Records' 30th anniversary. The Chicago label set the competition to reward musicians in the metropolitan area with a debut recording. Velasco, a 27-year-old Evanston resident, sounds like an obvious choice based on "As We Are," released by Cedille in August.

The program highlights Velasco's artistry on soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones and his thorough compatibility in music with either piano or electronic accompaniment. 

The composition leading off the recording and inspiring its title is a good example of Velasco's receptivity and polish. Tenor saxophone, an odd resident in the classical-music neighborhood, is paired with piano in Steven Banks' "Come As You Are," a four-movement work that pays tributes to members of the composer's family. 

Banks displays a personal adaptation of Neo-romanticism in music that honors such staples of black religious culture as "Wade in the Water" and "My Lord, What a Morning." Yet Banks moves freely away from quotation or variation in each movement, allowing such titles as "Lift My Eyes" and "Strength of My Life" to hint at the musical and familial associations. 

Among the works also treated to first recordings is Amanda Harberg's "Court Dances," which harks back to social music of the 16th and 17th centuries. Different associations from those that interest Banks are evoked, with a parallel interest in kinds of music that stimulate and sustain people in their everyday lives. In this case, the pleasures of the aristocracy are evoked in 21st-century visions of  "Courante," "Air de Cour," and "Tambourin," as the three movements are titled. The finale brings in some swooping, flutter-tongued, jazzy exuberance to its ancient model. It's easy to hear the emotional commitment Velasco typically brings to the material he adopts — and in this case, adapts: a soprano-sax version of a work originally for flute and piano.

The depths of the saxophonist's musicianship are plumbed in David Maslanka's "Tone Studies No. 5: Wie bist du, Seele." The late composer's intention for this "study" is to arrive at the exalted state of the Bach chorale on which it is based. If heard as patiently as Velasco lays it out, it seems a wholly satisfactory way of rediscovering and reanimating old music.

The more explicit modernism of John Anthony Lennon's "Distances Within Me" is the other duo showcase. As with the other works here for two musicians, the listener is offered another welcome exhibition of influences on today's composers. At the same time, "Distances Within Me" displays the  receptive personality of the saxophonist and pianist Winston Choi's ability always to meet him fully halfway.

Extended techniques, as well as an amazing interpretive outreach, complete the portrait of Velasco in two works for saxophone and prerecorded tape. Dating back to Mario Davidovsky's "Synchronisms" of the 1960s, I have always experienced music for live performer and electronics as a kind of rapport I'm eavesdropping on. I can admire the craftsmanship of how well the onstage performer and the prerecorded tape fit together, without being particularly engaged with the result. I can only get so much out of the symbolic pleasure of "man versus machine" reaching common ground.

I feel that way about Elijah Daniel Smith's "Animus" and "Christopher Cerrone's "Liminal Highway," the two contemporary pieces on "As We Are" that extend the live/taped tradition. Both of them are imaginative constructs that reveal another dimension of Velasco's virtuosity. I'm glad they are here as part of a well-deserved showcase, but I doubt future listenings to this disc will go past Track 9, Harberg's  spirited "Tambourin."

But, of course, happy anniversary, Cedille! For three decades, you've done plenty to make any Midwestern music-lover proud.



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