The Sweet Spot

I’m suggesting that as the name for a style that has been almost impossible to clearly describe and, perhaps because of that, has been a bête noire for critics for almost a hundred years. Call it the Gershwin problem; was he writing classical, jazz or pop? Well, yes he was. He used classical form, technique and craft to make popular, accessible music that was full of the language of the blues and jazz. I think what is confounding is that Gershwin was a great genius, and generally we’re conditioned to think of genius as belonging to a high-art/esoteric context. He wanted to please, and he did while always being brilliant, and that’s greatness.

The Gershwin problem has continued in a few ways. One is in groups like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, that make pretty and charming music in the tradition of Gershwin but with so much less quality that it comes off as uncomfortably weak tea. That’s the rule, sadly, and so that sweet spot of where styles and ideas meet is seen as a middle-brow cultural ghetto.

Which, in terms of most film scores, it is. That’s a genre of music that should fit right into the sweet spot; music based on a legacy of classical forms, techniques and ensembles yet created to specifically please an audience from moment to moment. The great flowering of film music in the US was a result of the emigration of a strong handful of Neo-Romantic composers from Europe prior to the start of World War II – men like Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner – and there have been many scores that are true masterpieces of the style and, in the case of Toru Takemitsu, Ennio Morricone’s themes, Bernard Herrmann’s music for “Vertigo” and Jerry Goldsmiths perfectly evocative score for “Chinatown,” true masterpieces of music regardless of style.

One of the finer film composers was Alex North, who had a fruitful fifty year career in Hollywood and wrote the music for the film version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the subject of Streetcar Journey, a treatment from pianist Chie Sato Roden and Jody Redhage’s Fire In July band, one of the leading chamber-jazz ensembles. North’s material is both substantial and directly pleasing, and the arrangements on the disc turn the themes into fine material for the group to play, without any radical departures a la The Big Gundown. There’s also original music from the musicians, all of it good but mixed in terms of how comfortably it fits into the overall project.

Roden begins with a romantic, expressive take on North’s own arrangement of the “Streetcar” theme, four minutes of piano that sets the complex emotional terrain; a steamy, noir-ish melodrama for the characters caught up in the story and a subtly sensual pleasure for the listener, especially one who knows the story and can recall memories and impressions as the music slides past. The structure of the rest of the disc is like a medley, or an extended suit, one track eliding into the next. Trombonist Alan Ferber contributes the jazz piece “Paris,” which showcases how nicely this ensemble plays and also fits hand-in-glove with North’s music, so that the transition into “Four Deuces” sounds like another part of the same score.

There are a few tracks on the disc from Redhage, specifically from last year’s fine Ancient Star CD, and while the music is good, it sounds out of place to one who knows the tunes already. The effect jars the listener out of the involving reverie that the opening cuts develop, but this is an experience that will really depend on familiarity, or lack of, with that earlier release. Still, there is some problematic quality of two different records being mashed together. The contrast is between a kind of psychological aesthetic. Redhage’s music emphasizes a powerful purity, while North’s score, especially in sections like “Blanche” and “Lust,” has a compelling combination of romance and sleaze, maybe the essential features of pop music. The way Roden and the band play the original material makes something substantial out of it, frees it from the film to stand on its own as music that tells a story with the indeterminate meaning and deep, passionate expression that music does best.

Roden and her musicians play this music in celebration of the CD release this Saturday, February 5, 8PM, at the Tenri Cultural Institute, 43A West 13th Street in Greenwich Village.

Another disc in that sweet spot, and one that also features Redhage’s talents, is Galactic Diamonds , from pianist and composer Steve Hudson’s Chamber Ensemble (the other members are violinist Zach Brock and percussionist Martin Urbach). Hudson has some of the good film composer’s quality in his music, each of the eleven relatively short works on the recording are focussed on a precise expression, and there are many moments that tug at the strings of imaginary narratives, like the way the repeated harmonies modulate on the aptly titled “PG.” Hudson also favors tango rhythms, themes and interplay, like the title track and the opening “Tune With Tango.” This is music that comes out of the New Tango movement, taking what was essentially country-western, running it through the rigorous sieve of classical form and developing substantial improvisation out of it. These tangos are more genteel than New Tango founder Astor Piazzolla, with a light touch and relaxed tempo that has a subtle power.

As a composer, he is interested in the interplay of voices in the chamber music setting. To that he makes room for improvisation, and then wraps everything in a very straightforward, pop-music type of communication. The group aims to please without pandering, to play music for our enjoyment and theirs, and that sweet spot is a valuable thing.

UPDATED: Fixed typo

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