Charles Pillow: Part 2 - Pictures at an Exhibition
“ Pillow is to be congratulated for pulling off an interesting and evocative set of 'jazzed up' tracks from a complex inner dialogue between a contemporary jazz composer and a tone poem written a century and a half ago ”
Pictures At An Exhibition
This review follows Charles Pillow: Part 1Crossing the Divide between Jazz and Classical Repertoire, introducing the reed player and composer's work, and is followed by Charles Pillow: Part 3The Planets a review of a second Pillow disc, The Planets (Artist Share, 2007). Pictures at an Exhibition, made in 2003 but not released until two years later, more clearly evokes the moods and images of Mussorgsky's original than does The Planets mirror Gustav Holst.
In Pictures, the sense of a "promenade" through an art exhibition is present in several interludes with that name. The movements follow one another in a continuous flow of associations and contemplations. The characters and atmospheres of the art work as imaged by the original composer come through in Pillow's version. In many instances, Pillow uses the melodies and motifs of Mussorgsky. If we don't find ourselves in a late 19th century art exhibition, then surely we can take a captivating stroll through a modern museum. Pillow's work is entirely consistent with Mussorgsky's imagistic intent, even though he liberally diverges from the master at will.
Pillow says that Mussorgsky's composition was one of the first pieces he studied in college and the first time he played bass clarinet. Pillow realised that the pentatonic scale melody of "Promenade" was readily adaptable to jazz, as that scale is one of the most widely used melodic sources in jazz. He put Pictures together as a suite and the movements are connected either tonally or rhythmically, influenced by Gil Evans' orchestral recordings with trumpeter Miles Davis, and also by Davis' 1970s electric recordings where every set was a medley.
Pillow adds that he was very loose with the material and it didn't matter to him, for instance, whether he used a piece of Mussorgsky's melody as a bass line or a melody line. Nor was he concerned with preserving the composer's original sequence. He studied the score intently for about a year and went through many alternative versions before settling on the one recorded here.
Pillow's set opens with Mussorgsky's "Promenade," improvised briefly in a duet between saxophone and Fender Rhodes, and then repeating the main theme in a meditative way. This is followed by "Gnomus," a playful movement featuring Pillow on bass clarinet. Some of the upper and lower register work bass clarinet passages vividly bring out the gnome-like character of the Mussorgsky theme.
Straight ahead guitar soloing by Ben Monder leads seamlessly into swinging bass clarinet riffs, which further segue into a second "Promenade." There's an English horn cadenza by Pillow, followed in a madcap way with shifting instrumentation, including some fine tenor saxophone work by Pillow and piano soloing by Jim Ridl incorporating a strange synthesizer background. The tune's motif is recapped, and then we are taken into the well-known melody of the troubadour outside "Il Vecchio Castello," followed by what might be a cacophony of street musicians in a village square. This dissonant conversation crescendos and then takes us back to the troubadour's melody as if played on an accordion. This builds up into a disturbing mix of sounds and then, as if at dusk the crowd departs the town square, peace comes again.
In the next segment, "Bydlo," the slow, brooding theme was partly based on an image of unknown source which Mussorgsky described as "a cart drawn by a cow," which may be an allusion to the oppression of the Polish people that occurred around that time in history. The labored gait of the cow is conveyed rhythmically by Pillow, but he seems to mutate the picture into an allusion of a troubled, crazy mind. A variety of sonic dissonances are invoked, including some witchlike imagistic work on woodwinds. Then "The Hut of Baba Yaga" invokes a slow hipster walk through an urban ghetto. The hipster, however, soon further transmutes into the Baba Yaga figure, the fearsome witch with iron teeth and a nose so long that it rattles against the ceiling of her hut when she snores. The group has a lot of fun with this unique and colorful character.
With "Into the Catacombs," Pillow evokes subterranean tunnels and caverns in two distinct movements. He then takes us to "Les Tuileries," a palace destroyed in 1871 during the Paris Commune. Pillow's music is a strapping stride through the arrogant elegance of France's monarchical dynasties, perhaps also an allusion to corrupt American corporate and political establishments. This is followed by the "Dream Promenade," with the "museum stroll" restated in the manner of a pleasant daydream. "Promenade 2" evokes John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, and some trading off with Ridl a la McCoy Tyner. There are shades of reed player Eric Dolphy. This brief testament to Coltrane and Dolphy becomes a hard bop stroll through the museum.
In "Goldenberg and Schmuyle" we find further hard bop sounds combined with Miles Davis' fusion style and some wild synthesizer sounds. The Mussorgsky original was said to be based on a painting of two Jews in the town of Sandomir, Poland. In Pillow's version, it is almost possible to hear the two men talking with the strong, irony-tinged accents of a Yiddish dialect. Two more strolls follow: "Promenade 3," a quiet, reflective moment, and "Promenade 4," a walk through the museum corridor as it were. Pillow recaps the "Gnomus" character in further bass clarinet work. The acoustic bass takes up the same idea in a quieter way, and a clever acoustic bass bridge continues the idea, followed by Pillow on tenor saxophone in an extended improvisation. Finally, "The Gate at Kiev" evokes the happy feeling of the composer standing at the gate in a state of contentment and reflection.
Throughout the various movements, there's a recurring comparison and contrast between Pillow's modern America and Mussorgsky's nineteenth century Europeboth troubled times and places yet with a rich musical and artistic legacy. At times, American popular song standards by the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter have, with a tinge of an ethnic slur, been referred to as "Jewish music."
There is more truth to this, however, than meets the eye. The melodies and rhythms of those great song writers do indeed carry faint echoes of the Eastern European dialect and music that influenced Mussorgsky (and other composers like Dvorak and Bartok). The minor key and poly-modal sounds of Afro-American blues and Eastern European songs are not so far apart in some ways. Pillow makes excellent use of this crossover throughout his version of Pictures. In it, we hear America and Europe, jazz and European folk music, jutting up against one another in a lively and fascinating conversation of multiple dialects.
Pillow is to be congratulated for pulling off an interesting and evocative set of "jazzed up" tracks from a complex inner dialogue between a contemporary jazz composer and a tone poem written a century and a half ago, an iconic work that became a standard part of the orchestral and piano repertoire.
Tracks: Opening; Gnomus; Promenade 1; Il vecchio Castello; Bydlo; The Hut of Baba Yaga; Into the Catacombae; Catacombae; Les Tuilleries; Dream Promenade; Promenade 2; Goldenberg and Schmuyle; Promenade 3; Promenade 4; The Gate at Kiev.
Personnel: Charles Pillow: alto and soprano saxophones, oboe, English horn, bass clarinet; Jim Ridl: piano, Fender Rhodes, synthesizer; Ben Monder: guitar; Chuck Bergeron: acoustic and electric bass; Tim Horner: drums and percussion; Babara Biggers: harp (7, 10); Marlene Whittemore: vocal (1, 10). Composed by Modeste Mussorgsky. Arranged by Charles Pillow.