"David Laurence has spent a lot of time in front of the rewind button," says first violinist Antoine Silverman following a set of superbly executed vintage jazz by Laurence’s Speakeasy String Quartet. Laurence, the group’s violist and arranger, specializes in meticulous, note-for-note transcriptions of pre-swing era jazz recordings, arranged for conventional string quartet. He founded Speakeasy in 1991 and led incarnations of the group in both San Francisco and Boston. Along the way he recorded a CD titled Rumble Seat Music. At a little restaurant in New York’s West Village, Laurence debuted a new Speakeasy lineup, with himself, Silverman, second violinist Hiroko Taguchi, and cellist Garo Yellin. (Yellin happens to be a former member of Pere Ubu.)
One marvels at Laurence’s painstaking arrangements. Beginning with a Reinhardt/Grappelli version of "Charleston," the quartet goes on to present transcriptions of recordings by Mezz Mezzrow, the Hot Fives, Ellington, and Fats Waller. They also delve into relative obscurities such as "Symphonic Raps" by Carroll Dickerson and His Savoyagers, a 1928 group that included Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong. Laurence’s most daunting feats of the evening are the three Gershwin piano preludes and two mysterious gems by Bix Beiderbecke, "Flashes" and "In the Dark." The Beiderbecke pieces, in particular, have a strikingly modern quality; the very sound of the string quartet conveying Beiderbecke’s compositional nuances makes you wonder: Perhaps "Third Stream" really began in 1930.
That is the beauty of Laurence’s project in a nutshell: It prods the listener to experience this old music in new ways. For instance, ensemble recordings made in the 20s and 30s are often muddy and indistinct. The separation of parts inherent in a string quartet arrangement renders the music’s architecture with a brilliant clarity. Call it live remastering, if you will. Also call it a testament to Laurence’s transcribing chops that he can pull it off so immaculately. In addition, these old pieces often have abrupt and unexpected endings, totally unlike the more predictable devices heard even in some of today’s most adventurous music. The built-in precision of the string quartet format emphasizes the stark weirdness of these endings.
Of course, the Speakeasy String Quartet’s work bears a tangential relation to jazz’s most essential ingredient: improvisation. As Antoine Silverman readily concedes, these are note-perfect performances of what for the most part were one-take, largely improvised pieces. Such are the aesthetic trade-offs one must face when one attempts an unorthodox classical/jazz hybrid such as this. What makes the project intrinsically rewarding, however, is Laurence’s love for, and scholarly attention toward, this great music. Laurence’s well-spoken annotations in between numbers complemented the arrangements perfectly, making this what every jazz performance should try to be: an entertaining learning experience.
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