Andrew Rathbun at the Manhattan School of Music, NYC

Budd Kopman By

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Andrew Rathbun at The Manhattan School of Music, NYC
Manhattan School of Music
New York City, NY
March 19, 2008

Saxophonist Andrew Rathbun, as part of his fulfillment of the requirements for his Doctorate in Musical Arts, performed and conducted his own compositions at the Ades Performance Space, employing two ensembles. Although the academy is seen by many as a separate entity from the performing world, the mixing of the two mindsets, especially in musicians coming out of the jazz more than classical tradition, has been an increasingly common occurrence, spearheaded perhaps by the European jazz scene.

Rathbun is well known in New York City jazz circles for his extremely pure saxophone sound, particularly on soprano, on which he is also perfectly in tune—no mean feat. He has a growing discography, mainly on the Fresh Sound New Talent label, with his most recent recordings being Shadow Forms (SteepleChase, 2006) and Renderings: The Art of the Duo (FSNT, 2006). Renderings, with pianist George Colligan, was a suite for soprano saxophone and piano demonstrating Rathbun's ability to write music that is a true fusion of the two differing aesthetics. It worked because Rathbun and Colligan approach the classical side with a jazz sensibility—the performance's success showed how jazz players can cross over (in "reverse"). That very few classical players, of any instrument, really play jazz speaks for itself.

This evening of music was in two halves, the first including a string quartet (with and without the rhythm section of bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer Jeff Hirshfield) and the second bringing on a killer jazz band- -i.e., the concert was divided into a mostly classical half and a pure jazz half.

The opening three-movement piece for string quartet and soprano saxophone, while very pretty and quite French (in the Ravel/Debussy/Faure mold), exposed the chasm between pure classical players and those experienced in playing composed music in a jazz(y) setting. The difference is subtle, yet very noticeable to the knowing ear, and it lent a sort of squareness to the music. Rich DeRosa, of the Manhattan School, assumed conducting duties, allowing Rathbun to devote exclusive attention to his horn. With the right players, this music would really have worked well.

The clash between musical understandings and backgrounds was even more apparent in the second part of the concert's first half, when De Rosa and Hirshfield were added, giving the next three pieces a kick. Rathbun's playing, which sounded somewhere between composed and improvised, was highly accomplished in both sections, but held back by the strings. Perhaps with more rehearsal, which these kinds of single-event school projects almost always need more of, the quartet would "get it" and learn the music "behind" the written notes.

The second half could not have been more different, and was a joyous success. The jazz band contained many well-known New York players who were happy to be there, including trumpeter Russ Johnson, trombonist Alan Ferber, reedmen John O'Gallagher and Tom Christenson along with De Rosa and Hirshfield. Not to slight the others, because the band, with limited rehearsal, played sometimes tricky music precisely and with verve—such is the level of musicianship on the current scene.

The set started off with the "Two Island Suite," comprising settings of poems by Margaret Atwood, much of which can be heard on True Stories (Fresh Sound, 2000). Julie Hardy, whose own well-received album The Wish (World Culture Music, 2007) recently came out, sang the poems, while at other times adding her trademark, pitch-perfect vocalisms to the instrumental lines.

While the performance space could have used better sonic balance, the band roared when asked, only to drop to a whisper an instant later. The music was lush while remaining abstract, and did not drift into the world of Maria Schneider. The composition left ample room for solos, including distinguished work by Johnson, pianist Frank Carlberg and guitarist Pete McCann. While Rathbun was standing in front of the band, he did not really need to conduct, except to get the visual cue when a soloist was ending and in turn cue the re-entrance of the band. Everyone was clearly having fun, with many knowing smiles between the players, since the music fell naturally into place, allowing ample freedom within the framework.

There were many students in the audience, knowledgeable listeners who knew what they were hearing was the real deal.

Andrew Rathbun: soprano and tenor saxophones, composer and conductor

Lynn Bechtold, Rachel Golub: violins; Edmundo Ramirez: viola; Christine Kim: cello; Rich DeRosa: quartet conductor

Jazz Big Band:

Woodwinds: John O'Gallagher, Ben Kono, Tom Christenson, Geoff Vidal, Carl Maraghi

Trumpets: Dan Urness, John Carlson, Russ Johnson, Dave Scott

Trombones: Alan Ferber, Nelson Fortz, Isrea Butler, Chris Oleness

Vocals: Julie Hardy

Guitar: Pete McCann

Piano: Frank Carlberg

Bass: Carlo De Rosa


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