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Eric Schaefer: Who Is Afraid Of Richard W.?

Bruce Lindsay By

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In 2013 the international music community celebrates the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner's birth. The venerable and controversial composer has been rather quiet of late, but his body of work is one of the best known in the classical canon. On Who Is Afraid of Richard W.? Eric Schaefer—a highly-regarded drummer probably best known as a member of the German piano trio [em]—celebrates his fellow-countryman's anniversary with some imaginative reinterpretations of Wagner's work.

The album isn't completely devoted to Wagner's compositions. Schaefer contributes two original tunes (the dub-style "Nietzsche In Disguise" and the ambient "Amazingly Slow") and claims a co-writer credit with Wagner for the ethereal "Prelude To A Prelude," based on the prelude from the opera Tristan And Isolde. The flowing yet mystical "Love And Death" is credited to all four instrumentalists and there's also a suitably dark, effects laden, version of Franz Liszt's "Dante Sonata."

The remaining tracks are listed as "Richard Wagner revisited by Eric Schaefer." "Revisit" is an interesting choice of term: "reworked," "re-interpreted" or "re-envisioned" might have done just as well. What's clear is that these are not merely rearrangements. At times Schaefer stays reasonably close to Wagner's original melodies: at others, he takes his predecessor's work and twists and turns it into something that's barely recognizable. In both cases the results are eminently listenable, combining technical skill, inventive instrumentation and a refreshingly iconoclastic but good-humored approach to the music.

Shaefer's fellow musicians share his humor and vision, as well as his ability to mix and match musical genres. Trumpeter Tom Arthurs and organist Volker Meitz share lead roles with aplomb—Meitz' enthusiasm is almost palpable, Arthurs is generally more restrained but happy to let loose when the mood requires him to do so, most clearly on "Waldweben." Bassist John Eckhardt partners Shaefer rhythmically, the pair deserving much of the credit for the creation of the album's many and varied moods. Guest artist Chris Dahlgren adds spoken word vocals to "Tannhäuser," reprising the drily ironic style that characterized his "tribute" to Béla Bartók's critics, Mystic Maze (Jazzwerkstatt, 2010).

Unusually for a recording of Wagner's compositions, the two most obvious musical genres in Shaefer's revisits are reggae (dub and ska included) and progressive rock. "Walküre" gets the reggae treatment; "Lohengrin I" features Arthurs' plaintive, emotionally-charged, playing, underpinned by Meitz' prog-rock organ chords. On "Siegfried Idyll" the two musicians are again to the fore but this time Arthurs is more emphatic and assertive while Meitz mixes choppy, stabbing ska with fluid, jazz fusion style runs. "Lohengrin II" gives the whole quartet the chance to open up for a classical-meets-prog freakout.

The bicentennial of a composer of Wagner's stature is bound to result in many new recordings or performances of his work. Few, if any, are likely to share the adventurous musical choices taken by Shaefer on Who Is Afraid of Richard W.?. He may puzzle or perturb the purists, but his take on Wagner is both challenging and engaging.

Track Listing: Prelude To A Prelude; Walküre; Waldweben; Lohengrin I; Siegfried Idyll; Isoldes Verklärung; Nietzsche In Disguise; Tannhäuser; Amazingly Slow; Dante Sonata; Love And Death; Tristan; Lohengrin II.

Personnel: Eric Schaefer: drums, electronics; Tom Arthurs: trumpet, flugelhorn; Volker Meitz: organ, Fender Rhodes, keyboards; John Eckhardt: bass; Chris Dahlgren: vocals (8).

Title: Who Is Afraid Of Richard W.? | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: ACT Music

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