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CD Feature/ Prism Quartet: "William Albright: Music for Saxophones"

img  Tobias

It might seem odd that one of the rare albums dedicated to the work of William Albright should be dealing exclusively with pieces for saxophones. On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for this choice: Throughout his career, Albright has monoperspectivally either been placed in the drawer of teacher or eccentric organ virtuoso. Both of which are valuable aspects of his personality, but have made it hard on following generations to get to the heart of his oeuvre.

Then again, almost any approach to fully explain William Albright is doomed to fail. In his scores, a clear tonal and a recognisable melodic language meet oblique sheets of timbre, Jazz heads for a rendez-vous with Contemporary Composition, restless dynamics are confronted with breathtaking paralysis and carefree moments of life are bleeding into naked fear of death. It is a style which can probably not be “understood” on purely rational terms or on the level of personal experience on the side of the listener. It requires not only a certain openness of mind, but also active empathy to connect with the music – which could explain why Albright has remained in the medial shadows despite offering a welcome alternative to overly analytical techniques.

This may finally be offset by “Music for Saxophones”. As the Prism Quartet shows, emotions are the primary key to the work of William Albright. His pieces are filled with sudden twists and turns, moments of sound poetry and jagged edges, sharp contrasts and gentle flow and they rarely sit still for more than a minute in a row. But at their core, they are almost always accessible and relate to the most basic human sensations. This, in combination with the stark contrast between refined harmonies and popular outbursts (such as the BigBand intermezzo in “Heater”), lends them a touching bipolarity: It sometimes sounds like a composer in need to reconcile opposites which can not and should not be reconciled, like a man poking in open wounds with a broken heart.

Of course, the most obvious reference in this regard is the second movement of the “Sonata for alto saxophone and piano”, a tragic and remorselessly shattered lament. Albright introduces the downwardly bent progression on the piano, then allows the saxophone to support the dirge with a proud hymnal melody, which gradually fades into broken chords. Little by little, the track disintegrates, atonal disruptions breaking and entering at will, mirroring a psychological breakdown. After the scene has reached its climax, consolation sets in, sweetly rocking the last few minutes to sleep.

On other occasions, Albright uses slow tempos to focus on aspects of sound. He clearly loves the Saxophone’s character both in Jazz-settings as well as in chamber musical contexts and does not feel ashamed to rely on its original timbre (with the sole exception of “Pypes”, in which the Prism members try to emulate playing techniques of the bagpipe). The 25-minute, six-part “Fantasy Etudes for saxophone quartet” brings together a series of interrelated movements, opened by an introduction, in which all aspects melt into a vibrant, seamless collage.

Rhythm is another important element on “Music for Saxophones”, with either sub-groups of the quartet laying a foundation for the others to work on or complete passages being frantically repeated, leaving a sometimes devastating impression. Overall, the production of this album is rather aimed at displaying the instruments’ true colours, instead of distorting them spectacularly. But underneath this unadorned surface, a prismic world of happiness and drama unfolds unfettered, leading one closer towards a satisfying explanation with each step.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Prism Quartet
Homepage: Innova Recordings

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