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Puccini and Bechet in the Parlor

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jan 20th, 2018

Steve Feifke, Aaron Johnson, Faylotte Crayton

At the Millbrook Library last Saturday Millbrook Arts Group in conjunction with Catskill Jazz Factory presented Puccini Meets Bechet: Parallels in Opera & Jazz with Aaron Johnson Trio. The parallel dimensions of jazz and opera collide with this condensed chamber group featuring operatic vocals, piano, clarinet and soprano saxophone.  Multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Aaron Johnson explored the parallels between Italian composer Giacomo Puccini's Bel Canton Operatic tradition and the sublime sounds of Sidney Bechet's New Orleans. Catskiill Jazz Factory founder Piers Playfair introduced the program.

Bechet was a clarinetist who could read music but preferred to play by ear in the uptown, hot music tradition of New Orleans. He preferred small groups and did like playing in big bands (which offered steady paychecks) because he invented his own fingering system and big bands dictated conformity. Sometime around 1918 Bechet brought a curved soprano sax and experimented with it; then two years later in London he bought a straight soprano sax. Bechet, one of the inventors of Latin jazz, became legendary on both instruments and could play others.

Giacomo Puccini, expressive master of the dramatic lyrical scene, needs no introduction. The point of this exploration was to create a program around how these two master geniuses who were open to innovation focused upon the Romantic lyric. Much of the work behind the sense consisted of stripping down Puccini’s orchestration down to its bare bones and then attempting to reinvent Puccini with varied jazz rhythms. In New York City, Danny Rivera played a key role in this process along with the performing musicians: Aaron Johnson and pianist Steven Feifke. Soprano Faylotte Crayton, a Julliard undergraduate and Bard graduate school voice graduate, accompanied them in Italian and French.

The program alternated with jazz tunes by Bechet and noted opera solos from Puccini, accompanied by piano, clarinet, or more often soprano sax. The stripped down arrangements on piano and horn were cunningly done. Feifke was comfortable with stride piano, roughing the blue note finish, and soulful swing. Johnson, who has often played with Jean Baptiste, has a wistful, subtle vibrato. Crayton sang with enthusiastic aplomb with correct accent in both languages.

It was a pleasant late afternoon concert yoking two unlikely masters without the slightest historical bridge: a soulful Italian and a soulful American (only successful in the last decade of his life) who developed music in their own ways, each being dominant in different fields. While the program the trio offered was fun, I couldn’t make a connection beyond the theme of tragic love: this was the real marvel of the program—yet not all connections need to be made in the musical world. I was not aware that Pucinni solos could be done with a soprano and two musicians—Pucinni as parlor room entertainment or small cabaret. That aspect of the experiment was a stunning success.

They concluded the the lively concert with Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur,” a video of which appears below.