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Sherman Ensemble: Holiday Jazz Summit

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Dec 1st, 2019

From left: Susan Rotholz, Eliot Bailen, Thomson Kneeland, Eddie Barbash

Christ Church in Pawling last Saturday afternoon hosted the Sherman Camber Ensemble with its annual Jazzing it Up! concert which has always been a mix of classical and jazz. It’s a challenge for talented musicians in each field to expand their horizons. It is rather unusual that these musicians can bend and blend into other modalities, yet their talent is such that such morphing works in sync and in idiomatic sensibility.

They opened with Astor Piazzolla’s “La Muerto,” a climactic tango Piazzolla provided for an Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz play Tango del ángel (1962) where an angel heals the spirits of the residents of a shabby Buenos Aires neighborhood, but is ultimately killed in a knife fight. There are many arrangements of this popular work on various instruments. This arrangement highlighted Eliot Bailen on cello and Susan Rotholz on flute with background by Ted Rosenthal on piano, Thomson Kneeland on double bass, Eddie Barbash on alto sax, and Chris Parker on drums. The interweaving texture of this arrangement created a knot of excitement. The voluble, high- pitched slashing of Rotholz’ flute captured the excitement of the battle while Bailen’s glissando conclusion incarnated the pathos of sudden death.

“Desaparecido” (Disappeared) by Chris Parker (who was a member of Bob Dylan’s band and played with Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, and Bonnie Raitt) continued the Argentinian theme: a lament for those who disappeared during the 1970s when the U.S.-backed dictatorship murdered about 30,000 citizens in secret. The broad sociology of this tragedy tugged at one’s hear. Ted Rosenthal’s light-fingered feature solo in this lament conjured the loss of women and, yes, children as whole families were exterminated in the night. Eddie Barbash on alto sax produced floating high notes freighted with fragile pathos.

After this shocking and mournful opening, they settled down to more festive holiday fare. “Arabian Dance” from The Nutcracker by Piotr Tchaikovsky offered a chamber music version where the Thomson Kneeland’s double bass took the oboe line as Rotholz’ flute soared in the upper register. The humorous ending of the double bass was a resounding success.

Ted Rosenthal’s arrangement of Felix Bernard’s popular 1934 hit “Winter Wonderland” offered more introversion on the piano than expected; I much preferred Rosenthal’s version to any other I have heard.

“Dance of the Reed Flutes” from The Nutcracker featured Eddie Barbash on alto sax rather than traditional oboe in Rosenthal’s new arrangement which, once more, I preferred to the over-orchestrated original that one hears nearly every Christmas. Sing-song corniness vanished as flute and sax danced with more intimacy and emotion rather than glossy stadium affectation.

Six selections from Béla Bartók’s 18 duos featured Bailen on cello and Barbash on sax. “Mosquito Dance” offered an amusing cello buzz with sax attempting to quash. Two of the numbers were Ruthenian tunes (East Slavonic Lithuanian) which I found fascinating, having never heard anything like it before, it supplied a marvelous experience.

Rotholz and Barbash then performed selections from Bach piano inventions arranged by Susan. This produced fierce technical playing on the part of both performers. While this was remarkably exciting performance, I think I would rather hear the piano version, yet their instruments knitted in fierce alignment that was a wonder.

Eliot Bailen then sang “Susan,” a tender blues love song he had composed to court his wife. Bailen has not lost his charming voice. I had heard him sing this song once before, yet this time his voice projected more velvet contours. Susan replied by singing George Gershwin’s “I Love You Porgy” with vulnerable edge.

Three pieces from Ted Rosenthal’s recent opera Dear Erich (2019) followed. “How Can I Feel So Happy, But I Do” supplied uplifting joy that should have legs somewhere in our cultural landscape. “We are Married” offered a piano showcase for Rosenthal’s fleet, clear fingering. “Always Believe” delivered convincingly the promise of hope in the face of despair.

Barbash played two solos: “Tennessee Waltz” with deep, mellow emotion and varied intonation and volume in the refrains; the 1934 “I Only Have Eyes for You” remains a perennial popular hit about a lover’s admiration.   

The ensemble performed an extended version of “Sunny Side Up” with each of the six performers playing a short solo. The variety of music that was played was astonishing, yet what was more astonishing was the accomplished nuance and phrasing that these talented musicians put into notes that embodied deep feeling.