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What Hath Gottschalk Wrought?

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Apr 15th, 2017

Bard College hosted a Catskill Jazz Factory production of Whisper of a Shadow:  Homage to Louis Moreau Gottschalk at LUMA Theater. I had labored under the misunderstanding that this concert was to be a performance of Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s compositions. The performance was that, but it was so much more. French trumpetist and composer Yohan Giaume culled a selection of Gottschalk’s work, made transcriptions and arrangements, and re-presented Gottschalk’s blending of classical and jazz music in a dynamic manner.    

Opening with Gottschalk’s “The Dying Poet,” inspired by an Alphonse de Lamartine poem of that title, New Orleans-based clarinet master Evan Christopher (sample video below) let loose on Creole clarinet. Opening numbers are usually warm-up, yet this classical chamber ensemble and ensemble of accomplished jazz musicians began in top form, melding without a hitch. Gottschalk apparently collapsed on stage while playing this piece, dying from yellow fever.

Gottschalk (1829-1869), nicknamed The Chopin of the Creoles," was that rare musician who traversed genres and blended them into sophisticated mix that became popular in his day. From our historical perspective, it may be said that he was the first classically trained musician to popularize varied strains of jazz that emerged in the 20th century. Inspired by folk music wherever he encountered it, Gottschalk absorbed the music, shouts, and exorcisms around Congo Square (famous slave market) in New Orleans (where he was born of a Creole mother and English businessman). He also plunged into sundry strains of French and Spanish music in both the New World and the Old. While most of Gottschalk’s numerous compositions have been lost, there is renewed excitement because a few of his works have recently surfaced. (Five of his six operettas and most of his piano works have been lost.)

Blending salon and classical styles, pianist Adam Birnbaum worked off the classical string quartet comprised of Ruben Kodheli on cello, Judy Kang and Robin Lynn Braun on violin, Will Frampton on viola, and jazz double-bassist Roland Guerin, whose frantic fingers kept resonant rhythms racing. In Gottschalk’s “The Whisper of a Shadow,” perhaps his most known composition, that signature blend weaved and soared.

 “Maskarade” artfully wove jazz into classical structures where the quartet excelled.

“Colfax” commemorated an historical atrocity (massacre of African Americans). I was astonished at its upbeat conclusion.

“Lisette” was a Gottschalk-style operetta (Escenas Campestres), which, in turn, was based upon a French folk song; this number overshadowed both rustic and elegant classical roots.

“Bamboula’s Dreams” was an extended reworking of Gottschalk’s well-known “Bamboula” that included funeral lament and a raucous Mardi-Gras style second line. Lawrence Lo Leathers on drums was hot and cool when he needed to be. I often don’t enjoy jazz drummers but Leathers was that upper level drummer with variety, tempos, and imagination that provided exciting solos that were never overdone (as happens so often in that line).

While this music showcased the brilliance of Gottschalk’s unique blend of classical and jazz music, it appeared so fresh and vigorous under Giaume’s interpretation and orchestration: Classical music lines morphed into African and Haitian rhythms. Quite frankly, I’ve never heard anything like this before. And I hope to hear more music like this.

The Catskill Jazz Factory has scheduled one more concert this season at Bard, a concert celebrating 100 years of jazz, May 13th (a hundred years ago marking the first known jazz recording).