JAMES GRANT: “High Autumn” = Sultry and Eccentric; Waltz for Betz; High Autumn; Sextet for Bass Clarinet and Strings; Just a Thought; Ragamuffins; Chocolates – William Helmers, clarinet/Wayne Wildman, piano/Philomusica Quartet/ Jerry DiMuzio, baritone sax – Potenza Music PM1028, 62:28 ***:

I had never heard of composer James Grant, nor clarinetist William Helmers, and; so this CD offers a nice opportunity to become acquainted with their respective talents and, for the most part, is well worth the chance.

James Grant is a Canadian resident who also works in Florida. His music has been performed a number of times by orchestras and ensembles throughout the country including the Louisville Orchestra. Additionally, Grant was a recipient of the Copland award and the Sylvia Goldstein Award.

His music has a direct appeal and is written in a very straight forward way without any unnecessary abstraction. The opening Sultry and Eccentric for clarinet and piano is exactly what the title implies. The first movement is indeed “sultry” in a lounge music kind of way and has nice jazzy moments for the clarinet. The closing Eccentric does takes off on a wild, somewhat dissonant and punctuated ride with a clever and fairly sudden conclusion.

The Waltz for Beth is for clarinet and strings and is a simple but lovely little melody scored in a neo-Romantic way. The composer says it is rather like “Satie by way of Mancini.”  I don’t know about that but I enjoyed the work. The other work involving strings is the composer’s own arrangement of his Concerto for bass clarinet and strings. The Sextet is in three movements with some esoteric titles like Levity, Loss and Emphasis. It is a very enjoyable work and I am grateful for this pretty solid addition to a genre that is a bit sparse.

The title work, High Autumn, for clarinet and piano was, for me, a bit of a highlight. This is a very brief (under five minutes) work that carries a soft, ethereal, meditative tone about it. As the composer describes it, it requires “contemplative interpretation” for both players. I do think it makes for a fine, quiet recital work; maybe even a soft encore work. (Although I even stymied by the fact that – apparently – this work was originally written for a consortium of tuba recitalists)

The brief work Just a Thought is written in a similar vein as High Autumn and is indeed a pretty little piece but – as the composer says – is “just a thought.”  I kind of dismiss it but for its prettiness.

Ragamuffins is quite a different deal. Scored for clarinet and any E-flat saxophone (played here on baritone sax with verve by Chicago veteran Jerry DiMuzio) this is a raucous, intentionally dissonant little crowd pleaser/shocker that represents quite a different side of Grant’s work.

The collection closes with Chocolates for clarinet and piano. Grant describes the work as a set of three “torch songs” almost like theater music or bluesy ballads. The titles, Valentine, Bittersweet and Triple Mocha Indulgence are intended to conjure up some of the emotions or moods of love gained or lost and so forth. I think the symbology is a bit stretched but I did like this work. One can almost hear tinkling barware in the background.

James Grant seems like an interesting composer with his comfort level somewhere in the jazz-blues-light classical milieu, based just on this. For me, I enjoyed Chocolates, High Autumn and the Sextet the best. I would go seek those out as a player; maybe not so much the others.

William Helmers is a member of the Milwaukee Symphony and a very fine player who devotes a lot of performing time and rep to living American composers. The string players and pianist Wayne Wildman are all top notch as well. I would like to hear more of James Grant’s music to really develop a more complete opinion but, for now, this disc offers a nice introduction and with the few works, in particular, peeking the interest.

—Daniel Coombs