Randy Sandke has performed around the world, recorded over 20 albums as leader, and his recently-published discography runs to 53 pages. He’s been heard on the soundtracks of five Woody Allen movies, Coppola’s The Cotton Club, and Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memories. In addition to his performing on trumpet and Flugelhorn, Sandke has been active as a composer and has had his works performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Over 50 of his pieces have been recorded.
The Subway Ballet was composed and premiered in 2003 but has yet to be performed with dancers. Though scored for a big band, vibes and xylophone are added and there is no piano, so combined with Sandke’s chamber-jazz-like orchestrations, there is only the feel of a standard big band on a couple of the tracks. The only player in the band whose name stood out for me was Sandke’s fellow trumpet player Steven Bernstein, but they are all topflight instrumentalists. The scenario concerns a ride on a NYC subway train in the early 1980s and the various groups of riders who get on and off.
Sandke’s book “Harmony for a New Millennium” describes his metatonal harmonic approach for either composition or improvisation, employing chords that lie beyond the scope of traditional harmony. I found it not completely tonal but also not really atonal or serialized. It reminded me somewhat of the special harmonic approaches of both George Russell and Ornette Coleman.
The various movements of the ballet clearly fit their descriptions in the notes, such as the Dance of the Wall Street Brokers, and of the Hassidic Diamond Merchants. The latter almost turned into some of the Fiddler on the Roof score. A lovely Pas de Deux next the end was scored for woodwinds, Flugelhorn and saxes, and reminded me of the sensitive chamber jazz suite by Johnny Richards – Adoration of the Muses. On the Dance of the Midtown Career Women the ensemble does take on more of the expected big band timbre and really swings it out.
The last four selections on the CD were explorations of metatonal composition and intended for a self-produced album that was never produced. Happy Birthday Berlin uses some electronics with a guitar solo by Sandke, and How Did It Get So Late is another selection more in the classical chamber ensemble bag, with flute and Flugelhorn solos plus piano added to the band.
This CD was on the edge of what I find acceptable tonally, but communicated plenty of emotional depth and interest. Moreover it made me want to see Sandke’s ballet choreographed and performed!
TrackList: BALLET: Watch the Closing Doors, Dance of the Downtown Punks, Electriglide, Dance of the Wall Street Brokers, Steel Wheels, Dance of the Hassidic Diamond Merchants, Making Tracks, The Blind Beggar Encounters the Korean Peddler, Momentum, Dance of the Midtown Career Women, Straphanging, Pas de Deux, Express Stop, 125th Street; MUSIC FROM 1988: Red Hook Blues, Happy Birthday Berlin, How Did It Get So Late, Realization.
– John Henry