ROBERT ACKERMAN: “The World of Robert Ackerman” – Interplay Classical – MSR Classics (3 CDs)

ROBERT ACKERMAN: “The World of Robert Ackerman” – Interplay Classical (multiple performers, TrackList follows) – MSR Classics MS 1391 (3 CDs),  194:38 [7/5/11] (Distr. by Albany) ***:
I knew of Bob Ackerman as a reed player and arranger with a very solid reputation in jazz, theater and his appearances in a number of combos including his own. However, I was very unfamiliar with his work as a composer and not at all aware of his background. Ackerman is truly a multi-talented man with a very diverse background. For example, the fairly substantial booklet notes in this set reveal that he was first an alto sax player as a child, who took up clarinet as a second instrument only a few years later; studying with classical players who also trained him in sight-singing through solfege. Just before college, Ackerman took up flute as well as piano and – thanks to a natural talent – all three came fairly easy to him and he began a long distinguished career as a quintessential jazz “tripler” who could also play keyboards very capably! After a brief stint as a middle school band director in New Jersey during the mid-1960s, Ackerman turned fulltime to performance, arranging and composing. He is a graduate of Montclair State and has played with some of the century’s great jazz artists including Coleman Hawkins, Ray Block, Paquito D’Rivera and Shorty Baker. To this day he is a well known and respected name as a performer with an extensive jazz background but this collection of his compositions gives us a good chance to hear another side of his many talents.
This vast set of the compositions of Robert Ackerman (“Box 1” is what this set is!) is divided into three major types of works. The first disc, Interplay, is a collection of some of his more “concert hall” works. Although many of these pieces do show some jazz elements (most notably the ones that specifically call for improvisation, such as “Dark Circling, The Warriors” and “Anything But”) there certainly is a “classical contemporary” feel to the majority. In fact, the box set, and this disc, takes its title from what Ackerman considers one of his most complex and labor intensive works. Interplay is a twenty minute work for five ensembles within a larger whole that interact with, respond to, and nearly “wrestle” with each other for dominance. Interestingly, Ackerman admits that, in 1968, he was not comfortable with the notation of new works. He received a great deal of help from fellow saxophonist and the conductor on this recording, Tristan Willems. Changes for seven players bears similar stylistic patterns. Interplay is definitely the “beast” on this disc one, but I was also impressed with the two string quartet works, Langsammer Satz and Two Morceau.
Continuing into the second and third disc in this collection (there really is an immense amount of music here and each piece can be thought of as part of a “trend” or period with Ackerman’s work), the second disc is called, in self explanatory fashion, Smaller Ensembles. First of all, three of the works here are actually not that “small” (for string orchestra). “Water, Aurora” and the orchestra version of “South Carolina Sketches” are very nice, somewhat atmospheric evocative works that illustrate the composer’s comfort with writing for strings. I found both “Water” and “Aurora” to be very interesting and moody works performed quite well here by the Athena String Orchestra under the direction of Tristan Willems. There are two renditions of “South Carolina Sketches” here. The strings piece is a brief but attractive work that – like many of Ackerman’s other works – has a jazz tinge to it and sounds a bit “southern” in a dusky sort of way. The Slovak State Philharmonic Strings under Willems plays very well, indeed. The saxophone trio of the same name is not really the same piece. There is a similar jazzy, bluesy, “dank” quite to the music but this is Ackerman’s other impressions of South Carolina, not a straight up transcription at all. Of the other works on this disc, I found “Edios for clarinet and string quartet” to be very interesting. This all too brief (in my opinion) work is sultry and – like others in this set – evocative of a humid night and has a very pleasant jazz touch but some nice long line melodies throughout. The other works in this set are all impressive in their own but also a bit more improvisatory than the ones mentioned.
The third disc in this compilation, My Third Stream, does not offer an explanation on that title but the opening work, “Scena, for strings, flute, clarinet, harp, percussion and cello” as well as the subsequent “Reflections for flute and strings”, certainly do present a new side. These are very consonant, lyrical, pretty works with the barest touches of jazz elements; that enhance the feel. I felt the same way about “Glacier for flute and strings.”  There are pairings of works in this set, similar to the “South Carolina Sketches.” For example, there is a string quartet, “Visibility Zero”, as well as a jazz trio of the same name. The string quartet work has a lyrical buoyancy to it that I found very attractive. The jazz trio version is a wholly different matter, with a straight up jam session feel to it. There are also two pieces entitled (named for?) Herb Fischer, a well known jazz percussionist.  The Slovak State Philharmonic String Quartet does a lovely job on Herb Fischer, the string quartet, a very pretty, smooth sounding work. There is also the jazz trio rendition of Herb Fischer that – just like the dichotomy of “Visibility Zero” – is a very progressive jazz sounding “read”. Ackerman, it seems, has both the ability as well as the desire to write works based on “concepts” or dedications in two very disparate genres. We see a similar notion at work in the three permutations of “Circling” (for string quartet, for jazz duo and jazz trio).  In some ways, this disc was my favorite in this collection.
As mentioned, this really is an extensive set and offers a good view of the work of the fascinating performer-composer. I personally enjoyed the more classical sounding works more than those that were more straight jazz (a product of my training and tastes; not a quality issue). Other listeners may feel the opposite. I do think that this three-disc collection would appeal to people who are already fans of serious jazz, who would be impressed by the long hair stuff – as opposed to the opposite crowd. However, I was impressed by the variety and sound of each piece in its own way. Ackerman is clearly a very talented and interesting composer whose music ought to have wide appeal. I do suggest that you hear for yourself and I am curious now what “Box 2” might contain!
TrackList:
CD1: “Interplay”

  1. Langsammer Satz for string quartet
  2. Two Morceau for string quartet
  3. Changes for 7 players
  4. Dark Circling for alto sax and bass
  5. Interplay for 16 players
  6. Circling Permutations for flute and bass
  7. Visuals for clarinet and cello
  8. Two Haiku for flute, violin and cello
  9. The Warriors for flute and bass
  10. Anything But for clarinet and bass

CD2: “Smaller Ensembles”

  1. Water for string orchestra
  2. Aurora for string orchestra
  3. Wired for electric guitar
  4. Five Pieces for acoustic guitar
  5. Majestic for flute and bass
  6. Short Story Duo for flute and cello
  7. Two Short Trios fo0r flute, clarinet and cello
  8. Havana Special for clarinet and bass
  9. South Carolina Sketches for string orchestra
  10. Juxtapositions for flute, tenor saxophone, bass and percussion
  11. Edios for clarinet and string quartet
  12. Underpinnings for flute, bass and drums
  13. Winter’s Death for two violins, viola, cello, clarinet and alto saxophone
  14. Short Story for flute and bassoon
  15. South Carolina Sketches for saxophone trio

CD3: “My Third Stream”

  1. Scena for strings, flute, clarinet, percussion, harp and cello
  2. Reflections for flute and strings
  3. Glacier for flute and strings
  4. Visibility Zero for string quartet
  5. Visibility Zero for jazz trio
  6. Herb Fischer for string quartet
  7. Herb Fischer for jazz trio
  8. Circling for string quartet
  9. Circling for jazz duo
  10. Circling for jazz trio
  11. Four Trios for violin, viola and cello
  12. Circling Permutations for jazz duo
  13. Gentle Mood for jazz trio
  14. Tres x 4 for jazz trio

—Daniel Coombs

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