“Wild Exotic Dances” = Works of JAMES SCOTT BALENTINE – Robert Walzel, clar. – Albany

by | Apr 11, 2015 | Classical CD Reviews

“Wild Exotic Dances” = JAMES SCOTT BALENTINE: Nine Wild Exotic Dances; March, Strathspey and Reel; The Charlie Effect; In A Bright Room; The Ghost of Eric Dolphy; Monk, Through a Glass, Darkly; Three Spirituals; A Toot in Ninesia – Robert Walzel, clarinet/Steven Glaser, p./Texas Clarinet Consort – Albany TROY1547, 57:30 (2/01/15) ****:

James Scott Balentine is a talented and somewhat eclectic composer whose specialty is writing for wind players, big bands and so forth. He has had some of his music played by the symphony orchestras of Phoenix and San Antonio among others but his real “bread and butter” is the fact that he does write very catchy and attractive idiomatic works for wind instruments.

Here is a genuinely likeable collection of some of his music for clarinet; performed her mainly by the outstanding Texas-based clarinetist Robert Walzel. Walzel is actually a very well-known name in the university clarinet pedagogy scene, especially throughout Texas. He has a nice, bell-like clarity to his tone and some impressive technique. Balentine’s music suits him very well.

The opening Nine Wild Exotic Dances make a very fine impression. There is a jazzy, catchy feel to each of these nine ‘miniatures’ apparently inspired by various native melodies and dance forms – everything from landler to a Mayan funeral march! There are lovely melodies and nice, jazz-derived chord patterns in the mix.

Similarly, March, Strathspey and Reel was inspired by Scottish and Gaelic rituals and dances. The effect is very spritely and entertaining. One thing that seems quite clear about Balentine’s music is that his inspirations are a bit eccentric. For example, The Charlie Effect is about a fellow who had a playful cat and In a Bright Room, actually a duet for clarinet and bassoon, is intended to reflect the “light” and “dark” of these two woodwinds. (In that piece, Robert Walzel is joined by his brother Scott, a very fine bassoonist.)

The rest of the works in this album are transcriptions or arrangements by Balentine of some traditional spirituals and/or some jazz favorites. Of these, I especially enjoyed Monk, Through a Glass, Darkly after “’Round Midnight” and “Well, You Needn’t” by Thelonius Monk.

This and the closing A Toot in Ninesia, after “A Night in Tunesia” by Dizzy Gillepsie, make for fine vehicles for the Texas Clarinet Consort, comprised of colleagues of Walzel.

I think this album would appeal mostly to clarinet players and, certainly, it appears that there is plenty of top-notch clarinet playing in Texas. Walzel is a very fine player and these works by James Balentine are well-written, buoyant and very entertaining!

—Daniel Coombs

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