Classical saxophone is getting a sort of Renaissance these days (not that it ever really vanished) and to some very interesting results. There have been many new recordings by talented artists and composers that are also new or, at least, not too well known. This new recital disc by the very fine saxophonist Lara James is no exception.
One reason why I was not too familiar with Ms. James or these composers is that she, and all involved, are from Great Britain and really deserve to be known worldwide if this collection is any indication. The idea, here, according to Lara James was to commission all these composers, who are known mainly for jazz work, to write pieces for her. The works involve the Will Todd Trio, with the composer as the keyboardist, the gifted Pavão String Quartet and, of course, James on saxophone.
The title work, The Glittering Plain, by Ian Lawson, is a very good place to start. Written for saxophone, string quartet and jazz piano trio, this is a really nice three movement work that very deftly rides the lines between classical and light jazz. Lawson, who studied formal composition with Alun Hoddinott, explains that “crossover” music can have negative connotations. This is a very attractive little work that I found very entertaining and that avoids anything in the way of cliché. All players do a great job here.
Will Todd has made quite a name in the UK and the United States as a composer of concert hall music, even opera, that, nonetheless, has definite jazz influences. The Sparkling Heavens makes an immediate impact. Scored for soprano sax, strings, piano and percussion, there are some minimalist elements to the piano part that serve as an anchor for a long, beautiful sax line and some lovely chordal fabric underneath. This is a really nice work!
Graham Lynch’s Milonga Azure provides a bit of tropical or tango feel but in a very relaxed way. It is tempting to try to find some Piazzolla influence in this very lovely score for saxophone, strings and piano. But there is a more laid back and restful, almost “Mediterranean” mood at work. James’ playing is, again, soulful and very pleasant and the composer acknowledges that the work evokes a café on a beach at St. Ives and conjures up the azure blue sky and water. (Sounds good to me!)
There are two short, quite catchy works by Tim Garland here. Both Winding Wind and the Moon For Her use soprano or alto or tenor saxophones (Garland is himself, a saxophonist and bass clarinet player of note) This arrangement of Winding Wind was written specifically for Lara James after she heard it with Garland’s “Lammas” ensemble. There are elements of playing options for the saxophonist and the result is rhythmic and propulsive. The Moon For Her was written on an inspiration from a children’s cartoon his daughter used to enjoy in which the father catches the moon for her. It is lovely and somewhat bluesy; structurally a two part invention.
Mike Hall is a jazz saxophonist and composer as well. Hall’s Evensong is a simple, but very pretty sax melody over strings and piano. The chord patterns are fairly simple and give the piece a beautiful “hymnal” effect. No More Sorrow by Tim Barnes is a brief but wholly different work scored for tenor sax and keyboard. Actually, there is a bit of plaintive and serious tone to the work, including the chords and the fairly methodical rhythmic pacing that I found attractive. (According to booklet notes, Barnes is a very interesting person with unusual talents including perfect pitch and synaesthesia).
Dave Stapleton’s A View Through an Open Door provides quite a bit of contrast from all other works in this program. There is a mysterious, ominous, spacious quality to the work due in part to the long lines and very gradual pacing and somewhat “open” harmonies. It really did sound like the feeling of uncertainty, maybe some fear, about finding out what is on the other side of the “open door.” This very atmospheric work is written for soprano sax, strings, piano, bass and drums. I liked this piece a great deal!
The oddly titled Is It August Yet? By Huw Warren takes its name from the question his son (who has an August birthday) would ask often, even in winter. Warren has performance roots in jazz, world music and indie rock. This work has a perky, “child-like” pulse to it that the composer acknowledges is from South African folk music. This is another very attractive, “happy” sounding work that I found attractive. As mentioned, there really is a great deal of saxophone programs and recordings coming out these days (in part because the large universities worldwide have taken a more serious approach to the training and potential of would be performers of this family of instruments) I have to say this is one of the more enjoyable of these many collections I have heard in awhile. Lara James is a really fine young player and all performers and composers represented here are also truly gifted.
I recommend this heartily to anyone but especially to jazz sax players—or classical folks interested in something a bit different and very attention getting!