CD Review: John O’Gallagher – The Anton Webern Project
(Whirlwind Records WR4635. CD review by Alison Bentley)
‘So how do people listen to music?’ wrote Viennese composer Anton Webern (1883-1945) ‘Apparently they have to be able to cling to pictures and moods of some kind.’
Webern’s mathematical, abstract music is what has attracted saxophonist John O’Gallagher since the 1980s. But it’s the moods in this recording that draw me in, as well as the remarkable musicianship of the whole band.
O’Gallagher has arranged eight of Webern’s short pieces, asking, ‘What would Webern’s music sound like if he were a jazz musician living in New York City today?’
Schnell (after Op.27) is based on Webern’s only composition for piano. The dry sound of Russ Lossing‘s Hammond contrasts with O’Gallagher’s pure alto tone. (Lee Konitz is cited as an influence). The theme is played mischievously, over complex patterns from drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and restless bass from Johannes Weidenmuller– a controlled rhythmic turmoil.
Steve Coleman’s influence is strong in O’Gallagher’s tone, and in the way he begins a solo with sparse repeated notes, before exploding into dramatic Breckerish runs. O’Gallagher’s sense of harmony is drawn from Webern, who was taught 12-tone theory by Schoenberg. O’Gallagher has immersed himself in this, writing about it very practically. (His book is Twelve-Tone Improvisation: A Method for Using Tone Rows in Jazz). It’s exciting, unpredictable, yet with repeated patterns that create a satisfying sense of structure- they’ve become an intuitive part of his improvising. Quartet (after Op. 22) brings an insistent New York funkiness to the original, whilst keeping its delicacy. Webern reputedly instructed the original’s tenor saxophonist to play with ‘sex appeal’, and O’Gallagher certainly plays with passion here. As bass and Hammond unison 12-tone riffs meet Pete McCann‘s subtle guitar, it could almost be Kevin Eubanks with Dave Holland. Matt Moran‘s vibes scamper brilliantly over the backing riffs. If it sometimes sounds as if phrases are being played backwards, then they probably are, mirror images being an important part of the 12-tone style.
Jazz-rock makes an appearance. Five Pieces (after Op. 10) has a mysterious, glowing vibes tone, mingling with Lossing’s Fender Rhodes, behind the Tony Williams-like drums. It’s free and exhilarating, like Miles’ In a Silent Way. The Secret Code (after Op. 28) keeps the puckish leaps of the original’s pizzicato, gently flinging out the notes. McCann’s inspiring rocky guitar solos have echoes of John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth.
Ways Going Over (after Op.15) is the nearest the album gets to a swing feel, bringing out a Charlie Parker-like tone in the alto. The counterpoint lines create deliciously dissonant chords; the Hammond colours in between the lines, and there’s a strong motivic bass solo.
Singer Margret Grebowicz is warm and ethereal, yet coolly accurate on the seesawing melodies- a little like Luciana Souza. O’Gallagher was looking for a singer with a ‘Brazilian airiness’ in the tone. She sings in German on the breathtaking Three Songs (after Op. 25) while Sorey scatters powerful yet delicate sounds in his tumbling drum solo. Seventh Ring (after Op. 3) begins a cappella, adding McCann’s Egberto Gismonti-style nylon-stringed guitar, and Lossing’s graceful emotive piano improvisation. All This World (after Op. 31) has voice and sax melting smoothly together on the angular lines. It’s hard to tell if the time signature is changing or just that the strong beats are shifting around in the bar. (Weidenmuller’s own book is about ‘contracting and expanding time within form’ and that’s exactly what it sounds like). The result is uplifting, almost a samba, a glorious chaos.
This music is addictive and beautiful, played with dedication and passion: challenging and intriguing, taking the jazz tradition on a step further into Schoenberg’s ’emancipation of dissonance’.