Fred Thomas’s new album on the Babel label, Dick Wag – A Tribute to Richard Wagner, “brings a fresh perspective to some best-loved Wagnerian moments by stripping its forces back to the bone”, writes Sandy Burnett.
He sourced the stories…he wrote the music…he built his own theatre and assembled the greatest mixture of arts his era had ever seen…all fuelled by unshakeable artistic belief and the kind of inner confidence that only wearing silk underwear can bring: Richard Wagner was a one-man musical creative who changed the world of late nineteenth century music forever.
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Fast forward to 2021, and Richard Wagner has met his musical match in the person of the present-day Fred Thomas, an astonishingly versatile composer, arranger and producer with a strong theatrical grounding. He’s directed the music and played at Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre; his collaborators include Brian Eno, Ethan Iverson, Rachel Podger, Liam Noble and Elina Duni; he’s performed with the likes of Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Jordi Savall; and there’s an album of creative JS Bach re-imaginings on its way on ECM. This is someone with a strong instinct to make new things happen in a brilliantly individual way.
Which brings us to this project, and its title that’s unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry. Dick Wag – A Tribute to Richard Wagner brings a fresh perspective to some best-loved Wagnerian moments by stripping its forces back to the bone. While Wagner is famous for his lush orchestration, Dick Wag wittily – waggishly? – features just three players. There’s Benoît Delbecq, genre-busting experimental pianist over from Paris with a discography as long as your arm; reeds player Ewan Bleach who brings an early jazz and swing perspective to proceedings; and Fred Thomas himself, master of many instruments, completing the trio here on double bass.
So how did this unlikely project come about? Truth to tell, Wagner and opera in general were never Fred Thomas’s cup of tea until a friend plonked him down in front of a pile of DVDs one day and they watched all the Wagner operas from beginning to end. From that point he was hooked: gripped by the stories, sensing Wagnerian sounds in everything from Stravinsky to Hollywood, and soon finding himself managing a full-blown Wagnerian addiction.
The next step was to shed those many onion skins of orchestration to leave just three instruments at the heart of the musical rethink. Working from simple lead sheets rather than cumbersome scores, the trio brought Wagner’s themes face to face with extraordinary sounds and extended techniques – everything from bell-like chimes on prepared piano down to hoarse arco textures from the bass. Rather than rehearsals, what’s made the project such a success was picking the right people in the first place.
A model here was Duke Ellington’s 1962 album Money Jungle, made with Charles Mingus and Max Roach – then as here, three distinct and distinctive personalities, bouncing off each other, and clashing for sure, but ultimately coming together in a trio that really works. Ellington looms large in a couple of Dick Wag tracks: Die Meistersinger’s ‘The Night Watchman’s Song’ gets the 1930s train groove treatment, complete with velvet Harry Carney-esque sounds from Bleach’s baritone sax. Their version of ‘Pilgrim’s Chorus’ is cut from the same Ellingtonian cloth, a four in the bar bass line bringing a down to earth twist to a super-solemn moment from Tannhäuser.
For the connoisseur, there are knowing laughs a-plenty, and well deserved, you might say; for it’s true that the pomposity of Wagner makes him all too ripe for a take-down. But as Thomas says, any piss-taking here comes from a place of sincere love and affection, and this inventive album is shot through with frequent and obvious clues that bear that out. Take ‘Tristan’s Pain’, for example. The curtain goes up on Act 3 of Tristan and Isolde to reveal the doomed hero suffering from a mortal wound as deep and rich sustained string phrases spiral up into the ether. Those long lines are still there in Dick Wag’s modern re-imagining, but wrenched off harshly as the hero writhes in agony. Closer to the original is the trio’s beautiful approach to the prelude to Wagner’s late spiritual masterpiece Parsifal, with the trio texture much more than the sum of its parts, creating a rethink that’s much more tear-jerking than piss-taking. The music really stretches out here, bringing to mind Gurnemanz’s famous line from Parsifal’s first act: “You see, my son, here time becomes space.”
Say what you like about the ridiculous side of Wagner’s legacy, silk shorts and all; for all the merriment elsewhere, tender and human moments like these show that in Dick Wag, these three musicians really care about the music of Wagner and the meaning behind it.
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