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That Prodigal Son of Bach Strikes Again and A Jazz Pianist's Tomorrows

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The Jekyll & Hyde Tour. P.D.Q. Bach. (Telarc 80666)

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A Styrofoam cup is but one of the odd requirements for P.D.Q. Bach’s String Quartet in F Major (“The Moose”), S. Y2K, the most ambitious joke on this new compilation by P.D.Q. Bach, a.k.a. Peter Schickele, who earned a master’s degree in composition from Juilliard in 1960. After a fitful, hilarious start (realizing that some of the musicians have inadvertently exchanged parts), the intrepid Armadillo Quartet dives into a half-hour score that seems to attract musical kitsch like a magnet. Along the way, Schickele mixes in dozens of musical quotations including a fragment of Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

As usual, Schickele wreaks havoc with structural conventions, extending cadences to absurd lengths, dropping in unexpectedly odd modulations, or repeating figures long after any “real” composer would allow. With expert comic instincts, he taps into a huge vein of expectations about classical music form, subverting them at every turn, often to uproarious effect. (It isn’t fair to give away all the surprises, but few string quartets I know incorporate a police siren.)

Engineer Michael Bishop has captured this love fest—the first CD by Schickele’s doppelgänger in 12 years—live at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills, Md. The sound is exemplary, striking a fine balance between the aural pratfalls onstage, and the whoops and laughter of a crowd eager to take in Schickele’s sophisticated goofiness.

Michèle Eaton (“off-coloratura soprano”) and David Düsing (“tenor profundo”) raise the comedic roof in the initial volley, “Long Live the King,” followed by a deadpan Düsing in Four Next-to-Last Songs, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Richard Strauss, chock-full of mangled German. Hilarity continues with some short songs, one of them an innocent poke at composer Vincent D’Indy, and the kazoo-riddled “O Serpent.”

 

Schickele taps into American popular song forms for Songs From Shakespeare, riffing on Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and, perhaps funniest of all, the funeral oration from Julius Caesar. And just when you think you can't laugh any more, the disc ends with a “stern” warning to Tyrannosaurus Rex, written for Schickele’s 6-year old boy, to counter his nightmares after watching Japanese monster movies.

 

Tomorrows. Donald Vega, piano. (Imagery Records IMG-0934)

“The melody came to me right when I woke up one morning,” writes pianist Donald Vega of the first track of Tomorrows, a skillful collection of his own compositions punctuated by well-chosen tracks by veterans. Vega, a current Artist Diploma candidate in jazz at Juilliard, begins his first foray leading a trio with “Wake Up!,” which percolates like musical coffee with its insistent motifs. He follows it with a smoky take on Charlie Haden’s “Our Spanish Love Song,” showing a relaxed virtuosity, equally at home injecting Bach-like lines into the proceedings or soaring off like Scarlatti. Bass player and Juilliard faculty member David J. Grossman offers tingling support and drummer Lewis Nash an easygoing tango beat to anchor it all.

A gentle fire emerges from “Indian Summer,” Victor Herbert’s suave ballad that shows the trio at its most intimate. Vega follows it with another of his compositions, “The Will to Nurture,” its glow inspired by Ahmad Jamal’s jazz staple “Poinciana.” Grossman’s bowed bass gives a timeless feel to “Nostalgia,” and a high point is the elegant arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low,” which Vega was inspired to include after hearing McCoy Tyner’s version years earlier.

Like “Wake Up!,” the up-tempo “Scorpion” turns tiny gestures into a track pulsing with animation. Vega follows it with the rhythmically tricky title track, “Tomorrows,” featuring Maria Neckam, who adds breathy vocals worthy of Astrud Gilberto. An upbeat, richly lyrical “Butterfly Waltz,” which Vega wrote for his wife, closes this engaging program, given an intimate soundstage by Brooklyn-based engineer Michael Brorby at Acoustic Recording.

You can learn more about this up-and-coming artist, and find a link to buy the album, on his Web site.

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