CD review: John O’Gallagher

webernThe Anton Webern Project
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4635)

Once upon a time if the jazz listener made any connections with a classical composer it was usually Ravel or Debussy and those kind of extended harmonies were the link. Alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher is not the first to take a more dedicated interest in the Austrian pupil of Schoenberg who brought the twelve tone technique and a late Romanticism into conjunction.

Trumpeter Dave Douglas explored some Webern influences in his very first album Parallel Worlds, and when he collaborated with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group for the commission Blue Latitudes, BCMG included Webern’s Concerto Op 24 in the performed programme to complement Douglas’s work.

But O’Gallagher has certainly gone into Webern’s music in some depth, basing all these pieces as closely on Webern’s original themes and counterpoint as loyally as possible.

So what does it sound like? Well, not quite as different as you might imagine – certainly if you have been listening to a lot of the current movers and shakers in the US cutting edge, like Matthew Shipp for example, and maybe even Steve Lehman.

John O'Gallagher

John O’Gallagher

There are those melody lines that go in strange, slightly disjointed directions to the more conventional listening ear, and the harmonies when heard across the whole group – Matt Moran on vibraphone, Pete McCann on guitar, Russ Lossing on Hammond, Rhodes or piano (that’s a lot of overlapping chord potential just there), Johannes Weidenmuller on bass, Tyshawn Sorey on drums and Margret Grebowicz on voice – sometimes sound like they really do contain all the tones at once.

O’Gallagher says he has looked for the melody and beauty in Webern’s compositions, and certainly presenting it in a jazz context and with these musicians, the emotional side of the music is brought out – how do you not get an emotional performance from the amazing Tyshawn Sorey, coupled of course with amazing focus on the structures too?

Grebowicz is particularly fine on Seventh Ring, and Sorey shines on The Secret Code and on All This World – in fact, that final track is my favourite (or maybe it’s that I have become sufficiently accustomed to the musical palette by then). O’Gallagher’s own solos feel like they are closest to synthesising Webern and jazz, maybe not surprising as he has just published a book called Twelve Tone Improvisation.

Overall it’s an absorbing listen which demands quite a bit from the listener but rewards the effort.



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