Recording Review

The following review appears in Volume 32 (2008) of The Saxophone Symposium, Journal of the North American Saxophone Alliance.

Steven Stusek, Susan Fancher, Inara Zandmane, Nathan Daughtrey. Louder than Words: Music for two Saxophones, Piano, and Vibraphone. 2006, Red Clay Records RCR CD 001. Reviewed by James Noyes.

As the title of this new release implies, the recorded actions of saxophonists Steven Stusek and Susan Fancher, along with pianist Inara Zandmane and vibraphonist Nathan Daughtrey, speak Louder than Words. (That being said, this reviewer will try his best!). While this appears to be the frirst and only offering from Red Clay Records, it is a splendid effort performed with great aplomb, a hopeful foreshadowing of recording to come. The CD recital is well balanced in its program, with a variety of settings and moods, from an extroverted Duo Concertante, to the lyric sounds of Italian opera, to the seemingly limitless inner reaches of the unspoken. And, as in real life, it is especially in the exploration of these tacit regions where exciting discoveries are made.

Mark Engebretson’s tour do force, the Duo Concertante for two alto saxophones, is a powerfully haunting opener. After an intensely insistent piano introduction, both saxophonists enter in a plaintive, and reaching sotto voce, but the insistent and invasive sinuousness returns eliciting howling quarter-tones! The soloists continue to soar ever higher, with broad and sweeping gestures, building to peak, at once melancholy and unrelenting. Presented here as a reduction, the work loses some impact of orchestral color and nuance, but with all three instrumentalists performing at the apex of virtuosity, dynamics and expressiveness, one can’t help but feel triumphant exhilaration.

Inspired by the 19-century masters Brahms, Bellini and Donizatti (and Debussy?), Katherine Ann Murdock’s brooding Trio Bel Canto is a perfect blending vehicle for Stusek’s full-bodies tenor and Fancher’s dolce alto. Within a dark and cascading backdrop, two souls pose existential questions. But, because the world is a strange and mysterious place, the only suggested answer seems to be one of togetherness. The musical context and warm interpretation are both rich and rewarding.

A siren of the mind issues an intense warning at the outset of Louder than Words, by Don Freund. Addressing “the joys and conflicts of the emerging 21st century in ‘stream of consciousness’ form,” the music seems to flow directly from the horrific images witnessed by the entire world in the fall of 2001. The message is clear: run for your life. But where can one excape from one’s own thoughts? The answers are pleasingly plentiful: an f-minor waltz, a snippet of a Mozart Piano Concerto, “conga-flavored licks,” boogie-woogie, and an homage to troubadours. These widely disparate ideas are fitted together through a series of transitions – some peaceful, some agitated – with numerous non-sequiturs. And, although the siren is never completely silenced, Freund’s musical mindscape is an utter delight!

Reginald Bain’s Not Speaking, written for saxophonists Fancher and Engebretson (who are married), enters the realm where communication is understood between selves and surroundings. Subtle messages emanating from the sweeping vibraphonic environment and the subsequent responses from the saxophones seem to imply much in the way of self-similarity. There are times when the saxophone timbres join together with the pulsating metalophone, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other – a sonic reflection. Nowhere is this more apparent than when alternate fingerings are employed to impressive imitative effect. In some places, I wished for the wind tones to fill the inner spaces at even softer dynamic levels, in order to highlight further the subtlety and nuance that characterize this refreshing and magical dialogue.

As the order of the selections themselves follows a certain arc, it is quite natural that Engebretson’s An Arc of Solitude rounds out the program. Here, the inherent flexibility of the saxophone, well-understood by Engebretson, and indeed, Stusek and Fancher themselves is utilized to wondrous effect. The bent timbres, buzzing multiphonics, and wide range of pitch, articu8lation and dynamic paint a brief but intensely graphic tone-picture of a “period of seeming confinement in a small, white room, illuminated by a sickly yellow-green light.” In spite of the somewhat forlorn description, this work is actually a prime example of thoughtful and adept saxophonic explorations perfectly suited for today’s performers and listeners.

Louder than Words is an eloquently delivered musical statement. Much attention is given to the scope and proportion of the selections, as well as to technical and interpretational considerations. Far from being a mere “catalogue recording” of works for two saxophones, this is a well-devised and largely thematic approach of further investigation – in the living room and practice room alike.