WOLFGANG: Common Ground: Groove-Oriented Chamber Music (Metamorphoses. Common Ground. Jazz & Cocktails. Dual Identity. Thin Air. Night Shift)

WOLFGANG: Common Ground: Groove-Oriented Chamber Music • ALBANY TROY854 (59:42)
Metamorphoses. Common Ground. Jazz & Cocktails. Dual Identity. Thin Air. Night Shift

Gernot Wolfgang, now in his early 50s, was born in Austria; he received his musical training there and in the United States, where he studied at both the Berklee College in Boston, and at the University of Southern California. He was active as a jazz guitarist in both countries, and now works in the television and film industry in Los Angeles.

As many musicians have before him, Wolfgang has attempted to develop a musical style that embraces in some way both the language of jazz and the principles of “classical” music. Such efforts during the previous century were usually grotesque oil-and-water hodge-podges, revolting to connoisseurs of either genre. However, Wolfgang’s is the second recent venture of this kind that has struck me as fairly successful. The first involves the two piano trios of Patrick Zimmerli (see James North’s reaction in Fanfare 29:1 and mine in 29:4; it was also on my 2006 Want List). The concepts and styles are similar enough that it is hard not to compare the approaches of the two composers. What distinguishes these two from so much of that “third stream” stuff from the 1950s and 60s is that here there is a real integration of the two styles, rather than what often sounded like switching back and forth between two radio stations. But, as I said in my review of the Zimmerli trios, as someone who has no interest at all in jazz, but who is primarily concerned with 20th- and 21st-century “classical” music, I find that most of the allegedly “jazz” elements —usually involving vigorous syncopated rhythmic patterns—are part of the generic lingua franca of concert music of the past sixty years or so. This was somewhat more true in the Zimmerli works, which hewed fairly closely to a Brahmsian sort of formal rhetoric. In Wolfgang’s pieces, some clearly jazz-like usages appear—especially in the harmony—but without seeming jarring in any way. I would have to say that Zimmerli’s trios made a stronger positive impact on me, but Wolfgang’s pieces have much to offer as well.

As suggested in the headnote above, and confirmed in his program notes, the concept of the “groove” is very important to Wolfgang. I don’t know whether this term is common parlance among jazz musicians, but he seems to use it to refer to syncopated rhythmic ostinatos, of the kind that dominate the music of Paul Creston, along with—to a lesser extent—such other 20th-century Americans as Vincent Persichetti and Robert Muczynski, and, also, much of the tango-oriented music of Astor Piazzolla. (I wonder whether, as an Austrian, with perhaps a limited knowledge of American concert music, Wolfgang attributes this sort of rhythmic usage exclusively to the domain of jazz.) These “grooves” lend to Wolfgang’s music an appealingly invigorating quality, as well as an engaging sense of “swing,” without overdoing it to the point of excess. As he puts it, “I have made it my mission to find ways of organically incorporating grooves into orchestral or chamber music settings.”

The six pieces on this disc were all composed between 2001 and 2005. Most are about twelve minutes long; two are shorter—Night Shift for piano solo, an eight-minute piece conceived along the frequently-explored lines of a dream-evocation; and the four-minute Dual Identity for bassoon solo, written for and performed here beautifully by the composer’s wife, Judith Farmer. I found Night Shift to be the least interesting piece on the program, lacking an individual character or harmonic distinction. On the other hand, despite the potential for deadly tedium among unaccompanied pieces for monophonic instruments, this little sketch for bassoon, which highlights both its energetic and its lyrical capabilities, is quite delightful. Even multiphonics are used imaginatively and to musically sensible effect, rather than displaying their more common function as exercises in ugliness.

The four other pieces are—from a distance—quite similar in style and impact, although Wolfgang describes an individual concept underlying each of them. Metamorphosis—a really compelling composition that I found to be the most fully realized on the disc—is essentially a piano quartet; Jazz & Cocktails is a piano trio; Thin Air is a string trio; and Common Ground(the title piece) is a duo for bassoon and cello. Each is clever, engaging, and subtle in its appeal; it is all good fun without being simplistic in the least. And each of the performances is impeccably competent and committed.