Three Views on Satieby Marc Chénard
/ February 1, 2012
Airs de jeux – Erik Satie et autres messieurs
Disques Nato 59/409/4009 (www.natomusic.fr)
To the eyes (and ears) of some, it would seem difficult to envision a connection between jazz and the music of Erik Satie, much less a fusion of the two. Still, precedents exist, most notably the eclectic revisiting by the Vienna Art Orchestra, entitled The Minimalism of Erik Satie, a two record box set released in 1984 by Hat Art in Switzerland. In the same period, the French label Nato proposed a much different path for the music of this singular composer, author of the famous Gymnopédies. An ardent defender of free improvisation, this record label established a catalogue of singular recordings, under the guidance of producer Jean Rochard (who went on to manage the career of reedist Michel Portal, pairing him with some of Prince’s former sidemen). Years after vanishing from our sites, the label is being distributed here, and of its titles Airs de jeux is a new box set containing two discs from the 1980s and another from 2007.
Two of the discs are solo piano recordings, both of these featuring European contemporary improvisers cast in the role of classical interpreters. First is pianist Ulrich Gumpert (a former East-German, heard here in 1983, six years before the Fall of the Wall) who plays the Trois Sarabandes and Six Gnossiennes (the last three published after the death of Satie). His interpretations are reverential, even distanced, the tempos almost halting, barely surpassing the mezzo forte. It takes him almost 55 minutes to play the 9 tracks, the Sarabandes taking half the time. The contrast is quite striking when this disc is compared to the other solo outing from British pianist Tony Hymas. As the title intimates (Correspondances Erik Satie Claude Debussy), this musician inserts seven pieces by the latter amidst 18 works by the former, including two of the Gnossiennes, the fourth with an attack decisively more forthright than Gumpert’s. Beginning with the most famous of the Gymnopédies (the first), he tackles both the Rêverie and Claire de Lune of “Dieubussy” (as Satie named him), then delves into more obscure works such as the three Chapitres tournés en tout sens or Satie’s Élegie, and Debussy’s Première étude or the Pièce pour le vêtement du blessé. Garnering the booklet of this 2007 recording, which winds down ever so gently with the last of the Gymnopédies, is a facsimile of the letter written by Satie paying tribute to his colleague, shortly after his passing in 1918.
Rounding off the set are the Sept tableaux phoniques, another kettle of fish altogether. Here, the producer asked several musicians to produce something of their own inspired by Satie’s music. In the seven tracks clocking in at 42 minutes, we hear a roster of British musicians (surprising for a French label), including the criminally underrated clarinetist Tony Coe, his confrere Alan Hacker, pianist Steve Beresford, violinist Phil Wachsmann (with electronic tape), David Holland (the pianist, not the bassist) and the mischievous saxophonist Lol Coxhill. Also included here, albeit only musically is pianist Robert Cornford, who died before the recording, but his friend Coe arranged one of his pieces (Welcome) for clarinets and tenor sax through multi-tracking While there is no real jazz per se in the solo discs, save for the fact that it is the artists’ main persuasion, the last disc is closer to the stylings of the music, unconventional as the pieces are. If the art of the player as wholesale interpreter interests you, or you simply like solo piano, two of these outings are worth the listen. For more adventurous ears, the third disc will be the main attraction.