Mackey: Asphalt Cocktail - Whitacre: October - Ticheli : Blue Shades: CD

This review was published on: November 11th 2021

The following review is taken from the Autumn 2021 issue of Clarinet & Saxophone magazine. For more reviews, news, and features from the single-reed world, join to receive our quarterly magazine and other membership benefits.


Julian Bliss (clarinet)
Joby Burgess (percussion)
Signum Classics

This relatively brief EP finds Julian Bliss on tremendous form in multi-tracked recordings made during the 2020 lockdown. Bliss and percussionist Joby Burgess have created new arrangements of three interesting works from the American band repertoire, sounding somewhere between Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint and the clarinet choir of your dreams. At times you are fooled into thinking that this is a full wind orchestra.

Spanning the whole clarinet family, the arrangements are lush and sonorous with all the precision and flair we have come to expect from Bliss. The percussion contributions are more in the background, but a close listen reveals a vast battery of instruments deployed sensitively to enhance the texture of the clarinets. There is some intelligent orchestration and balancing going on here.

Composer John Mackey describes Asphalt Cocktail as ‘a five minute opener, designed to shout, from the opening measure, “We’re here.” With biting trombones, blaring trumpets, and percussion dominated by cross-rhythms and back beats …
Picture the scariest NYC taxi ride you can imagine, with the cab skidding around turns as trucks bear down from all sides.’ Here the trombones and trumpets are reimagined as clarinets, but the biting and blaring is just as effective. Before I saw this programme note on the Signum Classics website, I heard the piece as a crazy cartoon soundtrack.

Eric Whitacre’s October contains ‘simple, pastoral melodies and subsequent harmonies inspired by the great English Romantics (Vaughan Williams, Elgar) … perfectly suited to capture the natural and pastoral soul of the season’ (according to Signum website). I heard shades of Thomas Newman’s soundtrack from American Beauty in a manageable work that many clarinet choirs would enjoy playing if these arrangements become available.

Frank Ticheli’s Blue Shades, says Signum, is ‘a love letter to blues and jazz music, mixed through the composer’s own compositional voice: Blue notes (flattened 3rds, 5ths and 7ths) … Blues harmonies, rhythms, and melodic idioms pervade the work; and many “shades of blue” are depicted, from bright blue, to dark, to dirty, to hot blue.’ As any synesthete will tell you, the last part of this is purely subjective, but the jazzy stylings are here in spades, à la Joseph Horowitz, although Ticheli is a little grittier and his rhythms more driving.

I can’t imagine how much work this EP took to prepare, which is perhaps why it is not a full-length album. I would love to see reasonably playable versions of these arrangements published, if anyone is interested in taking on that challenge. Congrats, Julian – another corker.

Chris Walters

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