Lou Caimano, alto saxophone; Eric Olsen, piano. Ringwood Records.
Mixing jazz with classical is not new. The Jacques Loussier Trio, for instance, have been doing it for the better part of the last fifty years. Besides, audiophiles love the idea because they mostly listen to jazz and classical, anyhow, two genres most often heard live unamplified and, therefore, best to make comparisons in the quality of home playback equipment. So, here we have the jazz duo Dyad--Lou Caimano, alto sax and Eric Olsen, piano--playing music of Italian operatic composer Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924).
OK, Puccini may be the stretch. It’s maybe easier to imagine jazz arrangements of Stravinsky, even Verdi, than the bold lyricism of Puccini. Yet Caimano and Olsen do their best and come up looking for the most part pretty good. Just don’t expect as much classical as jazz. While Dyad begin with some of Puccini’s most-famous melodies, the tunes themselves tend quickly to get lost amidst all the lively riffing. What we get is not quite classical laced with a little jazz as it is jazz laced with a little classical.
Whatever, the music is still fun and extremely well played, so who cares how we define it. Whether it will please all classical fans or all jazz afficionados, however, is another question.
A little on the matter of the duo’s name: The word Dyad derives from the Greek, meaning “two” or “a pair.” That makes sense, given there are two musicians involved. Dyad was also a word the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras applied not only to the number two but to matter itself. Well, for sure, the musical pair Dyad do matter. They make some beautiful sounds together; and maybe credit Olsen’s wife, an operatic soprano, with coming up with the album’s theme in the first place. She commented to her husband that the sound of Caimano’s alto saxophone reminded her of an opera singer, and, thus came about Dyad Plays Puccini.
You can hear a brief snippet of the opening number below, “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Boheme. The waltz has a nice, bouncy cadence; Caimano's sax glides effortlessly; and Olsen's piano (a 127-year-old Steinway B grand) provides a sympathetic accompaniment.
"Ch'ella mi credo" from La Fanciulla del West is perhaps a better illustration of Puccini's lyrical style, and Caimano's sax here really does sound as though it's "singing." It's among the loveliest tracks on the disc.
Next, we get the Act I Overture to Madama Butterfly, and while it's not quite as effective in communicating Puccini's grand operatic style, it does offer a comely upbeat interlude. After that is "Che gelida manina" from La Boheme, one of Puccini's most recognizable melodies. However, taken out of its operatic context, I'm not entirely sure it works as well as some of the other tunes Dyad play. It seems a tad forced, as though Caimano and Olsen are trying too hard to make a square peg fit into a round hole. Still, there's much to enjoy, including the soulful alto sax and the sometimes playful piano interplay.
And so it goes through the album's ten selections, some hits, some near misses. "In quelle trine morbide" from Manon Lescaut comes off sweetly; “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi again seems a touch labored and not quite soaring enough; and "Un bel di" from Madama Butterfly presents some of the nicest interplay between the sax and piano on the program.
The standout on the set for me, though, was “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. It clearly bridges the gap between opera and jazz, thanks in large part for its playing it straighter than most of the other songs. It's less an outright jazz interpretation and more an operatic transcription (and a very good one) that conveys the tragedy of the opera.
The final two numbers are "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from La Rondine, a pleasant, lightweight affair that gets a bit rowdy toward the end; and the ubiquitous "Nessun dorma" from Turandot, in which Dyad make a good stab at jazzing up a perennial favorite with uncertain results. I liked the Eastern overtones it supplies, with a prominent part for Olsen's piano work; yet it doesn't always catch fire or exhibit Puccini's noble, imposing scope.
Still, this is enjoyable album, filled with grace and poise, that kept me fascinated for its duration. If I have any minor criticisms, it's that I missed having track timings on the packaging (they're printed on the disc itself, but what good is that while you're playing the disc); and I missed an enclosed booklet of notes (there are only a couple of paragraphs printed on the Digipak container).
Lou and Eric produced the album themselves with the help of audio engineer Philip Ludwig, recording it at the Ridgewood Conservatory, Ringwood, New Jersey in July, 2012. The sound is maybe the best part of the show. The engineer has miked it at just the right distance to produce a natural, realistic effect, the musicians appearing slightly recessed behind the speakers instead up-close and in your face. Detailing is lifelike, too, yet smooth and resonant, with a good sense of the room in which they're playing. Dynamics, frequency response, impact, air, and general transparency are all equally fine.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: