Shades of Gray (CD review)

Gary Gray, clarinet and alto sax; various accompanists. Centaur CRC 3251.

Shades of Gray is a mixture of jazz and classical, with the emphasis either on jazz-inflected classical or on classical-inflected jazz, depending on how you look at these things.

In any case, the star is clarinetist Gary Gray, a top-notch performer with a number of albums to his credit, a concert artist, studio musician, and Professor of Clarinet and Chair of Woodwind Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. His idea for the present recording was to create, in his words, "an album of duos, utilizing the clarinet going one-on-one with a variety of instruments," offering "fresh possibilities...especially if some duos with a jazz accent were to be included in the program."

The album contains seven main selections and two bonus tracks, the nine items being a mixture of classical and jazz, as I say. For me, the best of the lot were two numbers by George Gershwin, the Three Preludes (1927) that open the disc and Rhapsody in Blue, which almost concludes things (just before the bonus tracks). On both the Preludes and the Rhapsody, pianist Bill Cunliffe accompanies Gray. I found these numbers particularly effective not only because of the highly sophisticated music but because Gray plays such a sultry, emotional, bluesy, sensuous clarinet. Nevertheless, although I enjoyed his Rhapsody and Cunliffe's sympathetic support, I couldn't help wondering how much more I would have enjoyed Gray playing with a full Gershwin-style ensemble in one of its original arrangements. Still, for what the music is, Gray and Cunliffe do it splendidly, and I doubt anyone hearing it would complain.

In addition, we get "Three Short Stories" for clarinet and bassoon (2003) by Gernot Wolfgang, with Judith Farmer, bassoon. Wolfgang's work mixes jazz with Latin American influences and has an especially light, graceful rhythm to it.

The "Twilight" section from "Hall of Mirrors" (1990) follows, for clarinet & piano by Mark Carlson, with Joanne Pearce Martin, piano. "Twilight" is the third movement of a sonata Carlson wrote for Gray. It's sweet, poignant, and a little melancholy, moods Gray and Martin capture perfectly.

Charles Harold Bernstein's "Blending," in five movements for clarinet and violin (1989) with Adam Korniszewski on violin, is the longest piece on the program at a little over twelve minutes and was also written specifically for Gray. It's a great title for the blending of piano and violin we hear, and Gray and Korniszewski match instruments and skills in ideal harmony.

"Yin and Yang" for clarinet and alto saxophone (2010) by Bill Cunliffe, with Gary Foster, alto sax comes next. It's the "canon" movement of a longer suite that Gray says he will continue on some future album. More important, it's a snazzy, jazzy dialogue between the two reed instruments, and it sparkles in its simplicity.

Then we get "Blue Muse" (2003), arranged for clarinet and guitar by Kenny Burrell, who accompanies on guitar. "Blue Muse" is surely a classic already, or should be, and in this rendition it sounds mellow and sonorous.

The first bonus item is "Lush Life" (1938) by Billy Strayhorn, arranged by Bill Cunliffe for spoken voice, piano, and saxophone, with Juliette Gray, voice; Bill Cunliffe, piano; and Gary Gray, tenor sax. The only trio on the program, "Lush Life" offers a satisfyingly pensive sadness in the voice-over. Lovely.

The final bonus item is "Wave" (1970) by Antonio Carlos Jobim, an improvisation for piano and saxophone with Vince Maggio on piano and Gray on alto sax. It proves a satisfactory summing up of the duets on the album.

Gray recorded the nine selections on the disc over the period 1983-2011. The album notes provide no exact recording dates or venues, but I suspect Gray made the bonus items early on and the rest of the items at the later date. In any case, for the most part the instruments display an excellent sense of space and place because the mikes aren't right on top of them. So, set slightly back, they sound as one might hear them live in a small club. They also sound well defined, with a touch of room resonance to give them a realistic texture and flavor. In addition, the duos are lifelike in their size, not stretching across the room but equally balanced, smooth, and detailed, with fine dynamics from softest to loudest passages. Wonderful sound, actually.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa