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Gil Selinger: Press

Duende Trio

Well, now. Here’s a horse of an entirely different color: nine pieces of very early music, from the 12th through the 16th centuries, updated in form and harmony by an incredibly talented trio. The liner notes of the CD point out that until the Romantic era, classical musicians were trained in improvisatory techniques of their time, and so in the spirit of the past these works are being given a contemporary improvised treatment. Hornist Jeffrey Agrell and cellist Gil Selinger are exceptionally talented and rhythmically fluid classical players, but it is particularly in the playing of pianist Evan Mazunik, whose background includes “soundpainting” as well as performances with such musicians as pianist Carla Bley, trumpeter Bobby Shew, as and bassist Steve Swallow (another eclectic musician whose work crosses boundaries, combining Arabic music with Western), that one hears a true jazz spirit in terms of rhythmic “swinging” as well as improvisatory brilliance.

The result is a fascinating collection of what Charles Mingus called “jazzical moods.” Since this is by nature early music, the performances are more modal than scalar, which in itself presents a challenge within which the musicians must work. Though modern chord extensions are used, the listener will find no truly far-out harmonic explorations but a sprinkling of extended ninths and tenths. The basic structure of each piece is respected, but new intros and outros are added to give the pieces form while allowing for both solo and group improvisation. Though only these three musicians are listed, I also hear a fourth person playing tambourine. Perhaps the tambourine was overdubbed by one of the trio (most probably Mazunik, as the piano is technically a percussion instrument), but I feel that it was played “live” because I often hear its overtones mingling with the trio as they play together.

To fully appreciate this disc, one must be open-minded and slightly familiar with the “jazzical” music of Mingus, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, George Russell, and Chick Corea. What delighted me was that these performances, like the best of those musicians’ work, combined structure and freedom; no matter how far the trio extended itself, the basic thread of the original theme was always present. Pianist Mazunik plays the strings of his instrument in addition to the keys, which creates a delicious otherworldly ambience. Selinger’s cello alternates fleet bowing with pizzicato and da gamba-like “droning.” Agrell’s horn, though slightly muffled in tone, is incredibly fleet technically, including shakes and trills. Perhaps the most far-out of their improvisations is the most well-known piece on the album, “Sumer Is Icumen In,” which in its 1:58 duration goes through 1:25 of some pretty free-form playing by the cello in its upper register and piano plucking strings before you even hear the melody.

Obviously, then, this is not a recording that will be to everyone’s taste, and certainly not to those who only enjoy old-style performances of this old-time music; but for the rest of us, it’s a gas.

-Lynn René Bayley, Fanfare, May/June 2008
Mosaic: New Interpretations of Early Music for horn, cello & piano is a genre-bending crossover album that crosses not one but three boundaries. Duende's very modern instrumentation is an unusual choice for covering these early music selections, which come from the eleventh to the sixteenth century -- a serious breach of authentic performance practice protocol. Second, the players don't deliver straightforward interpretations of the music on modern instruments; they treat the pieces as raw material for jazz-influenced improvisation. Third, a classical group that embraces improvisation is nothing new, but it's safe to say that this is the first instance of an ensemble consisting of horn, cello and piano giving it a try. Hornist Jeffrey Agrell and cellist Gill Selinger have strong backgrounds in both classical and jazz, and pianist Evan Mazunik has had a distinguished jazz career, but one influence all three have in common is work with Walter Thompson, the composer and conductor who developed Soundpainting, a system of leading (mostly classically trained) musicians in controlled improvisatory experiences geared to unlock their aural imaginations and free them from dependence on notated music. The trio here explicitly reclaims the tradition of the improvising musician, which once included virtually all musicians, but which in the nineteenth century essentially became the exclusive domain of pianists.

The results are loads of fun and full of charm. There is real spontaneity, a sense of gleeful freedom, as well as considerable sophistication, in the ensemble's performances. The players are scrupulous in avoiding clichés, and their takes on this repertoire have plenty of variety; this is very definitely not the one-size-fits-all approach that can deaden the efforts of classical groups that are only dilettantes in the realm of improvisation. For fans of jazz-classical crossover, there is more musical substance and inventiveness here than in many comparable efforts, and the album could have strong appeal for fans of just plain chamber music and just plain jazz. The choice of early music is inspired; its quirky rhythms, modalities, and melodic turns are a fresh alternative to the popular classics that have been the standard source material for so much improvisation over the last century. The ensemble pieces here have been carefully coordinated and developed, probably through countless group sessions, but the album is also punctuated by free solo improvisations on the same material. MSR's sound is clean, present, and lively.
Modern arrangements of early music are nothing new, but this fresh new collection of improvisatory interpretations puts a different face on the practice. Especially unusual is such an approach within the standard classical performance arena; the work of Duene reminded me more of some of the similar efforts on the ECM jazz label. There was also a recent classical guitar CD of similar import.

Some of these composers - such as Hildegarde von Bingen - go back as far as the 12th century. Instead of researching the musicological details of the music and its accurate performance according to the norms of the period, Duende takes the melodies and wails on them much as a jazz pianist would do with a tune from the Great American Songbook. The three skilled musicians of Duende are discovering the future thru the past. They are bringing back the element of improvisation which was a central part of classical performance up until the Romantic era. Their idea is that if they can create music on the spot, so to speak, why not create completely fresh interpretations of existing old music?

The idea behind using Mosaic for the CD title is perfect. I’m a fan of mosaics, and they mostly have some rough edges but come together in a glorious work of art. The same could be said of these 13 short improvisations. Some are of dance music, such as a saltarello, and really swing in some spots. The lengthiest is a very imaginative 8 1/2 minute improvisation on the popular medieval theme The Armed Man (which Karl Jenkins used for his famous recent Mass). The two Sephardic tunes add a sparkle and oriental twist to the program and are among those making use of some additional percussion sounds. The transparent-quality sound was recorded at the University of Iowa School of Music, my old alma mater.
The Duende Trio -- a new version of an old performance group at the University of Iowa School of Music -- will play new versions of some old music on their debut performance, at 8 p.m. Friday, May 14 in Clapp Recital Hall on the UI campus.

The concert will be free and open to the public.

The Duende Trio is made up by horn player Jeffrey Agrell and pianist Evan Mazunik, who have performed several concerts at the UI, plus cellist Gil Selinger. Agrell is on the faculty of the UI School of Music, where Mazunik is a graduate student in the jazz area. Selinger is based in New York.

This group is so new, they have yet to hold their first rehearsal together. Instead, they have been holding what Agrell calls "distance rehearsals," exchanging music and tapes, until they can get together on campus the week of the performance.

"With this recital, we are taking a step farther in several directions," Agrell commented. "First, instead of our own compositions, we have chosen early music from the medieval and Renaissance as sources for musical development. Second, we are adding another voice -- Selinger."

"The addition of a new, contrasting timbre and third voice to the duo opens up significant areas of tonal possibilities. But the greatest attraction of this unique group is the uniting of three improvisers/composers who are blazing new trails in the almost unknown field of modern classical improvisation -- creating complex and fascinating new music from a wide variety of sources extemporaneously."

Agrell also explained the significance of the trio's unusual name. " 'Duende' is a Spanish word that is difficult to translate exactly," he said.

"Included in the feeling of the word in English would be the concepts of magic, inspiration, dark spirit -- as in goblin or elf -- and a kind of chilling charm. The great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, in a lecture on 'La Teoria y Juego del Duende' (The Theory and Play of Duende) said, 'Duende is a power and not a behavior, it is a struggle and not a concept... It is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action. According to Lorca, duende is the primal inspiration of the creative act, a visceral rather than contemplative experience."

"For its inaugural concert, the Duende Trio will explore new musical territory with this instrumentation, taking early music and transforming it with improvisation and modern sensibilities to experience the old anew. Future programs will use as sources original compositions, jazz tunes, folk music from all over the world, Hispanic and Latin American music, African music and so on."

The Medieval and Renaissance works scheduled to be interpreted by the Duende Trio on the May 14 concert are:
-- "Sol Oritur," an anonymous song from the 13th century;
-- "Santa Maria," an anonymous Spanish solo song from the 13th century;
-- "Bergeronnete" by the 13th-century composer Adam de la Halle;
-- "L'Homme Arme" (The armed man), an anonymous 13th century song that was widely used as the basis for composed music in the late middle ages;
-- the chant "O Euchari" by Hildegarde von Bingen;
-- "Tant ai ame or me convient hair" by Conon de Béthune;
-- "Passamezzo Antico," a bass line that was used for both composition and imporivation in the Renasissance; and
-- "Consonanze Stravaganti" (Extravagant consonance) by the early 16th-century composer Giovanni Macque..

A week after the May 14 concert, the newly formed Duende Trio will record their first CD, based on the same material as the concert program.

In addition to its unique programming, the Duende Trio offers another unusual feature: just as Agrell and Mazunik have offered in concerts the past several years, the trio is capable of realizing complete pieces from information provided on the spot by the audience: note patterns, rhythms, familiar tunes, emotional states, visual images, adjective/noun combinations, and so on. Based on the experience of all three members, Duende will also offer workshops in improvisation for classical musicians, and Agrell indicated they will seek opportunities to perform and give workshops at universities and national and international music festivals.
University of Iowa News Release