Essay: Aquarelle, a CD by Big Bend RTS & Samuel Blaser
Aquarelle is a collaboration between the Big Bend RTS of Belgrade Serbia and Samuel Blaser, Swiss trombonist and composer. Blaser composed all the titles, the majority of which were arranged by Serbian band members Vladimir Nikolov and Ivan Ilić. RTS stands for “Radio Television Serbia.” The band was formed in 1948 as a full orchestra, its first tours as a jazz band starting in 1957. Along the road the Big Bend has collaborated with a vast range of jazz musicians including Johnny Griffin, Clark Terry, and Ed Thigpen. The band has also accompanied storied giants as disparate as Josephine Baker and Danny Kaye. The iteration on this CD contains four trumpets, five saxophones, four trombones + Blaser, guitar, piano, bass, drums, and conductor.
This essay is axed around three compositions, “Levee Camp Moan Blues,” “Aquarelle,” and “Spooky.”
The “Bend” part of the band’s name on the CD cover is a sort of Serbian pronunciation of “band.” But rather than treating this as a typographic anomaly, it could also be an inexact metaphor for the great curves found in the flow of powerful rivers like the Yangzi and the Mississippi. In this case the bend is at Belgrade on the Danube and more particularly where the Sava meets the Danube. There resides the Kaladmegdan Fortress, today a peaceful park, in the past the scene of innumerable sieges and defenses. Belgrade’s origins can be traced to the 55 or so Argonauts (Jason and The Golden Fleece) who landed there about 3,000 years ago. The relics from various ages that have been found in the bed and banks of that river embody the history of Europe, the ebb and flow of human development, as well as its cycle of tragedies. Documented antiquity attests that whoever controlled the southern bank of Danube dominated whole empires. Belgrade is perhaps the most frequently destroyed city in history, yet phoenix-like it always arises to become a cultural center, and then again a delicious target for the next cycle of power struggles. Serbian author Aleksandar Diklić wrote a literary and detailed 550 page book, Belgrade, the Eternal City that documents its history.
Levee Camp Moan Blues
The first and last tracks on the CD are variations of “Levee Camp Moan Blues.” Samuel Blaser may not have the above history in mind when he composed the music, but as he wrote me, “’Levee Camp’ is only a title inspiration. The melody is my invention. There’s no direct relationship to Ma Rainey and other bluesy versions.”
It’s a good inspiration nevertheless. The “Levee Camp Blues” has a history which dates to the lyric poetry of great Black blues singers and guitarists from Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and other parts of the USA Deep South. The word itself seems to be straight out of American dialect, a transformation of the French word élever, or a lifting of the banks of a river or swamp to control flooding or keep a canal navigable.
The building of the levees required considerable manual labor. Work camps were set up to maintain what amounted to a mobile labor force. With the camps came all the relationships of the post-slavery Deep South, master-worker, man-woman, the low pay which might not even be paid, crime and punishment guilty or not, the most virulent and scurrilous forms of racism, and the creative music to describe those social conditions. The real deal on the Deep South for Black people in those decades is documented on Alan Lomax’ documentary recording of Blues in the Mississippi Night (DigitalGramophon), including a spontaneous a cappella exposition of an already 50 year-old “Stackolee,” the song about a pimp, a gambling debt, and a bullet.
The levee metaphor has become a fixture in American music, with multiple musical variations. Assuredly many musicians played it but left no documentation of their variations . But those who did include Ma Rainey, Son House, Texas Alexander, and a bit later Billie Holiday. The modern manifestations include Don McLean’s “American Pie” and on Bob Dylan’s “The Levee’s Gonna Break”.
On Aquarelle, Blaser’s “Levee Camp Moan Blues” contains a power and compositional flexibility made apparent by comparing version of two different CDs. The earlier one is on Blaser’s CD Early in the Mornnin’. Oliver Lake cries out the bleak and back-breaking life of the work camps whereupon Wallace Roney and band (Hemingway, Loessing, and Kamaguchi) lift the tempo into Blaser’s solo (an almost imperceptible segue from trumpet to trombone), which soars before returning to the sweat-soaked debility of levee work.
Arranger Vladimir Nikolov takes a different tack: up-tempo, a driving pulse from piano and bass, like a revving V-16 engine, Blaser playing fragments of the melody, the trombone section riffing into the same low-end mode as the piano and bass, the trumpet section adding embellishments. The µ-second transition between the introductory statements and melodic statement (with Blaser entering as lead voice) is, as on the Roney-to-Blaser handoff, an imperceptible catalytic transformation. There is no gradation, the change in musical motion like the sensation a passenger feels when the wheels of a 747 lose contact with the runway, an instantaneous buoyancy, a tension-release as the increasing air pressure under the wings is translated into lift, the moment of flight. There’s nothing mechanical about it, like shifting gears: it just becomes. The cryin’ blues of the composition has become the Eagle Flies on Friday, the coin that gets played into the hands of a bartender or pianist on Saturday night, the blues of a celebratory liberation free of the shackles of the Cap’n (captain) who drove the laborers.
Some of the best music just happens that way, leaving the listener to wonder, “How did they do that?” Parts of the answer are easily parsed, a sophisticated chart, a well-rehearsed band, and a stimulating composition. Other parts might be less obvious: the band photographs show the average age of the musicians is easily greater than thirty-five, their experience being an indicator of capacity to negotiate ever compositional angle with aplomb.
I had the occasion to spend time in Belgrade in 2019. Being a cross-roads, it appeared to a first-time visitor to be a musical city with multiple traditions, including the rhythms, stringed and reed instruments which Canadian and American ears are not necessarily used to. Any trained Serbian musician, especially those working for an organization like RTS, could be regularly called upon to perform in multiple musical roles including the long tradition of tricky rhythms associated with the Balkans as influenced by the old Ottoman Empire, the Persian traditions, and of course Western modes.
Aquarelle contains plenty of outstanding music. One composition, “Missing Marc Suetterlyn” (an homage to trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff) contains pink-pantherish interplays between tenor saxophonist Aleksander Jaćimović and Blaser. But in this essay, I’ll concentrate on two others, the title cut “Aquarelle” and “Spooky”.
The composition “Aquarelle” is named after the painting of transparent watercolors. The arrangement and solo on this title track are examples of Blaserisms: lustrous sound pure and simple. In historical terms, the composition is immediately reflective of a master who started his artistic career as a painter, Ellington, and his arranger and co-composer Strayhorn. Blaser’s compositional integrity, delicacy, and musicality leads straight back to precious songs like “Azure,” “Passion Flower,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Blood Count” (Strayhorn’s living-with-death last composition written in hospital) designed for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges as soloist. Although they are worlds apart in space, time, and instrument, Blaser’s attack is uncannily akin to Hodges’ clean lines, lyricism, romanticism, modulating tone, and red-zone emotion.
The song opens with gentle chords from pianist Ivan Aleksijević and guitarist Goran Potić, a simple resonating line from bassist Milan Pavković, a lullingly soft trombone melody from Blaser. The entry of the orchestra is subtle and penetrating, the lower end voicings impelling the swell of the music as Blaser improvises around the melody.
Mr. Blaser never sounds anything other than unruffled. He is serene and uncomplicated no matter what the tempo or exigent demand of the music, the quality of his sound commanding without overwhelming. He possesses the virtue of reducing the most complex possibility to the simplest approach with the greatest emotional impact.
The take has two sections, fairly repetitive in structure and ends with a fade of Blaser’s second solo. In spite of the elegance of the music, the fade out on this short (3:48) track led to disappointment, the feeling of being short-changed. The conceptual beauty and the lentissimo swing of the piece begged for an extended version, including solos by other members of the band.
The third track for discussion in this essay is “Spooky”, originally titled “Murderers Home,” and recorded on Blaser’s Early in the Mornin’. This composition has its own musical and historic tale to tell. Blaser’s inspiration was a paper-backed tape recording made in 1947 by Lomax at Parchman Farm, a complex of the then segregated and chain gang Mississippi Prison System. Blaser took the melody from the original prison recording, chopped it up and based the new composition on a new chord progression.
Parchman Farm at that time was a replication of the post-slavery, plantation-model Jim Crow Deep South. Depending on their level of incarceration, prisoners farmed the land to supply the food which made up their diet. Lomax’ Blues in the Mississippi Night records musicians talking about the kind of slop the inmates ate, the better parts of any meat and vegetables having been sold on the market as profit for the prison system and the White captains & overseers. Parchman Farm had even had the benefit of a mobile electric chair which rotated among Mississippi prisons between 1940 & 1954.
Consider this: the Lomax recording of “Murderers Home” was a forty-seven second song excerpt rendered by a man named Jimpson and unidentified others singing a cappella. It has the cadence of work song, men able to walk only in slow-paced unison, their ankles bound by iron shackles, legs collectively connected by chain. There were plenty of places to run through swamp and forest for escape if the men could get out of the shackles, but even then the Cap’n, horse-mounted, had a rifle and pistol to keep them under control. Jimpson’s chant is a lament, a wail of despair, the words in a Black lingo largely indecipherable to my ears except for “Pray for me, I got a long time before I go free.” Freedom for some meant their eventual release back to Jim Crow or sitting in the chair that would boil their blood and fry their brains.
The RTS “Spooky” version takes the song into a cadence similar to that of Jimpson’s but in a different emotional direction, a dwelling somewhere in the realm of solemn, contemplative, and ceremonial, implying that within sight was a spiritual deliverance but a steadfast pace must be maintained to get there. Ivan Ilić’s arrangement begins with a chord progression rendered by pianist Ivan Aleksijević, C-Db-A-Ab. This progression and its sustained orchestral echo anchor the song steadily pretty much throughout, the voicings imparting a disorienting and ethereal buoyancy. With the exceptions of the orchestral flourishes, the body of the composition is subtle, processional, mysterious with tints of diaphanous trumpet and trombone notes the startling duration of a meteor entering atmosphere, periods of near silence far north of the deepest indigo, an ultraviolet way beyond Hank Williams’ “the silence of a falling star that lights up a purple sky”. Embellishments on guitar, what sound like elegant and restrained electronic effects, add to the eerie atmosphere. Blaser as the soloist rides through all of this slowly and methodically, the resonance of the trombone frequently echoing the melodic voicings of the band.
Arranging involves tricky concepts for a big band such as sight-reading versus collective improvisation, voicing different sections with each other, voicings within a section, and the relation of the ensemble to the lead improvising voice. The first structures of “Spooky” have a density that might be termed simple, such that the sections of the ensemble are brought to bear quite selectively and for short durations to sustain the spooky.
Just at 5:35, the ear detects a high point in Blaser’s solo indicating it may be time to wind down to the coda. Such a coda have been quite satisfying. Instead an unexpected extraordinary happens. The arrangement continues into what becomes a crescendo, a musically and spiritually powerful ensemble uplift. Consider how a tsunami becomes manifest. Deep in the ocean there is an earthquake, the energy released from a tectonic shift becoming hydraulic pressure with the resulting wave-forms hardly visible at the surface. Within the ocean sub-surface body there is a flux, a movement of liquid continuity across vast ocean-space that is felt but may not be recognized until it converges at the steep slope conjunction with the land to overwhelm gravity and overwhelm the land.
A similar surge in “Spooky” begins at 5:41 with the µ-second transition the RTS is adept at. First comes the subtle massed forces of the trombone and saxophone cohorts voiced at their lower ends. With this increasingly powerful undercurrent and the drums entering full-force, the trumpet section crests the movement with the melodic theme, Blaser reaching for the high notes of resolution, glory bound.
Mr. Jimpson had what the American Black people coined as the blues. I don’t know what the Serbians call this primordial tactile sense of emotion expressed in music, but the Bosnian culture and the Balkans in general are filled with an ancient and rural music known as “Sevdah.” The Andalusians of Spain have an extra-sensory perception term for it: the duende, one of those mysterious concepts that can only be rendered in words by literary parallels, such as the fluent descriptions the Spanish poet and literati Federico García Lorca gave in his 1933 Buenos Aires lecture Theory and Play Of The Duende. In that exposition, he called the duende “a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought,” and “not form but the marrow of form.” He gave the example of the Andalusian flamenco vocalist Pastora Pavon singing in a small Cadiz tavern; she was a “sombre Spanish genius, equal in power of fancy to Goya or Rafael el Gallo.” But on that occasion for all the superiority of her vocal technique, she could not summon the spirits, and her audience remained stolid with not so much as a hand-clap. But when she arrived at her limits she pushed again and crossed over to the duende, her voice becoming “a jet of blood.” Another example can be found on Sketches of Spain with the voice of Miles Davis soloing on “Saeta,” improvising in the manner of a woman singing in Arabic scales the passion of Christ. The duende possessed Davis, to the point where he stated he was so exhausted he could not play for months afterward.
Which raises an observation. The duende is usually defined in terms of the artist as individual. Lorca’s definitive essay speaks to the lone voice, the dancer, or the painter such as Goya. But the duende is not only confined to the individual artist, it can also be the apparition of an ensemble. I have witnessed it personally in Vancouver Canada, the audience trembling as the butoh Kokoro Dance Ensemble performed Bats (kokoro.ca). On the out-of-print campfire recordings of guitarist Manitas de Plata, he is surrounded by singers and percussionists who compel the summoning. The duende on “Saeta” was not confined to Miles Davis. Gil Evans, a wizard himself, added the orchestral drone and the percussion of Elvin Jones, Jimmy Cobb, and José Mangual as elements which had a catalytic effect of producing emotions as powerful as the scintillations of an aurora borealis.
“Spooky” possesses the duende of the rarest type, the collective duende. It takes all the elements cited above, the composition and its composer-soloist, the arranger’s boldness and subtlety, the creativity of RTS Big Bend and drives the whole to the duende. If any of those elements is in the slightest frail, the effort would miss the ability to break through the twilight zone between exceptional music and the transcendent.
Lorca points out that “Every art and every country is capable of duende.” So how did the elements coalesce to make a recording in a Serbia that is relatively isolated in today’s world? It was serendipity, one of those peculiarities of jazz. Vic Vogel (1935-2019) is the Montréalaise Canadian, big band leader who often travelled the European circuits. On occasion he also led the European Broadcasting Union (EUB) Big Band, made up of one musician selected by national radio stations each year. In the 2005 EUB Big Band, two of those musicians were trumpeter Dragoslav ‘Freddie’ Stanisavljevíc who now works at RTS and Samuel Blaser. A musical friendship developed and they began to gig together in Belgrade. It was from that friendship that that the sessions for Aquarelle came about. The best people meet in the best places, and it is also true that the best things happen in the best places. Some of those places have a big bend, and big bend of Belgrade ranks among the sweet spots of world cities.