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John O’Gallagher

The Anton Webern Project


by Ian Mann

October 09, 2013


Despite the apparent dryness of the title this is an absorbing, surprisingly accessible, and often exciting album. O'Gallagher has realised his mission statement in brilliant fashion.

John O’Gallagher

“The Anton Webern Project”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR 4635)

I first encountered the playing of alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher on the 2011 Whirlwind release “Another Time” by the drummer and composer Jeff Williams. This was an excellent album featuring Williams’ “American Quartet” including O’Gallagher, trumpeter Duane Eubanks and double bassist John Hebert and in May 2012 I was fortunate enough to witness a superb live performance by this group at The Cross in Moseley, Birmingham. The London date on that tour at The Vortex was recorded for the equally enjoyable live album “The Listener”, released on Whirlwind in 2013.

I was hugely impressed by O’Gallagher’s contribution both live and on disc and his playing represented an exciting new discovery for me. Born in Anaheim, California and raised in Spokane, Washington O’Gallagher has been an influential figure on the New York jazz scene for some twenty years and this intriguing project marks his sixth album release as a leader. O’Gallagher has long held a fascination for the work of the Austrian composer Anton Webern (1883-1945), a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg and a leading figure of the early 20th century avant garde who helped to develop the concept of serialism and the twelve tone row method of composition. O’Gallagher first discovered Webern’s music when studying classical saxophone and the saxophonist dismisses Webern’s reputation as a dry academic. Indeed O’Gallagher is something of an authority on his subject having authored the book “Twelve Tone Improvisation”, published by Advance Music in Germany in 2013.

Although O’Gallagher has absorbed himself in the Webern canon he approaches this album from the viewpoint “what would Webern’s music sound like if he were a jazz musician living in New York today?”. And make no mistake, despite the lofty concept behind it this is emphatically a jazz record played by some of the leading musicians on the New York scene. Joining O’Gallagher are Matt Moran (vibes), Pete McCann (guitar), Russ Lossing (Hammond organ, Rhodes and piano), Johannes Weidenmuller (bass) and the great Tyshawn Sorey at the drums. Margret Grebowicz’s vocals grace “Three Songs”, “All This World” and “Seventh Ring”, the latter a Webern setting of a poem by Stefan George.

As O’Gallagher’s liner notes make clear it was his intention to present Webern’s music as “clearly melodic and beautiful in ways that most listeners may not be aware of”. He has retained Webern’s harmonies and trichord structures making only minor changes designed to facilitate jazz improvising. It’s not exactly an “easy” listen but it’s not bafflingly difficult either, most modestly adventurous jazz listeners should find much to enjoy in this music and, of course, the playing is exemplary throughout with the musicians extracting new meanings from Webern’s work.

The eight pieces are all credited as “music by Anton Webern, arrangements by John O’Gallagher” and the press release includes notes by UK publicists Sebastian Scotney and Rob Edgar which shed further light on the performances. The album commences with “Schnell (after op. 27)”, O’Gallagher’s arrangement of a Webern solo piano piece. With its fast pace and jagged rhythms it’s appropriately titled with O’Gallagher’s incisive alto cutting a swathe above the persistent chatter of Sorey’s drums. Lossing plays an important role on Hammond, his stabbing chords underpinning O’Gallagher’s opening statement before he embarks on a major solo of his own. The busy arrangement is designed to emphasise the different tonal and chordal possibilities offered by Lossing’s Hammond and Moran’s vibes so we get to hear something of the latter too.

“Three Songs (after Op.25)” introduces the voice of Grebowicz singing the second song of Webern’s “Drei Leider”. British listeners will hear something of Norma Winstone in her sound but I was also reminded of the vocals of the Northettes, the trio of singers (Amanda Parsons, Ann Rosenthal and Barbara Gaskin) who used to sing with Hatfield & The North. Perhaps it’s the blend of voice, guitar and Hammond on this track that reminds me of the whole Canterbury thing. Indeed there’s something of a prog rock feel to much of the music on this album with its classical roots and complex time signatures but then I guess that Wyatt et al had listened to Schoenberg and Webern too. Others to play a prominent role on this particular lieder include bassist Weidenmuller and O’Gallagher himself who steers the music firmly back towards New York jazz territory.

“Five Pieces (after Op.10)” embraces Webern’s atonal techniques and tritone structures and treats them with a sound reminiscent of Miles Davis circa “Bitches Brew” as Lossing doubles on Rhodes and Hammond, Weidenmuller plays arco bass and O’Gallagher loosely takes on Davis’ role. It’s powerful, sometimes visceral stuff, creating an atmosphere that is continued on “Quartet (after Op.22)”, a piece developed from a Webern tone row and driven by Weidenmuller’s bass groove. O’Gallagher delivers a solo that encapsulates all the power and fluency I saw him generate with the Jeff Williams group. Matt Moran, whose playing I know from John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet is also on sparkling form with an effervescent vibes solo.

Grebowicz returns for “Seventh Ring (after Opus 3)”, singing the opening verses accapella and in the original German. Explaining his choice of singer O’Gallagher explains “I wanted a vocalist who could bring a lightness of touch, almost a Brazilian airiness to this music”. It’s a selection that results in the quietest, most spacious music of the album with the cool of Grebowicz’s vocals complemented by the gentle lyricism of Lossing on acoustic piano and the quiet intensity of McCann on acoustic guitar, both soloists ably supported by the resonant undertow of Weidenmuller’s double bass.

“The Secret Code (after Op.28)” was originally part of a movement for string quartet. O’Gallagher takes Webern’s pointillism and develops its rich textures into a kind of prog rock anthem complete with soaring guitar, swirling Hammond and spiky alto sax with Moran’s vibes presiding over an almost funk interlude. McCann’s guitar heads for the stratosphere before the opening pointillism briefly returns.

For “Ways going over” (after Op. 15) O’Gallagher takes a Webern song, the fourth of the Funf Geistliche Lieder “Mein Wg geht jetzt voruber”  and adapts and expands it for an instrumental ensemble. The original piece was little more than a miniature, the notation fitting on to a single page, but O’Gallagher’s arrangement stretches to a little under five minutes , the instruments meshing together effectively and with Moran, O’Gallagher and the consistently excellent Weidenmuller the featured soloists. 

The album concludes with “All This World (after Op.31)”, sourced from Webern’s last published opus, a cantata in which the melody, embellished here by O’Gallagher, appears frequently. Grebowicz’s wonderfully clear, wordless, Winstone like vocal floats above the instrumental undertow leaving space for solos by Moran on vibes and Lossing on piano plus a fiery exchange between O’Gallagher on alto and McCann on heavily treated guitar. Scotney and Edgar posit the question; “Hermeto Pascoal meets Webern?”.

Despite the slightly forbidding title “The Anton Webern Project” is a hugely enjoyable if occasionally challenging album. O’Gallagher stays true to the spirit of his subject but still brings a good deal of himself to the proceedings. This is a 21st Century album that combines avant garde classical structures with the urgency and excitement of New York jazz with-dare I say it?- a substantial dollop of prog rock thrown into the mix. Somehow it all sounds wholly contemporary and vital and constitutes essential listening. O’Gallagher is at the heart of the proceedings but everybody plays well and several of these musicians represent new and important discoveries for myself, names I’ll be looking out for elsewhere.

O’Gallagher has realised his mission statement in brilliant fashion.     

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