Saturday, June 22, 2002


Thanks to Juan Arbore for the tip-off about Patrick Neve’s University of Oregon music log on the strange and interesting collaboration between Ensemble InterContemporain, Frank Zappa and French composer Pierre Boulez (see IRCAM). Between 10-11 January 1984 Boulez agreed to conduct seven ensemble orchestral pieces by Zappa, enfant terrible of avant rock.

The Perfect Stranger was released in August that year. It has some incredibly dense and interesting music on it. Dissociated from the individuals involved it isn’t hard to see why Boulez might have been intrigued. But two more unlikely partners it is hard to imagine: one zany, the other “as serious as cancer” (Thomas Nordeg).

As ‘Andante’ magazine (Dec 2001) commented: "It is a strange image: Frank Zappa seated next to Pierre Boulez. Boulez looks avuncular and charming, Zappa hirsute, gaunt, legs crossed, somewhat terrifying. Appearances aside, these two artists have both everything and nothing in common: Zappa, the angry iconoclast with a guitar, a one-man Brecht/Weill/Spike Jones (the list goes on) simultaneously seeking and disparaging academic acceptance; Boulez, his own brand of iconoclast, with the legendary ear and more legendary aesthetic fury."

Zappa remarked: “I bought my first Boulez album when I was in the twelfth grade: a Columbia recording of 'Le Marteau Sans Maitre' (The Hammer Without A Master) conducted by Robert Craft, with 'Zetmasse' (Time-mass) by Stockhausen on the other side. Within a year or so of that, I managed to get hold of a score. I listened to the record while following the score, and I noticed that the performance was not very accurate. I later acquired a recording of 'Le Marteau' on the Turnabout label, with Boulez conducting, and was surprised to find that he took the first movement much more slowly than the tempo marked in score. I razzed him about it when we met.” (‘The Real Frank Zappa’)

Posterity doesn’t record how Boulez reacted! He was typically cagey about the collaboration at the time. At a press conference in 1990 he was asked if he liked Zappa’s music. His enigmatic reply, according to Ben Watson: "Certainly. I found a kind of vitality and it was very good for our musicians to do that: they were not accustomed at all to it, and that's good to work on."

The album was on Barking Pumpkin and was listed under an EMI Classical subsidiary. It is now on Rykodisc. If anyone reading this has seen further comment from Boulez or his close associates it would be interesting to read. A thread on this topic appeared recently in


A couple of people have asked for more about Deirdre Cartwright after the ‘Precious Things’ review yesterday. Here’s my Amazon review of her previous album, ‘Play’. There’s also a review of her first, ‘Debut’ here. Best, however, to Buy via the Blow the Fuse site. See the contact details in my links column on the left.

Deirdre Cartwright, ‘Play’, Blow the Fuse Records BTF9703, 1998.

Type ‘play’ in Amazon’s music section and you might just end up with something you weren’t expecting. Moby’s dance album is pleasant enough. Magazine make up for what they lack though raucous energy. And Joanna MacGregor’s collection of twentieth century piano miniatures is exquisite. But what a happy outcome it would be if someone hunting one of these three ‘Play’ albums was also to make a chance discovery of guitarist Deirdre Cartwright.

And play-ful her CD certainly is, in all senses of the word. Cartwright the composer is restless, enthusiastic, considered and broad in her interests and influences. On this 1998 album you have the sense that there are moments when she throws studio calculation to the wind in much the same way her trios do live. She is a natural improviser and ‘Play’ is very natural jazz.

Along for the ride this time are regular accompanists Alison Rayner (double / fretless bass), Louise Elliott (tenor sax, flute), Steve Lodder (keys) and Gary Hammond (percussion). Simon Pearson joins them on drums. The additional guests are Annie Whitehead (trombone), a stalwart of the burgeoning British jazz scene; alto and soprano saxophonist Co Streiff (known for her work with the Vienna Art Orchestra); and soprano saxophonist Diane McLoughlin (who worked with Rayner in Giant Steppes and has performed with Martha Lewis of Martha and Eve fame).

My memories of this album are its straight-ahead moments. This is possibly because several of the more energetic numbers are regulars in Deirdre Cartwright’s live set lists, along with reworked standards and compositions by the musicians she plays with. All the pieces on ‘Play’ are self-penned and enormously enjoyable, but the twists, nuances and calming interludes are as much part of the picture as the swing. Generally Cartwright grooves more on tour than on her albums, but there are moments here that capture both the intensity and the joyfulness of her craft.

‘Got My Modem Working’ begins with a deft reggae shuffle before settling into one of Rayner’s persistent, infective bass rhythms. Elliott and Cartwright proceed to weave melodic lines over the medium paced swing. On ‘Some Folks Tune’ there is a more spacious feel, with changes of tempo in the guitarist’s legato style and a sweet-timbred bass solo. ‘Strange But True’ eschews percussion for a harmonically fascinating saxophone duet with trombone elaborations and rounded guitar musings of great clarity. This is music of real depth and feeling.

‘Flamengo’ has Latin inflections, but it doesn’t wear them too obviously. McLoughlin’s beautiful ballad eventually gives way to a Barbara Thompson-style workout, complete with touches of flute. ‘Warm Front’ cooks pretty hot for most of six minutes, with Lodder’s pianism urgent and lyrical. ‘View From A Mountain’ builds from a haunting sax melody into a triumphant (but nicely understated) diatonic denouement. ‘Voluble’ then lets some hair down with its irrepressible, funky percussive drive. The album ends on a fitting note with ‘You Wish’. A languorous theme is given the big band treatment just short of swagger.

This album is most definitely worth a play – along with its predecessor ‘Debut’ (1994) and new successor ‘Precious Things’ (2002).

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