Oasis Quartet: Glass, Gotkovsky, Escaich

Oasis Saxophone Quartet

Innova Records #744


The saxophones of the Oasis Quartet bound through the full range of expression and energy in their new self-titled release on the Innova label. Armed with Ida Gotkovsky’s Quatour (1983), Thierry Escaich’s Le Bal (2003) and a 2007 arrangement of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima), the Oasis Quartet spans the Atlantic, compellingly illustrating strong traditions in saxophone quartet repertoire. The group’s members – James Bunte, Dave Camwell, Nathan Nabb and James Romain – unite the CD’s stylistically divergent content with their collective crispness, obvious instrumental mastery and subtly executed interpretations.

Classifying this CD’s contents as traditional shouldn’t surprise anyone: the saxophone has French origins and its players of historically rely on transcriptions to fill in gaps in their repertoire. As the album’s liner notes describe, even Thierry Escaich’s Le Bal is based on traditional forms – the dance suite. The work is raucous and expansive, slithering between energetic and mysterious sections over its twelve-minute duration. Appropriately, Le Bal is united by a surging rhythmic momentum. When this driving energy finally explodes in the work’s home stretch it sounds as if the piece spirals out of control into oblivion.

Ida Gotkovsky’s Quatour is a large, five-movement work that displays Oasis quartet’s expressive flexibility within an, “approachable and attractive” musical landscape. In addition to the assonant remark I just quoted, the liner notes highlight Gotkovsky’s use of unison passages to create clear textures. Indeed, parallel movement of all kinds appears throughout the work’s foreground and background passages. Observed alongside Quatour’s predilection for ostinati and limited polyphonic passages, it is clear one Gotkovsky’s principle goals is to establish a crystal clear hierarchy between melody and accompaniment. The piece’s bombastic fifth movement, “Final”, challenges this trend with an unprecedented section of wild, independent counterpoint. However, Gotkovsky compensates for this textural outlier with three closing minutes of nearly all unisons melodies or chorale-like harmonic progressions.

The most well-known offering on the CD is obviously Oasis’ adaptation of Philip Glass’ String Quartet no. 3, taken from Glass’ 1985 film-score for a biographical film on Japanese author and activist, Yukio Mishima. Like many of Glass’ other film scores – I am specifically thinking of his soundtrack to Notes on a Scandal – the String Quartet no. 3 is primarily composed of triadic arpeggios, simple, repetitive phrase structures and unbalanced rhythmic layers often playing with competing duple and triple feels.

The harmonic language, though characteristically sparse, tends toward swift major-minor transitions, which, when set in the rhythmic landscape of work, reminded me heavily of John Adam’s score for Nixon in China. A big difference between the two is Glass’ melodies, simple and languid, floating above the babbling triadic latticework below. I doubt I would have made this connection listening to the original instrumentation because the sound of Oasis’ saxophones immediately led my inner ear to associate the work with Adams’ love of flashy brass and wind parts.

On that note, I think Nathan Nabb’s arrangement works really well, and even surpasses the original version in my opinion. The difference is most striking in the third and fourth movements, the first of which is fast-paced and syncopated and the second begins with an extremely slow and reserved mood. Of course, strings and saxophones can achieve the plaintive affect of the fourth movement, but – despite Glass’ use of double stops – a string quartet does not pull off the third movement’s edgy mixed-meter rhythmic minefield as successfully as Oasis’ saxophones.

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