Tony Wilson Does Viola

I’ve just gotten done listening to the first section of The People Look Like Flowers at Last, the new one from the Tony Wilson Sextet (Drip Audio, 2009). I’d been meaning to pick this up anyway, but absolutely couldn’t resist after seeing that the album opens with “Lachrymae,” by Benjamin Britten. Wilson has really jazzed it up, and it works.

“Lachrymae” is a 20th-century classical-music piece for viola and piano. When I first started my irrational viola obsession, I found that the piece was everywhere. I ended up buying two versions, by violists Kim Kashkashian (on ECM and recorded pristinely, of course) and Yuri Bashmet (in a version rescripted for string orchestra rather than piano).  I’ve since seen it performed live. And now, here it is, in jazz version.

Now, my musical memory is far from perfect or even good, especially when it comes to classical. There are only three parts of “Lachrymae” that I can identify by ear or “sing” out loud. There’s the very beginning — which I don’t recall note-for-note, but I know it when I hear it. There’s the first variation that comes immediately after that: It’s where the tempo picks up and a recognizably repeated line kicks in. And late in the piece — the climax, I suppose, there’s some aggressive viola sawing — conjuring up dark, looming ghosts.

Wilson’s “Lachrymae” starts with the prelude, done up with harmonica and cello for a buzzy sound, heavier than the original. And then the first variation kicks in (“Movement #1”), with a surprisingly jazzy bassline and a kicking 7/8 rhythm (at least the first bar is 7/8; I lose track of the time after that) propelled by Dylan van der Schyf on drums and a light guitar line.  (The original is in 3/4, as you can see here.)

The quivering, sawing viola part (“Movement #10”)  is replaced by a stream of guitar notes played under dissonant chords formed by the sax and trumpet.  It seems calmer at first, with less abandon, but it goes on and on (as does the original), building tension and power not through overt means, but through the cumulative effect of all the notes. Wilson has also evened out the tempo — moving all (almost all?) the notes into eighth-note form to create a kind of robot babble, which helps push that cumulative effect forward.

Many of the movements include jazzy riffs that become ostinato backing for what I think are the viola parts: Wilson plays the viola part on guitar, and I think he wrote the riffs himself, or at least derived them himself from the original piano parts.  It’s going to be fun dissecting the original piece having heard this fresh interpretation.

To audiences that don’t know the original, “Lachrymae” probably comes across as a nice avant-jazz suite, with melody that’s nearly accesible but still angular and exploratory, and some nice moments for the cello, sax, and trumpet.

Because it’s got solos and improv segments, Wilson’s “Lachrymae” clocks in at about 30 minutes, compared with 13 or 16 minutes for the readings I’ve got.

I like Wilson’s music a lot.  I first picked up on him during a trip to his home base of Vancouver, where I picked up his album Lowest Note on a recommendation in an ad for the awesome Zulu Records store.  (Great indie store where the clerk also turned me on to Dan Bejar’s Destroyer.)  And his often rocking Pearls Before Swine (Drip Audio, 2007) includes a kick-ass version of “I Am the Walrus.”