Composers: Derek Bermel
Compositions:Migration Series, Mar de Setembro, A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace
Performers: Derek Bermel cl, Juilliard Jazz Ensemble, Albany Symphony/Miller
Catalogue Number: NAXOS 8559871

Clarinettist and composer Derek Bermel’s jazz background prompted Wynton Marsalis to commission the 2006 Migrations for jazz ensemble and orchestra, based on 60 paintings by Jacob Lawrence depicting the migration of African Americans from South to North.

Following this model, Bermel’s five-movement work proceeds from grassroots jazz to an urban style. The piece is possibly more fun to play than to hear, though it is effectively written and idiomatically performed. When Stravinsky or Milhaud turned to jazz they still sounded like themselves; Bermel knows the tropes so well, any individuality is subsumed in technique. Similarly, this jazz sounds secondhand compared to originals like Gil Evans and Duke Ellington, or the symphonic pieces by William Grant Still, which still have such freshness.

A Shout, A Whisper and a Trace is a unique depiction of Béla Bartók’s final years in the (for him) uncongenial city of New York. Bermel twists Hungarian folk rhythms into a nightmarish cityscape. The music has considerable atmosphere, especially the spooky slow movement.

The song cycle Mar de Setembro was written for Luciano Souza, who performs it here. Bermel recreates the melancholy Portuguese aura of saudade within a 21st-century orchestral tapestry. Souza bears a strong vocal resemblance to Astrud Gilberto. A wide-ranging, intriguing program.

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