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Album Review: 'Acrobat: Music For and By Dmitri Shostakovich' by Michael Bates.

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Michael Bates Dmitri Shostakovich
Courtesy of Sunnyside Records
Michael Bates, a Canadian bassist living in New York, demonstrates his affinity for the music of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich on his album Acrobat: Music For and By Dmitri Shostakovich. The record features mostly Bates’ original compositions, but also an arrangement of Shostakovich’s “Dance of Death,” the fourth movement of his Piano Trio no. 2 in E-Minor, recast with improvisational fire and spontaneity by a colorful and versatile band. Bates plays bass, Russ Johnson the trumpet, Chris Speed the clarinet and tenor saxophone, Russ Lossing the piano and keyboards, and Tom Rainey the drums.

“Dance of Death,” the first track on the album, acts as a thesis statement for the ensuing pieces. Shostakovich wrote his Piano Trio in E-Minor in 1944, and the fourth movement’s strong rhythms and melancholic Jewish melodies are what earned it its macabre sobriquet. In Bates’ arrangement, the band improvises based on bits of the original themes, and builds up to a brooding, intense chaos that finally finds release in the transition to a quiet, five-beat melody. This melody then forms the backdrop for clarinet and trumpet solos, and eventually blends into free improvisation, and therefore no longer tethered to the original material. The placid five-beat melody is the last bit of material quoted directly from Shostakovich, and from there on, the album is Bates and company’s invention.

The record is a nuanced exploration of Shostakovich’s influence, one in which Bates draws a connection more through affect than through any specific musical technique. In an interview about this album, Bates says “I’ve spent a lot of time transcribing (Shostakovich’s) scores, going to the library and getting the symphonies and string quartets and looking at the Preludes and Fugues for piano, then studying and writing melodies in his style. So, it’s debatable how much is his and how much is mine.” This description of Bates’ relationship with Shostakovich’s music puts the album’s goals in focus, and frames it not as a tribute album, but as a realization of Shostakovich’s influence on Bates’ own process.

The connection shows most clearly in the strongly articulated ensemble melodies that serve as centerpieces to most of the songs. “Arcangela” begins with three-part counterpoint in a minor key played on arco bass, clarinet, and trumpet whose orchestration makes it sound as though it were lifted straight from a Shostakovich symphony. When Rainey joins the others, using the whole drum set but giving special emphasis to the snare drum, the piece retains some of the martial character of Bates’ theme, but cues the band to take a more improvisatory approach. Lossing’s piano solo is freely improvised, while Bates and Rainey play what sounds like a Paul Motian-inspired march.

Although the compositions on Acrobat: Music For and By Dmitri Shostakovich were most heavily inspired by Shostakovich, they demonstrate nearly equal elements of music by Dave Douglas, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus, whose music, like that of Shostakovich, is often turbid and gestural. Fortunately, Bates allows his own voice to resonate even as he honors such imposing predecessors. Acrobat is an intricate and earnest work that will bear repeated listening very well, and it is highly recommended.

To hear Bates’ arrangement of “Dance of Death,” watch this youtube video.

Release Date:

November 21st, 2011 on Sunnyside Records

Personnel:

  • Michael Bates – Bass, compositions
  • Russ Johnson – Trumpet
  • Chris Speed – Clarinet and tenor saxophone
  • Russ Lossing – Piano
  • Tom Rainey – Drums

Track List:

  1. Dance of Death
  2. Talking Bird
  3. Strong Arm
  4. Some Wounds
  5. Fugitive Pieces
  6. Silent Witness
  7. The Given Day
  8. Yurodivy
  9. Arcangela
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