Kristjan Randalu and Dave Liebman Revisit Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: CD Review

Fans of classical/jazz fusions, who also might like Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, will love this album. Remember his Pictures at an Exhibition , written in 1874 for artist and architect, Victor Hartmann, who died a year before? Or, if not a fan, but an enthusiast of interpretive music, the listener will experience the sonically versatile choreography of two masterful musicians reshaping Mussorgsky’s piece. Estonian-born pianist Kristjan Randalu, and American soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman of jazz note, plunge unabashedly into musical theatrics. Imagine these two wandering at night through an empty gallery, aurally revisiting and rebrushing the works of art with sound textures and discordant and harmonic rhythms according to the light changes cast on the pictures.

Mussorgsky Pictures Revisited, released recently by Budapest Music Center Records (BMC), offers reworked gems of Mussorgsky’s originals, while holding true to his stories. Five ‘Promenades’ with different key scales are interspersed to provide a continuity of themes, while breaking up the moods and lyrical textures of the musical interpretation. Slow, methodic and careful styles feature in the first five tracks of this duo’s exploits, but in the sixth track, ‘Les Tuileries’ (Parisian gardens), melodies become abstract with a wandering piano, punctuated by a free improvisation of the saxophone. While a bit chaotic amidst a social order, this sets the tone for the rest of the album. Imagine viewing pictures of characters and scenes in Paris depicting life, fantasy, ballet, Parisian catacombs, castles, and competitive women at the market.

Then, gentility enters. Liebman pitches his soprano sax high enough to sound like a lilting medieval wooden flute as in ‘Promenade IV’ after which the sax morphs into a frantic and amusing self-explanatory run in “Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens’. Where did that come from, one wonders? Keeping to the Parisian bustles, the duo sonically paints women hustling in the market for gains in ‘Limoges – The Market’, and a solemn visit to the catacombs casts a dark lighting change in ‘Catracombae’. The album ends with one of the longer pieces, ‘The Heroic Gate’, depicting victory, finality, even relief. The music has burst out of the frames.

The 42 year old Randalu , known to break some rules, but with humble precision, hails as one of Europe’s stellar talents of improvisation, and boasts various awards: Jazz Album of the Year at the 2012 Estonian Music Awards, the 2007 Jazz Award of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the 2014 Music Award of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, and the 2020 National Culture Prize in Estonia.

Liebman, well known in improv circles for some five decades, starting in the 1970s with various bands including Miles Davis and Elvin Jones, has built his career around teaching, writing, composing, and performing. His autobiography, What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist, covers his fascinating career, which also includes founding and acting as the Artistic Director of the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ) existing since 1989.

The stylistic genius of this duo makes this album undeniably a collector’s item.

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