CineMusical reviews Admiral Launch Duo's "Launch"

The Admiral Duo:
Jonathan Hulting-Cohen, saxophones.  Jennifer R. Ellis, harp.
Albany TROY 1752
Total Time:  75:24
Recording:   ****/****
Performance: ****/****

The combination of saxophone and harp seems a rather odd one with each instrument more associated with different musical genres.  In this new Albany release, the Admiral Duo makes the case for the combination through a variety of works both newly-commissioned and transcribed as they explore ten works for this unique combination.

Two works are transcription of previous material.  The album opens with Eolienne (1969) by Ida Gotkovsky (b. 1933) which was originally composed for flute and rearranged by the composer in 1978.  It is an early example of this unique combination of saxophone and harp which is explored across its five movements.  The attention to line and how this color is shaped has one foot in Impressionism, but the music’s aesthetic is modern.  The opening “Lyrique” has a rather sensuous beginning.  The music is tonal with interesting harmonic shifts that move us beyond traditional harmonic motion while the solo line floats above these arpeggiated chords in the harp.  The following “Intermezzo” is a wonderful waltz with beautiful flowing lines.  A somber “Intense” movement provides nice contrast.  The “Perpetuum Mobile” gives Hulting-Cohen to show off his virtuosic ability in rapid passagework that seems to spin out of control.  This is matched in the harp as well making for a nice contrast.  The piece ends with the beautiful “Declamatoire”.  This is a strong work with wonderful lyrical writing.  The character does not seem to have changed as much in the translation to saxophone, though it would be great to hear the flute version some time.  The other transcription is Marcel Tournier’s (1879-1951) work originally for voice and harp.  This penultimate track, Le Lettre du Jardinier (1912)  is based on poetry by Henry Bataille (1872-1922).  Its theme connects a bit with the garden theme that begins with a brief work by Christine Delphine Hedden.

A great number of the pieces here have been composed over the last four years.  Most of these are single-movement works.  Natalie Moller’s (b. 1990) starshine and moonfall (2014) uses an undulating harp line under a lyrical sax idea that grows in intensity until it shifts into the arpeggios while the harp plays its own version of the expanded material.  It is a rather fascinating little work.  Four additional works are grouped together exploring unique themes and approaches to emphasize the potential of this combination.  Amhran na Casca (2014) has biblical connections to the death and resurrection of Christ in Luke 20 and Mary’s discovery there in Christine Delphine Hedden’s (b. 1990) brief piece creating some excellent dramatic flourishes from the harp.  Her Kitchen Dance (2015) uses electronics and bowls in an improvisatory way to create interactions between the players and sounds for an ethereal finale to the album.  An interesting toccata of sorts with blends of Funk-Indian music appears in Stephen Rush’s (b. 1958) Whirlwind (2015).  The most recent work on the album is Still Here (2017), Angelica Negron’s (b. 1981) musical exploration of abusive relationships and trauma.  Small motivic ideas are looped and repeated in often incessant patterns against more reflective lines.  This darker work exploring feelings and boundaries is followed by the much more avant-garde  …nice box! “Oh So Square” (2014) by Jasper Sussman (b. 1989) with unusual sounds and fluctuations attached to both instrumental sounds which ends in a vicious saxophone scream.

Patrick O’Malley’s (b. 1989) Thaumaturgy (2015) is one of two other recent multi-movement works.  The well-balanced three movements each present different “spells” reflecting the magical implications of the title.  The piece has a few more intriguing explorations of each instrument using special effects to add intriguing sounds to the texture (most striking in the opening “Cast and Bend”).  The exploration of sound straddles a sense of traditional and contemporary music.  The other multi-movement work here is Yusef A. Lateef’s (1920-2013) Romance for Soprano Saxophone (or oboe d’amore) and Harp (1991).  It opens with a rather beautiful reflective movement, “With Love” and then explores more upbeat emotions in “Cheerfully”.  There are moments here where one can hear how Lateef was shaping lines in ways that would work for either instrument.  The piece is an opportunity for exploring long, drawn-out phrases requiring great breath control.  It is an overall gentle piece with an almost ancient modal feel in its harmonies.

The album features a lot of fascinating music for this combination that explores the capabilities of this duo and celebrates this important musical partnership of the Admiral Duo itself.  The saxophone tends to shine a bit more here, but the harp has plenty of opportunity to stand out as well which allows us to hear the excellent musicianship of both players.  The performances here often seem so effortless that they invite the listener into these various musical explorations.  The dramatic and narrative possibilities of the pieces also is laid out well here.  Most of the pieces here are tonal with angular writing often showing more contemporary approaches to composition.  It is an overall impressive album with a wealth of fascinating new work to discover.  The pieces are sequenced well to balance those of differing lengths making for an engaging program.