This review appears (in edited form) in the December 2013 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.
By David R. Adler
In tackling the music of Austrian serialist Anton Webern (1883-1945), alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher expands on a history of jazz-classical interchange that’s as old as jazz itself. Strong recent examples include Michael Bates’ Acrobat, devoted to Shostakovich; Samuel Blaser’s Consort In Motion and Mirror to Machaut, focused on Monteverdi and Machaut respectively; and The Bad Plus’ For All I Care with its acute renderings of Stravinsky, Ligeti, Babbitt and more.
On The Anton Webern Project, O’Gallagher approaches eight Webern compositions in a sextet format, with vocalist Margret Grebowicz joining on three tracks. Even if one knew nothing about the origin of the material, it would be a great listen: the band is immensely tight and texturally engrossing. Russ Lossing plays Rhodes and piano but spends much of his time on Hammond organ — a refreshing choice to interpret harmony this dark and dense. The instrument’s warmth and fullness cuts through and enhances every finely orchestrated passage with guitarist Pete McCann and vibraphonist Matt Moran.
Much of the musical language (and on the vocal cuts, German language) comes directly from Webern, though O’Gallagher added solo sections. Good thing: his alto work is superb, aided every step by the rhythmic alliance of bassist Johannes Weidenmuller and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. But the bass and drums share equal footing in the ensemble, bringing a loose, jazz-informed energy as they execute the most challenging and dissonant written counterpoint.
O’Gallagher’s complexity and drive can bring to mind alto contemporaries such as Steve Lehman, Greg Osby, Dave Binney and Tim Berne. There are hints of those aesthetic worlds in pieces such as “Schnell (after Op. 27),” “The Secret Code (after Op. 28)” and “Quartet (after Op. 22).” But O’Gallagher succeeds in shaping a distinctive band sound and orchestrational approach. His adaptations stand on their own, but they’re more eye-opening when played alongside Webern’s originals, with instrumentation ranging from solo piano to string quartet to orchestra to mixed chorus. Each is a world apart, yet O’Gallagher detects the common thread, captures the essence and enriches the music in the end.