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Maestro through time

Krists Saržants

“Songs without Words» — Raimonds Pauls’ music from the past through the present into the future

Maestro Raimonds Pauls. A name known in various countries across different generations. A pianist and composer who has delighted and inspired audiences with his music for almost 70 years. From Rīgas Radiofona Estrādes Sekstets (RES), trio, Rīgas Estrādes Orķestris (REO), the group«Modo,» to collaborations with numerous outstanding Latvian musicians — Zigmar Liepiņš, bassist Ivars Galenieks, singers Nora Bumbiere, Margarita Vilcāne, Aija Kukule, Mirdza Zīvere, Viktors Lapčenoks, Žoržs Siksna, and many others. His influence on Latvian culture is immeasurable, and his compositions have become defining elements of our childhood, youth, and more, evoking nostalgia as we remember our first vinyl record or cassette, attending a theater performance, or enjoying a film with Maestro’s music.

In the album«Songs without Words,» we have the opportunity to listen to some of the composer’s most recognizable melodies in the excellent arrangements of the British arranger, composer, and trombonist Callum Au, a Grammy award-winning national chamber orchestra«Sinfonietta Rīga» under the direction of conductor Normunds Šnē, drummer Māris Briežkalns, bassist Toms Poišs, and, of course, the author himself, Maestro Raimonds Pauls, at the piano.

“Songs without Words» opens with an introduction to the 1979 Latvian Radio show«Mikrofons,» featuring the survey winner«I Can’t Leave.» The enchanting performance by Mirdza Zīvere with heart-touching lyrics by Vizma Belševica. The album begins with an orchestral performance of the introduction and melody, later taken over by Maestro. In the first track, we hear Pauls’s characteristic percussive keyboard touch and dynamic, gradation-filled piano timbre. The initial orchestral sound blends with jazz traditions as the full rhythm group joins in. Returning to the trio setting, Pauls, accompanied by Toms Poišs and Māris Briežkalns, takes over«Sinfonietta Rīga,» leading it to a culmination where the well-known melody, with its orchestral dramaturgy, momentarily captivates, causing a transient breathlessness, until Maestro concludes with the lifting of the pedal.

Perhaps not everyone is familiar with the name Theodore Dreiser, but it seems that most have heard the title of his novel«Sister Carrie,» after which the musical of the same name, created by Raimonds Pauls, Kārlis Pamšs, and Jānis Peteris, premiered at the Operetta Theater in 1979. The second composition on the album is an instrumental version of the most well-known song from this musical, «Carrie’s Song.» The expansive introduction arranged by Au prepares us nobly for the yet-unheard melody, which the composer himself reveals in solitude. Callum Au’s orchestration and arrangement style brings to mind Dutch pianist Mike del Ferro and the renowned Dutch orchestra«Metropole Orkest» album«Italian Opera Meets Jazz» from 2016. As the rhythm group joins in, orchestral music blends with a more traditional jazz sound and Maestro’s pianism, combining jazz, estrade, and classical music styles in the bright tone of Latvia Radio 1 Studio’s«Steinway & Sons» piano.«Carrie’s Song» is another composition by Pauls that became popular with the voice of Mirdza Zīvere. Listening to this instrumental arrangement, at times, it feels like I can still hear it and feel those same emotions, albeit in a different, more modern sound and orchestration. One of the most significant elements in the song is undoubtedly the melody, which is precisely how powerful it is in this piece, leaving such a profound impact due to Zīvere’s performance that transcends time.

The third composition on the album, «White Sun,» starts differently from the first two. The swing rhythm is replaced by Latin music vibes, which breathe new life into this famous melody sung by Margarita Vilcāne. In contrast to the previous pieces, arranger Au decided to stick to the original introduction, creating nostalgic feelings from the first notes. Writing a review prompts a different kind of listening to music, and associations often arise, which may not always be logically justified. For example, listening to«White Sun» carefully — its melody, harmony, development, rhythm — I couldn’t shake off a melody that I initially couldn’t clearly define until I remembered Clarence Carson Parks’ song«Something Stupid,» written in 1966 and gained popularity in 1967 with the performance by Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy Sinatra. Not in an overt resemblance but in the direction of the melody, harmonic development, and resolutions, especially when adding the mood and theme of love to the versions of«Songs Without Words» in this album, the two intertwine. Sometimes, the associations and emotions created by music are genuinely inexplicable, and they will be different for everyone, as peculiar as finding a similarity between«White Sun» and«Something Stupid.”

With an undulating tension in the orchestral performance, the fourth composition begins —«Elegy,» where«Sinfonietta Riga» complements Maestro’s performed melody, followed by the oboe, exchanging roles with the chamber orchestra and Pauls in places — the orchestra executing the melody with piano accompaniment, leading to a piano solo by the trio, where we can clearly hear Tom Poišs’ extensive double bass accompaniment and Māris Briežkalns’ controlled drum play, elegantly giving space to both colleagues. Once again, we can listen to Pauls playing with unpredictable dynamic gradations. This piece also draws attention to Callum Au’s intricate melodies and polyphony in«Sinfonietta Riga» interludes.

In the middle of the album, we return to the Latin music vibes in the composition«Millions Of Scarlet Roses,» which was first played in 1981. This is Raimonds Pauls’ most famous work, translated into more than nine languages, including Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Finnish, and Persian, as well as Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese where (in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam) in the 80s, it became a popular karaoke song. The melody in octaves and block chords, complemented by the aforementioned dynamic gradations and percussive key touches, are some of the things associated with Maestro’s piano playing, which we also hear in this piece, performing the melody closely together with conductor Normunds Šnē’s excellently led«Sinfonietta Riga» chamber orchestra. The composition, arrangement, and orchestration encompass lyricism, emotionality, and playfulness. In the middle, returning to American jazz traditions and swing, in Pauls’s solo, we can distinctly hear the influence of blues and the iron stability and confidence expressed by Maestro.

Replacing the usual orchestral or«tutti» introduction, the sixth composition of«Speechless Song» starts with the composer himself. The orchestra joining creates a kind of fairy tale. Au’s arranged interludes, the orchestra entering for the first time, weaving between the first part’s melody, and returning after the refrain evoke emotions wrapped in memories but not sadness. In a way, it’s bittersweet. Misleading in how things were, what can no longer be, yet with such inner peace where sorrow turns into a quiet smile and acceptance.

The recording of Pauls’s composition«Dublet» from the 1992 film of the same name is associated with music worthy of a James Bond film soundtrack. Still, Callum Au’s arrangement in the album«Songs Without Words» has revealed this work in a completely different light — in nocturnal bossa nova rhythms with a wide and relatively dark orchestration. Māris Briežkalns’ accompaniment together with Pauls’ composed harmonic movement, is reminiscent of Diana Krall’s version of Burt Bacharach’s 1967 song«The Look Of Love.» The introduction reveals a mysterious character with a powerful yet expressive personality. Cocktails in a dubious bar with questionable characters, suspicious women, a view of misty night streets contemplating life in solitude — these associations were evoked in me by Callum Au’s arrangement for Raimonds Pauls’ composition«Dublet,» which built an almost cinematic scene.

And like an unexpected sunrise, a fiery red morning in autumn, the eighth composition of the album, «The Sun Shines In Me,” gleams. With an introduction worthy of Jean Sibelius’«Finlandia,» this piece is revealed by«Sinfonietta Riga.» Kalum Au’s fantastic orchestration indeed interprets the sunrise, the onset of the day, and the awakening, leading to the ninth composition of the album, «While the Candles Are Burning,” which, in turn, evoked memories of the melting section of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite«The Planets,» specifically «Jupiter.» It continues with a wide, enchanting introduction that leads to Maestro’s performance of the piece’s melody. In this composition, we also hear Pauls’s piano solo, which is personally my favorite on this album — executed as if every note had its place, complementing each other.

Concluding the album is Raimonds Pauls’ composition«Under The Overturned Moon» from the 1977 film of the same name. However dreamily bright this piece may seem, the film’s plot is by no means the kind often found in jazz compositions — music entirely contrasting with words or plot. At the same time, it’s not as radical as it may seem. Upon closer listening, we can hear sweetly lyrical notes. Pauls’s piano solo complements the composition with blues influences and quotations from George Gershwin’s«I Got Rhythm» and Gerald Marks’«All Of Me» in direct and indirect ways, bringing on a smile.

Callum Au, «Sinfonietta Riga,» Normunds Šnē, Māris Briežkalns, Toms Poišs, and, of course, Maestro Raimonds Pauls — a tandem that has managed to carry this music through time, uniting very different artists from various generations with a rich experience and a unique perspective on music, as we hear in the album«Songs Without Words.”