Recording of October 2003: Private Astronomy

GEOFF MULDAUR'S FUTURISTIC ENSEMBLE: Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke
Edge 028947458326 (CD). 2003. Conceived & arranged by Geoff Muldaur; Dick Connette, prod.; Joe Boyd, exec. prod.; Eve Seltzer, Gary Carroll, Tristan Leral, Scott Lehrer, Dave Winslow, Mark Linett, Keith Weschler, Neil Couser, engs. AAD? TT:42:18
Performance *****
Sonics ****

The short life of Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke is the second most enigmatic and revelatory American musical tragedy after that of bluesman Robert Johnson. One corner of the considerable and ever-expanding mythology surrounding Beiderbecke is the weird, otherworldly dimension heard in the five original piano pieces transcribed before his death. Although Bix himself managed to record only one of these, the rambling "In a Mist," the others, set to paper with the help of arranger Bill Challis, have always had a powerful allure to anyone infected and affected by Bixology.

Geoff Muldaur heard the siren call of Bix's music, particularly his piano works, many years ago. Once a member of such groups of the 1960s and '70s as the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and Paul Butterfield's Better Days—and, yes, once married to Maria ("Midnight at the Oasis") Muldaur—Geoff was raised by parents enamored of the jazz age, who listened to Bix and told their son tales of his sordid life and musical genius.

Since the early 1980s, Muldaur has worked intermittently on arranging Bix's piano pieces for a somewhat unorthodox chamber ensemble that, as recorded in 2002, consisted of clarinet, alto and baritone sax, cornet, trombone, and violin. Once famed producer-engineer Joe Boyd came aboard, the two-decades-old project began to take wing.

"When I heard arrangements that Bill Challis had done [of the Bix piano works] for Bucky Pizzarelli sometime in the '60s or '70s," Muldaur said in a recent interview, "I thought 'Man, there's a whole other world in there that they're not getting.' "

One listen to Private Astronomy and it's clear that Muldaur, like Ry Cooder before him on his album Jazz, has gotten some of that world. Along with Bix's five piano pieces, the 13-track disc is filled out with renditions of other tunes associated with Beiderbecke, including his ne plus ultra, "Singin' the Blues."

The trick inherent in making this very interesting and difficult project work was not only how to second-guess how Bix might have wanted these often meandering pieces to sound, but also how to revivify music meant for the swinging, improvisational rapport of a small 1920s jazz ensemble—like the Frank Trumbauer Orchestra, with which Bix made many of his best recordings. To revivify, that is, without drawing unfavorable comparisons to the original, because no one's ever gonna play like Bix. When talking about the record, Muldaur mentioned capturing the sound, if not the spirit, of such famed 1920s players as saxman Adrian Rollini and fiddler Joe Venuti, both Bix contemporaries. In the non-piano pieces, the challenge was even greater: How and for what instrument to transpose Bix's cornet solos? Muldaur likened the process to being faced with "10,000 decisions every six bars."

Finally, the entire project had to have a dusting of the warm, open, fun-loving spirit that made the jazz age so appealing and, in retrospect, so notorious. Beiderbecke, that heady time's most famous devotee of excess, drank himself to death in a cheap apartment in Queens in 1931, at the age of 28. Finding the right players was half the battle of making Private Astronomy work.

"These parts really required more of a classical chair than a jazz chair," Muldaur said, "but the players had to have jazz sensibility. For the cornet parts, chops were really the thing, and it was brutal. Many of the top session guys in New York left [the tryouts] bleeding."

Arranged and played more formally, in an almost chamber-music-like take on jazz, the Bix piano pieces "In the Dark" and "Candlelights" have the moody feel of Ravel and Debussy, of whom Bix always spoke as his primary influences. New intros, evidently never played, were found and added to these renditions.

While six of the pieces are instrumental, the other seven have vocals, which can be jarring for anyone expecting a Bix tribute or an instrumental showcase. Happily, all these pieces, including the opener, "Take Your Tomorrow (And Give Me Today)," and Irving Berlin's "Waiting at the End of the Road," both with lead vocals by Muldaur, fit in beautifully. "Waiting," originally sung by Al Jolson, was one of the final recordings that Bix (who didn't sing) appeared on. "There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears" features one of the most unusual of those "10,000 decisions" of which Muldaur spoke: Venuti's fiddle part transcribed for baritone sax.

Perhaps the disc's most startling track is "Singin' the Blues," on which Martha Wainwright (daughter of Loudon, sister of Rufus) oozes into a bluesy, appropriately yearning version of the tune's "waiting for my daddy to come home" lyrics. Wisely, Muldaur has given the number's famous solo a wide berth; slowing its tempo and transcribing it for clarinet and violin. While lacking the energy and invention of the original, the choice fits with the album's easygoing nature while staying true to its aim: to nod respectfully toward the original.

As many yawning pitfalls as this project approached and could have fallen into, it's managed to tread the razor's edge between celebration and replica, being both tribute and objet d'art in its own right. After 20 years' work, its primary visionary admitted to some satisfaction.

"So we can't figure the whole thing out," Muldaur said, still fretting over details a little, "but hopefully the music is magic, right?—Robert Baird

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