The Fifth Element #79

Talk about a fascinating personal history. Rising-star jazz pianist Aaron Diehl's father ran a funeral home in Columbus, Ohio, with a largely African-American clientele. Diehl started at the piano with Bach, and not long after was playing in both the funeral home and a nearby Catholic church. I think the significance of those early experiences is not so much that a young teenager was already playing for audiences, but rather that he was playing in the context of rituals and, in the case of the funeral home, emotionally fraught major life transitions. I suspect that Diehl's unusual backstory is a large contributing factor in his musical maturity and poised artistic approach.

By age 13, Diehl had joined a jazz youth orchestra; by 16, he was playing solo piano in a hotel lounge; at 17, he toured Europe as part of the Wynton Marsalis Septet; that fall, he started studying at the Juilliard School, with Oxana Yablonskaya. In April 2011, the American Pianists Association awarded him (at age 26) first prize in the Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz competition. That career-development grant provided the means to produce Diehl's first studio recording, The Bespoke Man's Narrative (CD, Mack Avenue MCD 1066).

This is one very self-assured recording. Diehl is joined by bassist David Wong and drummer Rodney Green on all tracks, and on all but two by vibes player Warren Wolf. Todd Whitelock recorded the album at Avatar Studios, and Mark Wilder mastered it at Battery Studios, both in New York City. Of particular interest is that Diehl plays a Fazioli 228 grand piano. If another studio jazz recording has been made with a Fazioli, I have not heard of it. The piano sound is exceptional—a combination of the Fazioli's bell-like clarity, Diehl's cool, every-hair-in-place pianism, and good engineering.

At times, Diehl's playing calls to mind Keith Jarrett's, and his group's sound is reminiscent of Brad Mehldau's trio. Diehl designed the CD as an integral program, with a "Prologue" and "Epilogue." Standout tracks include "Moonlight in Vermont" (sounding rather like an updated Modern Jazz Quartet), and trio settings of the Forlane movement of Ravel's neoclassical Le tombeau de Couperin and the Gershwins' "Bess, You Is My Woman Now"—the latter is a knockout, with some very impressive tremolo playing by Diehl.

There are risks in trying to assess an artist on the basis of a single CD, but I think that Diehl is more of a musical intellectual than a dispenser of emotional self-indulgence or of empty keyboard pyrotechnics. I think he is not so much detached as disciplined, and lacking in the eagerness to please the greatest possible number of listeners—not bad things, if you aspire to be a serious artist. Highly recommended.

"I need another ASZ like I need . . ."
Poor Alex North accepted MGM's commission to write the film score for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and dutifully went to work. Kubrick did not stay in touch. North learned that Kubrick had ultimately rejected his work only when he attended the film's New York studio screening (on April 1, no less). As the movie unrolled, North realized that Kubrick had never replaced with the studio recording of North's score the potpourri of classical-music "guide tracks" Kubrick himself had selected—works by Khachaturian, Ligeti, Penderecki, Johann Strauss II—and Sunrise, from Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra.

North's powerful score can be streamed free here. The three-channel, magnetic-film master tapes of the original scoring sessions were apparently erased ca 1980, so the above performances are by way of North's rediscovered reference copy, a mono mixdown. A vinyl release is in the works (footnote 1).

Think for a moment how different popular culture would be today had "the suits" forced Kubrick's hand on the grounds that North's score was already paid for, and that, after North's success with Spartacus, it would be folly to pass up an additional reason for people to want to see the new Cinerama film. Elvis Presley, late in his career, famously used the Sunrise fanfare to accompany his entrance onstage. Countless marching bands have had it in their repertory for decades. Eumir Deodato is doubtless still receiving royalty checks for his jazz-funk version. Had Kubrick not ditched North's score for 2001, none of that would have happened. More to the point, over the past 44 years, approximately 314,159 hi-fi salesmen would have had to find a different favorite classical-music demo track. Anyone who can't "name that tune" in three notes has probably been living in a cave—as Nietzsche's Zarathustra did.

Our inundation by that three-note motif, by parodies or misdirected earnestness, is why I usually say, "I need another Also sprach Zarathustra like I need . . ."

By the way, according to John Culshaw's autobiography, although English Decca licensed out the performance used in Kubrick's soundtrack, they were unwilling to have their flagship conductor Herbert von Karajan publicly associated with a weird, iffy sci-fi movie. That led to the curious circumstance that 2001's end credits listed no orchestra or conductor for the main-title music. The official soundtrack LP was released with Karl Böhm's recording of Sunrise with the Berlin Philharmonic substituting sub rosa for von Karajan's 1959 effort with the Vienna Philharmonic.

I think that, in at least one way, it's unfortunate that Karajan's Vienna Philharmonic recording has become a, if not the, de facto reference. That's because the Vienna Philharmonic recorded in a hall that lacked a pipe organ. Therefore, the organ part was recorded in a nearby church and later dubbed in—less than successfully, I've always thought. Indeed, most ASZ recordings I've heard have come up short in the pipe-organ department. (I feel the same way about most recordings of Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem.)

Into that void steps Djong Victorin Yu, a young conductor from South Korea, leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in a recording of Zarathustra made in John Atkinson's old stomping (or at least treading) grounds of the Fairfield Halls, in Croydon, England, paired with Strauss's Don Quixote, with cellist James Kreger (CD, Guild GMCD 7204). The 1789-seat Concert Hall features a Harrison and Harrison organ of 1964 with three manuals and 41 ranks of pipes.

In terms of the organ's making a worthwhile contribution to the overall blend of sound, this is the most satisfying recording I have heard yet. Yu was a student of Vakhtang Jordania's, himself a protégé of Yevgeny Mravinsky's. Yu is firmly in the Russian Romantic tradition, as attested by the luscious string sounds he summons in the second section, Of Those in the World Beyond. This CD is one more (rare) refutation of Holt's Law: great sound and great performances. Highly recommended.

There is a very readable book by a BBC journalist who decided to find out what this Zarathustra chap was all about: Paul Kriwaczek's In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas that Changed the World (Knopf, 2003, footnote 2). Also highly recommended.

Parasound Halo CD 1 CD player
In his August 2008 Follow-Up to Jon Iverson's and Kalman Rubinson's coverage of Sooloos's Source:One (which was the component in the Sooloos system of the time that output an analog audio signal), John Atkinson wrote: "Looking at the [inside of the] Source:One, at the front center you have the network interface card; on the left you have a switching power supply; at the rear center is an industrial PC with its familiar but unused I/O jacks at the front and its vertically mounted RAM board at the back; and at the right is the RME Hammerfall soundcard plugged into the PC's PCI slot. . . . The significance of this photo is that what ostensibly is an audio component is actually a PC dedicated to one specific function. I think this is increasingly what we will see in high-end audio components."

The JA of 2008 was prescient. For the high-performance audio market, it makes a lot of sense to process digital audio data via sophisticated software running on a dedicated personal computer.

Footnote 1: It was also released on CD by Intrada in 2007, though that edition is now out of print. Also, film composer Jerry Goldsmith rerecorded it for Varäse Sarabande in 1993.—Copy Ed.

Footnote 2: That initial, hardcover edition is now out of print; it has since been reprinted, in paperback, with this title: In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World's First Prophet (Vintage, 2004).—Copy Ed.


MrSatyre's picture

I can't begin to thank you enough for exposing me to Alex North's original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey! It is crystal clear from the very first few bars why Kubrick was so keen on the temporary public domain tracks. Knowing now what we could have been forced to endure really gives me that much more appreciation for those truly timeless classics from the past greats. North's work will always be a product of the 50's and early 60's: strident and cacaphonic, which was a perfect reflection of the world at that time---all well and good for his previous works, but completely wrong for the groundbreaking vision of the prophesized future of 2001. I think even more people would have hated the film than they did (and do) if it had been portrayed with North's...unique interpretations.

John Marks's picture


One important clarification. Not all classical music is public domain!

Somehow, my reference to Kubrick's personal selection of "classical pieces" for the guide track got translated into "public-domain" pieces, which is not the case for all the pieces used in the soundtrack.

I am very sure that the Ligeti and Penderecki pieces were in rights, and so the producer would have had to negotiate a "synchronization" license to use them in the film.

I want to make this clear because someone might jump to the conclusion that Kubrick was just being cheap by using old music that was never subject to copyright. While the R. Strauss and J. Strauss pieces were not in rights, the Ligeti and Penderecki pieces were, and the Khachaturian might have been, depending on the complicated history of copyright conventions between Soviet Russia and the West.

I also assume that the studio would not want to take the internal/industry public relations black eye that would have been sure to come if they had stiffed Alex North on his fee, so, Kubrick most likely made them pay for two soundtracks, or at least one and a half.

I am also sure that Ligeti and Penderecki could have been knocked over with feathers when they got their first checks reflecting royalties due to the soundtrack LP sales!