Recording of April 2015: Matson: Cooperstown

Sasha Matson: Cooperstown: Jazz Opera in Nine Innings
Julie Adams (Lilly Young), soprano; Carin Gilfry (Jan Green), mezzo-soprano; Daniel Favela (Marvin Wilder), Daniel Montenegro (Angel Corazon), tenors; Rod Gilfry (Dutch Schulhaus), baritone; Jason Rigby, saxophones; Russ Johnson, trumpets; Sean Wayland, keyboards; Rich Mollin, double bass; Gernot Bernroider, drums; Sasha Matson, conductor
Albany TROY1553/54A (2 CDs). 2015. John Atkinson, prod., mastering; Mike Marciano, eng., mix; Bill Schnee, Kenton Fukuda, engs. DDD TT: 101:63
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

A jazz opera about baseball? Uh-huh. Sung in colloquial English? A recording produced by the editor of this magazine? Sounds like the kind of situation where I should have nodded politely and just said No. What about ethics—all the folks who already think that review-based outlets like Stereophile are bought and paid for? Pony up and we'll write you a rave, right? Well, no. Absolutely not. But—Recording of the Month?

I had my doubts. As a fan of The Tales of Hoffman, Così fan tutte, Pelléas et Mélisande, and other jewels of the opera canon; on paper, Cooperstown seemed more a novelty than anything else. Then I spent time listening. Truly, this is an artful blend of jazz and opera.

First, let's hear from the composer: "I've often thought the best advice I've ever read on making art was from Leonard Cohen, when he said words to the effect of: 'You don't want to say tree, you want to say sycamore tree. . . . You get the idea—the more specific things are, the more flavor and resonance they have, and, oddly enough then, the more universal they become, as people can connect. At least, that's how I've operated. I've written pieces about things around me—a piece about Interstate 5 in California, and likewise a setting of John Muir's texts, Range of Light, as I've always loved the Sierra Nevada, growing up there. . . . Cut to Cooperstown, where we moved in 2000. And I literally look out our back door, across the lawn, at the Baseball Hall of Fame. . . . The rhythms and pacing of baseball I find very musical—and the balance between individual action and the team. Stadium organ . . . all those things appeal to me. So I created a story that hangs on Otello—but set in the world of MLB."

The voices here are all fine. Soprano Julie Adams (Lilly Young), a winner of the 2014 Grand Finals of the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions, is currently a Merola Opera Fellow with the San Francisco Opera. Daniel Favela (Marvin Wilder), an equally talented tenor, has jazz in his background, having sung with the late James Moody. He's also sung doo-wop with the Drifters, the Flamingos, and the Safaris. A graduate of Juilliard, mezzo-soprano Carin Gilfry (Jan Green) has sung opera in Santa Fe and Los Angeles, and at Glimmerglass. Her father, Rod Gilfry (Dutch Schulhaus), has made two recordings nominated for Grammys, and though best known for singing opera, is also a recitalist and music-theater singer. Tenor Daniel Montenegro (Angel Corazon), arguably the most recognizable name here, has appeared with the Minnesota Opera, the Washington National Opera, and on Sony Classical's American Tenors DVD.

Librettist Mark Miller has had careers in print and radio journalism, and in screenwriting. Working in an American vernacular inflected by professional sports, his words swing between the cleverly overwrought and the downright odd: "You clueless sawed-off runt! / Your little hat's too tight! / Go piss on the plate! / It needs a light dustin'."

The music is jazz, of a sort. In his liner note, Matson writes, "I used as a model the great Blue Note stereo recordings of the late 1950s and early '60s by Rudy Van Gelder." Later, in an e-mail, he said, "Take that great late-'50s Blue Note stereo sound—but superimpose a cast of five over that. As you know, Blue Note are not known for many vocal recordings."

While the music of Cooperstown will never be mistaken for what Blue Note recorded in its glory years, Matson repeats some ideas, and things sometimes get a bit formulaic, many musical moments here are worth repeated listening. Each "inning" (also called scenes) in the libretto is introduced by a short instrumental jazz chart. Much of the best singing occurs when Adams and Gilfry duet, as they do in short passages in the second and fourth innings. Matson's use of written ornamentation and horn fills to accent key lines is outstanding. Another great touch is the Hammond C3 organ—a ubiquitous and cherished part of baseball—played by Sean Wayland. (The instrument used here was once played by Mark Stein on the records of Vanilla Fudge.) Wayland also adds touches of acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes. The horn players are Russ Johnson on trumpet and Jason Rigby on saxophones. Double-bassist Rich Mollin and drummer Gernot Bernroider complete this tight, aware, and really musical band.

Perhaps Matson's greatest compositional strength is the way he transitions between vocal passages and instrumental jazz, which in lesser hands could make for unpleasant collisions. In Scene Three, as Angel and Dutch discuss the differing motivations of baseball fans and players, Jan finishes a line by repeating the phrase "rode in parades." Sax and organ join in, before Angel and Dutch sing a duo. Then the trumpet, bass, and cymbals play a rising theme. Later, after Marvin wonders why he's not a star—"What do they see in him / They don't see in me"—the band downshifts into a groove-heavy theme similar to the scenes opening music, led by the trumpet. Throughout Cooperstown, the occasional use of a bell mute on Johnson's trumpet gives it an extra-brassy yet somehow sepia tone that's an effective touch.

Perhaps the strongest element of this entire project, all of it was beautifully recorded at Systems Two Recording, in Brooklyn, New York, and Schnee Studio, in Studio City, California, by Mike Marciano and Bill Schnee, both of whom know a few things about the classic Blue Note sound as well as recording voice. With the help of Neumann U87 mikes, the rich sonorities of a cast of uniformly strong, confident singers are accurately captured. How Cooperstown was recorded is detailed in his long, informative liner note.

Well sung and inventively composed, this love story at the ballpark could be a shock for opera purists. For those with adventurous tastes, this intriguing blend of classically trained voices with jazz-flavored horns and drums is a bracingly new mix of genres.—Robert Baird

carlosgallardo's picture

We are so 21 century, and you have not the courtesy of drop a link or a sample for us, your readers
come on man, make an effort

deckeda's picture

(and it happens to be on there currently)


The desktop app is best; on a smartphone you have to pay to hear music non-shuffled.

And also, currently ...

Carlos your point is well taken however! I agree.

John Atkinson's picture
carlosgallardo wrote:
you have not the courtesy of drop a link or a sample for us, your readers come on man, make an effort

Including Spotify and Tidal links in our reviews of recordings is something we have been thinking about for a while. Unfortunately, it can't currently be implemented due to limited staff resources.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

carlosgallardo's picture

Thanks a lot John Atkinson, I understand you have a limited staff resources, but I remember the post of Michael Lavorgna, Stephen Mejias, Ariel Bitran, and some others I don't remember now, who used to add links and samples of the albums they review. Most of the time with permission of the record companies, or the artist SoundCloud web pages. It's a matter of will, I think, and a courtesy to us, the subscribers.
Thank you

Astralnavigator's picture

It really is the 21st Century when people are so lazy they need to be spoon fed a link, and so symptomatic of 21st Century entitlement that people will go online to display their entitlement by making a complaint, instead of saying THANKS for the heads up on a possibly interesting title.

It's also very 21st Century to not bother to use spell check, I mean, come on man, make an effort - THANKS a lot, not "thank a lot".