This unique recital of African-American flute music by Jennifer Grim spans a historical perspective and touches on trends, from classical and jazz to European Modernism and Minimalism, that indicate how diverse these composers are. Grim is a dedicated advocate who plays with beautiful tone, superb technique, and the imagination of a true artist. I’ll say at the outset that these accomplished composers, being much younger than the generation of Florence Price and William Grant Still, rely little or not at all on gestures directly borrowed from spirituals, ragtime, the blues, or rock. Such influences that I pick up are tangential most of the time except for a consistent thread of jazz in several works.
There are three pieces for solo flute, and since the only work from this genre in the standard repertoire is Debussy’s Syrinx—Luciano Berio wrote Sequenza I for solo flute, if we’re talking about fairly fringe repertoire, and no doubt other pieces are known to flutists—my curiosity was piqued, and I set out to see which solo piece was the most ingenious.
The first is Argoru III by Alvin Singleton (b. 1940); dating from 1971, it is also by decades the earliest work here. It belongs to eight works for solo instruments that the Brooklyn-born Singleton wrote during his time at Yale. The title is African: “argoru” means play in Ghanian Twi. One aid in navigating this release are the detailed program notes by Anthony Barone. Singleton, we learn, counts jazz and hearing Leonard Bernstein conduct Mahler as strong influences. Argoru III is freely expressive, using a few tightly knit motives as its foundation. Within this scope Singleton shows great skill and technical subtlety.
I wish his idiom was more penetrable by ear, however, because in effect Argoru III is difficult for the general listener in its absence of tonality, melody, and discernible structure. But that’s the ante you pay if you want to enter the new-music world. I came away remembering some buzzy tonguing, sudden leaps to penetrating high notes, and the sultry mood of the opening motive, which is set in the flute’s lower register.
Solo turns into ensemble in Oxygen for 12 Flutes by Julia Wolfe (b. 1958), which allows Grim to overdub piccolo, flute, alto flute, and bass flute. Since an ensemble is capable of harmony and counterpoint, it’s not quite fair to call this a solo flute work despite the absence of a piano. Writing for 12 solo voices would be almost as difficult as the challenge that faced Strauss in Metamorphosen. Wolfe has streamlined the task by dividing the voices into one camp, a kind of flute orchestra playing a quick-moving Minimalist tapestry against which one or two solo voices occasionally peek out. There’s abundant ingenuity and variety to hold a listener’s attention, helped by the simple tonal idiom. This variety mitigates, for me at least, the monotony induced by much Minimalism. Here, the shimmering timbre of a flute ensemble has its own luminous enticement, and I’d count Oxygen a success, offering considerable popular appeal. Grim’s precision in layering a dozen flutes is spectacular.
In a totally different mode I found a strong appeal in Homeland by Allison Loggins-Hull (b. 1982), which follows Debussy’s lead by exploiting the flute’s ability to sound like a solitary singer. The embellished melody has a haunting archaic quality that also links it to Syrinx. Tonal linearity is not old-fashioned anymore; it is one of the many possibilities available to a contemporary composer in our eclectic era. Given the innocent directness of the music, the program notes surprised me by saying that Loggins-Hull had a century’s shameful history of racial injustice and suffering in mind.
Two of the four works for flute and piano, both strongly in jazz mood, come from David Sanford (b. 1963). Intriguingly, the first piece, Khatka Still, was inspired by two jazz trumpeters, Tony Khatka and Tomasz Stanko. The first movement contrasts a slow chorale in the piano with glittering commentary by the flute, leading to a second, more virtuosic section. The overall feeling has cool in its soul. The second movement is Bergian in its compression around a single pitch (A♭). There is something of a role reversal, the piano flying off in rapid excursions while the flute begins with a slow melody. Eventually the two voices find common ground, sometimes in rapid unison. Sanford doesn’t explore new techniques for either instrument, but his quick-witted imagination makes Khatka Still captivating.
The other Sanford piece, Offertory, embarks on a very different journey. To quote the composer, it “takes its inspiration from extended jazz improvisations by John Coltrane and Dave Liebman.” The title both affirms and questions faith. The first movement is etude-like and revolves around another single pitch, B㽇. The second movement begins with an extended cadenza for the flute in improvisatory style, joined by an angular, pointed piano part. There is considerable technical density to Offertory, and it has an abstruse air consistent with the jazz greats who hover in the background. It is impossible to miss how effortlessly and with what exuberance Grim essays the flute part. Michael Sheppard’s excellent pianism keeps pace with her in every respect.
Two other works for flute and piano complete the picture. Alma (Spanish for soul) is by Cuban-American composer Tania Léon (b. 1943). This is the only pictorial work on the program. As the composer explains, “the freedom and felicity of the soul is embodied in the figure of a bird as it greets the day, flitters through the canopy, and settles to rest.” If that description implies perky cheerfulness, Léon’s imagination has more to offer. There are influences from the French flute tradition and ballet. Harmony is kept fluid, and the result is an appealing amalgam that changes in swift, scintillating gestures.
Finally, Wish Sonatine by Valerie Coleman (b. 1970) is in an idiom the composer describes as “urban classical.” The explanation for her style is somewhat opaque, but Coleman takes history into consideration to “record the times and create new histories.” The implication of social engagement is borne out by the title of her piece—“Wish” is a poem from British Guyana about the Middle Atlantic slave trade. Stylistically, “Coleman’s music conveys brutality and resistance; variegated musical motives convey an ominous seascape and the creaking hulls of grim ships.”
At 12 minutes, Wish Sonatine has enough room to unfold its narrative, and after a lovely melodic section, Coleman’s writing displays impressive diversity—the crashing piano that buffets the flute in storm-tossed seas is especially memorable. But in its own way, almost every work on the program is impressive, and since I am an outsider to the world of chamber music for flute, my eyes were opened. Grim, who enjoys a distinguished career at the elite level of new and classical music, has devised one of the best solo woodwind recitals I’ve heard in a long time. I think this is also an important personal achievement for her—Grim’s artist’s bio tells us that she is “a passionate advocate of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the field of classical music.”