The New Jersey Saxophone Quartet Plays the Music of Mark Zuckerman

The Peddie School
March 6, 2005

I suppose I could say that Sunday, March 6 was an afternoon
of frustrated expectations for me, but I don't like the pejorative
feel of the word "frustrated" when applied to my experience of the New
Jersey Saxophone Quartet concert featuring the music of Rooseveltian
Mark Zuckerman.  On the other hand, I can't say that I was really
pleasantly surprised by the concert held at The Peddie School,
because "surprised" would imply that I was unaware of Mark's musical
talent ("pleasantly" works, though).  I knew that Mark was an
accomplished artist with a high level of compositional skill long before
I entered the Mount-Burke Theater.  Probably the best I can do is to
resort to a tired cliche of the last decade and call it a postmodern
afternoon; "postmodern" here meaning that my projected contexts were
being radically rearranged as the event unfolded.

A saxophone quartet is in itself a study in context-shuffling.
Take the quintessential instrument of the free-flowing, no-holds-barred
American jazz tradition -- the saxophone -- and use it to form an
ironic version of an established, 'old' European (in existence for
centuries!) musical ensemble -- the string quartet -- and you have
a formula for a complete mash-up of musical traditions.

Mark didn't mash, however, because he isn't that kind of composer.  Much
to his credit, he has a finely-honed, high modernist sense of control
over his music.  This was certainly evident in the first piece of
the concert, "Jersey Sure" (the punning title itself is a shore sign of
modernism).  This was a highly contrapuntal, tightly-structured piece.
I suppose that the use of a fairly 'jazzy' gesture as the seed
motif in the music could be construed as a postmodern affectation,
but Mark's firm command of this material belied the looseness
typically associated with a PoMo collision.

The second piece of the concert, "Three Improvisations" by renowned
jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, was interesting in that it inhabited
some of the same major/minor harmonic territory as the first
piece.  Personally I preferred Zuckerman's piece, probably because
I was listening from a more 'composerly' perspective and the underlying
structural unity of "Jersey Sure" was more appealing to my sensibilities.

I also very much enjoyed the last piece before the intermission,
Bob Mintzer's "Quartet No. 1".  The NJ Saxophone Quartet did a masterful
job performing this piece, showing just how supple, fluid and expressive
a saxophone quartet can be.  I loved the solos (each soloist standing up
in turn, a nod to jazz tradition) played over a percolating ensemble.
And those voluptuous low open fifths played between the tenor and baritone
saxes were unadulterated acoustic joy.

"Send in the New Boy" by Billy Kerr was not my most favorite
piece of the afternoon.   The first piece performed after the
intermission, "New Boy" had some interesting timbral shifts
as long, arching scales were passed from one saxophonist to
the next.  Kerr has been very involved in the New York Saxophone
Quartet, and somehow the music seemed a little too "in" for me --
I didn't quite follow some of the compositional choices Kerr
was making.

The final presentation of the concert was Mark's "Four Pieces
After Rooseveltians for the Roosevelt Arts Project".  The
piece -- actually four separate pieces -- was being premiered
at this concert.  During the past year, Mark was the
well-deserved recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts
fellowship, and the support yielded a truly wonderful work.
Again, I applaud the NJ Saxophone Quartet in their programming
of this concert, for Mark's final piece took the various musical
strands from the previous works and wove them into a marvelous
set of audio portraits.

Zuckerman spent time introducing each piece verbally, explaining
his thinking behind his musical portraiture.  He described
the first piece, "Caprice (in memoriam Sol Libsohn)" as  "exuberant".
Indeed!  This was certainly the joyous Sol Libsohn I remember; a
happy amalgam of jazz riffs and solid musical structure.  "Intermezzo
(in memoriam Judith Trachtenberg)" had an enchanting and soaring
middle section, bookended by music with a real tragic dimension.
I realize I'm projecting my own knowledge of Judy's untimely death
onto the piece, and when Mark discusses his music he adopts a
decidedly constructivist tone, but the emotional content of this
piece was very strong for me.  Mark discussed "Bagatelle (in memoriam
Ed Schlinski)" as celebrating Schlinski's love of a good 'argument'.
He talked about how Ed could easily switch from one side of an issue
to another, and reflected this in an inversion of harmony and melody
in the middle section of the "Bagatelle".  I didn't quite catch all
the subtleties of this inversion, for mah Indiana eers doan work that
gud.  The music and Zuckerman's rendering of a Schlinski 'argument'
was great fun, though.  The final piece of the quartet, "Finale (in
memoriam Bernarda Shahn)" was a tour-de-force of technical and musical
capability.  I suspect that this piece mattered a lot to Zuckerman,
for it was Bernarda Shahn who was responsible for his move to
Roosevelt almost thirty years ago.  The triumphal finish, the Quartet
almost sounding like a brass quartet, was a fitting end to a satisfying

I have left out one piece in my description above.  "Keepsake", the third
piece of the afternoon, was the one that did the context-shifting
for me in a directly personal way.  The music was originally composed for
solo flute in 1983, making this the oldest piece by far on the afternoon
concert (most of Zuckerman's pieces were written quite recently).  I
followed Zuckerman as a graduate student in music at Princeton, and then
as a faculty member at Columbia, in both cases arriving shortly after
Mark had left.  I knew something of his musical work from that era, and
armed with that knowledge I thought I was prepared for this particular
piece.  My personal context was set.  Zuckerman rewrote the piece for
NJ Saxophone Quartet member Frank Mazzeo to perform as a soprano sax
solo, and I was absolutely floored.  The piece was stunningly beautiful.
To be sure, my expectations were "frustrated", but my interior "postmodern"
experience of this graceful and lovely music made me happy I was able
to attend this concert.

So despite various levels of my own "frustration" and "surprise",
this was a delightful afternoon concert presentation.  The Roosevelt
Arts Project and the Community Arts Project at the Peddie School
(co-presentors of the show) are to be applauded for supporting this
work.  And of course a lot of credit goes to the New Jersey Saxophone
Quartet -- Frank Mazzeo, Jason O'Mara, Todd Groves and Jerry Nowak --
for producing such a pleasant event.

Brad Garton