Essay: Aquarelle, a CD by Big Bend RTS & Samuel Blaser

©Laurence@Svirchev.com

Aquarelle is a collaboration between the Big Bend RTS of Belgrade Serbia and Samuel Blaser, Swiss trombonist and composer. Blaser composed all the titles, the majority of which were arranged by Serbian band members Vladimir Nikolov and Ivan Ilić. RTS stands for “Radio Television Serbia.” The band was formed in 1948 as a full orchestra, its first tours as a jazz band starting in 1957. Along the road the Big Bend has collaborated with a vast range of  jazz musicians including Johnny Griffin, Clark Terry, and Ed Thigpen. The band has also accompanied storied giants as disparate as Josephine Baker and Danny Kaye. The iteration on this CD contains four trumpets, five saxophones, four trombones + Blaser, guitar, piano, bass, drums, and conductor.

This essay is axed around three compositions, “Levee Camp Moan Blues,” “Aquarelle,” and “Spooky.”

The “Bend” part of the band’s name on the CD cover is a sort of Serbian pronunciation of “band.” But rather than treating this as a typographic anomaly, it could also be an inexact metaphor for the great curves found in the flow of powerful rivers like the Yangzi and the Mississippi. In this case the bend is at Belgrade on the Danube and more particularly where the Sava meets the Danube. There resides the Kaladmegdan Fortress, today a peaceful park, in the past the scene of innumerable sieges and defenses. Belgrade’s origins can be traced to the 55 or so Argonauts (Jason and The Golden Fleece) who landed there about 3,000 years ago. The relics from various ages that have been found in the bed and banks of that river embody the history of Europe, the ebb and flow of human development, as well as its cycle of tragedies. Documented antiquity attests that whoever controlled the southern bank of Danube dominated whole empires. Belgrade is perhaps the most frequently destroyed city in history, yet phoenix-like it always arises to become a cultural center, and then again a delicious target for the next cycle of power struggles. Serbian author Aleksandar Diklić wrote a literary and detailed 550 page book, Belgrade, the Eternal City that documents its history.

Levee Camp Moan Blues

The first and last tracks on the CD are variations of “Levee Camp Moan Blues.” Samuel Blaser may not have the above history in mind when he composed the music, but as he wrote me, “’Levee Camp’ is only a title inspiration. The melody is my invention. There’s no direct relationship to Ma Rainey and other bluesy versions.”

It’s a good inspiration nevertheless. The “Levee Camp Blues” has a history which dates to the lyric poetry of great Black blues singers and guitarists from Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and other parts of the USA Deep South. The word itself seems to be straight out of American dialect, a transformation of the French word élever, or a lifting of the banks of a river or swamp to control flooding or keep a canal navigable.

The building of the levees required considerable manual labor. Work camps were set up  to maintain what amounted to a mobile labor force. With the camps came all the relationships of the post-slavery Deep South, master-worker, man-woman, the low pay which might not even be paid, crime and punishment guilty or not, the most virulent and scurrilous forms of racism, and the creative music to describe those social conditions. The real deal on the Deep South for Black people in those decades is documented on Alan Lomax’ documentary recording of Blues in the Mississippi Night (DigitalGramophon), including a spontaneous a cappella exposition of an already 50 year-old “Stackolee,” the song about a pimp, a gambling debt, and a bullet.

The levee metaphor has become a fixture in American music, with multiple musical variations. Assuredly many musicians played it but left no documentation of their variations . But those who did include Ma Rainey, Son House, Texas Alexander, and a bit later Billie Holiday. The modern manifestations include Don McLean’s “American Pie” and on Bob Dylan’s “The Levee’s Gonna Break”.

On Aquarelle, Blaser’s “Levee Camp Moan Blues” contains a power and compositional flexibility made apparent by comparing version of two different CDs. The earlier one is on Blaser’s CD Early in the Mornnin’. Oliver Lake cries out the bleak and back-breaking life of the work camps whereupon Wallace Roney and band (Hemingway, Loessing, and Kamaguchi) lift the tempo into Blaser’s solo (an almost imperceptible segue from trumpet to trombone), which soars before returning to the sweat-soaked debility of levee work. 

Arranger Vladimir Nikolov takes a different tack: up-tempo, a driving pulse from piano and bass, like a revving V-16 engine, Blaser playing fragments of the melody, the trombone section riffing into the same low-end mode as the piano and bass, the trumpet section adding embellishments. The µ-second transition between the introductory statements and melodic statement (with Blaser entering as lead voice) is, as on the Roney-to-Blaser handoff, an imperceptible catalytic transformation. There is no gradation, the change in musical motion like the sensation a passenger feels when the wheels of a 747 lose contact with the runway, an instantaneous buoyancy, a tension-release as the increasing air pressure under the wings is translated into  lift, the moment of flight. There’s nothing mechanical about it, like shifting gears: it just becomes. The cryin’ blues of the composition has become the Eagle Flies on Friday, the coin that gets played into the hands of a bartender or pianist on Saturday night, the blues of a celebratory liberation free of the shackles of the Cap’n (captain) who drove the laborers.

Some of the best music just happens that way, leaving the listener to wonder, “How did they do that?” Parts of the answer are easily parsed, a sophisticated chart, a well-rehearsed band, and a stimulating composition. Other parts might be less obvious: the band photographs show the average age of the musicians is easily greater than thirty-five, their experience being an indicator of capacity to negotiate ever compositional angle with aplomb.

I had the occasion to spend time in Belgrade in 2019. Being a cross-roads, it appeared to a first-time visitor to be a musical city with multiple traditions, including the rhythms, stringed and reed instruments which Canadian and American ears are not necessarily used to. Any trained Serbian musician, especially those working for an organization like RTS, could be regularly called upon to perform in multiple musical roles including the long tradition of tricky rhythms associated with the Balkans as influenced by the old Ottoman Empire, the Persian traditions, and of course Western modes.

Aquarelle contains plenty of outstanding music. One composition, “Missing Marc Suetterlyn” (an homage to trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff) contains pink-pantherish interplays between tenor saxophonist Aleksander Jaćimović and Blaser. But in this essay, I’ll concentrate on two others, the title cut “Aquarelle” and “Spooky”.

Click 3 to read on.

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