ADMIRAL LAUNCH DUO
By NICHOLAS MAY
When I was first asked to review this recording, I was intrigued by the unorthodox combination of saxophone and harp. Apart from the cadenza in Tomasi’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone – where a harp ostinato is utilized under the soloist’s cadenza, I cannot say I have ever heard these two instruments in tandem, nor can I think of any other examples of this from the saxophone’s core repertoire. Not knowing what to expect, I put on my headphones, prepared myself (and my dog) for a walk, pressed play and allowed the music to unfold.
I am vaguely familiar with the first track of Launch, Ida Gotkovsky’s Eolienne, as it appears on many literature and pedagogy lists for saxophone chamber music – but otherwise have no aural recollection of this piece. This is a wonderful piece to program first on this album. Sonically, Jonathan Hulting-Cohen and Jennifer R. Ellis play together eloquently and virtuosically with a Parisian flair, harkening back to the standard established by Marcel Mule. They interpret Gotkovsky’s synesthetic musical language rather beautifully. I am quite fond of Hulting-Cohen’s usage of vibrato and his shaping of the musical line throughout this multi-movement work.
The next selection on this CD was Natalie Moeller’s Starshine & Moonfall, which features the Admiral Launch Duo’s facility in a more rhythmic lens. Ellis sets the foundation with an ostinato cell that remains steady in the background, even through hemiolic transmogrification; while Hulting-Cohen’s melodic playing showcases the simplicity of the line. Simplicity implies that a thing that is plain, natural, or easy to understand. All of which I would use to describe his playing, perhaps removing ‘plain’ and emphasizing how naturally music flows from Adolphe Sax’s creation.
Patrick O’Malley’s Thaumaturgy is more experimental and contemporary than the previous two pieces. Here I must pause to thank Ms. Ellis for expanding my knowledge of extended techniques on the harp. Until now, I was accustom to only hearing the instrument soloistically or within the realms of the orchestra. Ellis immediately captured my attention with her fluidic style in the first movement, Cast and Bend. Hulting-Cohen shows exceptional control over the demonic soprano saxophone. I felt the music was too prescribed and scripted through the pseduo-improvisatory cadenza-like sections in this movement; not as phantasmagorical as it could have been. All of the technical passages in both instruments were clean and impressive. The final movement, Holy Meteor, had strong and clear characterization throughout with the duo - opening an apocalyptic world, full of havoc and chaos, moving to a lament, and finally settling on the aftermath.
While Hunting-Cohen stays melodically reserved and ethereal on Ahrán na Cásca; Ellis, in my opinion, shines on this track. The thunderous outburst halfway through juxtaposed against the rustic melody showcased the power of the harp. The tuning on the altissimo notes on the soprano saxophone was impeccable.
At this point the listener reaches my favorite track on this CD: Stephen Rush’s Whirlwind. This single movement work is described as a “Funk-Indian Toccata” with a slower, cadenza-like section, and returning to the original groove. The playing throughout the slower section is hauntingly beautiful, which contrasts the angular, rhythmic, and soulful playing in the outer portions. I am very fond of the harmonies and energy present in this piece!
Following Whirlwind is Angélica Negrón’s Still Here. This piece employs the rarely used tenor saxophone, in tandem with harp and electronics - an unprecedented and unusual combination of instruments in the canon of classical music. The Admiral Launch Duo does an exceptional job of translating Negrón’s intentions and meaning of this composition to sonic reality. It was composed with the intention of “trespassing from the perspective of emotionally abusive relationships where there’s an intrusion of personal space and a boundary violation within a complex loving relationship.” It is clear the duo is very comfortable performing complex, avant-garde music while still being able to maintain a connection, painting an aural picture for the listener - as opposed to performing complex music, merely for the sake of complexity. While on my first listen this was a harder track for me to digest, once I read the liner notes and listened deeply a multitude of times, the intention and message within translated clearly through this inherently non-melodic music.
…nice Box! ‘Oh So Square’ is highly experimental and more avant-garde than the piece prior. Hulting-Cohen has shown his intensive dedication to the tenor saxophone and possesses the technique to make the instrument sing, scream (literally), and everything in between; all while maintaining a calm, relaxed sound. Though the multitude of extreme altissimo, glissandi, multiphonics, and other miscellaneous sounds were not my favorite as I listened on my headphones, I am aware of the artistry and technical capacity one must possess to perform modern music like this; Hulting-Cohen without a doubt has a massive skillset and captivates an “indecisive baby dinosaur” quite well.
The melodicism of Yusef Lateef’s Romance for Saxophone and Harp was refreshing after listening to the previous more opposing, abstract works. Hulting-Cohen’s soprano saxophone sound is well centered with a refined vibrato. The aesthetic of these three movements were quite calming, quoting (whether intentionally or not) Beethoven’s infamous Moonlight Sonata in C-sharp minor in the second movement. I was lured into a trance by the melody and pseudo improvisatory nature of the final movement, invoking Eastern harmonies.
The penultimate track, Le Lettre Du Jardiner by Marcel Tournier is simply beautiful. This French Art-Song was transcribed for alto saxophone, and Helting-Cohen sings through the instrument. Sonically, he emulates a vocalist quite well, varying the speed of vibrato and phrases it authentically. However, I am used to a wider, more prominent vibrato when listening to vocal soloists, which may have been lost through translation. Regardless, this music is elegant and delightful to listen to.
Kitchen Dance by Christine Delphine closes this album. This music is soothing, employing soprano saxophone, harp, and electronics from - believe it or not, samples from a metal mixing bowl. The duo dances this pas de deux fluidly. Again we return to simplicity: natural, understandable, beauty of long sustained tones juxtaposed against more rhythmic injections from the harp. The two artists blend very well sonically with the electronic pads in the background, creating a special world where the combination of harp and saxophone are conventional; indeed they go together like Apollo and Pan serenading the heavens.
In sum, the Admiral Launch Duo’s newly released album Launch presents the saxophone in a highly unorthodox setting; yet firmly establishes the legitimacy of a saxophone and harp chamber music combination. It clearly showcases both of the artist’s technical abilities, musicality, and tight ensemble playing together. Additionally, the recording quality is a finer point of which to take note, it contains some of the best audio quality I have heard. I highly recommend Launch to the saxophonist or musician looking to expand their aural palates, and cannot wait to hear more from the Admiral Launch Duo!
- Nicholas May
Embracing the unlikely combination of saxophone and harp, the Admiral Launch Duo performs groundbreaking commissions, unexpected transcriptions, and improvisations. Named for the Admiral Butterfly and launched at the Fresh Inc Festival in 2013, they have since appeared at new music venues coast-to-coast, from San Francisco’s Center for New Music to Spectrum NYC. The duo features saxophonist Jonathan Hulting-Cohen, co-founder of The Moanin’ Frogs and assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and harpist Jennifer R. Ellis, who has premiered over 80 works and has served as the first ever harpist with OneBeat, Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, Fresh Inc Festival, and Spice Institution.