By Steve Carmichael
2017 has been a busy year for tenor saxophonist James Houlik. Between his international performance schedule, the move from Duquesne University to Carnegie Mellon University, and plans to host the NASA Region 8 conference, he found time to release not one, but two excellent recordings. “Voices – Ballads and Prayers” for tenor saxophone and piano, and “Evolution: Music for Tenor Saxophone and Winds”
“Voices – Ballads and Prayers” for tenor saxophone and piano
Andrea Podova, Composer and Pianist
James Houlik, Tenor Saxophone
Limen Music DVD102C102
Available at Amazon.com and on iTunes Music
Italian Composer and Concert Pianist Andrea Padova has been both a fan and friend of James Houlik for some time. Enamored with the tone and flexibility of the tenor saxophone to cover many different styles and colors, he set out to write the twelve beautiful selections found on “Voices – Ballads and Prayers”. James Houlik masterfully displays his understanding of instrumental sounds from various cultures. From the prayerful Kaddishto Sunday AfternoonPadova and Houlik take us on a journey spanning the globe that is somewhat relaxing and meditative. One could mistakenly consider this simple music, without a lot of flash, but the skills required to meld these beautiful melodies between saxophone and piano is substantial. To perform these pieces one must understand the traditional instruments of the east as well as melodic sensibilities of a multicultural world. Think Florent Schmitt, Occidental meets Oriental to a certain extent.
Never trite, the dialogue between piano and saxophone covers the gamut between searching and light heartedness. The interplay is thoughtful, showing a connection between the not just the music and musician, but between the two musicians themselves. One can here the love of making music!
As a bonus, this limited edition (numbered and signed) recording contains the CD, plus a DVD of live performance that also includes a brief interview with the composer and James Houlik talking about this project.
Bottom line is that this recording displays James Houlik as the master song in tenor saxophone performance with his immediately recognizable sound. This is a must have recording that all tenor saxophonist would cherish in their CD collection.
“Evolution: Music for Tenor Saxophone and Winds”
Florida Gulf Coast University Wind Ensemble
James Houlik, Tenor Saxophone
Mark Records 54344-MCD
Yamaha Recording Artist James Houlik has been a champion of presenting the Tenor Saxophone in concert with orchestras and wind ensembles around the world for most of his adult life.
“Evolution: Music for Tenor Saxophone and Winds” presents us with some gems from the past, as well as world premier recordings.
Walter Hartley’s Concertino for Tenor Saxophone and Wind Ensembleopens the recording by establishing Houlik’s bold tenor sax sound as the cornerstone for this recording. Hartley has blessed the saxophone with many fine works, but this one really defined modern classical tenor saxophone as a wind band soloist. 40 years after its premier, Concertinostill sounds fresh and exciting with its bold statements, complex harmonies and counterpoint. Houlik shines throughout with verve and passion. The piece was originally composed as a one movement encore, Humoresque, that was later expanded to the three movement Concertinowe know today.
Ballade and Allegro(1985) by Ronald Follas was premeired by James Houlik with the United States Navy Band at the 1986 Navy Band International Saxophone Symposium. The piece is a show stopper with its abundance of altissimo, several cadenzas, and multiple climaxes in the Allegro. In contrast, the Ballade displays the sensibilities found in the American songbook and even contains a section of improvisation for the tenor sax over a chord progression that is convincingly a jazz ballade style.
Excursion to Blacksburg(1991) by Robert Leist was composed for the Blacksburg High School band, featuring James Houlik. The piece displays much rhythmic complexity and places the soloist up front with ample altissimo to create excitement. One can sense this piece suites the FGCU Wind Ensemble well. Performed with excitement and urgency.
Pandean Fable(1970) by J. Clifton Williams is a charming piece that started its life as a piece for amplified Bass Flute band. Realizing the work would have little play, Williams reworked the piece for tenor saxophone and band for James Houlik.
The Upward Stream (1986) by Russell Peck has become the standard of excellence in tenor saxophone concerto performance. A complex work with sweeping melodies, altissimo, rhythmic complexity, and outrageously fun lines make this a favorite of tenor saxophonist. And no one shines better on this piece than the maestro himself, James Houlik. From the intro, with its beautiful, probing, heartfelt melody to the wind-up ending, James Houlik shows why he is the master of the tenor saxophone.
Overall this is a good recording to own. We hear old gems, and some pieces from 30 years ago that are now finally recorded. Some are originally written for band, some or re-orchestrated symphonic pieces. A great reference if you want to hear some rare pieces! But, I was left feeling the Wind Ensemble was not up to task on the more difficult selections. I note that the conductor is not listed on this recording. I will allow the rumor mill to explain this omission, but one wonders if the ensemble performance was in any way compromised. I admit I yearn to hear a recording of Houlik with a more substantial wind ensemble worthy of his performance.
I do note that the recording quality of the wind ensemble suffers from an overly bright mix. Audiophiles will want to check their EQ before settling in to a long listen. Trust me, it is worth the effort.