CD Review: The Moanin' Frogs
Photo credit: Chris O'Brien
REVIEWED BY: Dr. David Camwell
Saxophonist Dr. Dave Camwell is a distinguished, versatile and dynamic performer, and serves as the Director of Jazz Studies and Associate Professor of Music at Troy University in Alabama. He can be heard on the Innova, Enharmonic, Teal Creek, and Mark Custom recording labels.
CD: Moanin’ Frogs
Label: Teal Creek Music (636362204826)
Cover design: Jason Warriner
The Picture Division
"The Evolution of a Saxophone Ensemble"
The Moanin’ Frogs are a relatively new saxophone chamber group, formed within the last few years by members with a common Michigan background. Saxophonists Andy Hall, Lucas Hopkins, Jonathan Hostottle, Jonathan Hulting-Cohen, Sean Hurlburt, and Edward Goodman are each highly regarded and have successfully combined their individual talents into a modern ensemble reminiscent of the Brown Brothers vaudeville saxophone ensemble of nearly a century ago.
I first encountered the ensemble at one of the evening concerts at the 2014 NASA Biennial at the University of Illinois; their energetic program with its stagecraft and virtuosity was a joy to both watch and listen. Much of the same skill and energy is to be found in their eponymous new recording on the Teal Creek Music label. The CD covers a wide variety of light and popular crossover types of music, including marches, dances, hymns, and even Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody! One of the finest attributes of this recording (and indeed the group in general) is that although much of their chosen repertoire is decidedly light, the musicianship is absolutely top-shelf. The Frogs take many popular tunes and add many of the advances of saxophone technique developed over the last century to create an often stunning musical performance. Skillful arrangements that maximize the homogenous nature of an all-saxophone ensemble, as well as a variety of extended techniques (key clicks, pops, altissimo, slap tongue, double tonguing etc.), provide renewed interest to the ears of skilled saxophonist listeners, while not alienating the general public. Indeed, if this CD were played at a social gathering of saxophonists and non-musicians alike, there would be plenty to like for both!
While seeing the Frogs live is certainly a highly enjoyable experience, listening to their CD allows for a more intimate appreciation of their versatility and musicianship. The highlight of the CD for me was Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 8 in G minor, op. 46. This track clearly shows how the homogenous nature of the saxophone family can be remarkably symphonic in range. Perhaps deliberately, this masterwork from the traditional classical transcription canon is followed directly by the lightest of all pieces in the saxophone literature, the (in)famous Yakety Sax. It’s as if the Frogs asked themselves “what are some of the most famous recent pop culture songs available to transcribe?”. Even the mega pop hit “Let It Go” from Frozen is included; while listening to the CD, my seven-year old remarked, “Hey, isn’t this the music to Frozen? I love this song!”
The music selected for this cd seems to be a modern nod to how the Brown Brothers Sax ensemble chose much of their repertoire in the 19-teens. To my ears, the Frogs’ live and recorded repertoire alludes to an interesting conflict of paradigms between light and serious academic music. The classical saxophone is well-represented in heavy, contemporary music that is rarely heard outside of conferences and university-level recitals. Instead of looking down on popular music as inferior, the Frogs’ ethos seems to be that even the lightest and most flippant of music can be meaningful when performed with marvelous technical proficiency and witty arrangements. And perhaps just as importantly, it can be fun!
As a community, we saxophonists should be proud to have so many fantastic chamber groups that are helping to redefine our instrument to a wider audience. The continued success of saxophone ensembles at national competitions such as Fischoff and Coleman is bringing increasing renown and respect to our instrument, and the Moanin’ Frogs, in their unique, joyous and highly skilled manner, are a group that all saxophonists should be proud of. This CD belongs in everyone’s collection, and can be found through all the usual online sources. I look forward to seeing and hearing more from this outstanding ensemble. - Dave Camwell.