Richard Ducros plays Christian Lauba

Review by Jordan VanHemert

Christian Lauba is a name known to saxophonists as one of the great contemporary composers for our instrument. Building on the success of his earlier works, which include his Neuf EtudesHard, and Stan among other pieces, Lauba continues to compose new works for saxophone that push the boundaries of what the instrument is capable of and what performers are capable of attaining.


In his 2018 release Richard Ducros Plays Christian Lauba, Richard Ducros responds to the many demands of Lauba’s music with aplomb. Clocking in at 42:18, this album contains seven pieces that pay homage to popular styles of music. Lauba’s music is known for requiring extended techniques of the performer, including the ubiquitous circular breathing, rhythmic multiphonics, and slap tongue. Continuing to push boundaries of both the instrument and the performer the pieces on this album require other extended techniques such as slap trills, rhythmic key noise and others. While many compositions require extended techniques, Lauba’s music is unique in that it requires many of the aforementioned techniques at the same time.


All of this is worth mentioning because Ducros’ flawless, simultaneous execution of these techniques is most impressive. Ducros performs each one of these pieces with the utmost skill and his recordings will be a fine reference to any saxophonist who will learn these pieces. 


The first track, "Bebop," provides a fiery introduction to the album based on the eponymous jazz sub-genre. I liken this piece to an extraction of all of Charlie Parker or Cannonball Adderley’s double-time lines if they were all placed next to one another. Ducros’ subtlety in the inflection and phrasing despite the velocity of these lines captures the elegance of the art form beautifully.


"Flamenco" opens with percussive key noise reminiscent of the Flamenco style’s idiomatic palmas and pitos(hand clapping and finger-snapping respectively), or in more modern styles of flamenco music the cajon. The initial, full vocal-sounding melodies are followed by contrasting sections of timbral undertones, percussive key clicks, quick repeated slaps, and multiphonics. These melodies showcase Ducros’ mastery of all of the timbres that the saxophone can produce. Especially impressive is the agility of Ducros’ slaptongue technique, which seemingly has no limit. The piece fades to a whisper and ends just as it began - with percussive key noise.


"Salsa" utilizes a motif similar to a salsa montuno, which is featured rhythmically throughout the piece. This rhythmic undercurrent, which is featured throughout by alternating slaps and multiphonics, makes this etude one of the most compelling pieces of the album. Ducros settles here into a comfortable groove that is very true to the style of music upon which this piece was based.


"Banjo" is an homage to the instrument and to the bluegrass style of music. Melodically this piece consists of bluegrass-like banjo patterns. Like other pieces on this album, Lauba successfully imitates the instrument in this etude. Among other techniques, this piece features slap trills. Ducros excels in this track in the subtlety of the softer slaps. The ending multiphonic of the piece highlights a sonorous warmth of Ducros’ tone that is very compelling and perfectly executed.


"Worksong" demonstrates mastery of the side-keys and difficult register breaks. The impressive velocity of this piece is compounded when one considers the large register leaps. The opening of the piece is reminiscent of the opening of Lauba’s earlier etude "Balafon," and Ducros’ interpretation certainly evokes a similar timbral effect. Most compelling is the stark contrast from this section with immense technical virtuosity and a significantly fuller sound in the second section of the piece. This section flows into a part of the piece that showcases Ducros’ ability to effortlessly cross registers of the instrument.  


The final track of the album, "Clouds,"  features the composer on synthesizer. This piece features bisbigliandi, multiphonics, bisbigliandi on multiphonics, a significant passage in the altissimo register, and technical velocity. The piece opens with the saxophone playing soft passages over the underlying synthesizer background, which creates an ethereal timbre on which the saxophone floats perfectly. The background style is maintained while the saxophone increases in velocity. Altissimo passages, multiphonics, and bisbigliandi create tension, despite only subtle changes in the synthesizer part. With the synthesizer part continuing in a layer of complex yet warm colors, the titular landscape is created. As the synthesizer part fades, one can hear the piece fade into the ether, as the album comes to a satisfying close.


I have chosen to write about the second track, "Just a Song," last, because it provides an compelling foil to the other tracks on the album. Featuring the talents of Tristan Pfaff on piano, this piece presents a simple lyricism without the many swaths of velocity of the other pieces. The right hand of the piano is often in rhythmic and sometimes melodic unison with the saxophone. This device highlights the lightness and focus of Ducros’ tone and his flawless intonation. The rubato style showcases the ensemble’s attention to detail in phrasing. Stylistically, this piece reads to me like a jazz ballad, and Lauba successfully pays tribute to the jazz tradition while maintaining his voice as a composer of contemporary classical music.


Overall this album was a delight, and it is sure to be a favorite for those looking for new works for saxophone that continue to push the boundaries of our instrument. Ducros interprets these works flawlessly, and his impressive interpretations highlight the inspirations for each piece. Christian Lauba continues to write music that pushes the boundaries of the instrument. This album shows that Lauba’s style continues to evolve, and that his creative output will continue to be an asset to the saxophone community.