Boomkat Product Review:
Jaw-dropping all-cello interpretation of unfathomably overlooked minimalist Terry Jennings' 1960 composition "Piece for Cello and Saxophone”; arranged in just intonation by La Monte Young and performed by Charles Curtis. It’s an important, beautiful recording that highlights Jennings' continued relevance and quiet influence.
Close friends with La Monte Young and Terry Riley, a regular collaborator of John Cale and Charlemagne Palestine, and a favourite composer of Cornelius Cardew, John Tilbury and Tashi Wada (who produced and released this album), Terry Jennings is a missing piece of the US minimalist puzzle. For whatever reason, his music has languished mostly in obscurity, despite its impact at the time and its growing relevance now. This handsome edition of "Piece for Cello and Saxophone" should go some way to remedying this, exposing new listeners to Jennings' prescient compositions, bolstered by liner notes from Tashi Wada, La Monte Young, Charles Curtis and Anthony Burr to flesh out the story.
The California-born composer and woodwind player started his musical career early, playing jazz in local clubs when he was just a teenager. There, he met La Monte Young, who became a close friend and mentor, introducing Jennings to sustained-tone minimalism and modal experimentation. Young called Jennings "the most talented musician I know," and brought him into an early lineup of his outfit The Theatre of Eternal Music. But while Jennings was prodigious - he performed nine pieces at Yoko Ono's loft series when he was just 20 - his ascent was hampered by an addiction that eventually led to his untimely death in 1981, aged just 41.
One of the pieces Jennings presented at Yoko Ono's loft was "Piece for Cello and Saxophone", a two-and-a-half-hour experiment in lengthy phrasing and precise pitch. The original piece was developed for (obviously) cello and sax, but in 1989 was evolved by Charles Curtis and La Monte Young, who initially came up with a justly tuned version for cello and voice before Curtis later pulled it back to feature just the cello. Jennings' influences are quite obvious: his careful, decelerated tones sit neatly alongside La Monte Young and Terry Riley's influential minimal compositions, but sound even more subtle. His music betrays an Indian influence but the implementation is unfussy, using microtonality to emphasise emotional expression, and the channeling of a spiritual voice. By stretching the notes to their limits, Jennings allows deep listening to intertwine with an emotional presence; sadness echoes with an air so palpable you can almost touch it.
There's plenty of music around right now that's been influenced by the US minimalists, and a litany of young musicians experimenting with just intonation, but Jennings shuttles us back to a moment that's been lodged just out of view. "Piece for Cello and Saxophone" highlights the vast emotionality - not just the technique - of microscopic tonal shifts. It's hypnotic, blissful and breathtakingly sad all at once.