This year the 32nd Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival, organized by SFJAZZ, is featuring a series of “micro-concerts,” 30-minute solo gigs being held in the Joe Henderson Lab of the SFJAZZ Center and across the street at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King. This afternoon’s soloist was Scott Pingel, Principal Bass with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and the second of two SFS Principals to give such a presentation. Pingel filled his half hour with four compositions, the first three of which were fully composed, while the last was his own combination of composition and improvisation.
The first two pieces featured Eastern European composers drawing upon both folk and sacred sources from their respective countries. The program opened with “Motivy” (motifs) by the Bulgarian composer Emil Tabakov, who is also a conductor and bass player. According to his Wikipedia page, this piece for bass solo, composed in 1968, is the first of two “Motivy” pieces, the second of which, also a bass solo, was composed in 2005. (For the record, there are nine pieces of chamber music listed on that page, six of which involve one or more basses in different combinations.)
True to its title, “Motivy” consists of the presentation and elaboration of a series of short motifs, all of which seem to be derived from folk material. In addition the entire piece has the structure of a Slavic dumka, with abrupt shifts between an almost mournful moodiness and exuberant bursts of energy. The exploration of the individual motifs emerged through a jazz-like rhetoric (“chamber music as jazz by other means,” as I recently wrote about the virtuoso demands of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber), while the mood shifts demanded scrupulous agility, which Pingel handled particularly deftly.
“Motivy” was followed by the bass solo “Invocation” by the Czech composer Miroslav Gajdoš. This also involved a significant mood shift, but one that unfolds more gradually. The title suggests the setting of a religious ritual, and Pingel was able to confirm through electronic mail with the composer that this was, indeed, the case. According to the sheet music site tutti.co.uk, Gajdoš is another composer who has composed extensively for the bass, including “Sexdecimet,” composed for an orchestra of sixteen basses.
The sobering religious rhetoric of “Invocation” was followed by “All her people sigh,” an excerpt from a large work based on the first chapter from the Old Testament Book of Lamentation composed for Pingel by SFS Assistant Concertmaster Mark Volkert. While Gajdoš’s composition tended to capture the general atmosphere of religious ritual, Volkert’s work seemed more informed by traditions of the incantation of sacred religious texts. His melodic lines unfolded with a rhetoric of chant that could have pre-dated the Gregorian tradition and may even have had roots in synagogue ritual. Pingel captured the somber depth of expressiveness in this music without devolving into the excessively maudlin.
Things picked up at the end with “Sebbi by Starlight.” “Sebbi” is a playful nickname for “Sebastian;” and the composed portion of the work involves a very clever attempt to overlay the tune “Stella by Starlight” with several of the motivic gestures encountered in the solo cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, with particular attention to the third (BWV 1009 in C major) and the Sarabande from the fifth (BWV 1011 in C minor). After elegantly weaving Bach tightly into this jazz standard, Pingel dropped his bow and launched into plucking out improvisations that were “strictly Stella,” evoking memories of several of the bass greats of the twentieth century.