Sandy Evans / James Greening / Andrew Robson

Bearing the Bell: The Hymns of Thomas Tallis

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Jazz saxophonist Andrew Robson's Bearing the Bell, featuring arrangements of nine of Tallis' psalm settings from Archbishop Parker's Psalter, is superficially similar to the more sophisticated 1993 release by the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek, Officium. In Officium, the singers perform the early music "straight," with Garbarek creating a new layer of sound over them, while Robson takes the Tallis melodies as the starting point for ensemble improvisation. Robson's is an equally valid (and actually, more conventional) approach, but his arrangements aren't consistently effective. Many simply sound clunky, and some places in the Seventh and Eighth Tunes are harmonically chaotic, as if the players hadn't gotten the chord changes worked out in advance. The result sounds like a jam session that didn't quite jell. Robson's unconventional ensemble -- two saxophonists, a brass player who mostly plays trombone, and string bass -- sounds terrific and is capable of producing a broad variety of timbres and textures. When the arrangements work, as they occasionally do, such as the beginnings of the First and Second Tunes, the effect is lovely, but most of the pieces are marred by moments of jarring melodic or harmonic awkwardness. The performers aren't helped by a sound quality that tends to be unforgivingly close and harsh.

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