Albany Records has thrown more than a little of its modest advertising budget behind Michael Sahl: In Fashion at Last, the thrust of which is "this is audience friendly, and you'll like it because it is not too avant-garde and a little like rock music." Critic Kyle Gann, who supplies the liners for this disc featuring pianist Joseph Kubera in Sahl's Serenades (1994) and a small ensemble led by violinist Mary Rowell in his Jungles (1990), is also a strong booster for Sahl -- in the notes he even coins a new word: "Sahlesque" (you sure it shouldn't be "Sahlipsistic"?). Gann insists that Sahl is a pioneer of the so-called "Music Downtown" aesthetic, as he turned away from the dictates of the dreaded system in the late '60s and pursued a course alternating extended pieces in a jazz-rock vein and in the genre of off-off-Broadway musical theater. In order to accept this evaluation of the 71-year-old composer's place in the scheme of things, to some extent one must buy into Gann's idea of the historical trajectory of post-modernism in music; by no means universally accepted.
The attempted hype doesn't do Michael Sahl's music a lot of justice, and to some who might enjoy it the most, it might actually work as a repellent. To the passive listener, the solo piano Serenades may strike one as a cross between Ferruccio Busoni and a Dave Brubeck improvisation, and at 35 minutes it is very long, but is neither repetitive nor tedious. Pianist Joseph Kubera puts a little more impressionistic light and shade into this performance than he did in Beth Anderson's Quilt Music in another Albany disc, and the recording, engineered by Joseph Patrych, is appropriately soft-focus as suits this piece. Jungles is scored for electric violin, electric guitar, and rhythm and at times may remind some of a long jam by the group Oregon minus the reeds and tablas. The approach to the electric guitar, with its reliance on chorus pedal effects and even a little Malmsteenian wheedling may strike one as sticking out of the overall texture a bit much, but the entire electric violin part sounds fine and is well-played by Rowell. The one thing that does not sound good at all is the production -- this piece could have benefited strongly from a good, clean, and vibrant pop production, and what we get is a weak, distant, typically classical mix. Chances are excellent that listeners who like the first piece will not like the other and vice versa, so the pairing, unfortunately, doesn't really work.
Michael Sahl: In Fashion at Last isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread, even by Albany's standards, but it is vital and interesting music that deserves to be recorded, heard, and liked for what it is. For those who enjoy more extended jazz-rock-type jams, or long jazz piano solos that have a touch of classical flavor in them, one or the other of the two works featured on Michael Sahl: In Fashion at Last will appeal.