Reginald Foresythe

The New Music of Reginald Foresythe

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Though he survived World War II serving as a fighter pilot in the RAF, pioneering 1930s crossover composer Reginald Foresythe was for decades a figure missing in action. His death date was not known, no picture of him was in circulation, and his own records were only available to those lucky enough to win them in auctions, apart from a couple of tracks included on obscure LPs. He was mainly known through his compositions -- "Serenade for a Wealthy Widow," "Dodging a Divorcee," "Deep Forest," and the like -- as recorded by other artists. As Foresythe was English, you might have expected the reissue to deliver the goods on his life and work to arrive by way of an England. But it has taken a Dutch label, BVHaast, to bring about The New Music of Reginald Foresythe, and that's not by accident. Dutch jazz magazines extensively covered Foresythe's music when it was new, and the first modern recordings of his music were made by the Willem Breuker Kollektief in 1990; they never wholly forgot Foresythe in the low countries. While The New Music of Reginald Foresythe is not a complete compendium of his recordings, it covers the essentials of his small recorded output and contrasts it with the numerous recordings other artists -- such as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Adrian Rollini, Paul Whiteman, and Fats Waller -- made of Foresythe's compositions. Foresythe was a true pioneer, literally right behind Duke Ellington as establishing himself as a "jazz composer" as opposed to a performer. Although inspired by Ellington, Foresythe didn't sound like him -- his saxophone-heavy English group, which included such non-jazz instruments as the bassoon and the piano-accordion, played Foresythe's pieces with a sort of a tricked-out, "continental tea-time" feel. They were not a success with London's dancers, and listening to tracks like "Angry Jungle" it is easy to see why -- the constant, high-speed drumbeat and nervous energy of the piece don't go easily to one's feet. Likewise, "Garden of Weed" is at such a slow tempo that one wonders what kind of step could have gone with it; fully two-thirds of the piece is devoted to a single, long crescendo on a figure consisting of two chords only. "Lament for Congo," "Serenade for a Wealthy Widow," and the snappy "The Duke Insists" are only pieces among Foresythe's original performances that sound even remotely danceable, and this makes clear that Foresythe viewed his "New Music" as a kind of intellectual art music fashioned with the tools of continental jazz.

Like his countryman Spike Hughes, Foresythe traveled to the United States to record with an American band and was extremely lucky to get the formative nucleus of what would become the Benny Goodman Orchestra as his backing group. The four tracks he made with the American group are his best overall; they knew how to swing the material, whereas his English group was mainly concerned with just getting through it. "The Melancholy Clown" in particular is striking, with its polytonal vamping patterns and groaning accompaniment figures with Goodman's joyous clarinet taking off above the ensemble. "Lullaby" -- which drummer Gene Krupa remembered as one of his favorites -- forges a link between Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk before Monk himself began to compose.

The sound quality of BVHaast's The New Music of Reginald Foresythe is great all the way through; it is neither noisy nor clamped down in feeling, faithfully reproducing the vintage originals while finding a nice, quiet place to dispose of all that surface noise. One would still like to hear some of the few other records Foresythe made, such as Revolt of the Yes Men, Meditation in Porcelain, and even his orchestral "phantasy of Negro music," Southern Holiday, dreadful as it probably is. Nevertheless, no one who takes an interest in the modernist strain in the popular music of the 1930s will want to be without BVHaast's The New Music of Reginald Foresythe, and indeed by virtue of getting it first a music nut could well find him/herself the hippest cat on one's own wonky block, at least for a time.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
A Hymn to Darkness, for jazz ensemble
8 3:07
9 2:54
10 2:59
11 2:50
12 2:50
13 3:18
14 2:59
15 3:04
16 2:48
17 3:14
18 3:40
19 3:15
20 2:40
21 3:23
22 2:50
23 3:18
24 3:12
25 3:11
26 3:14
blue highlight denotes track pick