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Musical Fireworks
Jelani Eddington
5/80 Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ
Jasper & Marian Sanfilippo Residence
Barrington, Illinois

Review by Simon Gledhill, as published in the May/June issue of Theatre Organ.

The theatre organ world abounds in superlatives, some more justified than others. Concert performances, recordings and instruments are described as “best ever,” “must have” and “the finest anywhere” so frequently that the currency has been devalued, making it difficult to find the right words to convey the manifold excellence of this new album by Jelani Eddington. “Musical Fireworks” is a landmark recording by any measure, and a CD that should be in every collection.

The Sanfilippo residence organ needs little introduction. One hesitates to call it a Wurlitzer, as many of the 80 pipe-ranks did not come from North Tonawanda and the tonal scheme is a long way from anything Wurlitzer conceived. However, the ranks which contribute to the core ensemble are all Wurlitzer, Wurlitzer copy or, at least, Wurlitzer-like. The instrument has evolved continually since its installation a decade ago, the latest changes being the transfer of the Solo Tibia to the Orchestral Chamber (where it now plays on 25" pressure) and installation of a replacement 15" pressure Tibia in the Solo Chamber. The new pipes have a more pronounced pitch variation on tremulant than their predecessors, lending a distinctive new flavor which was first heard on recording in Ron Rhode’s recent Victor Herbert album.

The menu on “Musical Fireworks” contains plenty of protein and not too much sugar. Dr. Atkins would be pleased, but ATOS members who feel that some of today’s theatre organists take their instrument too seriously might consider 15 minutes of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances and 11 of Rossini’s William Tell Overture (not just the Lone Ranger theme) a challenging prospect. They should keep listening, as there is enough music in these two tracks alone to justify the cost of the CD. Furthermore, the vast scope of the Sanfilippo organ’s capabilities was designed specifically to enable music of this complexity to be performed without compromise. The risk with such an instrument is that the performer may be tempted to “put everything in the shop window at once” – constantly changing sounds to detriment of the musical flow. Jelani avoids this pitfall. Yes, the color changes come thick and fast, but always in the service of the music. Control throughout is total.

Before returning to the orchestral transcriptions, what about the more “standard” theatre organ fare? Jelani lavishes as much care and attention on this material as on the more serious stuff. He rarely just “plays the tunes” – there’s usually something interesting going on to attract the attention of the aficionado, although the playing is equally enjoyable at a more superficial level. A good example is the lengthy excursion through Lerner’s and Loewe’s My Fair Lady score. Recording this music on the theatre organ is a treacherous business, inviting as it does comparison with the renowned 1950s George Wright recording on the Vaughn Studio Wurlitzer. Jelani’s version comes up fresh, with imaginative and individual readings which owe little to GW and include several themes that are usually omitted. Listen out for the satisfying “straight organ” ensembles in the Ascot Gavotte. Off-trem registrations are used frequently throughout this recording, to great effect.

Another tune which is dressed in attractive new clothes is Nacio Herb Brown’s Broadway Rhythm (as featured in Singin’ in the Rain). Here, Accompaniment Second Touch carries the melody while atmospheric “hurry-scurry” effects are interpolated on untremmed strings, chorus reeds and Xylophones. The pace is fast – these Broadway hoofers are late for their stage call! Jelani’s mastery of Second Touch is also in evidence in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (which manages to get tangled up with a honky-tonk Kitten on the Keys at one point) and in Leroy Anderson’s Saraband – new to this reviewer, and refreshingly off the beaten track.

I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck (from the Gershwin score for the Astaire/Rodgers screen musical Shall We Dance?) is pure Eddington – lightly swinging, with jazzy overtones pointed by the Tap Cymbal. The rhythm is relaxed, but always secure. By contrast, When Sunny Gets Blue is mellow and introspective, with just the right “bluesy” feel.

And so back to the “big guns,” in the form of the Polovtsian Dances (with a Borodin/Forrest/Wright chaser in the form of And This Is My Beloved) and the William Tell Overture. For this reviewer, the Polovtsian Dances form the outstanding track of this album. Many of the themes were adapted for the score of the stage and film musical Kismet, so they will be familiar even to those who are not particularly big on Borodin. In this music Jelani’s imagination really soars, and the full range of the organ is used, from the quietest whisper to the mightiest crash. The formidable technical challenges of the arrangements are met with apparent ease. This is exceptionally fine playing.

In the closing William Tell Overture, the contrasting moods of the opening pastorale (representing a mountain sunrise), the fury of an Alpine storm, the shepherds’ prayer of thanksgiving and the fiery call to arms are all captured perfectly. The famous gallop is introduced by a fanfare on the unenclosed Bugle Battaglia (the “big honk on the back wall,” as Virgil Fox would have described it) and the excitement builds to a devastating climax, ending the program in dramatic style.

Recording quality is exemplary and production values are equally high, with detailed notes on artist, organ and music. To repeat an earlier comment: this is a landmark recording. What more can one say?

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