When it comes around to music criticism, not much bothers me. One cannot argue about taste and one should try to live with critical reviews when they’re bad, just off or just badly researched. There’ll always be that one review that gets things right, negating – perhaps – those that botched things in the past.
With Eugen Cicero, things were and are different. To me he was doubtlessly a musical genius, a man with incredible technical abilities coupled with a great and definitely unique musical sensibility, brought about by a musical education that very few people had the opportunity to enjoy and yet, he was summarily trashed or politely ignored because he fused classical music with jazz at a time when it was easy to get lobbed into one basket with the Swingle Singers, Jacques Loussier and some lesser exponents of a school of jazz that has often been relegated to the living rooms of those that supposedly didn’t and don’t know squat about jazz.
On top of that, Eugen Cicero was popular. So much so that some of his recordings sold over a million copies when that was still a substantial number, and that very fact seemed to have made critics suspicious. You’ve heard it all before. Success is apparently not good for a jazz musician and in the case of Eugen Cicero, this cliché might well have been true. If you sell too many LPs/CDs or whatever, you can’t be adhering to the unwritten rules of jazz written by those (and there are others, of course) who like to keep it in a ghetto of sorts.
Eugen Cicero was a controversial jazz pianist. He was perhaps one of the earliest crossover artists in his adopted Germany if you apply the modern usage of that term, and because of it he had his detractors, especially in German jazz circles. Add to that his infamous love for stiff drinks and what you get is someone whose career was not what it could have been. Yes, he was famous in his lifetime, but when he died – and maybe already a considerable time before – he was all but forgotten.
Those people who visit my site regularly know that I react and recommend recordings based on instinctive and often emotional responses to music. You know, that old Supreme Court Justice Potter school of thought who unceremoniously stated that he knew pornography when he saw it. For myself – and I never try to speak for other people – I know good music when I hear it, and Eugen Cicero is right up there with some of the very best pianists this planet has ever seen.
Eugen Cicero, you ask? Cicero?. Try the English Wikipedia and you come up empty-handed. Try looking for some extensive reviews in English and only the most diligent research will actually uncover something which might be called worthwhile. In fact, there is hardly any material available on this wonderful Romanian jazz pianist who has often been called the “German Oscar Peterson” (rightly so technically , although he was Romanian). Sadly enough, up until more recent reissues, Cicero had also completely disappeared from the public’s ears. It’s almost as if critics had decided not to mention his name anymore.
It is due to my recent immersion in remastered MPS reissues that I came across this wonderful set collecting five albums Eugen Cicero recorded from roughly 1965 to 1970 for that label.
MPS? MPS, “Musikproduktion Schwarzwald (lately unfortunately relabeled ‘Most Perfect Sound’ by Universal)”, was probably Germany’s most important and prominent jazz label of the 60s and 70s. It was founded by Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer (who also inherited a fortune to sustain his activities), a legendary German producer and superb sound engineer, who was responsible for more than 500 jazz releases on Saba (MPS’ ancestor) and MPS from 1963 to 1983. Although he then withdrew from the business, he remained enthusiastically available until his death in 2004, helping first Philips and then Universal rediscover and polish many of the gems that had been lying dormant in the vaults for all too long.
In fact, I wasn’t even looking for Eugen Cicero. I was looking for a boxed set of the complete recordings of Art Van Damme (yes, that accordion jazz guy) on MPS that I had started looking for frequently until it was released a few days ago. When, again and again, researching the release date for that boxed set, I stumbled across more and more older and recent MPS reissues, and amongst those was Eugen Cicero’s “Swinging the Classics on MPS.” In the beginning I just added it to my wishlist on Amazon, but it didn’t take long until I got this nagging feeling that of all the MPS reissues besides the Art Van Damme one, I just had to get that one. So, I jumped on it when I found it at a more than reasonable price.
Eugen Cicero, of Romanian descent, was born Eugen Ciceu in 1940, started playing piano at age four, gave his first Mozart Concerto with the Symphonic Orchestra of his hometown, Cluj-Napoca (Klausenburg), at age six and by the time he was 14 he was widely known as a child prodigy. His parents helped him develop this gift and hone his skills and when he was 11 they sent him to study with Aurelia Cionca, renowned in her native Romania as an excellent pianist who herself was taught by a student of Franz Liszt. Later Cicero studied with Anna Pitis who is said to have “initiated him into the virtuoso traditions personified by Franz Liszt” and later Cicero studied instrumentation and composition at the National Conservatory in Bucharest.
In the early 1960s, Cicero was on tour in East Berlin and managed to escape to the West. It was Charly Antolini, the drummer on most of Cicero’s later recordings, that got him a deal with Saba/MPS and the rest, as they say, is history.
Why does his music resonate so much with me? It certainly started when I was a child, when I was sifting through my dad’s record collection in which I found one of those Cicero samplers or original releases (I simply cannot recall what it was, although I suspect it must have been “Rokoko-Jazz”, released in 1965, but today the LP has disappeared). Next to all the swing big bands and the piano trios, especially Erroll Garner’s and Teddy Wilson’s, I listened to Eugen Cicero again and again. At the time, I didn’t know squat about music and many people might be apt to say that I still don’t today, but I just loved what Cicero was playing, simply because I could feel the passion and fun Cicero was injecting into his music. In hindsight, I think it was the incredible sense of swing this man had, coupled with the impeccable technique to pull off the most outrageous stunts.
On the 3-CD set discussed here, you will find the “Ouverture Miniature from The Nutcracker” on disc 2. It starts off by introducing the theme and after about 50 seconds it launches into the most astonishing jazz interpretation that has such drive that you simply cannot keep your feet still. Many people who are into their jazz trios as much as I am might immediately be reminded of Oscar Peterson, who this long stretch is very reminiscent of, but, and that’s a big BUT, there’s one difference to Oscar Peterson, whom I love dearly: Eugen Cicero just displayed a more sensitive touch with a much more varied dynamic approach and a dead-on sense for what he could get away with. On top of that, he never lost touch with what the piece allowed, and the artistic fireworks never took a top spot. It also has a fade-out that I, for once, love: Cicero, surprisingly, stops playing and lets the bass and drums close the piece. Actually, Cicero stops dead in his tracks. To my ears, this a wonderful way of closing this piece, giving the spotlight to his rhythm section for one of those moments that many listeners might appreciate.
Just afterwards we have “Mélodie Antique Francaise”, a wonderful melody uplifted by a riveting mid-tempo swing feel that just warms my heart. Cicero never takes it too far and the swing feel is what he keeps prominent. Some wonderful block-cords are woven around the rhythm section, and the whole piece comes off with that feeling of a trio having gotten the most out of the piece.
Disc three collects some of the many tunes that step away from the purely classical influence, jazzing up a whole number of (eastern European) traditional tunes that are just a blast to listen to. I have to admit that disc three is my favorite, just because it infuses some well-known tunes with such seemingly easily interwoven jazz variations that just make for a fun and astounding listening experience: “Dir gehört mein ganzes Leben” has Charly Antolini, the drummer, lay a wonderful brush beat and along with the rock-steady bass, Cicero is given a perfect basis to start improvising on – and improvise he does. “Memories of Clausenburg”, which has a wonderful beat, has that eastern European feel to it that is expressed by wonderful staccato chords and a soft melodic line, “Dort in der Ferne” has that Brubeck touch, and “Der Schlitten eilt” has a fascinating brief solo escapade that never goes overboard and showcases an Eugen Cicero that effortlessly moves from a baroque touch to the American jazz idiom. This is followed with what almost sounds to me like his last and final take on Bach: “Und Bach? (“After Prélude in C Minor”), such a powerful and technically virtuoso take on Bach that I’m astonished that most people I know have never heard it.
On disc one we have all the rousing swing takes on classics such as “Solfeggio in C Minor” by C.P.E. Bach, “Bach’s Softly Sunrise” by Cicero himself, “Prélude in C Minor”, “Etude in E (Op. 10, No.3)” and “Valse in C sharp minor” by Chopin, the composer Cicero felt a special bond with, “Sonata in C” (Scarlatti), “L’adolescente” (Coupertin) and many other famous pieces he recorded. They are the backbone of this reissue, and they are the recordings that made Cicero famous.
What then made Cicero unique? To my ears it is one single thing: Cicero, when compared to the few others whose fusion of jazz and classical music put them on the map, is simply more authentic. When compared to Jacques Loussier, for example, Cicero seemed to approach things with a jazz heart, instead of imposing jazz on classical or traditional material. Cicero quotes classical elements and uses them as decoration or transitional elements, but they rarely become or stay the main focus of his music. I think the third disc in the set shows that best when he rolls out madly swinging traditionals, effortlessly switching between a classical approach and a pure jazz one. Often he uses his brilliantly pearly right-hand runs to segue into a rock-solid triplet feel. Cicero had a passion for jazz and it can be witnessed all throughout his oeuvre.
The recordings also succeed so well because Cicero was accompanied by equally accomplished musicians, namely Charly Antolini on drums and both Peter Witte and J.A. Rettenbacher on bass. Antolini, who later became known for his audiophile extravaganzas and – to my ears – often utterly forgettable direct-recording releases that HiFi freaks play religiously to whoever does or doesn’t want to hear them, is in incredibly fresh and good form on these recordings, and both Witte (who will forever be remembered for his appearance together with Horst Jankowski and Charly Antolini at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival in 1964, giving rise to massive critical acclaim for this “incredibly tight rhythm section”) and Rettenbacher (who I only knew from Hans Koller recordings) do the word “tight” justice. All three are certainly of international caliber.
In the end, what we have here is music both for the mind and the feet, music that Eugen Cicero poured his heart and soul into. Yes, there are some tracks that are close to the edge of falling prey to popular taste, but there’s always something to keep them above the slush pile of similar recordings. It is the madly swinging feel that drew me to Eugen Cicero’s music and this 3-disc set serves up the best of that music in perfectly polished sound. In the reissue department, discs don’t come better than this, with perfect sound and accompanied by detailed original liner notes and all the facts and figures you need.
Beg, steal or borrow … and remember that you (probably) heard it here first.
Note: Check out some sound samples on this German site (Jazz Echo, a site run by Universal) by clicking on the speaker symbols next to the tracks in the list: Sound Samples.
Swinging the Classics PS
Universal Music Classics & Jazz
CD 00289 4762788 3
Producer: Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer and Willi Fruth
Recorded: Jan. 1965 – Dez. 1970
Released: August 2006
Musicians: Peter Witte and J.A. Rettenbacher, bass / Charly Antolini, drums
01. Solfeggio C-moll (C.P.E. Bach)
02. Sonate in C-dur (D.Scarlatti)
03. L’Adolescente (F.Couperin)
04. Bach’s softly sunrise (Cicero)
05. Fantasie in D-moll (W.A.Mozart)
06. Erbarme Dich, mein Gott (J.S.Bach)
07. Grande Valse brillante in E-flat (Chopin)
08. Prélude in A, Op. 28, No. 7 (Chopin)
09. Valse in C sharp minor, Op. 64 (Chopin)
10. Prélude in C minor, Op. 28 (Chopin)
11. Etude in E, Op.10, No.3 (Chopin)
12. Prélude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4 (Chopin)
01. Introduction from Swan Lake (Tschaikowsky)
02. Pi ù mosso from Swan Lake (Tschaikowsky)
03. Andante and Theme Swan Lake (Tschaikowsky)
04. Ouverture Miniature Nutcracker Suite (Tschaikowsky)
05. Mélodie antique française (Tschaikowsky)
06. Chanson napolitaine (Liszt)
07. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (Liszt)
08. Etude No. 2 in E flat (Liszt)
09. Etude in G sharp minor (La Campanella) (Liszt)
10. Liebestraum (Liszt)
11. Etude in A minor (La Chasse) (Liszt)
12. Consolations No. 1 (Liszt)
13. Sogni d’amore (Liszt)
01. Dir gehört mein ganzes Leben (trad.)
02. Seltener Weizen, seltene Gerste, … (trad.)
03. Memories Of Clausenburg (trad.)
04. Süsser Klang ertönt (trad.)
05. Nur ein Mädel gibt es auf der Welt (trad.)
06. Dort in der Ferne (trad.)
07. Im Mondenschein (trad.)
08. Der Schlitten eilt (trad.)
09. Und Bach? (after Prélude in C minor) (Cicero)
10. Rumänische Volksweisen (trad.)
11. Rumänisches Volkslied (trad.)