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Faithful evocations

Edgar Allan Poe (Associated Press)

Faithful evocations

A dive into Poe, a new project for Parsons, and a classical compendium

With The Hermetic Organ, Vol. 6: For Edgar Allan Poe (Tzadik), the experimental multi-instrumentalist John Zorn has taken one of the strangest headlong plunges of his long and prolific career. Not that there’s anything strange about the concept. The Google site “Poe in Music” identifies 30 previous instances of musicians’ having drawn inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe.

What’s strange is the music. As Zorn himself writes in the liner notes, “In evoking the dark, macabre worlds that Poe brought to life, … the organ sonics here moved towards a supernatural language of moaning clusters, microtonal tunings and spooky glissandi effects”—specifically, those best suited to the stories that lend their titles to the album’s two improvised and unedited 30-minute pieces: “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Masterpieces of Gothic horror, they evoke moods especially suited to a pipe-organ rendering. 

Perhaps the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of Zorn’s efforts is to listen to them in tandem with the masterly readings of the stories in question by Basil Rathbone (readings available on the internet). That they go together uncannily well should dispel any doubts about Zorn’s fidelity to his source.

More than 40 years ago, that same source inspired Tales of Mystery and Imagination, the first of many concept albums by the Alan Parsons Project. Now, shorn of his “Project” but still faithful to its collective music-making approach, Parsons is back with The Secret (Frontiers), his first new music in 15 years.

The concept this time is magic, a term that for Parsons has nothing to do with the occult unless the opening six-minute symphonic-rock version of Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” counts. Rather, it’s a term that takes in everything wondrous, from sleight of hand (a phrase that appears in two songs) and the Apollo moon landing (“One Note Symphony”) to the finding of love (“Sometimes”), the losing of love (“Requiem”), the passing of time (“Years of Glory”), and miracles (“Miracle”). 

In keeping with the modus operandi of his hit-making years, Parsons yokes power-ballad melodies to oneiric tempos and prog-lite instrumentation, apportioning the lead vocals to an assortment of singers both famous (Jason Mraz, Lou Gramm) and obscure (Jordan Huffman, Todd Cooper). 

Meanwhile, small but significant surprises keep the formula from becoming formulaic. The melodic similarities of “Requiem” to Dimitri Tiomkin’s “Town Without Pity,” for instance, add context to the former’s conversational pathos, while Parsons’ lead singing on “As Lights Fall” makes it easy to hear the valedictory lyrics as a heartfelt lead-up to a day of reckoning.

An excerpt of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” also appears on No Me Gusta la Música Clásica pero Lo Que Escucho Aquí Sí! Especial Niños (Sony Classical), a two-disc compendium of 34 classical melodies, most of which, only a generation or two ago, would’ve been familiar to practically everyone.

Handel’s “Hallelujah,” Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F and Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo,” Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” Orff’s “O Fortuna,” Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”—greatest hit follows greatest hit, each performed or conducted by a bona fide virtuoso. 

Thought even seems to have gone into the sequencing. Albéniz’s “Asturias” certainly makes more sense coming as it does after the second movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez than it would have coming willy-nilly between, say, Scarlatti and Dvořák.

The collection’s title, incidentally, means “I Don’t Like Classical Music but What I Hear Here, Yes! Children’s Special.” And, as the Ringling Brothers knew, children come in all ages. 

Hear, hear!