American Saxophone Quartet: The Commission Project

The Commission Project has a weighty mission indeed: to break youngsters’ oppressive apathy about serious music by sponsoring composer-in-residence programs in schools around the country. The cover of the first CD of compositions to come out of this endeavor, also titled The Commission Project, reinforces the feeling of heavy lifting with its photo of brawny men struggling with truculent jackhammers. But the four compositions featured here give no evidence of feeling the burden, instead frolicking through jazz, classical and Latin styles fluently and charmingly. It’s as if you signed up for hard labor and found yourself picking wildflowers.

Each of these four works adds a different clarinetist to the American Saxophone Quartet: David Demsey (alto), David Carroll (tenor), Albert Regni (soprano) and Lino Gomez (baritone). While lesser clarinetists could not withstand the unceasing scrutiny, these men bring a thrilling variety and beauty of tone to the task, making the best possible case for these works.

Michael Holober contributes “Views From a Train,” a portrait of the emotional journey of traveling, in a style that might be described as Roy Harris crossed with Duke Ellington; Larry Combs and the Quartet milk all the lyricism and high spirits they can from this well-crafted music. Paquito D’Rivera joins the Quartet for Gabriel Senanes’ lyrical, witty “Cubamericargie Quintet” and, along with his son Franco, contributes a piece of his own, the mercurial dance “Quasi: An Arabesque.” Bernard Hoffer’s “The Toy Chest” can’t compete with 19th-century plaything evocations, but nevertheless contributes some hair-raising writing and supreme geniality throughout.

All four works are well crafted and appealing, and deserve the wider circulation they’re getting. With this task successfully completed, perhaps someone at the Commission Project can finally take a load off.