Christmas Flute Interpretations
I call Mr. Strozier "The Natural" because like Robert Redford's character he is returning to his craft after years of absence from public performance choosing to dedicate himself instead to a career in the healing arts. After hearing this musical production it is my feeling he almost missed his calling so I am glad to see him return. Mark Strozier is a flautist whose style is difficult to categorize because he not only enjoys but is comfortable with playing many genres of music. It's this eclectic ability that he leverages effectively with new renditions of familiar Christmas favorites in his CD "Christmas Flute Interpretations". This release is truly an eclectic musical offering for the Christmas season that will undoubtedly prove to be timeless and stand up to repeated listening through the years. Although Strozier's strength lies in his melodic and fluid improvisation, it is evident by his warm inviting tone and crisp articulation that he has put in some serious study time in flute pedagogy. However, unlike many who undergo serious study of the flute, his music has remained accessible to the easy listener without sacrificing substance for the serious listener. Truly, this music is meant to be enjoyed equally well in the home with friends and family during the holiday or as a soundtrack on a holiday road trip or for those quiet holiday moments in front of a fireplace while enjoying some solitude or with that special someone. Strozier's performances are best described as passionate without being reckless or self indulgent. For example, his opening piece Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here" from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is done utilizing an acoustic jazz quartet setting. However, after introducing the melody he proceeds to improvise solely with the accompaniment of acoustic Base. This allows the rich and complex overtones of the flute, often buried in accompaniment to be enjoyed fully. The challenge here, of course, is to not only play a beautiful melody but outline the harmonic structure of the song which he manages to do tastefully and effectively. The second piece, also from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is a novel interpretation of Vince Guaraldi's "Skating". It is an arrangement comprised of the unusual combination of two flutes and a Tuba. This creates a sound so natural it's a wonder it took anyone so long to think of it. The piece is performed in what might be described as a Bach freeform fashion in that all musical counterpoint is improvised. Consequently, not only the melody but the harmonic structure is outlined by improvised counterpoint within the flute duet. The overall effect is one of childlike playfulness and spontaneity. At times it can seem as if more than two flutes are playing. The spontaneity and intricate weaving of the flute lines dancing around each other like children's unscripted play demonstrates how some things are best not written out. The Third Piece "O Tannenbaum" is done cleanly with very little improvisation and the quiet accompaniment of a single 12 string guitar. This "less is more" approach showcases the melancholy beauty of the melody that is often overlooked. In addition, all too often pieces of simple beauty like this end just as one begins to lose themselves within the music, Strozier ensures ample time for us to lose ourselves in the warmth of his silky tone so sit back and relax. The Fourth piece, "The Christmas song (Chestnuts Roasting over an Open Fire)" is done like the first in a quite Acoustic jazz setting. Listen closely as the arrangement contains the addition of a musical introduction, interlude and ending difficult for improvisation in that it continually modulates through numerous keys making melodic creation challenging. This difficulty however, one does not sense in Strozier's playing as he maneuvers in relaxed fashion through these harmonic challenges yet always landing firmly on the right note. This approach brings a fresh, exotic and relaxing beauty to a song that has been played many times and many ways. The Fifth piece "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a change of pace by providing a smooth jazz setting reminiscent of a vintage R&B slow jam. Strozier effectively demonstrates the beauty and soul of the flute in a genre often overpopulated with saxophones. He maneuvers through the song with soul and elegance and a sound like butter. You'll literally feel your heart rate drop and the tension leave your body by the end of this piece. The Sixth piece, "I'll Be home for Christmas" takes us to an Afro Cuban Christmas celebration complete with authentic instrumentation and performed in a 6/8 time signature. However, Strozier raises the ante by adding in between Choruses a relentless flurry of Chord changes he proceeds to improvise through based on the great John Coltrane's Giant steps progression. His performance is so smooth and energetic it is difficult to sense the true difficulty of the piece. He manages to melodically maneuver through what many consider the most difficult of jazz progressions in a difficult time signature all the while expressing an afro Cuban influence in his articulation without restricting himself solely to the shrill upper register of the flute. The Seventh piece, "Walking in the Air from the Snowman" is a haunting piece rearranged for 2 flutes and a singular pulse-like electronic bass line. This arrangement, New Age in it's concept yet stimulating images of times past utilizes a beautiful yet seldom heard melody written by Howard Blake from Raymond Briggs' Christmas animation "The Snowman". It stimulates images of winter solitude walking through snow covered fields in the still of a quiet snowfall. The eighth selection is a fresh interpretation of "Linus and Lucy"; another Vince Guaraldi composition from "A Charlie Brown Christmas". Except now, the Tuba is exchanged for upright bass and Drums with Brushes. Again the concept is simultaneous improvisation without outright chordal instrument support but rather flute counterpoint is used to state the harmonic structure in a kind of a swinging baroque fashion. However, unlike classical Baroque, it is totally and spontaneously improvised capturing the childlike joy and exuberance of children on Christmas day in real time. In contrast to the first piece, "Skating", where one flute supports the other harmonically, the approach here is more of a duet of simultaneous free expression but with harmonic convergence. Very rarely does a revisit to a charming Christmas classic stand up to the original but this is worth considering. The ninth selection "What child is this" creatively groups harp, acoustic bass and guitar with percussion in a 9/8 Celtic influenced time signature as a vehicle for this traditional piece. Strozier repeatedly frames a clean beautiful rendition of the melody in between sparse and tasteful improvisation creating a tension and release that brings a kind of sultriness to the piece without corrupting the beauty of the melody. The tenth selection "God Rest ye Merry, Gentlemen", takes us back to the 18th century for a Mozart influenced baroque interpretation complete with harpsichord. However, Traditional bassoon is supplanted by upright base to provide a warmer and more modern full sound better suited to the modern ear. The Eleventh selection, Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas is coming" deviates from Mr. Guaraldi's Samba Gym dance floor interpretation by taking us away from Brazil and over to Cuba in the form of a Cuban Cha-cha-cha. Again, Strozier maintains a Latin feel without overemphasis on the upper register of the flute as traditionally done in Latin music. His crisp syncopation dispersed between lightning quick and clean runs of notes demonstrates his melodic and technical expertise. If you are like me, it is impossible to listen to this piece without finding yourself swaying or taping to the rhythm. In The final selection, Strozier demonstrates the grace inherent in the "Auld Lang Syne" melody by performing it in true gospel fashion. While listening to the music, close your eyes and I venture to say you'll feel yourself in the pews of a southern Baptist Church. The melody starts simply and movingly accompanied only with pedal tones from the organ, building slowly in a bolero like fashion adding one at a time authentic detuned church organ and piano then followed by acoustic guitar and traps. Like bolero, the piece starts melodically clean and simple and builds to a satisfying and soulful improvisational crescendo leaving no doubt as to the gospel and soul influence in Strozier's playing. The one thing that ties all of these pieces together and makes this album so unique and listenable is Strozier's beautiful tone accompanied with his elegant and inventive melodic improvisation making this an album you may find yourself not only returning to year after year during the holidays but sharing and listening too just as much outside of the holiday season. Notes by Mr. Robin Prinzing Professional Violinist.