Irene loves coming to the record store every day, but like most older dogs she does not love walking in the snow anymore. Our puppy, on the other hand, couldn’t love it more. She’s a boxer, which according to our veterinarian at the East Lake Animal Clinic, are “the clowns of the dog world.” Watching our kids throw snowballs to her during this morning’s snowfall, we quickly understood why.
And what a perfect morning to tell you about this upcoming album from local composer Paul Fonfara, The Seven Secrets of Snow. While we might have a hard time explaining exactly which genre it would fit into in our otherwise organized shop, we are quite certain it is one of our favorite albums of the year.
Fonfara was commissioned to provide material for a documentary about the Russian clown, Slava Polunin, whose theatrical productions are legendary (check out this trailer for Slava’s Snowshow). Andrew Douglas, the London filmmaker who directed a documentary about Jim White, Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus, did not finish the film about Slava, but Fonfara’s songs survived in the form of this new disc. It will be debuted on Saturday with a performance at the Cedar Cultural Center, along with a short film to accompany each song and stunning visual art by the incomparable Whitney A. Streeter.
We are here on the Hymie’s blog are well-known to know very little about cinema, but to have omnivorous taste when it comes to records. The Seven Secrets of Snow is a captivating amalgam of jazz, carnival music, Eastern European folk, and chamber music. One will not be surprised to find members of the Poor Nobodys, Dreamland Faces, the Bookhouse Trio and the Brass Messengers amidst the cast assembled by Fonfara for the production. Each of these collaborative groups has years of experience creating works which combine theater, film, or other media far beyond your turntable with the music. The songs are alternately ideal music for dancing (this reflecting Fonfara’s work with the Brass Messengers) and introspection (drawing from Dreamland Faces and the Poor Nobodys). While driven in two directions, Fonfara’s imaginative songs compliment one another well, as for instance do Van Gogh’s various paintings to feature snow-covered settings.
While The Seven Secrets of Snow is not explicitly a jazz album, it fits snugly alongside several of our favorites from the 90s and early 00s, an under-appreciated period of innovation in the genre. “Tar Sands,” for instance, reminds us of Bill Frisell’s album The Intercontinentals, for its incorporation of a traditional folk motif and modern jazz in an arrangement which slowly builds tension. Fonfara is featured on the clarinet throughout the album, and is as agile at shifting styles as Don Byron, whose 1996 album Bug Music also came to mind. A highlight of that disc was Byron’s interpretation of several songs by Raymond Scott famous for their frequent appearances in Looney Tunes. Scott’s “Powerhouse” is, without a doubt, one of the most inspired themes in search of a movie (to paraphrase Charles Stepney) and found its home when the composer sold his catalog to Warner Brothers in 1943. His songs have since been licensed for other cartoons, including the Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy and, naturally, the Animaniacs. To draw an interesting parallel to Fonfara’s Seven Secrets of Snow, Raymond Scott once recorded an album with an all-star band credited only to “The Secret Seven.”
And likewise, while The Seven Secrets of Snow is not explicitly an album of chamber music, there are passages which could have come from Prokofiev’s film scores for Lieutenant Kije and Alexander Nevsky or, from a melodic point of view, the late quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. Fonfara is allowed wide freedoms in his arrangements due to the exceptional talent of the musicians he has conscripted. Few composers, for instance, have the luxury of writing for the singing saw, because they are not fortunate enough to work with Dreamland Faces’ Andy McCormick (the instrument was featured in Krzstztof Penderecki’s surreal comic opera, Ubu Rex and in the score to One Flew Over the Cuckoo‘s Nest by Jack Nitzche). Fonfara’s friendships benefit us listeners, because the arrangements are performed with precision and enthusiastic energy.
Each song is set to a film, which will be presented along with the performance on Saturday at the Cedar. Like Slava Polunin’s productions, they would appear to each be montages presenting ruminations centered around the themes of natural beauty and mortality. We have not seen all of the films and so instead have created our own imagery.
The title track — like Prokofiev’s “Troika” from Lieutenant Kije or Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall” — invokes a morning much like today’s here in Minneapolis. And this reminds us we need to shovel in front of the shop once more before its time to open. We hope you’ll enjoy these songs from Paul Fonfara’s new album. If you are like us a fan and want to take a closer look, there is a Kickstarter page to fund the disc’s recording and production, and while it’s contrary to our general discomfort with crowd-funding, on the subject we’ll plug our noses and offer the link here. You could likewise support this project by going to Saturday’s show at the Cedar. We are certainly looking forward to it!