Reviewed in Theatre Organ, the journal of the American Theatre Organ Society (Nov/Dec 2011)
Reprinted with permission
Tales from the Chambers
It was with a considerable amount of trepidation that I attacked the review of the album Tales from the Chambers, not just because of the description of the material as “deliciously ghoulish musical fun,” but because of the sheer technicality of the recording. The array of instruments utilised in this CD is overwhelming in itself. Specifically, the 107-rank Mary L. Collins sanctuary pipe organ and the Allen R-370 chapel organ in Portland, Oregon’s First United Methodist Church, an Allen L-8 digital classical organ, an Allen Q-311 digital theatre organ, and various ghoulish sound-effect-producing sources—including the Allen Vista unit, a Roland keyboard, organ technicians and friends dragging tire chains, and more. If that array isn’t enough to produce fear and anxiety in a reviewer, I don’t know what more is required.
Not the least of the overwhelming aspects of the task are the words in the album notes which, for example, describe the registrations for the last track, “Dance Macabre” by Camille Saint-Saens, thus: “After the clock strikes 12 midnight, Death tunes up for the dance using an augmented 4th interval (“Diabolis in Musica”) against the normal 5th tuning pitches.” How clever is Death! Also, “Instead of using the pipe’s organ strings for the solo violin tune-ups, we used the Trompette D’ Balcomb and English Post Horn—both loud appropriate ‘killer’ solo reeds—to enunciate the unharmonious tuning.” How clever is the Trio con Brio!
To the uninitiated, the biography for Trio con Brio describes them: “Trio con Brio explores new musical possibilities with their unique approach using three organs to perform original transcriptions and musical works from all time periods. Trio con Brio was originally founded with lifelong friends Jonas Nordwall, Donna Parker and Tom Hazleton, with Martin Ellis as the understudy. With Tom's untimely passing in 2006, Martin became the official third member of Trio con Brio, and they continue the tradition of celebrating diverse musical backgrounds to create critically acclaimed, one-of-a-kind performances.”
Armed with this information, I proceeded to review the material on this album which includes the most eclectic mix of sources which would keep A and R people arguing for an eternity. However, I remain mystified as to who played what item, were they somehow recorded simultaneously in the one venue or mixed at a later stage, and how were the special effects generated and added—such as swirling wind noises? All very mystifying. (All is explained in the sidebar “The Making of Tales from the Chambers.”—Ed.)
The opening 10 bars of “Theme from The Munsters” set the scary scene utilising 10 bars from the opening of the ‘Toccata’ from Léon Boëllmann’s Gothic Suite, but soon changed to the busy little Munsters theme before ending with a full-blown reminder of Boellman.
“Grim Grinning Ghosts” (or “The Screaming Song”) by Buddy Baker opens with the swirling wind leading into the ghostly theme permeating Disney’s Haunted Mansion exhibit at their theme parks. The main theme eventually settles down to a lilting waltz in a minor key (what else?). This piece is a real demonstration of the organ’s toy counter’s versatility.
To settle the nerves, the Trio con Brio next programmed Michel Legrand’s delightful theme from the 1971 film The Summer of ’42. The piece opens and closes with the sounds of the sea (how did they do this?). As the cover notes explain, this piece provides an acknowledgement of the role of the Trio’s late lamented founding member and friend, Tom Hazleton who was born in 1942.
Those of us old enough to remember the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series which ran from 1955 to 1965, will be delighted to hear Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of the Marionette.” The version presented here is clear and precise making ample use of the flutes and the percussions.
The main title theme of Beetlejuice, written by Danny Elfman, is the Trio’s next choice. Beetlejuice was an enormously successful dark comedy film dating from 1988 about a ghost’s house which is being ‘haunted’ by the living. The Trio’s version features a busy piano-vamp accompaniment to the other ghostly sounds provided by the organ.
Not to have included the theme from Phantom of the Opera would have been an oversight, but here it is with all its very recognisable descending and ascending opening chords and the subsequent haunting melody line. The Trio’s version is uncomplicated and pleasing—in a menacing sort of way.
Next comes a real doozy from the pen of Vic Mizzy as part of the incidental music to the 1966 movie The Ghost and Mrs. Chicken. The theme is an adaptation of the 1930s song “Mr. Ghost Goes to Town” written by Will Hudson, Irving Mills, and Mitchell Parish and recorded by Tommy Dorsey. However, the Trio con Brio adds a substantial scary new dimension to the basic theme. The jaunty mid-section is most closely aligned with the original version, but it doesn’t take long before we return to the raucous sound of the old pipe organ in the Simmons mansion on “Murder Night.” Oh, to have had such an instrument, and for it to have been so skilfully played!
Disney’s output has often included material of a decidedly scary nature, but thankfully he is more fondly remembered as the purveyor of entertainment for kids of all ages. The musical sound track for Pirates of the Caribbean—The Curse of the Black Pearl provided some most appropriate accompaniment of both a scary and a sympathetic nature, as demonstrated by the Trio con Brio with “The Black Pearl,” “One Last Shot,” and the spirited “He’s a Pirate,” all composed by Klaus Badelt. “The Black Pearl” recalls the sounds of an old English shanty, whereas “One Last Shot” provides a break from the scary and the rollicking with a simple little melody in a minor key, but gentle and soothing. This soon gives way to a startling blast from a Bourdon to introduce the spirited “He’s a Pirate” with stunning organistic bravado.
Another respite from the startling sounds of the grand organ with the cheeky and charming little theme from The Addams Family, again from the pen of the prolific Vic Mizzy. We are not told who provided the finger clicks but it wouldn’t have been the same without them.
Then it was on for all takers with the spectacular opening bars of the Tocatta from Bach’s mighty Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The seriousness of the original gave way to dirty bluesy variations on the theme, beautifully intermixed with returns to Bach’s original intentions. I’m sure Mr. Bach would have approved of the liberties taken with his material, having been ahead of his time. The conclusion of this ‘liberty’ comprises the most marvellous progression of chords ending with a stunning atonality.
“Echoes from an Abandoned Hacienda” provides an interesting and pleasing choice for the album. Interesting, because it is a piece written by the late Richard Purvis, and both Jonas Nordwall and Donna Parker were students of his. Pleasing, because it again provides a fascinating break from the eerie, chilling, and thrilling sounds of the previous items, and also because of the evocative nature of the effects accompanying the haunting theme.
As if to say, “don’t get too carried away with the respite,” it was back with a vengeance to the amazing piece by Rod Temperton made popular by the late Michael Jackson as he introduced his hugely successful Thriller album. It isn’t difficult to see why the Trio chose this track with its opening line: “It’s close to midnight and something evil’s lurking in the dark.” The amazing introduction is spectacularly captured, followed by the main theme with an accompanying repetitive bass vamp. As the program notes say: “a standard for the haunting season” and a brilliant recreation for organ and associated effects (thunder, screams and all).
“Tales from the Crypt” by Danny Elfman is yet another of the great little menacing cameos selected by the Trio. The theme comes from a horror-anthology cable-television series that ran from 1989 to 1996, described as “gloriously gruesome.”
The finale of the album is a brilliant choice coming from the pen of the nineteenth-century French composer Camille Saint-Saens. A transcription from the orchestral tone poem, the piece allows for considerable flexibility in the selection of pipe organ voices and percussion stops. As a straight no-nonsense item, this piece provides a marvellous conclusion to a most entertaining collection of deliciously ghoulish musical fun.
As afterthoughts, it is difficult to decide what mood one should be in at the conclusion of this most unusual collection of Tales from the Chambers, but I can only congratulate Jonas Nordwall, Donna Parker, and Martin Ellis for a very novel and entertaining selection of musical thrills, spine-tingling chills and laughs. A further word of congratulation to the recording engineer Dennis Hedberg, for a stunning recording of all the instruments utilised in this recording. The sound is clean and clear and all ranks and effects are well defined with a pleasing spread between the speakers. I will humbly offer four and a half stars—half a mark off for a paucity of information regarding the roles and modus operandi of the respective artists.
Tales from the Chambers is available for $20.00 including domestic shipping (international orders, add $5) from www.tcbrio.com or by mail from Trio con Brio, P.O. Box 6103, Aloha, Oregon 97007-0103.
© Trio con Brio 2017