Review by Brad Walseth
A recording that is nearly as mysterious as it is unique, "Concerto and Rhapsody" is a bit of an unusual choice for a review on a jazz site. With almost no information available on the Internet or in the liner notes, we have only a photo of Joseph Ashley himself on the cover and precious few other clues to go by. Primarily a classical recording with some Gershwin tunes at the end, the first surprising element is the choice of soloist, for it turns out that Mr. Ashley is a harmonica virtuoso!
The mysterious Mr. Ashley, who is listed as 66 and living in Great Neck, NY on his MySpace page, curiously does not seem to have appeared on any other previous recording, as I can find no information in this regard. What is known is that he plays a four-octave chromatic harmonica, and that he plays it very well. He also apparently learned music theory at Chicago City College and studied harmonica at the Turtle Bay Music School. Although he doesn't appear on any other recordings, he made the best of his time practicing his harmonica and making occasional appearances through the years.
The centerpiece of the recording is two separate versions (one slightly abridged) of composer Alexander Tcherepnin's "Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra." The Russian emigre Tcherepnin, has a strong Chicago connection, having taught at DePaul University. The orchestra is listed simply as "orchestra," but in all probability may be the "Cosmopolitan Orchestra of New York." This is to be gleaned from tracking down conductor Co Nguyen, who is listed as having led this particular orchestra in the "first U.S. recording" of this composition last October. Strangely, there is no information to this effect on the recording itself, but I presume this is indeed the first U.S. recording of Tcherepnin's work. Please note: I have been informed that the Tcherepnin Harmonica Concerto was, in fact, recorded previously in America--by the famous harmonica player for whom it was written, John Sebastian, and the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Hans Schwieger. It was recorded in the early 1960s for the now-defunct Urania label, coupled with the Villa Lobos Harmonica Concerto and reappeared briefly on CD.
It is difficult for me to judge, and I do not pretend to be an expert on classical music: The piece seems to have been played well, although maybe lacking a bit in spirit, but the recording of the orchestra seems somewhat thin and muted, while the non-orchestral presentation of piano/harmonica duets (William Gati is the pianist) both classical (examples: Albinoni's "Adagio," Borodin's "Polovetsian Dances Theme") as well as the Gershwin are clean, but again seem to suffer from their recording. Additionally, the final Gershwin tune, "Who Cares" is oddly truncated. However, what saves this recording and makes it worthwhile for listening to is both Tcherepnin's interesting composition, and Ashley's truly exceptional playing. This international man of mystery can really make his instrument sing