Max Roach: Variation on a Familiar Theme

This is an amazing piece—another example of seamless transitions. It runs 2-minutes-20-seconds, and it’s a variation of “Pop Goes The Weasel.” Theoretically, the configuration is like a predecessor to M’Boom. I don’t know if that idea had anything to do with Max’s decision to pull these musicians together, but this was something completely different. He was just guest soloist with the Boston Percussion Ensemble. Harold Faberman did the arrangement.

Here Max is playing within the conventions of orchestral percussion, but from the first time you hear him on the brushes it’s unmistakably him—the same phrasing, the same sound out of the instrument. Regardless of the setting, the language was so indigenous to his person, you know it’s Max regardless of the setting. There are several sections. Max initiates some time with the brushes, then they come in with a theme, then they switch up from 4/4 to 3/4, and he makes that transition, too. A different theme is initiated, and then they transition back into four. This often happens in Western Classical music, but here it’s an interesting juxtaposition of time signatures and also of genre. It’s the “jazz feeling” or whatever, because Max is playing some time countered against what the orchestra is doing with the structure. He kind of solos in the piece, but he’s also weaving in and out of it, and he is used to accentuate certain portions. It amazes me that Max was so open and flexible and willing to put himself into so many different positions throughout his career.

I have a degree in music, but the way I learned the music was kind of on the street, watching my Pops play and so forth. I’ve never studied Western classical pedagogy. Now, Max went to Manhattan School of Music and studied it, but here it sounds like he’s using the techniques that he mastered from his experiences, not from the Western pedagogy. Within the framework of this piece, the music has a certain time feel. When I played with an orchestra, it was always challenging from the downbeat, because when I see the conductor come down, I’m thinking that’s the downbeat, but it’s not. Then it’s weird. It’s the downbeat-AND, and everyone’s responding to that. Visually, it was so challenging to de-condition yourself—in jazz, it’s always the downbeat, so everyone enters there, whereas in the orchestra the AND after the downbeat is the place. So the fact that Max was able to integrate what he does within that setting so seamlessly, to play the music so impeccably, was impressive—to say the least!

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Jacqui Dankworth & New Perspectives: Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff

Written for a suite of A.E. Housman settings (with each movement set by a different British jazz composer) Patrick Gowers� �Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff� is a complex setting designed to show off the extraordinary talents of vocalist Jacqui Dankworth and the ensemble New Perspectives. Jacqui, the daughter of vocalist Cleo Laine and saxophonist John Dankworth, shares the same wide vocal range as her mother and has performed in a vast range of musical settings.

The movement starts with a rhythmic cymbal pattern which in turn becomes the background for serpentine lines from the saxophones. Dankworth enters for the opening verse which admonishes the poet Terence for wolfing down his food and drink. In this short section (just over a minute of music), we hear an astonishing number of ideas, including the distinctive three-note motive for the words �stupid stuff� and the sudden change to waltz-time, both of which Gowers returns to throughout the work. The next section, which mourns a dead cow, is in a slow 3/4, subtly changing back into duple time before a dramatic unaccompanied turn for Dankworth featuring an angular vocal line that could have come from a 20th century opera. There is a brief return to the opening style with fragmented lines performed by Dankworth and the saxes, with the �stupid stuff� motive played in the background by the brasses.

Then, to lighten the mood, Dankworth invokes Terence to pipe a tune to dance to. The ensuing drinking song, again in 3/4, features wide leaps and exaggerated glissandos in the vocal lines and Dankworth sings it in a comic quasi-operatic style. After a brief return to the section with fragmented lines, guitarist Phil Lee introduces a rolling figure in 12/8 (which combines the duple and triple meters heard earlier). This final section is the most relaxed of the entire work, setting Housman�s sage advice to Terence to face life as a wise man would, and train for ill and not for good . Gowers� vocal line is melodic rather than angular, and any necessary minor tension comes through short figures in the horns. And on the final line And I may friend you if I may, in the dark and cloudy day, the quiet ending grows slightly menacing with the final return of the �stupid stuff� motive in the reeds.

July 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Stan Getz: I Remember When

From the opening bar of “I’m Late, I’m Late,” you knew you were listening to something very special.  Focus, the 1961 breakthrough Third Stream collaboration between composer Eddie Sauter and Stan Getz, marked a striking departure from the tenor titan’s bossa nova and cool sessions. The vibrancy of the original recording has been lovingly preserved in this must-have CD reissue, which faithfully recaptures the unmistakable velvet timbre of Getz’s Selmer.  The concept was ambitious and fearless: to create a suite of tone poems over which Getz would improvise, without any prior exposure — and without any written sax melody to follow.  The results were breathtaking.

“I Remember When” is a Debussy-like dreamscape where dusky tenor phrases waft through an enchanted orchestral forest, chased by random gusts of strings and harp.  Stan Getz is at the top of his form, blowing effortless, perfectly sculpted lines over the languid, impressionistic framework. This is the art of improvisation at its best, cliché-free, inspired and cerebral — and it offers a unique glimpse into the depths of a brilliant and complicated jazzman’s soul.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Bipolar: Killer Beau (Soir)

Cleverly but loosely wrapped in the skin of Debussy’s “Beau Soir”, this entertaining arrangement by pianist Craig Swanson takes on a jaunty beat that re-castes the mood of the piece from romantic to quixotic. With a sound reminiscent of Claude Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano, especially on the break when Swanson solos, this music is infectious. Its deliberate use of the fine interplay of Long’s flute, Ostrem’s bass and Swanson’s piano creates a wonderfully lilting feel in the center of the piece. They deftly dart around the melody in a carefree but deliberate way that is joyful in its approach. When at last Feuer breaks into a familiar refrain from the melody of Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe,” or in this case "Killer Beau," the sly juxtaposition works nicely to the coda. Well played and originally arranged.

March 23, 2009 · 0 comments


John Lewis: The Golden Striker

When Gunther Schuller (classical musician with jazz interests) collided with John Lewis (jazzman classically trained), the resulting … not explosion, more a puff of smoke or tempest in a teapot … the result, anyway, was Third Stream Music, a largely forgotten, bastard genre beloved of partisans and certain scribes, but ignored by most gigging musicians and fans. The Third Stream's odd mix of toney instruments, transcribed compositions, jazzy aspirations, and a gruntled measure of swing created works (consider the verb subsumed in that noun) that often seemed as leaden and clangorous as a split cathedral bell.

Still, a few diehards managed to teach the no-jazz straights how to tap their feet, if not actually step out, and Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet was instructor extraordinaire. The brilliant composer of "Django," "La Ronde," "The Cylinder" and other titles Italian and/or geographical could go for Baroque or back to Bop in a New York minute. He had the knack and the smarts, the elegance and the will, to propel (or maybe drag) others in his wake; just think how he managed to keep players as diverse as Milt Jackson and Connie Kay together, and wearing black tuxedoes, for decades.

Away from the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lewis mostly stuck to conducting/writing for Orchestra U.S.A., the American Jazz Orchestra, and other lightly avant-garde ensembles. But he also recorded a few sterling examples of what Third Stream Music could be under the right conditions, and the most spirited of these is the brass-drenched, stereo-demonstrative Atlantic album The Golden Striker, a wonderful combination of fanfares à la Gabrielli and complex yet swinging longer pieces from the pianist's trick bag, played by a steady mix of jazz cats and classical gassers. The emblematic title track, driven by Duvivier's dancing basslines and Lewis's own Basie-esque piano (minimal notes and maximal pulse), bespeaks a smiling demeanor. Like clock-tower mechanical figures that mark the onward march of the minutes, Lewis's staccato melody alternately halts and surges, striking brass-choir sparks amid the rhythm section's very "timely" five minutes—a dance of the hours as it were, and a fanciful pleasure for both curious hipsters and "serious music" tourists alike.

January 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Joel Harrison: Movement 2: Blues Circle

Guitarist/composer Joel Harrison has successfully integrated the sounds of strings, brass and reeds into a completely original example of the jazz and classical hybrid that Gunther Schuller dubbed Third Stream. Harrison's work as a guitarist is overshadowed on this offering, as his extraordinary compositional skills rise front and center. This 5-movement suite is hard to separate into its parts because it flows so well together in a cohesive and carefully orchestrated celebration. Explaining in the liner notes that his music incorporates "Appalachian, African and modern classical sensibilities," Harrison has here captured the best of these worlds. In Movement 2: "Blues Circle," he uses pizzicato stings, picked guitar and burnished brass and reeds to convey his message. Alessi's beautiful flugelhorn work is especially noteworthy on the blues break. The strings build tension in a climbing progression that leads to a succinct break back to pizzicato strings and a distinctly Appalachian-inspired coda. Harrison has created a brilliant piece that could only be produced by skilled musicians with a foot in each of the jazz and classical worlds.

September 09, 2008 · 0 comments


J.J. Johnson: Poem for Brass

This composition directly resulted from formation of the Jazz and Classical Music Society, an ensemble led by Gunther Schuller and John Lewis to present both rarely heard and newly composed music played by an ensemble of classical and jazz musicians. The first concert took place in 1955 and included the Modern Jazz Quartet. The second concert featured compositions by Schuller, Jimmy Giuffre, Gabrielli, and this sparkling multipart work by J.J. Johnson. All of the music performed at the concert remains impressive, but "Poem for Brass" is exceptional. A full score of the work is available, and the piece has been played by numerous brass sections of major symphonies. (A highlight of my own concertgoing experience was to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra brass perform this piece.)

The work has four movements, and while each has a subtitle, they do not appear in the published score, suggesting that Johnson dropped them at some point. Several commentators have mentioned the influence of Paul Hindemith's music on J.J., but the result is still pure Johnson. "Sonnet for Brass" features a Miles Davis solo over various brass textures and combinations (and imagine for a moment: six trumpets and Miles on the same date). The end of Miles's solo is written, and almost immediately Johnson takes over with a short solo, the beginning of which is also written. A short melodic statement by baritone horns leads to an incomplete cadence, ending the section. A short, elegiac-like section leads to "Ballad for Joe," a solo statement by the excellent and highly underrated Joe Wilder, who is as comfortable with a Haydn concerto as a hot solo. The next section is called "Meter and Metal" and features the brass alternating phrases with Osie Johnson's cymbals (his part is fully notated). Before we know it, the tuba begins a fugue which is the highlight of the work. Recasting the pitches of the melody from the beginning of the piece, this is a grand and glorious tour de force with voices all over the place. A short recap leads to a freely played ending with a delicious major chord.

This was certainly one of the highlights of J.J. Johnson's musical career. In the minds of many of his fans, he was a master trombonist, but "Poem for Brass" will always remind us that he was a great composer as well.

August 09, 2008 · 0 comments


Gunther Schuller: Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra

Jazz history moved too fast in the middle decades of the 20th century. Developments that had played out slowly in the history of classical music, unfolding leisurely over 30 years or more, hardly had that many months to strut their stuff in the jazz world, before being ushered off center stage to make room for the next new thing. Jazz critics and fans wanted transcendent breakthroughs, and moreover wanted another one every year.

As a result, Gunther Schuller's Third Stream -- a merging of the two preexisting streams of classical music and jazz -- is now seen by many as some passing fad that came and went. Yet the principles of Third Stream are as valid today as when Schuller coined the term back in 1957, and the potential of an ongoing rapprochement between these two musical perspectives is undiminished. Moreover, the music the Third Stream produced during its first blossoming, such as this Concertino from 1959 (recorded in this version in 1999 and released on a 2008 CD), continues to serve as eloquent testimony to Schuller's vision.

Schuller's Third Stream compositions sometimes veered more closely to the classical side, while other of his works took on a more pronounced jazz perspective. The Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra emphasizes the jazz side of the House of Schuller. This is also the household of Schuller to some extent, with sons Ed and George contributing their considerable talents to the ensemble, alongside pianist Bruce Barth and vibraphonist Tom Beckham. The music offers wide scope for improvisation, and these players rise to the occasion. But the underlying structures are full of interesting twists, such as the fresh take on 5/4 from the opening movement or the unconventional 13-bar blues of the "Passacaglia." All in all, this performance demonstrates the ongoing health of Third Stream, not just as a label or theory, but as a body of inspired music that merits our attention to this day.

July 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Frank Macchia: Landscapes IV – Arctic Chill

This track reminds me (in a slightly less uncomfortable way) of Ornette Coleman's work on the Naked Lunch soundtrack. Macchia's sax paints short, bluesy lines that mirror the sparse contours played by The Prague Orchestra. This does not mean that "Arctic Chill" is tension-free. Quite the opposite, as initial passages from the string section set up an ominous atmosphere that Macchia's improvised sax lines don't completely disperse. Toward the end of his solo, it almost sounds as if the sax is pleading with the strings before slipping out one last forlorn restatement of the theme that seems like a surrender.

March 24, 2008 · 0 comments


David Baker: Calypso (from Sonata for Jazz Violin and String Quartet)

About the time African-Americans originated jazz, Afro-Caribbean musicians invented calypso, likewise testing the limits of free expression in a segregated society. David Baker's "Calypso" (1987) features violinist Diane Monroe, whose jazz bona fides are longstanding. More surprisingly is the jazz facility of four University of Oregon School of Music faculty members, in particular Steven Pologe, strumming his cello with the élan of a Trinidadian street guitarist at Carnival. Whether Baker—himself a cellist and former jazzman—has improved conventional notation, or classical string players have newly developed jazz chops, the result is an uplifting celebration of music as universal language.

November 30, 2007 · 2 comments


Stan Kenton: Trajectories

As usual, Stan Kenton was ahead of the curve. His Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra was an icebreaker, intrepidly forging an uncharted Third Stream long before Gunther Schuller named it. Here, composer Franklyn Marks shrewdly overcomes the inherent viscosity of strings by tracing pizzicato swirls across the clear night sky. Shelly Manne once famously griped that getting the Kenton band to swing was as strenuous as chopping wood, but the built-in momentum of "Trajectories" eases his woodchopper's chore. While the brass, alas, are vintage mid-century crime jazz, this pioneering expedition is among the friskiest voyages of discovery since Darwin's Beagle.

November 23, 2007 · 0 comments


Shelly Manne: Pas de Trois

Concurrent sentences under warden Stan Kenton left Shelly Manne and Shorty Rogers, like career criminals acquiring new tricks of the trade in prison, hardened musical adventurers. By contrast, Jimmy Giuffre's "Four Brothers" sojourn with Woody Herman scarcely foretold his subsequent avant-gardism. Only after falling under the sway of composer/mystic Dr. Wesley La Violette did Giuffre grow cerebral, rigorously applying formal compositional devices to chamber jazz. While much mid-'50s West Coast jazz was contrapuntal, Giuffre's "Pas de Trois" takes full advantage of Manne's melodicism, integrating his drums into an extraordinary tripartite fugue. Abstract, controlled, fascinating—Third Stream for three, please.

November 23, 2007 · 0 comments


John Lewis: Three Little Feelings

This track both connects and disconnects Birth of the Cool and Third Stream. BOTC holdovers include Miles, J.J., Barber, Lewis and Schuller. But whereas BOTC was an arrangers/improvisers band, Third Stream is a composers/soloists orchestra—even, as here, sans strings. "Three Little Feelings" beefs up the brass, but don't expect Kentonesque overkill from John Lewis, who always understood that a well-placed arrow is just as effective as cannon fire, and far more economical. Miles and J.J. solo sensitively, yet the ultimate triumph is composer Lewis's ability to avoid bombast and reveal the luxuriant beauty of 17 brass instruments.

November 23, 2007 · 0 comments


John Lewis: Sketch

MJQ + string quartet = one felicitous match. Whereas many jazz groups would simply overwhelm such a setting—can you imagine, for instance, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with string quartet?—the MJQ's genteel nuances are, if anything, rudely interrupted by the strings' first entrance. But the parties quickly reach such amicable rapprochement that we wish this 5½-minute "Sketch" had been developed into a full-fledged painting. Come to think of it, the following year the MJQ & Orchestra recorded Third Stream's one-hit wonder, "England's Carol." So maybe "Sketch," blending modern jazz and rococo elegance, grew into a mural after all.

November 23, 2007 · 1 comment


Charles Mingus: Half-Mast Inhibition

Mingus began "Half-Mast Inhibition" at age 18, but left it unfinished for 20 years. As tempting as it might be to call this the first Third Stream composition, it's unclear how much was written in 1940 and how much the mature Mingus added later. What is clear is that this is a wellspring of orchestral complexity and compositional fecundity, presaging The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (1963). Uncharacteristically for Mingus, "Half-Mast Inhibition" is entirely written: no head arrangements, no improvisation. Yet from first note to last, only Mingus could've poured forth this disturbing, dissociative Third Stream of consciousness.

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


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