Jazz

The Classical Roots of New Jazz

|The last couple of years has witnessed some very good music standing on the corner of Jazz and Classical.|

When the riot broke out on May 28, 1913, during the first public performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris, it’s hard to believe the spirit of the new jazz music in America wasn’t standing backstage in the shadows. Charlie Parker was a big fan of Stravinsky and his Rites, and it just might be that Salt Peanuts found inspiration in its vicinity. The dissonance we associate with seismic shifts in the landscape of 20th-century music can be clearly heard in compositions and performances of both men. Yet as we have discussed here on several occasions, the intersection of jazz and classical music has found fertile ground even among more straight-ahead jazz players.

“We cannot observe the creative phenomenon independently of the form in which it is made manifest.” Stravinsky

The last couple of years has witnessed some very good music standing on the corner of Jazz and Classical. What might be most interesting about the albums mentioned below is that each includes a current mainstay from the straight-ahead jazz scene. More so than other jazz/classical works discussed here at Jazz-Notes, the classical influences of this younger generation are clearly heard in these songs. This can be partially explained by their having been trained as classical musicians before embracing jazz.

Let’s start with the well-known string quartet Brooklyn Rider and their collaboration with tenor great Joshua Redman (one our favorites here at Jazz-Notes). The album Sun on Sand was released in 2019 and is singularly successful in blending genres. First, the Riders can hold their own whether acting as a rhythm section or “solo” voice. Second, Redman also moves smoothly through both roles, as comfortable behind the band as fronting it. Finally, all tunes are original compositions of Patrick Zimmerli who is well regarded in both classical and jazz circles.

 

The opening number, “Flash”, does not immediately play to either side of the jazz/classical divide. Likewise, the slightly tremulous “Starbursts and Haloes” manages the same feat of being neither fish nor fowl. But the album’s closer, “Between Dog and Wolf: Reprise”, might just be the closest we’ll ever come to hearing echoes of what that collaboration between Stravinsky and Parker could have been.

The latest release by pianist and composer Victor Gould, “When Thoughts Become Things, also includes a string quartet, as well as trumpeter Jeremy Pelt (whose powerful 2019 release, The Artist, pays tribute to sculptor Auguste Rodin). The title cut that opens the album sways back and forth between strings and piano, without staking a claim to preference. Likewise, the piano solo-track, “Brand New” finds Gould in a contemplative mood that carries through in his piano/trumpet duet with Pelt on the classic jazz number, “Polkadots and Moonbeams”. This is a thoughtful and contemplative sounding collection.

 

Finally, Meg Okura’s 2018 release, Ima Ima, featuring the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble may offer the most curious blend of jazz and classical sensibilities. With help from another Jazz-Notes favorite, trumpet player Tom Harrell (whose 2015 release, First Impressions, includes compositions by Debussy and Ravel) Okura creates a wide-ranging sonic spectrum full of interesting sounds. In fact, the musical flourishes that appear around the edges of the music create atmospheres as varied as theatrical soundtracks, angelic choirs, classical chamber music, and straight-ahead jazz – and all this just in the song “A Summer in Jerusalem.” Even after repeated listens it feels like I hear something new every time Okura’s music plays.

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Jazz

Does it taste like jazz or classical?

Jazz vs. Classical

In a room full of people, are you part of a gang or alone in a crowd? The distinction between jazz and classical musicians, players, and composers, to their respective tasks, offer up an interesting question. The jazz musician has to adapt his playing to the boys-in-the-band, and usually on the fly, while the classical musician stays on task no matter what happens around him. Is there a musically definable middle ground?

Jazz and Classical - John ColtraneWith jazz, the focus is more often on what the player brings to a composition (consider old warhorses like Basin Street Blues, CherokeeBody and Soul). Do you prefer Lester Young or John Coltrane, Chet Baker or Miles Davis? Sometimes it doesn’t even sound like the same song as musicians apply their personal touch to a tune. The acknowledged jazz greats known for their orchestral compositions and arrangements, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones come easily to mind, specifically describe thinking about particular players when writing or arranging for large ensembles. Consider Ellington and Hodges or Jones and Sinatra.

Jazz and Classical - BOPSIt seems to work differently within classical music circles.  Rarely do individual players achieve notoriety, such as Goldberg playing Bach or Yo-Yo Ma on cello. A specific orchestra like the London Philharmonic or Boston Pops (aka, the Boston Symphony Orchestra) is more likely referenced when discussing a classical performance than their famous conductors, let alone the first chair violin by name. For example, we tend to think of Mozart’s music in relation to the instruments (Flute Concerto #2 in D), but rarely associate that same composition with a particular musician.

An Intro to Classical Music from a Jazz Enthusiast’s Perspective

Jan Swafford’s terrific new book, Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music inspired me to create a playlist of exceptional classical music. The first surprise was how much of the music Swafford recommended was already in my collection. Recordings by David Munrow with the Early Music Consort of London and the Goldberg Variations on Bach had been, regrettably, gathering dust. Conversely, lots of music by Mozart and Stravinsky are in regular rotation on my daily soundtrack. The complete Beethoven symphonies, well, not so much.

Going in chronological order, I added works by Berlioz, Ravel, and Bartok. Not among the music mentioned by Swafford that made my list is a personal favorite, Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (context is important to fully appreciate this work, composed in a Nazi death camp, so check out this link). Finally, though Swafford probably wouldn’t approve, I finished out my seven-hour survey of classical music with some Phillip Glass, the Saxophone Quartet Concerto  all movements. This playlist is an absolute delight to play, especially for friends not expecting classical music from a jazz enthusiast; and also another example of the intersection between elements of jazz and classical music.

So classical music was much on my mind as I recently watched an interview with Dizzy Gillespie from 1990 (during a made for TV documentary by Norwegian Jan Horne, To Bop or Not to Be: A Jazz Life).

A curious segue was provided by trumpeter Red Rodney as he explained why hard bop is the hardest form of jazz to play well (cut to Gillespie), “Because you got to think all the time.” Gillespie went on to observe that, “Classical musicians just play that (points to a sheet of music), period. No added notes, no nothing else.”

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