Jazz and classical: It takes the right touch
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” “Blue Notes,” Aspen Music Festival’s theme for this year, celebrates the mutual influences of jazz and classical music. This hits close to home for me, as these are my two favorite forms of music. When I was a music major in the 1960s, my junior composition project was a concerto for jazz trio and orchestra. So I know from personal experience how seductive the fusion of these two idioms can be, and how difficult it is to pull off.
Today, most jazz and classical musicians admire and respect each other, but that took a while to evolve. Composers who wrote for symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles and opera singers, which we commonly refer to as ” classical” music, tried to imitate the syncopation and the chord structures. They used saxophones and drum kits. The novelty tickled some classical music listeners, but to ears familiar with real jazz a lot of it rang false.
Perhaps George Gershwin achieved the most perfect synthesis of jazz and classical traditions with “An American in Paris” (which was performed here June 27) and “Rhapsody in Blue” (July 14). Gershwin showed how it could be done. Give the jazzy stuff to the winds and percussion, but keep it fairly straight for the strings. Other classical composers strayed from Gershwin’s approach at their peril.
Gershwin aside, the early adopters of jazz among classical composers succeeded best when they didn’t try to make symphonic musicians try to swing. Ravel used jazz elements most effectively in slow movements to his Piano Concerto in G and the violin sonata. He let the shape of jazz melodies and the harmonies that go with them filter into his own style organically, rather than trying to graft on rhythms better left to Louis Armstrong or “Kid” Ory. The jazz elements feel like just the right thing to express what the composer wanted.
Composers on the jazz side of the fence liked the dense chords and soft dissonances of Ravel, Debussy and Satie, and they incorporated them into their music. Later, the harsher dissonances of the modernists emboldened avant- garde jazz artists toward ever more complex and harsh-sounding music.
One thing mainstream jazz got from classical music was its long forms. Prior to the 1920s and 1930s, when Duke Ellington started writing extended rhapsodies, tone poems and suites, virtually all jazz was basically a sort of theme and variations. Play the tune, improvise new melodies on the chord structure, and finish by playing the tune again. Improvisation and the satisfaction of a return to the original tune are at the essence of jazz. That holds true to this day.
Ellington developed his musical ideas into more complex forms, as in his “Black and Tan Fantasy” and such outsized suites such as “Black, Brown and Beige.” He also made a wonderfully witty arrangement for his band of music from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet, an early example of how jazz musicians could make classical music swing.
Outdoing Ellington, trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis wrote several big pieces in recent years, including the extraordinary “Blood on the Fields” (1997), a virtual jazz oratorio three hours long. Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, in collaboration with drummer Yacub Addy and his Odaada! ensemble, brought the evening-long “Congo Square” to Aspen on June 26, adding vernacular African music to the mix.
All these big works from the jazz side embraced and celebrated improvisation, something the classical side almost uni-versally shunned. In a 1998 performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” here in Aspen, the jazz pianist Marcus Roberts played Gershwin’s music as if it were real jazz and extended the cadenzas into fullscale jazz solos. That was impressive. And rare.
In the 1960s, familiar pieces from the world of classical music got jazz treatments that are worthy of study for what it takes to make the two genres mesh effectively.
The most famous of these, and arguably the best, is “Sketches of Spain.”
Gil Evans wrote arrangements of music by Rodrigo and de Falla and several pieces of his own in the same vein. Miles Davis played trumpet, mostly muted and incredibly soulful, against Evans’ evoca-tive music. He used a big orchestra unusual for jazz in that it included French horns, oboes, harp and tuba.
The most memorable track, “Concier-to de Aranjuez,” faithfully renders the Adagio from Rodrigo’s familiar guitar concerto. Evans makes the harmonies more complex, more jazzy, than Rodrigo’s, and the musicians play the slow, sensuous music with jazz sensibilities.
Davis’ solos are heartbreaking. “Aranjuez” stands as a jazz classic, so much so that Chick Corea used an extended version of the main tune as an introduction to “Spain,” one of his most popular jazz compositions.
For me, the Rosetta stone for jazz and classical music is The Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra (1965). Evans was a classically trained pianist with for-midable technique, which he put in service of music of astonishing depth, not flash. Composer arranger Claus Ogerman, who is still with us, writes and per-forms original works that marry jazz and classical music for the concert hall. He has a long list of credits, including arrangements for the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Diana Krall.
On the 1965 album with Evans, Ogerman created an amalgam that works without compromising either aesthetic.
He used a full symphony orchestra for gorgeous arrangements of music by Faure, Granados, Scriabin and Bach, plus some mesmerizing pieces by the pianist.
Ogerman’s modus operandi takes its cue from Gershwin ” let the classical musicians play in their idiom and the jazz musicians in theirs.
It’s the composer’s responsibility to make it mesh. Claude Bolling learned that lesson well, which is why he achieved popularity with his suites for flutist JeanPierre Rampal, cellist YoYo Ma and violinist Pinchas Zuckerman, among others. Bolling’s music relies on the jazz players to swing, the classical musicians to provide technical fireworks.
Too many classical composers don’t understand that it’s the rare classical musician who can really swing in jazz. It requires a different sense of timing and emphasis. In general, jazz artists can exe-cute classical music well enough, although few do it with the precision and deftness of those who make it their life’s work. The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the clarinetist David Stoltzman (and before him, Benny Goodman) and the pianist Keith Jarrett are among the few soloists that have scored successes in both worlds.
It’s the rare violinist who can swing.
Lev Polyakin, heard here last year, may be the best of today’s jazz fiddle players, but he can also play Prokofiev and Bach.
Generally, percussionists, brass players and bassists handle jazz better than other string players and most woodwinds.
We have already seen some stark examples in this year’s festival performances. In recent weeks, in terms of articulating the jazz idiom, the best efforts of the artist faculty and students in jazz-inflected music by Antheil, Ives, Mackey, Hartke and Milhaud paled in comparison to those of true jazz-steeped musicians such as the amazing bassists Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer or the Argentinian pianist Pablo Ziegler and bandeon player Hector del Curto.
Over the years, some jazz artists have managed to invade the concert hall and get their works performed by symphony orchestras or chamber ensembles. Dave Brubeck and Lalo Schifrin are two examples. Brubeck has written oratorios, Masses, ballets and an opera based on Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.” Schifrin, who worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and other jazz giants as a pianist and arranger, wrote more than 100 film and TV scores, including the “Mission: Impossible” theme. He also wrote a guitar concerto and other modern classical works, and conducted symphony orchestras around the world.
Of all the classical composers who have adopted some jazz elements into their works, the ones least likely to make jazz musicians cringe were Ravel, Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. Gershwin and Bernstein wrote Broadway musicals with jazz elements that fit seamlessly, and concert works that absorbed the sound and feel of jazz. As a composer, Bernstein threw everything he knew into his music. “West Side Story” is part Puccini, part jazz and part Latin music, yet all Bernstein.
“Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” fits jazz into classical forms and requires real jazz technique to pull off.
In a way, the same dynamic prevails in the classical world. Some pianists play Chopin beautifully while others can’t capture the magic no matter how hard they try. It takes the right match between composer and performer.
For all the jazz percolating through this year’s festival, we still get only a glimpse into the niches and corners where these musical spheres overlap. It’s a fertile area for further exploration.
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