Percussionist Haas brings home the jazz |

Percussionist Haas brings home the jazz

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN When the Aspen Music Festival spread the word that the theme for this summer’s festival would be jazz’s influence on classical music, Jonathan Haas didn’t need to do much to prepare.”My reaction was, ‘I have 20 ideas. You tell me, of the 20, which three you want,'” said Haas.During his 22 years as a member of the percussion faculty at the Music Festival, Haas has been throwing cross-cultural elements into the festival’s diet of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. The annual concert by the Aspen Percussion Ensemble, which Haas directs, has been the repository for pieces that lean toward jazz – and rock, Latin, Asian, avant-garde and more. A favorite of Haas’ is the 20th century American composer Francesco “Frank” Zappa, and Zappa’s compositions have made regular appearances on the Percussion Ensemble’s program.There is no Zappa in this year’s concert, set for Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Harris Hall. But there are works by Bernstein, Antheil and Philip Glass. But probably Haas’ most highly anticipated piece on the program is one by another forward-thinking, 20th-century American composer: Duke Ellington.

In the early ’90s, Haas was given the charts to a little-known Ellington piece, “Malletoba Spank,” by Ruth Ellington Boatwright, the composer’s sister. The piece has been recorded for the 1959 album “Jazz Party,” and then put on the shelf, never to be performed by Ellington. Boatwright offered the charts to Haas in the hopes that he would revive it.”She said, ‘Someday, make these come alive,'” said Haas, adding that Boatwright gave him another Ellington composition, “Tymperturbably Blue.” (That piece was also originally scheduled for tonight’s concert, but has been replaced.) “They haven’t been played since the recording. So when the Music Festival said we have this jazz theme, I said let’s take ‘Malletoba Spank’ and turn it into a percussion piece. We’ll get an arranger and bring it back to life.”In fact, the piece already had a heavy percussion element. Ellington had written “Malletoba Spank” for his orchestra and the percussion section of the New York Philharmonic. James Orlick, a 27-year-old student of Haas’ at New York University, also has arranged Glass pieces for percussion.”So this is really exciting,” said Haas, whose earliest inspiration, which he heard as a kid in ’60s Chicago, was Cream’s “White Room,” a rock classic that opens with Ginger Baker’s memorable timpani rolls. “I’ve had the piece sitting there, without an occasion to pull it out.”Alongside Ellington’s underplayed piece is a work that will likely be familiar to concertgoers from a certain era. “Big Noise From Winnetka,” according to Haas, became the first million-selling record in music history, in the 1940s. “Anybody who remembers the swing era – this was the piece of all pieces,” he said.

Haas’ arrangement is of a different piece than the original. Bob Haggart wrote “Big Noise From Winnetka” for drum set and double bass, with the drummer playing some parts by hitting the bass strings with his sticks. Haas’ version has four musicians – all percussionists – conceived as a duel between two teams on timpani and drum set.”I fired the bass player and hired myself as timpanist,” he said. “So now the drum player comes and plays the timpani with his drum sticks. It’s in the style of the drum battles between Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich.”Antheil’s “Ballet mécanique” is another work Haas has resurrected. It was originally written to be performed with a film by Dada artist Man Ray. Because of technical limitations, the music – played on 20 pianolas – and the film could not be synched. Anna Kepe, an associate of Haas’, discovered the work of Russian animator Alex Budovsky at the Tribeca Film Festival, and received permission to use five of his films as an accompaniment to Antheil’s piece.”It’s a perfect fit,” said Haas, who has arranged the work for four pianos and eight percussions, plus doorbells and airplane propellors. “It’s got jazz themes – birds playing saxophones, monkeys that play the drums.”The arrangement of Bernstein’s “Halil” that will be heard tonight is a twist of fate. Haas had ordered the version Bernstein composed for percussion and flute only; the publisher mistakenly sent parts for full orchestra. That got Haas thinking bigger: “I said, I’m at the Aspen Music Festival. I can get a harp and a piccolo and an alto flute,” he said.

“Halil” – the Hebrew word for flute – was written for an Israeli flutist and soldier who was killed in 1973 in the Sinai. Playing flute on the piece is Nadine Asin, a longtime member of the flute faculty in Aspen.Haas also will pay tribute to the 70th birthday of Philip Glass with performances of two segments of the composer’s score for the 1988 film “Powaqqatsi.” The music will be supplemented by the corresponding scenes from the film.”[Director] Godfrey Reggio said, ‘Hey, have a ball. Play my movie,'” said Haas.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is