Scena Jazz: Changing musics / When Classics meet Jazz

December 3, 2010
Matt Haimovitz and Uccello

Matt Haimovitz and Uccello

Back in the Roaring Twenties, Paul Whiteman wanted to make a decent lady out of jazz by introducing what would go down into history as Symphonic Jazz. Replete with lavish arrangements and a couple of hot soloists to spike the mix, the music came across as something of a shotgun wedding. For better or for worse, a precedent was set and Meeting of the Spiritson it a whole series of encounters between these rather unlikely mates were spawned. In the Swing Era, ‘jazzin’ the classics’ was another noble attempt to make dance numbers out of repertory pieces, then there were big bands bolstered by string sections consigned to schmaltzy backgrounds. After the war years, there were the soothing timbres of cool jazz, spearheaded by the likes of Dave Brubeck and Gil Evans whose larger ensembles were largely inspired by the forms and timbral possibilities of chamber music. In the 1950s there was the whole Third Stream movement that came and went, falling short of its goals for lack of understanding between musicians of both camps. In Europe, starting in the 70s, more sophisticated compositional strategies were devised, most of which were removed from the jazz language, although the scores had ‘holes’ in them, allowing for improvisations in a more free form manner. All told then, jazz musicians have been the prime drivers of such meetings whereas their classical counterparts were basically hired to just play the charts and pick up their checks. But times are different now. Though Stravinski’s Ebony Concerto stood for a long time as an isolated example of a classical composer writing for a jazz ensemble (albeit at the behest of a jazz musician, Woody Herman), the rapprochement of classical musicians to the jazz world is more commonplace now. (Please refer to the article in the current Scena Musicale issue for some examples, article in French with English version to follow soon, see here and flip to page 45).

More evidence of this was seen first hand during an ambitious multi-part concert held at McGill University on November 23. Arriving late, this reviewer missed the opening two numbers performed by Mark Fewer on baroque violin and Hank Knox on harpsichord, strictly classical works by 17th Century composer Giovanni Pandolfi. No sooner in my seat than the members of Uccello took to the stage, eight cellists (count em!) in all spearheaded by their dynamic leader Matt Haimovitz. They proceeded to play, in varying numbers, four of the pieces of this ensembles brand new recording Meeting the Spirits (Oxingale Records, an album just freshly nominated for a Grammy in the Crossover category). In successive order, the group tackled Miles Davis’s original version of Half Nelson, leaped forward to John McLaughlin’s Open Country Joy, then back to Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count and concluded with Mingus’s ballsy Haitian Fight Song, complete with the Master’s pizz intro and a faithful playing of the Booker Ervin Solo by Haimovitz himself. Not on stage, but certainly instrumental in the proceedings was David Sanford, a composer and big band leader on the American East Coast who did all the transcriptions and re-arrangements for the group.

We all well know how classical musicians stumble on that elusive rhythmical concept of jazz called ‘swing’, the main cause for the failure of countless marriage attempts. But, once again, times they have changed. While there was no improvisation at all heard in this set, there are three improvisers present on the recording, pianist Jan Jarczyk, whose daughter Amaryllis is part of the group, drummer Matt Wilson and no less than guitar hero John McLaughlin with an overdubbed solo on another number of his—Open Country Joy—not played that night. In spite of that absence of jazz soloing, it was still quite impressive to hear all those cellists actually swing and drive the music along in the second and last piece (kudos to Dominic Painchaud for getting down Mingus’s intro, the result of tuning down his strings to get closer to the Master’s earthier sound.) In contrast, the first and third numbers were more subdued in tone, the aforementioned Blood Count played in a heart rendering way, and topped off with a suave Johnny Hodges solo. Obviously, these musicians worked quite hard at getting their parts down, but more importantly in giving it the right feel. Now having done that, the next, we hope, is to get to the next level, i.e. to cut loose from the paper from time to time and just go for it.

Like the opening ‘classical’ warm up act, there followed a similar ‘jazz’ one of two numbers performed by an ad hoc sextet under Kevin Dean’s nominal leadership. As could be expected of him, he dished out two hard bop numbers penned by Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Heath, executing them according to the book, as if stuck in a 1965 timewarp. Déja vu and entendu all over again.

This, of course, was a mere teaser for the pièce de résistance of the evening, an ambitious four-movement work composed by BC saxophonist and pianist Phil Dwyer. Inspired by Vivaldi’s masterwork The Four Seasons, this suite, renamed Changing Seasons, avoided the usual pitfall of cloaking the original in jazz frocks. Although he respected the same seasonal sequence (Spring to Winter), Dwyer used the keys and tonal centers of the originals to build his own orchestral piece scored for a 16-piece big band, 14 strings and a main soloist, violinist Mark Fewer. Throughout its 35 minute duration, Fewer performed the main themes, often backed by the strings, and was called to improvise on occasion, though it was difficult to say if his ad libs had been worked out beforehand. Of the remaining musicians, only tenorman Chet Doxas, trumpeter Kevin Dean and the composer (on piano) had solo spots, brief as they were. As far as execution was concerned, it was faultless to a tee, the ensembles both taught and tight, the conviction never lagging. Yet, if there were one quibble, it may well be the pristing perfection of it all, and jazz, for one, was never meant to be perfect in the first place. As an aside, it’s always interesting to see which of the classical players are digging it when you see a few bobbing their heads along with the beat (could you imagine that in a symphonic setting?…).

Call it ‘jazz meets classics’ or ‘Crossover’ (in spite of its suspiciously pejorative connotation), there’s no denying that the great gap has narrowed over time, enabling classical musicians with enough will and curiosity to take the not-so-quantum leap to other side. This concert was a positive step in that direction, with special thanks to people like Haimovitz and Fewer, especially the latter for his persistence in getting this institution to enable the staging of such initiatives. Today’s classical musicians are different to their predecessors, as they are not as prone to wear the blinkers of yore (how could they in this age of iPods and ubiquitous access to all musics…). Now, if only the audience at large would shed their own…

By Marc Chénard

View article at Scena Jazz

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