American Record Guide
November 1, 2008

This fascinating recording is a window into one of the most underreported cultural stories of our time: the decisive effect of jazz on 20th Century classical music - greater in the long run, as Constant Lambert predicted in the 1930s, than the influence of serialism or neoclassicism. Written in the late 50s and early 60s for symphony orchestra and jazz ensembles, these rather austere but vital works by Gunther Schuller come in the middle of a phenomenon that began with Gottschalk and continues with Golijov. In his notes to this handsome production, Schuller reminds us that hundreds of classically trained composers experimented with jazz in the early years of the 20th Century; then the project was “abandoned rather abruptly in the early 30s” until “third stream” fusions (Schuller’s own term) resurrected the genre 20 years later, benefitting from greater swing from the classical side and a more widespread ability to read music from jazzmen.

Actually, jazz-tinted classical was not completely “abandoned” in the 30s: Lambert, Walton, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Britten, Bartok, Arnold, and others continued to experiment with swing, cabaret, and other jazz spin-offs. It is certainly true that Schuller and his colleagues, especially Stefan Wolpe, gave the form a fresh shot in the arm. Be-bop was in the saddle by the 50s, and its harmonic astringency fit well with - indeed, was often inspired by - symphonic modernists like Schuller.

The first time I heard Variants and Concertino, both for jazz quartet and orchestra, I was turned off. Schuller’s idiom seemed too cerebral for jazz. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for this complex adventure; perhaps the performance was not as atmospheric, eloquent, and well recorded as this one. The 12-tone theme that is the basis of Variants is predictably dour, but the faster variations are lively, dramatic, and inventive; they should very much like the avant-garde jazz of the period. The slow sections, colored by vibraphone and piano riffs, have a sinister, sultry beauty. Journey into Jazz, a dramatic work in the tradition of Peter and the Wolf, (effectively narrated by Schuller himself) is a less dissonant and more lyrical than the purely instrumental pieces.

Ironically, these challenging works, so full of promise, appeared right at the beginning of the jazz world’s crisis. As The New York Times jazz critic Ben Raitliff points out in his new book on John Coltrane, there is currently “no center in jazz, no steady voice in the back of the head.” No one has quite known what to do since Coltrane died five years after Journey into Jazz, leaving behind legions of wounded players and fans. Of course, jazz is not the only rudderless idiom. When Raitliff writes that Coltrane still “sounds like the thing we know as modern jazz, just as Stravinsky sounds like the thing we know as modern classical music,” he implied that classical is also at an impasse. For many, Stravinsky was the last great classical composer, just as Coltrane was the last great jazzman. Both have been dead for 30 years, so what happened to us and where do we go from here?

For symphonic composers, jazz was once the great alternative to the more alienating aspects of modernism. Stravinsky and Ravel embraced it early on, despite predictions from the American classical music intelligentsia that it was merely a passing fad; Kurt Weill stated that jazz allowed a contemporary composer to draw a large building and still maintain the “intellectual bearing of the serious musician.” With jazz, a composer could be modern and popular at the same time. Jazz made the avant-garde irrelevant

Now jazz has to run against its own avant-garde, and so many blame the modern jazz crowd and their disciples, accusing them of taking post-bop so far beyond comprehensibility that jazz - already declining as a cultural force in the late 50s - lost its huge audience. Since the 50s, symphonic music has also declined as a major force, yet classical, like jazz, keeps outliving its premature obituaries: even in America, major concerts still draw huge crowd. The same is true of concert music inspired by jazz; composers as different as Mackey, Reich, and Golijov are busy experimenting with jazz-classical fusions; the latter in particular is drawing a refreshingly young crowd. To extend Raitliff’s metaphor, there is no steady voice in the back of the head of classical music either, but it’s still intact, wobbly thought it may seem.