August 1, 2008

Arnie the Hep-Cat. Gunther Schuller became a working musician at the young age of 16, picking up professional gigs as a horn player in New York. By the time he turned 18, he was principal horn of the Cincinnati Orchestra under Goossens. By 20, he had joined the horn section of the Met Orchestra. He also became a busy studio musician. Perhaps his most famous dates came to him as a player in the Gil Evans-Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions. In addition, he had a scholarly turn of mind and wrote two of the finest studies of jazz, Early Jazz and The Swing Era, both of which remain unsurpassed.

But Schuller had the fire to compose as well. He became acquainted with Schoenberg’s dodecaphony, typically through friends rather than through the academy, and managed to come up with a personal accommodation of it. For some of his works, he tried to merge his deep interest in jazz with his other music, and while a small part of his output, these scores include some of his most often-played. Jazz and classical music had remained largely separate. Classical composers had used jazz as they used gamelan music—mainly as a seasoning of exotica on a music essentially tied to the European tradition. Jazz composers stuck to jazz forms—in classical terms, mainly variation. Classical composers couldn’t seem to incorporate improvisation into their scores. After World War II, this began to change. For one thing, jazz musicians began to come up with considerable classical training (Miles Davis attended Julliard, for example). American classical musicians from childhood lived with the sounds of jazz all around them. They at least knew what swinging was when they heard it. A new kind of jazz composer and arranger began to appear: Eddie Sauter, Nelson Riddle, Mel Powell, Gil Evans, Stan Kenton, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and many, many others, including, of course, Duke Ellington, for many the new source and role model of the movement. Schuller called the movement “The Third Stream” (a term he coined in 1957)—something neither European classical nor straight American jazz, but influenced by both. Actually, I strongly suspect Schuller of wanting not a third stream, but an expansion of classical-music resources, if I judge by the pieces he himself composed.

This CD brings together three of Schuller’s “third stream” pieces. The least of them, Journey into Jazz, is a kind of Peter and the Wolf, with a narrator, jazz quintet, and orchestra trying to tell children what jazz is. The text by Nat Hentoff is negligible, and the music neither really comes together as music, nor, as in the Prokofiev, has great tunes. However, unlike many classical composers (even those who like jazz), Schuller actually has a practical knowledge of what jazz is and how to get classical players to come close to the real thing -- no mean feat. Nevertheless, the other two pieces interest me far more.

Schuller composed the Variants for George Balanchine’s ballet company. This is a faux-jazz piece, due mainly to the circumstances of the commission. Balanchine felt he couldn’t work with improvisation, so Schuller wrote out passages that sounded like improvisation, much as Leonard Bernstein did in his classic Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs. Schuller bases the Variants on a twelve-tone row, which a listener acquainted with, say, Richard Strauss, can follow easily enough. The sound of the piece interests me the most. I’d say a majority of classical pieces that employ jazz take the jazz of the Twenties as their starting point. A few -- like Bernstein and Rolf Liebermann -- evoke Thirties swing, often as an exercise in nostalgia. Schuller is the earliest non-jazz guy I’ve heard who actually took post-bop as his start, the jazz of his own time. The Modern Jazz Quartet (John Lewis on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, Percy Heath on bass, and drummer Connie Kay) provided the combo for the premiere, and this dictated Schuller’s instrumentation to a large extent. In a sense, Variants wasted the jazz talent since they were, at bottom, simply playing a chart. Still, Schuller does a fine job giving you the feeling of relatively modern improvisation.

Also written for the Modern Jazz Quartet, the three-movement Concertino allows the combo to improvise, although the orchestra gets to work from parts completely written out. The orchestra must handle Schuller’s sophisticated jazz rhythms, while the combo must pay attention to the orchestra and ideally build their improvisations from what the orchestra provides. For me, this piece exemplifies Schuller’s Third Stream. The opening movement saunters in a kind of walking tempo, but within an unusual 5/4 time. The second movement, “Passacaglia,” turns out to be based on blues, but a blues of thirteen bars (Schuller throws in an extra bar). Neither one of these eccentricities cause all that many problems for the listener, although they may give the players fits. They both sound like the most natural thing in the world and very much in the spirit of the MJQ itself. The finale calls for the combo’s virtuosity -- starting slowly and speeding up nearly imperceptibly to bat-out-of-hell tempo -- blowing away while again taking the orchestral material into account. I’d have loved to have heard the Modern Jazz Quartet do this. Again, the polyphonically musical give-and-take sounds exactly like them.

I’ve heard the BMOP and Gil Rose before in John Harbison’s ballet, Ulysses, a very different kind of music -- quite Stravinskian, in fact. Here, they manage to give a great imitation of a high-end jazz orchestra, no easy job. They handle the rhythms crisply and manage to both swing and keep tight. A superior recording.

S.G.S. (August 2008)