Art Lange
November 1, 2008

Gunther Schuller is not merely an award-winning composer, former principal horn of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, retired artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Festival, and member of the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, he also wrote the book on jazz. Two books actually, Early Jazz and The Swing Era (both Oxford University Press), and over a long and acclaimed career he has collaborated with or performed music by such distinctive jazz artists as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, among many others. With such a knowledge of and devotion to both genres of music, it’s only natural that an adventurous and open-minded composer like Schuller would attempt to find ways to dissolve the barriers between them. Alchemists through the ages have been ridiculed, and throughout the 20th century there were countless failed attempts to lightheartedly “jazz up” the classics or inject jazz with a dose of classical formality. But in the 1950’s, Schuller coined the term “Third Stream” to explain his approach—which was to take the strongest components from each and create a third style which could stand apart from them and be recognized for its own unique characteristics. In his wake, many musical sins were committed by people who misused the term, misunderstood the concept, or simply were unable to create something that could stand on its own without distorting or diluting the original elements beyond recognition, and “Third Stream” quickly became the punch line of an unfair joke.

Among the problems that Schuller faced in constructing this new kind of music was a lack of adequate performers—classical instrumentalists who could feel and articulate rhythm in unconventional ways and improvise convincing details in their own parts, as well as jazz musicians who could improvise within unfamiliar harmonic terrain and complex formal designs. Thanks to greater educational opportunities and fewer musical prejudices, several generations of musicians have emerged who are capable of dealing with the expanded techniques and styles that Schuller envisioned, and ironically “Third Stream” music exists today, widely and successfully—just not under that name. For his part, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Schuller was able to find a few exceptional musicians—pianists John Lewis and Bill Evans, saxophonist/flutist Eric Dolphy, clarinetist William O. (Bill) Smith, guitarist Jim Hall, the Contemporary String Quartet, string-players Louis Krasner, Matthew Raimondi, Samuel Rhodes, harpist Gloria Agostini, percussionist Harold Faberman, and others—so that several of his scores received adequate documentation. (The best may be found on Jazz Abstractions, currently available on the Collectables label.)

Which brings us to this unexpected new release by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. It’s arguable that Schuller’s most successful “Third Stream” music is of the chamber variety, since the interplay of varied elements is easier to follow, and small ensemble intimacy has an inherent charm regardless of the language being spoken. These three orchestral works nevertheless show Schuller to be a skillful and modest composer when working with larger forces—he orchestrates with a light hand, never overwhelming the concertante improvising soloists, nor exploding into neo-Kenton bombast. Variants for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1960), especially, is a quickly compelling score. Composed for the New York City Ballet, its dance impulses range from finger-snapping Bernstein-like angular rhythms to floating atmospheric and characteristic swing episodes, based upon a 12-tone theme devised to emphasize its jazzy “blue” notes. The classical orchestra’s scene setting and commentary offer an engaging environment for the jazz quartet’s non-threatening solos, and the music is never exaggerated in either direction.

The three-movement Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959) puts more weight on the improvised solo component, increasing its responsibility for establishing form and impacting a greater tonal contrast between the orchestra and the quartet. The first movement alternates between contemplative moods and swing-induced activity, the second movement is an unusual 13-bar blues using a passacaglia to build from walking bass line to full orchestra chorus by chorus, and the finale (beginning with a brief quote from or paraphrase of Bartók) is a gradual accelerando of solos with orchestral interjections. As with Variants, conductor Rose, the BMOP, and soloists are faithful to Schuller’s intentions; however, I have two minor reservations here. The first is that the jazz quartet is mixed into the orchestral sound, rather than standing out from it; given the prominence of the jazz element here, I would have appreciated more solo presence. The second is that, though made up of qualified and respected musicians, the quartet here doesn’t quite reach the inspiration level of the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet—pianist John Lewis, vibist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay—who famously recorded this work for Atlantic in 1961 (again, now available on Collectibles) and whose improvised material fits more convincingly into the ingenious harmonic fabric Schuller provided.

It’s certainly worth obtaining this disc for these two performances alone, which is fortunate, as the third is a much less effective piece. Targeting, I suppose, Pops and kid’s concerts, Journey into Jazz (1962) offers a text by noted jazz and social critic Nat Hentoff that explains the lessons of jazz’s unique style, individual emotion, and democratic interaction via a story chronicling one young man’s experiences. But the musical accompaniment to Schuller’s own pleasant narration does not reinforce the message with enough playfulness or punch. Though he carefully avoids “mickey-mousing” the music—that is, creating an overly-literal illustration of details and events in the text—Schuller never allows it to sing its own song for very long, thus depriving the listener of the same feelings of discovery, surprise, and excitement that the trumpet-playing protagonist, Eddy Jackson, has.

Nevertheless, it’s a delight to see attention paid to these long neglected, historic, and, for the most part, entertaining scores, and I hope the BMOP has more Schuller on its agenda.