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Jazz Review

Translation Fails 'Concerto' for Buddy Collette

To honor the musician known for his mastery of wind instruments, composer Fred Katz eschews swing in favor of a classical vocabulary.

May 31, 1999|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The California Institute for the Preservation of Jazz took a risk when it scheduled composer-cellist Fred Katz's "Concerto for Buddy" (dedicated to Buddy Collette) in its four-day program of West Coast jazz on Friday in Newport Beach.

It was hardly recognizable as jazz. The three-movement piece for piano, string quartet, French horn, guitar, bass, drums and soloist--who, as Collette has, played alto saxophone, clarinet, flute and piccolo--had more to do with Bartok, Prokofiev and other 20th century classical composers than with Bird, Dizzy or Miles.

To many in the audience at the Hyatt Newporter's outdoor amphitheater on the second day of Jazz West Coast II, music don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing, and Katz's concerto touched jazz rhythms only at intervals.

Unlike the usual string-quartet-meets-rhythm-section charts, in which violins add romantic accompaniment to jazz standards, Katz's ambitious work is an actual concerto, stemming more from the tradition of rhythmic experiments found in classical music from the first half of the 20th century.

In his introductory remarks and with his subject in the audience, the composer compared Collette's melodic abilities to a string of pearls. What Katz does in the concerto is to take those pearls and give them new settings. Much like Bartok, who took Hungarian folk melodies and turned them into new music, Katz has isolated a line here and there from Collette's jazz writing and framed it with tension in some places, romance in others.

Conducted by Marshall Fulbright, the piece, though competently performed and full of emotional high points, was given a chilly reception on this cool night. While most of the 400 in attendance listened politely, a few remarks about "needing No-Doz" and "this isn't jazz" were muttered, often at a point of musical drama.

While the piece may have been wasted on die-hard jazz fans, there was no doubt about its achievement. Its stunning range of moods and images cast light on the struggles, both musical and personal, of Collette's color-line-breaking early years in the business.

Gary Matsuura, director of jazz studies at Chapman University in Orange, took Collette's role. Matsuura showed fluency and feeling as he played solos on four wind instruments. In the first movement, his alto blended seamlessly with the French horn lines of Stephanie Mijanovich.

In numerous exchanges, Matsuura's alto posed questions and the strings answered as soothing chorus or shrieking harpies. The rhythm section swaggered into a brief swing passage. Guitarist Jeffrey Cogan hit pensive chords against the mallet-on-tom-tom play of drummer Jack LeCompte. The movement began its close dramatically, like a big-band number written by Stravinsky, then faded away.

The second movement, with Matsuura playing clarinet, was more lush and sensual, grand and graceful as guitar and clarinet made for an especially heady mix.

In the final movement, Matsuura went from dancing piccolo to considered flute, bringing a brilliance to the tone of both. When Matsuura began to swing firmly against the rhythm section, his notes came as an affirmation that stood in resolution to the conflict and tension of the first two movements. A string of pearls.

"Concerto for Buddy," received politely here, might have gone over better with a classical crowd that would feel at home with its shifting rhythms, counterpoint and lack of swing. It would be a shame if the work is overlooked by classical audiences because of its jazz ties. It deserves a place in the repertoire of 20th century composition.

After the concerto, things turned back to swing when a quintet paid tribute to drummer Shelly Manne and his Hollywood club, Shelly's Manne Hole. The five musicians, all of whom played with Manne or at his club, quickly enlivened the crowd with an uptempo version of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," featuring sinuous solos from trumpeter Conte Candoli and alto saxophonist Herb Geller.

Vocalist Ruth Price joined the band--including pianist Mike Wofford, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Joe LaBarbera--for a pair of numbers, including a touching "Skylark." The Jazz West Coast II festival was scheduled to continue through Sunday.

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