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JAZZ | Spotlight

New Settings for Classical Works

Music by J.S. Bach and members of the French school gets updated.

October 08, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

What's with the rush of recordings by jazz artists having their way with the classical music repertoire?

The line between the two genres has always been tenuous, of course, even at times transparent. In the early jazz years, the energy often flowed in the other direction, with composers such as Ravel, Copland and, especially, Gershwin receiving inspiration from jazz.

Then there was the oddly out of joint era in which some jazz artists found an air of respectability by performing with classical backing--an orchestra preferably, but a string quartet would do in a pinch--or concertizing at such "serious" music sanctuaries as Carnegie Hall. More recently, a few jazz artists--Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett come prominently to mind--have left their jazz chops behind for unadulterated versions of classical concertos.

Some of the recordings arriving this month take a different tack, using classical works--and not always the most familiar repertoire--as the fundamental substance for jazz interpretations.

Uri Caine Ensemble. "The Goldberg Variations" (****, Winter & Winter). Caine, who has been examining 19th century classical music--Mahler, Wagner, Schumann--in recent albums, does a 180-degree turn for this collection, a stunningly adventurous, two-CD exploration of the J.S. Bach "Goldberg" Variations. The result is an innovative, consciousness-expanding take on Bach's cornerstone work. The set actually includes 70 variations (well beyond Bach's original 30) for a variety of ensembles in renderings "adapted, arranged and composed by Uri Caine after Johann Sebastian Bach." The surprises come one after the other, with interstitial forays into ragtime, bop, free jazz, New Orleans, etc., as well as strikingly different perspectives on the essential variations themselves. Glenn Gould's '50s rendering of the "Goldberg" Variations was a stunning example of musical illumination. Caine has now provided another, via a recording that will take repeated hearings to experience its richly layered depths.

Daniel Schnyder. "Words Within Music" (*** 1/2, Enja). The most familiar jazz name in this unusual trio is that of pianist Kenny Drew Jr. The wildly eclectic bass trombonist David Taylor is also present, with the nominal leadership going to Schnyder, a composer and woodwind artist. The group, together since 1996, specializes in aesthetically new interpretations of a wide array of repertoire. For this program, the primary emphasis is on J.S. Bach and Schnyder's own works. The contrast is striking: the precise harmonies and sweeping themes of Bach, and the highly atmospheric, even programmatic pieces of Schnyder. But the results are never less than compelling, especially in a set of themes from the Bach St. Matthew Passion. And Taylor's trombone--an irresistibly personal voice--is a consistent highlight. An intriguing interface of jazz and classical elements.

Lee Konitz and the Axis String Quartet. "Play French Impressionist Music From the 20th Century" (***, Palmetto Records). It's a good idea, positioning Konitz's alto saxophone--which has always had a tonal focus similar to that of the French school approach to the instrument--in a collection of works by Debussy, Ravel, Faure and Satie. The quartet arrangements, by Ohad Talmor, are spare but effective, occasionally--as on Ravel's "Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Faure," for example--urging Konitz into unfamiliar territory. Others play to the inherent lyricism in his style, which emerges with a gorgeous blend of jazz-tinged phrasing and richly emotional tone in pieces such as the Debussy "Reverie" and "Valse Romantique." A superb combination of the right player, the right accompaniment and the right music--one in which jazz and classical categorization becomes irrelevant.

Jacques Loussier Trio. "Plays Debussy" (***, Telarc Jazz). French pianist Loussier has been mining the classical repertoire since the first recording in his "Play Bach" series in 1959. More recently, he has turned to Vivaldi, Satie and Ravel, so the choice of Debussy is not surprising. Typically, Loussier has chosen familiar material--"Clair de lune," "Reverie," "Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune," etc. But he also has modified the crisp, percussive touch employed in his Baroque recordings, replacing it with a much more sensitive approach to tone and accent. The results are generally attractive--more so in the floating, Impressionistic harmonies of pieces such as "Prelude," less so in the busier, more harmonically dense "L'isle joyeuse." Best of all, as in most of Loussier's outings, there is his capacity to make seamless transitions from written material into smoothly swinging improvisations. Lightweight, at times, but always listenable.

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