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Jazz-classical fusion a work in progress

Brad Mehldau and Wynton Marsalis will be joining forces with symphonic musicians at Disney Hall in the latest efforts to wed seemingly incompatible forms.

January 16, 2011|By Richard S. Ginell, Special to the Los Angeles Times

By and large, though, Third Stream music — or whatever you want to call it — has never really been at the vanguard of either jazz or classical music since the 1920s and '30s. There was always something more glamorous, provocative or intimidating in the way — like agitated free jazz and the energy and color of jazz-rock, or serialism and minimalism on the classical end.

Sometimes the fusions leaned too far in one direction or another, avoiding a true union. Other times, the sides managed to strike a good balance, yet one didn't hear any ideas worth listening to more than once — a problem shared by a lot of music old and new.

Nevertheless, jazz and classical musicians still try to work out their differences to this day. It's somewhat easier now, for jazz is an accepted, even respectable resident of academia, and generations of musicians who grew up with records, CDs and MP3s create and play original music that jumps boundaries as naturally as breathing.

Kristjan Jarvi and his Absolute Ensemble's collaboration with Joe Zawinul on his last studio album, "Absolute Zawinul," and Vince Mendoza conducting the Netherlands' Metropole Orchestra and electric guitarist John Scofield on "54" are but two examples of exciting, uninhibitedly executed fusions that were released just last year. And there are little-known treasures from the past awaiting rediscovery — like Rolf Liebermann's Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra, written for Fritz Reiner, the Chicago Symphony and the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra (it's hard to imagine that old taskmaster Reiner bobbing and weaving to the piece's wild atonal mambo finale, but that's what their recording suggests), or Bob Graettinger's strange, still-radical-sounding pieces for Kenton.

Yet if there is any one project that can be called one of the purest expressions of a classical-jazz fusion — where both sides were satisfied — a good choice would be tenor saxophonist Stan Getz's 1961 album "Focus." Here, Eddie Sauter — the same fellow from the above-mentioned Sauter-Finegan Orchestra — composed a suite of seven pieces for string orchestra and had Getz improvise over them whenever he felt like it, without a single written note nor cues to come in. Sauter's inspired writing and Getz's instincts resulted in a scintillating recording that swung, challenged its listeners, and contained plenty of attractive, memorable ideas. This is a worthy goal — and it ain't easy to do.

calendar@latimes.com

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