JAZZ, LOST AND FOUND
By Scott MacClelland
DUKE ELLINGTON famously penned, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” He might as well have been talking about JS Bach. The bottom-line essence of swing comes from the individual musicians when they are entrusted to ‘interpret’ their part. Ellington’s fastidious charts always made those accommodations to his players. (I was reminded of this when I attended a Monterey Jazz Festival rehearsal last month by the MJF Next Generation Orchestra under Paul Contos; unlike a classical rehearsal, where the conductor dictates his/her interpretation—more or less—Contos continually engaged his musicians interactively, inviting their ideas and allowing them to modify the outcome.)
Instrumental music by Bach was as much a players’ art—if not more so—than a composers’. That ‘swing’ spirit only came back into so-called ‘Western’ music after the Classical and Romantic eras, from the latter 18th century to the early 20th century, when American jazz—tentative at first with Scott Joplin—began to challenge European ‘classical’ music and, ultimately, turn it on its head. Or, more properly said, to draw a line in the sand that put the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong on the far side. The truce between composed and improvised music remains uneasy to this day.
In a way, the Ensemble Monterey concert at Cypress Community Church in Corral de Tierra underscored that unease. Sure, American jazz inspired Darius Milhaud’s La Création du Monde (The Creation of the World) in 1923, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera in 1928. But this composed music didn’t really uncuff the individual players to the extent Ellington’s composed music did (as evidenced by his own recordings.) Conductor John Anderson leaned in favor of the composed music rather than toward the individual musicians, which, in any event, is altogether valid. Improvisation here is only suggested. None of this music plays itself; it needs a guiding hand.
Anderson’s band consisted of winds (including saxophones), brass, percussion, banjo and guitar, and orchestral piano in the opening suite from Threepenny Opera. (A quartet of strings joined in for the Milhaud and Gershwin.) Gary Bolen, late of the Monterey Peninsula College Theatre Dept., provided a narrative thread to the Weill excerpts, and even sang a verse from “Mack the Knife.” This is all jazz-inflected German cabaret music that could have benefited from more of Weill’s sarcasm in the execution.
The Milhaud is a minor miracle, a creation story—the birth of jazz perhaps?—where the jazz influence feels more organic. Milhaud had heard jazz in New York in 1922 and somehow managed to bring the strident and the subtle (in orchestral coloration) into perfect balance. Moreover, it packs its protean moods and ideas into a tidy 16 minutes. At intermission, many of the musicians, including Paul Contos, raved glowingly about it.
As Paul Whiteman saved the Gershwin for last during his 1924 concert titled An Experiment in Modern Music—which included “Yes! We Have No Bananas” and “Kitten on the Keys”—Anderson saved it for last on his program. Solo pianist Lucy Faridany (pictured) gave the performance its delicious focal point. The piece has a coherency that seems unlikely given its multitude of ideas that tumble forth impulsively. Like Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, it looks forward and backward at the same time. (From his Baroque vantage, Bach not only saw the emergence of the Classical style, but far outran its pioneers.) Under the pressure of time, Whiteman engaged Ferde Grofé to orchestrate his pit orchestra for the premiere. You can’t not hear Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite all over the arrangement, not to mention the subsequent full-orchestra version. For the audience, not surprisingly, this was the Big Hit of the evening and a standing ovation was offered.
On the original point, the blind American jazz pianist Marcus Roberts took the original Gershwin—lasting under 20 minutes—and expanded on it improvisationally to nearly half an hour. His version delivers the best of both worlds; his recording for Sony, 21 years ago, remains a tour de force for any collector.