Fusion all too often means a hybrid that takes the bite out of both genres. Tom Service picks his 10 favourite moments when jazz met classical and the result was inspired rather than insipid
Composers and musicians over the last century have wanted to make the most of everything in the sonic world around them, trying to create something that sounds like a distinctive, single thing rather than that most benighted of phenomena, a “fusion” that sounds like neither one thing nor the other.
In any case, here’s my 10 highlights from something I shall for now call jazzical. Or classijazz…
Gunther Schuller: Variants on a Theme of Thelonius Monk
Schuller’s “Third Stream” was one of the grandest theoretical ideas for the meaningful coming together of jazz and classical. In 1960, for the album Jazz Abtractions, Schuller assembled an amazing lineup – including Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, and Jim Hall, as well as the Contemporary String Quartet – and in his Variants, Schuller makes a scintillating case for how it’s possible for elements of notated composition and improvisation, and everything in between, to push the players in new directions, and to create something that dazzles the imagination, whatever label you want to use for it.
Duke Ellington: Black, Brown and Beige
In 1943, for his first Carnegie Hall concert on 23 January that year, Ellington composed one of his most ambitious pieces, a “jazz symphony” that would be his longest single piece – which he only performed three times in its complete form. It’s a work that Ellington said was a “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America”; as such, its three movements make some of the richest and most radical music he wrote.
Milton Babbitt: All Set
The arch-serialist wrote All Set for jazz ensemble in 1957 and a lineup that included Charles Mingus and Bill Evans; it’s dedicated to Gunther Schuller. The title is a typically Babbittian pun on the “sets” he created from his 12-tone row, and an instruction to the players to get ready for the work-out they’re about to go through. But the result of Babbitt’s serial shenanigans is, I think, bracingly free, alive, and communicative.
Stravinsky: Ebony Concerto
Written for clarinettist Woody Herman in 1945, the Ebony Concerto is, for many jazzophiles, exactly the strait-jacketed solution that you would expect when a classical composer tries to write for jazz ensemble: that’s to say, there isn’t a moment of improvisation in this score, instead a stylistic exploration of what Stravinsky could do with a jazz band. But that’s why it’s so fascinating: it might only be Stravinsky’s impression of “jazz”, but as with everything that passed through his compositional filter, it comes out sounding as definitive Stravinsky.
Uri Caine: Gustav Mahler in Toblach (live)
Uri Caine has arguably made more creative use of the possibilities of reflecting classical repertoires through a jazz and experimental idiom than any other musician. His way with Mahler, as you can hear in his compositional and expressive explosion of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, restores some of the rawness and emotional power to a piece that has become, if anything, too familiar in a straight classical context.
Jacques Loussier: Bach’s D minor piano concerto
Loussier’s Bach is the opposite of the easy listening that you might think it to be. This is one of my favourite recordings of his, a version of Bach’s D minor piano concerto in which Loussier takes the harmonic and rhythmic implications of Bach’s original to a darkly dazzling extreme. Listen to the expressive black hole Loussier and his bassist and drummer find towards the end of the first movement: it took Loussier’s trio to find it!
Robert Levin: Mozart improvisation
But you don’t have to go to the jazzers to find great improvisation in classical music: it was there all the time, and one way of thinking about all of the notes that Mozart and Beethoven, say, left to us, especially in their piano music, is as the tip of an iceberg of extemporisation and experimentation. You need to be completely versed in the idiom to make your own contribution to their music and that language today – and Robert Levin truly is, as you can hear here, and explore further in the full version of this lecture-recital.
Anthony Braxton: Composition N141
Braxton’s whole life in music is testament to the seamless blurring of the boundaries between great improvisation and great composition – and showing that there’s no real difference between them. Here he is as part of a seven-piece ensemble – he’s on saxophones, with a group that includes trombonist George Lewis and tenor saxophonist Evan Parker – in a magnificently epic performance of Composition N141 in 1988.
Butch Morris: Conduction No 192
Apologies for the sound quality, but you have to see Butch Morris’s Conduction in action, as he leads his ensemble with a compositional alchemy of gesture and sonic result that orchestral conductors can only envy. It’s a top-quality ensemble that Morris is working with in Sardinia in this performance.
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Blood on the Floor
A taster of Turnage’s Blood on the Floor, which is, I think, the piece of the last 20 years to prove what’s truly possible when you put contemporary classical together with jazz musicians. Blood on the Floor was written with and for guitarist John Scofield, drummer Peter Erskine, and saxophonist Martin Robertson. It’s a screaming. lamenting, pulsating, evening-long epic that’s still among Turnage’s – or anyone else’s – finest achievements, and proof positive that jazz+classical = more than the sum of its parts.