Concert Jazz

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

There have been many attempts over the years to write and perform concert jazz. Some attempts more successful than others. Many critics and fans of jazz have decried these attempts, but nevertheless, jazz musicians as well as jazz conductors and arrangers have proceeded to try. What does one mean by ‘concert jazz’? A serviceable definition might be an arrangement of music which features a mixture of traditional jazz instruments (piano, saxophone, trumpet, etc.) with instruments more normally found in the concert orchestra. The composition features both written parts and improvised sections for solo instruments. The presentation of such concert music would utilize rhythms more often found in jazz such as swing eighths and sixteenth notes as well as syncopation.

Many classical composers of the twentieth century such as Charles Ives, Stravinsky, Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Shostakovich and others have made attempts – more or less successful depending upon tastes.  Jazz artists such as Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton have commissioned and performed works that one would consider to be concert jazz.  Jazz arrangers and composers (again Ellington is a key example) but also people such as Eddie Sauter, Ralph Burns, George Russell, George Handy, William Russo, Pete Rugolo have made significant contributions to this endeavor.  American composers like Gershwin, Copland, David Diamond, and Leonard Bernstein have championed such efforts and been more or less successful in this field.

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

Depending upon your definition of concert jazz, one might consider Rhapsody in Blue to be primogenitor of the entire field.  Historians point out that the written piano sections were originally improvised by Gershwin and then later written down.  Some artists today proceed with the idea and intention of improvising the piano parts but concert goers pretty much want to hear the familiar piano cadenzas played as Gershwin played and wrote them…and who can blame them since it’s hard to come up with anything that sounds better.  Dave Brubeck commissioned his brother, Howard, to write the symphony orchestra parts to his composition Brandenburg Gate (featured on the album Brandenburg Gate Revised.)  John Lewis developed compositions that he performed with members of the Stuttgard Symphony Orchestra along with the Modern Jazz Quartet.  Composer and educator, Gunther Schuller, championed the development of what he termed “The Third Stream(blending classical and jazz) and he performed and recorded many examples of this type of music.  Many of the arrangements of Gil Evans would meet the definition of concert jazz in particular his arrangement of Porgy and Bess with Miles Davis as soloist.  Evan’s other major work Sketches of Spain (also with Davis as soloist) is considered one of the best and most successful works in this endeavor.  Attempts to blend classical and jazz influenced almost the entire catalogue of Creed Taylor’s CTI record label and the arranger Don Sebesky contributed symphonic arrangements  that supported the improvisations of major jazz artists such as Hubert Laws, George Benson, Milt Jackson and a host of others.

Verve MG V-2026

Verve MG V-2026

Two of the finest examples of concert jazz were created by the composer, arranger and pianist Billy Strayhorn.  Billy Strayhorn wrote and composed music for Duke Ellington’s band from 1939 until 1967.  He also helped to arrange performances for members of the Ellington orchestra when these members went out on their own to record independently from the Duke.  The Billy Strayhorn composition Chelsea Bridge is acclaimed as one of the greatest jazz ballads of all time.  It has been recorded by dozens of major jazz artists, but perhaps the finest rendition of the song is to be found on an album by Ben Webster recorded for Verve Records.  It is known as Ben Webster with Strings “Music for Loving” and it originally was made on three 10 inch long-playing vinyl records for Mercury/Clef or Verve Records.  Billy Strayhorn did the arrangement for the string section that surrounds the beautiful tenor saxophone solo.  Strayhorn briefly takes a solo on the piano as well.  It is a gorgeous arrangement!  Every aspect of this arrangement is in the service of showcasing the marvelous velvety tone of Webster’s saxophone.

Columbia CS 8053

Columbia CS 8053

As a companion piece to Ben Webster’s masterful performance with strings, another stellar arrangement by Billy Strayhorn is his setting of Solitude featuring Duke Ellington at the solo piano.  One can easily imagine a recording studio with the lights dimmed.  It is after hours, all the musicians are relaxed and tired from a long day of recording.  They could easily pack up and go home.  But one last masterpiece needs to be played.   Duke sits down at the piano and begins the first tentative notes of the Ellington classic Solitude. The beauty of this arrangement is its apparent simplicity…its easy, relaxed unfolding.  The band enters behind Duke very softly caressing the chord changes.  The center piece of the arrangement is Ellington alone at the piano playing one of the great jazz compositions of all time.  Very few people in the world can create this kind of magic.  The piano, the orchestra, and ultimately the arrangement are complete perfection.  This is concert jazz!

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

When Billy Strayhorn joined the Ellington Orchestra his first assignments were to arrange and rehearse the small band recordings (which often featured altoist Johnny Hodges) and to create arrangements for the male and female singers with the band. (Hajdu, 1996, pp. 60,80) (van de Leur, 2002 , p. 34) Singers who worked with Billy Strayhorn initially and over the years commented on how much he provided them the professional help that allowed them to sing at their best.  He collaborated with them in selecting the most appropriate keys to sing in and he took great pains to make arrangements which demonstrated how much attention he could give to even the smallest detail. (Hajdu, 1996, pp. 97-99) These early assignments with the Ellington Orchestra no doubt served him well in these arrangements of Solitude and Chelsea Bridge.

 

Sources and References:

Ben Webster with Strings Music for Loving (Verve Records 527 774-2) Two CD format

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra Ellington Indigos (Columbia LP – CS 8053)

Hajdu, David.  Lush Life:  A Biography of Billy Strayhorn.  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996.

van de Leur, Walter.  Something to Live For:  The Music of Billy Strayhorn.  Oxford University Press, 2002.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Don Shirley: Solo Piano, Concert and Chamber Music

Photo By Salvatore Vuono, published on 14 January 2011, courtesy of Digital Downloads.com

Photo By Salvatore Vuono, published on 14 January 2011, courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Between the years 1955 and 1960 Don Shirley performed in a variety of contexts which included solo piano, piano with trio (bass and cello), and symphony orchestra.  Uniquely, one concert with orchestra was his role in performing the piano part of Duke Ellington’s hauntingly beautiful “New World A-Comin’” piano concerto or orchestral suite with piano.  This was a role for which Duke Ellington customarily reserved the piano to himself.  On only one occasion did Ellington assign the role of piano soloist to someone else – Don Shirley.  This occurred on March 16, 1955  at Carnegie Hall when Ellington took up the baton and Mr. Shirley was the pianist – a singular mark of respect.  Reputedly, Don Shirley later commented that it was the hardest piece of music he ever had to learn.  However all of Don Shirley’s musical training and education gave him the tools to succeed at this difficult task.  Consider his solo piano album Pianist Extraordinary, Cadence Records CLP 3048.  In his program notes he states he uses transcription as opposed to arrangements:

“An arrangement consists of rearranging notes to serve a purpose.  A transcription on the other hand is essentially a re-composition.”

On the album he proceeds to describe in detail just what he means.  For example, on his performance of How Deep is the Ocean (Irving Berlin), Don Shirley explains that he employed a form of Mozzoarabic Chant (“an early Eastern form which led to the Gregorian Chant”):

“I’ve used a chorale form with four part harmony.  It’s also in a two part song form.  The original melody is one part and the introduction becomes the meat of the second part. I’ve tried to emphasize the much part of the lyric, how much do I love you? with the second part attempting to answer how much.”

The excellent liner notes to Cadence CLP 3048 by George T. Simon, allow Don Shirley to explain his thoughts on music, performance, and technique so well.  The pianist explains his conception of each song and what each song needs to complete the artistic presentation. There is a reason for not purchasing digital downloads of classical music and jazz, and the reason is that the buyer only gets the music and not the thoughts behind the music – the reason the music was created in the first place.  On the Cadence album Don Shirley Plays Standards, the pianist performs “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” which is actually a blend of three Ellington songs “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “I Let A Song…” and “Jump for Joy” (from Ellington’s African American Musical of the same name.)  Don Shirley manages to bring out the beauty of each piece while letting each song reflect the sonorities of the others.  It’s an amazing arrangement…and very heartfelt.  Apparently, Duke Ellington was very appreciative of Shirley’s “transcription” of these well-known Ellington classics because it was decided by the two of them that Don would feature it as the encore presentation after the performance at Carnegie Hall on the night of March 16, 1955 of Ellington’s “New World A-Comin’” piano concerto.  Duke honored Don by having him perform the piano part of the concerto (usually reserved for Ellington), and Don in turn paid tribute to Duke by weaving the melodies and harmonies of the three Ellington pieces into a solo piano concert work to conclude the Carnegie Hall performance.

Resources Available to Consult:

This Carnegie Hall concert featuring New World A-Comin’ was released on the Italian label, Musica Jazz 2MJP 1021 in 1984.  The album is titled Duke Ellington – Le Suites Sinfoniche.  It is available on vinyl LP, CD and on digital download.  For some reason, Don Shirley is not identified as the pianist on the piano concerto, but the date March 16, 1955 confirms that Mr. Shirley is indeed the piano soloist.

Symphonic Ellington?  Rehearing New World A-Comin’ ; David Schief.  The Music Quarterly, Vol 96, Issue 3-4, pp. 459-477.  This article fully explores the conception behind Ellington’s piano concerto and discusses the role played by Don Shirley in the concert performance of New World A-Comin’ in the March 16, 1955 performance at Carnegie Hall.  It also analyzes the structure of this composition.

Duke Ellington As Pianist:  A Study of Styles.  Mathew J. Cooper, College Music Society, 2013.  The author explores the style and technique of Ellington the pianist.  The author provides numerous insights into the unique Ellington approach to improvisation and composition.  The book includes the author’s transcriptions of works discussed.

Four Symphonic Works by Duke Ellington.  Maurice Peress conducting the American Composers Orchestra.  Nimbus Records CD and also Music Masters CD.  Soloists Roland Hanna (piano), and Jimmy Heath (woodwinds.) Roland Hanna is another jazz pianist who learned the complexities of the Ellington piano style in order to perform New World A-Comin’ with a symphony and jazz orchestra.  Formidable technique is in evidence throughout this performance.

Don Shirley.  Pianist Extraordinary.  Cadence 25048 or Collectables CD 2759.

Don Shirley.  Plays Standards.  Cadence 3033 or Collectables CD 2789.

Dvorak to Duke Ellington:  A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots.  Maurice Peress, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Don Shirley’s original Cadence albums have been transferred to digital CD and are available on the series called “Collectables”  (see www.oldies.com)  There are all highly recommended for their highly artistic and sumptuous melodic performances.

 

Ellington and Gershwin

"Sir John Frederick William Herschel (British - Engraved Portrait of a Young Woman. - Google Art Project" by Sir John Frederick William Herschel (British, 1792 - 1871) (1792 - 1871) (British) (photographer, Details of artist on Google Art Project) - zAHsVDOg2SX2Hw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sir_John_Frederick_William_Herschel_(British_-_Engraved_Portrait_of_a_Young_Woman._-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sir_John_Frederick_William_Herschel_(British_-_Engraved_Portrait_of_a_Young_Woman._-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

“Sir John Frederick William Herschel (British – Engraved Portrait of a Young Woman. – Google Art Project” by Sir John Frederick William Herschel (British, 1792 – 1871) (1792 – 1871) (British) (photographer, Details of artist on Google Art Project) – zAHsVDOg2SX2Hw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

Today, in the concert hall, on recordings, and in various venues the compositions of both Ellington and Gershwin are frequently performed together.  Although, each composer has his own unique style and is instantly recognizable these works often serve to complement one another.  The reason for this complementarity is fairly obvious.  For one thing each composer imbued his works with art and craftsmanship.  A song by Gershwin or a work by Ellington displays ingenuity, intelligence, grace and style.  Their works are as popular on the concert stage as they are in small cabarets played by a jazz trio.  The opera singer Barbara Hendricks recorded a collection of Gershwin songs accompanied by the piano duo of Katia and Marielle Labeque for the Phillips Classic label.  The pianist Ellis Larkins played a full hour of musical medleys featuring the music of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center.  In 1994 the American Symphony Orchestra presented a concert at Avery Fisher Hall featuring the works of Jewish-American and African American composers.  The music included works by Morton Gould, Louis Gruenberg, Ulysses Kay, Florence Price, and of course George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.  The featured soloist was jazz pianist Marcus Roberts. Classically trained jazz pianist Don Shirley performed the music of Vernon Duke, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall.  Both Mr. Shirley and Earl Wild recorded their own composed medleys of Porgy and Bess.  Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett have frequently included both the music of George Gershwin and Ellington in live performances.  In 1998 pianist Herbie Hancock recorded an album entitled “Gershwin’s World” which featured the music of both Gershwin and Ellington.   Many of the songs of George Gershwin have attained the status of “art songs” even though they began their life as creations for musical comedies and vaudeville set-pieces in George White “Scandals” or Zieldfeld “Follies.”  In a similar vein, Ellington popular songs such as “Sophisticated Lady”, “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” or “Don’t Get Around Anymore,” songs which were staples of the big band era, have now been taken to heart by singers who perform frequently on the opera stage.  Singers have recognized for years the elegant and sophisticated qualities of these songs, not to mention the extreme danger of attempting to sing “Sophisticated Lady” with its chromatic melody and unique key change in the bridge.  Recently, Kathleen Battle has included one of Duke Ellington’s earliest creations, “Creole Love Call,” with its wordless vocalese in her concert repertoire.  It was a vehicle for Adelaide Hall when she sang it with the Ellington band in 1927.  Ms. Battle’s superb rendition demonstrates that both Ellington and Gershwin were correct in their belief that a simple blues can have all the artistry of great musical beauty.  During the 2011/12 season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic famous jazz pianist Herbie Hancock performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in at the Disney Center for the Performing Arts under the direction of Gustavo Duhamel.  In all of these instances and in many more the enduring quality of the Gershwin and Ellington repertoire has inspired concert artists as well as jazz artists to wish to include both of their compositions in a single performance.  George Gershwin and Duke Ellington both knew in their lifetime what many of us are discovering now and today – which is that they were on complementary trajectories.