Riffs World Premieres by Three Portland Jazz Artists
To segregate music is as ridiculous as racial segregation, says saxophonist and composer Rob Scheps about the division between classical music and jazz. There should be no ghettoization, there should be mutual respect.
For composer and pianist Gordon Lee, breaking down those barriers goes beyond personal preference: Fitting the classical tradition with the jazz tradition and other ethnic music is the noblest cause for the twenty-first century composer, he says.
In Portland’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble, Lee and Scheps have found a group whose mission matches their vision.
We want to get to know our next door neighbors better, says Ron Blessinger, the ensemble’s artistic director. The musical world is so varied that I can’t handle being tied down to one thing. So I’m lucky to be able to indulge my curiosity and highlight musical connections between classical music and other forms like jazz, the Oregon Symphony violinist continues.
Riffs Third Angle’s second program of its 20th season — intends to promote that jazz-classical fusion in a concert that will include world premieres of three pieces by Portland-based jazz artists Dan Balmer, Lee and Scheps.
The impulse is not new, and such collaborations, hybrids and mixtures of jazz with classical have attracted composers for nearly 100 years. When he visited George Gershwin in New York in the 1920s, the story goes, Maurice Ravel was mainly interested in hearing Duke Ellington. Woody Herman commissioned Igor Stravinsky to write The Ebony Suite for his big band; soundtracks by the likes of Henry Mancini and even scores for TV combine the genres; and jazz pianists Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock incorporated the harmony of Ravel and Debussy. Many jazz players have written for string ensembles or have used classical techniques with jazz instruments. The impulse to combine the two forms even gave birth to New Age music.
The three commissions on Third Angle’s concert program, along with the string quartet Cat O’Nine Tails, by New York jazzman John Zorn, illustrate the possibilities for such fusions and show us that the two forms aren’t as far apart as they may seem though such unions have often been uneasy for the players themselves.
An Uneasy Union
Classical musicians rely on written music, says Blessinger; if we’re not told exactly what to do, we get really insecure.
Jazz players, on the other hand, may be awed by the accuracy and instrumental command of their classically-trained peers and even feel a bit incomplete.
I have trepidation that I’m not up to the task, says Balmer, one of the city’s top jazz guitarists and a former member of the Tom Grant Band, who has composed several CD’s of original music and currently stars with Mel Brown’s combos. I tried to write a significant thing, but I’m not a classical composer.
Scheps, who has written for symphony and string quartet and was trained at the New England Conservatory, acknowledges the edge in sophistication enjoyed by classical music in the past. In some Ravel pieces, the harmony is so hip that the jazz pianists didn’t catch up until 1964, he says.
In the twenty-first century, though, it’s the affinities and not the differences that increasingly interest open-minded artists from both the classical and jazz camps.
I thought, OK, I’ll just write a song, that’s what I do, Balmer says about the process. That’s what classical pieces are anyway a song. They have the skill of orchestration, so they make a lot out of that song, but it’s basically chords and melody. His composition, Balmer believes, will probably sound like a Dan Balmer song played by cello, violin and vibes with solos by the jazz musicians.
Lee set himself a different challenge.
I’ve rearranged a Debussy piano prelude called Ondine for violin, viola, cello and flute and featuring piano as the improvising soloist. I’ve turned it into something to blow on, says the pianist whose experience includes orchestration of Ghanaian drummer Obo Addy’s suite for orchestra, choir and drum ensemble, as well as string quartet arrangements of Kaw-Creek jazzman Jim Pepper’s music. It’s at least twice as long as the original, the additional material is improvisational, and I’ve rearranged the theme also, he explains. Lee will also play the Debussy original.
While this collaborative process has taken Balmer and Lee outside their comfort zone as composers, their music, along with Scheps’ piece, Global Citizens, presents a performance challenge for Third Angle members Blessinger, Hamilton Cheifetz (cello), Brian Quincey (viola), GeorgeAnne Ries (flute) and Brett Pascal (percussion).
To bring the classical players into the spirit of improvising, I gave everybody instructions to do a specific thing, but to do it the way they want. It might say, Short little bursts,’ or High flutter.’ That gives them a chance to have more freedom but with a safety net.
The payoff for them?
When you start to think like a jazz player, you listen to Mozart or Beethoven in a totally different way, Blessinger says. You start to consider them as improvisers who take a chord progression and create music on top of that.
The concert’s entire program (also included are David Schiff’s Satin and Charlie Parker’s Cheryl) presents a variety of approaches to blending the written and the improvised. For ultimately, it is improvisation the spontaneous composition that is the jazz artist’s stock in trade that separates classical from jazz players today. Ironically, improvisation was not unknown to luminaries of the European tradition such as Beethoven, and has only disappeared from the classical repertoire during the past 150 years.
The focus on improvisation has made jazz into a soloist’s art. And that hard-earned pleasure is difficult for the jazz performer to forego.
I really tried to make it more of a situation where the five of us can make music as equals, says Scheps. (But) I like to have my ego out there sometimes wailing.
Maybe that ecstatic self-expression is what jazz does best. But what it can do in combination with classical music has not been fully explored yet, as exciting new soundscapes for a truly global melting pot begin to appear.
Available on CD
Dan Balmer: Go By Train (Alternative Jazz); Change of Heart (Alternative Jazz); Through These Years (Alternative Jazz).
Gordon Lee: One, Two, Three (Diatic Records); Flying Dream (Origin Arts 2); Rough Jazz (Ph.D Records)
Rob Scheps: Magnets! Live at the Earshot Jazz Festival (self-produced); King on the Road with Nancy King, Glen Moore, Rob Scheps (Cardas Records); Bluestruck, with Terumasa Hino and John Scofield (Blue Note Records)
Third Angle New Music Ensemble: Robert Kyr: Violin Concerto Trilogy (New Albion Records); Chamber Music of Bryan Johanson (Gugliano Records).