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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, James Poore, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Bert Thompson, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf



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SYMPHONIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Mackavenue.com MAC1102

 

 

George DUKE (1946-2013)

Dark Wood: Bass Concerto for McBride1,2 (2012) [22:04]

Lee RITENOUR (b.1952)

Symphonic Captain's Journey1,3 (2012) [13:29]

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)

Rhapsody in Blue - original jazz band version4 (1924) [20:41]


Mitch Glickman (Music Director), The Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, Christian McBride1 (Bass), John Beasley2 (Piano), Marvin 'Smitty' Smith2 (Drums), Lee Ritenour3 (Guitar), Dave Grusin3 (Piano), Chris Coleman3 (Drums), Bill Cunliffe4 (Piano), Robert Hurst4 (Bass), Peter Erskine4 (Drums)

Recorded: The Carpenter Performing Arts Center, California State University Long Beach, USA 19 January 2015 [56:14]


Ever since Paul Whitman's famed An Experiment in Modern Music concert which was held on February 12, 1924, jazz musicians have wanted to prove their worth in classical forms and 'straight' classical players that they can swing. Here we have the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra - an ensemble founded in 2002 - which is made up of 67 Hollywood based session players which has the remit to commission and perform symphonic jazz compositions. Important to say straight off the bat - these players really do know how to swing.

This disc was produced as a consequence of an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign and consists of two SJO commissions alongside the ubiquitous Rhapsody in Blue, although even that work is presented 'with a twist'. The programme opens with George Duke's Dark Wood: Bass Concerto. Duke was the co-director of the orchestra from 2004-13 and was responsible for planning this disc before his untimely death from cancer at the age of 67. The premise of the concerto is rather neat; two movements each in two parts creating four easily identifiable 'phases' (this is the name each of the sections is given in the liner). The soloist is the extraordinary Christian McBride who in the course of the work plays on upright, electric and fretless electric basses. The frontline of the concerto is completed by John Beasley on piano and Marvin 'Smitty' Smith on drums. Here and throughout the entire disc the level of technical execution by both soloists and the orchestra is stunning. The use of the different instruments helps delineate the musical styles explored too. I am not sure quite why there was the need to call this a concerto - for sure the bass soloists leads the way but the music has not been written in traditional concerto form more a display for the considerable talents of the front line. The first two parts of the disc is engineered in a distinctly jazz/cinematic style. The soloists are placed very upfront with the hardworking strings in particular often engulfed by the solo parts. I enjoyed the closing 'Phase Four' most which revels in a grooving slapbass funky riff feel. My main problem I have with the entire work is that Duke ties the musical material together by using a recurring melodic idea that is simply rather banal in a pop ballad sense. What he and the players do with that main theme is pretty stunning but the tune itself is rather trivial.

The second work on the disc is another SJO commission. This time by Lee Ritenour it is an expansion by the composer of an earlier work. As to why it is called Symphonic Captain's Journey or what that means we are given no clue. To my ear this is the most successful work on the disc by some distance. Here the frontline is Ritenour on guitar with Dave Grusin on piano, Christian McBride doing the honours again on bass and Chris Coleman on drums. The two sections are called Calm and Storm. The opening Calm settles down into a pleasingly extended coolly grooving section after an atmospheric opening. The interplay between the frontline players is stunning with the orchestral interjections tight and nervy. Again, don't expect to hear much of the string's contribution! There is something of the feel of this being very high class easy-listening jazz but I like it. The second section - initially at least - rather belies its title of Storm. Grusin leads off with an extended musing piano solo. Around 1:38 a skeletal percussion ostinato is set up which starts as though its a Celtic-influenced jazz-jig. By the 3:00 minute mark this has evolved into more of a strutting attitude-filled guitar-led section with some great twisting guitar/violin figurations. Then at 5:00 there starts a remarkable and extended drum solo which last a full 90 seconds before the full orchestra and soloists drive the work to a real finger-twister of a conclusion.

One query - why on earth was the disc made with almost no breaks at all between the main work? No sooner has the Ritenour finished than the unmistakeable glissando of Rhapsody in Blue breaks in. Do we really need another recording of this work - even in the original 1924 jazz band version? I would never say never but I must admit this version does little for me. There is a unique selling point here; the legitimate point is made that the original manuscript of the first performance left great swathes of the piano solo part blank with Gershwin as soloist filling the gaps 'on the fly'. That being the case this and other recordings have taken that to allow the pianist to improvise the cadenzas and solos way beyond those ultimately published. To that this SJO disc adds the idea of a jazz trio of soloists who interpolate material into those spaces in the score. Not wholly effectively to my ear. Curiously, and perhaps because of the extended performance tradition of the work, the tutti sections from soloist and orchestra sound strangely stiff and stilted with a real feeling of inhibition - nice bending into phrases from the lead clarinet and trumpet though. After repeated listenings I did wonder if the orchestra was going for a most historically correct syncopated rather than swung style. If so whilst it is undoubtedly more authentic here the result sounds too stiff. For example the trombone pick-up [rehearsal figure 12 in my copy of the orchestral version of the score] is neither together nor that exciting - some performances produce a thrillingly raucous slide down here. Elsewhere, the players play much of the music very literally with little of the ebb and flow many performances achieve.

The piano soloist here is Bill Cunliffe and he has a technique fully up to the piece but he does not relax until the jazz trio sections arrive. Then there is almost a collective sigh of relief and the music settles down [track 8 00:40] - in fact these trio sections are great fun. My problem is that these same trio sections do start to sound rather like a very up market cocktail bar playing medleys of Gershwin tunes, especially when they start interpolating other tunes into the work. Also, a curious choice - and one that wholly does not work for me is the trio bassist doubling the oboe solo line [figure 22]. For sure it breathes new life into a work that in the wrong hands can sound tired but to my ear the overall effect is interesting but just a fraction too contrived - albeit with great skill. One last deal-breaker, at the very end Cunliffe adds a last keyboard flourish completed by an upward chromatic ascent. Unfortunately he does not quite get there at the same moment as the orchestra - surely worth a retake. The engineering is significantly different for this work too - the strings - their number has been reduced in line with the Whiteman original band strength are recorded closer and drier - not always to their benefit. Cunliffe's piano is far from being a perfect instrument either - again slightly dry and clangourous as recorded. For those who do not want the upholstered Grofé reworking for full orchestra there are plenty of jazz-band versions out there all of which I would prefer to this one even though I did enjoy the trio interpolations. I got the sense that this interpretation did not quite know what it was trying to do; the 'authentic' scale and syncopated feel pulls in one direction and the smoky swinging trio interpolations in another. For a total deconstruction and reassembly of this piece into a epic jazz throwdown try Tommy Smith's extraordinary version with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

Something of a curate's egg this disc then. Worth hearing for the quality of the playing and I am always pleased to hear genuine attempts to fuse jazz with the orchestral/classical idiom. Ultimately something of a disappointment.

NICK BARNARD



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