This post is part of a multi-part Arts Fuse series examining the traditions and realities of classical piano concertos influenced by jazz. The articles are bookended by Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts: the first features one of the first classical pieces directly influenced by jazz, Darius Milhaud’s Creation of the World (February 19 – 21); the second has pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing one of the core works in this repertoire, Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G (April 23 – 28). Steve Elman’s chronology of jazz-influenced piano concertos (JIPCs) can be found here. His essays on this topic are posted on his author page. Elman welcomes your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Steve Elman
It all seemed so simple, as I’ve said before. There was jazz, and there was classical. What better vehicle could there be for these two forms to find common ground than the piano concerto? Wouldn’t this be the logical forum for some valuable cultural conversation?
What I’ve learned from three years of research and listening is that the piano concerto is an ideal vehicle with which individual composers can experiment. Its well-established form and long traditions offer particularly solid ground on which to build. The ubiquity and versatility of the piano as a solo instrument give composers a huge range of tools. Rich and satisfying music can be made incorporating all kinds of non-classical materials into the form of the piano concerto, and the resulting hybrid pieces are often more approachable than other, more radical adventures. But the piano concerto is no cultural bridge.
With those realizations in mind, I think it’s time to return to the hybrid pieces I first discussed in 2012, the ones created by people who primarily make their livings as jazz musicians, to see what new insights might emerge after a long vacation into the classical world.
George Gershwin is the granddaddy of all the “jazz” composers, at least in the sense of representing a model they all secretly aspire to: he is supposedly the maker of vernacular music who achieves full status, the trappings of class, and the big bucks in the classy world of classical. Of course, not even Gershwin fully crossed over to the other side in the minds of hard-core classical listeners. He is still a little too casual, a little too unstudied, a little too much fun, to stand up on the stage with Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, and all the other Old Boys. Better to program him in Pops concerts or use his music as palate-cleansing, a counterbalance to Something Serious.
But, even at that, he has no true heirs. Not one musician after him who cut his or her teeth in the world of popular music has crossed over to the extent he did. Andre Previn? Of course, a gifted jazz pianist who became a fine conductor, at times a great one, but not a composer anyone would put in the first rank. John Williams? He’s a different kind of paradigm, a former jazz pianist (“Johnny” Williams, remember?) working the commercial side of classical with great success and no apologies – but no one puts him on the stage with the Old Boys. And when his composing is judged, it often is described as “derivative” (read: copycat) of the Great Ones.
And the truth is that Previn and Williams are more schooled in traditional classical study than Gershwin was, making the Great God George even more of a remarkable creature. Other examples are very hard to come by. Keith Emerson? Please. He did write a piano concerto, and it even includes jazz elements, but . . .
So I’d like to strike a tiny blow for parity, and revisit the pieces I reviewed when I was wearing my jazz glasses to see if they look any different now.
The first “jazz piano concerto” is New World A-Coming (1943), by Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. In my original post I noted the lack of enthusiasm for it from critics, audiences, and posterity. It remains one of Ellington’s least-known long-form pieces, and the only one that is notated from start to finish, with no improvised contributions from members of his band. When I listen to it now, it is with great affection and even greater appreciation, although I did not realize in 2012 that it should be not be considered a concerto at all, despite Ellington’s ambitions to write one. It is a rhapsody – an elaboration on a series of themes – not exactly in Gershwin’s wake, but at least in some ways a nod to his efforts.
Ellington also had a program in mind, a celebration of what he hoped was a wonderful future world of equality and success for African-Americans; more’s the pity, the optimistic, anthemic conclusion rings even hollower now than it did in 1943. But the rest of the piece is very worthwhile. Since I wrote about it earlier, I’ve heard two orchestrations of the work for piano and symphony orchestra, including strings. The first, c. 1970, is attributed to Luther Henderson; the second, c. 1988, was created by Maurice Peress. I prefer the Peress version, although Ellington himself played piano when the Henderson orchestration was recorded in 1970.
When I wrote about Dave Brubeck’s Elementals (1963), an orchestral work for Brubeck’s quartet and orchestra, the composer was still alive. I did not know then about Gunther Schuller’s Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959), which is in every way a superior piece, written for the group that was often compared to Brubeck’s in the late fifties and early sixties, the Modern Jazz Quartet. (More about the Schuller work in another post.) Even in comparison to Schuller’s work, I still think that “Elementals” has great value, certainly greater value than the critics gave to it when it was released. I’m proud that I recognized the form as theme-and-variations rather than concerto, and I still award myself a gold star for recognizing the modal elements in the work. And there is one more note to add: on March 6, 2014, when I heard the premiere of Schuller’s “From Here to There” in Jordan Hall, the circle was closed – that recent work was a tribute to Brubeck, a sophisticated and powerful expansion on one of Bru’s solos that particularly knocked Schuller out.
George Russell’s Living Time (1972; rev. 1995, co-orch. w. Pat Hollenbeck) was never intended to be a concerto, or a classical work, for that matter, but it is such a grand vision, on such a vast scale, that it cannot be ignored when talking about profound music for keyboard and orchestra. It exists in two versions, and both are still breathtakingly original.The fact that the first was written for and played by Bill Evans, and the second employs as soloist Paul-Christian Staicu, a classically-trained pianist, speaks to the fact that the work transcends individual performers; in that way it is unique among the pieces by jazz composers.
As I noted in my original post, Claus Ogerman’s Symbiosis (1973? – 1974) appears on its face to be a reaction to Living Time, an attempt to write a more conventional piece for Bill Evans and orchestra. The comparison is still unfair; Ogerman’s piece stands on its own, and although it is not a conventional concerto (it uses a rhythm section again, and is intended as a pair of “night pieces” rather than a three movement fast-slow-fast work) it has admirable ambitions which are well-realized.
Chick Corea’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra [with String Bass and Traps] (1983 – 86; rev. 1999) is the first true piano concerto from a jazz composer since James P. Johnson’s “Concerto Jazz-a-mine” (1934), if you discount the use of bass and drums. I try to be generous when listening to it, but the piece still seems like a tentative step towards classical from a composer much more comfortable in jazz. Corea’s The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet (2006) is the piece that got me started on this quest. Like the pieces by Ellington and Brubeck above, it belongs in this chronology simply because it uses piano and orchestra, but it ranges far away from the usual form and purposes of a classical piano concerto – it has a program, it uses a traditional jazz quintet, and it has six movements. If anything, it is a jazz concerto grosso. With all those caveats, I think it is a much better and more interesting work than Corea’s “first” concerto.
Finally, with Michel Camilo’s Concerto [No. 1] for Piano and Orchestra (1998), more than sixty years after James P. Johnson, we come to the second example of a conventional piano concerto – a three-movement work for piano and orchestra without jazz rhythm section – written by a person who is thought of primarily as a jazz musician. Premiered by Camilo and the Detroit Symphony, the piece is strongly influenced by Ravel, Gershwin, Copland, Chopin, and Bill Evans. Those foundations are excellent places to start, and the composition provides an expansive vision and very pleasant listening. It breaks new ground in that it uses a variety of Latin rhythms, and it represents the first piano concerto influenced by jazz to be written by a composer born in the Western Hemisphere south of the Tropic of Cancer.
Camilo’s first concerto led me to hope for more from his Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, “Tenerife” (2011), commissioned by the Tenerife Auditorium in Tenerife Spain, premiered there in 2009 by the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra, and played several times thereafter in Europe. At least one performance must have been recorded, but, four years after the work’s debut, I still cannot find any performance available on CD, or even bootlegged on line. Camilo also composed a Rhapsody for Two Pianos and Orchestra in 1992, which is surely jazz-influenced. It, too, has not been recorded in so far as I know. This speaks volumes about the ways in which the marketplace views hybrid pieces. I hope that someday soon they both can be made available to a wider listenership, so that they can be properly assessed.
In 2012, I listened to Iiro Rantala’s Concerto in G♯▵A♭ [for Piano and Orchestra] (2002 – 2005) with bemusement. I thought it was a piece that reflected Rantala’s Puckish personality, a composition that stood apart from any tradition, stitching jazz into a fabric that also included Beethoven, Chopin, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Gershwin, and Shostakovich, to take the classical influences in roughly chronological order, along with a series of musical jokes. Nonetheless, like Camilo’s first, this is a real fast-slow-fast piano concerto, and (now that I know more of the JIPC tradition) I can see that it is part of a venerable line of maverick / bad-boy piano concertos, stretching back to Erwin Schulhoff’s 1923 Concerto [No. 2] for Piano and Small Orchestra and George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony from 1925 – 27, including Rodion Shchedrin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 (1966) and William Bolcom’s Concerto for Piano and Large Orchestra (1976). That’s very good company, and Rantala’s concerto deserves consideration alongside any of them. This is perhaps the least-known JIPC from a jazz composer, because Rantala has had few opportunities to work outside of Europe. As a virtuoso player and a promising composer, he deserves far more attention from listeners in both jazz and classical.
Donal Fox’s Peace Out, for Improvised Piano and Orchestra (premiered in November 2009) represents the most recent composition by a jazz performer in this chronology. Although it is a one-movement work, its sections correspond to the fast-slow-fast movements of a true concerto, and there are a number of precedents among the JIPCs for this kind of short form. However, Peace Out is a real rarity in that it calls for improvisation as an integral element. Since no one but the composer has performed it, there is no way to know whether another soloist could do justice to it. But in the recording that Fox has provided to me, there is no doubt that the work has power and weight. Everything I’ve said above about the unreleased piece by Camilo applies to Fox’s as well.
More: To help you explore compositions mentioned above as easily as possible, my full chronology of JIPCs contains detailed information on recordings of these works, including CDs, Spotify access, and YouTube links.
Next in the Jazz and Piano Concerto Series — A Real Tradition, but of What?
Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.
He is the co-author of Burning Up the Air (Commonwealth Editions, 2008), which chronicles the first fifty years of talk radio through the life of talk-show pioneer Jerry Williams. He is a former member of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.