Music Commentary Series: Jazz and the Piano Concerto — The Straddlers, Part Two

This post is part of a multi-part Arts Fuse series examining the traditions and realities of classical piano concertos influenced by jazz. 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

By Steve Elman

This post continues my discussion of maverick mavericks, JIPC composers with feet firmly planted on either side of the dividing line between jazz and classical. The first two in this post are part of the mid-century generation for whom jazz was not “new music,” but an established form with recognized virtuosi and masterpieces. The two younger composers here premiered their first piano concertos in 2014, and I was delighted when they contacted me as a result of my postings for the Arts Fuse about JIPCs in 2012. Of course, two pieces do not constitute a trend, but I would like to think that there are more composers working today who think of themselves as beyond category, and that there are and will be more works that take this trend in exciting and interesting directions. On the other hand, we may just be temporarily lucky.

Composer David Baker --- from jazz trombone to classical composition.

Composer David Baker — from jazz trombone to classical composition.

David Baker, born in 1931, worked in George Russell’s sextet as a trombonist from 1960 – 1962. Because of a jaw injury, he had to give up that instrument in August 1962, and he adopted the cello as his performing voice. Shortly thereafter, he made a nearly-complete transition to the life of a musical academic at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where he has composed many long- and short-form works in classical idioms and jazz. He currently holds the positions of Distinguished Professor of Music (Jazz Studies) and Chair Emeritus, Department of Jazz Studies, at Jacobs. He has led jazz ensembles and recorded occasionally in jazz contexts, but his status as a classical composer has steadily risen in the music world to the point that he is equally respected on both sides of the fence. His Concerto for Two Pianos, Jazz Band, Strings and Percussion (1982) is his only work I know of that fits within this chronology.

In this concerto, Baker’s harmonic language is atonal but well-grounded, certainly influenced by Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, and probably by George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept (there is a direct hint of Russell’s influence in the third movement). But Baker boldly goes his own way, using plenty of contrasts in rhythm and orchestral color in what ultimately proves to be a “classical” approach to themes and development. The resulting concerto is not like William Bolcom’s or Rodion Shchedrin’s, where the contrasts have shock value. Instead, this approach generates an overall unity and remarkable coherence. Jazz influences are everywhere in the piece. There is a notable Latin jazz passage in the first movement, and some clearly-improvised piano passages in the third, using a contrafact of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” There may be other improvisational touches elsewhere, but they are so well-integrated into the piece that they never call attention to themselves. Even the introduction of a Beethovenian flourish in the last movement doesn’t derail Baker’s essential purpose. This concerto has a great deal to recommend it, and it stands apart from every other work in the chronology.

Nikolai Kapustin -- a fearsome pianist and a lifelong hybridizer of jazz and classical.

Nikolai Kapustin — a fearsome pianist and a lifelong hybridizer of jazz and classical.

Nikolai Kapustin, born in the Ukraine, is six years younger than Baker. He was introduced to jazz via the Voice of America in his mid-teens. He has incorporated jazz elements consistently into his works, and he has written six piano concertos strongly involving jazz. He also developed prodigious technique as a pianist, which is on display in a recording of his second concerto. Unfortunately, no major label has yet been willing to undertake a systematic recording of all of his piano concertos, so it is not possible for me to make definitive statements about them as a body of work. Kapustin is quoted by Kit Loong Yee (in “Poised Between Two Worlds: Nikolai Kapustin’s Piano Sonata No. 1 and the Classical and Jazz Tradition,” D. M. A. dissertation, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, May 2014) as describing his work as a formalization of jazz-oriented music with the explicit goal of making the resulting pieces more complex and detailed than they could be in a traditional jazz context.

Interestingly, each of the concertos has a distinctive scoring: the first is for piano and “non-standard [jazz] band”; the second for piano, [jazz] band and strings; the third for piano, [jazz] band, and orchestra without brass instruments; the fourth for piano and orchestra with a jazz rhythm section; the fifth for piano and orchestra; and the sixth for piano and [jazz] band, including electric bass and drums. What is clear from his large-ensemble works available for hearing on-line — which include several short pieces for piano and jazz band and three of the piano concertos (the second, fourth, and sixth) — is that his hybrids of jazz and classical began as fairly conventional big-band jazz, at least in his works through the 1970s, and evolved towards a sophisticated amalgam, beginning at the latest in the late 1980s.

His impressions of jazz also seem to evolve along with jazz itself. In the three Kapustin concertos I have heard, the second shows big-band scoring in a very conventional Nelson Riddle manner, which gives way in the fourth to more sophisticated Thad Jones-Mel Lewis style writing. The sixth concerto flirts with indeterminate harmony and scoring reminiscent of Lalo Schifrin. However, as yet Kapustin has not moved into the sound-world of George Russell, Carla Bley, or younger jazz composers. The Concerto for Piano, [Jazz] Band, and Strings No. 2, Op. 14 , (1974) uses “I Got Rhythm” and a tune by Bud Powell as core material, with a jazz band / strings backing that comes across like a Pops orchestra.

Kapustin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra [with String Bass and Traps] No. 4, Op. 56 (1989) is a much more substantial work, proving that an authentic jazz vernacular can be incorporated into a written piece without sacrificing an echt classical objective. Of the concertos I’ve heard, this one has the best chance of entering the concert hall without causing much distress among mainstream classical listeners. Maybe the piano writing is derivative. Maybe the orchestral writing is pedestrian, except for the clever use of “Autumn in New York” (Vernon Duke, 1934). Maybe the harmonies aren’t very challenging. But such fun! And it is a monster workout for the pianist.

Kapustin’s Concerto for Piano and [Jazz] Band [with Electric Bass and Traps] No. 6, Op. 74 (1993) seems to be a companion piece to the more conventionally-scored Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5, Op. 72, from the same year. Without hearing the fifth, it’s hard to draw a definite conclusion, but it’s tempting to see these pieces as a summary of Kapustin’s work for piano and orchestra – the fifth with standard scoring and the sixth using a much jazzier approach. The sixth concerto uses electric bass and suggests some interest in more rock-oriented rhythm. In addition, the piano passages, with and without rhythm section, slide away from fixed harmony in very interesting ways. The first movement may use melodic material from another source; there are some very familiar lines which I cannot positively identify. The third movement is particularly interesting, with atypical time signatures, a hint of boogie-woogie, a false ending, and a concluding passage with some of the densest writing I’ve heard from Kapustin, bringing the many elements of the piece together convincingly.


Composer Nadia Charmaine Burgess — her new piano concerto offers “art music in a jazz environment.”

Nadia Charmaine Burgess was born in South Africa, and she resided in Sydney, Australia at the time of the premiere of her Concerto for Piano and Jazz Orchestra [including String Bass and Traps] (2014). It was written as part of the fulfillment of her Ph.D. studies at the University of Sydney. She has an active career as a jazz pianist. Among the influences for this piece, she cites the work of jazz composer Maria Schneider and Australian classical composer Carl Vine. From the program notes at the premiere performance: “ … the piano is lifted out of its usual role in the rhythm section of the jazz orchestra and given centre stage to be the main voice carrying thematic material, performing notated and improvised solos and displaying virtuoso passages fitting to the idiom. Each of the three movements contains a section open for limited, directed piano improvisation which flows out of notation, whereas the cadenzas are notated. Improvised accompaniment by the guitar, double bass and drums is guided by chord symbols and drum-feel indications.”

About the use of improvisation in the work, Burgess says, “I aimed to create a contemporary art music concerto in a jazz environment, so I steered away from jazz practices as much as possible.” Nonetheless, the mainstream listener will probably hear this work as a jazz composition that integrates classical elements rather than the other way around. As noted above, the piano has the lead role in all three movements, and the orchestra does not engage in the give-and-take or competition with the piano that the classical listener might expect. The instrumentation (4 tp, 4 tb, 5 reeds, piano, string bass, and traps [no strings]) is that of the standard jazz big band; in addition, Burgess allows the jazz rhythm section limited freedom to improvise a foundation throughout. As a result, the textures and timbres feel like jazz, although there are no extended passages of improvisation for the piano and the work unfolds compositionally along the lines of a classical concerto.

Jussi Lampela -- his new piano concerto allows improvisations from trumpet, two saxes, bass, and drums, as well as piano.

Jussi Lampela — his new piano concerto allows improvisations from trumpet, two saxes, bass, and drums, as well as piano.

Jussi Lampela was born in Helsinki, Finland, and studied in Los Angeles and Stockholm. He plays guitar and keyboards, leads his own jazz ensembles, and works extensively as a free-lance player and composer. He currently resides in Helsinki and teaches at the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. His Piano Concerto [for Piano and Jazz Ensemble (Trumpet, Alto Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone, French Horn, Trombone, Tuba, String Bass and Traps)] (2014) is scored for piano soloist and a jazz “little big band” without strings. It was premiered in Helsinki, with the valuable addition of Iiro Rantala as soloist.

Lampela provided me with a recording of the premiere, and the work has much to recommend it. It will probably be heard by the mainstream listener as a jazz composition with adventurous harmony that integrates elements of the traditional piano concerto, but the writing is sophisticated and the goals are ambitious. Lampela cites Olivier Messaien as an influence on his harmonic concepts, and he shows an admirable tonal freedom in his writing that nevertheless remains well-grounded. In addition to the solo spots for the piano, the composer provides ample opportunity for improvised soloing by trumpet, baritone saxophone, and alto saxophone in passages that call for the piano, bass, and drums to operate as a traditional jazz rhythm section. Lampela also gives the bass and drums improvised solo spots in the third movement. The slow movement is nicely structured and distinctively atmospheric, a lyrical meditation without fixed key. I was impressed by the introduction of a medium-slow George Russell-ish tempo after the themes are established, and a hint of Gil Evans’s distinctive orchestration later on in the movement.

For Burgess and Lampela, these first concertos are of necessity tentative steps. Both were first played by student ensembles, and neither premiere had the benefit that comes from repeated performances over several years. But there is clearly enough talent on display to warrant more seasoned interpretations of these works and further compositional efforts in similar directions.

Who knows how many more composers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have attempted JIPCs? If you are one of them, I would be most interested in hearing from you and listening to your work. Please feel free to communicate with me at

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 — The Zebra in the Room

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.

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