Music Commentary: The Problem of the Jazz Piano Concerto – Side A

When the jazz composer is the soloist, which is usually the case, he or she ironically revives one of the most venerable traditions in classical music.

By Steve Elman

In a previous post, I discussed Chick Corea’s new recording, The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet and Chamber Orchestra. In a sense, its release was the opportunity I’ve been waiting for. The Continents is the fifth jazz piano concerto to be issued since 2000, which is a virtual blizzard of music, considering how few were written in the hundred years before. So this may the right time to start a discussion about the whole tradition, jazz side and classical side, and to look at some of the issues that emerge when musicians try to create works that defy people’s expectations. This is the second part of that discussion, looking at the history of the form from the jazz composer’s perspective.

To complete part three, I’ll need your help. Please see the end of this post.

Can we even define the term? Probably not. Maybe it’s like pornography, in the sense that you know one when you hear one. And yet, we can see two sets of general parameters about the “jazz piano concerto,” one for classical musicians and one for jazz musicians, parameters that define both the differences in the philosophies and the width of the philosophical divide.

The classical composer who engages in a “jazz piano concerto” thinks primarily of an orchestral work with jazz touches—that is, a certain brashness or irreverence, syncopation, swing tempo, and/or instrumental effects associated with jazz (the growl trumpet, the trombone slur, almost any use of the saxophone, etc.) With the exceptions of Friedrich Gulda and Nikolai Kapustin, no classical composer has written a jazz-influenced piano concerto for his or her own performance. (There’s a lot more to say about this side of the divide, but I’ll reserve those observations for part three of this series. This post is primarily about the jazz side.)

The jazz composer comes to this form from the position of the day-to-day improviser, so his or her primary goal is to integrate improvisation into a setting that normally operates under very strict control. Secondarily, he or she seeks to open up the form to admit some other qualities that jazz has made its own—propulsive rhythm, spontaneous interaction, informality.

When the jazz composer is the soloist, which is usually the case, he or she ironically revives one of the most venerable traditions in classical music. From Mozart to Beethoven to Liszt to Rachmaninoff, with too many other less-talented virtuosi along the way to mention, the piano concerto was the Technicolor calling card, a showcase for the composer’s abilities as performer and the performer’s abilities as composer. And very often, these classical works included improvised portions—cadenzas where the composer showed off his or her ability to make music spontaneously.

These precedents ought to have set many more jazz musicians to writing substantial pieces for piano and orchestra, and they ought to have prompted many more classical music directors to commission or program jazz composers’ work. But marketing, marketing, all is marketing, and oughts count for naught. (I’ll have more on this in part four of the series.)

Duke Ellington — NEW WORLD A-COMING was his only piano concerto.

Since Duke Ellington wrote New World A-Coming in 1945, there have been no more than a handful of hybrid pieces for piano and orchestra by jazz composers that have had any impact in either the jazz or the classical world. I’ve chosen eight of them as examples and paradigms, but the truth is that there are very few others I might have included.

An in-depth analysis of each of the eight works here would take far more space than you have patience for. I’m going to make some broad-stroke observations about each one and provide you with links to more detailed analyses if you want to drill down deeper.

I discovered that it’s much harder to generalize about these pieces than I thought it would be. They range from works that could be described as orchestral fantasies to variations on a theme to the traditional fast-slow-fast form of the classical piano concerto. Some use improvisation extensively; some use it hardly at all. Some are for conventional orchestra; others call for more exotic instrumentation, including jazz bass and jazz drums. The earliest, Ellington’s piece, is just 13 minutes long; the most recent, Corea’s The Continents (which I addressed in part one of the series), tips the scales at a mighty 71 minutes and 44 seconds.

I can think of only one thing that unites them spiritually: each of them is a composer’s attempt to stretch his (all the composers here are men) language beyond what he perceives as the limitations of jazz but each strives to do so without abandoning the core characteristics of jazz.

In visiting and revisiting these works, I was struck by ways in which my own perceptions have changed since I began to be interested in these experiments in the mid-1960s. In one way, I was genuinely surprised: the “solos”—that is, the truly improvised parts of these pieces—do not strike me anymore as shifts in focus or changes in style. Even in the earliest works, they now seem to me to be much more organically part of these pieces than they seemed when I first heard them. With the more contemporary works, this melding is even greater. It no longer seems important to me to define the borders between the written and improvised music.

The second change I noted is a more global one. I was freed from hearing the older pieces in their original time, and that helped me get beyond considerations that now seem insignificant. Doing so opened my ears to the way that even the more recent concerti should be heard. When the Ellington, Brubeck, Russell, and Ogerman works appeared, they were thought of as steps forward or backward (or sideways) in the careers of these jazz people; they were mostly met with criticism because they were unwelcome departures from what was expected. I got beyond that mindset finally, which informed my listening to Corea, Camilo, Rantala, and Fox.

The cardinal rule for anyone wishing to engage with these works and enjoy them is to think of each as a stand-alone piece of music, not as some aspect of the composer’s jazz personality, whatever you might believe that to be. Each comes from a place in the composer’s heart that is different from that place that generates jazz. The more you can hear each on its own terms, the better.

Ellington: A New World that Never Came

One of the best examples of the clash between what the composer writes and what the audience expects is the story of Duke Ellington’s New World A-Coming, written in 1945. The only recording of the work in its original form that I know of comes from a radio concert/dance date that was available on LP and has not been reissued on CD.

We can note Ellington’s regret at never being considered more than a jazzman, his ironic anger at being rejected by the Pulitzer Prize committee, and all the other neglect he felt he suffered despite being one of the most important musicians in American history. But there’s no question that his series of “serious” works—“Reminiscin’ in Tempo,” “New World A-Coming,” “Black Brown and Beige,” “A Tone Parallel to Harlem,” “Night Creature,” the Sacred Concerts, etc.—prompt a distinct ambivalence, even in his stone fans. Not one of them is like Ellington’s three-minute dance-and-song masterpieces; many are too pretentious and prolix. They all caused a lot of head-scratching, and Ellington was usually disappointed at their reception. To my ears, not one of them accomplishes its goals better than New World A-Coming, but the lack of enthusiasm for it caused Ellington to set it aside after a very few performances.

This is a through-composed work, though some very singable themes emerge as motifs. There are no soloists other than Ellington himself, and his improvisational contributions are very limited. When you compare the 1945 performance with the solo piano reduction he created 20 years later to include in his First Sacred Concert, nearly every note of the original piano part is still there.

Here he uses a form similar to that of his first attempt to write a large-scale piece (“Reminscin’ in Tempo”), a form that has venerable classical roots—constructing a large edifice on a series of small building blocks. New World A-Coming has five separate motifs that are carefully expanded and combined. Although the “orchestra” here is Ellington’s own band, the work behaves like a classical tone poem with piano or a piano concertino. (After Ellington’s death, one of his trusted orchestrators, Maurice Peress, created a version for piano soloist and symphony orchestra, but I thought it best to concentrate on the original here.)

There is a program of sorts. Ellington was inspired by Roi Ottley, an African-American author/reporter who wrote a book and created a radio series with the same title. He sought to tell the stories of real residents of Harlem and the injustices they suffered, with the essential point that things had to get better for blacks in America. This optimism prompted the title, and Ellington’s piece is built on that optimism. It’s so positive in its ultimate hope that it concludes with one of Ellington’s worst errors ever—a full-throated quote for the whole band from Richard Rodgers’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” introduced in the Rodgers-Hammerstein show Carousel, which opened on Broadway in April 1945 and was already a success at the time Ellington wrote the piece. Unfortunately, nothing in the score justifies this anthemic conclusion, and it almost destroys the delicate effects of the previous 13 minutes.

As with so many jazz piano concertos to come, the program’s importance fades in comparison to the music. Though Ellington was occasionally criticized for his lack of experience as a “serious” writer, it seems to me that the developing and combining of themes in the piece works very well. The optimism of the music is well-conveyed in fast and slow sections alike. In addition, the piece has gained resonance and poignancy over time as the dream of full equality continues to drift forward into the future.

For more on New World A-Coming, drill down here.

Brubeck: Ambition and Misunderstanding

Dave Brubeck Quartet 1967

Almost exactly 20 years later, one of the superstar musicians of jazz tried again. Dave Brubeck, like dozens of his contemporaries, is an appreciator of classical forms and precedents. To some extent, he has always hoped to stretch jazz so that classical ideas would be better tolerated within a jazz context. His improvised flights of counterpoint with saxophonist Paul Desmond were compared to Bach inventions, and he had eyes to write orchestral pieces as soon as he could talk his record companies into making them happen. Critical response was lukewarm; the truth is that Brubeck’s fans have always preferred the performances of his quartet and especially his powerful, block-chord piano solos. But he’s frequently given in to his greater ambitions.

One of his earliest hybrid efforts was “Brandenburg Gate,” co-written with his brother Howard, but the one that most fans heard first was 1963’s Elementals.

Brubeck wrote it all himself, with a little orchestration help from the late Rayburn Wright of the Eastman-Rochester School, who also conducted the uncredited orchestra on the recording. At the time, Brubeck was enjoying unprecedented popularity, riding the crest of the “time” wave created with his Time Out LP and the radio-hit status of his most famous performance, “Take Five,” a jazz tune in 5/4 time. Over the course of the subsequent LPs (marketing, marketing), he provided many more examples of semi-swinging jazz in ever more complicated rhythmic forms.

Brubeck’s Time Changes LP was the fourth in the cycle of “Time” albums and the first of them to feature a work with orchestra. If Brubeck hoped he could carry his audience deep into the channel between jazz and classical with Elementals, he was mistaken. The water here was too deep for a lot of casual fans, and the work met with critical skepticism and in some cases, scorn.

It had only been six or seven years since Gunther Schuller coined the term “third stream” to define a new territory of music that would recognize the desire of musicians on both sides of the fence to work together. The number of third stream pieces recorded and heard was relatively small, and the jazz community had an old suspicion of anything too highbrow (some fans still bristled at the memory of Paul Whiteman claiming he was going to make “a lady out of jazz” in the ’20s).

Elementals, because it was issued under the leadership of a major name in the business, was one of the first of these hybrid pieces to get a broad-based hearing.

I was probably 15 when I first heard it. I was already an unusual jazz listener because I’d pretty much accept anything with the label attached. But this was a surprise. There was no perceptible head and no regular swing tempo. No big drum solo. Some solos in there, to be sure, but there was a lot of stuff that seemed awfully complicated. I was much like the uninformed listener at a pop music concert—I liked the loud parts.

For the purposes of the present essay, I sat down with Elementals again and got a new surprise. With my expectations now informed by more than 30 years of listening, the purposes became clear, and the performances sounded focused. It didn’t seem foreign or strange anymore. Elementals was much better than I’d remembered.

It’s a theme-and-variations piece, a sort of jazz version of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with some features of the concerto grosso mixed in. But as I listened, I discovered something else: Brubeck was using modal foundations for the improv sections, which was something my younger ears never had the experience to hear.

Modes weren’t supposed to be Bru’s bag. That was Miles’s territory, and Coltrane’s after Miles, and George Russell’s universe, encompassing both those worlds of music. But consider the famous, six-note ostinato that underlies most of “Take Five.” (I know, it’s Paul Desmond’s tune, not Brubeck’s.) That ostinato sets up solos without chordal foundation, and it’s one of the things that gives “Take Five” its exotic feel. And if you look farther back in Brubeck’s work, you find “Le Souk,” in his Jazz Goes to College LP, where he evokes North Africa using a mode structure for a similar, open-harmony Desmond solo.

But in Elementals, Brubeck’s use of modality has taken a big step forward and informs the whole piece without being showy about it.

For more on Elementals, drill down here.

As I mentioned in part one of this series, Elementals is not so far removed from the latest effort in the jazz piano concerto, Chick Corea’s The Continents. They’re both pieces with multiple soloists, and the saxophonist gets a good deal of space, but the pianist is the primary voice in the conversation with the orchestra. Hearing them both in close proximity can be very instructive.

Russell: The Non-Concerto

Any discussion about this form cannot omit George Russell’s Living Time, written for pianist Bill Evans in 1972. But this piece is no more a jazz piano concerto than it is a sofabed. In Living Time, Russell created something that had never been done before—a piece for large jazz ensemble and soloists that allowed vast improvisational freedom over a multi-movement landscape with no defined borders. Like a Mobius strip, the piece folds back on itself. It never really has an ending, in a jazz sense or a classical sense. The pianist has an important role but not as a star. He is instead one of the vitally important contributors to a collective endeavor.

To make matters worse, no one in the marketplace had any preparation for this piece. Producer Helen Keane did her best to make it sound like a soloist-with-orchestra record, compressing the ensemble’s sound and bringing Evans forward in the mix, with a result that infuriated Russell. Evans’s fans, expecting a gossamer orchestration to support an introspective soloist, got screaming solos by tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers, avant-funk with electric bass, and take-no-prisoners drumming from Tony Williams, with Evans’s regular drummer Marty Morell relegated to a supporting role at best. Columbia Records was flummoxed. Even those who followed Russell’s music closely (myself included) had to take a deep breath and say, “I need to hear this again.”

Living Time, like all of Russell’s subsequent pieces, blows away the whole jazz-classical divide and declares it irrelevant to great music. Its implications and lessons are still only partially understood. But make no mistake, it is a landmark in the history of music. It should be part of any serious music appreciator’s library, which is why it is something of a crime that both recorded versions of the piece (the Columbia original and the 1995 Russell-produced revised version, which includes very effective parts for strings and expands some of the solo roles) are so difficult to buy today.

For more on both versions of Living Time, drill down here.

There’s a great opportunity for a visionary reissue of both versions in the same package and maybe even a remix of the original in the spirit of the one that Russell produced himself . . . Mosaic Records, are you listening?

Ogerman: Evans Rides Again

Did Living Time inspire or provoke Claus Ogerman? Was producer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer trying to build on or correct what George Russell had done? Did Bill Evans want to provide an alternative to Living Time for more conservative fans? I don’t know.

But Ogerman’s Symbiosis, written in 1973 and recorded in 1974, is the next entry in the jazz piano concerto canon, and it has to be seen as some kind of reaction to Living Time. I remember that I denigrated it when it came out, and I continued to think of it as a curiosity in Evans’s discography until I exhumed it for this essay.

Here’s that lesson again: beware of context; try to listen to a piece on its own terms rather than on terms you might be trying to impose on it.

Ogerman, a German composer-arranger with a long career in jazz and sophisticated popular music, has never been one of my faves. I rank him inferior to Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, and Gary McFarland but much better than Don Sebesky. Maybe that’s faint praise.

Nonetheless, Symbiosis is one of his best compositions, and he is very straightforward in describing its two movements as “two . . . entirely opposed night pieces.” Because the first is mostly lively and the second is mostly meditative, I do think that there’s something missing, maybe a third fast movement that would turn it into a more conventional concerto.

Ogerman uses bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell as part of the orchestra and as support in Evans’s solo sections, but he does not give them solo space per se. The nature of Evans’s trio work is such that the bassist and drummer are an active part of the music; even so, this is no concerto grosso. Evans is the star, and Ogerman gives him setups that prompt beautiful examples of the playing his fans love.

Beyond that, though, Ogerman shows a fine craftsman’s hand. I hear several motifs worked through in the first movement and a set of three lovely chords that underpin the second. In the opening few minutes, there is a strong introductory section that offers a nod to Russell and a Latin groove later on that may be another hommage to his predecessor.

There are a number of original touches. In the middle of the first movement, there’s a long passage of staccato unison runs by brass and winds, punctuated by chiming chords from electric piano and crotales. This has a nice Stravinsky/Reich flavor. Towards the end of the first movement, the strings creep in under Evans, moving from one tonal center to another and building the tension. It never gets to serial territory, but this opens up the horizon well. The second movement has some gorgeous nachtmusik moments that fit Evans’s musical personality like a second skin.

If there are faults, they seem to come from trying too hard, especially in the second movement. The big problem here is a Carl Orff-like passage of ponderous brass and percussion. A little of this goes a long way, and Ogerman opts for too much.

Beyond the details, I miss a sense of real conversation between the orchestra and the soloist. Is it Bill Evans at his best? No. Is Symbiosis worth hearing and rehearing? On balance, yes.

For more on Symbiosis, drill down here.

Corea’s First: Setting Sail for The Continents

Chick Corea — His first concerto paved the way for a more substantial effort.

From the ’70s to the ’90s, there’s a long dry spell. Ironically, during these years, jazz pianists were increasingly trained to a standard that rivaled classical virtuosity, and many of those younger players were capable of handling a jazz piano concerto if anyone chose to write one for them.

But with the last generation of twentieth-century jazz pianists, we have the first generation of players who could also qualify as legitimate composers, pianists fully capable of undertaking orchestration in a form that would not be considered dilettantish. No surprise, then, that in the past 15 years, we’ve seen more experiments in the jazz piano concerto, with more encouraging results.

During this time, no fewer than four virtuoso jazz pianists have written pieces for their own performance with symphony orchestra. Chick Corea and Michel Camilo have each written two.

I discussed Corea’s second effort in part one of this series, but chronologically, this is the place to talk about his first one, conceived in the 1980s and repeatedly revisited and revised until it finally got recorded in 1999. I think that this piece qualifies as the first jazz composer’s piano concerto in the traditional fast-slow-fast form.

Corea has made much of his love of Mozart in conceiving the concerto, but the harmonic language draws more from Aaron Copland (in the third movement especially) and the impressionists (including a near-quote from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin in the first movement). As in The Continents, his second concerto, the scoring is where the debt to Mozart is paid. In its original form, No. 1 was a work for strings and piano soloist, with a few wind, brass, and percussion players used for color and a jazz rhythm section used sparingly. As he developed it after the recording, he called for the rhythm section to take a greater role, edging things closer to the format he chose for The Continents. (There’s a video clip of Corea’s trio with the Boston Pops under Keith Lockhart doing the first movement of No. 1.)

As in The Continents, there’s a good deal of “Spanish” flavor throughout the first concerto. It’s worth noting that Corea, a son of Chelsea, Massachusetts, came to Spanish music avocationally. Even though he’s often thought of as Latino by heritage, both of his parents were first-generation Italian-Americans. Corea learned about Latin music as a player and a fan and thus relates to it very much as Ravel and Debussy related to the music of Spain.

There’s plenty to like here, but it seems to me that the best thing about the first concerto is that it opened Corea to bigger ambitions, which he realized more effectively in The Continents.

Camilo’s First: Molto Latino

Of all the pieces in this survey, the concerti by Corea and Michel Camilo are modeled most directly on the classical piano concerto. Camilo’s is even more echt than Corea’s, and it is genuinely Latin-American (as opposed to Spanish) in flavor. It’s almost certain that if you like Camilo’s music, you’ll enjoy his concerto.

Camilo is a marketer’s dream—born in Santo Domingo, thoroughly drilled in classical technique, steeped in the conventions of popular Latin and Caribbean music, smitten with jazz at an early age. He’s also a piano virtuoso as pure and true as any in music history, a kind of Latin jazz Rachmaninoff. If anyone could be said to be destined to write a jazz piano concerto, he is that person.

Unlike nearly every other jazz composer who’s taken a swing at it, Camilo actually had some success touring his first concerto. He’s played it with the Detroit Symphony, the Copenhagen Philharmonic, the Zagreb Philharmonic, and the Orchestre Nacional de España. On the strength of his recording of the concerto with the BBC Symphony and those concert performances, he’s since written a second concerto, as yet unrecorded, subtitled Tenerife. It had its world premiere with the Tenerife Symphony in the Canary Islands and its US premiere with the Detroit Symphony.

The first concerto abounds in classical influences—Bernstein, Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Chopin, Copland, Villa-Lobos, Rodrigo, and Gershwin all flash by. From the jazz side, Camilo acknowledges Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner as core influences in his playing, and those precursors are here in the orchestral as well as the solo work, along with some big-ensemble writing that recalls Gerald Wilson. Plus, there’s some basic blues and even a taste of Dimitri Tiomkin’s film scores.

If this sounds polyglot, it isn’t. Everything is brought together under a Latin sun, and the piece moves logically from beginning to end. The last movement is perhaps Camilo’s most personal statement, and to my ears, the most effective part. Maybe he tries a little too hard to please an audience and not enough to speak for himself in the other movements, but overall, this was a great start, and I hope someone sees fit to record his second concerto soon.

For more on Camilo’s first, drill down here.

Rantala: Who?

Iiro Rantala ought to be a world star. His technique rivals Camilo’s, and it seems from his touch and his writing that he has a deep familiarity with both the jazz and classical traditions. But there’s his unusual name (repeat after me: EE-row RAHN-tah-lah), the fact that he doesn’t need to leave his homeland of Finland to make a living, his hard-to-categorize bad-boy attitude, and perhaps his reluctance to make that big effort to crack the world stage . . . marketing, marketing.

Rantala was the principal force behind Trio Toykeat, a remarkably cohesive band I was lucky enough to see when I visited Helsinki a number of years ago. The group eschewed the Bill Evans trio model of constant interpersonal conversation and opted to extend the Erroll Garner–Ahmad Jamal model, where clever group arrangements surrounded virtuosic solo work by pianist, bassist, and drummer. A few years back, Rantala decided to try something new—and how. There was a YouTube clip of his New Trio that was unlike anything I’d ever heard, featuring Rantala’s stunning piano work, a fuzz-tone guitar, and a guy doing beatbox. Just recently, he’s released a solo piano record that I have yet to hear, featuring tributes to his many musical heroes.

All of his work is marked by irreverence that gets close to vaudeville. He has a great time pushing the envelope, and he dares you come along for the ride, if you’ve got the head and the soul for it.

His concerto is a direct extension of his personality, which makes it possibly the most idiosyncratic statement in this form since Ellington’s. The provocations start with the title itself: Concerto in G♯▵A♭, which seems to indicate that the piece is written in a heretofore unknown key that lies in the crack between the end and the beginning of the traditional scale.

Rantala starts with a fairly broad joke, a concert A from the oboe and then a full tuning-up of the orchestra that evolves into modern clusters of sound and finally scratches from the strings that sound like insect noises. He closes with a cascade of Beethovenian false endings followed by a short piano-orchestra conversation, a final, resolving chord, and a soft muted-trombone Bronx cheer. In between these burlesques, there is a kind of fast-slow-fast form, with plenty of jokes and detours along the way. Chopin, Richard Strauss, Gershwin, Prokoviev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, big swing band clichés, Walter Schumann’s theme from Dragnet—they all get set up and knocked down.

But this isn’t jazz meets P. D. Q. Bach. Rantala’s approach is almost an inversion of Bernard Shaw’s famous quote; his way of telling the truth is to make a joke. Spiritually, this approach is close to the take-no-prisoners attitude of George Antheil (about whom more in part 3 of this series) leavened with a deep respect for melody. There is even some “mechanical” music of obsessive repetition and percussive hammering that seems to be a direct homage to Antheil.

The first reaction to the concerto might legitimately be “Whew!” . . .  so much has gone by in a mere 38 minutes. But then you recall the beautiful passages of the slow movement, Rantala’s brilliant playing, that wonderful moment in the third movement where he solos over vibraphone ostinato and strings, a lovely trumpet tune in the first movement . . .

For more on Rantala’s concerto, drill down here.

Fox: An Adventure in Need of a Recording

Donal Fox should be a familiar name to Boston jazz fans, but he has yet to build a real national rep. That hasn’t stopped him from writing a work for piano and orchestra that provides a perfect rounding to this survey. It has yet to achieve commercial release, but he was kind enough to give me a copy of a private recording he made with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall so that I could include a description here.

Donal Fox at Carnegie Hall in a performance of PEACE OUT

Fox regularly appears in the area’s jazz clubs, and one of his primary aesthetic goals seems to be to blur the boundary between classical music and jazz. He is not particularly interested in “jazzing the classics,” as the old phrase has it but instead in finding ways to make the two traditions talk to each other coherently. And he has the chops to carry it off. So it is supremely logical that he would write a jazz piano concerto, and Peace Out fulfills the promise.

Like Ellington’s New World A-Coming, Fox’s Peace Out is a brief essay—in fact, almost exactly the same length—without the traditional bass-and-drums rhythm section, in which the piano solo statements are so well-integrated that it seems pointless to ask which are improvised and which are not.

Like Corea, Fox chose a three-movement structure, albeit a very unconventional one. Like Rantala, he has a sense of humor and a gift for surprising us with melody. Like Camilo, he is a pianist of vast technique, and he’s not afraid of showing it off. Peace Out just needs a committed, local music director, a good recording in Jordan Hall or in the new Boston Conservatory theater or at the ICA, and an independent label willing to get it out on disk—or at the very least, someone willing to pay Fox for the download rights.

Peace Out opens with a can-you-take-it challenge to the listener: powerful, non-tonal piano trills that lead into a big, aggressive chord from the orchestra. Got it, Donal; this ain’t mood music. But the texture gradually thins out and form takes hold, with Fox providing high-voltage piano as strong as the orchestra. Then there’s an attacca transition to variations on Charlie Parker’s venerable blues, “Now’s the Time,” and the piece settles into a more readily perceptible structure—reharmonization of the theme, stomps from the orchestra, a virtuoso spot for the xylophonist, and a superb piano cadenza, with much more left-hand than we usually get from a jazz player. The third movement settles down even more, into a minimalist pastorale that feels like open sky after all that’s gone before. The orchestra fades away, soft piano notes hang in the air, and it’s suddenly done.

It’s a big risk to invert the usual form—starting at full intensity and concluding with the mildest of moods—but Fox carries it off very well in the performance I heard. I wish you could hear it, too.

Here is the drill down for Donal Fox’s Peace Out.

Conclusions? Not yet.

Before we get there, we have to look at the other side of the divide—classical composers’ forays into jazz. For that, I hope you’ll help. The classical side offers some great examples of the form (Schulhoff, Gershwin, Copland, Antheil), but they seem to stop in 1931 with Ravel. It’s hard to know something definitive about later pieces because there’s been so little attention to the form and so little interest in it from recording companies. So, it would be a great help if you’d share in the comment section what you know about jazz influences, great or small, in these pieces and in any others you think I should mention:

Nikolai Kapustin: Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 1 (1957)

Friedrich Gulda: Concertino for Players and Singers (1960) (scored for chorus, p, e-b, dm, tymp, strings)

Nikolai Kapustin: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1, Op. 2 (1961)

Rodion Shchedrin: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 (1966)

Nikolai Kapustin: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2, Op. 14 (1974)

William Bolcom: Concerto for Piano and Large Orchestra (1976) – Marc-Andre Hamelin, p; Ulster Orchestra, Dimitri Sitkovetsky, cond [Hyperion, 2000; with Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety”]

John Harbison: Piano Concerto (1977 – 1978)

Friedrich Gulda: Concerto for Ursula (1981) – Ursula Anders, p, vo, tym; Martin Haselböck, org; Wayne Darling, b; Michael Honzak, dm; strings of the Berliner Kammermusikensemble; Gulda, cond [Rec. 4/82, Vienna; Amadeo LP, 1982;

Nikolai Kapustin: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3, Op. 48 (1985)

Friedrich Gulda: Concerto for Myself: Sonata concertante for Piano and Orchestra (1988) – Gulda, p, cond; NDR-Sinfonieorchester [Klassik Edition Extra CD, with Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4]

Nikolai Kapustin: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4, Op. 56 (1989)

Nikolai Kapustin: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5, Op. 72 (1993)

Nikolai Kapustin: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 6, Op. 74 (1993)

Works and recordings discussed in this post

Edward Kennedy Ellington [Duke Ellington]: New World A-Coming

a. Original version for jazz orchestra (1945, possibly orchestrated by Luther Henderson) – Ellington, p; Duke Ellington Orchestra; Ellington, cond [Recorded in an aircheck of a dance date / radio broadcast, Evansville, IN, 6/16/45; currently unavailable; originally issued on A Date with the Duke, Vol. 5 (Fairmont LP, 1974), which also included “Blue Serge,” “Cottontail,” and other material from the broadcast; subsequently issued in New World A Comin’ – 1945 – 1946 (History CD, 1999), with other dance date material from the period]

b. Solo piano version (1965, reduction and compression of the original score) – Ellington, p [incorporated as seventh movement of Concert of Sacred Music (First Sacred Concert). Original issue (not currently available) rec. 12/26/65, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York; RCA LP, 1966; first recording, rec. 9/16/65, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco; Status CD, 1999]

c. Symphonic edition (created by Maurice Peress) – Sir Roland Hanna, p; American Composers Orchestra; Peress, cond [Nimbus CD, 2008]

Dave Brubeck (ed. Rayburn Wright): Elementals (1963) – Brubeck, p; Paul Desmond, as; Eugene Wright, b; Joe Morello, dm; studio orchestra of unidentified New York-based musicians; Rayburn Wright, cond [Rec. 12/12/63, New York City; Columbia LP, 1964; re-issued on Columbia / Legacy CD, c. 2004, with previously unreleased three-minute quartet version of theme from the larger work]

Jazz Goes to College – Dave Brubeck, p; Paul Desmond, as; Bob Bates, b; Joe Dodge, dm [“Le Souk” rec. 3/54, Oberlin, OH; remastered for CD release, 1991]

Time Out – Dave Brubeck, p; Paul Desmond, as; Eugene Wright, b; Joe Morello, dm [Rec. 6-7/59, New York City; remastered for CD release, 1997]

Brandenburg Gate Revisited – Dave Brubeck, p; Paul Desmond, as; Eugene Wright, b; Joe Morello, dm; Max Pollikoff, v, cmstr; unidentified orchestral players; Howard Brubeck, arr, cond [Rec. 8/61, New York City; remastered for CD release, 1998]

George Russell: Living Time

a. First version (1972) – Bill Evans, p & elec p; “George Russell Orchestra,” a handpicked ensemble of New York-based musicians, including Stanton Davis & Richard Williams, tp; David Baker & Garnett Brown, tb; Jimmy Giuffre, cl; Sam Rivers & Joe Henderson, ts; Webster Lewis, org; Sam Brown, g; Eddie Gomez, b; Stanley Clarke & Ron Carter, e-b; Tony Williams & Marty Morell, dm; Marc Belair, per; Russell, cond [Rec. 1972, New York City; Columbia LP, 1972; Japanese Sony CD, 2010]

b. Second version (1995, adding full string section, supplemental brass, winds, and percussion, orchestrated by Pat Hollenbeck) – Living Time Orchestra (incl. Stuart Brooks, Stanton Davis, Tiger Okoshi, tp; Dave Bargeron, tb; Richard Henry, bass tb; Chris Biscoe, as; Andy Sheppard, ts, ss; Pete Hurt, bcl / ts / bari; Mike Walker, g; Brad Hatfield & Steve Lodder, kb; Bill Urmson, e-b; Billy Ward, dm; Pat Hollenbeck, per); with Paul-Christian Staicu, p; Cécile Daroux, fl; tuba, Frh, additional tp, additional tb, additional per, additional ts, 15 string players (Régis Huby, cmstr) drawn from Conservatoire national supérieure de musique et de danse de Paris, Conservatoire d’Aubervilliers, Conservatoire de Montreuil, & Orchestre de Picardie; George Russell, cond [Rec. 1995, Paris; Label Bleu CD, 1995]

Claus Ogerman: Symbiosis (1973? – 1974) – Bill Evans, p & elec p; Eddie Gomez, b; Marty Morell, dm; Ralph McDonald, cga; studio orchestra of New York City-based musicians, incl. Phil Woods, Jerry Dodgion, Hubert Laws, Marvin Stamm, Bernie Glow, Urbie Green, Don Butterfield, and unidentified strings led by David Nadien, v, cmstr; Ogerman, cond [Rec. 2/74; issued as Bill Evans: Symbiosis. Currently available only in download form; previously available as Polygram / MPS CD, 1995 and MPS / BASF LP, 1974]

Armando Anthony Corea [Chick Corea]: Piano Concerto No. 1 (1983? – 1995; rev. 1999) – Corea, p & cond; Avishai Cohen, b; Jeff Ballard, dm; London Philharmonic Orchestra [Rec. 4/3/99, Hampstead, England; issued as part of Corea.concerto, Sony CD, 1999, which also includes “Spain, for Sextet & Orchestra”]

Undated video clip (c. 2000) of revised version of first movement, with Corea, Cohen, Ballard, Boston Pops, Keith Lockhart, cond.

Michel Camilo: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1997?) – Camilo, p; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin, cond [Rec. 2/01, The Colosseum, Watford, UK; Decca CD, 2001; recording also includes two other Camilo compositions – “Suite for Piano, Strings and Harp” and “Caribe”]

Iiro Rantala: Concerto in G♯▵A♭ (2002 – 2005), partially scored by Jaako Kuusisto (Rantala’s brother-in-law) – Rantala, p; Tapiola Sinfonietta; Kuuisto, cond / v [Rec. 5/05, Tapiola Hall, Espoo, Finland; Ondine CD, 2006; recording also includes three other Rantala compositions – “Astorale,”, “Tangonator,” and “Final Fantasy”]

Donal Fox: Peace Out, for Improvised Piano and Orchestra (2009) – Fox, p; American Composers Orchestra; Stefan Lano, cond [Rec. 11/30/09, Carnegie Hall, New York City; private recording, currently unavailable commercially]

Armando Anthony Corea [Chick Corea]: The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet and Chamber Orchestra (2006; rev. 2011) [originally called “Piano Concerto No. 2,” and later “The Continents: Concerto for Small Jazz Group and Chamber Orchestra”] – Corea, p; Tim Garland, ss, fl, bcl; Steve Davis, tb; Hans Glawischnig, b; Marcus Gilmore, dm; studio orchestra of New York City-based musicians, including Fred Sherry, cel, cmstr; Richard Stolzman, cl; The Harlem Quartet [Ilmar Gavilán & Melissa White, v; Juan Miguel Hernandez, vla; Paul Wiancko, cel] Imani Winds [Valerie Coleman, fl; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, ob; Mariam Adam, cl; Jeff Scott, Frh; Monica Ellis, bsn]; Louis Hanzlik, tp; David Byrd-Marrow, Frh; Mariam Madam, cl; Jacqueline Leclair, ob; Steven Mercurio, cond [Rec. 2011, New York City; issued as part of “Chick Corea: The Continents,” Deutsche Grammophon CD set, 2012, which also includes solo piano improvisations and performances by Corea’s quintet of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa,” etc.]

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