Commentary Drill Down: Claus Ogerman’s “Symbiosis”

Fuse Jazz Critic Steve Elman is currently surveying works that illuminate the tradition of the jazz-influenced piano concerto. His series began with an examination of Chick Corea’s current recording, The Continents. In part two, he takes a look at eight works by jazz composers that precede the release of Corea’s work. This post is a detailed examination of one of the works discussed in part two.

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]

Length: c. 41 minutes

Movement I is divided into bands on the LP, probably to facilitate radio play. The bands are not particularly instructive for analysis, but I note them below for what they’re worth.

Movement I:

(Band 1)

Saxes open with a bluesy two-note motif, then stabbing figures from the orchestra. The motif returns, and then the orchestra subsides into a quiet, meditative mood.

Bass and drums set up a medium tempo groove for Evans’s entrance on piano. He works with a theme derived from the dissonant chords established in the introduction and then opens up for a full exposition, cushioning the dissonances with his own distinctive harmonic touches. The mood here is very like one event of “Living Time.”

Strings and reeds briefly come in, and then Evans takes his first improvised solo, over bass and drums only, using the exposition material. The chords are set up in a 32-bar structure with a modal “bridge,” so this feels very comfortable, post Kind-of-Blue territory. This improv section is very effective and would stand alone as a fine Bill Evans trio performance.

(Band 2)

A medium tempo, semi-Latin groove (like Russell) sets up a long series of staccato runs by the saxes and winds in unison, punctuated periodically by chiming chords from electric piano with bass. The harmony shifts, but there is something of a tonal center against which the dissonances play. In effect, this is a long, harmonized “solo” for the saxophone section with occasional stop-time nods from the jazz trio.

When crotales or glockenspiel are added to the colors, the pairing with electric piano gives this a Stravinsky / Reich quality—a nice original orchestration touch.

(Band 3)

Electric piano, bass, and drums set up an absolutely conventional jazz feel, and strings and light winds creep in under. Evans moves into improvisation once the harmonies are established. A tension grows in the strings, pushing the harmony from one tonal center to another—it’s not exactly serial but distinctly atonal. The harmonic foundation gradually cycles through a series and then repeats.

Bass and drums drop out, and Evans plays a transitional passage with orchestra, using piano and electric piano simultaneously.

The Latin feel of Band 2 returns, with almost exactly the same effects. Long chords from the strings conclude the movement.

Movement II:

Evans opens the movement with a solo piano statement. He uses a written three-chord motif that is perfectly in tune with the wistful, meditative quality of his jazz work at the time. Strings come in, repeating the three-chord motif and enriching it, and the piano falls away.

Evans returns after the strings have their say, moving away from the harmonies immediately, with strings cushioning him. Gradually the harmonies darken.

Evans improvises, returning to the feel of the original three chords. Bass and drums come in quietly under him. A stately, Bach-like mood emerges. Strings come in under the trio, then fade away.

The trio undertakes a three-man improvisation on the previous chords and moods.

Strings and high winds bring back the written material, and we get a delicate nachtmusik with the orchestra doubling Evans’s right-hand lines. Then a second promenade-like motif is introduced in the horns.

Another delicate passage with right-hand piano lines and orchestra leads into a kind of “Carmina Burana” excess: ponderous chords led by brass, crotales jingling away. Evans joins and plays in unison with brass and winds, strings cushioning. Tympani add to the weight of the music. This is the least effective part of the piece because this heavy music isn’t justified by the rest of the work, and it goes on far too long. A flourish from the full orchestra ends this section.

Then the original, lovely chords come back, as Evans plays another solo to round out the movement. It’s a welcome relief. The strings cushion and support him, leading to a delicate piano cascade and a hush from the strings.

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