As we mark the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, here are the soulfully defiant sounds of the New Orleans-based Treme Brass Band. This is music that proudly proclaims, “we’re still here!” It’s the same sense of spirit that emerges from the solemn jazz funeral procession that suddenly turns into an uplifting street celebration.
I heard the Treme band when I was in New Orleans, earlier in the summer. Here is Jesus on the Main Line from their 1995 album, Gimme My Money Back!
Jazz music is America’s past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.
Cuba is home to one of the world’s richest musical melting pots…the vibrant convergence of west African and European (especially Spanish) musical traditions over 500 years of history. From rumba and son cubano to Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa, this Latin musical stew often features dizzying rhythmic complexity while retaining a suave sense of “cool.” Clave rhythm, the source of this “cool” complexity, gives Latin music its unique sense of swing. It’s a rhythmic groove that remains elegantly breezy while keeping us constantly off balance.
Last week the United States and Cuba formally restored diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961, reopening long-shuttered embassies. As we mark this historic event, let’s listen to three musical portraits of Cuba. We’ll start with the music of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland: the sounds of Cuba from the perspective of an American visitor. Then, finally, we’ll plunge into the delirious world of Mario Bauzá’s Afro-Cuban jazz.
Gershwin in Havana
Cuban Overture grew out George Gershwin’s holiday in Havana during July and August of 1932, (according to Gershwin, “two hysterical weeks…where no sleep was had”). Originally titled Rumba, and first performed at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium for a crowd of 18,000, Cuban Overture explodes with a larger-than-life, fun-loving vitality. It also embodies an endearing spirit of innocence and optimism, twentieth century American qualities we hear in much of Gershwin’s music.
Spicy Cuban rhythm fills the piece. The percussion section is augmented with claves, maracas, guiro, and bongos. In the score, Gershwin requests that these instruments be placed in front of the conductor’s stand. The overture’s main theme was influenced by Ignacio Piñeiro’s Échale Salsita (listen here). Other influences include the Spanish folk song, La Paloma.
As carefree as Cuban Overture sounds, it was actually a step towards greater compositional sophistication and maturity for Gershwin, who would die five years later at the age of 38. In 1932, in an effort to hone his technical skills as a composer, Gershwin began studying with Joseph Schillinger, a sought after, Russian-trained music and mathematics teacher. Cuban Overture was the first piece Gershwin wrote after working with Schillinger. It’s interesting that, with pieces like An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue already under his belt, Gershwin felt compelled to seek out Schillinger. No art is produced with inspiration alone. Technique and craftsmanship are essential elements. But, amazingly, with or without Schillinger’s influence, we still hear the essential spirit and genius of Gershwin shining through in the music.
Here is a 1962 recording with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra conducted by Howard Hanson. Listen to the repeated, swinging bass line which occurs throughout the piece and the layers of interlocking rhythm. In the slow middle section, I love the lush warmth and occasional “old school” portamenti in the strings on this recording:
Written in 1942, Danzón Cubano is Aaron Copland’s musical postcard from Cuba. Again, these are the sounds of Cuba from the perspective of a visitor. As Copland explained,
I did not attempt to reproduce an authentic Cuban sound but felt free to add my own touches of displaced accents and unexpected silent beats.
You may be familiar with the orchestral version of this piece. Copland originally scored it for two pianos. Here is that version, performed by Copland and Leo Smit:
Mario Bauzá and Afro-Cuban Jazz
Mario Bauzá (1911-1993) helped to bring Afro-Cuban sounds to New York jazz. He performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, and others. Here is his band’s take on El Manisero(“The Peanut Vendor”), a hit song by Moisés Simons, first recorded by Rita Montanerin 1928.
Notice the off-balance sophistication of the clave rhythm. In the opening, the bass establishes a fairly square and straight-forward rhythmic pattern. But listen to what happens around this rhythm as other instruments enter. The saxophones enter on a different beat than we might expect, shifting the emphasis and suddenly changing the way we perceive the underlying bass groove.
Find the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra recording of George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture on iTunes, Amazon.
American composer Terry Riley turned 80 on Wednesday. He was one of the earliest pioneers of minimalism and experimental music. Riley’s music blends a variety of elements, including jazz and Indian music. A Rainbow in Curved Air, recorded in the late 1960s, influenced ambient and rock musicians, including Pete Townshend and The Who.
One of Terry Riley’s earliest and most influential works is the gradually unfolding In C, written in 1964. In C is built on a continuous repeating pulse on the pitch “C,” which serves as a “metronome” for the other parts. Elements of improvisation make In C sound different every time it’s performed. Instrumentation is left open to the performers. The piece’s blueprints call for 53 short, numbered musical phrases which can be played by any performer. In C’s counterpoint and duration are open to chance as each performer controls when they move on. They must stay within two or three phrases of each other.
It’s important to slow down and enjoy the moment as you approach this music. Listen to the way the music gradually develops out of the opening pulse, moving from one spontaneous adventure to the next. There are moments of incredibly exciting tension and conflict as motives collide and the canonic counterpoint becomes dense. Complex rhythms begin to form as the parts weave together.
This 1990 performance by the keyboard ensemble Piano Circus involves a concert grand piano, upright piano, Rhodes piano, harpsichords, and vibraphone:
Now, for comparison, listen to this contrasting recording by the group Bang on a Can. Also check out Jad Abumrad’s In C Remix.
American composer, conductor, horn player, writer, educator, and jazz musician Gunther Schuller passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Schuller’s compositions fused elements of jazz and classical music into a style he called “Third Stream.” His remarkably diverse career included principal horn positions with the Cincinnati Symphony and Metropolitan Opera orchestras in the 1940s and 50s, as well as collaborations with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and others. In the 1960s and 70s, he was president of New England Conservatory of Music. He served as director of new musical activities at the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony. More recently, he served as artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington.
Gunther Schuller talks about his musical development and the influence of orchestra playing, Scriabin, Ravel, and Duke Ellington in this 1999 conversation with David Starobin.
Where the Word Ends was written in 2007 for James Levine and the Boston Symphony. In the opening of the piece, ghostly voices emerge out of silence, suddenly thrusting us into a dark world of apprehension. As the piece progresses, we hear faint echoes of the music of Anton Bruckner (9:48), Mahler, Bartok, and Stravinsky. At 21:27, a lonely, jazzy solo horn line briefly emerges. Where the Word Ends is a haunting dreamscape of color and sound.
In this live BBC Proms performance, Semyon Bychkov leads the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne:
The Chamber Music Society Of Lincoln Center’s recording of Octet, written in 1979, first movement:
The bluesy second movement, Passacaglia, from Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959):
Leonard Bernstein’s March 11, 1964 New York Philharmonic “Young People’s Concert,” Jazz in the Concert Hall featured Gunther Schuller conducting his educational narrative, Journey into Jazz:
American jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman passed away yesterday in Manhattan at the age of 85. In the 1960s Coleman was at the forefront of free jazz, a movement which liberated jazz from its traditional harmonic and formal rules. This 1961 album and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning Sound Grammarwill give you a sense of the adventurous nature and rhythmic sophistication of Coleman’s music. Traditional jazz was often built on melodies from the American songbook and followed a strict structure. Coleman’s music discarded these conventions. The result was music which gradually evolved over longer periods of time and erupted with a uniquely visceral spontaneity. Coleman’s distinctively mournful sound captured the soul of the blues.
John Zorn’s “Spy vs. Spy”
I first discovered Ornette Coleman’s music through an excerpt from John Zorn’s 1989 album, Spy vs Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman. Zorn, a saxophonist and New York Avant-garde composer, pushes Coleman’s music into the world of thrash jazz and punk rock. We hear the rebellious edginess of rock…the thrilling, metallic, full decibel “noise” of the contemporary world.
Listen to Ornette Colman’s original Good Old Days from the 1967 album, The Empty Foxhole:
Listening to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, it’s easy to get a sense of altered reality. Outwardly, the original six movement suite, written for solo piano, responds to the horrors and devastation of the First World War, a conflict Ravel experienced first hand as a military ambulance driver. Ravel dedicated each movement of the work, written between 1914 and 1917, to the memory of a friend lost on the battlefield.
But, interestingly, we don’t hear the anguish of war in Ravel’s music. There isn’t a hint of the hellish fury of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies or the dazed shell shock and bleak desolation of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral” Symphony. Instead, Le Tombeau de Couperin escapes into an almost childlike world of color and joyful, elegant ambivalence. Like so much of Ravel’s music, there is a sense of detachment which seems to open the door to ultimate, yet indescribable truth. Some critics complained that the music was not sombre enough for its subject matter, to which Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”
Through its hazy, impressionistic prism, Le Tombeau de Couperin also evokes voices of the distant past. Its title references the French Baroque composer François Couperin (1668-1733). In the seventeenth century, Tombeau, which translates literally as “tomb,” referred to “a piece written as a memorial.” Ravel intended to pay homage not only to Couperin, but to the style and ambiance of eighteenth century French keyboard suites. The movements are based on popular Baroque dances. Listen to the rhythm and structure of this Forlane by François Couperin and compare it to Ravel’s Forlane below.
Le Tombeau de Couperin was originally written as a six movement solo keyboard suite. (Listen to Louis Lortie’s excellent performance here). Two years after its completion, Ravel orchestrated the suite, eliminating two movements (the Fugue and the Toccata). Listening to the piano score, the jazzy sophistication of Ravel’s harmonies come across with striking brilliance. But it’s in the final, orchestrated version where the music blossoms with new life through a rich array of colors. The instruments, with their distinct personas, engage in musical conversations and the tonal colors mix in magical new ways.
From the bubbly opening of the Prélude, there’s a dreamlike and illusory quality about the music. It doesn’t go where we expect, and just when we think we’ve arrived at a climax, something firm that we can hold onto, the music dissolves, like a mirage. Throughout the piece, there’s a sense of joy in the rhythm. In the Forlane, notice the buoyant, dance-like quality of the music, especially in the passage beginning at 1:10. The closing Rigaudon is full of jokes and surprises. As in the first movement, we’re pulled in new, unexpected directions.
For me, the Menuet evokes serene beauty, but also a touch of sadness. As the oboe makes its opening statement, listen to the changing colors around this solo voice. Notice the velvety bed of strings, which enters at the end of the first phrase and then passes us along to the next phrase (0:05). Listen carefully to the sudden change of color and parallel harmony beginning at 1:47. I love the way this darker, veiled new world dissolves effortlessly back into the opening theme. At the end of the Menuet, the music pauses at a climactic moment of shimmering sensuality and repose (3:52) before being cut off by the innocent, childlike “laugh” of the woodwind voices, which seem to be saying, “Come on, let’s go.” The final chord fades into a jazzy dreamscape.
One of my favorite recordings of this piece is Charles Dutoit’s 1990 CD with the Montreal Symphony:
Charlie Haden, the legendary and influential jazz double bass player, passed away last Friday in Los Angeles at the age of 76. Haden enjoyed long associations with fellow jazz greats such as Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. His death comes a month after passing of another important figure in American jazz, pianist Horace Silver (listen here).
This interview offers a glimpse at Charlie Haden’s extraordinary life and political activism. He believed that jazz is “music of rebellion” and he wasn’t afraid to use it as a powerful tool for protest. At the same time, his approach to music was deeply spiritual:
I learned at a very young age that music teaches you about life. When you’re in the midst of improvisation, there is no yesterday and no tomorrow — there is just the moment that you are in. In that beautiful moment, you experience your true insignificance to the rest of the universe. It is then, and only then, that you can experience your true significance.
I want [students] to come away with discovering the music inside them. And not thinking about themselves as jazz musicians, but thinking about themselves as good human beings, striving to be a great person and maybe they’ll become a great musician.
I always dreamed of a world without cruelty and greed, of a humanity with the same creative brilliance of our solar system, of an America worthy of the dreams of Martin Luther King, and the majesty of the Statue of Liberty…This music is dedicated to those who still dream of a society with compassion, deep creative intelligence, and a respect for the preciousness of life — for our children, and for our future.
Silence, from the 1987 album by the same title, features Haden with Chet Baker (trumpet), Enrico Pieranunzi (piano), and Billy Higgins (drums):
Every memorable pop song is constructed with two important ingredients: a catchy hook and a satisfying rhythmic groove. These basic musical elements also can be heard in American composer Michael Torke’s Adjustable Wrench, written in 1987. The piece is scored for a small chamber orchestra and includes piano, synthesizer and marimba.
As you listen to Adjustable Wrench, enjoy the feel of the jazz/pop inspired rhythmic groove and the insistent melodic hook. How is the music flowing and developing? Why do you think Torke chose the title, Adjustable Wrench?
I love the way this piece evolves gradually out of the single clarinet line at the beginning, becoming increasingly complex. We feel the repetitive groove in the same visceral way we would experience it in a pop song. The pulse stays the same, but listen to the way the groove changes subtly and becomes more intense in some places (1:04-1:37).
The piece shifts gradually from one section to another by overlapping voices and allowing old melodic cells to fade out while new ones emerge. You can hear this in the passage after 2:12. Steve Reich uses a similar technique in Eight Lines.
Michael Torke explains the structure of the piece further:
[quote]Each group of four instruments combines with a keyboard: four woodwinds are matched with a piano, four brass with a marimba, and four strings with a synthesizer. The texture is simple- melody and accompaniment. After a melody is introduced, it is then harmonized into four note chords. The chords become an accompaniment for a new melody, which in turn is harmonized to work with the accompaniment. The old chords drop out making the new chords become the new accompaniment for yet another new melody. The keyboard instruments, around which each family of four instruments is grouped, simply double exactly what is being played; the piano, marimba, and synthesizer add no new material. Instead, they provide an extra envelope to the four-note chords as well as reinforce the attacks. The music falls into the kind of four-bar phrases found in most popular music. Overall, the structure of the piece is arranged in four identifiable sections.[/quote]
There are interesting but probably coincidental similarities between Adjustable Wrench and Van Halen’s 1983 rock song Jump. In this interview Torke says that he had not heard any Van Halen at the time, but that another more obscure rock song provided influence.
Adjustable Wrench is a great example of the power of rhythm and the importance of finding the groove.