A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

In his short but sagacious article “Stravinsky and Jazz,” published in Tempo magazine to celebrate the composer’s 85th birthday in Summer 1967, British music critic Wilfrid Mellers suggests that Igor Stravinsky’s attraction to jazz came from a search for a new and distinctive sense of musical vitality, which he pursued through various “folk” sources. As other critics have before him, he cites both Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring, from 1913) and Les Noces (The Wedding, composed between 1914 and ‘17, revised in the ‘20s) as examples of Stravinsky using Russian folk melodies and legends to circumvent the conventions of classical music of the period, and he connects the same impulse to his curiosity about jazz just a few years later. In his book Dialogues And A Diary (Doubleday), Stravinsky relates that “In 1918 [the conductor] Ernest Ansermet, returning from an American tour, brought me a bundle of ragtime music in the form of piano reductions and instrumental parts, which I copied out in score. With these pieces before me, I composed the “Ragtime” in Histoire du soldat, and ... the Ragtime for eleven instruments.”

Interestingly, Mellers calls these pieces “anti-jazz,” not because of Stravinsky’s awkwardness with the idiom, but because of the implied symbolism which the composer attached to them. In the plot of Histoire du soldat, it is the devil who “... corrupts the hero, destroys his soul, by hypnotic boogie rhythm and disruptive syncopation” – in Mellers’ eyes, the opposite intention of jazz’s life-affirming vivacity. The emphasis on the Hungarian cimbalom in Ragtime gives the music an Eastern European, gypsy flavor, and the melodies have a Satie-like theatrical piquancy, which Mellers characterizes as “a clown-like pathos.” (Only the trombone slides, a kind of smoothed-out gutbucket effect, reveal a hint of jazz.) But even more telling is the fact that, at this point in time, Stravinsky in his statement admits he had not heard any jazz, and had access not to recordings, but only written scores, and makes it clear that these were ragtime scores – that most formalized and Europeanized of jazz’s precursors – which limited his awareness of what “jazz” was, or could be, as early as 1918. Even so, it’s obvious that Stravinsky never intended to mimic the sound or style of actual ragtime, he merely wanted to appropriate some new ideas of rhythmic organization and structural dislocation, and put them to use in a personalized manner of composition – that is, adapted to his musical syntax and formal contexts.

Though today we would consider the description insensitive, Mellers labels this appropriation “rediscovered primitivism,” and while he doesn’t mention Picasso, there are obvious similarities between the conceptual influence of African art on Picasso in the first decade of the 20th century and that of Stravinsky’s “jazz” sources a decade later. It’s no coincidence that the two first met in 1917 and no doubt compared their artistic perspectives, or that Picasso drew the cover image for the printed score of Stravinsky’s piano reduction of Ragtime. Further, it can be argued there are parallels between the multiple angular images of Cubism as well as the juxtaposed material in Picasso’s collages and the jolting angular rhythms, contrasting episodes, and constructed formal tendencies of Stravinsky’s music, as early as the Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914) and as late as his Movements (1960). And just as Picasso ultimately developed a varied approach to figuration and abstraction without neglecting his early stylistic encounters, so Stravinsky continued to, on occasion, incorporate rhythmic effects that could be interpreted as jazz-inspired into his various “neo-classical” compositions. But he never composed a jazz composition or anything resembling a jazz-and-classical hybrid.

In fact, even the Ebony Concerto,though commissioned for the Woody Herman Orchestra in 1945, is the product of a stylistic misconception. In Dialogues And A Diary, Stravinsky explains that he chose “Ebony” not as a reference to the wood of the clarinet, but rather to mean “African.” By this time, he had heard a number of modern jazz artists in America, and he mentions especially admiring Charlie Christian, Art Tatum, and Charlie Parker. In his mind, the slow middle movement was to be a blues that reflected the essence of African American culture, with the emphasis on (a la Picasso) African. Instead, the rigid, mechanistic syncopation – characteristic of his favorite stuttering chords – of the first and third movements forced the Herman band to wrestle with alien rhythms, and the dour, labored slow movement is more funeral march than transcendent blues aria; nor does Woody’s own marvelously expressive “impure” jazz tone on clarinet suit the crisp, brisk, abstracted feel of Stravinsky’s conducting. It’s also worth noting that when the Herman band re-recorded the piece in 1957, without Stravinsky at the helm and with John La Porta replacing Woody as clarinet soloist, they took more expressive license with pacing and phrasing, as did, for that matter, Pierre Boulez in conducting the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Nevertheless, under any circumstances, the Ebony Concerto is not bad Stravinsky, it’s just not jazz, nor in any recognizable way African.

And yet, it’s somehow not surprising that several generations of jazz musicians have been and continue to be drawn to Stravinsky’s music, and find ways to respond to its unique characteristics in their own fashion. Though there had of course been a classical undercurrent throughout jazz’s history (consider, among other examples, Bix Beiderbecke’s piano pieces, Ellington from the very beginning, and the aforementioned influence of Chopin and his brethren on ragtime), by the ‘40s and ‘50s big band arrangers with modernist leanings were expanding their harmonic vocabularies by examining classical examples, and Stravinsky, Debussy, and Bartok proved more immediately palatable than Schönberg’s knotty serial systems. But it was Stravinsky who jazzers name-checked when they wanted to be thought of as avant-hip – even if there was no apparent musical connection. It’s understandable that Shorty Rogers and Red Norvo would write a catchy tune for Herman’s Woodchoppers and call it “Igor” following their participation in the Ebony Concerto, though its plucky, boppish line suggested no relation to its dedicatee. But it seems composer Ed Finckel named a big band flag-waver “Boyd Meets Stravinsky” in 1946 just to gain some modernist credibility for the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra (when the band already had an avant-slant thanks to the truly surreal arrangements of George Handy). Likewise, young composer/arranger George Russell fashioned “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” in 1949 for the Buddy De Franco Orchestra, and though its twisting chromatic figures and leaping bop licks were a radical combination, the title’s reference is simply a case of wishful thinking. Clare Fischer penned his “Igor,” with a few exotic harmonic curves but no audible relationship, in 1963.

However, some forward-thinkers did borrow directly from the source – such as the indefatigable Pete Rugolo, who cast several themes from Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet The Firebird in a grandiose big band setting for his “Firebird Jumps,” but more creatively devised an fascinating two-minute exercise that weaves together a recurring episode from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, a smidge of The Firebird, and a quotation (played by oboe) of Charlie Parker’s “Cool Blues.” He called it “Igor Beaver” – a pun on his longtime employer Stan Kenton’s hit “Eager Beaver” – and it’s a shame that Rugolo never extended this miniature orchestral gem into a larger, more substantial work. Later on, the dedications became more of an homage. In 2003 a wind-heavy sextet from Switzerland, Blaskapelle, filled an album (Igors, on the Altrisuoni label) with marches, ballads, promenades, klezmer tunes, and improvisations derived from the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and a one-act folk opera, Mavra. On a somewhat more modest scale, with a distorted tone and extended figures Dutch saxophonist/clarinetist Ab Baars improvised a concise, slippery, personalized paraphrase on a dance from the ballet Agon, “Igor’s Bransle.” His fellow reedman in the ICP Orchestra, American-born Michael Moore, sensitively and uncannily captured a contemplative mood, voicings, and modulations reminiscent of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments in his original “Igor.” And there’s plenty more where they came from.

Nor is it surprising that, as far as I can tell, The Rite of Spring has been quoted, borrowed, excerpted, inflated, revised, and reconstructed by jazz musicians more than any other single classical work – not surprising because it is the Citizen Kane, the Guernica, the Ulysses, of 20th century music: powerful, path-breaking, profound. But it’s ironic that the greater and more recognizable the original, the harder it is for an adaptation to succeed on its own merits. Moreover, it’s doubly ironic that despite the overwhelming effect of the full score, the essence of The Rite of Spring seems to be prefigured in its opening bassoon melody – indeed, its first eight unaccompanied notes. More than a hundred years after it was written, that indelible, immediately recognizable phrase is all that’s necessary to evoke a broad canvas of colors, movement, emotions. Which is why so many jazz artists have used it, either as the thematic foundation of a new piece, a symbolic reference, or a fragrant wisp of high culture. Paul Desmond’s “Sacre Blues,” Ornette Coleman’s “Sleep Talk,” Carla Bley’s “And Now the Queen,” and Peter Erskine/Marty Krystall/Buell Neidlinger’s “I Go(rs) Blue(s)” quickly come to mind; the list goes on.

Even more remarkable and rather hubristically ambitious are those attempts to confront and transform the full score into a completely different musical experience. For example, on two occasions in the 1970s pop and jazz arranger Don Sebesky took pen and knife to The Rite of Spring: an eleven-minute reduction on Three Works for Jazz Soloists & Symphony Orchestra (Gryphon) which slices up themes, adds vamps, interludes, and jazz beats underneath trumpet, trombone, and piano solos, and an even more compressed ten-piece arrangement heavy on vibes, guitars, and electronic keyboards, featuring Hubert Laws’ flute. The results are now painfully dated, Stravinsky Lite. In a similar but more expansive vein, Danish arranger Lars Møller recently reorganized several of its themes into three fantasy-like movements for the Aarhus Jazz Orchestra, The ReWrite of Spring (Da Capo). The scoring is mostly transparent and cool, with a hint of Gil Evans’ late electric period, and Dave Liebman is an effective soprano saxophone soloist, but Møller’s attempts to popularize the music are also stuck in ‘70s disco and chaka-chaka wah-wah guitar: Stravinsky meets Shaft. Another “conventional” big band arrangement by Darryl Brenzel (similarly titled The Re-(Write) of Spring, Innova) tries to swing Stravinsky in the style of Kenton’s classical ambitions, and in so doing doubles the length of the score by adding material – riffs, vamps, developmental episodes, and backgrounds for soloists – while allowing each of the 14 sections to keep its own identity. The music lacks the original dramatic impetus and flow, although the writing is clever and well-crafted and the soloists of the Mobtown Modern Big Band sound comfortable in this mix-and-match format. On the other end of the spectrum, with only a few head-scratching alterations and some subtle stretching of phrases, The Bad Plus (Columbia) relate as much of the score as could be contained in Ethan Iverson’s piano and Reid Anderson’s bass, with David King’s drums as unconventional punctuation – more of an exercise in performance than reinterpretation. (If the idea of a piano reduction of such brilliant orchestration intrigues you, Stravinsky himself made a fairly common two-piano arrangement, but Sam Raphling’s version for a single piano, played by Dickran Atamian [Delos], is even more impressive.)

Suffice to say, no reconceptualization of The Rite of Spring has yet come close to approximating the overwhelming effect of the original. But a few attempts have gone so far in the other direction as to provide a thought-provoking, if refreshingly disconcerting, perspective on the experience. On Prehistoric Jazz Vol. 1: The Rite of Spring (Creative Nation Music), guitarist Eric Hofbauer fronts a quintet that finds witty, unexpected solutions to the lack of orchestral color and weight. Cellist Junko Fujiwara implies most of the given string motifs, but also adds an occasional walking bass line when they drift into uncharted territory. Solos emerge unpredictably; trumpeter Jerry Sabatini’s frequent Cootie-like growl is a nice touch, clarinetist/bass clarinetist Todd Brunel is a marvel of flexibility, and drummer Curt Newton never overplays his role. On their journey through the score, they never force the music to swing, loose phrasing accommodates the flow. Equally idiosyncratic but somewhat more faithful to the composer’s point of view, Quartetski Does Stravinsky (Ambiences Magnetiques) takes a focused, controlled tact in arranging the music to their strange instrumentation: viola da gamba (Pierre-Yves Martel), violin (Joshua Zubot), electric guitar (Bernard Falaise), bass clarinet/soprano saxophone (Philippe Lauzier), and percussion (Isaiah Ceccarelli) – yes, it’s a quintet, which just adds to the curiosity factor. They create an imaginative atmosphere with shrewd attention to dynamics and ensemble textures, and when they deviate from the notes, Stravinsky is replaced by a group “noise” improvisation, gritty viola da gamba sawing, heavy-metal reverbed guitar chords, or a static quasi-electronic percussive interlude. In keeping with their unconventional outlook, they neglect the climactic “Sacrificial Dance” completely. Go figure. Furthest from the source is Burnt Sugar’s take on The Rites (TruGroid/AvantGroid), where the post-electric-Miles-cum-apocalyptic ensemble follows conductionist Butch Morris’ lead into a reimagined, largely improvised soundscape of drones, layered rhythms, disembodied voices, free-funk guitar, violin taksims, instrumental flux, and radio signals from outer space, only occasionally referencing Stravinsky’s actual motifs. The result is a hazy recollection of a distant past experienced simultaneously in several time periods and geographic locations, symbolically exploiting not a ritual sacrifice, but an exploration of the unknown.

Stravinsky died in 1971. Had he heard these “variations” on his masterpiece, he probably would have sued them all.

Art Lange©2016

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