All About Jazz reviews Gunther Schuller: Journey Into Jazz

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All About Jazz
Ted Gordon
February 1, 2009

What might seem the most innocuous music is often the most avant garde, the most challenging, the spark that forces us to question the boundaries of what we might call jazz. Gunther Schuller's Journey Into Jazz, composed in 1962, is just that: a children's narrative, telling the story of one Eddie Jackson, "a boy who learned about jazz," a communal mode of music-making that is free, ostensibly, of all the restraints that come with genre labels. Though the piece is over 40 years old, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's new recording captures Schuller's strong aesthetic statement about the "third stream" of jazz and its staying power throughout history - with its composer narrating.

Journey Into Jazz walks a fine line between simplicity and didacticism. Described by Leonard Bernstein (among others) as "a sort of Peter and the Wolf of Jazz," it seems simple: a young boy has a hunger for music, picks up the trumpet and eventually discovers that music need not be notated, that it can be free-flowing, stemming from raw emotion. Yet the music that accompanies the narration, written by Nat Hentoff, seems slightly static: made legible for even the youngest ears, 'classical' and 'jazz' are rendered into crystallizations of their mass-market definitions. Though the playing and recording quality of this album are undoubtedly high, they cannot escape the constraints of the self-ascribed "third stream" genre, stuck literally between European and African musical traditions. Reduced to its most basic argument, Schuller's children's narrative also brings the music down to its 'essentials,' reducing both other 'streams' to overly simplistic, often bland passages.

The other two pieces on this album, Variats and Concertino, both scored for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra, come closer to Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones') demand of third stream music, that the "techniques [of jazz and classical music] be used and not canonized." All three are pieces full of contradictions, which make them some of the most interesting compositions of the '50s and late '60s: they struggle to reconcile composition and improvisation, not perfectly, but resoundingly musically.