Downbeat reviews Gunther Schuller: Journey Into Jazz

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Downbeat
Fred Bouchard
November 1, 2008

Composers of today's Olympian jazz-classical concertos would do well to listen to these deceptively understated, coolly creative pieces that capture the zeitgeist of the 1960's. These three newly recorded 20-minute works (dubbed "Third Stream" by Gunther Schuller himself) explore and synthesize myriad interactions between a jazz combo improvising and a chamber orchestra reading a through-composed score with some big band gestures. All the new recordings reward relistening.

Variants for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra and Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra, originally written for and performed by The Modern Jazz Quartet and chamber orchestra, dovetail jazz quartet with chamber symphony in an effortless mastery built to last. Journey Into Jazz blends Peter and the Wolf and Johnny One-Note as a parable for musical seekers. Schuller airily narrates Nat Hentoff's text; he's as amiably convincing as his subtle score is in conveying this fable of young trumpeter Eddy Jackson's hard-won grasp of jazz's elusive but valued culture.

The scores veer gracefully between referencing classics and bebop. The wispy, wily vignettes eschew "overblowing" and Hollywood histrionics, as Schuller weaves in Gil Evans-like chorales and unexpected gestures pop up continually. Variants' opening crescendo dissipates into a single sustained piano note, and a four-bar quietus stuns amid its roiling finale. Conductor Gil Rose flashes a cool hand at balancing strict writing with looser solos, shading dynamics and packing smoothly. Branches of Schuller's mighty oak—bassist Edwin, drummer George—anchor the "rhythm sections" admirably, while New England Conservatory students/colleagues perform key interpretive roles in these genre-busting works.

— Fred Bouchard