All Strung Out

To paraphrase a couple of old songs, strings are here and strings can really hang you up the most. A spate of recent CDs demonstrates a profusion of horsehair, which for me was capped by David Murray's October 15 concert with quartet and strings at Zankel Hall (a new space two flights beneath Carnegie Hall with acoustics that suited the rhythm section and thinned the violins). Murray lives in France, and when he returns to New York he almost always has a new project. These have included examinations of Ellington, Coltrane, Cuba and Guadalupe.

Strings represented a logical undertaking, and his longtime collaborator Craig Harris conducted an ensemble of 10.

What Murray did with them, however, was surprising.

He broke little ground in combining his quartet and the larger ensemble, though he did toy with foreground/background expectations: What promised at first blush to be a piano solo backed by strings, for example, unfolded as an episode for strings backed by pianistic filigree. The truly unexpected element, however, was a refined, heightened melodicism, especially during "The Pushkin Suite," where, absent the rhythm section, the violins stated a charming theme and violas provided a stop-time platform. By contrast, the quartet seemed restrained, except during Murray's solos, and even then drummer Hamid Drake pursued a crafty understatement.

Jazz and strings don't usually combine for adventure. Violins are mostly hired to soften and tranquilize, to allow musicians and listeners the luxury of an easy-listening opulence. In mid-20th-century jazz, a phalanx of strings promised the equivalent of fusion, not between jazz and classical music (that came later with Gunther Schuller's Third Stream), but rather between jazz and the mawkish predictability of radio pop. Verve's recent packaging of Charlie Parker: The Complete Verve Master Takes (in a devious metal box) is a reminder of how vital and inspired Parker sounded when casting "Just Friends" against a wall of strings and woodwinds. Alas, the next track, "Everything Happens to Me," more typically thwarts him with insipid writing.

Parker knew the potential in his idea and commissioned arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Mundy and George Russell; the label, however, provided only pedestrian scores that set the standard for similar projects to follow. I love Clifford Brown, Ben Webster, Bobby Hackett and Coleman Hawkins with strings, but despite the work of talented writers like Neal Hefti, Ralph Burns and Manny Albam, those albums are designed to lull the brain or stimulate the libido. Fantasy's Plays for Lovers series has issued a Blue Mitchell compilation that begins with Tadd Dameron's strings arrangement of "The Nearness of You," an alluring cut that sent me back to the source album, Smooth as the Wind. Every track is likable, but taken together they subside into background music-not true of A Sure Thing, recorded in the same period, in which Mitchell plays Jimmy Heath jazz charts.

Blame Jackie Gleason. Somewhere between The Rite of Spring and Music, Martinis and Memories, the symphony orchestra turned into a palliative, a marketing ploy to entreat timid souls. It rarely works commercially or musically, though exceptions abound. Eddie Sauter stirred Stan Getz with the driving numbers on Focus, Bill Holman found the right shade of darkness for Art Pepper's Winter Moon and even Ray Ellis engendered a handsome return to form for Harold Land on A Lazy Afternoon-yet none broke the jazz ceiling. The latest attempt is Close to My Heart, an elaborate album by the young trumpet player Jeremy Pelt, with arrangements by guitarist David O'Rourke, proving that Pelt can produce a lyrical, contained sound and that O'Rourke has more than six strings in his arsenal. Regina Carter's Paganini: After a Dream, however, for all her undoubted musicality, comes across as a retreat into convention.

Singers are another story. Diana Krall's dimmest album, The Look of Love, went through the roof, finding a larger audience for Claus Ogermann's squelchy charts than she had previously done for Johnny Mandel's elegant ones. Major singers routinely request or demand strings as a proof of corporate love, like first-class travel arrangements. They like the glamour and the fit, and nobody minds that they fuel a direct route to the middle of the road. They opened the world to Ray Charles-and without compromise, in Ralph Burns' indelible adaptation of "Georgia on My Mind." Billie Holiday enjoyed her strings more than her fans did, while Sarah Vaughan battled to subordinate them and even she had to duck when orchestral contingents tried to pin her to the lead sheet. Now comes Abbey Lincoln's It's Me, with a chaperone of strings. They do no harm.

As suggested by David Murray, the avant-garde never employs strings merely as a leveler. Ornette Coleman proved that with Skies of America, and David S. Ware, in his latest project, declines-Ornette-like-to play on several selections of Threads, a highly uneven but worthy effort that will put off more jazz lovers than it attracts because most of it isn't jazz, including the splendid title number, which is framed on an eight-note seesaw melody that undergoes subtle alterations and shifts with minimal rhythm and no improvisation. That doesn't mean you can't listen to it: It's a free country, except when it comes to filing CDs at the local record store.

Originally published in December 2003

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