January/February 1997

Gunther Schuller/John Lewis/Jimmy Giuffre/J.J. Johnson/George Russell/Charles Mingus
The Birth of the Third Stream
Columbia Jazz

This reissue includes Columbia's Music for Brass and much of its Modern Jazz Concert, 1950s albums of power, daring and indelible influence. In his notes for Modern Jazz Concert, Gunther Schuller emphasized the unimportance of pigeonholing the music, "...I will therefore not categorize and typecast the six works on this record."

Nonetheless, Schuller could not long deny the insatiable human need to label. In 1957 he created a name for this music that drew upon the jazz and classical traditions. It was "Third Stream." There had been successful meldings of the improvisation and swing of jazz with big classical forms at least as far back as Red Norvo's 1933 "Dance of the Octopus," but "Third Stream" caught on as a moniker and persuaded many listeners that the marriage was new. If it attracted attention to the works in this album, then no harm and considerable good was done. The inspired playing of Miles Davis on John Lewis' "Three Little Feelings" and J.J. Johnson's "Poem for Brass" allowed producer George Avakian to convince Columbia to commit large resources to a Davis project that turned out to be Miles Ahead. That revived Davis' partnership with Gil Evans and led to Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. "Poem for Brass" was the first major indication that J.J. Johnson was a large-scale composer. "Pharaoh" allowed Jimmy Giuffre to extend his range beyond the 16-piece band. Schuller's "Symphony for Brass and Percussion" was not a jazz composition but its presence on the Music for Brass album under the baton of Dmitri Mitropolous shed prestige on the entire undertaking.

As for the music from Modern Jazz Concert, George Russell's "All About Rosie" is a masterpiece of composition containing a masterpiece, a Bill Evans piano solo of such rhythmic force and logical conception that it remains one of the high points of Evans' career. The other powerhouse from the date is Charles Mingus' "Revelations," with its dynamics, gospel fervor, collective improvisation and inspired solos from Art Farmer, John LaPorta and Jimmy Knepper. Giuffre's "Suspensions" at once concentrates and expands upon the blues-based work he did in the 1950s with his trios. It has the feeling of improvisation even in its most tightly written passages. Schuller's "Transformation" moves from orchestration into brilliant improvisation by Evans and back again without the listener necessarily knowing which is which. It's all music. That, after all, is the point Schuller was trying to make in the first place when he said he would not "categorize and typecast."

Of the pieces from the Modern Jazz Concert LP, Milton Babbitt's "All Set" and Harold Shapero's tribute to Monteverdi, "On Green Mountain," are missing. That's a shame because both compositions are fascinating and because Farmer has a glorious solo on the Shapero. Perhaps another time, Columbia?

-Doug Ramsey

Originally published in January/February 1997
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