Don Byron & Uri Caine: Worldly Music

Was Gunther Schuller right? Forty years ago, Schuller envisioned the merger of classical music and jazz as the wave of the future, a “third stream” in his phrase, that contained a new synthesis in which the formal concerns of European concert music and the improvisational discoveries of America’s musical art form produced a true hybrid. The notion attracted some attention at the time, and on occasion as much controversy as the contemporaneous “freedom” efforts of players like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy who were heard in some of Schuller’s third-stream works; then other developments soon eclipsed third stream, and for several decades the notion of a classical/jazz entente became something of an afterthought.

To judge from several recent CD releases, it is an afterthought no longer. The sheer numbers of recent recordings that try to straddle both camps suggest a reinvigorated effort at synthesis that might become as common a thematic ploy as centennial tributes. Jazz artists are interpreting the classical repertoire and classical artists are interpreting jazz, while composers from both sides create works that attempt to satisfy both worlds. In a period when the zeitgeist seems to demand multicultural combinations, the jazz/classical conjunction has become, at the least, a hot marketing concept. Does it also present a viable musical direction, one capable of producing music that will appeal to those who are serious about these heretofore separate worlds?

The simple answer, after listening to a smorgasbord of releases (noted in the sidebar on page 181), is not too often. Many recent efforts are little more than exercises in marketing. Clarinetist Don Byron, one of the musicians with a truly expansive aesthetic, points out, “One side of the phenomenon is that classical labels are not able to sell new versions of the ‘straight’ stuff, so they try all of these crossover projects.” When they do, the results are often negligible. An improvising ensemble like Oregon, which bases its sonic identity on the use of European instruments such as Paul McCandless’ double reeds and Ralph Towner’s classical and 12-string guitars, can find common ground with symphonic players, as it does on Oregon in Moscow; and a jazz-influenced composer like Chris Brubeck has created works that touch on both genres, as his “Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra” illustrates (on the CD Bach to Brubeck). Elsewhere, including Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour’s Two Worlds, the Classic Ellington collection conducted by Simon Rattle and anthologies of classical preludes (A Different Prelude) and Mozart (Mozart Variations), the results seem tailored for pops concerts, the symphonic equivalent of smooth jazz.

A revised pops repertoire that accommodated jazz musicians would be of value, presenting as it would new options for improvisers. This seems inevitable, given the strategies that symphonies and other classical organizations are introducing to expand and change the demographic of their audiences, and in this environment it makes business as well as musical sense for Oregon or Oscar Peterson (who recently released A Canadian Suite with Michel Legrand conducting) to have music that takes advantage of such opportunities. What results will not be new musical languages, though; more often than not, the results will be music with a distinct, and limiting, accent.

Rattle’s Classic Ellington is a case in point. Even with jazz-savvy featured guests, including Geri Allen, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman and Clark Terry, there is a stilted quality to the album that may elude a concert-hall audience but will leave jazz listeners chuckling. This is primarily because symphonic players still take an approach to rhythm that, in jazz terms, is far too square.

Schuller, who is more familiar with both sides of the street than most, attributes this to academia’s insistence that the jazz and classical worlds remain separated. “To this day,” he says, “when I conduct ‘An American in Paris,’ I have to work with the trumpet player not to play his or her notion of what jazz is—and classical singers are worse. This problem was there when I wrote my 1959 composition ‘Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee.’ There is a jazz movement that had to be written out completely, because I knew that the symphonic musicians could not improvise. I also knew that there were hardly any symphonic bass players, other than jazz bassists like Richard Davis or Jack Lesberg who also played in symphonies, who could make quarter notes swing. Forty years later, I might be able to find two or three more.”

Byron sees similar problems on the classical side. “A composer or conductor who deals with the nuts and bolts of the music will have a better perspective than a classical-music instrumentalist,” he says. “Most jazz musicians have that kind of working knowledge of harmony and form, and of how an ensemble works together. Even the saddest bebop trumpeter knows harmony. You can be a respected classical instrumentalist, though, and not really know how the music works.”

Things look more promising on the jazz side, where all matter of material has been fair game for improvisation. Pianist Jacques Loussier, who has made a career out of adapting classical composers to the piano trio format, as on his recent Plays Debussy, is now joined by more jazz-centered players who are addressing the classical repertoire, as Lee Konitz does on his album Play French Impressionist Music with the Axis String Quartet. The real shift, however, is coming from players who feel naturally comfortable in both worlds. “I’ve been hanging out a bit with Lalo Schifrin,” notes Byron, who is one of several soloists who joined the WDR Big Band Cologne for Schifrin’s Esperanto, “and he calls people who understand both sides ‘amphibians.’ He wants me to play Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time,’ which is something Uri [Caine] and I did when I had a chamber group going. Lalo feels that the classical players do not have the necessary resources for the piece. In the same way, when I was in school, my friends and I would talk about how Stockhausen should be using some of the cats, because they could phrase and make appropriate choices for the music he was composing.”

Bilingual musicians of this type are revealing new possibilities in the European canon. Not surprisingly, some are European, like saxophonist Daniel Schnyder, whose Words Within Music finds Vivaldi, Bach, Gershwin, Wagner and his own compositions interpreted by the trio of his tenor sax, David Taylor’s bass trombone and Kenny Drew Jr.’s piano. Saxophonist Eugenio Colombo has composed two cantatas on Tales of Love and Death employing three soprano voices and a jazz quartet. American players who carry a jazz identity are involved as well; and few from any geographical or musical background are more committed to these mergers, or are as successful in their efforts, as Byron and his frequent collaborator, pianist Uri Caine. Byron included a Schumann lied on his debut disc, Tuskegee Experiments, and has explored a range of musics, including klezmer and rap, on subsequent albums. His latest, A Fine Line, offers a contemporary perspective on arias and lieder in which the music of Ornette Coleman, Roy Orbison, Stephen Sondheim and Stevie Wonder is heard alongside that of Schumann, Puccini and Chopin. Caine, who began his album-length transformations of classical composers with his brilliant Mahler album Urlicht/Primal Light, has gone on to interpret Wagner, Schumann and, most recently on the two-disc The Goldberg Variations, Bach.

Not surprisingly, both musicians see themselves less as stream-straddling exceptions than as representatives of a new and more open-minded generation. “I’m a musician who exposed himself to all of these different cultures,” Caine explains. “If, like me, you grew up playing funk, straight jazz, inside, outside, classical, whatever, you’ve learned a lot of music, and you’ve learned how to make the adjustments that each demands. And from the time I was growing up, I saw many people who were into a lot of music. It’s not just eclecticism for its own sake. People honestly do dig Stravinsky and Joe Henderson and Beethoven and Jimi Hendrix.”

“I’m not trying to do something I have no inkling about,” Byron concurs. “Most of the music I play is music I heard before I was 18. It is all part of my culture. To me, music of a certain depth belongs with other music of the same depth. If you look at what lieder is, or what an aria is, every composition on A Fine Line does that thing, whether or not they were written in the classical ‘space.’ Bill Frisell’s record Have a Little Faith is similar in its interpretation of diverse music. It has to do with what kind of person you are, not what or where you studied, and in how literal you are willing to take the constraints you find in any idiom.”

Caine, who has devoted most of the past four years to these efforts, became the jazz world’s most active classical interpreter almost inadvertently. “When I recorded my album Toys [for JMT] in 1995, the composition ‘Time Will Tell’ had a bass line that came from Mahler’s First Symphony. Listening to the playback, I joked to [producer] Stefan Winter that the bass line was my Mahler quote, and Stefan said, ‘Oh, you know Mahler? I have this movie about Mahler.’ He was showing the film at the Knitting Factory, and asked me to create music for it. The response led to the idea for the CD, which I developed over the next year.

“I’ve always been interested in finding new structures for group improvisations, and as I developed the Mahler pieces I heard how they presented different things for people to play against. His themes could be prominent and then move around; the focus could go to different places, just like in one of his symphonies. I found that I could draw on his forms and his themes.

“Then I realized that different methods could be applied to different composers, with more or less of an emphasis on historical approaches. My Mahler album is the most biographical, exaggerating the references to his time that he had already included, opening them up to improvisation. Wagner e Venezia was based upon passages in Wagner’s diaries about sitting in St. Mark’s Square and listening to groups play his music, updating that concept, while reducing this very dense music to the Venetian environment. Love Fugue was an attempt to add poetry and pop-gospel singers to these very beautiful Schumann love songs; and with The Goldberg Variations, Bach had taken his 32-bar theme and applied all of these variations to it, the way jazz musicians do. The game there was to make each variation different from the next, while still relating to the central theme. With all of the shifting styles, the piece establishes its own groove. If you accept the premise, you could say that we are ‘making the changes’ in a different way.”

In a work like Caine’s The Goldberg Variations, the changes can be substantial, from Baroque to electronica to jazz to salsa, with everything from solo keyboard tracks to others employing a string quartet or a chorus. Here is where the need for flexibility is most keenly felt, and where Schuller finds that musicians like Byron and Caine, and others he names like Dave Douglas and John Zorn, have an advantage over his generation. “Ran Blake calls it the new musical profiles that are possible now,” Schuller explains. “A good example is Dave Douglas, who presents a wonderful cafeteria of options and is so well-versed in each area. The whole world of vernacular and ethnic musics has come into the mix as well as jazz and classical. Many people have immersed themselves in these cultures, and spent years studying with the appropriate masters. To me, musicians who respect these various traditions tend to come up with something interesting.”

“All music is an acquired taste,” Byron emphasizes, “and I don’t expect everybody to know everything that I know. You just need musicians who will take the shit seriously enough. It can be someone who comes to it totally fresh—sometimes it’s better that way—but they have to take it seriously and respect it. Both Uri and I can tell stories about people who came in to play and showed us pretty quickly that the music wasn’t on their personal map.”

“People bring the skills that they have,” Caine concurs. “DJ Olive is part of my band, and he’s not ‘skilled in reading music’; but he knows what to do. I’m more interested in how the group develops the musical text anyway, night after night; and now that some of the classical ensembles who have worked with me are asking me to compose pieces for them, I’m realizing that the challenge is different. I write for the musicians I know best in shorthand, because we share a rhythmic approach, whatever it is that gives the music its propulsion. You don’t have to spell it out for those musicians.”

A lingering problem involves the opportunities to actually perform such cross-genre works after they have been created. “More and more people believe in this brotherhood of music, but whether record companies and other organizations can foster it is another matter,” Schuller laments. “John Lewis and I were premature in creating a Jazz and Classical Music Society in 1955, but where is the counterpart today? And where are the record companies who will support such music, the way Atlantic supported our third-stream pieces in the ’50s? As long as the institutions on both sides don’t get together, it ain’t going to happen.”

Yet Caine has been touring of late with a band that performs both his Mahler and Bach variations, and he appreciates the opportunity. “One of the hardest things is knowing that any project can only really develop if you get the chance to play it, and I’ve been fortunate to do a few tours, primarily in Europe, in which the music has developed. Sometimes that means bringing in different players, whether because you need to substitute for someone specific or because you visit a place that presents new possibilities. Don, Chris Speed, Greg Tardy and Steve Wilson have all played the clarinet part, for instance, and each makes the music different. Steve just played the music for the first time on a seven-concert tour of England, and every night the music went to a new place. We’ve also added Chinese poets in Taiwan and China, and flamenco guitarists and singers in Spain, while the Mahler has been done with cantors from all over the place. That element of risk is good for the music.”

Some listeners are not prepared to take such juxtapositions, like those Caine and Byron are fashioning, seriously. “Some people may think that what I do is a little too cute,” Byron admits. “Maybe they’ve never seen a black man do this, which is not a great reason why the music should have the buzz that it has attracted. That’s what I call ‘blaxploitation.’ Uri doesn’t have to deal with that.”

Yet Caine is also accustomed to the raised eyebrow. “I’ve seen three different elements,” he reports. “At jazz places, they don’t understand it but sense that it’s cool. People at new-music festivals are into it because they think we’re deconstructing these composers. When I play a classical music festival like Bach-Dresden, I really don’t know what they thought when the choir broke out bottles at one point. But then so much has to do with the setting. Then Munich Opera House is a very different environment than a jazz club.”

Neither musician is deterred by negative responses. “You can’t really threaten Bach, because there are so many ‘correct’ versions of his music, aren’t there?” Caine notes. “Look at Glenn Gould. His Goldberg Variations shocked some people, but many others thought that his approach was so swinging and lyrical. As a result, those recordings have never gone out of print. I could never do something like that, so I tried to do something else.”

“There are no rules why certain things work,” Byron insists. “Personally, I would never have someone else arrange my music; but it worked for Miles on Sketches of Spain. You are on your own. My sidearm is different than Uri’s three-quarter. Everybody tries to do this in a different way, because they come from their own place in music. I don’t think all of these things are one thing. I just know that I have a certain obligation to be knowledgeable, and not to do it wimpy.”

What both Byron and Caine are moving toward in their latest recordings, and in their growing body of work, is music that worries less about its sources than what it makes of them, and that might give some dignity to some particularly culture-bound marketing slogans. “‘World music’ is a phrase created by record companies to sell Afro-pop,” Schuller summarizes, “but, in their best senses, terms like ‘world music’ and ‘crossover’ and ‘fusion’ are really third-stream concepts. Yet, even as the third-stream notion has become more possible, it has also grown obsolete. Now we’ve reached a pure idea of cohabitation.”

Originally published in January/February 2001

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