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Strings Attached: Five Orchestral Jazz Classics

Must-have albums that fuse jazz and strings

Tom Harrell

Bird wasn’t the first jazz musician to record with a string orchestra, but the early 1950s sessions collected on Charlie Parker With Strings set a template that subsequent jazz projects have either followed or pointedly ignored. While the Parker charts weren’t adventurous or particularly interesting, the album fulfilled his longtime orchestral ambition and introduced the alto saxophonist to the general public as a supremely lyrical player. Here are five other landmark jazz projects with strings.

Music for Loving: Ben Webster With Strings (Verve, 1995)

No jazz artist was better suited, by temperament and tone, for string accompaniment than tenor saxophone great Ben Webster. Containing three mid-1950s albums, Webster’s Music With Feeling and Music for Loving and Harry Carney With Strings, this double-CD features some of Bean’s most breathtaking balladry. Ralph Burns is responsible for most of the arrangements, which serve the featured horns wonderfully. But the album opens with Billy Strayhorn’s sublime setting for his melancholic tone poem “Chelsea Bridge,” a piece that Webster recorded several times and which is worth the price of admission alone.

Clifford Brown With Strings (Emarcy, 1955)

Neal Hefti’s arrangements provide little more than sweetening for Brownie’s sumptuous tone, and the trumpeter never stretches out on the brief renditions of American Songbook standards. But what a sound! Recorded 18 months before the trumpeter’s death, the album is an essential part of his tragically foreshortened discography.

Focus (Verve, 1961)

Getz often cited this album as his favorite among his many recordings, and it’s easy to hear why. Eddie Sauter composed and arranged the seven-part suite for the saxophonist, and Getz responded to Sauter’s alternately spikey, luscious, yearning and meditative settings with some of his most inventive playing (ably assisted by Roy Haynes).

Hank Jones With the Meridian String Quartet (LRC, 1991)

A chamber-jazz session rather than an orchestral one, this Hank Jones project pairs his trio featuring Rufus Reid and Dennis Mackrel with the young Meridian String Quartet. Arranged and conducted by Manny Albam, the album showcases Jones’ refined piano touch and unerring taste. Highlights include a rhapsodic “My Funny Valentine” and galloping “Caravan.”

Paradise (BMG, 2001)

Trumpeter Harrell is hardly undersung, but really, the man deserves a statue or two. Among the finest works in his superlative discography, Paradise employs strings to expand his already capacious harmonic palette and add shimmering timbres to his already gorgeous writing. Poetic and elusively programmatic, the album consists of a nine-piece suite that evokes an array of lyrically charged scenes between the brisk, promise-laden “Daybreak” and the tempestuous closer, “Sunrise.”

Originally Published

Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.