Lesser-Known Bernstein Works Spotlit By SJMO

  I  
Image

Charlie Young conducts the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

(Photo: Roshni Gorur )

“Jazz is a very big word,” composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein assured us when he explained jazz to America in the second of his famous CBS Omnibus programs in October 1955. But over the years, it never was quite big enough to embrace Bernstein himself, who admired it, advocated for it, occasionally fellow-traveled with it, but inhabited its sensibilities like an interplanetary tourist skipping eagerly from one landmark to the next.

With a few exceptions, the jazz world has looked upon Bernstein from a similarly respectful but remote perspective that included a few tunes from West Side Story hits but little else. That’s one of the reasons why Charlie Young—artistic director and conductor of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra—dove into Bernstein’s oeuvre and found fresh possibilities in unexpected places.

The result is Bernstein Reimagined (MCG Jazz), which rushes in where jazz has seldom feared to tread, showcasing pieces that rarely have been performed in a jazz setting.

In 2018, Young used the occasion of Bernstein’s centennial to revisit the composer’s catalog and possibly expand the range of the jazz repertoire—which, for some time, has been caught in something of a stalemate between older jazz standards of the Great American Songbook, and a torrent of new material created by musicians that very few listeners know.

“I did look for more obscure Bernstein material initially,” Young said, “but only because I didn’t want to do another West Side Story album. As I looked into his work, I looked for interesting music. ‘Dream With Me’ might be considered obscure because it was cut from the [1950 Broadway] production of Peter Pan. Others, like ‘Chichester Psalms’ and the Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront are pretty well known, certainly in the classical realm. But they’re not known in jazz. One of the things I had in mind was to identify music that was clearly recognized as classical. My charge to the orchestrators was to find a fresh take on things that were very familiar in other genres and reimagine it in a jazz context.”

The “orchestrators” to which Young referred are the arrangers Jay Ashby, Darryl Brenzel, Scott Silbert, Mike Tomaro and Steve Williams, who all are represented in the 10-track program.

Not all of the choices are obscure. “Times Square Ballet” (from On The Town), opens the album, welcoming the listener with a familiar tune, wrapped in Silbert’s Ellingtonish blend of swinging brass and reeds, and invites the listen- er deeper into Bernstein’s lesser-known world. “I’ve studied Ellington and love to play those plunger trombone parts,” said Jennifer Krupa, who divides her time between the SJMO brass section and her role as the musical director for the Commodores, the premier jazz band of the U.S. Navy. “It was thrilling to take some of the Ellington elements and apply them to a completely different composer.”

Young explained that Bernstein came of age during the height of the great 1930s swing bands and “couldn’t help but be influenced by the harmonic innovation that was becoming a part of jazz then.” Yet, most of Bernstein’s music is completely overlooked by the jazz community.

“In revisiting his work to find what might speak to the jazz audience,” Young explained, “I got past the more lyrical melodic material and moved into the emotional and harmonic corners of his music. If you can get past the simpler elements, then you see new possibilities. The music I chose was primarily for its emotional impact. A piece like ‘Postlude,’ from A Quiet Place, is rich and compelling for that reason. Does it lend itself to jazz? Absolutely. Especially when you think about how jazz colorations expanded in the 1940s, when so much of the impact was felt in its harmonic palette.” Young believes that Bernstein had to be caught up in these influences.

The album, which was recorded in 2018 at Bias Studios in Springfield, Virginia, presented unique challenges for the players, because the music was new to the jazz world. “It wasn’t like a Basie or Ellington program,” Krupa said. “How do we play it? Do we swing certain figures? How much? In what manner? The music had never been done before. It demanded more investigation, because it had no history to draw on. So, we relied on or own educated guesses. We had a bunch of rehearsals and performed two concerts, which gave us a chance to live with it. But to this day, I can hear things I might do differently.”

Young and the musicians are hopeful that an SJMO tour will be possible after the COVID-19 pandemic is more under control. Until that day arrives, Bernstein Reimagined will spark listeners’ imaginations and help extend the maestro’s remarkable legacy. DB



  • Coltrane_Jim_Marshall_Hi-Res.jpg

    John Coltrane’s Blue World takes its name from a contrafact of Harold Arlen’s “Out Of This World.”

  • Chick_Corea_EDIT.jpg

    Chick Corea (1941-2021)

    In Memoriam: Chick Corea

    Chick Corea, one of the most beloved and decorated jazz artists in history, passed away Feb. 9. He was 79.

    In a post…

  • Web_crop_02_Junior_Mance_credit_DownBeat_Archvies_Atlantic_Records.jpeg

    Junior Mance (1928–2021)

  • Ed_Palermo_w%3A_bldg-_photo_by_Chris_Drukker_copy.jpg

    Ed Palermo has been known to embody a larger-than-life persona during his big band’s live shows.

  • McCoyTyner_MarcNorberg.BlueNote.jpg

    McCoy Tyner (1938–2020)


On Sale Now
March 2021
Ethan Iverson
Look Inside
Subscribe
Print | Digital | iPad