New England Jazz Ensemble Merges Prokofiev, Jazz


Walter Gwardyak is the music director and pianist for the New England Jazz Ensemble.

(Photo: Lee Everett)

In 1936, the Moscow Children’s Music Theater commissioned composer Sergei Prokofiev to write a symphonic fairy tale to help young audiences learn the instruments of the orchestra. In his opus Peter And The Wolf, the unique sounds of the different instruments conjure up the many characters of the story, serving as mnemonic devices for children.

Now the New England Jazz Ensemble has released its own commissioned version of the Prokofiev work, this time using the instruments of a jazz big band and multiple jazz grooves to tell the classic tale. The eponymous self-produced recording, which contains four other Peter-related compositions, is more than an educational tool. It’s a masterful work of art in its own right.

Arranger/pianist Walter Gwardyak, a founding member and musical director of the NEJE, took on the task of translating Prokofiev’s classical composition into a Third Stream setting. As the musical tale progresses, the players utilize swing, waltz, blues, bossa, salsa, Dixieland and cool jazz. Each character has its own feel, as well as its own instrument, a compositional nuance that “just happened,” Gwardyak said. “I wanted to retain Prokofiev’s melody, because without it people wouldn’t recognize [the piece]. But I took a lot of harmonic and stylistic liberties.”

Taking such liberties is, of course, what jazz musicians always have done. The surprise here is the visceral cohesion of Gwardyak’s arrangement. Flitting about the trees, the bird (represented by a soprano saxophone) warbles in modern jazz. The duck, a muted trumpet, slips into the water to a silky bossa. But when these two argue, their respective voices face off in a heated samba.

Singer Giacomo Gates does for the narration what Gwardyak does for the music. Using Prokofiev’s traditional tale as the source, Gates moved the text into the hipster vernacular, an idiom that comes easily to him. “Working with Giacomo is a dream,” said Gwardyak, who first collaborated with the jazz vocalist two decades ago. “I thought this would be a really great opportunity for him to put his gifts to work.”

The four additional tunes—two treatments of Prokofiev melodies and two thematically related originals—stand in contrast to Gwardyak’s through-composed big band piece. Trumpeter Jeff Holmes and reedist/flutist John Mastroianni both approach the material from a jazz perspective, emphasizing distinctive harmonic developments, melodic extrapolations and improvised solos. “This added color to the album,” said NEJE president and bassist Steven Bulmer, the project’s producer.

From conceptualization through final mastering, the recording, which documents the first American performing arts organization to cast Peter And The Wolf in a jazz setting, took four years to produce. The album was finalized in the last quarter of 2017, strategically timed for Grammy voters’ consideration. “We’re pursuing [a Grammy] in both the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album and Best Children’s Album categories,” Bulmer said. “We’re one of the few jazz ensembles to ever be able to do that.” DB

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June 2023
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