Gunther Schuller’s Journey Into Jazz Friday, Aug. 4, at The Festival at Sandpoint
The big tent of jazz holds many sounds, and Gunther Schuller loves most of them.
Schuller, who is best-known as a classicist, showed his far-reaching love of jazz in a show Friday that spanned the gulf between the sweet, sprightly airs of “Tea for Two” and sax great Joe Lovano’s ferocious “Blackwell’s Message.”
Schuller’s charming children’s program, “Journey Into Jazz,” was the thread that stitched it all together.
The programming was flawless: Schuller, the festival’s artistic director, introduced the tenets of jazz via “Journey Into Jazz,” then set Lovano and company free to demonstrate the current state of the art.
The quintet’s four-song performance was a bold departure from normal festival fare, a searing mini-adventure in post-modern bebop. Three of the four songs were Lovano originals and demonstrated the sax player’s debt to the luminous harmonics of Ornette Coleman. Lovano’s huge sax sound ranged from bluesy romanticism to thorny, raspy exhortations. His wife, soprano Judi Silvano, sang brilliant scat - sometimes locked like a second horn in tightly knit harmonies with Lovano - and pianist Kenny Werner played fluid, intricate fills and solos, both hands flying. The rhythm section musicians, Ed Schuller (Gunther’s son), bass, and Billy Hart, drums, are inventive, intuitive players who lent an emotional strength to the mix that deepened the work of the soloists.
The wide-ranging program also included several symphonic arrangements of American popular songs, two of them Schuller originals and both composed when he was the teenage principal horn player of the Cincinnati Symphony.
“Two of my youthful sins,” he called the songs Friday.
It may be hard for contemporary audiences to understand why, but Schuller’s adaptations of Duke Ellington and Count Basie songs stirred up some controversy in their day, at least in symphonic circles.
Friday, in the hands of the Spokane Symphony, they were merely lovely. Certainly, Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” carries dark - even dangerous - resonances in the opening bars, scored by Schuller for strings, but they are neatly resolved by the song’s handsomely swinging denouement.
More provocative were the arrangements of three standards written by Schuller (for Lovano’s new CD, “Rush Hour”) 50 years after his original experiments in the form.
Lovano, who is an adroit interpreter of the standards, joined the symphony along with Ed Schuller, Billy Hart and student saxophonist Eric Rassmussen in a selection of songs by Matt Dennis, Vernon Duke and Duke Ellington.
It was in this set of songs that the symphony was most likely to falter, but they held beautifully to the songs’ swinging arrangements, keeping their focus even as Lovano sailed off on another of his sensuous, flying tangents. Duke’s “The Love I Long For” showed off Lovano’s fine touch on a romantic ballad and Schuller’s arrangement of Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” was rich with the contradictions that make the original so striking. Rasmussen played confidently and well beside Lovano in what must have been the crowning moment in his young career.
Bringing jazz to the festival’s main stage has been a long time coming, but Friday’s show was worth the wait. Though a generation in age and an ocean of experience separate them, Lovano and Schuller proved that great musicians are brothers under the skin.
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