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Jazz goes bi-polar in brave new world of ‘Jazz & The Philharmonic’

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“Jazz And The Philharmonic” CD/DVD [March 24, 2014 international release OKeh Records]

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‘Jazz And The Philharmonic’ is an example of what can happen when great organizations collaborate. The combined resources of the National YoungArts Foundation, Larry Rosen’s Jazz Roots, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and the Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Institute resulted in a thrilling, one-of-a-kind evening that would be hard to replicate anywhere. Jazz and classical artists melded their talents together…and it worked! Genre labels and stereotypes disappeared and all that remained was great music, in the moment and full of surprises. You would be hard-pressed to find another orchestra to so seamlessly and convincingly turn ‘on a dime’ from one genre and style to another.

Seventy years ago, music impresario producer Norman Granz lifted jazz from the clubs and brought it to the mainstream concert hall with an all-star cast at L.A.’s Philharmonic Auditorium. In the next four decades, Granz took his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts international, opening up worlds and minds.

Two years ago, music producer Larry Rosen ran with the idea, for a jazz-classical twist. On January 11, 2013, he held his live, star-studded concert in one of the U.S.’s leading performing arts venues, the 2,000-seat John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, put legendary artists and National YoungArts Foundation alumni together with the Phillip and Patricia Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, Scott Flavin conductor — before a packed audience, and then recorded the moment for posterity.

JAZZ ROOTS: A Larry Rosen Jazz Series brought jazz and classical performers together onstage for the February 25, 2014 U.S. CD/DVD release and February 28, 2014 nationally televised PBS broadcast concert. The line-up is a jazz and classical music lovers’ dream: Chick Corea, Dave Grusin, Terence Blanchard, Bobby McFerrin, Shelly Berg, Eric Owens, Elizabeth Joy Roe, Mark O’Connor, and contemporary dancer Desmond Richardson (Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater).

But this new, bold recording is more than the sum of its legendary performance parts. “Jazz And The Philharmonic” is also a fantastic endorsement for the National YoungArts Foundation, a major component of this collaborative project. Many of the featured artists have benefitted from the foundation’s mentoring programs. What a way to pay it forward for the next Terence Blanchard or Elizabeth Joy Roe.

In the DVD portion of “Jazz And The Philharmonic,” jazz pianist and YoungArts Master Teacher Shelly Berg sends chills up and down the spine with his ringing endorsement. “The best and brightest young artists in the country are very isolated. They’re the outcasts or the misfits. And there may not be the resources or the support they really need that says, ‘You can do this, it’s okay, you’re not a misfit. There’s a whole world for people like you.’ And they come for a week, and Robert Redford tells an actor, ‘It’s okay.’ A Desmond Richardson tells a dancer, ‘It’s okay.’ And they show them a portal to a world that they’d hoped would be there that really is there. And without YoungArts, many of these people might not get there.”

Several of the stars of “Jazz And The Philharmonic” received YoungArts mentoring. Grammy-award-winning opera singer Eric Owens is up there lending his bass-baritone with another YoungArts alumnus, five-time Grammy-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard in Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Fugue In C Minor,” which goes jazz fairly easily. The Frost School of Music dean/music director, Grammy-nominated Shelly Berg and YoungArts alumna, Elizabeth Joy Roe, trade jazz and classical mixes on piano throughout the lovely and lightly brimming, “Incandescent, Iridescent, Effervescent,” on DVD only. YoungArts Master Teacher Bobby McFerrin grounds the show with his Grammy-winning vocal instrumentals, whether he’s riffing with 20-time Grammy icon Chick Corea and 12-time Grammy/Oscar-winning Dave Grusin, or providing a score for another YoungArts alumnus, dancer Desmond Richardson.

The best and brightest young artists in the country are very isolated. They’re the outcasts or the misfits. And there may not be the resources or the support they really need that says, ‘You can do this, it’s okay, you’re not a misfit. There’s a whole world for people like you.’ And they come for a week, and Robert Redford tells an actor, ‘It’s okay.’ A Desmond Richardson tells a dancer, ‘It’s okay.’ And they show them a portal to a world that they’d hoped would be there that really is there. And without YoungArts, many of these people might not get there. –Shelly Berg, ‘Jazz And The Philharmonic’ DVD

Four major national arts organizations collaborated to bring about this rare, once-in-a-lifetime concert: National YoungArts Foundation, Phillip and Patricia Frost School of Music | University of Miami (Henry Mancini Institute), Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, and JAZZ ROOTS: A Larry Rosen Jazz Series. “‘Jazz And The Philharmonic’ is an example of what can happen when great organizations collaborate,” said Shelly Berg, the dean of the Frost School of Music. “The combined resources of the National YoungArts Foundation, Larry Rosen’s Jazz Roots, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and the Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Institute resulted in a thrilling, one-of-a-kind evening that would be hard to replicate anywhere. Jazz and classical artists melded their talents together…and it worked! Genre labels and stereotypes disappeared and all that remained was great music, in the moment and full of surprises. You would be hard-pressed to find another orchestra to so seamlessly and convincingly turn ‘on a dime’ from one genre and style to another.”

The jazz and classical artists, with the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, gamely came together onstage before a real, live audience to do justice to this favorite but underappreciated fusion. Throughout the DVD, participating artists spoke with conviction about the deep connection between jazz and classical music, from the early days of jazz incorporating classical violin to its repertoire, to classical composers like Beethoven and Mozart expecting improvisation to be a part of the experience.

That goose bump experience comes through in HD and Dolby 5.1 surround sound on this OKeh Records release loud and clear. The CD contains nine of the live performances and the DVD shows some of those performances plus a few extras not found in the audio version — run by the late, 15-time, Grammy-award-winning engineer/producer Phil Ramone. The compositions derive from both jazz and classical set lists, with seven new arrangements by the Frost School musicians. The CD/DVD package was released in the U.S. and Canada February 25, with a March 24th international premiere.

It’s simply not enough to listen to the CD. The DVD gives life to the unbelievable sounds, showing the remarkable interplay, the pauses between the gems, the powerful bursts of emotional energy, the controlled intensity on classical pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe’s face as she boldly breaks tradition, traversing onto some jazz territory with trumpeter Terence Blanchard and the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra in “Solfeggietto.”

Or how the two masters of improvisation — Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea — circle each other in the ring on “Armando’s Rhumba [only on DVD],” until there is almost nothing left but the spaces between one or two well-timed, fiery notes. If there was ever a true jazz break, it’s this one. McFerrin bends like a willow, listening for his cues, watching Corea’s hands attack the keys, while playfully daring the pianist to shoot back. McFerrin’s wordless melody and syncopated body beats are all Corea needs to fly. Corea does repeat rolls that increase in intensity before he abruptly launches, as if possessed, into another melodic chorus, somehow knowing when McFerrin’s changing gears. When they play with diminishing beats, McFerrin hovering over Corea’s right shoulder, lightly tapping the piano, the two are one, Corea regarding the beat box vocalist childlike as he reduces his tempo and his attack to virtually limitless possibilities, a dangerous glint in his eye…that’s vintage jazz. At this point, these two could do anything. Amazing, subconscious interplay. “My friend, Chick.”

One of the most astounding performances transcends CD or DVD. It’s what Chick Corea, Terence Blanchard, Met opera singer Eric Owens, and the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra — whose members must also carefully listen, fully prepared to switch gears at any moment; this isn’t an ordinary classical script — do with the “Spanish Suite.” Yes, they revisit Corea’s infamous, frequently comped “Spain” jazz standard by lavish, classical sweeps, through Joaquín Rodrigo’s 1939 “Concierto de Aranjuez.”

Quietly assuming his seat behind the grand black piano, Corea introduces the boundless classical prelude, ever increasing in sharply divided waves, signaling the eventual return to that famous skip of a melody. Is he making this up? Is this rehearsed? There is no hesitation, no stalling for time, the different notes are flowing out of him in a decided classical shower. The orchestra steps in with the strings, mirroring his prelude, and he intersperses their echo with the next, more jazz-oriented refrain before Owens sings sweetly in Spanish, bridging any opera-averse gaps, Blanchard by his side, harps, saxophones, violins, and clarinets elaborating the vocal turn. Blanchard renders a sexy jazz undertone, moving around freely, sweeping the orchestra.

If you watch Corea, and you can on this DVD, nobody in the world attacks the keys like he does, with force, energy, and intent, every note rings. There’s a part in the deep end of “Spain” where the orchestra’s upright bassist and drummer just hang on for dear life as Corea leads an unreal charge through the most complex series of almost molecular movements. Then the orchestra, the delighted violinists especially—grins on all their faces—they stop playing their instruments to clap in percussive time through the familiar, spiraling steps before Corea signals back, maniacally twisting and turning on his own instrument laid bare and wide open.

A key part of jazz that perhaps classical music aficionados miss is that interplay. At the start of “Autumn Leaves,” a basic trio with an orchestral backdrop becomes a living, breathing exchange of masters as they deliver and drop, then swirl together completely in the moment, on the precipice of a new discovery. Corea, McFerrin, and Grusin jam together, as only they can, and they can’t do this alone. Jazz, for the most part, is a social animal, dependent on the parts to create a whole. A series of lovely, classically inspired notes from Grusin is countered by Corea riding the angles, deserving an equal response in McFerrin’s unearthly wordless and lyrical vocal melodies as he strings the divergent styles together. McFerrin also vocalizes the lyrics with the same aplomb, as a legit romantic leading man. As much as these three are enjoying themselves, they’re always observing each other, waiting for “a winter’s song” to play off of. It’s in that rise and fall as the three take off, where jazz can teach classical some things. Toward the fade, Corea and Grusin let their music cascade like textural waterfall, as they regard one another with much respect from across their two grand pianos. The audience is in tears.

Here comes Terence Blanchard, wielding that trumpet like an arsenal, joined by opera singer Eric Owens performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Fugue in C Minor,” accompanied by the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. Jazz opera big band full on, then Blanchard breathes out of the formal foreplay with the orchestra’s brass section in a swinging jam when Owens stunningly joins in for another seamless fusion never once losing his opera roots. Look at Owens feeling a little bit of that swing but still giving the breadth of classical majesty as Blanchard bows accordingly.

One of the great jazz discoveries in this musical project has to be concert pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe. Already a classical darling and a YoungArtist alumna, Roe held her own with jazz standards Shelly Berg and Terence Blanchard, while holding the audience in the palm of her hand. Her response to the challenge of jazz tells of another story yet to come, perhaps a brand new album of improvisational discontent?

On the DVD’s special addition, “Incandescent, Iridescent, Effervescent,” Roe spends most of the time chasing melody with the orchestra and doing a good imitation of a tortured jazz artist barely able to stay still. In a clear-cut case of classical formats breaking down into a jazz recess, Roe bounces in her seat as she hops on one series of breakneck currents after another — obsessively smitten. Shelly Berg calmly brings the jazz home in a straight-ahead spree, bridging her collective, passion-filled gaps.

Then, magic. Both the classical and jazz, represented by Roe and Berg, seem to switch places and come back together, each borrowing liberally from the other’s style, as the orchestra maintains the core of the most beautiful parts of the melody. They travel emotively from the stark contrast of sorrow to ecstasy, solitude to romance, in dual, bi-polar musical forms.

“Jazz And The Philharmonic” explores the longstanding mystery of the jazz classical in a live audience setting with some open, enthusiastic master artisans. There’s opera and modern dance in here, but none of it’s stuffy, boring, or scarily discordant. Same with jazz. For the record books.

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