Saturday, November 10, 2007

Classical Music Meets the Jazz Ear

I grew up hearing classical music, probably from the womb. My parents tell me that Schubert was spinning on my little record player as a toddler. I never deliberately moved away from Beethoven and Schubert, in fact I have held season tickets to the famed Schubert Club series for at least 30 years. But as my ears turned more and more toward jazz, I found myself growing more restless at a chamber recital. Wouldn’t that etude be more fun with some improvisation? Why can’t that pianist veer off that so-familiar-it’s-trite melody and rework the chords into something new?

Once in a while I’ve heard a classical artist come pretty darn close to these fantasies. A few years ago, Alpin Hong*, an amazing young pianist, took a detour in the midst of a classical recital at the University of Iowa, ripping through Rhapsody in Blue with more inventive spirit than I’d encountered with any “jazz” pianist. But of course Gershwin begs to be jazzed.

Maybe the vocabulary of jazz is as much a function of the listener as the performer. Tonight I heard (for maybe the fifth or sixth time) the great cellist, Yo Yo Ma. Yo Yo of course is known for an eclectic repertoire, and the program tonight at Ordway, marking the Schubert Club’s remarkable 125th anniversary, was as eclectic as Schubert Club can be—Schubert (of course!), Shostakovich, Astor Piazzolla, Esberto Gismonti, and Franck, plus encores that included a snippet of Gershwin’s Prelude in F. Probably no other classical artist would even think up such a program. But on the surface, this was a more classical recital than I expected. Rather than the Brazilian choro music hinted at in the program notes, the Gismonti sounded much closer to the Shostakovich than to the Piazzolla; the Piazzolla (Le Grand Tango) was so thickly layered it seemed more symphonic than tango.

So what did I hear? The Schubert (Sonata in A Minor) is filled with theme and variations, and if not spontaneous improvisation, it surely hints at what could be the foundation for some off-the-cuff play. The middle movements of the Shostakovich (Sonata in D Minor) had the unexpected turns and twists of bop masters, and Yo Yo and his marvelous pianist, Kathryn Stott, while undoubtedly sticking to the script, conjured considerable spontaneity in their exchanges. And shortly after the initial passage of the Franck (Sonata in A), I was struck by the similarity of its melodic structure to the earlier Schubert. Ah-hah, the Schubert was in A minor, the Franck in A—but the early segment is definitely minor. My jazz brain shouted “chord changes!” I don’t really think Franck based his themes on the chord changes of Schubert. But give a jazzed ear the notes within the same key and something happens, a connection is created even if there is no intention. What else? Surely everyone noticed that throughout the Franck, particularly in the third and fourth movements, themes from earlier sections are recalled and revised.

Jazz was born from many sources, East and West, Europe and Africa, and the New World. Sometimes we overlook the thread of the European tradition. But these threads run both ways. Schubert and Franck, of course, did not live to hear the sounds of jazz. But who knows what Dimitri was listening to in 1934?

*Alpin Hong, by the way, in addition to extensive touring, curated an artist-in-the-schools program in Harlem titled “Kitchen Sink Music After School,” and enjoys skateboarding and snowboarding in his spare time. Next time I hear him, I fully expect a reharmonization of Brahms.