Friday, November 16, 2007

Tributaries of the Third Stream

I always enjoy hearing pianist Larry McDonough and his quartet. One minute they’re running through a standard like “Night and Day” and the next minute it’s Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—in either case, you can be sure Larry has wreaked havoc with the meter and created something fresh and delightful. Of course Beethoven seems like an odd choice for a jazz band, owing nothing to African roots, syncopated rhythms or “in the moment” improvisation. Yet European forms and elements have been flavoring jazz for decades. Modern music icon Gunther Schuller is credited with adding the term “Third Stream” to our glossaries of musical terms in the 1950s, defined by the Guinness jazz compendium as music that seeks to “bridge the gap between European disciplines and forms and the attitudes and techniques of jazz.” More generally, Guinness further notes that the term has been applied more generally to “the process of breaking down barriers between one form of music and another.”

“Bridging the gap” implies a dichotomy, a wide DMZ of Atlantic Ocean separating continents of European and American music traditions. Yet from early days of jazz, European music and audiences have influenced jazz, from the army bands of James Reese Europe (living up to his name?) playing for the Allies during World War I to the influx of young modernists like the Swedish trio of Esbjorn Svensson and company (E.S.T.). Listen to the orchestral works of Gershwin and the majestic suites of Ellington and it is clear that European music was not far from the minds of the greatest composers of 20th century “jazz.” Decades later, Maria Schneider is creating a substantial body of orchestra works that have direct lineage to Ellington, melding forms and harmonies straight out of western classical traditions with the swing and improvisation of New Orleans, Africa and the Caribbean.

In the past week or two, I’ve heard a lot of music that may not meet Schuller’s definition of Third Stream yet clearly flows from related sources. The John Abercrombie Quartet (at the Dakota), and particularly violinist Mark Feldman, presented engaging compositions that alternately soared and buzzed, a fusion to be sure, but a mélange as strikingly classical in harmonies as it was jazzed and beyond in meters and deconstructions. Part of the Walker Art Center’s New World Jazz Series, Norwegian accordion master Frode Haltli—with partners on clarinet, Hardanger fiddle and voice—created an innovative weaving of Scandinavian folk and free jazz that at times strangely (or not so strangely) evoked Grieg. And playing this week in the car stereo, I continue to marvel at Sky Blue, Maria Schneider’s latest Artist Share release that deserves “Jazz Symphony of the Year” status—a tapestry of western hymn, big band arrangement and deep south blues, as well as Fantasy, in which the Bill May’s Inventions Trio creates inspiring collaborations for piano, flugelhorn and cello, building classical harmonies with post bop rhythms.

Bringing Beethoven into the Dakota, the Larry McDonough Quartet simply followed a thread that, like time and melody, seems to have been there all along. Third Stream? Fusion? Jazz? Neoclassical? As Louis Armstrong said years ago, “There is two kinds of music, the good and bad.”
Photos: (L) E.S.T. ; (R) Larry McDonough Quartet (photos: Andrea Canter)