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(GM Recordings GM3010CD) [1988]

Gunther Schuller is probably best known these days as a composer of modern "classical" music, and there are a number of CDs devoted to performances of his compositions. One of my favorites is a Mercury "Living Presence" CD of Antal Dorati with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. In addition to compositions by Gershwin, Copland and Bloch, this CD contains Schuller's "Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee," a related set of works based on seven Klee paintings and named after them. Typically, the music is "modern" in the sense that an abstract and atonal vocabulary is employed.

But Gunther Schuller is also a French horn player who, in addition to a position with New York's Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, spent much of the late forties and fifties as a session player and jazz musician. He was part of the famous nine-piece "Birth of the Cool" arranger/composer's rehearsal orchestra fronted by Miles Davis in 1949. And he was closely involved in many of the more ambitious efforts in jazz composition of the fifties, giving them the name "Third Stream Music." (See my review of THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM.) In addition, it was Schuller who pulled together, edited, and conducted the posthumous Charles Mingus EPITAPH (reviewed elsewhere in these pages), as well as doing the conducting on several Mingus recordings during Mingus's career.

Schuller (and his wife) also own the small GM Recordings label. One of the jazz groups which records for this label (which also releases non-jazz recordings) is Orange Then Blue, for which his son George is the dummer. (The group's name comes from a Mingus composition.) A jazz repertoire orchestra, one of Orange Then Blue's first recordings was JUMPIN' IN THE FUTURE, an album devoted to Gunther Schuller's jazz compositions.

As such it is Schuller's only jazz album.

There are eight pieces on this album. The earliest is the title track, composed in 1947. An arrangement of Gershwin's "Summertime" was written in 1949. Half of the pieces -- "When The Saints Go Marchin' In," and arrangements of "Blue Moon," "Anthropology," and "Yesterdays" -- were written in 1955. "Night Music" was written in 1961 as a solo vehicle for Eric Dolphy. The album's final piece, "Teardrop," was written in 1966. All were recorded for this album in 1988.

The opener is "Saints," but this is not yet another arrangement of this classic New Orleans funeral favorite. It is instead a formidable atonal composition which Steve Elman in his comprehensive liner notes describes as "a fantasy for jazz band, based on the first four notes of the famous theme." Incredibly, this piece "comes from a commission Schuller received from Richard Maltby, an arranger and band leader, very popular on radio in the 1950s. For a new band he formed in 1958, Maltby wanted to give the young turks of jazz an opportunity to revise and revamp one of the oldest of jazz classics." (This explanation fails to account for the composition being credited to the year 1955 elsewhere. Maybe Maltby planned three years ahead.) I can only wonder what kind of impact Maltby's performance of this "difficult" composition had -- I was unaware of it at the time. (Others who received the same commission from Maltby were Jimmy Giuffre, Al Cohn and Rusty Dedrick -- a mixed bag of composer/arrangers. If Maltby ever recorded these pieces I'd love to hear them.) Nothing recognizable as the traditional theme remains in this composition, making it far more than an "arrangement."

"Blue Moon" receives a more conventional arrangement. The rich melody gets a treatment "reminiscent of Gil Evans' arrangements for the Claude Thornhill band in the 1940s," to quote Elman again. Evans' Thornhill arrangements (which used French horns and other instruments unusual in jazz/dance bands) drew upon Debussy for an impressionistic approach that directly prefigured the advent of "cool jazz" and those "Birth of the Cool" 1949 sessions -- and Evans' own later work with Miles Davis.

"Night Music" was written for Eric Dolphy, and was performed by the late saxophonist in 1961 in a concert recorded for VINTAGE DOLPHY (GM3005CD). It also appears on a 1966 Cambridge LP, DEDICATED TO ERIC DOLPHY, with clarinetist Bill Smith playing Dolphy's bass clarinet role (CRS 1820). Here tuba player Howard Johnson does the honors on bass clarinet, closely and successfully aping Dolphy's unique style. Schuller made very effective use of Dolphy's idiosyncratic way of playing the bass clarinet when he wrote this piece; its successful performance now depends on someone like Johnson adopting that same approach.

"Anthropology" is a Charlie Parker classic. Elman says of this arrangement, "It seems to be directly inspired by Gil Evans' transformation of bebop themes for Claude Thornhill, going so far as to lift a magical effect for its conclusion directly from Evans' arrangement of Charlie Parker's 'Donna Lee.'" It seems clear that Schuller was influenced by Evans, and to good effect.

"Jumpin' In The Future" -- Schuller's earliest work here -- seems to be a cousin to his "Symphony for Brass and Percussion, Op. 16" (on MUSIC FOR BRASS, reissued on THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM). Written "purely as an adventure in composition," it is richly varied music that draws both upon contemporary composition and jazz. "Schuller believes [it] to be the first full-fledged, purely atonal piece in jazz." As such it reminds me of Robert Graettinger's early compositions for Stan Kenton, the earliest of which, "Thermopylae," also dates back to 1947. Despite that "atonal" tag, this music does have (shifting) tonal centers and is far from intellectually abstract.

"Yesterdays" and "Summertime" have become jazz "standards," arranged and played by a wide variety of jazz musicians over the years. Each piece offers rich and subtle opportunities for an ambitious arranger, and Schuller takes full advantage of those opportunities. "Summertime" in particular, with its modal vamp, is fecund with musical possibilities. At places Schuller's arrangement (which predates Evans' by ten years) sounds uncannily like Gil Evans' for Miles Davis.

"Teardrop" on the other hand, seems to draw its inspiration (and part of its theme) from "West Side Story," but then fragments and rearranges it kalidoscopically. It bears a resemblence to "Saints" in this respect, making use of such classical devices as thematic diminution, augmentation and inversion -- all within the modern jazz vocabulary -- and ends with an extended collective improvisation "that could be from a Mingus score."

Orange Then Blue is, on this album, an orchestra of more than twenty musicians -- not unlike the kind of orchestra Mingus put together for his larger and more ambitious works. And this album opens the door to a kind of ambitious, orchestral jazz which seemed to reach its peak in the fifties -- a time when the possibilities for jazz composition seemed wide open, with only the sky as a limit. It was a time of musical ferment and fresh combinations of unlikely elements. The musicians who commissioned and performed these pieces were eager to stretch their muscles with challenging new music. Not surprisingly, this music is as fresh now (and when it was recorded, in 1988, ten years ago) as ever, and just as rewarding for the committed listener.

Schuller may be best known for his non-jazz compositions, but these are equal in rank, and deserve a spot on your shelf next to THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM.

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