There was a time when classical music was firmly separated from what the establishment regarded as lesser musical forms--a shining castle on the hill that could never be approached by performers of lesser musical forms. Benny Goodman's 1938 concert in Carnegie Hall, a hallowed classical music venue, was considered an astonishing achievement for a jazz band. Similarly, Paul Whiteman's presentation of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in the 1920s was considered a kind of legitimizing of jazz by placing it in a quasi-classical setting.
But times have changed. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis now records critically praised classical trumpet concertos. Yo-Yo Ma and Itzak Perlman improvise. Yehudi Menuhin performs with Ravi Shankar. And pianist Marcus Roberts' recent dramatic reinterpretation of "Rhapsody in Blue" adds bold improvisations and sense of swing that were suggested but not always fulfilled in the original composition.
Why is all this happening? Why the movement of so many jazz players into the classical arena?
Because a generation of musicians has arrived in the jazz world in the past two or three decades with the training and musical intelligence to skillfully perform works from the worlds of the classical music and jazz. The walls may not yet be coming down completely, but they no longer are sturdy enough to prevent passage by performers who wish to live in both locales.
Audience receptivity to this trend is increasing: Roberts' highly successful recording of the "Rhapsody" was accompanied by a well-attended national tour; Marsalis' classical albums have sold consistently well; and PBS on Thursday will present a "Great Performances" special titled "Loosely Mozart: The New Innovators of Classical Music," hosted by Bobby McFerrin, and featuring Roberts, Ma, Chick Corea and country violinist Mark O'Connor.
Two recent recordings provide convincing evidence of this growing capacity of jazz musicians to play the classical repertoire. The first, a two-CD set, features Keith Jarrett performing three Mozart piano concertos--No. 21 (K. 467), No. 23 (K. 488) and No. 27 (K. 595)--with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. (The recording also includes readings of the Masonic Funeral Music and the Symphony No. 40.) In the second, Corea teams up with McFerrin (in his conductor persona) to perform two Mozart piano concertos, Nos. 20 (K. 466) and 23, with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Further, the recordings also suggest that jazz musicians can bring perspectives to classical music that range from the conservative to the unusual.
Both Jarrett and Corea have performed classical music on occasion. And Jarrett has an extensive history of recordings, including Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" on piano as well as harpsichord, works by Shostakovich and Handel, as well as his own contemporary pieces.
But--perhaps appropriately, given their free-thinking jazz backgrounds--they do not share the same approach to dealing with classical performances.
In the past, Jarrett has done a remarkable amount of free improvising (most visibly in his popular Koln concert recordings on ECM). But when it comes to Mozart, he takes a considerably more traditional stance, while investing his precise touch and careful control of timbre with what can perhaps best be described as a jazz spirit. Corea worries less about tradition, preferring to make a more direct connection to his jazz style.
Start, for example, with cadenzas, the passages in a concerto in which a soloist has an opportunity to play with the spontaneous freedom generally found in jazz improvisation. In Mozart's time, cadenzas were commonly improvised--a practice that gradually changed as concert players' improvisational skills waned and written cadenzas became the norm.
Jazz musicians such as Jarrett and Corea clearly have the ability to create improvised cadenzas. And it is interesting to compare what they do with the cadenzas in the single common work performed by both artists, the Concerto No. 23 in A. Jarrett's is true to the original, while Corea's improvised cadenza moves into an orbit that colors Mozart's melodic themes with lush jazz harmonies and brisk boppish runs.
Jarrett's strict position is based upon his belief that differences in touch and manner make it difficult to move quickly between jazz and classical music performance.
"I don't do my own [cadenzas]," he says. "If there's no Mozart cadenza, I look for one I like. I can't do my own. It's like turning off one switch and turning on another switch. So if I'm playing Mozart, what I'm doing, if I do my own cadenza, is changing channels. And I want to stay on the same program.
"In fact," Jarrett adds, "I wouldn't play a solo concert or a trio concert within a month of a classical concert if I could help it."
Corea's attitude is almost precisely the opposite.
"It would take the fun out of playing Mozart for me to play someone else's cadenza," he says. "When the time comes for extemporization, the challenge is to grab the piece and improvise a little bit with it. And I really think that's what Mozart had in mind."
And Jarrett, despite his relative conservatism toward cadenzas, offers agreement on a somewhat different basis, stressing his belief that an "improvisational capacity" is vital to the performance of 18th century keyboard music. Without it, he says, "you are missing some giant link. There's a tactile quality missing. When you're an improviser, there's a certain shimmer to the motion of things."
Interestingly, Mozart himself suggested the importance of an openly declamatory approach in certain pieces--not improvisational, exactly, but with the freedom of articulation characteristic of jazz.
One suspects, however, that Mozart might have been a bit less tolerant of the improvised voice and piano segments with which Corea and McFerrin introduce each of the concertos on the Mozart sessions. Unlike Marcus Roberts' reintroduction of improvisation into the Gershwin "Rhapsody," they have no particular creative function other than to add a touch of McFerrin's vocals and a tiny piano prelude to the mix.
Nonetheless, Jarrett, Corea and conductors McFerrin and Davies all seem to be in agreement on one thing--that Mozart can be interpreted with a sense of originality and momentum that reaches beyond traditional styles.
"What's lacking most of the time in the traditional classic conceptions to me is relationship to the pulse," says Jarrett. "And that probably comes from my thinking as a, quote, jazz musician, and having a strong relationship to the pulse as being something more than just the tempo.
"Orchestras think of tempo as this malleable function, whereas I like to play Mozart as though there's really a pulse. Because I think that if Mozart was a free spirit, then he would appreciate a free-spirited accounting of his music. I think he would rather have that than have someone saying, 'Now what do you want me to do?' "