THE worlds of classical music and jazz have long been converging. Famous divas have crooned Tin Pan Alley standards, while innovative improvisers have filtered classical works through distinctive sensibilities -- think Duke Ellington reinterpreting Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.”
But this month brings an unusual profusion of jazz-classical blends. Angelenos can see Turtle Island Quartet perform its transcription of John Coltrane’s landmark LP “A Love Supreme” at the Jazz Bakery and go to three different Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concerts (also at the Jazz Bakery) featuring pianist Uri Caine doing his jazz versions of classics and premiering a new concerto. Meanwhile, climbing the charts is baritone Thomas Quasthoff’s new CD, “A Jazz Album.”
None of this surprises composer-conductor Gunther Schuller, who coined the term “Third Stream” in 1957 to describe exactly this synthesis of classical music and jazz.
“Everything I predicted would happen did happen within a very short period,” Schuller said from Boston. “The term ‘Third Stream’ isn’t used -- the term went out of business, so to speak, 20 to 30 years ago. But it’s all over the place in varying degrees of quality. People and recording companies call it everything from crossover or fusion to new-agey. It’s settled into a kind of mainstream.”
Caine, for his part, sees what he’s doing as firmly rooted in the jazz improvisation tradition. Only recently, he’s been improvising on music by Mahler, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart instead of jazz standards.
“Certain people have a problem with that,” Caine said from Philadelphia, where he was playing. “ ‘There should be a law against that,’ they’ve said. Or, ‘You’re tampering with something very holy.’ I agree with that. I also love Mahler. But I’m just coming from a certain point of view.
“For me, the tradition of jazz is innovating. That principle guides me with my project of interpreting the music of classical composers. You have to leave room for many other things to happen.”
Indeed, many things happen when Caine and his colleagues recast classical originals into free-spirited takes that reference klezmer, blues, funk, Middle Eastern and Asian styles or quotations from other classical composers. His own solos often start off straight, then get tangled up with echoes of Art Tatum and other jazz virtuosos. He can go pretty far afield but always comes back to his sources.
“Doing this has certainly led me into researching how the music is working in order to get a clue to hang the improvisations on,” he said. “We might emphasize loosening up the structure and see other ways of dealing with it or find a rhythmic approach that exists already but is not necessarily played that way by classical musicians. With Mahler, for instance, it’s seeing the borrowing from folk or vernacular traditions. Then we can combine different traditions to make something even larger.”
Caine, 50, trained in both jazz and classical music, has recorded 16 albums, including “Urlicht/Primal Light,” which features arrangements of Mahler’s symphonic music. (A group of European critics voted the recording the Best Mahler CD of 1997.) He also released versions of Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe” and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (both in 2001), Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (2002) and Mahler songs (2003).
“The Mahler thing [in ’97] was a turning point,” he said. “I started to play out of the jazz circuits. For the last 10 years, I’ve been trying to work hard as a composer but also develop my piano skills, also electronic music, improvising structures through a laptop.”
In 2006, he became LACO’s composer in residence, where he has been playing his “reimaginings” of classical music: “Can I improvise a development section that’s better than Mozart? Impossible. But it’s OK. I’m just exploring what would happen if you took these ideas and tried to work something out.”
LIKE Caine, violinist Dave Balakrishnan, a founding member of the San Francisco-based Turtle Island Quartet, knows that if the goal of interpreting originals were to simply reproduce them, then hearing, say, Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” rendered by a chamber group would always fall short. But he sees the differences as liberating, not limiting.
“I know in the end I can’t ever sound like John Coltrane,” Balakrishnan said from his home in Albany, Calif. “In the meantime, in striving for that ideal, something else happens.” The music made in that striving, he said, “becomes my voice, my singing voice.”
An L.A. native, Balakrishnan grew up in the ‘60s playing violin, but it was not until he discovered guitars and rock ‘n’ roll that he fell in love with music. Still, he continued classical studies at UCLA, even as he pursued rock on his own. In his early 20s, however, he found “true jazz.” “I discovered Coltrane,” he said. “It was shattering. From my classical background, I could appreciate where this genius was coming from.”
With additional input from Indian ragas (his father was from India) and bluegrass, Balakrishnan moved “very organically and naturally from classical music to jazz,” founding Turtle Island Quartet in 1985.
“We were really embraced right away,” he said. “People could hear we were grounded in the string quartet and were honoring that craft as opposed to throwing it all away. However, there was this feeling, which is really interesting: You get that initial door opened, but do you get to the inner sanctuary? That’s where both jazz and classical musicians say, ‘Ah, we want our Coltrane,’ or ‘We want our Guarneri Quartet.’
“Still, while we might not find our way to that inner sanctuary in either style, both styles are being affected. And other musicians who are coming along are refining what that inner sanctum is without losing its heart.”
Though lacking horns and a rhythm section, Turtle Island still manages to sound more like a jazz combo than a classical quartet because of the way the group swings solo melodic lines, varies bow attacks, lays down a walking-bass line and adds individual improvisations.
Cellist Mark Summer is also a native Angelino and the only other original member of Turtle Island still playing in the group. Summer was classically trained but walked away from a tenured position in the Winnipeg Symphony after playing there three years.
“They thought I was leaving because I didn’t want to play the pops concerts,” Summer said from his home in Marin, Calif. “Quite the contrary. Playing Shostakovich and Bruckner symphonies, I felt tension and stress.
“In Turtle Island, I’ve got a very special role created for myself, which incorporates everything I’m about. Having gone through the whole 9 yards of classical training, I say I’m in recovery from classical music.”
Summer grew up in the San Fernando Valley, playing piano and cello and teaching himself guitar. He longed to play jazz “but didn’t have any idea whether I could do that with the cello.”
Then he discovered the Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet and realized, he said, that “the cello was a wonderful vehicle, instrument, for jazz. It just requires commitment. You have to do a lot of listening, transcribing, living with the music and composing yourself. None of it’s easy. Classical at any level is hard. Jazz is just as challenging.”
Summer thinks that the whole classical music world is changing. “It’s evolving partly because of interest of the audiences,” he said, “but also it’s driven a lot by the interests of the performers and the composers who grew up listening to everything from Beethoven to the Beatles, including Shostakovich, the Rolling Stones and the Who.”
Easing the transition
ONE person who may be changing it is baritone Quasthoff, a Thalidomide baby who was born with a number of birth defects.
“Jazz was always a kind of friend in my life,” said the singer from his home in Berlin. “I listened to so many different kinds of music. I heard Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Frank Zappa. I love Randy Newman, the films of Barbra Streisand. There are so many influences in my life.
“My idea in making this jazz album was to make a more popular disc, not in the normal way of crossover because I think that my way is much more jazzy than my colleagues who say they are doing it.
“I would have liked to have had it more in an improvised way. On the other hand, we had to do an album which was not a kind of shock. Most people know me as a classical artist, so we had to do a very smooth transition to this other musical world.”
Quasthoff has a relaxed, laid-back style that thins out or deepens in color depending on a song’s mood -- light and bright in “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” or darker and reflective in “My Funny Valentine.” He doesn’t sound like an opera singer slumming in this repertory but rather an authentic jazz singer with a point of view.
All the songs he chose had meaning for him, he said. “ ‘In My Solitude’ has a lot to do with me. The last few songs have a lot to do with me. I just got married last year. Every song, or the character in the song, has to do with me in a way. ‘Accentuate the Positive.’ That’s one of the most obvious. If you’re growing up as a disabled person in Germany, even in the United States, you have to accentuate the positive. That’s the easiest example. You could do that with almost every song on the recording.”
But beyond that, “These are great, incredible, beautiful songs,” he said.
“Take the love songs of Gershwin or Irving Berlin or Cole Porter. That’s also what Schubert’s songs are about, in a different tradition, yes? This is absolutely wonderful, beautiful music. I know there is a kind of classical arrogance that disagrees. But, no, I’m not a kind of artist like that. I’m sorry. I try to be much more open.”
Where: Uri Caine, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City
When: 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
Price: $25 each set ($40 both sets on same day)
Contact: (213) 662-7001, Ext. 215;
Where: Gunther Schuller, Charles Mingus’ Epitaph Orchestra, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. May 16
Price: $33 to $93
Contact: (323) 850-2000;
Where: Turtle Island Quartet, the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City
When: 8 and 9:30 p.m. May 16-19
Contact: (310) 271-9039;