Robert Schulslaper
March 1, 2010

R.A.P., the title work of Thomas McKinley’s newest CD, is a hugely entertaining romp for clarinet and orchestra, jazz orchestra actually, which combines the exciting improvisatory abandon of jazz with the motivic concentration and rhythmic sophistication of classical composition. Although I haven’t listened to progressive big bands in a while, I remember hearing music that veered off in similar non-traditional, rhythmic directions while still retaining a tenuous link to what we think of as jazz. Thomas McKinley has maintained a foothold in both jazz and classical music throughout his career, and he’s always trying to push the rhythmic envelope, as he might put it, so it’s not surprising that one of R.A.P.‘s immediately perceivable, indeed, visceral, characteristics would be the ingrained sense of “groove.” That, plus Richard Stoltzman’s free-wheeling mastery of a totally notated clarinet part that belies its carefully composed origins by sounding improvised, undoubtedly underscores the illusion that we’re hearing a jazz concerto, one following in the footsteps of Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto or other works of that kind. Once begun, the intensity never flags, although McKinley does allow for brief moments of relaxation, i.e., cadenzas for clarinet and a big solo for piano, energetically played by Stoltzman’s son, Peter, who, by the way, attended the Berklee School of Music and is a jazz player by inclination. This, plus lots of experience accompanying his father in classical repertoire gives him the flexibility to tackle the part. R.A.P. must be a knockout in live performance and it’s given further audience appeal by the shouted exhortations McKinley supplies for the players towards the end of the piece.

Since rhythm is so important to McKinley, it’s not surprising that he’s always enjoyed writing for and working with dancers, and his 13 Dances for Orchestra reflects that interest. Each of these short vignettes plays upon a particular dance style—Samba, Jitterbug, Waltz, Charleston, even Minuet—all brought to life with McKinley’s intense brass and winds dominated scoring. Rhythmically alert and enlivened with quotations of popular and jazz tunes—I Found a Million Dollar Baby, Samba Aye!, and Jitterbug Waltz—and cheekily enrolling Beethoven’s Minuet in G in the fun, there’s also a sense of force and almost palpable mass to the orchestration and voice that I’ve heard in other McKinley works. Composers Gershwin, Bernstein, and Stravinsky make appearances, albeit filtered through McKinley’s style, and I’m sure he’d be happy to point out their occurrence, as he admits to being influenced by everything he’s ever heard. To quote conductor Gil Rose, “Tom is a maximalist.”

A marimba concerto completes this survey of big works, in which McKinley, while inspired by “the child’s world,” hasn’t abandoned vigorous harmonies or emphatic orchestration, but merely toned things down so as not to drown out the marimba. Nancy Zeltsman, the outstanding soloist, sympathetically projects the various moods McKinley evokes in these 12 short movements. She handles rhythmically accentuated passagework and delicate water sounds (listen to “Under the Sprinkler”) with equal aplomb. The BMOP orchestra is superb, as idiomatically convincing in the jazz-inflected R.A.P. as they are in McKinley’s “classical” compositions. This is an exhilarating collection of magnetic, life-affirming music by one of America’s major composers.

— Robert Schulslaper

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