Jeff Distler
November 1, 2008

The late 1940’s to the early 1960’s witnessed several cross-fertilizations of then-contemporary classical music and modern jazz fashions. Given Gunther Schuller’s strong background in both worlds, it made sense for him to try and synthesize the two, decades before polystylism became a norm.

As it happens, his two concerted works for jazz quartet (piano, vibraphone, bass, and drums) and orchestra achieve that intended organic fusion. In the 1959 Concertino, the music’s rhythmic impetus largely rests within the jazz quartet, although orchestral punctuations and extended, elaborately contrapuntal passages add decisive drama and color. However, I prefer the 1964 Variants’ wider range of moods and creative ideas, along with its more resourceful, chamber-like orchestration.

Take Variant III, for instance, with its opening ruminative vibraphone/flute interchanges, and petulant string declamations that soon take wing with help from the rhythm section and eventually subside into shimmering, slow moving chords. Journey Into Jazz features a narration by Nat Hentoff (read here by the composer) that illustrates the process by which a young classically trained trumpeter evolves into a jazz improviser and, ultimately, an artist with his own, individual sound.

The music delights in its character-driven instrumental deployment and subtle shifts between classical and jazz sensibilities. Perhaps Journey Into Jazz is not so tunefully memorable as other works in the genre as Peter and the Wolf or The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, yet it belongs in such company. Under Gil Rose’s caring direction, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and stellar instrumental soloists give performances that are not likely to be surpassed for some time. Superb sound and documentation add value to this important release.

- Jed Distler

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