|STRAVINSKY-BRENZEL The Re-(w)rite of Spring Mobtown Modern Big Band INNOVA 824 (74:54)
Looking at the above header, I’m sure that readers both classical and jazz oriented are scratching their heads wondering a few things. Like, for instance, why a jazz version of Sacre du Printemps? And how does it translate into jazz? And is it even worth listening to?
The answers are all in the brief but informative and sometimes ironically funny liner notes by leader-arranger Darryl Brenzel, who by his own admission likes challenges and somehow thought this would be a relatively easy project…until he re-listened to Sacre. And then saw the score. Ah, yes, the score. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s far from as easy and straightforward of an ostinato rhythm as listening would lead one to believe. The time signature changes more frequently, at times, than it takes a listener to blink. And Stravinsky’s chord voicing: “as I look at a ‘voicing’ from top to bottom I can’t begin to figure out how I might express this as a chord symbol for a piano player or guitarist. Time to go stick my head in the sand.”
But he kept at it, using a computer to help him out. For nine months he worked at it, writing and rewriting and writing some more. Some sections came together fairly easily, others were more complex and obstinate. But eventually it came together in time, and thus it premiered at a Baltimore concert in the Mobtown Modern Music Series entitled “The Rite of Swing.” This CD is the product of that premiere performance: no additional performances to splice in from, no re-takes, just one time and out.
So how does it emerge? Very well, actually. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Brenzel’s rescoring of Stravinsky’s masterpiece is one of the most original and invigorating classical-jazz hybrid I’ve heard in many a year. He moves from exact paraphrase in the Introduction, though still fairly close to the score in “Dances of the young girl,” to eventually letting his musicians loose on the thematic material and improvising on it. As an overall performance, it reminded me a lot of Paul Desmond’s famous concert with the Modern Jazz Quartet. They started out as a band with guest soloist, but by the halfway mark Desmond had blended into the fabric of the quartet so that he was at one with their musical concept.
Much the same thing happens here. Little by little, the band becomes looser and more relaxed as the performance progresses, and the musical intermarriage jells better and better. By the time we reach track 5, “Ritual of the Rival Tribe,” the whole band begins to take on the feel of a Duke Ellington performance, and by that I refer to the late-period Ellington of Afro-Bossa, the Far East Suite, and the Second Sacred Concert. My lone caveat is that the soloists, though incredibly facile on their instruments, are not as highly creative as the writing. They don’t push the envelope, harmonically, nearly as much as I would like or the music asks for. In short, they are, to a certain extent, like Ellington’s own soloists, excellent musicians in an older, more conservative style while the music clearly cries out for more creativity.
This does not, however, mean that the soloists aren’t good. They are. They’re just more on a Phil Woods-type wavelength when what you want to hear is more like Eric Dolphy. Come to think of it, I’m a little saddened to think that great musical improvisers like Bird and Dolphy never got to play in an environment like this—at least, not on record. The late Charles Mingus clearly recalled one evening in the late 1940s when Bird called him up in the middle of the night and could be heard improvising over a recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Sadly, when Bird formed his band with strings in 1949, what they played were pop standards like “Just Friends” and “April in Paris,” not Stravinsky. Such is life, alas.
The swing rhythm bias of the band is maintained until the very last piece, “Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One),” where we suddenly get a rock beat. Well, you know my feelings about rock beats, but in this case I can overlook it because so much of the writing here is so highly creative. I just wish that Jack Walrath’s band, perhaps with Jack Reilly on piano, would have been part of this project. It would have moved into another dimension. Even so, this is a remarkable achievement, well worth hearing and even owning.