Saturday, May 23, 2009

Concert Review: Scofield Scorches the CSO

Thursday, May 21, 2009 - Symphony Center, Chicago

Third Stream music, that quasi-experimental blend of orchestral textures with modern jazz, has had a rocky history, at best. To my ears, when composers or arrangers try to bring so-called classical music together with a swinging rhythm section disaster normally ensues. Neither genre is served well, to the frustration of many listeners and (I can only imagine) the musicians. Some of the music of Gunther Schuller, George Russell, and Stan Kenton falls into this category of good intentions gone awry.

Not so with Mark-Anthony Turnage's Scorched, which received its United States premiere this week here in Chicago. The piece is a collaboration between Turnage, the CSO's Mead Composer-in-Residence, and John Scofield, one of jazz's most enlightened and open-minded guitarists.

(SCOfieldORCHestratED) is described by the composer as "a European composer's view of an American player". Turnage selected about a dozen of Scofield's tunes and, over a period of five years, re-imagined them for a variety of different sized hybrid groups ranging from a trio (guitar, bass and drums) to full orchestra. What emerges are neither arrangments nor completely original pieces. This music is truly collaborative, depending not only on Turnage's skills as a "translator" (his term) but on the interpretive skills of the members of the trio.

And there was nothing left to be desired by that trio, consisting of the man himself on electric guitar, John Patitucci yo-yoing back and forth between double bass and 6 string electric bass, and the masterful Peter Erskine on drumset. These guys could no doubt make a Barry Manilow medley sound good, but when the material is as eccentric and wonderful as Scofield's, great things will happen.

Scofield was most in the limelight, exuding sincerity and wry in equal measure in both short bursts and extended soloing throughout the evening. The guitarist has carved out a unique style, using his earthy collection of amplified sounds and very personal melodic, harmonic and rhythmic vocabularies. Listen to one phrase and you'll know you're hearing Sco. Like Monk, Coltrane and Haden, there's no mistaking this musician's sound for anyone else's (except for the imitators, who can't touch him). My favorite Sco moment on this occasion was his Cadenza, a halting, touching introduction to Turnage's homage to Gil Evans entitled Gil B643. John Scofield is a guy who knows how to let the music breathe.

John Patitucci is one of my favorite bassists on both acoustic and electric instruments. His muscular tone and great rhythmic feel were the cornerstones for most of Turnage's movements (he got a well earned break once in awhile). He also contributed a couple of nice solos on electric, demonstrating his signature fluid, guitar-like approach to the 6 string ebass.

Drummer Peter Erskine is without peer in terms of flexibility and restraint, no matter what style of music he's playing. His playing is so fresh that it is easy to forget that he played with Weather Report and Steps Ahead in the 80's, and has powered all kinds of jazz and pop groups throughout his prolific career. Erskine helped keep things together between the trio and the CSO, although it seemed that the orchestra mostly didn't need his help. He has a way of keeping things groovy without being stiff, even in this highly structured environment. I'd love to get a chance to play a tune with this man before either of us retires.

Scorched consists of 16 sections (or movements) in all, including a couple of versions of the opening piece Make Me and the two great versions of Fat Lip. The piece would probably benefit from a bit of trimming, though on first hearing I'm not sure what I'd cut. Favorite sections include Kubrick, Fat Lip 1 (scored for pizzicato strings - very exciting), Let's Say We Did and Protocol. The latter two sections featured the work of a friend and colleague Jim Gailloreto, who played the slinky unison melody (on soprano sax) with Scofield on Let's Say and a smoking 8 bars or so of alto sax solo on Protocol.

As for Mark-Anthony Turnage, this concert makes me want to find and listen to as much of his music as possible. Apparently he has spent his career straddling the worlds of jazz and contemporary classical music, having first been a devotee of avant garde composers like Boulez and Stockhausen and then becoming "obsessed" with Miles Davis in the 1980's. This musical schizophrenia might be the reason why Scorched works so well. Turnage isn't "slumming" or dabbling with jazz elements like one could justifiably accuse the likes of Milhaud, Copland, Ravel and Stravinsky of doing in the early 20th Century. He's likewise not a tunesmith who is in over his head trying to stretch songs into symphonic forms ala Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue being the prime example of this). There may well be other contemporary composers who are equally at home crafting concert music that includes both improvisation and groove, but, if so, I am not aware of them.

There's a live recording of Scorched, featuring the same trio with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, which was released in 2004.

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