Amazing things happen when the worlds of jazz and classical music align.
Think of how Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn reinvented Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Suite, its “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” drenched in blue as it becomes “Sugar Rum Cherry,” its “Russian Dance” swung hard as it becomes “Volga Vouty.”
Or Michel Legrand’s sublime score for “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a film that amounts to nothing less than a through-composed opera steeped in jazz melody.
Or George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Porgy and Bess,” works that proved beyond doubt that jazz syntax could flourish in the concert hall and the opera house.
The latest experiment in merging the two musical worlds comes in the form of “The Planets: Reimagined” (OA2 Records), in which bandleader Jeremy Levy leads his jazz orchestra in an idiosyncratic response to Gustav Holst’s epic.
Even if you’ve never heard Holst’s “The Planets,” a concert work that delights connoisseurs and neophytes 100 years after its premiere, you’ve heard its musical language. For without “The Planets,” John Williams’ ubiquitous scores for the “Star Wars” movies could not exist, the composer having borrowed extravagantly from Holst’s innovations in texture, tone, harmony and orchestration. When listening to Holst’s “The Planets” these days, in fact, it’s difficult not to envision Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, so thoroughly did Williams incorporate Holst’s esthetic.
In “The Planets: Reimagined,” arranger-bandleader Levy has done something much more worthy than simply borrow Holst’s language or swing his rhythms. Like all major jazz transformations of classical masterworks — such as the Ellington-Strayhorn “Peer Gynt” Suite (based on Grieg’s original) or Wynton Marsalis’ “The Fiddler’s Tale” (from Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat”) — Levy has made something new and invigorating of the original.
From the opening passages of “Mars, The Bringer of War,” Levy establishes that we’re not in Holst’s universe anymore. The low brass’s inexorably rising lines, the orchestra’s joyous swing rhythms, trombonist Andy Martin’s expansive solo and the movement’s exuberant finale make this “Mars” a work that can stand on its own, apart from Holst’s original, though built upon it.
Shades of Ellington emerge at the outset of “Venus, The Bringer of Peace,” thanks to its immensely appealing medium-swing sensibility. The cascading horns, gorgeous reed section voicing and radiant finish indeed suggest peace and contentment, at least as jazz listeners tend to define it.
But the heart of this reworking of “The Planets” can be found in “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity,” and “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age,” each movement transformed by Levy and friends into an expansive jazz tone poem.
Rather than settle into any rhythmic pattern for very long, “Jupiter” continuously switches tempo and meter, giving the listener a palpable lift with each shift. After all this acoustic music-making, Andrew Synowiec’s electric guitar sounds positively space age, the score bounding from one surging climax to the next.
“Saturn” represents the introspective counterpart to Levy’s take on “Jupiter,” Andrew Langham’s opening piano solo establishing a mood of stillness and reverie. The shimmering colors and orchestral haze that follow attest to the movement’s otherworldly, mystical qualities.
Elsewhere in “The Planets: Reimagined” we hear layers of rhythmic energy in “Mercury, The Winged Messenger,” constantly changing colors in “Uranus, The Magician” and a poetic summation of it all in “Neptune, The Mystic.”
Levy doesn’t use the offstage wordless choir that concludes Holst’s “Neptune,” instead turning to pianist Langham to play the final, pianissimo passages that eventually fade away into the ether. Once again, an imaginative jazz alternative to a classical sound.
So in the course of seven movements, Levy has evoked Holst’s original while taking its themes and gestures in new directions. We hear echoes of Holst’s “The Planets” but also the vividness of Levy’s conception and the dexterity of his orchestration.
Some classical purists probably will object to this, considering it a sacrilege to recast a symphonic landmark in jazz terms. I know, because whenever I write about such ventures, some listeners protest. Even jazz pianist Marcus Roberts’ brilliant reconceptions of concert works by Gershwin, himself an improvising pianist, inspire detractors, as in Roberts’ versions of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Concerto in F for jazz trio and orchestra.
How dare Roberts tamper with such acknowledged masterpieces, the naysayers say. Why doesn’t he just go and write his own concerto?
In fact, Roberts has. But his partly improvised, partly composed revisions of Gershwin’s concert works enrich — rather than diminish — the experience of encountering them. To hear Roberts’ trio take flight in certain sections of the Concerto in F, to hear Roberts’ blues themes interwoven with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is to realize new possibilities in Gershwin’s work. If Gershwin himself improvised during the premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue” and elsewhere, why can’t subsequent musicians?
In truth, reconceiving the classics reflects what jazz is all about: invention. This is a deeply autobiographical music that remakes old themes and creates new ones according to the performer’s wishes. Miles Davis and Gil Evans did that with Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” in the landmark “Sketches of Spain” album. Jelly Roll Morton routinely did it at the piano, playing his versions of music from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and other operas in New Orleans’ bordellos at the turn of the previous century.
For those who blanch at such transformations, fear not. The originals remain unscathed, still available for all to savor exactly as written. The new versions simply illuminate them through the wizardry of jazz technique.
Which is why recordings such as “The Planets: Reimagined” are to be treasured, especially in the centenary of Holst’s piece.
(Howard Reich is the Chicago Tribune’s Emmy-winning arts critic.)
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