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THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM
(Columbia Legacy CK 64929)
In the mid-fifties the Columbia label was on top of the world. It was one of the top record companies in the world and had invented and introduced the completely successful LP format in the late forties. Columbia was a "full service" record company, with separate classical and "popular" divisions. And the head of the Popular Album Department was George Avakian, a man who knew jazz well, and whose wife, a concert violinist, had introduced him to twentieth century classical music. We have much to be thankful for in Avakian's leadership at Columbia. It was he who paired Miles Davis with Gil Evans and a 19-piece orchestra and gave the world MILES AHEAD, for example. And it was George Avakian who produced three of the most important albums Columbia ever released: WHAT'S NEW, MUSIC FOR BRASS, and MODERN JAZZ CONCERT.
WHAT'S NEW was a showcase for two jazz composers, Bob Prince and Teo Macero, each of whom had one side of that LP. Macero's side has been reissued on the 1990 CD, THE BEST OF TEO MACERO (which also includes his 10" Debut LP, EXPLORATIONS), on Stash (ST-CD-527). None of Bob Prince's work has been reissued on CD. (Prince later recorded albums for Warner Bros, as well.)
But all of MUSIC FOR BRASS and two-thirds of MODERN JAZZ CONCERT are contained on the CD, THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM. And I can only wish that all of the MODERN JAZZ CONCERT album had been included. Nonetheless this is an enormously important and valuable CD, and one which every serious fan of progressive music should have.
MUSIC FOR BRASS was recorded in 1956 and released midway in 1957. (A Japanese Sony CD was released in the early 90's under Miles Davis' name; Davis plays on two pieces on the album.) As originally released its first side was a "classical" composition, Gunther Schuller's "Symphony for Brass and Percussion, Op.16," performed by a classical brass ensemble conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. The second side had three compositions by jazz musicians: "Three Little Feelings" by John Lewis, "Poem For Brass" by J. J. Johnson, and "Pharaoh" by Jimmy Giuffre. These were performed by a brass orchestra (trumpets, trombones, French horns, baritone horns, tuba + bass & drums) made up of jazz musicians and "session" musicians, joined by Miles Davis (on the Lewis and Johnson pieces) as soloist.
MODERN JAZZ CONCERT was released on a special Columbia "hi-fi" label, "Adventures in Sound," the only memorable album of the dozen or so released in this series in 1958. Subtitled "6 compositions commissioned by the 1957 Brandeis University Festival of the Arts," the original album presented "All About Rosie" by George Russell, "On Green Mountain (Chaconne after Monteverdi)" by Harold Shapiro, "Suspensions" by Jimmy Giuffre, "Revelations (First Movement)" by Charles Mingus, "All Set" by Milton Babbitt, and "Transformation" by Gunther Schuller. The Shapiro and Babbitt pieces -- by "classical" rather than "jazz" composers -- were omitted from the CD, a genuine pity.
These were exciting and somewhat controversial albums when they were released in the late fifties, because they were near the forefront of an effort to reconcile jazz and classical music. This was not a particularly new idea in 1956 and 1957, however. Jazz had been steadily evolving since the early forties and the advent of bop -- a much less intuitive and "natural" style of jazz, demanding greater technical mastery and reviled as "Chinese music" by traditionalists like Louis Armstrong. Bop was a small-combo (quartets and quintets) music to begin with, but various bandleaders tried to adapt it to "big band" repertoire, among them Dizzy Gillespie with his 1947 band (in which both John Lewis and George Russell made their debuts). Others trying an "experimental" approach were Boyd Raeburn and Claude Thornhill (with whom Gil Evans got his start as an arranger) -- and of course Stan Kenton, who seemed oblivious to the trends in jazz, but whose ambition to be the white Duke Ellington led him to "Progressive Jazz" and made his band the incubator of "West Coast jazz" in the late forties and early fifties.
In 1949 various musicians began meeting in Gil Evans' New York City apartment, out of which came the nonet fronted by Miles Davis which recorded the Capitol BIRTH OF THE COOL sessions. Despite Davis' titular leadership, that band was a composers' co-op, and it gave fresh emphasis to the role of the composer in jazz. "Jazz composer" was at that time virtually an oxymoron -- jazz was not "composed;" it was improvised, usually on "standard" chord-changes. Even the tricky bop pieces were simply new melodic lines built over the chords of long-time standards of popular music -- and often "head" arrangements never written down on paper. But George Russell's "Cubana Be" and "Cubana Bop" (designed to be played together, sequentially, as a suite) for the Gillespie Big Band was a real composition -- more than just a brief theme stated as a jumping-off point for extended solos. And as the fifties began other jazz composers began to appear. Mingus's two 1954 10" LPs for Period, JAZZICAL MOODS (reissued as THE JAZZ EXPERIMENTS OF CHARLIE MINGUS -- minus a Teo Macero track -- on 12" LP for Bethlehem, and on CD by Fantasy's Original Jazz Classics as JAZZICAL MOODS) and his 1955 10" LP for Savoy, reissued on the 12" LP, JAZZ COMPOSERS WORKSHOP a year later, were "composed," written-out works, as the titles ("Jazzical" = "Jazz" + "Classical"; "Jazz Composers Workshop") strongly suggested. Mingus, of course, had been composing complete works since his teens, beginning with "Half Mast Inhibition" in 1938 (recorded for PRE-BIRD/MINGUS REVISITED), a surprisingly sophisticated work for anyone so young, and inspired in part by both Bartok and Ellington. The fifties was a time when the experiments begun in the previous decade were starting to show results. John Lewis had launched the Modern Jazz Quartet not only to play jazz in concert venues (rather than smoky clubs and bars) but as an outlet for his own composing skills. "Chamber jazz" was popular, and "experimental jazz" had many faces.
It was a time in which jazz was growing in all directions, and jazz musicians were chafing at barriers and artificially imposed limitations to their music. An informal pool of interested and capable musicians existed on both coasts (centering in NYC and LA) available to perform in concerts and at recording sessions devoted to new compositions by various among them. (It is significant that the very time in which "Third Stream" music was being named and given a strong push, Ornette Coleman was making his first counter-revolutionary recordings in quite another, non-compositional, intuitively improvisational direction. Interestingly enough, his music was cheered and promoted by the same people who were leading the push for "Third Stream" music.)
The "Third Stream" was seen by its apologists (Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, George Avakian) as a joining together of the "First Stream" (classical) of music with the "Second Stream" (jazz). This process was inevitable and had been occurring, as noted, for more than a decade. But putting a name -- "Third Stream" -- to it seemed to crystallize opposition, both to the concept and the name itself, which was mocked and derided in some quarters as academic pomposity, an attempt to dress up jazz in tuxedos and put on airs. There was some truth to these criticisms -- but not much. From the jazz point of view classical music was starched and stiff -- it couldn't "swing," and had no sense of rhythm. Its performers couldn't improvise. And on the classical side jazz musicians were contemptuously viewed as musicians who "couldn't read" annotated music, musicians who could only "play by ear." Both stereotypes were wrong, of course. Anyone who knows anything about twentieth century "classical" music knows it teems with complex rhythms (think of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"), and the era of musically illiterate jazz musicians had largely passed by the end of the thirties -- many jazz musicians worked in the fifties as "session" musicians in all kinds of recording situations (TV jingles, movie scores, etc.) which required of them that they read and perform music on sight first time out, with a bare minimum of rehearsal.
My own reaction at the time (fresh out of high school) was that I wanted to hear music of complexity and depth with the vigor and liveliness of jazz. "Rite of Spring" had been a revelation to me, and I wanted to hear something on that scale done with a jazz sensibility. I loved MUSIC FOR BRASS and even more MODERN JAZZ CONCERT. Each represented to me a pinnacle in music of that time.
MUSIC FOR BRASS was uneasily received by the jazz public. Its first side was "classical" and maybe "difficult." (Written earlier and premiered in 1950, it drew upon Schuller's own experience as a French horn player in classical orchestras "sitting day in, day out in the midst of brass sections," and was meant to show "that the members of the brass family are not limited to the stereotypes of expression usually associated with them." As such it's a tour de force for the brass family of instruments, forcing them into unusual modes of performance.) But with Miles Davis' wispy, almost ethereal trumpet soaring over two of the pieces on side two came jazz redemption. The John Lewis composition which began the side was typical of his elegant works of the time (and prefigured his own album for brass on Atlantic a few years later), first heard on MODERN JAZZ SOCIETY, a mid-fifties Norgran/Verve album. And Giuffre's "Pharaoh" was also typical of his composed work of the time (see my review of his Capitol and Atlantic recordings elsewhere in these pages). But the surprise was J. J. Johnson's "Poem For Brass." Johnson was a trombonist and by then had achieved success as one half of "J. J. & Kai," with trombonist Kai Winding (a link up which first occurred when both appeared at a four-trombones "Jazz Workshop" of Mingus's, recorded by Debut). He was known as a solid but relatively unadventurous performer in the mainstream of post-bop jazz and his composition -- probably the best on the album -- came as a real surprise and a major accomplishment. (He's never done anything like it since then, more's the pity.) Full-bodied and built on an intimate working relationship with the brass instruments, Johnson's piece, like Schuller's, truly exploits the capabilities of a brass orchestra. (Lewis, a pianist, and Giuffre, a saxophonist, treat the brass orchestra more formally and with somewhat less familiarity.) And what an orchestra -- six trumpets, three trombones, four French horns, a baritone horn and a tuba! Capable of rich and brilliant sonorities, unique to brass only, both mournful and celebratory. Thrilling stuff.
MODERN JAZZ CONCERT also consisted of a unique blend of jazz and classical compositions (three jazz composers -- Russell, Giuffre, Mingus; plus two "classical" composers -- Shapiro and Babbitt; and one who straddled the line -- Schuller) but was much better received. In part this was because Shapiro's "On Green Mountain" was charming and not "difficult" (although Babbitt's "All Set" was probably the reverse of that), and Schuller's "Transformation," which starts out angular, atonal and abstract, slowly "transforms" into loose, swinging jazz of a much friendlier sort. But the real reason for the album's success with the jazz public was its opening track, George Russell's "All About Rosie." Based "on a motif taken from an Alabama Negro children's song-game entitled 'Rosie, Little Rosie,'" this is an ambitious three-movement work, composed in Russell's own unique Lydian Tone Mode, which he used extensively in his fifties compositions but seems to have abandoned since then (along with serious composition). Standing alone, this is one of Russell's best and most important works. (The only recordings of his own which compare with it are to be found on his Decca album, JAZZ IN THE SPACE AGE, currently available on CD only as a Japanese import.) But it was more than that. This recording also marked the debut of pianist Bill Evans, who subsequently went on to a major and distinguished career of his own, but whose long excellent piano solo in the third movement of "Rosie" launched him with a bang and was much talked-about at the time. After that piece the rest of the album was almost (but not really) an anticlimax. Giuffre's "Suspensions" is wholly composed (no improvisation) but is written for the individual players "with which they can express themselves as they would in a solo." Its use of 5/4 time was uncommon then and gave it an unusual and effective sense of forward propulsion.
Side two of the album began with Mingus's "Revelations (First Movement)." At the time I wondered what had become of the following movements (and how many there might be), but my curiosity was never satisfied. This is the piece's only performance on record, and apparently only the First Movement was ever written (a pity). Nonetheless, this a a full and complex work, leaving no loose ends dangling, and if "(First Movement)" had been omitted from its title, no one would have suspected that there might still be yet more. This piece, recorded in 1957, is probably the first large-scale orchestral piece of Mingus's to be performed, and as such prefigures his 1962 TOWN HALL CONCERT recording (with a 30+ orchestra) and the posthumous EPITAPH (also using a very large orchestra). It also features his bass teacher, Fred Zimmerman, on arco (bowed) bass while Mingus plays pizzicato (plucked) bass. The piece, as its title suggests, has religious overtones, a variety of time signatures and moods, and offers a complex and richly satisfying music. The piece is easily as powerful as Russell's, and was nearly as much remarked upon at the time. Babbitt's "All Set" is an atonal kaleidoscope of sound, fragments of jazz rising momentarily out of the brew and then sinking back in again, acknowledged by Schuller in his original notes as "the most challenging of the six works for the musicians." This in turn was followed by the album closer, Schuller's "Transformation," in which, as previously noted, modern atonal music is "transformed" gradually into jazz. A neat idea, and successfully realized. Schuller as a composer has worked mostly in the post-Schoenberg tone-rows (or 12-tone) atonality/pantonality of the mid-twentieth century; his "Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee" is a favorite of mine (especially "The Twittering-machine"). Despite being part of those 1949 (BIRTH OF THE COOL) sessions in Gil Evans' apartment, Schuller has contributed only sparsely to the jazz cannon. He has a number of "classical" albums out, but only one "jazz" album, JUMPIN' IN THE FUTURE, recorded in 1988 for his own GM label (GM 30101) but consisting of compositions and arrangements mostly dating from 1955.
As mentioned, the Shapiro and Babbitt pieces are not included on the compilation album, THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM, and this I think is a mistake musically if a necessity in practical terms. (The CD runs about 77 minutes, close to the limit for CDs. To have included the other two pieces would have required a second CD. But why not? Maybe they could have thrown in Bob Prince's side of WHAT'S NEW. Or used some or all of SOMETHING NEW, SOMETHING BLUE, an album recorded in 1959 of compositions and arrangements by Manny Albam -- whose contributions I'd have skipped -- Teddy Charles, Bill Russo and Teo Macero.) And it should be mentioned here that this material was previously reissued by Columbia in the sixties on a double-LP entitled OUTSTANDING JAZZ COMPOSITIONS OF THE 20TH CENTURY. This collection used side two of MUSIC FOR BRASS, all of MODERN JAZZ CONCERT, and threw in one track from SOMETHING NEW, SOMETHING BLUE (a Teddy Charles piece) plus two tracks from WHAT'S NEW and "Idiom '59" by Duke Ellington from his FESTIVAL SESSION album. Only the Ellington doesn't fit.
THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM is all monophonic (although stereo recordings were made of MODERN JAZZ CONCERT, they weren't used), but very well recorded (as was common with Columbia recordings of that era). The packaging includes replicas of the original album covers and back covers, and republishes the original liner notes (as appropriate -- the writeups on the two missing pieces aren't included) along with 1996 folowups by Schuller and Avakian. The pieces are not presented as they were on the original albums, however. "In sequencing this CD, we chose to present the music somewhat on the order of a concert program, rather than in two groupings, one from each original LP," Avakian notes, and once I got over the shock of seeing the two albums mixed together I recognized the virtue in Avakian's choices. As he points out, "The program builds to the 'serious' and completely non-jazz Schuller 'Symphony,' after which his 'Transformation' -- which was composed with this sort of thing in mind -- forms a bridge back to jazz, and a rousing finish with Giuffre's 'Pharaoh.'"
For anyone who wants to see what jazz composition can be capable of, or who wants some of the milestone jazz recordings of the late fifties, this CD is a necessity.
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