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An Orchestral Improvisation CD Primer

By Frank J. Oteri

At the dawn of 21st century, our notion of what an orchestra is and what an orchestra can do is constantly being redefined. At the same time, the word "orchestra" has been used to describe many kinds of large ensembles, not just the standard European-born symphony orchestra, for more than a century. In fact, the legendary Charles 'Buddy' Bolden (1877-1931), rumored to have been the first jazz improvisor, fronted an improvising "orchestra" in New Orleans in the 1890s. Unfortunately no recordings of Bolden survive.

Most of the great jazz big bands that have flourished in the United States from the 1920s to this day have called themselves "orchestras." And all of these groups perform music which is a synthesis of a written score and improvised solos.

Since Paul Whiteman and the Palais Royal "Orchestra" first launched An Experiment in Modern Music at New York's Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924, a small repertoire has developed for symphony orchestra fusing the rigors of formal composition with the spontaneity of improvisation, a synthesis that composer/conductor Gunther Schuller would codify as the "third stream." In the past fifty years, there have also been fourth, fifth and sixth to Nth! stream musical syntheses connecting the world of the symphony orchestra to electronics as well as musical traditions from around the world which also feature improvisational and other indeterminate elements.

This recording list primer is by no means definitive or conclusive. In fact, there's a lot of great music that probably should have been included here that wasn't for a variety of reasons not the least of which was wanting to cap it at 25; since listening to everything here will already take more than 24 hours! That said, it is just the beginning for listeners curious about the ways the concepts of improvisation and orchestra, in its broadest definition, can successfully come together. Enjoy the ride. . .

1. A good place to begin any audio survey of orchestral music incorporating improvisation is The Birth of the Third Stream, an historic LP including large ensemble compositions by Gunther Schuller, George Russell, Charles Mingus, John Lewis and Jimmy Giuffre which resurfaces on CD from time to time {Most recently as Sony 64929} [Order from Amazon]. (Grab it when you can!)

2. Of course, the granddaddy of the initial third stream endeavor was Paul Whiteman's legendary February 1924 Aeolian Hall concert An Experiment in Modern Music, the event which launched George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. While nobody had enough foresight (or forehearing) to bring recording equipment to the gig (it was also much more cumbersome in those days), most of the material performed that evening was recorded soon after and was re-issued at some point on a 2-LP set by the Smithsonian which still awaits a CD reissue. In addition, conductor/musical archaelogist Maurice Peress recorded a recreation of the entire event, now unfortunately out of print. For folks too impatient to track either of these down, there are of course numerous recordings of Rhapsody in Blue, but I'd recommend a recording by the youthful New World Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas called New World Jazz {RCA 68798} [Order from Amazon], since in addition to the Rhapsody it also contains solid recordings of other proto-third stream works such as Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto (originally written for the Woody Herman Band), Leonard Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and George Antheil's A Jazz Symphony, another Paul Whiteman instigation. Though none of these works contain improvisation, performing them without an improvisational "feel" does them a great disservice.

3. While the Duke Ellington "Orchestra" is a jazz big band of winds, brass and percussion with no strings, he did write a few works merging his "orchestra" with an actual symphony orchestra. The Symphonic Ellington (Trend 529) [Order from Amazon] collects four of these works which include the occasionally revived Night Creature from 1955 and the brief, wonderfully-titled Non Violent Integration which Ellington composed for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1949. Ellington, however, is at his best with his own "orchestra" and his genius at arranging for individual improvising voices is still the textbook for any attempt at synthesizing orchestral concepts with improvisational ones.

4. Mary Lou Williams is widely regarded as the most important female jazz composer of the first half of the 20th century. Her nearly hour-long Zodiac Suite is one of the most remarkable extended form jazz works of the 1940s. Originally scored for piano trio, she subsequently orchestrated it for jazz big band (available on The Town Hall Concert of December 31, 1945 {Jazz Classics 6002} [Order from Amazon]). While both versions are remarkable, one can only wonder what this work might sound like with an entire symphony orchestra.

5. One of the most forward sounding big band recordings of the 1950s is City of Glass featuring the Stan Kenton Orchestra playing works by the tragically short-lived composer Bob Graettinger (reissued on Blue Note 32084 [Order from Amazon]). This music is still startling nearly a half-century later.

6. Another one of the great orchestral improvisation musical streams in the United States in the 20th century has been the Latin jazz band. The undisputed master of this genre, who recorded over 100 LPs, is the late Tito Puente, who few people realize studied at Juilliard. His 1958 masterpiece Dance Mania {RCA 2467} [Order from Amazon] sounds fresher today than most salsa records.

7. One of the most legendary arrangers was the late Gil Evans whose unique approach to timbre shaped several of Miles Davis's greatest recordings of the 1950s (e.g. Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess). But The Individualism of Gil Evans {Verve/Polygram 33804} [Order from Amazon] is arguably his greatest record.

8. The inimitable Charles Mingus remains one of the greatest composers of music for improvising musicians. His magnum opus, Epitaph, a 4000 measure score lasting two-hours, was never realized in his lifetime. In 1989, Gunther Schuller assembled an orchestra of 30 musicians at New York's Town Hall for the work's long awaited world premiere. {Sony 45428} [Order from Amazon].

9. Another titan of the Bebop era, Max Roach, was creating large-scale works involving large numbers of musicians by the 1960s. His most ambitious works from that time were We Insist: Freedom Now Suite!, a multi-movement composition scored for a small combo which is arguably the most important musical statement from the Civil Rights Era, and the even more ambitious It's Time {now GRP 185} [Order from Amazon] which featured "his Chorus and Orchestra." While some of the wordless choruses on It's Time sound a bit dated 40 years later, the music is full of surprises and is worthy of a revival.

10. The most forward sounding of all the jazz orchestras of the 1950s and 1960s, however, has got to be the Sun Ra "Arkestra" whose large ensemble improvisations were evolving concurrently with the "free jazz" revolution of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and others. Of the myriad Arkestra recordings, a good place to start is the totally improvised Heliocentric Worlds, Volume 1 {ESP-Disc 1014} [Order from Amazon] Be forewarned, this is totally out there;Sun Ra claimed he was from another planet and he probably was!

11. A breakthrough musical synthesis between the worlds of free jazz improvisation and the symphony orchestra occurred when Ornette Coleman recorded his Skies of America with the London Symphony Orchestra originally released on LP in 1972. The work was supposed to be scored for Coleman's combo with symphony orchestra--which is how the work was finally presented by the New York Philharmonic in 1997--but the record company only covered Ornette Coleman's flight to London. While not exactly the work's original conception, the recording (Was Columbia; Now Sony 63568 [Order from Amazon]) is still a fascinating listening experience.

12. Trumpeter Don Ellis first came to prominence as a sideman in George Russell's early 1960s sextet. He went on to form one of the strangest big bands in the history of jazz, or for that matter, any kind of music. The Don Ellis Orchestra combined the sound of a jazz big band with all sorts of electronic devices such as ring modulators and other forms of distortion and played music in all sorts of complex meters like 19/16 etc. At some point, he outfitted his entire trumpet section with four-valved trumpets whose additional valve allowed them to play quarter-tones. All of these innovations surface on Electric Bath {Originally Columbia; now Tristar} [Order from Amazon]; hearing is believing!

13. After the death of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, the pianist in Coltrane's definitive quartet for many years, began recording a series of albums with large ensembles that blur the distinctions between "big band" and "chamber orchestra." My favorite of these recordings is still Fly With The Wind {Originally Milestone; Now Fantasy/OJC 699} [Order from Amazon].

14. Few composers blur the distinction between the worlds of jazz and so-called contemporary classical music more than Anthony Braxton whose output ranges from completely free solo improvisations to fully notated works for large ensembles and every possible combination in between. His earliest large ensemble recording, Creative Orchestra Music (1976) {Arista; now RCA} [Order from Amazon], is a great record to play "guess what genre this is" with.

15. In addition to his work as an arranger for Dizzy Gillespie and others, George Russell's lasting contribution to the history of music will be his remarkably structured approach to improvisation-infused composition. Most of my favorite work of his is scored for small ensembles, but his 1985 African Game {Blue Note 83193} [Order from Amazon Order from Amazon], a nine-movement sonic panorama featuring the Living Time Orchestra, shows what he can do with larger forces.

16. One of may favorite large-scale compositions for jazz orchestra of the past 15 years is Muhal Richard Abrams's Hearinga Suite {Black Saint 120103} [Order from Amazon]. Founder of the seminal AACM and a one-time board member of the ACO, Abrams has been at the forefront of a stylistic synthesis between notated and improvised music for his entire career and The Hearinga Suite is his masterpiece.

17. One of the most sensitive orchestrators for jazz big band was the late Thad Jones whose compositions continue to live on in performances by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Thad Jones Legacy {New World 80581} [Order from Amazon] collects nine of his compositions in performances recorded a decade after his death. But don't just listen to the recordings, the VVO still plays live every Monday night at the Village Vanguard!

18. Few composers attempted to synthesize improvisation and formal composition with as much rigour as Meyer Kupferman who died earlier this year. Author of a landmark theoretic treatise, Atonal Jazz, Kupferman was at the forefront of reconciling two seemingly irreconcilable modes of expression: jazz improvisation and twelve-tone serial composition. One of the highlights of his remarkably prolific output is his 1988 Jazz Symphony which also features great singing from Loretta Holkmann {Soundspells 104} [Order from Amazon].

19. Of course, jazz is not the only form of improvisational music that has been effectively synthesized with the symphony orchestra. Yusef Lateef, who originally began his career as a jazz player but later went on to explore an even wider variety of world music traditions and has also composed a large body of works for chamber ensembles and symphony orchestra. Lateef synthesizes many of these traditions in his remarkable 1993 African American Epic Suite {ACT 9214-2} [Order from Amazon], commissioned by the WDR Orchestra in Cologne Germany, which features a symphony orchestra and a quintet of improvisors performing on instruments ranging from conch shells and shofar to talking drum and tabla.

20. In recent years, East Asian musical traditions have also found their way into the notational-improvisational synthesis as a result of the ensemble compositions of Asian-American composers such as Jon Jang whose remarkable 1993 Tiananmen! {Soul Note 121223} [Order from Amazon] gives voice to one of the greatest social tragedies of the 1990s.

21. Wynton Marsalis was the first jazz composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music, 1997 for his massive oratorio Blood on the Fields. While not as ambitious as the oratorio, Marsalis's scores for the New York City Ballet and the Twyla Tharp Dance Company, collected on Jump, Start and Jazz {Sony 62998} [Order from Amazon], contain some of his most engaging music, including a remarkable big band interpretation of traditional Japanese gagaku orchestral music.

22. While most of the music uniting improvisation with the orchestra presents a fairly conventional approach to conducting, Lawrence "Butch" Morris, is his Conductions, has created a whole new method of ensemble improvisation led by an improvising conductor. For folks with bottomless pockets, New World Records has issued a 10-CD collection of these experiments which offer an extremely wide range of contexts and situations, for the budget-conscious and folks with limited time, however, I'll recommend his Conduction #11: Where Music Goes {New World 80479} [Order from Amazon] for an ensemble of 14 players which combines the sonorities of wind, brass, string, percussion and electronic instruments into a new kind of chamber orchestra.

23. As the leader of the String Trio of New York—performing Monday, April 26, 2004 at the Cornelia Street Café —guitarist James Emery has been blurring boundaries between jazz and chamber music for decades. His 2001 Transformations for 3 improvisers and orchestra {between the lines 027} [Distributed by OmniTone] takes it to the next level. Not a concerto, but rather a work in which the improvisers are embedded in the fabric of the completely notated orchestra parts, it is Emery's largest scale composition to date.

24. Carla Bley continues to be one of the most exciting composers who creates music for her own orchestra of improvising musicians. Despite a discography of vital work going back to the 1960s--which includes such masterpieces as Escalator Over The Hill and Musique Mecanique as well as Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra (which features her compositions and arrangements)--my favorite recording of hers is the most recent one, Looking for America {ECM/Watt} [Order from Amazon] which features a staggering 25 minute send up of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

25. No list of music for large ensembles incorporating random elements would be complete without acknowledging the still radical music of the 1950s New York School of John Cage, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff. While definitely not jazz, and often conceptually opposite from the individualism endemic to the aesthetics of improvisation, the principles of indeterminacy which this music unleashed was highly influential on many of the composers engaged in the synthesis of notated and improvised music. An excellent recording collecting all three of John Cage's concertante works for piano and orchestra explores a variety of approaches to chance {Mode 57} [Order from Amazon]. The 1951 Prepared Piano Concerto is a fixed composition derived from chance procedures while the 1958 Concert for Piano and Orchestra is an sonic essay is semmingly total chaos where none of the parts are in order and must be assembled by individual players resulting in no two performances ever being identical. At the other extreme, Fourteen, for piano and chamber orchestra (1990), is a serene and meditative work from Cage's final years in which there is no composite score and each musician plays from a separate part slowly moving tones whose durations are determined by chance procedures.

Frank J. Oteri is a New York-based composer and the Editor of NewMusicBox,
the Web magazine from the American Music Center.


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Last updated 4/15/2004