Wagner, Jazz and Pop: An Alliance of Limited Success

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By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

One hundred and thirty-five years since its 1876 premiere, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen remains the biggest operatic show on earth, and the composer’s influence upon so-called classical music – as well as its post-Romantic offshoot, film music – has, ever since, been immense and amply documented.

Yet what influence has this irresistible force had upon the popular and jazz fields? Not a hell of a lot, if the truth be told.

Upon jazz, for the most part, Wagner’s actual language has had little impact. Wagner’s music is so tied into a specific Romantic sound world that most jazz – with its emphasis on lean textures and improvisatory freedom set to a steady pulse – would seem to be in revolt against it. As for pop and rock ‘n’ roll, it occurs to me that it is the idea of Wagnerian grandeur and gigantic thinking – as opposed to the actual music – that has made the largest impression, if any.

In any case, Wagner has rarely has turned up in jazz’s historical files, save for the efforts of one major iconoclastic figure. Bandleader Stan Kenton – whose centennial this year is flying under most observers’ radar so far – stood out from most of his colleagues by thinking big and taking big risks. He liked loud, brassy, heavyweight ensembles – and when he was at his peak of fame, the more numerous the personnel and the more complex the music, the better he liked it. He broke up one very successful band and replaced it with a more progressive group, then broke that one up and went even further with the next one, commissioning what amounted to contemporary classical music. Finally, in 1964, in one of his last massive projects before retreating to the big band mainstream for the rest of his life, Kenton took on the biggest thinker of all by recording an album called Kenton/Wagner – his interpretations of eight of Wagner’s best-known excerpts. Alas, this record sounds rather pointless today, for Kenton really doesn’t try to transform the material much, only adding an occasional Afro-Cuban groove or a dissenting harmony here and there. Kenton/Wagner was predictably controversial in its time, but no one picked up on Kenton’s lead, and now it stands mostly as a monument to Kentonian grandiosity and not as a bold new way of looking at Wagner.

Not long before the Kenton album hit the shops, Wagner’s pretensions fed into certain inflated segments of the rock world. Phil Spector’s notorious Wall Of Sound of the 1960s, where he flung big orchestras, choruses, and lots of reverberation at his favorite girl singers and singing groups, has been described as Wagnerian in scope – and he went on to create similarly cavernous textures for John Lennon and George Harrison in the 1970s. The large-scale shows and music of certain 1970s rock bands like Yes, the Moody Blues, or Emerson Lake and Palmer can claim some precedent in Wagner’s operatic spectacles. And even though the music of the Rolling Stones has no detectable ties to Wagner (with the possible exception of the choral-backed “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), their stage shows grew grander and more elaborate in scale with each tour – there was definitely some Wagner-sized ambition there.

Lately, in the digital age, some jazz musicians have been taking a direct look at Wagner – sometimes by accident, sometimes with more than a dash of irony. A French outfit that calls itself Jazz Rabbit takes on “Ride Of The Valkyries” with a rock ‘n; roll beat and R&B/jazz sax solos on a YouTube video; it’s a rather pedestrian performance, but the crowd loves it. Leipzig’s ragtag LeipJAZZig-Orkester put together an eclectic, sometimes jazzy, sometimes rock-guitar-driven distillation of themes from several Wagner operas and called it “Die Meisterspieler” – complete with wind machine and thunder sheet for the Der fliegende Holländer excerpt. The superb jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis thought he had come up with a nice little tune for his 2006 album Braggtown called “Fate,” but later found out that he was lifting and paraphrasing the foreboding “fate” leitmotif from Götterdämmerung. He doesn’t say which came first – the belated discovery or the title.

Los Angeles’ Ring Festival – sort of a low-budget Fringe Festival surrounding Los Angeles Opera’s strange and weird 2010 Ring cycle -served as a showcase for a Wagner “adaptation” by composer Geoff Gallegos, who goes by the hip-hop name Double G. He and his daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra presented a 20-minute work called “Gangsta Wagner,” one that put selected Ring passages through a filter of what he called “the early-`90s LA street scene of screeching tires and rap music.” A little more coherent is Double G’s swinging arrangement of the Prelude to Act I of Die Walküre for a jazz nonet.

Finally, and oddly for a composer who came up with an endless supply of good tunes, it’s hard to think of any hit popular songs with Wagner melodies, with the possible exception of the “Bridal Chorus” from Lohengrin, a.k.a. “Here Comes The Bride.” (As James Conlon recently quipped during a pre-opera talk, “You’ve all heard this – some of you several times.”) Yet there is one pop adaptation from the mid-1950s that comes to mind; it wasn’t a hit, but it made a big impression upon one child. It was a sedate little waltz-tempo record called “My Evening Star” by David Carroll and His Orchestra, with the Jack Halloran Singers gently cooing a lyric equating a lover to a guiding star. Believe it or not, that’s how I first heard Wolfram’s “Evening Star” aria from Act III of Tannhäuser. I had no idea it was by Wagner – the 45 rpm disc gave no composer credits to anyone – until I finally heard the whole opera many years later. Somewhere beyond the evening star, Wagner must have been smiling – or perhaps calling his lawyer.

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*Music critic and program annotator Richard S. Ginell is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, American Record Guide, and Daily Variety. He was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News from 1978 to 1990, where his beat included classical music, jazz, and home audio. His work has also appeared in the All-Music Guide, MusicalAmerica.com, Chicago Tribune, Montreal Gazette, Emmy magazine, The Strad, and Performing Arts magazine, among others. He has written several sets of liner notes for classical and jazz CDs on the Verve, RCA Victor Red Seal, Naxos, Fantasy, Prestige, Pablo, Contemporary, Milestone, Telarc, Nonesuch, Concord, and Koch International labels. He has written program notes for the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, Los Angeles Opera, and several other performing arts organizations, and has also contributed a dozen discographical essays to The Essential Listening Companion: Classical Music (Backbeat Books). He also plays keyboards and maintains an extensive collection of recordings that is clearly getting out of hand.

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