Houston Program A Fine Romance Of Classical And Jazz

The Imani Winds are Jeff Scott (horn), Toyin Spellman-Díaz (oboe), Monica Ellis (bassoon), Valerie Coleman (flute), and Mark Dover (clarinet).
Imani Winds: Jeff Scott (horn), Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe), Monica Ellis (bassoon), Valerie Coleman (flute), Mark Dover (clarinet).
(Photo: Pierre Lidar)
By William Albright

HOUSTON  — In my student days, I sometimes heard the complaint that whenever adventurous composers asked classical musicians to ad lib a little, the hidebound among them were content to fall back on a few bars of Brahms. But some longhair superstars of yesteryear have been comfortable with improvisation and, not coincidentally, its use in jazz. Vladimir Horowitz was a great fan of pianist Art Tatum and entertained friends with unbuttoned improvisations. Jascha Heifetz had some jazzy numbers in his encore repertoire.

The biggest work was a tribute to JS Bach and John Coltrane.
The biggest work was a tribute to J. S. Bach and John Coltrane.

Da Camera of Houston artistic and general director Sarah Rothenberg admires and showcases both kinds of music. For years her seasons have included jazz concerts as well as chamber-music programs. The 2015-2016 season ended May 6 in Wortham Theater Center’s Cullen Theater with the Houston premieres of three highly enjoyable works by performer-composers with feet in both worlds: French horn player Jeff Scott, Chick Corea, and Houston-born fellow jazz pianist Jason Moran, a 2010 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant recipient. (His salute to visual artist Robert Rauschenberg was performed here last year, and his tribute to Thelonious Monk is part of Rothenberg’s 2016-2017 lineup.)

For a program exploring the confluence of classical music and jazz, the event was curiously bifurcated. The first half was essentially “normal” classical music, with jazz kept in the wings until after intermission. But everyone involved exhibited meticulous conservatory training as well as thrilling chops worthy of the smokiest jazz club.

Harlem Quartet: Ilmar Gavilan (violin), Felix Uransky (cello), Jaime Amador (viola), and Melissa White (violin).
Harlem Quartet: Gavilán, Umansky, Amador, White. (Photo: Amy Schroeder)

The opening work was Corea’s Adventures of Hippocrates. The 2004 work for string quartet was inspired by a character in Scientology founder and sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard’s collection of  short stories Ole Doc Methuselah. With five untitled movements packed into just 10 minutes, the piece opens with playful jauntiness, then eases into a pensive waltz as pretty as anything a Palm Court ensemble would be happy to play. The skittish, febrile finale is lashed by stabbing rhythms, and the 10-year-old Harlem Quartet played throughout with great vitality and polish. The musicians were Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White (violins), Jaime Amador (viola), and Felix Umansky (cello).

Next up was Moran’s Cane. Its 15 minutes and four movements evoke the landscape and sounds of Louisiana’s Cane River. That tributary runs through the northern city of Natchitoches (pronounced Nackadish), where Moran’s ancestors settled a couple of centuries ago. The area must be an avian paradise, because the number of bird calls in the bucolic first movement and the languid third section, with its tight-knit harmonic texture, almost rivals the tallies in Mahler and Messiaen.

But the spiky, busy second movement is punctuated by staccato bassoon bursts, and jazz gently enters the room in the sunny, upbeat finale by way of some playful flights of instrumental fancy. Founded in 1997, the Grammy-nominated Imani (“faith” in Swahili) Winds commissioned Cane in 2008. Valerie Coleman (flute), Toyin Spellman-Diaz  (oboe), Mark Dover (clarinet), Monica Ellis (bassoon), and Scott (French horn) dispatched it with model smoothness and bounce.

Train's tenor and a German harpsichord of Bach's time.
John Coltrane’s tenor sax and a German harpsichord of Bach’s time.

Scott took over after intermission as composer, performer, and primary conductor (Ellis assumed time-beating duties occasionally), and his ambitious, multidisciplinary Passion for Bach and Coltrane required some guidance and cueing. Premiered in 2015, the miked-up 75-minute piece was inspired by the rhapsodic, jazz-inflected poetry of A. B. Spellman and his love of both J. S. Bach and saxophonist John Coltrane (for whom he actually wrote some record liner notes). Scored for wind ensemble, string quartet, jazz trio (pianist Alex Brown, bassist Zach Brown, drummer Neal Smith), and “orator” (Spellman), it bridges the temporal and aesthetic gap between Bach’s Goldberg Variations and St. Matthew and St. John Passions and Coltrane’s landmark 1964 album A Love SupremeThe work provides many opportunities for both chaste baroque music-making and explosive jazz riffs.

Pianist Alex Brown's jazz trio joined the winds and strings in Scott's 'Passion.'
Pianist Alex Brown’s jazz trio joined the winds and strings in Scott’s ‘Passion.’

The longest and densest of Passion’s seven movements is “Out of Nazareth,” an irreverent and unsentimental retelling of the crucifixion story characterized as a Roman lynching. Its exuberant Coltrane-esque pages got heads bobbing both in the capacity audience and onstage. There was also a poignant Trauermarsch sliced by wailing woodwind shrieks. Bach/Goldberg and Coltrane coexisted forcefully in “Variation 13” with its driving rhythms and solos for flute, clarinet, oboe, and viola. In the fifth movement, “Interlude—A Hug for Gonzalo,” Spellman fondly rated jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba alongside Bach and Coltrane, and flutist Coleman left her chair to stand beside bassist Zach Brown for a wonderfully lyrical conversation. In the lively “Groovin’ Low” section, pianist Alex Brown and bassoonist Ellis got some fine solo exposure, and in the finale all the players gave Coltrane a vocal tip of the hat by quietly chanting “A love supreme” over and over.

As befits a program deeply rooted in jazz, auditorium rules were relaxed, and patrons could bring their mixed drinks, glasses of wine, and bottles of beer to their seats. The classical-concert custom of not applauding after individual movements was also ignored, and composer-performer Scott often happily led the applause for Passion’s virtuosic instrumental solos.

I can’t really say whether the blizzards of notes therein were improvised or carefully notated and executed, but they sure sounded like they came hot from the heart. And the mating of narration with musical accompaniment had much less in common with Richard Strauss’ Enoch Arden in a concert hall than with combo-backed, Beat-era poetry readings in coffee houses. But the whole concertgoing experience was none the worse for all that informality.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.