Strays Meets Svengali: a Concert Review (2003)

This was written as an assignment for a jazz music class while studying at Williams College in 2003

The Williams Jazz Ensemble (under director Andy Jaffe), and their guests, The Northern Berkshire Jazz Ensemble (under director John Menegon), presented a concert entitled Strays Meets Svengali at Williams College’s Chapin Hall on Friday October 24th. The concert primarily featured music composed and/or arranged by Billy Strayhorn (“Strays”, 1915-67) and Gil Evans (“Svengali”, 1912-88). The pieces ranged in composition/arrangement dates from 1942 (What Price Love), to 1960 when the Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker Suite was recorded (Jaffe, 2003).

It was interesting to me how the bands performed the music in this context: a collegiate environment, in a rural and predominantly white town, and performing music that was written and performed 40 or 60 years ago in a completely different socio-historical context. Jazz has evolved into music predominantly for listening, losing its original Africanised ties to dance, participation, and an emotionally intense and extroverted performance style (Brown, 2003). The Africanisms in the music are inevitably still there – the syncopation, the swing, the blues; but jazz performance has evolved significantly over the years, and I was curious to see how that manifested itself in these bands’ performances. Indeed, how it manifested was in a bop era-like aloofness, a “coolness” or kind of apathy, which seemed particularly jarring when the band played a thoroughly swing number like the Evans version of the Arabian Dance, which 60 years ago might have been played before a crowd of frenzied jitterbuggers. All in all, it was a curious site of observation.

The Northern Berkshire Jazz Ensemble opened the concert, playing Charlie Parker’s (1920-55) Now’s The Time, recorded in 1941 (Ottenton 1996) and which is located in a period in which men like Parker were making their transition from swing into bebop (Sidran 1971). The band was relatively small, and was comprised only of reed and percussion instruments: 2 alto saxophones; one tenor saxophone; piano; acoustic bass; and drums. Despite the fact that Jazz has, over the past century, moved from being a music confined to the black community to one which is played and loved by people all over the world (Leonard 1962), I still found myself approaching the performance expecting something looser and more extroverted from the performers. Parker himself was known to have turned his back on his audience when he played, but in that socio-historical context, it was a form of protest, and the hip aloofness that he and his cohorts demonstrated was in direct response to an oppression they experienced by mainstream white America (Sidran 1971). Given this very different historical moment, how do young, white musicians then approach this music? What did manifest was an aloofness, or an insecurity and subsequent superficial detachment, with the performers not demonstrating any relationship between the music and their bodies. Additionally, they denied any appearance of being emotionally involved with the music, or enjoying what they were doing. This, too, may have been due to lack of rehearsal or difficulty in remembering the sequence of solos, as there were a few moments when people looked around at each other in an effort to find out what they should do next. They showed a marked discomfort with one of the conventions of the jazz idiom, with instruments smoothly transitioning between supporting and lead roles in the band.

There was a clinical feel to what the group was doing, emphasised by all but one sax soloist reading their solos joylessly. There was also a lack of community among them, a lack of conversation and support between the performers and the instruments, exemplified by one moment when one of the saxophonists scowled at the bass player and began to beat time ferociously on his thigh. The same kind of dynamic was present in their second piece, Nica’s Dream (Horace Silver, b.1928), with their difficulty keeping in time with each other being even more pronounced. One of the saxophone soloists, however, seemed to capture the expressivity, rhythmic drive and exuberance of the pieces, wailing away his solos impeccably, winning the crowd over (as their sustained applause demonstrated), and participating physically with the music by swaying; leaning back on high notes; and dancing and nodding his head while his colleagues played. He seemed loose and open, rather than self-conscious and closed.

The Williams Jazz Ensemble followed, and what struck me almost immediately was that there were only two players of colour, in a band of over 20. Despite a knowledge that white Americans had increasingly participated in Jazz since the 1920s (Leonard 1962), I still expected to see more black players in the band, or at least a number proportionate to the number of black students at Williams – for example, 6 rather than 2. Their first song was Strayhorn’s The Hues. It was a lovely Blues (Jaffe 2003), but a blues played by a big band and which felt like a big band piece. Like Ellington, Strayhorn uses a great degree of dissonance in his chording, and uses mutes to create textural contrasts. At the same time, though, he uses a swing convention of pitting the brass against the reeds. Within the band, there seemed to be palpable camaraderie among the players, which was refreshing after the previous group, and a love for what they were doing, expressed through foot-tapping, nods and smiles of what seemed to be genuine appreciation at their colleagues’ solos. There was still not a great deal of physical participation in the music, however.

One Africanism and Jazz convention which was manifest was spontaneity in the order of solos, and a degree of improvisation from at least some of the soloists. The director randomly called on soloists from different sections, pointing at them as one soloist finished their time in the spotlight. The arbitrary nature of this seemed confirmed when two people stood at once in response to his call, with one having to sit down and get up only after the other had finished. The soloists were all impressive, and seemed cool and confident, though a bit joyless in their playing – they too displayed a kind of aloofness. Indeed in the following piece, an arrangement of Charlie Parker’s What Price Love by Gil Evans, another transitional piece dated 1942 (Jaffe 2003), a brilliant black saxophonist was showcased. Once again, tuned in to an expectation of physicality in jazz players and especially from black players, I was surprised when his approach was simply to stand and rip an impressive solo, but with very little showmanship or apparent involvement at all with the music, which seemed to happen almost in spite of himself.

The band continued to be impressive through their succeeding numbers. They played Strayhorn’s Tonk (in which the piano soloist was first-rate), and Benny Golson’s Whisper Not, which was awe-inspiring with its mellow bluesy feel and its lilting swing. They concluded the night with Ellington’s and Evans’ respective arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s “Arabian Dance” from the Nutcracker Suite. Ellington’s version was truly remarkable and thrilling, with his always distinctive orchestration (including “exotic” drumming and what sounded like a tambourine). The band executed it impressively, yet none of them visibly seemed to be enjoying it. They played the second version, a much more literal interpretation of the original, equally well, carefully articulating the dynamic contrasts and contours which shaped the piece. The chording was magnificent. It was a wonderful note on which to end the concert.

This concert certainly challenged me to think about what my expectations were of contemporary jazz players, particularly those playing music created in a different time and place. The performers at Chapin were located somewhere in the intersections between “cool”, aloof and inhibited. It seems several things could have contributed to this style: a very different relationship that white America has to physicality in response to music; the listening-only treatment of jazz that emerged after World War II and with the bebop era; or simply a self-consciousness of young musicians at the prospect of expressing their involvement physically in front of an audience. The answer is probably some combination of the three, but I will be more than curious to see how the Branford Marsalis group performs.

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