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AJP plays unsatisfying mix of jazz, classical music

American Jazz Philharmonic
Jack Elliot, conductor.
Featuring Randy Brecker, Ray Brown, and Phil Woods.
Kresge Auditorium.
Oct. 25.

By Dave Fox
Staff Reporter

As part of the American Express Gold Card Grammy Festival, the American Jazz Philharmonic came to MIT and presented two free concerts, on Monday evening and Tuesday morning. The festival is an 8-city event featuring Grammy-winning artist performances and free educational performances and master classes by the AJP.

The AJP is a unique organization -- the only American institution dedicated to the advancement of the musical genre of symphonic jazz. This form of music draws from both American jazz and the classical symphonic tradition. The 72-piece AJP has all the resources of a regular symphony orchestra, and has commissioned and premiered some 85 works of symphonic jazz. The AJP has also featured some of the finest jazz musicians in the country as soloists. On Monday night, bassist Ray Brown, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and alto saxophonist Phil Woods each joined the AJP in performance of commissioned works.

As a jazz musician, I must admit that symphonic jazz is a new concept to me. My first impression was that the genre is similar to what is played by the Boston Pops, although the overall feeling was rather more serious. The first piece, Patrick Williams' "Overture to a Time" started with a classical feel, with alternating brass and string lines. The overall sound was lush and gorgeous (maybe I've been listening to too much free jazz!), and soon developed a jazz feel. Although the sound was lovely, the piece reminded me of a movie theme, perhaps for a John Ford western.

The second piece, "Open Me First" by John Clayton, seemed like a better composition, featuring ornate string lines alternating with "cool" jazz sections. Improvised piano, trombone, and tenor sax solos were offered, but the players were quite restrained and stuck to proven licks and forms. This would seem to be an almost inevitable consequence of playing in front of such a large organization; the chord voicings were so thick as to preclude any daring solo lines.

For the next composition, "Afterthoughts," Ray Brown, who composed the piece, joined the orchestra. Brown has played with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson during his long and distinguished career. The piece, a slow ballad, featured a beautiful rubato bass melody over a lush foundation of strings. Brown offered quite a bit of excellent improvisation during this part.

After a marvelous extended solo, the tempo shifted to a blues feel. Brown showed his playful side, as he played some funky riffs unaccompanied. Also of note was a "call and response" section featuring Brown trading off 4-bar lines with the whole orchestra. The ballad feel was re-established, and Brown repeated the beautiful melody to end the piece.

Randy Brecker was called up for the next composition, "El Gamino" by Dick Grove. This had a sort of Spanish feel, and featured Brecker's clean trumpet on the melody. Like the previous piece, the feel was slow and the strings were lush. After statement of the main theme, the tempo picked up and Brecker played a very nice solo. This was not overdone, and was perfectly appropriate to the piece. All in all, the tune was quite beautiful, although I had been hoping to see Brecker in a little more unrestrained setting -- this piece kept his hands somewhat tied. (I guess I'll have to catch him at an after hours club someday!)

After a short intermission, the AJP returned and played the first movement of Claus Ogerman's "Symphonic Voices." I am perhaps showing my ignorance here, but I was unable to distinguish this from straight classical music -- the jazz elements were subtle indeed. As with all of the AJP's music, the sound was gorgeous; this would be good music for meditation.

Phil Woods then joined the orchestra for "Nostalgico" by Manny Albam. This tune had an interesting introduction with a quick tempo, in which every eighth bar was in three and the others were in four. Woods wasted no time in uncorking some serious improvisation during his interpretation of the melody, and he offered an extended, Bird-inspired solo during the middle of the piece. After the solo, the tempo slowed down, and this part featured some nice tuba/string bass lines behind Woods' spirited playing. The piece ended with an extended cadenza during which Woods pulled out all the stops with some very technical sax playing.

The AJP concluded the concert with its signature tune, "Stay 'N See" by Eddie Karam. Of all the tunes in the show, this was the closest to a straight jazz piece, with a sort of Count Basie feel. The melody line featured the brass and strings and had a satisfying jazz "fatness." A nice flugelhorn solo was offered by one of the trumpet players, and this was followed by an equally spirited trombone solo (with plunger!). The time was stopped for a piano solo, and then the strings came in to back up the brass soloists, who traded 2-bar lines back and forth to end the piece.

On the whole, the American Jazz Philharmonic presented two hours of very user-friendly jazz-influenced symphonic music. The playing was absolutely flawless, and the sound in the auditorium was magnificent. This sort of music would not be satisfying either to a jazz or classical purist, but it makes for a reasonable and inoffensive introduction to either of these genres for persons unfamiliar with them. American Express is to be commended for funding these free concerts, and judging by the standing ovation at the end of the concert, the audience was quite appreciative. Let us hope that other corporations see the light and lend support to the arts.