The concert title was taken from a video clip of Leonard Bernstein conducting a studio orchestra from the 1980s. In it he gently chastises one of the percussionists for not playing with the proper feeling. He refers to ‘The Rite’ as prehistoric jazz and then implores the student to play with that type of emotion… ‘I don’t feel the jazz… man’ Bernstein exclaims.
For me, feeling ‘the jazz’ was my primary point of reference and my entre into this masterwork of shifting rhythms and polytonality back when I first heard it as a student. Maybe it was all those nights at Oberlin where I slept with the score under my pillow so it was the first thing I looked at when the day began and the last thing at its end. Maybe, during those same student years, it was the lucid dreams I had in the library (usually after a far too heavy dinner) where the opening Bassoon line turned into phrases in French, for some reason, and the rest of the opening winds were a chorus of other languages, some real some fictional. Regardless, I always approached it as a piece with powerful pulse, surprising syncopation and harmonies I translated in my mind to jazz theory lexicon. In short, I always heard ‘The Rite’ as jazz… just without the improvisation.
I am not alone as a jazz musician enchanted and bedeviled by Stravinsky’s works. For decades jazz musicians have quoted from and attempted to adapt Igor’s works, especially ‘The Rite’ for various ensembles (most recently The Bad Plus and The Mobtown Modern Big Band). For a very detailed account of the history between jazz and Stravinsky and various ‘third stream’ attempts to reconcile both traditions, please read Stu Vandermark’s excellent blog about my ‘Prehistoric-Jazz’ concert.
In working on my conception of ‘The Rite’ I chose not to get caught up in the history, the past and recent attempts at ‘jazz interpretation’, the semantics of style or genre. I went with my intuition, and my ear… and after hearing Lenny call ‘The Rite’ prehistoric jazz; I had the validated confidence to begin my arrangement.
It is my general conclusion that most of the sections of ‘The Rite’ begin with a clear melody and a distinct combination of pulse, rhythm and harmony, which all start to unravel or become obfuscated by theme and variation, increased density, orchestration etc. That’s all nothing new, of course, but that structure is also the foundation of jazz once you add improvisation to the list of deconstructing elements. With this in mind, most sections to my ears became a sort of lead sheet where at some point a collective theme and variation (riffing to an extent) took over, usually over a strong pulse or vamp. Case in point, the first section, A Kiss Of The Earth. After the iconic Bassoon opening with a small wind chorus of support, the strings enter with an almost inebriated triplet line that acts as a riff or vamp that establishes a clear pulse. Once that is steady, the theme and variation, riffing, and increased density begins. A few main themes pop out, but most parts play the roll of adding voices to a big collective conversation. This moment, I thought, could be improvised with similar effect. So with all sections I set about the task of distilling it down to the main theme or themes, the prominent harmonic colors and perhaps most importantly the primary rhythmic structures. Stravinsky loves pulse and it always grooves in its own way, always syncopated, always surprising with odd phrase lengths and shifting meters. But… what happens if you take the primary rhythmic figures, which is the core of the groove, and even them out to phrases that repeat with more regularity? Vamps, bass lines, rhythmic shouts choruses, even forms (for example the 12 bar blues on Mystic Circle Of The Young Girls which was not imposed by my hand but directed to me by Igor’s melody and harmonic suggestions) rise to the surface as solo or group improvisation sections.
The same spirit of distillation behind the melodic and formal conceptions inspired the orchestration for my arrangement. Each family of the orchestra was represented. The drums covered the percussion, cello covered the strings, and clarinet and trumpet covered the woodwinds and brass respectively. The guitar plays a curious role in the arrangement. Like much of my group work either as a composer or performer the purpose of the guitar is to highlight, support and glue together various aspects of the music. By not fitting into a specific family of orchestral instruments I play the role of rogue interloper, assimilating into each family when they need an extra voice, or gluing components together by providing a rich harmonic palette of chords. This I believe is a very American thing to do with the music, and the arch top guitar, a completely American invention, is crucial to transforming ‘The Rite’ to prehistoric jazz in sound and style. You will notice, there is rarely a guitar melody or feature or solo, the bulk of the guitar work is teaming up with drums for hits, joining the cello on a vamp, providing a bass line and chords for a horn solo etc.
Speaking of chords, Stravinsky’s works are known for being extremely dissonant, polytonal, chromatic… chaotic, crazy etc. Yet, I found it logical, almost easy, how his harmonic palette could be defined in jazz harmonic theory terms. For example the famous pounding chords in ‘Dance Of The Adolescents’, the much revered Eb7 over E major cluster has for 100 years been an example of extreme dissonance and an abandonment of tonality. My jazz training suggests to me a different story. What if the E major is the tri-tone sub of Bb (a common jazz chord substitution since the bebop days of the 40’s) and like the blues or Thelonious Monk, Igor is treating the Eb7 as a tonic. It is then just a common V-I progression but simultaneously. Maybe what Stravinsky is suggesting in this moment is not the end of tonality but the beginning of a new understanding of tonality… where tonic and dominant, rest and motion, consonance and dissonance are ONE. Bernstein took that view of Stravinsky in his Norton lectures at Harvard, calling his work, ‘the poetry of earth’ hinting that the balanced duality of Stravinsky’s poly-tonal language (Lenny defined Ives by this ‘poetry of earth’ term too) was a natural progression of music and therefore expressed more humanity than serial 12-tone music (those are fighin’ words to some). I digress… however, the point remains ‘The Rite’ is full of harmonic moments that translate to ‘jazz chords’. I found flat 9th, sharp #11, minor 9th chords, tri-tone substitutions, pentatonic scale melodies played over modal harmony. Sometimes this stuff was layered on top of one another, more obfuscation, but often it is possible to pick it up by ear and hear the lingua franca between Igor’s chords and historic jazz languages such as Swing, Bebop, Modal and even Post-Modal. For advanced jazz geeks there are hints of the so-called ‘Giant Steps’ changes (presented poly-tonally) and, for those who study guitar and composition with me, there are a plethora of examples of ‘The Diamond’ (my own harmonic theory of chord substitution and poly-tonal improvising in jazz, synthesized in part from Bartok’s Axis System, Coltrane changes, which weren’t his originally anyway, and other sources) on display in ‘The Rite’.
I could go on and on about this piece and my arrangement… Things I have left out, a discussion on the use of space, the role of timbre and articulation in transforming it to the jazz language and the importance of synthesis, deconstruction and the use of all the jazz vocabularies (including the Post-Bop aka Free Jazz vocab) to successfully evolve ‘Le Sacre’ a European masterpiece to ‘The Rite’ a piece of American music with room for personal expression, malleable interpretation and surprising spontaneity.
The last thing I need to say is that this project wouldn’t be possible without the creative energy and work of the musicians involved. The band members, Todd Brunel on clarinet and bass clarinet, Junko Fujiwara on cello, Curt Newton on drums and Jerry Sabatini on trumpet were chosen not only for their expertise in the realms of improvisation and classical/jazz knowledge but for their individual voices, their nuances, their personality quirks that manifested themselves in sound and imbued my arrangement with authenticity and life. We had time for only three, 2 hour, rehearsals to put this together for the performance. Everyone brought passion and inspiration to the table, we worked hard but had fun too and I think it shows in the video.
Several people has asked me, how I could possibly of had the time to arrange ‘The Rite’ all 14 sections to be exact, between the end of the spring semester (where usually I can’t compose or arrange anything because the ol’ creative juices are diverted towards teaching) and May 29th. Truth be told it only took 20 hours to complete the arrangement, about half of that was brainstorming, listening and sketching… other half was the writing out (spread out in two all-nighters). However, I would argue this arrangement, this project in fact, was 20 years in the making, ever since I first heard ‘Le Sacre Du Printemps’ in the Oberlin library. I hope you truly enjoy the videos. Comments and reactions welcome and if you are a music teacher, department head, concert promoter etc. and would like to had us come play at your school, college or venue, please email me at email@example.com We are excited to share this music experience to audiences around the world online… but we would really love to share it with audiences live.