Monday, June 25, 2018

Jazz Misconceptions at Old First Concerts

Jazz pianist Amy Stephens (courtesy of Old First Concerts)

Yesterday afternoon at the Old First Presbyterian Church, the Old First Concerts artist was pianist Amy Stephens presenting a program entitled The Art of Third Stream. To the extent that “third stream” was a “movement,” it seemed to me, during my student days, that it was little more than a haven for intellectuals in the “new music” community to claim that they could “dig” jazz and for the more avant-garde jazz musicians to place themselves on the same plane as the post-Webern modernists. It has been a long time since I have seen or heard that phrase uttered. It brings to mind the old joke about the Sixties: If you can remember the third stream, you probably weren’t there.

For the historical record, the term “third stream” was introduced by Gunther Schuller in a lecture he gave at Brandeis University in 1957. So says Grove Music Online in its “Third stream” entry, which happens to be co-authored by Schuller and Thomas H. Greenland. The metaphor drew upon the idea that there were two “mainstreams” of music-making, Western art music and jazz. If the two of them could be channeled to flow together, the result would be a “third stream.”

I do not know when Duke Ellington uttered the sentence, “It’s all music;” but I have always accepted him as a better authority than just about anyone with roots in academe. Not only could the Duke compose jazz in a wide diversity of styles, but also he could conjure up totally convincing jazz interpretations from sources such as the music that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed for The Nutcracker. I have long believed that Ellington knew far more about the practice of music than Schuller. Indeed, Schuller’s academic exercise (which is probably the most polite thing I can call it) went through one rethinking in a 1961 issue of Saturday Review and another that appeared in his 1986 collection of essays, Musings: the Musical Worlds of Gunther Schuller. (The Grove Music Online entry was written in 2013.)

With all that as context, I have to wonder how Ellington would have reacted to Stephens’ program on the basis of his all-embracing sentence. I have this fantasy of Will Rogers delivering his famous line, “I never met a man I didn’t like” and then coming face-to-face with Donald Trump. Ellington could be very generous in his tastes, but he was very disciplined in his practices. No such discipline was on display yesterday afternoon.

Instead, the curious listener was flooded with a bevy of short pieces, most of which involved little more than repeating simple tunes, by a variety of composers, most of whom seemed to have very little to say. (Stephens was one of those composers.) Furthermore, if there was any content in any of the selections, it tended to be obscured by Stephens’ rather featureless approach to her keyboard work and a sense of phrasing that was, at best, arbitrary. It seemed as if the very practice of making music were in jeopardy, regardless of whether it was trying to “go with the flow” of one mainstream or another (or some confluence of the two).

Things got a little better during the second half, when Stephens was joined by a combo consisting of her longtime colleague Tom Clark on saxophone and three local musicians, Alex Farrell on bass, Michael Dallara on drums, and Rebecca Kleinmann on flute. The five tunes the group played were, again, on the simple side; but Clark endowed them with enough shape and shading to make them tolerable. In addition Farrell definitely deserves more than a few nods for taking full and imaginative advantage of the bass solos allowed for him.

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