Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Giving Art Song the Combo Treatment

I first started writing about Lisa Kirchner during my days in the summer of 2012. I had known about her as a member of the James Waring Dance Company, about which I wrote with great enthusiasm as a way of taking a break from working on my doctoral thesis. Until I encountered her album Charleston for You through my connection to Naxos of America, I had not known that she had become a jazz singer. This led to my getting back in touch with her, which led to writing more about not only her own work but also that of her father, the composer Leon Kirchner.

Recently I had an opportunity to listen to one of Lisa’s earlier albums, Something to Sing About. This turned out to explore a fascinating synthesis of “art song,” as it had developed over the course of the twentieth century, with contemporary jazz practices that tend to be informed by classical training in both composition and performance. Thus, all of the eighteen songs on this recording, whether composed by Charles Ives or adapted from a film score by Paul Chihara, are performed by Kirchner in a combo setting with a rhythm section of piano, bass, guitar, and drums. (There is also an accordion played by one of the song composers, William Schimmel, that shows up on ten of the tracks.) On the treble side Sherman Irby, who is a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, plays alto saxophone on nine tracks and flute on two.

What is striking is how Lisa’s stylizations establish such a “comfortable” setting that well suits her selections of both Ives and Aaron Copland. Her father’s music is also included, as well as that of three of his colleagues, Ned Rorem, David Del Tredici, and John Harbison, and one of his students, John Adams. I would even be so bold as to suggest that one of the settings may even be an improvement over the original.

That would be “Under the Willow Tree,” which is inserted as a “folk song” in the second act of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. (Full disclaimer: My only opportunity to see this opera performed was provided by PBS, and I have never heard any of the music from Vanessa in a concert setting.) “Under the Willow Tree” struck me as a bit of a distraction from the opera’s plot development; but it stands very well on its own. Kirchner and her piano accompanist for this selection, Joel Fan, clearly appreciated how Barber inserted striking rhythmic eccentricities into an otherwise familiar waltz rhythm. (Fan is a significant advocate for Leon Kirchner’s piano music.)

Taken as a whole, this album reinforces a belief I have long nurtured that those who make jazz tend to know more about classical practices than the other way around. This is music that deserves to be taken on a tour with special attention to conservatories, particularly those that have not yet really figured out how to deal with jazz in the curriculum. However, since Something to Sing About was released in 2011, it is unlikely that such a tour will take place; and conservatories will probably continue to puzzle over “the jazz question!”

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