The challenge of melding jazz with classical has had a long and checkered history. Early on, there was George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1923) and similar symphonic jazz experiments. Regardless of how appealing, there was just one problem. Such standards of today's orchestral pops repertory lacked improvisation.
Following World War II, with increasing numbers of serious musicians experienced in both jazz and classical looking to artistically bridge the gap, "third stream" was coined for genuinely new amalgams of improvisation and through-written composition. Here one found the still absorbing third-stream confluences by Ralph Burns, Stan Kenton, J.J. Johnson, Bill Russo and Gunther Schuller.
On Friday night, taking a cue from the Lied Center's seasonal promotion of "jazz and classical music crossroads," an enthusiastic, 1,000-plus audience came to check out the third-stream for itself in Branford Marsalis Trio and the Alexander String Quartet.
The performers had found the perfect vehicle, composer Eddie Sauter's still breathtaking "Focus" (1961), a six-part suite written for tenor saxophone giant Stan Getz, with an enlarged string ensemble placed around the Beaux Arts String Quartet, plus a harp and jazz drumming great Roy Haynes.
Hailed upon its 1962 release on the Verve label, "Focus" became, quite unexpectedly, a hit recording. The combination of Getz's quintessential lyricism and Sauter's lush yet also harmonically and rhythmically astringent writing captured ears, hearts and imaginations.
Due to the daunting heights of the Getz-Sauter collaboration, "Focus" has lived almost entirely through the seminal Verve recording. Its resurrection by Marsalis and the Alexander was therefore audacious. On Friday, the standing ovations and cheers signaled that Marsalis and friends had made "Focus" its own.
Marsalis, after stints as leader of Jay Leno's "Tonight Show Band" and with Sting, has become one of our brightest and most committed jazz players. In the six-part "Focus," his tenor saxophone sailed across the registers, fleshing out tenderly wrought out sub-tones and reedy punctuations at the bottom, while in the middle and top registers "singing" with a soaring blues-tinged lyricism that brought sections such as "I Remember When" to vibrantly pulsing and poignant life.
For its part, the exquisite Alexander injected Sauter's spiky yet flowing tapestries with unerring jazz-inflected phrasings and dynamics. Throughout, and in particular during the turbo-charged "Night Rider" and "I'm Late," violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough and cellist Sandy Wilson sounded as if they had lived with Marsalis's improvised interpretations forever. In fact, this was their first ever performance of "Focus" with Marsalis. Amazing!
Paving the way for "Focus" was a stunning set of excerpts from Maurice Ravel, Terry Riley and Wayne Peters by the Alexander incorporating jazz-nuanced elements also deployed by Sauter. In the second set, Marsalis and all-star band-mates bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, dug deep on two originals, the contemplative "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born" and earthy "Bluetain."
It was a stunning night. One hopes that the Marsalis-Alexander version of Sauter's "Focus" will soon be recorded to complement and therefore enlarge our appreciation of Getz's iconic treatment and, indeed, the third-stream itself.
- Chuck Berg is a Kansas University professor of theater and film.