Journey Into Jazz (BMOP Sound)

Gunther Schuller

Released June 17, 2008

DownBeat Five-Star Review




Representative of the Third Stream genre, a revolutionary style of music brought forth into the mainstream by Schuller in the 1950s, the three pieces on this album unite the structural complexities found in contemporary classical music with the improvisational elements of jazz.

According to Schuller, “few people would’ve imagined jazz in the world of the symphony orchestra. It was time to bring improvisation, the heart and soul of jazz, into the creative equation.” Thanks to BMOP/sound’s diverse aesthetic, “Journey Into Jazz” offers a new sound as it weaves jazz vernacular into the symphonic world. The recording offers compelling performances by Gil Rose and his BMOP musicians, and jazz groups comprised of some of today’s top contemporary artists. With the release of this definitive compilation, Schuller’s seminal works for the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet and orchestra are made available to the public as digital recordings for the first time.

As the title suggests, Variants for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1960) is laid out in a theme-and-variations form, the structure most common to jazz performances. Variants was commissioned by choreographer George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein for the New York City Ballet. Because Balanchine and his dancers were unaccustomed to working with improvisational methods, Schuller wrote for the Modern Jazz Quartet (vibraphone, piano, double bass, and drums) in a manner that sounds improvised. “Journey Into Jazz” (1962) premiered at the First International Festival in Washington, DC, with the National Symphony Orchestra. Reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, “Journey Into Jazz” is the story of Eddy Jackson, an aspiring young trumpet player who learns to play jazz. The composer serves as the narrator of the work, which was written by famed jazz critic and author Nat Hentoff. “Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra” (1959) was premiered by the Baltimore Symphony under the baton of Herbert Grossman. While the jazz ensemble improvises extended solo parts, the orchestra, whose parts are fully written out, find themselves confronted with rhythms, syncopations, articulations, and free-flowing lines that are generally characteristic of jazz.

Track Listing:

Variants for jazz quartet & orchestra

1. Introduction 3:02

2. Variant 1 2:07

3. Variant 2 2:18

4. Variant 3 2:12

5. Variant 4 2:35

6. Variant 5 1:45

7. Finale 4:36

8. Journey Into Jazz, for narrator, jazz quintet & orchestra 20:32

Concertino for jazz quartet & orchestra

9, I. Slow 6:35

10. II. Passacaglia 6:50

11. III. – 5:39


Variants for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra

Tom Beckham: vibes

Tim Ray: piano

Edwin Schuller: bass

George Schuller: drums

Journey into Jazz

Gunther Schuller: narrator

David Ballou: trumpet

Matt Darriau: alto saxophone

Jason Hunter: tenor saxophone

Edwin Schuller: bass

George Schuller: drums

Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra

Tom Beckham: vibes

Bruce Barth: piano

Edwin Schuller: bass

George Schuller: drums

Variants was recorded on January 19, 2004 in Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory (Boston, MA)

Journey into Jazz was recorded on February 25, 2002 at Regis College (Weston, MA)

Concertino was recorded on October 10, 1999 in Jordan Hall

Producer: Gil Rose

Recording engineers: Joel Gordon (Variants, Concertino), Toby Mountain (Journey into Jazz)

Design: John Kramer and Robb Ogle

Cover art: Robb Ogle


Composers of today’s Olympian jazz-classical concertos would do well to listen to these deceptively understated, coolly creative pieces that capture the zeitgeist of the 1960’s. These three newly recorded 20-minute works (dubbed “Third Stream” by Gunther Schuller himself) explore and synthesize myriad interactions between a jazz combo improvising and a chamber orchestra reading a through-composed score with some big band gestures. All the new recordings reward relistening.

Variants for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra and Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra, originally written for and performed by The Modern Jazz Quartet and chamber orchestra, dovetail jazz quartet with chamber symphony in an effortless mastery built to last. Journey Into Jazz blends Peter and the Wolf and Johnny One-Note as a parable for musical seekers. Schuller airily narrates Nat Hentoff’s text; he’s as amiably convincing as his subtle score is in conveying this fable of young trumpeter Eddy Jackson’s hard-won grasp of jazz’s elusive but valued culture. The scores veer gracefully between referencing classics and bebop. The wispy, wily vignettes eschew “overblowing” and Hollywood histrionics, as Schuller weaves in Gil Evans-like chorales and unexpected gestures pop up continually. Variants‘ opening crescendo dissipates into a single sustained piano note, and a four-bar quietus stuns amid its roiling finale. Conductor Gil Rose flashes a cool hand at balancing strict writing with looser solos, shading dynamics and packing smoothly. Branches of Schuller’s mighty oak—bassist Edwin, drummer George—anchor the “rhythm sections” admirably, while New England Conservatory students/colleagues perform key interpretive roles in these genre-busting works.

Fred Bouchard (DownBeat)