This impressive anthology by the superb Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra is not so much Bernstein Reimagined as Bernstein Unleashed. The jazz component in Leonard Bernstein's memorable compositions for symphony orchestra, Broadway shows, films and even liturgical works always lay simmering just below the surface. As Bernstein is said to have confided to Duke Ellington: "Maybe that's really the difference between us. You write symphonic jazz, and I write jazz symphonies." However credible the remark, there is no doubt that the jazz in Bernstein's soul has been brilliantly reanimated by the Smithsonian Orchestra and arrangers Scott Silbert, Mike Tomaro, Jay Ashby, Darryl Brenzel and Steve Williams in a marvelous album commissioned to honor Bernstein's centennial year, 2018.
Three of the ten songs reprised here are from Bernstein's first Broadway outing, On the Town, complementing one each from the plays Peter Pan, Trouble in Tahiti and A Quiet Place. Wrapping up the diverse and colorful program are the "Waltz" from Divertimento for Orchestra, written for the Boston Symphony's centennial; "Meditation #1" from Bernstein's Mass; the lithe and lyrical "Chichester Psalms I;" and Silbert's impassioned arrangement of the "Symphonic Suite" from director Elia Kazan's Academy Award-winning film, On the Waterfront. There's jazz in every nook and cranny, none of which escapes the SJMO's scrupulous inspection. In fact, one of the more remarkable aspects of this compendium is that when it comes to jazz, Bernstein's symphonic and ceremonial works yield no ground to his more normative themes for stage and film, and for that, credit must be shared among the outstanding arrangers who brought them to life.
The first of those designers is Silbert, whose dancing clarinet introduces the light and breezy "Times Square Ballet" from the musical On the Town. Deft changes in mood and tempo amplify its jazzier moments, underlining assertive solos by alto saxophonist Steve Williams, tenor saxophonist Luis Hernandez and trumpeter Tom Eby. Ashby scored the even-tempered "Dream With Me" (from Peter Pan), Tomaro "The Great Lover" dance, also from On the Town. Conductor Charlie Young's expressive alto is showcased on "Dream," while alto Bill Mulligan, tenor Silbert and drummer Ken Kimery share blowing space on "Great Lover," which scampers smartly ahead on the sturdy wings of brass and reeds, with earnest support from the rhythm section. A third number from On the Town, the warm-hearted "Lonely Town" pas de deux, was neatly arranged by Brenzel to spotlight Tom Williams' enticing trumpet.
Tony Nalker's lithe piano takes the driver's seat on the genial "Morning Sun" (from Trouble in Tahiti), leading to guest Victor Provost's star turn on steel pans on the good-natured "Waltz" from the Divertimento for Orchestra, whose melody bears a slight resemblance to the jazz standard "Perdido." Steve Williams arranged the buoyant "Meditation #1," an anthem that is anything but meditative, nor are the animated solos by trombonist Jennifer Krupa, guitarist Marty Ashby and (on its more moderate midsection) trumpeter Kenny Rittenhouse. Hernandez returns to center stage on Brenzel's arrangement of the fast-paced, sometimes Mulligan-esque "Chichester Psalm I," Nalker and Steve Williams (soprano) on the reverential "Postlude," from A Quiet Place. Silbert arranged the expansive and well-drawn finale, the "Symphonic Suite" from the Marlon Brando star-maker, Waterfront (engaging solos courtesy of Kimery, Hernandez and Tom Williams).
Bernstein's music is not only well-served here, it is more often than not ennobled, bold as that assessment may seem. The SJMO is world-class, as are its commendable arrangers and soloists, some of whom are veterans of the several topnotch DC-area service bands. Together, they raise Bernstein Reimagined well above the norm, the outcome of which is a charming and persuasive listening experience that is worth enjoying many times over.
Times Square Ballet (from "On the Town"); Dream With Me (from "Peter Pan");
Great Lover (from "On the Town");
Lonely Town (from "On the Town");
Morning Sun (from "Trouble in Tahiti");
Waltz (from "Divertimento for Orchestra");
Meditation #1 (from "Mass"); Chichester Psalms I; Postlude (from "A Quiet Place"); Symphonic Suite (from "On The Waterfront").
All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.
WE NEED YOUR HELP
To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.