If the work of any jazz composer lends itself to elegant reframing, as opposed to crass sweetening, by a chamber orchestra, it is that of John Lewis
, co-founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet
. Lewis' ambition, most often metaphorically realised but sometimes literally so, was to achieve a synthesis of blues and Bach. His blends were mostly successful and only occasionally, in self-conscious forays into "third stream" music, did his innate vibrancy become subsumed in arid academia.
Lewis composed and recorded a large body of work under his own name and for other bandleaders, but for many people his apotheosis was with the MJQ. Pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and arranger Michele Corcella, here leading the Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana, appear to agree, for all but one of the pieces on the delightful Blues & Bach: The Music Of John Lewis
were written by Lewis for the quartet. The exception, Vernon Duke's "Autumn In New York," was recorded by the MJQ for its debut album, Modern Jazz Quartet
(Prestige, 1953). A more accurate, though clunky, subtitle for Blues & Bach
would be The Music John Lewis Composed For The MJQ
Anyway, along with Duke's evergreen, there are seven Lewis originals: "Skating In Central Park," "Spanish Steps," "Vendome," "Django," "Concorde," "Milano" and "Jasmine Tree." A mere seven tracks could not possibly include everyone's favourite Lewis/MJQ tunes, but there is a good chance that most of these titles would be on most people's shortlists. The least well known track is probably "Jasmine Tree," from Under The Jasmin Tree
(Apple, 1968), a beauty that thoroughly deserves its inclusion.
As collaborators on this project, Pieranunzi and Corcella are well matched. Pieranunzi is as well versed in classical music as he is in jazz, while Corcella has orchestrated for other A-list jazz musicians including Dave Liebman
, Steve Swallow
, John Taylor
and Norma Winstone
. Pieranunzi leads his regular trio with bassist Luca Bulgarelli
and drummer Mauro Beggio
. Corcella conducts ten players, comprising five strings, four woodwinds and one brass. He is also credited as arranger, but whether this is of the Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana, or the orchestra plus Pieranunzi's trio, is not clear. It is inconceivable, however, that Pieraunzi was a passive spectator of the process, even if Corcella wrote the first drafts.
The project was several years in progress, as indicated by the YouTube clip below of a 2018 concert performance with a considerably larger orchestra. The album itself was not recorded until late 2021, and plenty of honing, tweaking and fine focussing happened between times.
It is foolish and presumptuous to attribute opinions to people who are no longer with us. But it is probably safe to say that the odds are that Lewis would enjoy Blues & Bach
. The orchestrations bring new facets to the familiar compositions and are as light on their feet as the source material, while Pieranunzi's trio, collectively and as soloists, keeps the music foursquare in the realm of creative jazz.
Footnote: It would be fascinating to hear how Bach would have worked with the blues. The closest we are likely to get is with the MJQ's Blues On Bach
(Atlantic, 1974), a concept album built around blues written by Lewis based on various Bach chorales and fugues.
Skating In Central Park; Spanish Steps; Vendome; Autumn In New York; Django; Concorde; Milano; Jasmine Tree.
Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana: Cesare Carretta: first violin; Silvia Maffeis: second violin; Erica Mason: viola; Nicolo Nigrelli: cello; Andrea Sala: double bass; Serena Bonazzi: flute; Carlo Ambrosoli: oboe; Damiano Bertasa: clarinet; Luca Reverberi: bassoon; Angelo Borroni: French horn; Michele Corcella: arranger, conductor.
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