Charles Pillow: Charles Pillow: Part 1 - Crossing the Divide between Jazz and Classical Repertoire

Victor L. Schermer By

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By some trick of prestidigitation, Charles Pillow has managed to combine complex postmodern musical development with elements of straight ahead jazz.
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While jazz began as a form of entertainment, it has evolved into a more serious musical genre. Its multiple roots in gospel, blues, popular, folk, Caribbean, African, and other world musics give it a complexity and richness tailor-made for extended musical explorations and through-composing. In addition, jazz musicians have made use of the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Bartok and other classical composers as they search for new ways to convey ideas, emotions, and images.

Nearly all the jazz we listen to, however, remains based on either 12-bar blues or the AABA song form consisting of two verses, a chorus, and a verse. At times a bridge is added between the segments. These forms have been well-suited to the American Songbook, tailor made for the short playing times of the old 78rpm records, and a mainstream public with varying attention spans. With the advent of bebop and LP recordings, lengthy improvised solos on the repeated AABA chord structure allowed for "serious" performance and listening (although hard bop musicians like saxophonist John Coltrane and trumpeter Miles Davis eventually found even that approach too confining, and experimented with other ways of organizing their music).

Somewhat earlier, pop and jazz composers had begun to compose extended concert pieces consisting of several movements—not unlike the sonata, multi-movement, tone poem, operatic or other forms of classical music. George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, Porgy and Bess and Concerto in F were early, highly successful attempts to make jazz "America's classical music." Pianist and composer Duke Ellington, striving to develop the rich potential of jazz, composed Black and Tan Fantasy, Harlem, Nutcracker and other large scale works as well as an array of music for film and theater. Leonard Bernstein incorporated jazz into many of his classical compositions as well as his Broadway musicals.

Next, Gunther Schuller's formulation of "third stream" jazz, melding classical and jazz approaches, gave a banner and a boost to those who wished to transcend the typical song form. Thus, a significant if small tradition of extended jazz composition was established and was exploited, for example, by Coltrane in A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964) and Meditations (Impulse!, 1965), by Davis with arranger Gil Evans in Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), and by bassist Charles Mingus in Epitaph (Columbia/Legacy, 1998). Despite such a fine inheritance, new jazz compositions of an extended nature remain relatively rare.

Into this mix now comes reeds player and composer, Charles Pillow. Pillow is experimenting with another way to extend the richness and complexity of jazz through extended composition. He has taken the tack—anticipated by few if any jazz composers with the notable exception of Uri Caine, who has employed the music of Mahler, Bach, Mozart and other classical composers—of taking classical pieces and transposing them into original jazz compositions with both written and improvised parts.

In Pillow's case, the scores have featured enriched instrumentation, including oboe, English horn, violin, cello, rhythmic loops, and computerized synth, the latter with a possible nod to that great innovator, Karlheinz Stockhausen. By offering us his transformations of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Holst's The Planets, Pillow ushers in a previously unexploited way to enliven and extend jazz.

While using another composer's work may at first smack of plagiarism, it is in fact a time-honored way of finding inspiration in the musical heritage. Jazz musicians frequently take recorded improvisations of their predecessors and move them into a new dimension. Classical composers from Bach, Beethoven and Brahms to Mahler have made transcriptions and motifs from their predecessors into new musical statements.

In Pictures (ArtistShare, 2005) and Planets (ArtistShare, 2007), Pillow has produced entirely new compositions which incorporate features of the original works. While we can hear the originals in some of the melodies, harmonies and movements, the flavor and mood of Pillow's music belongs to him and jazz alone. Pillow is well prepared for this endeavor, having studied at the prestigious Eastman School of Music and performed with top jazz musicians such as trumpeter Al Hirt and saxophonist Michael Brecker. He can swing on reeds with the best of them, and also display mastery of classical composition techniques.

In these two albums, Pilow has recruited small groups of top musicians—along with modern electronic synthesizers and a subtle taste of vocal sounds—to create a series of moods and images that make a lasting impression. By some trick of prestidigitation, he has managed to combine complex postmodern musical development with elements of straight ahead jazz. The result is pleasing to the ear, stimulating to the senses, and intelligently evocative to the mind.

As jazz increasingly explores the crossover with classical music and musicians, we can expect that compositions and recordings akin to Pillow's will become more frequent. Pillow is at the cutting edge of a trend.

This article is followed by Charles Pillow: Part 2—Pictures At An Exhibition and Charles Pillow: Part 3—The Planets, reviews of the two albums introduced above.


Photo Credit

David Korchin

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