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New England Jazz Ensemble: Peter and the Wolf

Jack Bowers By

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As the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev composed the children's tale Peter and the Wolf to introduce classical music to a wider audience, so the world-class New England Jazz Ensemble has reimagined Prokofiev's beloved fantasy in jazz terms as a pathway to a greater awareness of its singular style of music. The redesigned suite, which encompasses almost thirty-four minutes on the NEJE's sixth CD, was arranged by pianist / music director Walt Gwardyak with narration by the well-known jazz singer Giacomo Gates who has cleverly brought Prokofiev's libretto up to speed for a twenty-first century audience.

As in the original Peter and the Wolf, the animals are represented by various instruments, Peter's Grandfather by the bass, the Wolf by the trombone section, Peter himself by the entire ensemble. The narrative begins softly as Peter exits his garden and sees his feathered friend Chirper (alto sax) high in a nearby tree, then gathers steam as Quacker (trumpet) and Chirper engage in a heated dispute about who can swim and who can fly. A Cat (bass clarinet) soon slinks onto the scene, narrowly missing its chance to devour Chirper before being berated by Quacker (tenor sax this time). Peter's Grandfather enters to warn Peter about the Wolf who may be lurking nearby, ever wary of the Hunters (depicted by drummer John Mele).

The Wolf (trombones) soon saunters in, searching for sustenance to ease his hunger, whereupon the Cat scurries up a tree to safety while Quacker tries to make a run for it but isn't quite as lucky. The Wolf overtakes the doomed Quacker, swallows him whole and turns his gaze toward Chirper and Cat in the tree. Peter instructs Chirper to fly close to the Wolf, distracting him while Peter fashions a lasso and affixes it to the Wolf's tail. The Wolf tries to escape, but every move he makes only tightens the knot. Enter the Hunters, intent on dispatching the Wolf until Peter says, "let's take him to the zoo!" And so they do, in a boisterous parade led by Peter who is followed by the Hunters, Grandpa and Cat. Even Quacker, who was swallowed whole much like Jonah by a whale, manages to survive the Wolf's voraciousness to secure the happy ending.

Prokofiev's motifs are prominent throughout the suite, even though slightly "bent" into the jazz vernacular to suit a contemporary audience, with the kind of improvisation Prokofiev never dreamed of added for good measure. Also added for good measure are four more Prokofiev-patterned themes, two each by trumpeter Jeff Holmes ("Serge's Birds," "Wolves") and saxophonist John Mastroianni ("Power Serge," "Waltzin' with Wolves"). Even though Prokofiev's melodic lines form the basis for "Serge's Birds" and "Power Serge," the jazz elements are salient on both, with nimble solos on "Birds" by Mastroianni (flute) and Holmes (piccolo trumpet) and by Mastroianni (alto sax), Mike Leventhal (tenor) and drummer Mele on "Serge." "Wolves" and "Waltzin' with Wolves" are original compositions in the spirit of Prokofiev (not to mention Duke Ellington), underscored by sharp ensemble work and engaging solos (trombonists Tim Atherton and Peter McEachern, bassist Steven Bulmer, trumpeter Steven Fitzko on "Waltzin,'" trumpeter Holmes and accordionist Gwardyak on "Wolves").

This is an ambitious (and essentially successful) enterprise, designed to please fans of the classical and jazz worlds alike, not an easy task to accomplish. The NEJE does it with outstanding musicianship and expansive imagination. The ensemble is exemplary, the soloists bright and perceptive. And with the jazz flavor added to the mix, Sergei Prokofiev's memorable epic of Peter and the Wolf has seldom sounded better.

Track Listing: Introduction; Peter and the Wolf; Serge’s Birds; Power Serge; Waltzin’ with Wolves; Wolves.

Personnel: Jeff Holmes: trumpet, piccolo trumpet, flugelhorn, Quacker soloist; Steven Fitzko: trumpet, flugelhorn; Donald Clough: trumpet, flugelhorn; Adam Mejaour: trumpet, flugelhorn; Hank Zorn: trumpet, flugelhorn (1, 2); John Mastroianni: soprano, alto sax, flute, clarinet, Chirp soloist; Bob DePalma: alto sax, flute, clarinet; Michael Leventhal: tenor sax, clarinet; Larry Dvorin: tenor sax, clarinet; Lisa LaDone: baritone sax, bass clarinet, Cat soloist; Tim Atherton: trombone, Wolf; Peter McEachern: trombone, Wolf; Ben Griffin: trombone, Wolf (1, 2); David Sporny: trombone (3-6); David Wampler: bass trombone, Wolf; Walt Gwardyak: piano, accordion; Steve Bulmer: acoustic, electric bass, Grandfather; Jon Mele: drums, Hunters soloist; Giacomo Gates: narrator.

Title: Peter and the Wolf | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Self Produced

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