We are not the most likely musicians to tackle the classical repertoire. We're jazz musicians first of all. And as for me, vibraphone players have practically no experience with classical music. We don't play in orchestras, and there is almost no classical music written expressly for the instrument. But, like a lot of jazzers, Makoto Ozone and I are musical wanderers, improvisers who can usually adapt to our surroundings with ease. When we hear something that grabs our attention, we figure out a way to join in, or at least to adapt what we like to our own music. So, I suppose it's not a complete surprise that after collaborating for eighteen years, we would turn our attention to the vast possibilities of classical music.
Actually, we decided on this project over lunch in a Phoenix diner last spring. In the middle of my roast beef sandwich, I suddenly remembered a rare foray into the classical literature thirty-some years ago. I had recorded a jazz version of the first movement of Maurice Ravel's (1875-1937) Le Tombeau de Couperin, multitracking both the vibraphone and piano parts myself. As soon as we started talking about it, we agreed that classical duets with jazz improvisations should be our next CD. The timing was right for us. Makoto had recently been performing as a guest soloist with orchestras in Japan, and I had been trying to broaden my listening to classical music over the past few years. So, we returned home to search for works to include in the project. I suggested we start by re-recording Le Tombeau de Couperin's first movement (1914). Its harmony sequence turns out to be extremely similar to today's jazz harmonies, and we literally took Ravel's chord structure as the basis for our improvised choruses. It's a gorgeous piece of writing, and one of his better-known compositions.
My one brief encounter with a major classical composer took place during 1968-69. Through a series of coincidental connections, I was introduced to Samuel Barber (1910-1981) for the purpose of exploring a joint project combining a classical string quartet with my jazz quartet. We met off and on for over a year to discuss music generally, and ideas for the project, specifically. In particular, he wanted to know a lot more about jazz and improvisation. So, although it didn't seem like a big deal to me at the time, I undertook teaching Sam how to improvise at the piano. He was a quick study and got the hang of it easily. However, he insisted on being fearless and adventurous when developing his melodic themes, so inevitably he would lose track of where he was in the structure of the song by the time we played a couple of choruses. His enthusiasm was inspiring, and his melodic developments were brilliant, even if we crashed every couple of choruses. It was wonderful getting to know him and hearing him explain how he approached composition. He proudly told me that the piano in his study, where we spent considerable time discussing improvising on a blues in B-flat, had belonged to Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). It had been promised to him by the composer upon his death, but he said it took him years to get Rachmaninoff's widow to finally give it to him. In the end, Sam decided our classical-meets-jazz project wasn't right for him. He told me that in his long career he had only written one string quartet, the adagio movement of which became his most played work, virtually a popular song these days. He said he was wary of tackling the form again, particularly in an experimental setting, because the success of his first effort had probably set expectations unattainably high. So, he went on to write more great works for orchestras and soloists, and I went on to explore the marriage of jazz and rock. Talk about going our separate ways.
Because of my early association with Barber, I wanted to include one of his pieces. I remembered him saying he wrote some things for piano early in his career that he felt were jazz influenced. So, I looked around and found them on a recording. Sure enough, they are very jazz styled. The first of his Excursions (1945) caught my attention in particular. It has a haunting, modern jazz-style bass figure guaranteed to inspire Makoto and me. More than any other piece in this collection, this one flows seamlessly from composition to improvisation and back again.
As for choosing other works, I am woefully unprepared to fully consider the expanse of the classical repertoire, not being much of a music historian. So, I took a modern approach: I ordered lots of CDs from Amazon.com and just looked for pieces I thought might be suitable for improvising. In some cases, helpful suggestions from friends played a part. One recommendation was Rachmaninoff's Prelude for Piano no. 8, which I immediately loved for its sheer brute strength and excitement. This piece has a Latin jazz sensibility to it, and it was thrilling to learn the written parts and create the improvised section. (I keep thinking of Rachmaninoff's piano in Sam Barber's house every time we play this one.)
The Capriccio by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is on a superb CD by pianist Richard Goode, and when I heard the piece I instantly could imagine us playing it. In some parts, we divided the melodic lines between the vibraphone and the piano, so our instruments answered each other back and forth; in other sections, we played the parts together for concerted effect. The improvisation section seemed to slide into a Brazilian feel, which was natural enough for us, but would probably surprise Brahms if he were around to hear it.
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), born the same year as Bach and Handel, was the sixth child of a well-known composer. He wrote approximately two-hundred sonatas and hundreds of other works, and was also considered a great harpsichordist. He was said to have the fastest hands in Europe. In his day, it was customary to use repeat signs, which required the performer to play each section a second time. This was to encourage improvisation on the repeat, a skill for which Scarlatti was well known, and which is exactly what we had in mind as we performed his Sonata in E (K20). After playing the first half exactly as written, we introduced variations the second time, then went one better, continuing to improvise at greater length. After our solos, we introduced the second half of the sonata with a slightly improvised version and closed the piece by playing the final section as Scarlatti originally wrote it. I hope he would approve of our version, or at least get a chuckle or two out of it.
Several of the pieces we chose may seem obvious because of their jazz connection. George Gershwin (1898-1937) is a composer after any jazz musician's heart. He started playing and writing music in his teens and was, in his own words, never much good at reading music. He supposedly applied for the job as Irving Berlin's assistant. (Berlin didn't read or write music at all. He played only on the black keys of the piano to compose his songs, so he needed someone to write them down for him after he created them.) But when Berlin heard young George play some of his own songs, he refused to hire him, telling him to go out and get his own career. Gershwin went on to compose many enduring songs in his brief life, and followed up on his ambition to write music for classical audiences as well. Rhapsody in Blue (1924) broke the barrier between jazz and classical, and Gershwin followed with more classical works including three preludes, and the Piano Concerto in F (1925). We decided to do a bluesy version of his second prelude (1926) and a ragtime version of the third movement of the piano concerto. Gershwin was himself a scintillating ragtime pianist, and Makoto did a fantastic job arranging the piano and orchestral parts of the concerto in Gershwin's style.
The other American composer we feature is Zez Confrey (1895-1971). Like many young musicians growing up in the '40s and '50s, I enjoyed playing his popular novelty piano pieces like "Kitten on the Keys" and "Dizzy Fingers." Later on, I discovered he had written over 100 works, including some that are considered light classical. In particular, I like his Impromptu from Three Little Oddities (1923), with its catchy chromatic harmonies, and we decided to include it. There was a historic concert in New York's Aeolian Hall in 1924, presented by Paul Whiteman with a 23-piece orchestra. It featured Zez Confrey performing "Kitten on the Keys," followed later by Gershwin premiering Rhapsody in Blue. What a night that must have been! So, we've reunited Zez and George on tracks 7 and 8.
Some explanation is in order regarding Milonga, by Brazilian composer Jorge Cardoso (b. 1945). For the past twenty years, I have been involved in contemporary tango, recording three CDs of Astor Piazzolla's music and mounting several tours with his musicians. Tango is increasingly accepted as an offshoot of the classical world because of its similar forms and the virtuosity of its performers. And, since Makoto is a wonderful tango interpreter, I wanted to include a traditional tango. Someone sent me a recording of Milonga, and I managed to track down the music, originally composed for two guitars. Normally, there is little improvisation in tango music, but Makoto and I like turning these pieces into extended performances by adding our own choruses.
One morning, I had the radio on and noticed an opera excerpt in a commercial. I was sure it was something relatively well known, though it wasn't known to me. I've taken in two and a half operas in my life: Barber's Vanessa at the Met in 1962, which was awesome, and my friend Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, which I saw performed last year at the San Francisco Opera and which I also enjoyed immensely. There was also one by Donizetti from which I departed at the intermission. I suppose this confession renders me unqualified to appreciate anything operatic, but nevertheless, I learned that the piece I heard on the radio was from Lakmé, an opera by Leo Delibes (1836-1891). Written in 1883, Lakmé is a French opera set in India about a British soldier. Given this cultural confusion, perhaps it's no surprise that Lakmé is not a well-known opera, except for its brief duet for two sopranos, which has enjoyed enduring popularity much like a hit song that has survived an otherwise forgotten Broadway show. I found a 1961 recording of the complete work and listened in search of the duet. In the process, I discovered Berceuse, another beautiful piece in the opera. So, in the end we decided on a medley of both Berceuse in C Minor and the familiar Duettino in C Major.
As we worked to prepare the music, Makoto brought in a composition of his that was inspired by the great compositions we were rehearsing. "Something Borrowed, Something Blue" seemed a fitting tribute to our project and the perfect piece to conclude the program.
We had great fun discovering the possibilities for improvisation in this eclectic collection. I hope it is apparent that we have tremendous respect for the artistry of these gifted composers, and while we don't take ourselves too seriously when it comes to classical music, we did seriously enjoy making this CD. We hope you discover both the fun and beauty that we experienced on every song.
Gary Burton (b. 1943) began playing the vibraphone at age six and discovered jazz music in his teens. He began his recording and performance career at age seventeen, and after touring and recording with the bands of George Shearing and Stan Getz, formed the Gary Burton Quartet in 1967. During his five decades as a musician, he has gained much recognition for his innovative contributions, including five Grammy Awards. He has released over fifty recordings and also serves as executive vice president of Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Makoto Ozone (b. 1961) started his life in music at age seven, performing on Hammond organ. He later switched to piano and became interested in jazz, moving to the United States in 1980 to study at Berklee College of Music. He joined the Gary Burton Group in 1983, and since then has released fifteen recordings as leader, toured extensively with Burton in both group and duet settings, and led the Makoto Ozone Trio. He maintains homes in New York and Tokyo.