Friday, November 11, 2011

Herbie Hancock and the Oregon Symphony Part 1

Philly is essentially the sixth borough at this rate.....
I lived in New York City for almost 15 years. I still think it is an amazing place, maybe still one of the greatest cities on earth. However, one of the things I don't miss about it is the hassle of traveling around the city. High real estate values have made it unaffordable to live in Manhattan, unless you are a hedge fund manager; most musicians have been pushed further out into the outer boroughs.  Some musicians even consider Philly to be the New York area! If you live in Brooklyn or Queens, as I did, getting in and out of Manhattan can be a lengthy commute by subway; and if you hate to wait 40 minutes for the subway at 1 in the morning, plan on a 20 to 40 dollar taxi ride.

Getting around in Portland is easy.....
Portland, on the other hand, is a breeze to get around. Everything seems close, and whether you take the streetcar, or walk, or drive on the well connected freeways, you can get anywhere in a flash. But more importantly, it's within the realm of possibility to live downtown! My location is convenient to everything imaginable. I can walk to Portland State University, where I teach; it takes me 3 minutes to get from my apartment to my office. And many music venues are within walking distance, like Jimmy Mak's, and the Camillia Lounge. The home of the Oregon Symphony, The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, is a 5 minute walk from my apartment. (If you can afford to live next to Carnegie Hall in New York, then you must either be in a rent controlled building, or be related to J.P. Morgan.....)

The great Herbie Hancock
So it was a thrill this morning to walk for five minutes and be able to check out the rehearsal for this evening's Oregon Symphony performance. Tonight's concert(for which I have tickets) is going to feature Herbie Hancock playing George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", as well as a piece called "Sonrisa", and probably some solo piano tunes to be announced. Additionally, Conductor Gregory Vajda will lead the orchestra in renditions of Gershwin's Lullaby for String Orchestra and some reworkings of Ellington's "The Nutcracker Suite" and something called "The Essential Ellington", which is probably a medley of favorite tunes. Darrell Grant, my PSU colleague, organized a group of students to check out this morning's rehearsal, so I tagged along.

Paul Whiteman: "King Of Jazz, or Oliver Hardy's double?"
I've never played Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", but as a kid, I listened quite a bit to the Leonard Bernstein version, the 1959 recording with the Columbia Symphony. So I basically know the piece. It was originally written for the Paul Whiteman band in 1924. Whiteman was the so-called "King Of Jazz", although he didn't improvise and his band played watered down written arrangements of popular tunes. Gershwin is known for a wealth of tin pan alley tunes, but this work is one that people use an example of Gershwin's "serious" concert work. It is considered one of the most popular concert works in today's repertoire, for sure. I think it's a great piece, although some of it is a little gimmicky, in terms of showy piano athleticism and corny "jazz" licks. Be that as it may, I was curious to see Hancock, one of my all time musical inspirations, play this piece.

Could Brendal sit in with Miles?
During the rehearsal, what really struck me was that Hancock, who was classical trained as a boy and played Mozart with the Chicago Symphony at age 11, was able to step back into the world of "playing the ink" after a lifetime of being one of the greatest improvisers in jazz. Hancock is over 70 years old, and many folks his age are riding around on golf carts in Florida instead of appearing with orchestras playing finger-busters like "Rhapsody in Blue". I couldn't help wondering if a classical musician could jump into the opposite world with such ease; could Alfred Brendel jump up and sit in with the Miles Davis Quintet? I hesitate to jump into a classical musician versus jazz musician debate here (that could be another post), however, let's just agree that Hancock is more than rising to the occasion.

I know Hancock's playing very well, but I was also struck by the fact that if I wasn't aware that Hancock was playing, there's no way I could have guessed that it was Hancock. Hancock isn't "jazzing" it up at all, he's basically playing it like Gershwin wrote it, although there was one point in the rehearsal where a percussive phrase was followed by a space, where Herbie almost seemed to muse, "wow, this feels like a jazz gig!" To be sure, "Rhapsody in Blue" falls into the category of "jazz influenced concert music." It's not jazz, at least in my humble view. Hancock has done so many different things in his career, that in some ways, this is no surprise. As identifiable as Hancock's piano improvisation is, his influences and tastes run the gamut. Hancock is the kind of musician who makes me believe that one day we will have no genres and no boundaries. There won't be a "classical" department or a "jazz"department. Music will just be music, good or bad.

Hancock and the Oregon Symphony did a satisfying run through, and then went back through the score and touched on some spots. Then they looked at "Sonrisa", a melody which was reworked into a tune called "Trust Me." on the album "Feets Don't Fail Me Now". Here's what I believe is the original, from a great solo piano record that Hancock did in Japan:

And here's the way he re-used it:
The Oregon Symphony was essentially sight-reading an orchestration of this piece, which probably sounded great on the computer during it's conception, but the orchestra had some trouble with the "modern" syncopation. After a second run through, the "groove" smoothed out a bit. I couldn't help but think that it was weird that the percussion section was on the opposite end of the stage from the basses and low brass.( This would never happen in a jazz band; can you imagine Ron Carter being on the opposite side of the stage from Tony Williams?)Still, I'm looking forward to hearing the Symphony in concert; they seem like a fine orchestra and I'll have more to report after tonight's concert.


  1. George I really enjoy reading your blog. The one time I visited Portland I loved it. Now that I'm thinking about leaving New York (for all the reasons that you mention), I am not considering Portland because of the rain.

    As amazing as Herbie is I wonder if he might have been even better if he stuck to one thing. Just a thought.

  2. Your comments in both this and Part 2 are mostly thoughtful and well-taken. But your comment about Paul Whiteman ("his band played watered down written arrangements of popular tunes") is unfair and uninformed.

    Whiteman was the most commercially successful bandleader of the 1920s. As a result of this, he hired some of the best arrangers of the time (e.g., Bill Challis, William Grant Still, Don Redman, Tom Satterfield, Lenny Hayton) to write charts that in some cases were blatantly uncommercial. (I played some of this music under the late Richard Sudhalter's baton in the 1980s; it's still remarkable.) It was in the same spirit that Whiteman commissioned "Rhapsody in Blue" from Gershwin 1n 1924.

    He also hired great jazz soloists (e.g., Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Jack Teagarden), paid them well, and featured them extensively.

    For decades, it was fashionable for jazz people to badrap Whiteman, but Gunther Schuller took a more enlightened view in his jazz books, and Whiteman is now getting the credit he deserves in American musical history.

  3. I am aware of much of what you say. I wasn't meaning to be unfair to Whiteman. Still, the stuff I have heard is very arranged and lacks the "hot" feeling of people like Duke Ellington, or Fletcher Henderson, or Armstrong. But I will admit that I haven't heard that much of Whiteman's stuff.

    Also, just because he was commercially successful doesn't mean he was the greatest musician of his time. If that meant anything, I'd be teaching a course on Slim Whitman, Katy Perry and Kenny G at PSU.

    It was a poor choice of words. I have no intention of badmouthing Whiteman and I knew that he had hired a lot of the "jazz" cats. But I do think that it is weird that Whiteman was known as the "King Of Jazz" as a non improviser?

    Whiteman's place in the history of early jazz is somewhat controversial.[1] Detractors suggest that Whiteman's ornately-orchestrated music was jazz in name only (lacking the genre's improvisational and emotional depth), and co-opted the innovations of black musicians.[1] Defenders note that Whiteman's fondness for jazz was genuine (he worked with black musicians as much as was feasible during an era of racial segregation),[1] that his bands included many of the era's most esteemed white jazz musicians, and argue that Whiteman's groups handled jazz admirably as part of a larger repertoire.[2] In his autobiography, Duke Ellington[3] declared, "Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity."

  4. Furthermore, while it's great that he hired "real" jazz musicians, that still doesn't mean that his music was jazz. I'm a jazz musician, and I've worked in lots of situations that weren't jazz just because I was on the gig. I saw Brian Blade play with SEAL. That doesn't make SEAL a jazz musician. Sting hired Kenny Kirkland, Branford Marsalis, Omar Hakim, and Daryl Jones in the 80's. And paid them well and featured them a lot. ( I saw them live in 1985.) It doesn't make Sting a jazz musician.

  5. I don't mean to sound defensive, but I don't like to be accused of being unfair or uninformed. Worse, I don't to actually BE uninformed.

    I admit most of what I've heard is from youtube, and that stuff is not that jazzy. Bill, do you have anything I can hear? Can you send me some files? Please inform me!

  6. I did know that Jimmy Lunceford has some association with Whiteman, maybe he studied with Whiteman? I can't remember from the Lunceford bio I read last year. It's a Denver connection....

  7. This may spawn a blog of it's own....

  8. Wow! Where to begin?

    First, if you have access to the 4-CD BIG BAND JAZZ: FROM THE BEGINNINGS TO THE FIFTIES (Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, now out-of-print but available in many libraries), check out Paul Whiteman's "Changes" and "Lonely Melody," both arranged by Bill Challis, who was one of THE arrangers of the era, and Benny
    Carter's idol.

    Second, get Gunther Schuller's indispensable book EARLY JAZZ and read a long footnote on Whiteman (p. 192). It includes this: "There is in the best Whiteman performances a feeling and a personal sound as unique in its way as Ellington's or Basie's. It was just not based on a jazz conception. For this we cannot automatically condemn it."

    In that same book, there's an interview with the black bandleader George Morrison, who grew up with Whiteman in Denver. That's probably what you're referring to.

    Last, bear in mind that the word "jazz" in the 1920s (the so-called "Jazz Age") was used much more loosely than it is now. In the loosest sense, it simply meant a kind of peppy popular music. Jazz as we now think of it was more likely to be called "hot music."

  9. I have Early Jazz, but honestly, it's so academic that I hard a hard time getting past the first few chapters. It's sitting right here, I'll take a look.

    That's a great point about the word jazz. I think it's still used loosely. Is Kenny G "jazz"? Is "SADE" jazz? Is Norah Jones "Jazz"? I even question whether Diana Krall is jazz, but that might be another story.

  10. The ever-astute Duke Ellington had a couple of relevant things to say about "What is jazz?":

    "There are only two kinds of music--good music and the other kind."

    “‘Jazz’ is only a word and really has no meaning. We stopped using it in 1943. To keep the whole thing clear, once and for all, I don’t believe in categories of any kind.”


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