The Crossover Craze

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

My favorite American "classical" composer is George Gershwin. He was the first "crossover" composer and, to me at least, the best. He wrote great long-form music based in jazz and the blues, using beautiful, original melodies; breathtaking, original harmonies; vitally original rhythms. The results - a Gershwin sound that is unique and compelling.

I wish Gershwin had written more, but his success-to-failure ratio can't be beat by composers who lived twice as long and who wrote ten times as much. The only long work by Gershwin I have ever heard that I didn't care to hear again was an opera called "Blue Monday."

There have been many other composers since the end of Gershwin's all-too-brief life who have tried to cross over from popular and jazz to "serious" music, as well as some classical musicians who have experimented in the other direction. Judging by the large number of new releases devoted to crossover composers and artists which have come out recently, it seems we are undergoing a crossover craze. I welcome it with open ar... ears!

"Lights," Action, Music!

My first choice of the new batch is a French CD imported by Qualiton called "Lumieres: Messe Baroque du 21e Siecle" ("Lights: Baroque Mass for the 21st Century") by Jacques Loussier. Loussier, who once served as the piano accompanist for Charles Aznavour, is best known for his Play Bach recordings of the 1960s and early '70s in which his trio jazzed up many of the works of the famous baroque composer. The best of Play Bach is available on a CD called, believe it or not, "The Best of Play Bach," recorded digitally in December 1984 on the Chrysalis label.

The Loussier "Mass" is highly rhythmic, reminiscent of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." It mixes baroque treatment with romantic melodies and modern jazz and rock beats - and it all works together beautifully. This is the best new contemporary composition I have heard in a long time.

Sung in Latin and French by contra-tenor James Bowman, soprano Deborah Rees, and the Patrick Marco Vocal Ensemble, Lumieres is performed with the Orchestre Harmonia Nova under the direction of Jean-Pierre Wallez. It is hard to understand the words, but the Credo section sounds like it is in English with the chorus repeating "Let's go home!" over and over again. That can't be right, of course, but the program notes do not provide the text.

Loussier said that his 1986 work was the result of his own pagan impulses, the expression of his own personal philosophy. "I wanted those who hear Lumieres to feel uplifted, even the non-believers. I wanted to write music which would exalt the spirit and bring people nearer to God." Well I'm one non-believer who felt uplifted, though I don't know about being any closer to God. I highly recommend this CD in any case!

"To Hope: A Celebration"

I'm less enthusiastic about Dave Brubeck's "To Hope: A Celebration - A Mass in the Revised Roman Ritual" which has just been issued on Telarc, although I enjoy this piece in parts. To Hope exhibits much of the same vitality and rhythm as the Loussier work, with even more of a popular/jazz influence. But the melodies do not reflect Brubeck at his best.

Part of the problem: Can any mass, even a celebratory one, sound serious which makes you want to dance? There may be an incompatibility between the nature of a mass and the nature of jazz, and this is much more evident in the Brubeck than in the Loussier. The parts of To Hope which are less jazzy and more traditional also seem less original and more boring.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet is featured in this recording, with Dave himself on piano; Bobby Militello, Saxophone; Jack Six, bass; and Randy Jones, drums. Russell Gloyd conducts the Cathedral Choral Society Chorus and Orchestra. The soloists are Shelley Waite, soprano; Mark Bleeke, tenor; and Kevin Deas, bass-baritone. Samuel Bonds leads the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir.

I don't know how moved you will be by "To Hope." But it sure affected the composer. Brubeck decided to become a Catholic as he was completing the composition.

"Across Your Dreams"

Another new Telarc release features opera star Frederica von Stade singing the music of Dave and Chris Brubeck. It is called "Across Your Dreams" and includes son Chris on trombone, electric and acoustic bass, and piano; as well as Dan Brubeck on percussion. Wife Iola was responsible for some of the lyrics, as were Bill Crofut, Susan Dias and Alastair Reid. In addition to the beautiful voice of von Stade, vocalists include Jenny Elkus, Bill Crofut, Chris Brubeck and Joel Brown.

This CD makes for very pleasant listening. It presents a new vocal version of one of Dave's most famous compositions, "Blue Rondo à la Turk," as well as other familiar instrumental Brubeck tunes set to words.

"Stories of the Danube"

Joe Zawinul, one of the founders of the jazz-rock group Weather Report, has written his first symphony, a programmatic work called "Stories of the Danube," just released on Philips.

A collection of ten movements, the music follows the course of the Danube from its source to its end in the Black Sea. This piece, too, consists of a wide variety of stylistic elements - from romantic and modern, through folk and world music, to waltzes, new age and jazz. But none of it works for me.

As we approach the Black Sea, there is more and more Arabic-like chanting, which I find hard to take, as appropriate as it might be to the score. The section called "Unknown Soldier" uses voice recordings from World War II, which comes off as gimmicky and distracting. Good concept, I'd say, but I had to force myself to put this CD on more than once.

Nevertheless, keep 'em comin' and I'll keep a' listenin'. If this crossover craze continues much longer, I'll soon be writing about the Sting Symphony, the Kiss Concerto or Bette Midler's "Midsummer Night's Dream."

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