Jazz – Discipline and Spontaneity

“Most of us would say that inventing meaning while letting loose is the essence and promise of jazz.”
– Robert Christgau

From its origins in the African-American community of New Orleans in the late 19th century jazz has evolved into the premiere all-American art form, and has been labeled “America’s classical music.” By the 1920’s the genre had been embraced by the mainstream to such an extent that the Twenties and Thirties were declared “the Jazz Age” by author F. Scott Fitzgerald, and European composers including Stravinsky and Ravel incorporated jazz elements into their work.

Developing from roots in country blues, ragtime, field hollers, and spirituals, jazz music is notoriously difficult to define as it embraces many subgenres, among them Dixieland, swing, bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, free jazz, Afro-Cuban, modal jazz, jazz fusion, post-bop, and Latin jazz. However varied these styles, they do share some commonalities, chief among them an emphasis on live performance and on improvisation. Classical music performance is judged by fidelity to the written score and the composer’s intentions; by contrast jazz is more often characterized by interaction and collaboration in the moment. Less value is placed on the composer’s contribution and more on the individual musician’s interpretations of melodies, harmonies, and time signatures. Whereas classical music recordings strive to capture a definitive performance of a given work, jazz recordings document just one interpretation of a piece at a particular moment in time. Because of its improvisational nature no two jazz interpretations are alike, and there are no absolutes. It’s an art form that finds its purest expression in live performance, such as in the UC San Diego Jazz Camp’s Finale Concert.

UC San Diego Jazz Camp is an annual week-long intensive workshop for students aged 14 and older. Attendees are mentored by a distinguished faculty of music professionals and educators in a variety of jazz-related topics, including theory, composition, improvisation, critical listening, technology, performance practice, and ensemble performance. Students are grouped into ensembles under the tutelage of a faculty member, and rehearse standards and original compositions for the Camp’s Finale Concert before an audience of family, friends, and jazz aficionados. In the process student musicians are introduced to that combination of group interplay and individual expression, of discipline and spontaneity, that is unique to jazz.

Watch Finale Concert Highlights – UC San Diego Jazz Camp 2018

Life-force

The title A Line Broken affirms the simple but profound truth that all things must eventually end, whether a piece of music, a concert, or a human life. One powerful expression of this reality is Courtney Bryan’s remarkable As Yet Unheard, a work for orchestra and chorus that commemorates Sandra Bland’s tragic death in police custody in 2013. Using the text of Sharan Strange’s poem, soprano Helga Davis speaks to us in Bland’s voice, prodding us to relive the circumstances of her death and to seek answers to painful questions too long unasked.

Bryan’s piece is perfectly complimented by Gabriel Faure’s luminous Requiem. The requiem has long been a popular form among composers, and celebrated practitioners of the genre include Mozart, Verdi, Brahms, Berlioz, and Britten. Unlike those of his fellow composers, Faure’s Requiem contains no Sturm und Drang, no thundering crescendos or rallying cries to the deceased. Rather, it’s a gentle, contemplative work, more of a meditation on transience than an exhortation. It contains most of the form’s familiar elements, including mixed chorus and soloists (in this instance baritone Jonathan Nussman and soprano Priti Gandhi), but they are employed in service of an effect that is uniquely Faure’s own. This piece has steadily gained in popularity and the final section, “In Paradisum,” is familiar to many from its use in several films, television programs, and commercials.

Asher Tobin Chodos’ adventurous arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman places a quartet of jazz soloists within a symphonic context. Just as innovator Coleman sought to reframe jazz conventions in an idiosyncratic style, so Chodos’ arrangement seeks to reposition this 1959 work in a modern idiom, one that embraces and even expands upon the challenges of a composition that, in Chodos’ words, “occupies a middle ground between specificity and discrepancy.” Most importantly, this new take on a classic preserve the beauty and immediacy of Coleman’s original.

Rounding out the program is Rand Steiger’s ingenious Template for Improvising Trumpeter & Orchestra. As noted by the title, this piece centers on the talents of virtuoso trumpeter Peter Evans in a performance that is largely (though not entirely) improvised in performance. Evans’ tones are manipulated at times by the composer through digital signal processing, in what amounts to another interdependent and improvised performance; indeed, the watchwords for the entire enterprise are exploration and collaboration.

In his program notes Conductor Steven Schick comments that “Music is the natural medium for life-force,” and in this concert’s seemingly disparate selections we hear that life-force in all of its manifestations.

Watch A Line Broken – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.