Strings with jazz?
Many listeners think that this hybrid emerged in the 50s, when Charlie Parker first cushioned his cyclonic alto improvisations with a complement of violins but in fact, the idea dates back to Paul Whiteman’s orchestra of the late 20s, making it almost as old as jazz itself. It has had a speckled history (at best): the intent has almost always been to “sweeten” or “ennoble” jazz’s gritty textures, using lushly arranged string sections or entire symphonic orchestras, and you can count on both hands those attempts that rise above mediocrity to create something memorable.
But a few jazz musicians, and even some classical composers, have worked with a smaller palette, combining horn improvisations with string quartet to an inversely greater effect. The attractiveness of such a fusion jumps out at anyone familiar with both formats: the string quartet is classical music’s equivalent of the basic jazz trio, in the sense that each exists as a compact, flexible self contained combo. And certainly, these earlier efforts by such giants as Bill Russo (writing for Lee Konitz), Max Roach, and more recently Steve Turre have set the stage for this latest attempt by the Chicago reedman Jim Gailloreto. (So has Chamber Blues, the expanded string quartet led by Gailloreto’s friend, the harmonica wizard Corky Siegel; for that matter, the String Quartets of Beethoven, and the earlier chamber ensembles of Mozart, have also helped shape Gailloreto’s thinking.)
But to my ear, no one has written string quartet music with such a firm grasp of both traditions. No jazz musician has dived so deep into the translucent pools of tonal color unique to the string quartet; on the other hand, no composer has shaped the structures and layered the phrases of the string quartet to so successfully accommodate full tilt improvisation. Go back to those early Charlie Parker recordings to hear how far we’ve come; Gailloreto’s writing integrates the horn and the strings in ways that Parker and more to the point, the writers hired to invent his string arrangements could only have dreamed about.
Then again, when it comes to the subject of musical invention, I’ve come to believe that Jim Gailloreto is always to be trusted.
In the first album under his own name (The Insider), the Chicago saxophonist used contemporary rhythms and altered harmonies to energize the standard modern jazz quintet. Then, on Shadow Puppets (his debut recording for the Naim label), he did a 180: with unfamiliar timbres and unorthodox compositional techniques, he forced himself out of the box and into a deep exploration of the creative process. (If you think that sounds a little mystical, you should hear the music.) And now, in expanding his reach to include the traditional string quartet of western classical music, he offers subtle yet significant alterations to produce a repertoire guaranteed to once again make people sit up and take note.
Many composers are all but hypnotized by the very sound of the violin family: the ancient, vocal, now passionate, now austere timbre of stringed instruments the world over. Gailloreto appreciates those sonorities as well as any. But he has a great deal more on his plate.
Start with the opening track, “Witch Hunt,” one of Wayne Shorter’s iconic compositions of the 1960s. Gailloreto plays the jaunty (but slightly eerie) theme on soprano sax, framed by a polyphonic bouquet in the strings. Bass lines, countermelodies, and ensemble passages twine around the melody, then in and out of Gailloreto’s subsequent solo, stretching the quartet to its full range from the cello’s low pizzicato to the violins’ trebly chords. The strings complement the soloist; all is right with the world. But then, about four and a half minutes into the performance, Gailloreto turns the tables. The saxophone plays a rolling repeated figure (in musical parlance, an ostinato), which underlies a section of thematic development for the strings. This leads to a return of the original melodic material, but now, it is the saxophone providing the accompaniment, instead of the other way around.
What a perfect introduction to the purpose of this project: to create a real fusion of jazz and classical techniques, as opposed to just soloist plus strings. And you can apply similar analysis to every piece here; each one will stand up to the scrutiny. Gailloreto’s medium throughout is the Chicago based HAWK Quartet, which gets its name from the first letters of its members’ surnames (Hughes, Agnor, Wedge, Kaeding). With these musicians, Gailloreto has crafted a chamber quintet that Debussy or Stravinsky could have utilized, but one that also yields fully to the different needs and responsibilities of an improvising medium.
Consider especially his extended suites: “Justina With Strings,” and “Spare Change” (the latter inspired by the sight of a homeless panhandler). Gailloreto refers to these as examples of “portrait writing,” in which he tries “to create a three dimensional musical portrait of a person’s entire life from birth to infancy to childhood, all the magic that happens, the beauty of it all, then the love and pain as one grows older and in the end, a sense of the beauty that took place.”
“Justina” has had a long and varied history, and remains a vital piece of Gailloreto’s musical life. The piece originally appeared in the repertoire of the Portable Quintet, the jazz band Gailloreto co led in the 80s; in fact, it served as the group’s extended signature piece. Later, when asked if he had any music to submit to the Revolution Ensemble (a genre bending Chicago orchestra that has also helped shape the music heard here), Gailloreto immediately lied “Yes”; almost as immediately thought of “Justina”; and went home to adapt the piece to strings, under the mentorship of the well respected composer and arranger Cliff Colnot. The result? An almost monumental piece of music: a loosely programmatic epic that dominates this recording in terms of both length and impact.
One more collaboration enhances this music’s solid pedigree in both the jazz and classical worlds the presence of vocalist Kurt Elling, who in fact introduced to Gailloreto both of the pieces on which he appears. Elling is no stranger to the demimonde of art songs, the semi operatic meeting of poetry and music that thrived throughout the 19th century in salons and recital halls: he regularly includes poetry in his live performances, sometimes set to music and sometimes as recitation, and in 2005 he was the mouthpiece for Walt Whitman on Fred Hersch’s song cycle recording Leaves Of Grass. “Universal Soul” proves especially powerful. On this track, Elling sings Coleman Barks’s translation of a short work by the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi; in the middle of the performance, they open up the piece, as Elling interpolates a second Rumi poem, with Gailloreto’s improvised commentary.
I’ve listened through to this album more than a dozen times now, and almost every encounter brings new insights, as well as renewed admiration for the nuts and bolts and the fine filigrees that mark Gailloreto’s craftsmanship. (And don’t even get me started on the essentially perfect pacing; to get an idea of what I mean, just listen to how “Shadow Puppets” picks up on “Fair Weather,” then washes into “Infant Eyes” in the program’s midsection.) That kind of precision and detail alone would recommend the music herein. But in a career extending back more than a quarter century, this Chicago saxist has never contented himself with mere showmanship. So even here, in the most technically ambitious and conceptually intrepid of the three albums under his own name, his virtuosity serves primarily to enhance his greater goal that of telling good stories.
This time, with a few strings attached.