Classical: Swinging with Grieg

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
CROSSING THE stylistic divide from hot jazz to so-called classical music is yesterday's news. Gershwin started the ball rolling before the Second World War, and years later Leonard Bernstein joined forces with Louis Armstrong. And that was just that start of it. Now ace-trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is plying his trade with all manner of innovative gestures, centring this year on the century-old genius of Duke Ellington. Tuesday's Barbican concert served us Ellington more or less neat (excepting for "Mood Indigo", where Marsalis became his inimitable self), but on Wednesday night the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra joined forces with the London Symphony Orchestra for a two-hour programme that settled their differences once and for all. The 1998 winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, Paul Mann, conducted, and the first half alternated movements from Grieg's verdant Peer Gynt with Ellington's ochre-tinted arrangements of the same music.

Mann's suggestion of "a musical juxtaposition" rather than "a musical duel" was justified, except that there was rather more to the contrast than a change of idiom. Ellington's work takes Grieg as his starting point, playing on basic themes and harmonies, then setting off on his own individualistic trail. "Morning" becomes sand-brushed and sultry (appropriate enough for an evocation of the Sahara) and "Solvejg's Song" shifts from sad soliloquy to swing.

Marsalis explained how the blues traditionally tries to conquer grief by "surviving" in style, which would no doubt have interested Grieg. As for the similarities, there's the tune - and that's about it. Mann drew a warm-textured performance from the LSO's strings for "The Death of Ase", while Marsalis intensified the climax with touching narration, but when Ellington took over, a tender dialogue with dying became a Harlem funeral procession. "Anitra's Dance" swung unashamedly; if Grieg had been in the hall of this Mountain King, Norwegian music would have changed forever. Mann and the LSO followed with a somewhat "squarer" band of trolls, and the boys from Lincoln Center raised the alarm with vigorous shouting.

The concert's second half featured "fusion" Ellington arrangements that suggested a trip to Harlem made via Pinewood Studios and the London Palladium. Don't get me wrong: the concept itself is laudable enough and, given adequate time, could even work. But the manifest encounter between the LCJO and LSO reminded me of the polite enthusiasm that strangers express when they have just met but aren't quite sure what to say. It is naive to imagine that collaborating bands take any less time to "bed in" than individual players who need to acclimatise or adapt to each other.

"Afro Bossa (Bula)" approximated an abbreviated Bolero and "Blue in Blueprint" wouldn't have been out of place in a Pink Panther movie. "Happy Go Lucky Local" started out like the soundtrack to Psycho, and as for "A Tone Parallel to Harlem", the pounding heart of Ellington's original seemed heavily sedated. There were happy moments when an LSO trombonist was answered by a LCJO counterpart, or an orchestral bassist gave Lincoln Center's Rodney Whitaker a taste of his own medicine; but in other respects the clash of styles was too incongruous. Sorry, but some traditions take generations to blend and Wednesday night's second half was something of a generation gap in sound.