MUSIC / The odd couple: As London's Wigmore Hall hosts its first ever jazz series, Phil Johnson reads the banns on an unlikely sounding musical marriage

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Keith Tippett, pianist

Avant-garde jazz musicians are really touching fingers with contemporary classical players'

David Murray, sax player

'Musicians who no longer play clubs are sort of sterile - too much quiche and not enough art'

Alex Balanescu, violinist

'Classical music people use their scores to hide behind . . . You have to forget your training'

Andy Sheppard, sax player

'I don't feel bitter about it, but jazz has never had the respect as an art-form that straight music has'

Reports of the marriage between jazz and classical music - a union about to be consummated (yet again) this weekend with the start of the Julian Joseph Jazz Series at the Wigmore Hall - are likely to produce mixed feelings in the committed jazz fan. Indeed, he may be tempted - despite the undoubted excellence of Joseph as a pianist and of the initiative as a whole - to interrupt the sacred vows with a typically loud and ill-tempered objection.

After all, the engagement hasn't always been a happy one, and the unequal nature of the exchange could well be put to a transfer tribunal: 'Let's see: you get improvisation and the best tunes of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk; we get The Golliwogg's Cakewalk, odd bits by Les Six and a grudging acceptance from Constant Lambert. Oh, and you'll throw in some avant- garde indeterminacy too? Thanks a lot.'

The Joseph programme, which runs throughout October, is mainly jazz musicians playing with each other in the august setting of London's leading chamber music venue, but a number of recent projects reflect the increasing dalliance of the contemporary classical world with jazz. There's the Kronos Quartet, who perform tunes by Thelonius Monk and Ornette Coleman; the saxophonist Jan Garbarek, playing medieval chants with the Hilliard Ensemble on a recent ECM recording; and the pianist Joanna MacGregor, who has played with both Julian Joseph and Django Bates, and who includes tunes by Monk and Nina Simone in her repertoire. There's also Gavin Bryars, an ex-jazz bass player, now enjoying success in the classical charts; the collaborations between the violinist Alex Balanescu and the improvising pianist Keith Tippett; Tippett's own Rare Music Club in Bristol, which presents contemporary classical players alongside free jazz and folk; and the husband- and-wife team of pianist Katia Labeque (sister of Marielle) and jazz guitarist John McClaughlin, as well as many other flirtations.

While it's good to see barriers being broken down, such miscegenation of musical styles inevitably highlights the respective family inheritances on both sides. Jazz is still very much the poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and so clearly on the make. Just think of the dowry: all those subsidies, performance fees and proper rehearsal periods, not to mention potential recording dates (a rarity in British jazz). For the rather fey classical bride, concerned about her ever- greying circle of friends, it's a chance to attract a new, younger crowd and, for the performers, an opportunity to step out on to the edge and live a little ('Tonight we improvise]').

But such flirtations can have a potentially damaging effect on jazz musicians. Before you know it, they want to pack in playing 'Round Midnight' and, like the Scottish tenor sax player Tommy Smith, start writing concertos. And the history of the extended form in jazz is not a happy one. Duke's later sacred concerts, Mingus's posthumously assembled Epitaph and the whole Third Stream movement overseen by Gunther Schuller were by and large deadly dull.

What jazz does best, the committed fan might say, is tunes - song-forms that are then stretched to breaking-point by improvisation. The versions of standards, hoary old Tin Pan Alley show-tunes that have survived a thousand variations, and original jazz songs by Monk, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman and others, are probably the most lasting monuments of the music, and they form the basis for further elaboration by subsequent generations of players.

Longer jazz works (like those of Mingus) are usually stitched together from short riff- and song-based pieces anyway. Give a jazz musician a major festival commission and he normally riffles through his book and produces a collage of pre- existing themes. Only a very few (and very great) jazz composers - like Ellington, George Russell and Mike Westbrook - have really come up with the goods when it comes to extended compositions. And even then, it's probably the improvised solos and the tunes that we remember.

There are some jazz purists who would even see the concert hall itself as a malign influence, taking the musicians away from direct communication with their audience. As the American tenor sax player David Murray puts it: 'To me, musicians who no longer play clubs are sort of sterile. What they do is concertising - too much quiche and not enough art.'

While no one would wish to confine jazz artists exclusively to smoky clubs, the move to the concert hall has certainly produced some jazz that is overly polite. Take the classical trumpet virtuoso and jazz legend Wynton Marsalis. For all his brilliance, a Marsalis performance can be an emotionally underwhelming experience, as he plods earnestly through the history of jazz from the 1920s on, and then stops, usually at about 1960, consigning the last 30 years to oblivion.

For the classical side, the main attraction of the match - apart from a chance to apply some Grecian 2000 to an ageing audience - is the allure of improvisation. As Alex Balanescu says: 'Classical music people use their scores to hide behind. In order to become truly expressive, you have to forget your training, which is always loyal to notation. Through improvisation you can learn a lot about textures, about rhythm and about different kinds of role for the player.' For many classically trained musicians, improvisation is not only difficult but physically painful; throwing the score away can cause all kinds of nervous ailments.

For the jazz musician, what the move into the contemporary classical arena might seem to offer most is a much-needed gig, and probably a better- paid one than he or she normally gets, as well as access to a new audience. The British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, who appears as a guest with Julian Joseph on 10 October, says: 'It's really great that jazz is getting a foot in the door of the Wigmore Hall and it's exciting to be involved, but in terms of funding jazz has always been the poor relation. I don't feel bitter about it, but jazz has never had the respect as an art-form that straight music has. I always thought that the only way I'd get a job with an orchestra would be to write a piece for it, and that's what I'm doing now, writing a concerto for the Orchestra of St John's Smith Square. The good thing about jazz musicians is that we can move easily between different contexts, whereas a string quartet would have a tough time playing Ronnie Scott's'

For Keith Tippett, whose next Rare Music Club season opens in November, working in a contemporary classical context means that, as a composer, he has less room for improvisation - 'because that isn't the players' major skill. But I do feel that over the last few years avant-garde jazz musicians are really touching fingers with contemporary classical players.' He also notes a discrepancy in rehearsal time. 'A piece I wrote for the Composers' Ensemble at Smith Square was 21 minutes long and we got five hours' rehearsal - and they asked me if that was enough. With the Dedication Orchestra (a jazz big band formed in memory of the South African Blue Notes) we don't get that to learn 10 tunes.' Tippett also points out that the Joseph series is not jazz's debut at the Wigmore Hall: 'Stan Tracey and I recorded the album TNT there in 1974.'

Lydia Connolly, of Julian Joseph's classical agents Harrison and Parrott, explains that, though jazz has appeared at the Wigmore before, this is the first time the hall has actively promoted it. The attraction of Joseph, she says, is 'first of all that he is an absolutely outstanding musician. As it happens, classical music presenters are looking for ways of broadening their audiences and attracting a younger public.' It's also significant that Joseph has a major record company behind him (Warner's subsidiary East West), because this promotional clout evidently helps persuade clients that their bookings will get publicised.

For Joseph, who is classically trained and also young enough to have relatively few preconceptions, the move into the classical world seems a natural progression. 'I have an affinity with classical music because I've always loved it. I've grown up with it and studied it, and it was always happening alongside jazz. Now I want to develop my career in the fullest sense, so that I can cover all the areas of quality music that I can. But I'm not going to just rush into it. I'm a jazz musician in my heart, but a jazz musician is more than just a label; things I respect I want to be able to deal with, and I'm preparing myself for that.'

Julian Joseph Jazz Series, Wigmore Hall, London W1 (071-935 2141) 1-30 Oct. Eddie Daniels masterclass today 3.15; Joseph, Daniels and Alec Dankworth in concert Sun 7pm; Joseph, Dankworth and Andy Sheppard Mon 7.30; Joseph and Jason Rebello 16 Oct 7pm; Joseph, Dankworth and Johnny Griffin (not Freddie Hubbard, who is unwell) 30 Oct 7pm

(Photographs omitted)