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by Seth Colter Walls

May 2, 2014

Jazz 101: Third Stream

by Seth Colter Walls  |  May 2, 2014

Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.

Jazz and classical artists were always looking over their respective shoulders at one another. Stravinsky wanted to check out Ellington at the Cotton Club, when Stravinsky first landed in New York. (His hosts weren’t hip to Duke.) Edgard Varese agreed to take Charlie Parker on as a composing student, just before Bird passed away (tragically young). Still, it was only after the cool school of the late '40s struck a few chamber-music poses that the first wave of self-proclaimed jazz-classical cross-pollination was ready to take place in the '50s.

The first concerted effort to embrace both traditions was called Third Stream. It was kick-started by composer, arranger and sometime classical player Gunther Schuller, who wrote tunes that Ornette Coleman soloed on (“Abstraction”) and who also helped finalize and publish some of Charles Mingus’ most ambitious scores (collected and performed as a whole for the first time on 1989’s Epitaph). George Russell -- whose previous work included both collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie and essays that influenced Kind of Blue’s modal approach -- was also one of Third Stream’s major compositional figures; with such wooly, suite-like pieces as “All About Rosie” and “Concerto for Billy the Kid,” he brought classical complexity into the big-band recording session.

Not every Third Stream effort was bitingly difficult, though. Dave Brubeck’s quartet famously employed some classical-inspired time signatures in Time Out, but the mood was relaxed instead of gnarled, a descendant of cool. (The same can be said for Brubeck’s collaboration with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein.)

By the 1970s, though, major jazz composers could blend classical and jazz textures without having to call it any kind of specialized stream. It was both jazz and more than jazz, evidence of artists addressing anything that they wanted. Ornette Coleman’s partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra may have been plagued by stiffness, but Skies of America still sounds like a triumph -- one that spurred on the next generation of adventurous jazz composers. Likewise, Charles Mingus’ late-period chamber-orchestra masterpiece “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive-Ass Slippers” showed how fully integrated modern classical textures had become in jazz. (It also wins “best title ever” honors.) Check out all the polymathic wizardry in the appended playlist.

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