There have been various attempts to merge jazz into the classical music tradition, and oh how goofy most have been. It’s not a lack of talent or poor intentions that have doomed these various enterprises—it’s just a very daunting task. Classical ensembles that approach jazz sometimes get its shell but almost never its soul. And jazz players seeking to get classical usually seem to be merely fancying up their music with string quartet fussiness or pretense.
For the fusion to work well, you’d have to have a jazz guy with a deep and unique sense of composition or a classical musician with decades of improvisation in his soul.
And now we have the Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet.
Mr. Horvitz has been a pianist associated with some of the most interesting “downtown” avant-garde music since the early 1980s. He has played a little bit of everything—from cartoon/jump-cut music with John Zorn to soundtrack music with comrade Bobby Previte to clever garage rock with his own band Zony Mash. And since he moved to the West from NY a while ago, he has been composing classical chamber music too. This work, however, is a perfectly balanced project of deeply felt chamber jazz for trumpet, bassoon, cello, and piano. With both exquisite composition and passionate improvisation, this is one of finest works of 2006.
The overall tone of Way Out East is gentle and contemplative even while the project feels risky and dangerous. The tempos are slow and the feeling is pastoral and impressionistic, as would seem fitting a chamber group of this instrumentation. But the compositions are neither easy nor sweet—featuring plenty of modern dissonance and shifting tempos. As a result, the classical fussiness that some “third stream jazz” courts is expelled from the start. Mr. Horvitz’s tunes and conception is piquant and dark even as the music seems to hold great open spaces for the listener to fill with his or her own feelings.
The improvising is not always obvious. Ron Miles’s trumpet at times sounds like a jazz soloist, riding over a cushion of accompaniment, but this is the exception. More often, as on the atmospheric “Between Here and Heaven”, the instruments pulse and flutter over a tonal center in what could be scripted sound or embellishment. Whether improvised or not, it is queerly beautiful. Other songs are more obviously notated, but they contain long passages of rhythmic relativity that feel jazzy and loose. “Berlin 1914” is a lovely waltz that seems to make room for a piano solo—but Mr. Horvitz sounds more like Erik Satie than Bud Powell here, making it perfectly possible that his playing was predetermined. The solo statement by Peggy Lee’s cello on the same tune is played out of time and in a gorgeously vocalized tone—either a kind of avant-garde jazz or a statement in a 20th century classical style, but either way as dramatic and tension-producing as a Brando monologue.
Classical listeners may hear strains of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” in the prattle between trumpet and cello and bassoon here, and jazz listeners will find much in common with various elements of the “nu jazz” (avant use of some synthesizers) or with the European styles associated with Misha Mengelberg and his ICP Orchestra (on “Reveille”, say). But I think most listeners will find something mostly new here—a fully consistent program that nevertheless keeps shifting the balance of its elements.
Let’s look carefully at “You Were Just Here”. The opening piano phrase sounds positively Monk-ian, with a stride-swing to it that comes back again and again. The woodwinds harmonize like voices in alternation with the piano—suggesting both the moan of blues and the careful structure of classical chamber music. The piano seems to take an improvised solo, yet the solo itself interlocks perfectly with a series of accompanying statements by trumpet and bassoon that make you wonder whether any of the piece is spontaneous. A trumpet statement is torn-off like jazz, without question. The whole is elastic but not swinging, measured but hardly classical. “World Peace and Quiet” is even more intriguing. Here Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon seems to improvise after a jabbering but plainly written opening. The bassoon statement, however, soon blends into a contrapuntal ensemble that sounds thoroughly composed. The washes of group sound that pulse beneath the bassoon later have no relation to the “rhythm section” sound of jazz, even if they are producing a similar result.
In the end, Mr. Horvitz’s Gravitas Quartet is more chamber than swing, but it would seem to be the kind of classical music that could never have existed without bebop, Coltrane, and—well—Wayne Horvitz. Perhaps it doesn’t fuse or span genres as much as it defies them, proving again that great art becomes its own category.
Mainly I know this: I want to hear this music again and again, and each time it glides amidst a different set of complex human feelings. It’s soothing and disturbing in varying degrees, and it seems to make my heart and my brain happy. Whatever kind of music fan you may be, you should consider making room for this adventurous statement from a great American composer.