5 Classical-Jazz Crossover Albums to Check Out

Here's a guest post by composer, percussionist, writer, and resident music omnivore Kevin Laskey (Princeton '12). Enjoy the recommendations and check out his other writings on music at his website!

People like to talk about how “crossover” is the big new thing in jazz right now. But in reality, “crossover” – especially with European classical music – has been part of the jazz vocabulary since, well, the term jazz was invented. Scott Joplin was classically trained and notated all his music. Then there was George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody and Blue” written for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Then Duke Ellington made the Nutcracker and Peer Gynt swing. Then there was all of that Third Stream mumbo-jumbo in the ’,50s and ’60s with Gunther Schuller and George Russell…

Well, it’s pretty clear that jazz-classical crossover music is hardly a new phenomenon. But I will say that there hasn’t been such a conducive environment for it as there is now. With more and players versed in both traditions, it’s easier to pull off the tricky combinations of swung and straight rhythms, and improvised and notated sections, that posed too great a challenge for earlier crossover experiments (like Milton Babbit’s “All Set” – a serialist big band piece that clunks along like a rickety Rube Goldberg machine). Below you can find five really good jazz-classical crossover albums where spontaneity and notated complexity exist in perfect (though not necessarily consonant) harmony.

1. Anthony Braxton – Willisau (Quartet) 1991

Anthony Braxton is as good a person as any to begin a jazz-classical crossover survey. After coming up through the Chicago avant-garde scene spearheaded by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Braxton developed a unique musical system where various musical phrases can be layered freely on top of each other by the musicians.

While Braxton has explored this technique through large pieces like operas, perhaps the best place to start is with his home base quartet of the 1980s and ’90s, featuring Marilyn Crispell on piano, Mark Dresser on bass, and Gerry Hemmingway on drums – all of whom have become well-respected bandleaders themselves. And while their output as a group is immense, my favorite place to start is their 1991 live album recorded in Willisau, Poland. The first words that come to mind when listening to this music are dense and uncompromising. There’s little danceable groove here, and even less tonality. But the music has a real vibrancy that makes you want to drop everything and try to figure out how all the parts fit together.

Each of the players have a keen sense of texture – Crispell paints with Messiean-esque sonorities in the upper range of the piano, Dresser adds in eerie bass harmonics, and Hemmingway makes each drum stroke count, creating a rich canvass for Braxton’s various woodwinds to traverse. While improvisation is the name of the game here, all of the instrumental textures pop out as if they were orchestrated with the exactitude of Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov. Because each band member is playing a unique and industrial-strength melody, it’s fun to pick one out and follow it for a while – like a line in one of Pollock’s splatter paintings – before bringing one’s focus back to the full texture. Braxton’s music is full of hidden mysteries and is a wonderfully satisfying listen for someone willing to have a little patience.

2. Kneebody & Theo Bleckmann – Twelve Songs by Charles Ives (2009)

What do you get when you put a cutting edge jazz-funk unit in the same room as a singer who’s done everything from cabaret to the extended techniques of Meredith Monk? A collection of deconstructed Charles Ives songs, of course!

Ok, so maybe that wasn’t so obvious. Charles Ives’s music has been called many things, but I don’t think funky is one of them.

Anyway, this crossover project came out of a collaboration between Kneebody saxophonist/bassoonist Ben Wendel and awesome-haired conductor Kent Nagano, who invited Wendel to program some concerts for the Munich Opera Festival in Germany. While Bleckmann and the boys of Kneebody add plenty of fat beats and cosmic textures, the project is hardly a hatchet job. Instead of blowing up each song from the inside, the arrangements treat each song as a jumping-off point for improvised explorations. There aren’t improvised solos in the traditional jazz sense here, but each musician freely adds to the mix, creating soundworlds that emanate organically from Ives’s mysterious and pastoral tunes.

The emotional range of these reinterpretations is astounding. “The Cage,” about a travelling circus, is a surreal jam – think Dali meets the Grateful Dead. Then there’s “In the Mornin’,” a hymn that feels like the musicians are summoning ghosts from New Englands passed. This project is a true update of Ives’s songs for the 21st century, seamlessly blending classic Americana with the most modern textures.

3. Ken Thomson & Slow/Fast – It Would Be Easier If (2010)

25 years ago, three young composers named Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe founded a new musical collective called “Bang on a Can,” dedicated to presenting their new music in new ways. Now, Bang on a Can is one of the major players in contemporary classical music, with their own record label, yearly musical marathons at the World Financial Center in Manhattan, and a festival in the summer arts hub of western Massachusetts. While the most defining feature of Bang on a Can’s aesthetic is a rock-ish edge on heavily notated concert music, many improvising musicians have fallen into their large fold of composers and ensembles.

Saxophonist & clarinetist Ken Thomson is one of the most conspicuous of these improvising Bang on a Can personalities. He co-directs the in-house marching band known as the Asphalt Orchestra and plays in the oft-associated chamber orchestra Signal. His punk-jazz outfit Gutbucket is one of the few improvising acts on Bang on a Can’s record label. Yet Thomson distills his diverse musical experiences into a most potent brew with his quintet Slow/Fast on their album It Would Be Easier If.

The five pieces on the album all bear the hallmarks of Bang on a Can-era chamber music. There’s raucous, metallic energy plastered over “Goddamn You Ice Cream Truck,” and gorgeous rich tonalities reminiscent of Eno and the major minimalists on “Kleine Helmet” and “No, No, No.” But what makes this album so special is how Thomson and his bandmates effortlessly blend these contemporary classical sounds with improvisation. On the aforementioned “Goddamn You Ice Cream Truck,” Thomson and trumpeter Russ Johnson navigate a wild double helix melody, before throwing guitarist Nir Felder off a cliff and letting him improvise his way back to terra firma. “No, No, No” is a placid, four-part chorale shaped by drummer Fred Kennedy’s swirling solo. On this album, Thomson articulates an exciting vision of 21st century Third Stream music that synthesizes the best of Bang on a Can aesthetics and contemporary improvisation.

4. Joel Harrison String Ensemble – The Music of Paul Motian (2011)

Rivaling Ken Thomson in the musical range category is guitarist Joel Harrison. Harrison has a real knack for creating concept albums that transcend their concept. He’s done a Harrison-on-George Harrison tribute, and a couple of albums of country-jazz mashups, all while churning out a steady stream of varied chamber music – his Indian-influenced marimba piece “Fear of Silence” won the top composition prize from the Percussive Arts Society in 2007. Harrison obviously has a ton of musical reference points across genres and traditions and his big ears and imagination serve him very well on his recent concept album “The Music of Paul Motian.”

While most casual jazz fans would recognize Paul Motian as the drummer from pianist Bill Evans’s classic trio, he later developed a distinct compositional voice, writing simple, folk-ish tunes shrouded in unfathomable mysteries. While Motian performed as a drummer and composed at the piano (after having taken some lessons with Keith Jarrett), he had a real interest in the sound of strings, namely guitars, and mentored players from Bill Frisell to Kurt Rosenwinkel to Ben Monder. Harrison uses Motian’s guitar-centric aesthetic as a jumping off point, arranging Motian’s tunes for a string quartet augmented by two electric guitars.

The result is a heavenly blend of rustic folk, chamber music, and improvisation. The opening track “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago” opens this musical universe with a melody both flowing and rock-solid, warmly inviting the listener in and never letting go. But there’s more than just aching lyricism in these arrangements. Harrison’s arrangement of “Misterioso,” one of Motian’s favorite Thelonius Monk tunes, is bracing and jocular. Cellist Dana Leong digs in with such ferocity here that you barely miss Motian’s incisive drumming. And then there’s violist Mat Maneri’s solo on the plaintive “Etude” – a study in swoops and warbles that seems to draw its own oxygen. In this loving tribute to a revered player, composer, and mentor, Harrison is able to seamlessly knit Motian’s tunes into a through-composed tapestry – one that stands up as a major musical statement in its own right.

5. Craig Taborn – Avenging Angel (2011)

The most salient feature of the previous four jazz-classical crossover albums is how they all seamlessly blend notated music and improvisation. On Craig Taborn’s solo piano disc, Avenging Angel, there were no written parts to work – just him, a nice grand piano, and Manfred Eicher’s pristinely-calibrated ECM microphones to pick up the sound.

If the music is all improvised, how is this jazz-classical crossover you ask? There’s no improvising in classical music[1]!

First of all, all of these improvisations cohere as if they are through composed. Taborn usually begins with a simple motive and puts them through the developmental grinder, just like a classical composer, but in real time.

Second of all, there’s a ton of crazy counterpoint. You don’t get much more classical-y than counterpoint.

Third of all, the sounds and styles of each improvisation come as much from the modern classical tradition as from jazz. The opening track “The Broad Day King” features a repeating single note figure reminiscent of post-minimalism. The thin, spacious sonorities of “Diamond Turning Dream” immediately bring to mind the music of Morton Feldman. And like any texturally-savvy composer, Taborn explores the varieties of touch on the keyboard, showing how each note can have a multitude of expressive effects. Like all the crossover albums before it, Taborn’s “Avenging Angel” has sounds for fans of both styles – a real rhythmic drive and sense of spontaneity on one hand, and a keen sense of architecture on the other.

[1] Yeah I know about Bach and Mozart and all those folks, and Zorn and Cage now, but it really has fallen out of fashion.