5 Classical Works Jazz Musicians Should Check Out

The first guest post for this blog! The inimitable conductor-composer-poet-librettist-rock-star Matthew Aucoin '12 offers up a couple excellent listening recommendations.

Thanks to Kevin for inviting me to post. At the moment, I conduct and compose more than I play jazz piano (I played mostly jazz in high school), but I still consider myself a jazz musician at heart, and I’m excited to share some favorite “classical” composers (I’m not a fan of the term) that I think will appeal to jazz musicians and aficionados.
What I gained from my years playing jazz is, above all, a deeper understanding of rhythm, a deeper connection to pulse, and a phobia of rhythmic laziness. The lack of attention to rhythm -- to the development of an inescapable inner pulse and a careful study of what feels good -- is, to my mind, the greatest failure of mainstream classical training. Rhythmic flexibility is one of good classical musicians’ strongest assets, but it must arise out of a deeper steadiness; too often, expertly following a conductor substitutes for listening and feeling.
Rather than listing composers who directly influenced, or were directly influenced by, jazz, I wanted to find composers whose sensibility is in tune with some aspect of jazz’s spirit -- whether that means a gift for spontaneity or an intimacy with groove.
You want crossover? Thomas Adès will drag an orchestra of a hundred into a London club and make it rave, bassoons and all. Adès, who made his name in his early twenties (the early 1990’s) with a series of rowdily virtuosic chamber pieces and an opera (Powder Her Face) infamous for an instrumental depiction of fellatio, has proven to be anything but a flash in the pan; he has kept things steadily sizzling since then, with a series of marvelous works for orchestra (including the pithily epic Tevot and a piano concerto, called In Seven Days, conceived in tandem with projected video images), solo instruments, and chamber ensembles. His opera based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one of the best of our century, by turns dazzling and tender, sprawling and intimate.
Adès’s music manifests the workings of a playful, dizzyingly nimble intelligence. On a first listening to an Adès piece, it often seems that someone very eloquent is saying something very important much too quickly to grasp. It sometimes seems that this person is making fun of you. Sit down with a score, and you find that his harmonies wind and melt into each other with intricate, fine-pointed ease; they are often startlingly simple, but so freshly voiced and orchestrated that they sound alien and newly radiant.
“Ecstasio,” the third movement of the orchestral work Asyla (1997), is an ecstasy-fueled voyage into the heart of the son et lumière of a techno club. From the piece’s opening moments -- a chemical tinkling of nerves -- Adès captures a mingling of excitement and terror, a joy that keeps threatening to unhinge. In seven minutes, he dives into the dance floor, has a blast (I’ve always been tempted to put this on at a party, just to see how people move to it), and finally floats into a chilly, serene afterglow, a long shine of overtones. And how cool is it to see (at 4:32) the Berlin Philharmonic rocking out to a straight-up rave pulse?
The great Olivier Messiaen -- organist, transcriber of birdsong, master of religious music ancient and modern, champion of the Ondes Martenot -- was outspokenly anti-jazz. His insistence that jazz is weakened by being bound to a “fixed pulse” still gives me pause. Doesn’t life depend on a fixed pulse? Maybe not the eternal life Messiaen tapped into; his universe is full of tilting, expanding rhythms which hint that they’re just glimpses of phrases longer than any given human life.
But he can be groovy as well as sublime, and the Quartet for the End of Time offers a generous assortment of Messiaen’s many strengths. The title isn’t melodramatic; the piece was written in an internment camp during World War II, and the instrumentation (violin, clarinet, cello, piano) was based on the availability of those instrumentalists in the camp. The Quartet is an eight-movement meditation and exploration of life and death, sometimes communal (as in the first movement), sometimes solitary (the clarinet’s haunting “Abime des oiseaux”), and sometimes for an intimate pair (the “Louange” movements, for cello/piano and violin/piano, respectively). 
Sometimes the quartet lashes out in prophetic terror; sometimes the clarinet seems an eerily detached voice from the next world; but often the longing and searching of Messiaen’s all-but-eternal phrases could only arise from this life. It’s sensual and sacred; it yearningly unfolds in time while gazing forward, to time’s end. And Messiaen might not have been happy to hear it, but drop Tony Williams into the sixth movement (“Danse de la fureur”) and you’ve got yourself a Blue Note-ready jam.
Johannes Brahms
Considered a conservative classicist in his day (a long day -- the latter half of the 19th century) and, in ours, the preferred soundtrack to many classical musicians’ adolescent angst, Brahms may seem odd man out on this list. But composers dating back at least to Arnold Schoenberg have insisted that Brahms was a progressive, and in the past century, more and more commentators have focused on his rhythmic innovations. His harmonies and melodies are so wonderfully crafted that it’s easy to be lulled into a sense of false security -- but try to figure out where you are in the bar, or even what meter you’re in, and you’re often confounded and dislocated for fifty bars at a time. Brahms always unties his rhythmic knots in the end, but his ambiguities are more sustained and richer than almost any of his predecessors’. His rhythmic games are models of unobtrusive, mischievous time-bending, never merely academic, always boosting and balancing his lyrical lines. And the pulse is sacred: Brahms deviates from it, piling hemiola on hemiola and stretching phrases into unsymmetrical swaths, only to prove its inescapability. I find a unique physical satisfaction in playing Brahms at the piano; the harmonies are rich but spacious, the rhythms strong and sinewy.
It is still hard to find Brahms performances that illuminate and clarify, rather than obscure, these not-at-all-contradictory coexistences. If, while listening to a recording, I look at the score -- visually sparkling, orderly, resembling early Stravinsky -- I can rarely reconcile it with the rhythmic mush I hear. But Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic work wonders of weightless gravity with the four symphonies, and Carlos Kleiber’s accounts of the Second and the Fourth are overwhelming.
Some more cool stuff:

Maurice Ravel, Piano Concerto (OK, here’s a composer directly influenced by the early years of jazz. The second movement is the sexiest, saddest ballad I’ve ever heard.)

Matthew Aucoin (b. 1990) is a composer, conductor, and poet. He is a 2012 summa cum laude graduate of Harvard College, where he is the recipient of the Louis Sudler Prize, Harvard’s highest arts honor, the Hoopes Prize for outstanding senior thesis, and a rating of Highest Honors in English. Next year, he will serve as Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, where he will work with Thomas Adès in the Met premiere of Adès’s The Tempest. He is also Music Director and composer-in-residence at the Peabody Essex Museum, where he will conduct the ensemble Encounters and premiere several original works; he will also continue his composition studies at Juilliard. (from Matt's slick website)