I hesitated more than a few minutes before asking to review this CD, as I was not necessarily dying to hear duo-piano performances of such noted orchestral scores as An American in Paris and La Création du monde, but what tipped the scale for me was that one of the pianists is Anthony Goldstone, whose recording of Vladimir Rebikov’s piano music (Divine Art 25081) impressed me so favorably. I’m glad I chose it because the performances by Goldstone and his wife, Caroline Clemmow, are absolutely “right” in terms of rhythmic feeling and musical nuance. Yet more importantly, this recording says a lot—but not all—about the early cross-pollination of classical music and jazz, a crossbreed that flourished sporadically, almost spastically, one might say, over the next century.
We are so far removed from the Jazz Age that nearly everything we hear from it, the good and the bad, sounds rhythmically stiff and harmonically staid. Even by the late 1930s, the music had grown and evolved so much and so rapidly that a musician suddenly transported from 1922 to 1938—a span of only 16 years—would have difficulty understanding how it changed so much, so quickly. Yet also, by that time, only the famous Gershwin works ( Rhapsody in Blue/American in Paris/ Concerto in F) still survived as repertoire items, the remainder of Jazz Age hybrids being either forgotten or relegated to Europe until their resuscitation many years later.
The rhythm certainly has a lot to do with this. Early jazz, like Baroque music, was formulated as spirited and freewheeling inventions by the top-line instruments (or, in the case of a keyboard instrument, the right hand) while the ground bass (or left hand on a keyboard) generally, but not always, played a stiffly metronomic 4/4. In the case of the greatest pianists of the time, such as Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, and (a little later) Art Tatum, the left hand played independent figures, often in cross rhythms, but with the basic pulse coming from ragtime and cakewalk music (think of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk or Stravinsky’s Ragtime ), the primary function of the jazz musician was to weave around the stiff bass. It was not considered, at that time, either archaic or a detriment.
Yet because so many of these works were built around this sort of rhythm, it was only normal that they should sound dated. And it was, in part, because of this anachronistic rhythmic feel that the entire concept of jazz-classical fusion was scrapped, thrown aside, or considered to be in the category of the cutesy and precious—at least, until such innovators as Charles Mingus, Stan Kenton, and George Russell emerged in the late 1940s and took jazz and its classical connections to entirely new and different levels.
Goldstone and Clemmow give us a very good, if incomplete, view of this heady era and its musical products. Stravinsky’s experiments are mentioned, Milhaud is placed right alongside Gershwin, and, to my surprise and edification, they have unearthed some very interesting if lighter works by Edward Burlingame Hill (1872–1960), Alexander Moyzes (1906–84), and Mátyás Seiber (1905–60), each of whom embraced the jazz aesthetic from different perspectives. Hill was a pupil of composer-organist Charles-Marie Widor, Moyzes a pupil of his father, Mikuláš, and Dvorák pupil Vitezslav Novák, and Seiber, both a student of Kodály and (in his mid-20s) director of the world’s first department of jazz studies at a major university, Frankfurt-am-Main. All of this activity goes to show how very seriously our “stepchild of the musical arts” was taken, even then, outside of America. Yet since they chose not to include any of their music, Goldstone and Clemmow left out a discussion of Ravel, whose string quartet and later piano concerto incorporated jazz; George Antheil, the expatriate American who composed an all-percussion, jazz-influenced score for the experimental film Ballet Mécanique; and John Alden Carpenter, who in 1922 wrote a wonderful little ballet based on the popular comic strip Krazy Kat, and who, in 1924—the same year Rhapsody in Blue premiered—wrote the greatest jazz-classical orchestral score of the 20s, Skyscrapers. Nor is it mentioned that, in one instance at least, the young, enthusiastic Milhaud was accidentally misled when collecting records of “genuine black jazz music” to base La Création du monde on. The late jazz clarinetist and archive collector Frank Powers proved this when he unearthed for Dave Brubeck—the famed jazz pianist who was also a pupil of Milhaud—a copy of one of the principal records Milhaud used as a basis for Création, “Aunt Hagar’s Children’s Blues” by “Ladd’s Black Aces.” Seeing the name, Milhaud was convinced they were a genuine African-American band, but in fact it was one of Sam Lanin’s many studio pseudonyms, a white band featuring reedman Doc Behrendsen and pianist Jimmy Durante! (I can just imagine Jimmy saying, the first time he heard this piece, “Whaddaya know! Everyone wants to get into the act!”)
As to the origin of the most famous pieces, this is Milhaud’s own arrangement of Création for piano four-hands and, with modifications, Gershwin’s own duo-piano arrangement of American in Paris. The modifications are these: Additional music deleted from the orchestral version is left out here, music from the final version is put in, and there’s a return to the original texture. The last two items, popular songs of the era by Gershwin ( Embraceable You ) and Hoagy Carmichael ( Stardust ), may indeed seem like light dessert, but these particular arrangements are highly inventive and sparkling. Overall, a highly recommended disc.