I have to admit to a certain deep-seated ambivalence to the attempts of artists and arrangers to adapt pieces from the standard classical repertoire to other musical idioms. One needs only to think of the frilly, cloying excesses of Liberace playing Chopin, or of Freddie Martin's frenetic big band butchering of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto to witness such adaptive transgressions at their worst. This sort of pervasive "dumbing down" of well-integrated musical expression usually only amounts to willful and ignorant desecration of fine music, insulting the intellect and assaulting the sensibilities of all but the least discerning listener.
Of course, we can't get too parochial or snobbish, or view our cherished classics as sacrosanct, ossifying the original ideas of the composers as the only and definitive interpretations of their underlying musical ideas. Musical expression is dynamic, vital, self-referencing, and ever evolving. We know many of the greatest composers cribbed melodies shamelessly from themselves, from one another, and from the public domain. They frequently presented their own (and others) in different idiomatic forms, often driven largely by commercial motives. Thus, when a composer or arranger is able to identify, protect, and showcase the best elements of an original work, while at the same time setting it in a new or different context which adds interest and variety to the comforts of familiarity, then the results start to gain significance. When the composer or arranger is a proven and consummate master of another musical idiom, then the prospects improve immensely.
This is the case with Sammy Nestico's tasteful and original adaptations of familiar classical and symphonic repertoire to swing, in his aptly titled Swingphonic charts. Originally arranged for the United States Air Force Band in the 1960s but never before commercially recorded, this collection does a marvelous job of bridging the idiomatic gap between jazz and the classics in a sensitive and quite brilliant fashion. Nestico's fifteen years of service as chief arranger in the USAF and US Marine Bands is fundamental to his deep understanding of writing for wind instruments. He clearly recognizes both the opportunities and limitations of the extended palette offered by this rather unusual agglomeration of instruments - essentially an 18-piece stage band, but also incorporating horns, flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, tuba and orchestral percussion. Clearly, this man understands and loves both idioms, and is completely at ease writing for a most unusual ensemble format.
Respect for the inherent lyricism of the melodies that underpin the Swingphonic opus is retained, and the musical pedigree of each chart is almost immediately identifiable. However, Nestico never reverts to hackneyed musical clichés, or to filling bars with generic block-arranging short cuts. The result is a wonderfully varied and artistically interesting synthesis that will appeal to lovers of fine music, no matter what style.
Though the splendid Nestico charts are wonderful raw material for a CD compilation, their effective translation into performance requires two things: an ensemble capable of handling the substantial technical and artistic demands of the arrangements, and a conductor sufficiently comfortable with both the jazz and symphonic idioms to pull it all together. Fortunately, Windjammers and Harry Currie fulfill both requirements.
One could only imagine what kind of interpretive disasters might ensue if the swing passages were read and played straight (just listen to the stilted sounds of old Boston Pops orchestral swing compilations for some excruciating examples), or if the straight bits were to be sloppily swung (shades of Freddie Martin). In this regard, it would be difficult to find a conductor better suited to this project than Harry Currie. From the detailed notes, it seems Currie's own background bears striking parallels to Nestico's. His outstanding musicianship is in evidence throughout, highlighting the exquisite sounds his Windjammers produce. Interestingly, the Swingphonic instrumental requirements and the personnel of the Windjammers (mentioned as "Canada's finest Pops Wind Ensemble") was a perfect fit.
The CD begins with the flashy introductory tuttis of Lecuona's Malagueña, the opening flourishes giving way to delicate introductory clarinet figures before opening up into a driving, paso doble-influenced double-time percussion. Bongos take over the percussive duties for awhile, then interesting polyrhythmic statements of the melody ensue before a few bars of straight-ahead swing. The ensemble oscillates through several such changes of orchestral colour before reaching the resounding finale.
The second track, a wonderful musical bauble entitled Borodin, Bongos and Brass, begins sweetly and delicately with high woodwind figures juxtaposed delicately on a cushion of low woodwinds and horns - but then bongos are introduced and the piece takes off in an entirely different direction. In this selection, Nestico is drawn closest to his signature Basie arranging style, with wonderfully dynamic sax and horn section work playing off the gently swinging walking bass line, all enhanced by the addition of tasteful percussive flourishes and playful piccolo chirps. It is quintessential Nestico, reminiscent of Basie, evocative of Kismet, and respectful to Borodin, all at once an impressive musical feat.
Debussy's Reverie, illustrates more clearly than any other the organic connection between the classics and jazz. Debussy's lush impressionistic harmonies lend themselves readily and naturally to Nestico's slow-tempo swing-ballad treatment. Melodically gorgeous and harmonically rich, this lovely Kenton-esque reading reminds us of the seminal influence that serious composers have had over subsequent idioms.
Other notable tracks include a relaxed and introspective mid-tempo reading of Loch Lomond, and the charming nursery jazz of London Bridge, saved from being cloying by Nestico's deft and innovative arrangement. Windjammers also serves up a wistful and evocative version of Londonderry Air, while Anitra's Dance is transformed into a lilting jazz waltz, and swingy versions of Comin' through the Rye and Song of the Volga Boatmen (lots of vodka, here) continue the tradition of sympathetic adaptation.
Notable throughout the recording is the exceptional prowess of the high woodwinds. Listen to the exquisite flute and oboe, artists of real distinction in their many solos. A fine clarinet, too. From the Love Theme from Scheherezade, the interesting bossa nova-flavored, Danse Arabe, to Prince Igor, the woodwinds, brass and percussion blend as well as any of the finest orchestras. And when it is time to swing, Windjammers is blessed with a great rhythm section and superb sax and trumpet leads. Brilliant stuff throughout!
The recording is attractively packaged and copiously annotated, featuring a 12-page full-colour liner with notes by Sammy Nestico and Harry Currie, biographical sketches of the arranger and conductor, session photos, full composer and musician credits, and technical information about the recording. A wonderful touch is the cover design; a lovely painting of a real windjammer by the late British artist Montague J. Dawson, coincidentally (and delightfully) entitled "Swinging Along".
Swingphonic is a gem of a collection, filling a vacant niche in the recorded Nestico repertoire and creating a fresh new category in the wind band CD catalogue. Highly recommended.
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