Pop goes the jazz
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., July 16, 2003) – With the aid of the John Pizzarelli Trio, Tanglewood and the Boston Pops Orchestra succeeded in loosening some of its blue hair in a jazz program that actually did include a modicum of jazz on Tuesday night in the Shed.

With Keith Lockhart conducting, the orchestra kicked off the program with “Swing, Swing, Swing,” a bouncy jazz overture by laureate conductor and famed film composer John Williams. If an orchestra can be said to swing, the Pops did on this number, which paid fleeting reference to a host of jazz tunes as it briskly made its way to its conclusion, achieving its purpose in setting the tone for the evening.

Things got a little wobbly next, however, with a Gunther Schuller-transcribed version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Swing,” played by the “Tanglewood Seven,” a breakaway section of seven musicians in the classic, New Orleans-style format. As played, however, the piece was more straw-hat Dixieland than funky New Orleans, a dichotomy that reared its ugly head throughout the mixed bag of an evening.

Better luck was had with “Prelude No. 2,” which like the famed “Rhapsody in Blue,” was one of George Gershwin’s attempts to orchestrate jazz for a symphony. The bluesy clarinet theme was echoed by the violins before the tuba played a wobbly, New Orleans strut. Likewise, Artie Shaw’s “Clarinet Concerto” was a bluesy showcase for soloist Thomas Martin, who ably hopped from the blues-style opening to the klezmer-like doina that introduced the middle section, before the piece broke out into a Gene Krupa-style jungle dance.

With help from the Pops, the Pizzarelli Trio – really a quartet, featuring pianist Ray Kennedy, bassist Martin Pizzarelli, drummer Tony Tedesco and the leader on guitar and vocals – attacked Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” the very DNA of bebop, with gusto, and the singer accompanied a rat-a-tat guitar solo with fluent scat-sung notes. Another Gershwin number and a Kennedy original were pretty, but ventured far from jazz into pop territory. A Woody Herman-ized version of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” lacked the manic energy which was the very raison d’etre of the original.

With tunes like Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” and a couple of Glen Miller favorites, including “In the Mood,” the Pops’ second set leaned heavily towards big-band dance music, which was terrific for those who availed themselves of wooden dance floors strategically placed in three corners of the Shed – a first? – but which didn’t give those who came to hear “All That Jazz,” as the program was titled, much to chew on.

Which gets to the heart of the problem. Aside from some terrific playing by Pizzarelli and company – particularly drummer Tedesco’s Louis Prima-inspired solo on “Sing, Sing, Sing” – most of the program lacked the essential jazz elements of improvisation and swing. It’s hard to get a large ensemble – much less an orchestra – to stretch a beat in the style of small-combo jazz, but otherwise if you can’t do it, then why bother calling it jazz?

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 17, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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