REVIEW: Stories of the Danube + Terence Blanchard Quintet at the Barbican (2017 EFG LJF)

Kristjan Järvi conducting Stories of the Danube
Photo credit: John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Joe Zawinul’s Stories of the Danube + Terence Blanchard Quintet
(Barbican. 19 November 2017. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by AJ Dehany, with footnotes!)

Stories of the Danube is a 65-minute, eight-part (1) symphonic suite written in 1993 by Austrian jazz legend Joe Zawinul (1932-2007). On the closing night of the London Jazz Festival this wide-ranging opus was performed at the Barbican by the BBC Concert Orchestra with conductor Kristjan Järvi, where it brought an insight into the mind and music of Zawinul a decade on from his immortal death.

The programme of the symphony is a geographical and historical journey tracing the course of the Danube from Donaueschingen to the Black Sea, taking us through the Ottoman Empire, Vienna’s Golden Age and the Second World War (2). Zawinul claimed “I improvised it all in six or seven, maybe ten hours” (3) and then orchestrated it over three or four months. It’s a classical composition by a cat with an anti-classical stance. Just as he refused to call his normal music jazz, he wouldn’t call this classical music. It is though. Commissioned by the Brucknerhaus in Linz, a concert hall on the banks of the Danube, it has Brucknerian length if nothing else. In the darker orchestral writing you might identify shades of Stravinskian harmony or Shostakovich-like pomp, or in lighter sections Dvořákian string writing and the breezy Americana of Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein. It also reworks elements of Zawinul classics Pharaoh’s Dance, Dr Honoris Causa and Unknown Soldier. As an orchestral work it is convincing, though it leans on rather conventionally symphonic language. Zawinul’s quirky melodic voice emerges in those jazzier reworkings, and Zawinul’s choice of instantly dated synth sounds is retained in the cloying beginning section.

What’s most interesting for me about Stories of the Danube is that it expresses very clearly two different sides of Zawinul’s historical sensibility, and it enacts and embodies these musically. On one hand, the darker history of Austria’s complicity with oppression and tyranny, and the Austrian and German musical tradition that never sat well with Zawinul. He left it all behind in 1959 when he arrived in New York en route to study jazz at Berklee in Boston. He straight up knew he would never ‘leave’ America. The other side of the work is unabashedly American, with a bright and breezy optimistic outlook. The finale is some all-American star-spangled strings and apple pie, unashamedly feel-good, even sweetly hokey. It makes a fittingly huge ending to an impressively varied work, which despite its length goes fast in performance. Much of it hurtled along at full tilt, with some spirited improvisation from the trio of Jeremiah Keller on bass and Martin France on drums with British pianist Django Bates taking Zawinul’s parts.

Django brought his inimitable tenor horn playing in a solo beautifully evoking the presence and spirit of Miles Davis, who was an important figure in Zawinul’s career, but perhaps not in the way people assume (4). An interviewer once said to Zawinul: “Many point to the work you did with Miles as the music that most significantly impacted your musical evolution.” Zawinul replied: “It is the other way round, frankly speaking. I think he got more from me than I got from him….” (5) Without trying to downplay Miles’s role as a revolutionary bandleader, In a Silent Way was a Zawinul composition, and the 20-minute Pharaoh’s Dance occupied the whole of the first side of Bitches Brew. This is to say that (notwithstanding the energies of Kristjan Järvi and the BBC Concert Orchestra) even if Zawinul might not have found a place in the classical pantheon, his impact as a composer of jazz is indelible, and his status assured.

Terence Blanchard
Photo credit: John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk
The Zawinul symphony was just the second part of a double-bill of orchestral jazz, following 90 minutes from Terence Blanchard— American trumpeter, film composer and visiting scholar in composition at Zawinul’s alma mater Berklee. The Terence Blanchard Quintet’s album A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) grew out of his score for Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, When The Levees Broke. In live performance the quintet approached the music as a heartfelt symphonic suite movingly expressing the profound effect of the Katrina tragedy on the people of New Orleans, and their resilience and strong humanity: dignified and emotionally resonant, with sympathetic and sensitive group playing from the quintet.

The Requiem makes plain Blanchard’s stature as a composer of orchestral jazz. The UK Premiere of Herbie Hancock: By Himself showed how accomplished an orchestrator he is. The composition as such is developed from an improvisation by pianist Herbie Hancock. Blanchard explained that they were on tour and “Every night he’d play these improvised pieces. I said hey man, you mind if I orchestrate one of these? He didn’t care, he said yeah man.” Blanchard’s agent got wind of it, so then he had to do it (on a multiple commission). All the music is, he said, from Herbie Hancock’s hands at one moment.

This evanescent material, wrenched out of spontaneity into solid form, is taken on a voyage through solo piano, quintet and full orchestral treatments, in a sonata-length work ranging from Bartókian string-writing to swinging band playing. To my mind this concert affirmed Blanchard’s position as one of the most creative figures in the tradition of modern symphonic jazz. As a complete evening of third stream music at the Barbican, the London Jazz Festival closed on an exhaustive statement of the excitement and heart-rending force of these encounters.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

(1) Eight-part or seven-part with a short finale. The 1995 recording (with Zawinul) is split into ten tracks reflecting seven parts, two mid-sequence intros and the finale.

(2) Coincidentally, there’s an Ellingtonian precedent for Stories of the Danube. In 1970 the Duke composed a ballet suite about the Mississippi, called simply The River.

(3) Quoted in In a silent way: A portrait of Joe Zawinul, Brian Glasser, p265

(4) Zawinul is only known to have played in a live situation with Miles Davis once, in Paris in 1991 with Wayne Shorter

(5) Glasser, Op. cit. p108


Terence Blanchard trumpet
Brice Winston tenor sax
Shai Maestro piano
Tobari Lake acoustic bass
Kendrick Scott drums

Django Bates keyboards, electronics
Jeremiah Keller bass
Martin France drums

Kristjan Järvi conductor
BBC Concert Orchestra

Categories: miscellaneous

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