Swing Symphony (West Coast premiere, LAPA commission)
Length: c. 55 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongo bell, bongos, brake drum, car horn, chimes, claves, congas, cowbells, cymbals, drum set, ethnic hand drum, glockenspiel, guiro, marimba, police whistle, roto-toms, siren, snare drum, stomping board, tambourine, timbales with bell, tom-toms, triangle, vibes, washboard, whip, woodblocks, xylophone), and strings, plus jazz band
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (West Coast premiere)
Wynton Marsalis was, and is, a “jazz composer.” Steeped in the jazz tradition, a New Orleans native and son of a jazz pianist and educator, he is an improviser, through and through. This distinguishes his music from that of the others on this program: Marsalis’ works include sections for jazz soloing and improvisation.
Marsalis’ music is also infused with that ineffable quality of jazz: swing.
Marsalis, in the book How Jazz Can Change Your Life, noted that: “On the jazz bandstand, swing is the single objective, the core that makes us all want to work together. Jazz – the music – is the collective aspirations of a group of musicians, shaped, given logic, and organized under the extreme pressure of time. When we all work together, the music swings, and when we don’t, it doesn’t.”
Marsalis describes his Symphony No. 3, the Swing Symphony, as a “symphonic meditation” on the evolution of swing, with the symphony orchestra and jazz orchestra as equal partners. It is also a celebration of jazz history.
The first movement honors ragtime: note the syncopated, “ragged” rhythms that mark that style. Next in the score is what Marsalis labels “low down,” music that he says represents the “deep sexuality that comes out of the music of Storyville, New Orleans.” Listen in this section for an improvised trumpet solo. A jazz trumpet fanfare announces the celebratory parade music that closes the movement. Here he features collective improvisation from the jazz band that characterizes this traditional New Orleans style.
The second movement starts with what Marsalis calls “American pep.” It is the 1920s dance, the Charleston, re-imagined, though here it is more rough-hewn and zany, complete with car horns, sirens, and police whistles. Alto saxophone improvises a solo midway through, followed by the symphony orchestra having its way with the popular dance. A slow section, with baritone sax taking the lead, follows. Marsalis calls this a “tango ballad, with a sweet romantic mood.” The next section is peppy and joyful, “an upbeat kind of … ‘happy days are here again’ – Broadway show [music],” notes Marsalis. Improvisation in the jazz trombone section is featured.
The third movement starts with Kansas City swing, “the ultimate riff style jazz, with call and response between jazz band and orchestra,” says Marsalis. Tenor sax solos pays homage to jazz great Coleman Hawkins. Marsalis then slows the tempo down and uses the harmonic progression from Hawkins’ signature tune “Body and Soul” as a jumping off point for a dialog between cellos and saxes (Hawkins played cello as well). A driving dance ensues, as does an extended call and response section between both orchestras, with a dab or two more of Kansas City in the mix. Joyous mayhem ensues: gnarly brass solos, percussion interludes, with the orchestras interjecting all the while. The movement fades out as if we are riding away from it all on a Garden District trolley car.
The fourth movement pays homage to bebop, the more angular, up-tempo, and harmonically complex jazz of the 1940s. Here again, Marsalis also pays tribute to the greats of the period, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. “Bebop,” says Marsalis, demonstrates “America’s first real virtuosity, which transformed American music and jazz.” Both Parker and Gillespie are honored in a blazing improvised bebop solo. Gillespie was also a pioneer in bringing Caribbean rhythms and instruments into jazz, and an extended mambo – reminiscent of Gillespie’s famous “Manteca” – comes next, highlighting percussion and brass, and featuring a double bass solo. This movement ends expressively, featuring the alto sax, Charlie Parker’s chosen instrument.
The fifth movement resonates with a more contemporary jazz sound. It begins with contrapuntal interplay on a theme introduced by clarinet that is tossed about by the orchestras until it gives way to a section of collective improvisation in the jazz band. Some listeners might hear strains of Charles Mingus in this, including “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus’ own homage to jazz great Lester Young. The next section, featuring jazz solos over the modal structures employed by Miles Davis and John Coltrane, is described in the score as “modern primal.”
The finale begins with a panoply of percussion, including handclaps, tambourine, bass drum, piano prepared to sound like banjo, and even foot stomps. A full array of exotic “wops,” “wahs,” and “blats” and bluesy hollers play out over this rhythmic procession, not to mention an occasional outburst when the spirit seems to move someone to “testify.” This gives way to a jazz ballad, first featuring saxophones, then brass, eventually joined by strings. A brief trumpet cadenza precedes the curious final “note,” a collective sigh by the orchestra.
In an interview, Marsalis described this final sigh: “It can either be like an ‘aaaaaah, that was good!’ or a ‘wheeew, damn, I’m glad that’s over…’” Then he laughed and concluded: “Sometimes they’re one and the same… I believe in the way that opposites work together… it’s because of cold that we have hot: you can’t take one away from the other.”
Dr. Dave Kopplin is an Associate Professor of Music at Cal Poly Pomona, Director of the Cal Poly Jazz Band, and writes for performing arts organizations across the country.