In 1961, the movie version of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story
won 10 Oscars, including one for best movie score. Forty years later many of the songs are virtually iconic, Maria, America
--I don't know how many times I have played One Hand, One Heart
at weddings. I can't remember ever playing any Bernstein song at a jazz gig, however. Indeed, I searched through hundreds of songs in over a dozen jazz fake books and couldn't find a single Bernstein tune. Nor could I find a single jazz artist using a Bernstein song anywhere in my considerable record/CD collection. Bernstein had a great appreciation for jazz and tried very hard to incorporate it into his writing. And yet, while his shows have received high critical acclaim and numerous awards, they do not seem to have thrown off individual compositions that provide grist to the jazz musician's mill. By contrast, there are dozens of jazz standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Kurt Weil, and others, (many of them songs that were the only thing to survive a Broadway musical that has, in every other regard, passed into oblivion.) One reason for this is the structure of Bernstein's writing. The essence of jazz is theme and variations. Some themes lend themselves to the improvisation of variations. They tend to be themes with eight, twelve and sixteen measure sections that repeat themselves in fairly predictable patterns and which contain interesting harmonic sequences with cadence patterns in several related keys. This does not describe Bernstein's songs. They tend to unfold without exact repetition, building chorus structures that are harder for soloists to keep track of, so it is more difficult to shape a solo effectively. For this and other reasons, these songs are not that great to blow on.
For their first CD, Broadway
has offered an intriguing solution to this problem by presenting jazz versions of virtually all the songs from Bernstein's Magnum Opus
collected together in one program. If the songs do not stand alone as jazz standards, then perhaps the whole score will allow them to support each other. It is not the first time this has been done; The Shelley Manne/ André Previn version of My Fair Lady
was a classic, and I remember a version of Carmen
by a group lead by guitarist Barney Kessell. At the same time, the songs are arranged so that solos are balanced with more lengthy theme statements. This works to a point but it is still notable that the most satisfying tune from a jazz standpoint is I Feel Pretty
which happens to be structured more like the average jazz standard with an A-A-B-A chorus. Broadway
is a quartet that had its inception when flutist Ryerson teamed up with pianist Cadwallader in a concert series named Broadway Jazz
in the Connecticut area where they make their home. West Side Story
is their debut album. Total immersion in the Bernstein universe for over an hour is not my favorite thing, unfortunately. (I well remember sitting with the late composer Alan Hovhaness at a concert in Seattle some years ago. Hovhnaness' work was being honored in the first part of the evening, but after that we had to sit through a performance of Bernstein's Age of Anxiety
which left us both squirming in our seats.) Neverthless, Broadway's
elegant interpretation is welcome, providing space for a little Bernstein on my shelf that I can turn to with enjoyment.
Of the players, flutist Ryerson is the best known and I have to declare a bias as I am her student, and hold her playing in very high regard. I would agree with the group's publicists when they describe her as ". . . one of the most exciting and versatile flautists on the scene today." Indeed, this is but one of many projects she is involved with. She can be heard to great advantage on over a dozen CDs under her own name, with Holly Hoffman and Frank Wess in Flutology
and in a duo with Joe Beck. (See www.aliryerson.com.) The other members of the quartet are less well known, but the group has a good rapport and, as I understand it, the arrangements are a group effort. I believe that Broadway
is planning further recordings along these same lines. If they are of the same standard as West Side Story
they will be welcome.
Readers may have detected by now a personal bias against Leonard Bernstein. This does not extend to his work as a conductor and as an educator. But his compositions leave me cold - that I enjoyed Broadway's
treatment of West Side Story
says everything I need to about this recording.