The influences of Stravinsky were unmistakable in the world première of Laura Jurd’s The Earth Keeps Spinning: shifting tonalities, angular, abruptly curtailed fragments of melody and complex timbres (from the opening twinkling vibraphone over a pedal note in the low brass, through stuttering trumpets to an almost directionless trombone solo). In truth, it’s not a piece that appeals as a determined listening experience; its wandering, formless riffs are best suited to creating a background of unattended ‘cool’, but the NYJO under Mark Armstrong took it all in their stride and gave a first-rate account, slickly managing the challenging techniques required from all players, with some adroitly handled solo spots from trombone and alto sax.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue has had its share of arrangements, all the way from the early essays for Paul Whiteman’s band to orchestrations for full orchestra, reductions for two pianos, and Larry Adler’s adaptation in which a harmonica replaces the piano. It was a treat, though, to hear Ferde Grofé’s original 1924 scoring for jazz band. Here, although there are strings present, it is the wind instruments that lead throughout, and they provide much of the texture, making for a jazzier, raunchier product that’s heavy on bass and treble – the middle ground being occupied not by mellifluous violas, cellos and bassoons, but by the more rusty, breathy sound of saxophones and horns (the take-up by the tenor sax of the theme after a lengthy piano ‘cadenza’ being a particularly unexpected moment). The NYJO (conducted by Guy Barker) turned in a cracking performance that was nuanced, yet clearly enjoyable to play: the trombones relished their glissandi and the saxes put the maximum amount of ‘honk’ into their brief rhythmic interruptions. Benjamin Grosvenor took the piano part and made it his own, displaying not only the pyrotechnic flourishes expected of the soloist, but some subtlety of dynamic, even when the piano was accompanied by the band – the grainy texture of the instrumentation allowing the piano to weave its way into the cracks.
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, the final work of the evening was Johnny Richards’ 1961 arrangement (for Stan Kenton’s band) of music from West Side Story. It’s a great set of arrangements for a dance band, as the absence of singers (and the assumption that everyone knew the tunes) allowed Richards to introduce some hefty counter-melodies and play with syncopation, such that numbers like ‘America’ and ‘Something’s Coming’ are almost unrecognisable. The NYJO responded to the material with élan (although the horns seemed to be bedevilled by cracked notes), and produced a fantastic big-band sound, especially in ‘Cool’, infused with 50s gangland hip.
What the pieces gained in breadth and invention, though, they lost in subtle references. The cleverness of Bernstein’s original is that the aggressive New-York jazziness incorporates (and is sometimes set against) Latin rhythms, symbolic of the two gangs’ different cultures. In these arrangements, although there is a deal of Latin percussion, all too often, the more interesting Latin rhythms are turned into swing or syncopated duple-time. ‘Maria’, for example, for all the witty flutter-trombone work and horn counter-melody, loses the habañera/tango pulse that symbolises Tony’s infatuation with the exotic; the nervous delicacy of the chaperoned Catholic-high-school prom-waltz ‘I feel pretty’ is dropped such that it becomes, under the razzmatazz, an ordinary mirror-ball-danced quickstep. In all, too much Jet and not enough Shark.