Jazzy Classics

No more denial: The season for celebration has arrived, and dozens of concerts and special musical events—offering a plethora of playlists and styles—will populate our dusty burg and sweeten our dry desert air for the next five or so weeks.

But before your dance card gets filled, you might want to check out this weekend's concert presented by Chamber Music PLUS, a gem of a group which takes a unique approach to musical performance. Whether it's adding a script and enlisting well-known actors to help bring that script to life, or jumping way outside of the box containing what many of us would consider standard chamber music fare, Chamber Music PLUS always seems to wow in its imaginative approach and excellent musicianship.

The organization is opening its season with a birthday celebration—but not the birthday so many other groups are focused on this time of year. Prolific French composer Claude Bolling is celebrating his 80th birthday, and Chamber Music PLUS is busting out a Bolling Bonanza. And, yes, this chamber music will be jazz.

Bolling, according to CMP's press materials, "virtually defined the concept of jazz-classical crossover." Pianist, composer, arranger and conductor, he has been referred to as "Duke Ellington's spiritual son" and "the best living interpreter of Ellington's sound." He has scored more than 100 films, is considered the foremost French boogie-woogie and ragtime musician, and has conducted a much-praised big band. Even to those of us who are relative newbies to Bolling, we are almost surely familiar with his "Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano, No. 2," which he recorded in 1975 with Jean-Pierre Rampal. It hit No. 1 and remained on Billboard's classical best-seller charts for an unheard-of 10 years.

For this weekend's concert, CMP artistic director and cellist Harry Clark and his pianist wife and CMP executive director Sanda Schuldmann will be joined by jazz/classical guitarist Matt Mitchell, as well as a jazz trio: Scott Black (bass), Sly Slipetsky (pianist) and Pete Swan (drums.)

"I love playing this music," declares Schuldmann. "And it challenges me so much. To classically trained musicians, especially those trained like me in the Schnabel tradition—a very Germanic, strict way of music-making—rhythm is precise and exact to a fault. We always subdivide a beat to its smallest hidden part."

If the classically oriented do that while playing with a jazz musician, "we are mostly late to the downbeat," Schuldmann says. "Jazz players feel the beat and play on or off the beat, which is very scary to me. Not only do I need to know the beat, but which part of the beat I am on, every note.

Swan, originally from Portland, Ore., received a music scholarship to the University of Arizona in 1984.

"Yeah, I really didn't start playing drums until my late 20s," he admits. But he's had pretty much nonstop involvement in music ever since. Stints as a music teacher—in middle schools, in the jazz program at Pima Community College, and at Salpointe Catholic High School—helped Swan launch and sustain his own projects until he could establish his professional career. Many of us are familiar with the Sunday-night jazz jams at Old Pueblo Grille which he has helped shepherd for 12 years. He regularly plays with trio partners Black and Slipetsky.

"Bolling produces a very unique combination of jazz, classical and Latin rhythms," Swan says. "It's a different feeling from traditional jazz. It has a really complex texture. You can hear the classical development of ideas, but the meter is mixed. His rhythm exploration creates some interesting challenges. For some who find jazz too complicated, this may be easier to follow. It's very interesting, very fresh."

The program consists of "Sonata for Two Pianos," featuring Schuldmann and Slipetsky; "Suite for Guitar and Jazz Piano Trio," featuring guitarist Mitchell; and "Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano Trio," featuring cellist Clark.

Clark says via e-mail that his attraction to Bolling comes from "his craftsmanship in composing works for non-jazz players, like me as a cellist. He writes very well for the instrument, and his music pleases both classical and jazz audiences. It's great fun to play his music."

What are the best reasons for folks to kick off the Chamber Music PLUS season—as well as the official music-everywhere-you-turn celebration season—with this Bolling Bonanza?

"It's rare to hear the suites performed, let alone three of them in one show," Clark says. "The 'Two Pianos' suite is rarely programmed. And I think audiences will enjoy the variety."

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