Many artists have experimented with combining two seemingly disparate art forms: jazz and classical. Duke Ellington composed orchestral, chamber, and solo piano music in addition to his well-known jazz masterpieces. Artists like the Modern Jazz Quartet and Dave Brubeck brought their classically-trained sensibilities to their more highly structured works. Renowned jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin continues to explore the classical world, having conducted various orchestras and recorded with Yo Yo Ma. Finally, Wynton Marsalis has recorded several albums for the Sony Classical label, particularly playing Baroque trumpet.
Clearly, this fusion of jazz and classical genres continues to the present day. Blauklang, conductor/composer Vince Mendoza's latest release, combines jazz, classical, and modern art to form an ambitious and beautiful work. Mendoza, who has worked with artists as varied as Joe Zawinul, Björk, Diane Reeves, Elvis Costello, and Ute Lemper, this time collaborates with an international roster of top musicians as well as the String Quartet Red URG 4 to produce an elaborate work with the overall theme of “blue.”
The “blue” motif derives from German artist Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902-1968), a modernist painter who created various artworks with shades of blue. In fact, Mendoza borrows the title of Nay's famous paintings, “Blauklang” (“Bluesound”), for the album. The CD booklet includes a variety of blue-themed paintings to accompany each song, which adds to the overall mood of the work. Looking at this art only enhances the listening experience. When the musicians performed the entire piece at the Traumzeit Festival in Landscape Park Duisburg North, Germany, projected images of the various paintings flashed during each song, creating a true multimedia experience for the audience.
Beginning with a gorgeous rendition of Miles Davis's “All Blues,” the musicians transition into “Lo Rossinyol,” a lovely Catalonian folk song. Appropriately, the orchestra covers “Blues for Pablo,” a Gil Evans-penned tribute to Pablo Picasso. Then the jazz and classical hybrid ensues with “Bluesounds Movements I-VI,” which range from achingly slow to joyously uptempo. While some of the movements sound too similar, they are gorgeous in their scope and tone. The final movement, “Bluesounds Movement VI,” features fantastic solos by guitarist and drummer Peter Erskine. Two original compositions, “Habanera” and “Ollie Mention,” round out the work. Since all of these pieces blend together to form one larger production, it's virtually impossible tojudge each song individually. Together, the tracks blend to form a moody, low-key, wistful sound.
Blauklang represents the last in a trio of recordings by Mendoza in association with the ACT Art + Music Collection, an independent label specializing in Swedish and German jazz. Their first collaboration, 1992's Jazzpaña, received a Grammy nomination; the 1996 follow up, Sketches, also won critical acclaim.
Fans of hard bop or swing may not have patience for Mendoza's aching slow pace and meandering melodies. Due to the classical influence, these musicians do not have as much room to improvise as on traditional jazz recordings. However, the jazz, classical, and modern art mix deserves accolades for its ambition and experimental qualities. Mendoza's CD demands an attentive hearing, and listening to the CD while viewing the paintings proves rewarding. Blauklang proves that jazz encompasses many art forms, both aural and visual, and that the genre need not be confined to just one type of sound.