Jazz and classical music often stand at opposing ends of the musical spectrum. While jazz stresses the emotions and the power of the "moment" (as expressed by its fiery improvisational outbursts), classical music derives its force from the structuring of musical thought.
Since the earliest days of jazz, various composers of both styles have attempted to combine the two, to create music that is immediate and immutable, Scott Joplin's opera, "Treemonisha," is a work that teems with the exuberance of ragtime, yet also a "classical" sense of form and structure. Much of the excitement of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" is the result of the nervous energy produced when a classical format is forced to come to grips with the exigences of jazz. From the dreary pedantry of John McLaughlin's "Apocalyse" and William Russo's "Concerto for Blues Bank and Orchestra" to the inspired dissonace of Ornette Coleman's "Skies of America," the road has been rough, but not without its interesting detours.
When the attempts have succeeded, the results have been stunning. Josef Zawinul's "Unknown Soldier" (from the second Weather Report record, "I Sing the Body Electric") is an absorbing composition whose careful orchestration of improvised and composed sections is a shrieking evocation of the horrors of human conflict. Igor Stravinsky's "Ragtime for 11 Instruments" (1918) and the "Ebony Concerto" (written for Woody Herman in 1945) are much more controlled yet no less expressive - Stravinsky reconstructed jazz as Picasso refracted visual planes. Common to each of these works is a sense of unencumbered "musicality" in which the two styles have shed their outward trappings yet retained their spirit.
"Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano" (Columbia M35128) by French composer Claude Bolling is another attempt to fuse classical music and jazz. The record is a companion to Bolling's "Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano" which featured flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and was the best-selling classical record of 1976 and 1977. This time, the classical luminary involved is violinist Pinchas Zukerman, who commissioned and performed the work along with Bolling on piano and a drummer and bassist.
The records have many similarities. Both feature cartoon-like covers with splashy colors and cute drawings. Both have a similar musical "feel" -- lighthearted melodies and themes that are placidly pretty. Both employ the same structure -- a "jazz" trio with a classical sidekick. And both attempt a compromise of jazz and classical devices.
Their failure however, does inadvertently point up many of the difficulties involved in such a project. One of these is Bolling's basic approach to his task. While he seems to be an able composer, his role on this record is more of an assembler than an assimilator. "Violin" is a cornucopia of jazz and classical idioms, but they are so compartmentalized that they are never allowed to interrelate.
The "Slavonik Dance" is the most blatant example of this stratification. The piece begins with a Slavic-sounding theme on the violin which is interrupted by sections that range from rock to swing to boogie-woogie. The theme becomes a transitional device that serves only to separate and "catalogue" the different idioms as opposed to forging them into a unified musical statement. The dance is a jazz and classical piece, not a synthesis of the two.
"Violin" also displays a particularly limited view of its musical sources. Many of the cuts (such as the "Romance," feature luxurious melodies that are vaguely impressionistic but with a touch of Montovanian sweetness that borders on Muzak. The jazz sections are equally diluted -- swishing cymbals, ostinato bass lines and tinkling piano chords that sound more like a "lounge group" than a jazz ensemble.
Because of the blandness of the material and the absence of any substantial musical ideas, the musicians never seem to get on track. Zukerman's instrumental abilities -- deep sonorities, rich tones and accomplished technical skill -- are present but to no avail. His playing seems dull and flabby (possibly due to the fatuous arrangements) and in the jazz sections, he is awkward and sounds out of place. Likewise, Max Hediguer's bass and Marcel Sabiani's drums are competent but uninspired and Bolling's piano is mired in a doodling banality. None of the musicians adequately "crosses over" from one style to the other and the ensemble appears to suffer from an acute case of musical schizophrenia.