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Breaking down the barriers between jazz and classical music

Are jazz and classical music heading toward a merger? An old question, perhaps, but one that becomes more pertinent as dividing lines continue to fade between the two, and jazz is accepted more and more as an art form rather than a popular entertainment. The Carnegie Recital Hall season here offers a healthy sampling of jazz and contemporary classical music, along with performances of early and classical chamber music, folk music, and so on. This year's lineup featured some outstanding examples of jazz/classical crossover music.

It's a known fact that some classical composers have been getting into jazz for decades, and, of course, there's nothing new about jazz musicians experimenting with classical form -- Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, and many others have tried it.

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But today there's a new thrust in the movement toward jazz/classical melds, and some artists have managed to make the marriage work. It's not easy, since European classical music has always had the respect of the artistic and cultural community, while jazz, to a great degree, is still associated with smoky dives and piano bars. Imagine a concert pianist about to give an all-Rachmaninoff recital coming out on stage, putting a tip jar on the piano, and asking for requests. Absurd, right? But that's exactly what jazz musicians are often expected to do. Nevertheless, jazz is growing up, and there's hardly any kind of music, especially in America, that has not borrowed from it.

The mixing of jazz and classical music has produced varying results -- sometimes interesting, sometimes disastrous. Over the years, I've attended numerous concerts of so-called ``new jazz'' or ``chamber jazz.'' Most of these performances were stiff, boring, and embarrassingly pretentious.

But now things are changing. Some jazz musicians no longer feel that donning a tuxedo and playing at Carnegie Hall means you have to try to play some sort of humorless ``modern-classical'' music -- and for heaven's sake, don't let it swing!

This year at Carnegie Hall, I heard performances by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams; Ken McIntyre's Contemporary African American Music Orchestra; South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand); pianist Marilyn Crispell, and two excellent string quartets: the Black Swan Quartet and the Kronos Quartet. These groups proved unquestionably that jazz and the string quartet format are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they can produce some wonderful, surprising crossover music.

The Kronos Quartet (with David Harrington and John Sherba on violins, Hank Dutt on viola, and Joan Jean Renaud on cello) played the music of four black American composers: Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, and Muhal Richard Abrams. All of them are associated with jazz, but their compositions are influenced by European classical music, and Kronos was able to infuse them with just enough of the feeling of each idiom to provide a comfortable balance.

The Black Swan Quartet, with Akbar Ali on violin, Eileen M. Folston and Abdul Wadud on cello, and Cecil McBee on bass -- a variation on the standard string quartet instrumentation -- seemed to be coming from a more jazz-oriented consciousness, and the music involved quite a bit of improvisation. They played pieces by Akbar Ali, as well as a highly abstract rendering of Duke Ellington's ``Prelude to a Kiss,'' which suggested, rather than stated, the melody and harmonic structure of the song.

Judging by what I heard from these two groups, it's clear the string quartet is on the move, exploring new possibilities in contemporary music that are highly creative and listenable.

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Another program highlight was the performance by Ms. Crispell, who plays in a intensely percussive way reminiscent of Cecil Taylor, an avant-garde jazz pianist. Ms. Crispell has created a rich personal expression that is breathtaking in its originality and visceral energy. She works largely with clusters of notes to create cascades of sound, always working with a sense of purpose and thematic development. At Carnegie Hall she was joined by Paul Motian, drummer, and Mike Richmond, bassist, who complemented Ms. Crispell's every mood shift with exhilarating abandon. This music does not make for easy listening, because it demands total attention; but the willingness to get involved with a musical experience of this sort can be very rewarding.

The music of the Kronos and Swan Quartets and Marilyn Crispell is unquestionably barrier-breaking. The creators of the Recital Hall series deserve credit for taking chances in an age when musical risk-taking is often frowned upon, either for economic reasons or for fear of criticism. But they should also be encouraged to present more mainstream jazz groups, such as Clark Terry and His Jolly Giants -- the only one of its kind to perform this season in the Hall -- along with their usual ``mainstream'' classical performances.

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