When considering “The Rite of Spring,“ fans of classical music still tend to identify with the folks who rioted at its premiere, getting riled up in the blood by its blasting dissonances, its emphatically unpredictable rhythms, and the evergreen subject matter of pagans trying to win the favor of their gods. This omits one important fact: Igor Stravinsky filled “The Rite of Spring” with good tunes. As someone who spent most of his college years whistling the little whirling tune that follows the stabbing arrhythmic chords in the second section, I can assure you that this is true.
At the invitation of Mobtown Modern curator Brian Sacawa, Darryl Brenzel took a look at the “Rite” through the eyes of someone without classical training and saw tunes galore, ripe for recasting in Brenzel’s home idiom: the modern jazz orchestra. In the perhaps-inevitably titled “The Rite of Swing,” which premiered on Wednesday night at Baltimore’s Metro Gallery, Brenzel fitted phrasing and harmonies to his idiom, tossed in opportunities for solos, and freely transformed and extended the original whenever the spirit moved him. The result prompted continual smiles from Rite-o-philes hearing old faves in a new context, but would appeal to anyone with a pulse and an adventuresome ear — Brenzel’s “Rite of Swing” cooks harder than Emeril on meth.
How can I say with such certainty that Brenzel was unencumbered by classical training? Because he was kind enough to write a blog about this whole process that explained virtually anything a listener could want to know, all before the show. (Side note: How much would you pay to read a blog by J.S. Bach about this exploration of the art of fugue that he’s been working on? I’d be eating Ramen and Wonder Bread for months, methinks.) The blog might even help to sell a dubious “Rite”-o-phile on the idea: check out this bar-by-bar explanation of how he approached the introduction.
And indeed, the “Rite” stuff remained — that bassoon solo doesn’t go away — but enjoying Brenzel’s new colors, textures, and melodic approaches soon overtook the game of Find the Original Melody, especially when saxophonist Patrick Shook delivered the first solo of the “Swing.” As described in the blog, Brenzel here led into the solo with Stravinsky’s material, so the progression felt organic; any qualms that one might have about scribbling on Igor’s masterwork were answered by Shook’s playing, as he found a seam in the harmonies and explored it melodically.
The second section, “Dances of the Young Girls,” brought to mind the fact that many of Stravinsky’s contemporaries considered jazz to be vulgar music for primitive folks and showed another strategy of Brenzel’s: to capture some of the rhythmic energy in “Spring” by rendering it with emphasis rather than surprise. So the stabbing arrhythmic chords mentioned earlier, which come over equally accented chords in “Spring,” found drummer Todd Harrison kicking our a hard rock-style 4/4 rhythm. The brass hits for the arrhythmic stabbing chords felt less arrhythmic and more groping towards a dance rhythm, somehow, somewhere. Also Stephen Lesche’s electric guitar sounded really cool spiking already spiky harmonies.
The main objection a classical purist (not me) might have to Brenzel’s work is that he ignores Stravinsky’s dramatic arc; Brenzel treats the sections as 15 separate pieces, each with their own character, not necessarily connected to those around it. On Wednesday, Brenzel said the title “Ritual of the Rival Tribes” reminded him of something Wayne Shorter would have written, so it gets a Shorter-esque treatment, with close swaggering chords over its tricky rhythm. “Glorification of the Chosen One” led Brenzel to the O.G. of classical adaptation for big band, Duke Ellington, and the terrifying horn whoops of the original become party-starting whoops in Brenzel’s score, differing mainly in the end to which their excitement is directed.
Conducting as well, Brenzel praised the Mobtown Jazz Orchestra lavishly, and deservedly so. To begin “Spring Rounds,” the saxes and reeds fluttered under sustained chords in the horns, a texture that both recalled Stravinsky and had a ravishing appeal of its own; Brenzel’s arrangement then packed a lot of activity into a short period, and the orchestra’s keen sense of rhythm had me whipsawed at the twists and turns. Brenzel decided to open up Stravinsky’s brief “The Sage” section with some soloing from the bass, the “low, steady voice of wisdom” in Brenzel’s plan, and Jeff Lopez’s lyrical playing over hushed ostinatos made you glad for the dilation. In “Dance of the Earth,” the rhythmic energy of the original straightened out a little bit, but became more intense in exchange, with the orchestra’s fortissimo brass hits shaking you down to the ground. (Here, especially, I was grateful for the modest confines of the Metro Gallery. The stage couldn’t even hold the whole band (piano and guitar had to sit off to the left), and the crowding made you feel it when the band got rolling.)
To introduce the finale, “Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One),” Brenzel said, “We’re gonna have some fun as we take this out,” and he made good on his word by grafting James Brown-style guitar and drums sections onto Stravinsky’s shifting rhythms to make, improbably, something you could shake your butt to. (Brenzel even picked up his sax and played the Maceo Parker role.) Here was as far from Stravinsky as you could get; and yet, while I drove home, both the original and its swinging child mingled in my brain, each excited by the other. That’s the best kind of arrangement, and I hope to be able to hear it again soon.
BEER: ANOTHER GOOD THING ABOUT THE METRO GALLERY AS A CONCERT VENUE
The Metro Gallery is more like a club than a concert hall, which means you can go to the bar and get beer while you are watching. I only got a beer beforehand, but man did it taste good after my hour and 45 minutes’ drive from Maryland to Balmer. (That was an honest rain delay; it was sheeting out there for a good while.) And the fact remains that, had I not wanted to be on my game to hear all the splendors detailed above, I could have been drinking the whole time. Plus you could get really good beer (my personal example) and not just the Heineken-type brew they pretend to want to serve you at your more upscale concertgoing establishments.
Also, I would like to commend the Mobtown Modern website for having samples from the arrangement available for my listening pleasure. This is a good idea with new stuff. That is all.
Other People’s Perspectives: Tim Smith.