REVIEW: Sound Unbound Festival Finale - Sketches of Spain / Rhapsody in Blue at the Barbican

Alison Balsom at Abbey Road in 2013
Photo : Hales 8000 / Creative Commons


Sound Unbound Festival Finale: Alison Balsom: Sketches of Spain / Rhapsody in Blue
(Barbican, 30th April, Review by AJ Dehany)

Bernstein Prelude, Fugue and Riffs
Rodrigo arr. Gil Evans Adagio from Concerto de Aranjuez (Sketches of Spain)
Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue (original version for jazz band)

“There’s no such thing as a pretty good omelette.”

I’ve always taken this French proverb (quoted in Alan Fletcher's The Art of Looking Sideways), to mean: unless you burn your kitchen down making it, an omelette will always be great… because it’s an omelette. It’s an notion of inherent perfection, and hard to do wrong.

There’s no such thing as a pretty good Rhapsody In Blue. The joie-de-vivre of Gershwin’s 1924 masterpiece, and the clarity and memorability of its themes make it hard to do wrong by, particularly when it’s played as the finale of the Barbican’s two-day Sound Unbound festival. Have you ever heard a Beethoven’s Ninth which completely hid the masterpiece underneath?

It’s fascinating to hear the original ‘jazz band’ version of the Rhapsody performed by the Britten Sinfonia in a 24-strong band formation. It was originally commissioned by Paul Whiteman. Gershwin was writing up to the last minute, as writers do, sending a page at a time uptown, with Whiteman asking for more piano solos so the orchestra could be done sooner. It uses the sounds of jazz and the format of a piano concerto. We’re used to the later orchestral arrangements. Tonight, in 2017, some audience members were discomfited by the unfamiliarity in the stringless format of such a beloved work, but you might argue this is the Ur-version of it: you might say it’s more authentic. Hipsters, take heed.

The piano soloist always has to do heavy lifting here, and tonight it’s Timo Andres. The improvisations Gershwin’s score indicates always showcase the characteristic personality of the soloist. In Andres’s modern case he displays a tactful discretion that contrasts with, for example, Bernstein’s flamboyant extemporisations on the same brief.

A source of great excitement at this concert is a live realization of Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s Sketches of Spain, with Alison Balsom playing her characteristic Malone-converted Bach C Trumpet. She’s Guildhall-trained and so deeply involved in third-stream music: the cross-pollination between classical and jazz. Her strong identity as a player goes a long way to taking us away from thinking about Miles. The adagio, or track one, of Sketches is glorious to hear realised live, but it did lead me to some troubling thoughts.

In 2014, New York quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing transcribed and re-recorded note-for-note (ish) Miles Davis’s 1959 album Kind of Blue as Blue. I think of this as an act of conceptual art and applaud it. I wish I could love it as music, and I sort of do. We have no problem with scored works with a jazz impetus like Bernstein’s or Gershwin’s, but the fact Miles’s Sketches is a recorded rather than, to us, primarily a scored/performed artefact gives us pause. It seems wrong. But jazz is many things. To ridicule Blue Redux because it’s not improvised (and therefore not jazz) is, to me, missing the point.

Kind of Blue is a record without whose existence life might seem pointless. Anything that makes you think about that album, and about music, is good for me. Sketches of Spain might be the King Lear to Blue’s Hamlet. It’s got a wider range and depth, and an evocation of place that brings you full-body into the colour and bloody energy, history and landscape of Spain, a bitter land which, let us not forget, probably didn’t give us the Spanish Omelette.

Rodrigo’s Concierto will always be remembered because of Miles, just as Bob Dylan’s classics are, arguably, best remembered by the Byrds. Forget Miles for a second. In concert we are reminded of the quality of Gil Evans’s orchestrations. They are incredible. He is one of the great colorists of the twentieth century; and it’s frankly amazing that he was working with jazz musicians at a time in which they couldn’t enter the clubs through the main door without being hassled or beaten up.

Perhaps it’s that sense of societal violence that Miles responded to in Rodrigo. It’s familiar and unfair, and speaks to a sense of the political and social problems that seem to recur whether in Fascist v Anti-Fascist Spain, or the nightclubs of New York, or the snooker club in Peckham.

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