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The best CDs that fuse classical and jazz music

January 15, 2011 |  9:30 am

In Sunday's Arts & Books section, I explore the storied history of fusing two distinct music forms, jazz and classical. Walt Disney Concert Hall will be hosting two high-profile fusions: on Friday, pianist Brad Mehldau comes in with a jazz combo (including the saxophonist Joshua Redman) and a chamber orchestra conducted by Scott Yoo to perform Mehldau’s recent double album, “Highway Rider.” On Feb. 12 and 13, Wynton Marsalis merges his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in his “Swing Symphony.”

Over the decades, there have been many attempts to make meaningful, exciting, edgy and/or beautiful music on recordings out of the improbable fusion of jazz and classical music. Some, alas, never found their audience –- or did, but are no longer in-print.

Here is a short list of my favorite albums that successfully fuse jazz and classical music:

Gershwin: “Rhapsody In Blue,” “An American in Paris”: Leonard Bernstein (conductor, piano), New York Philharmonic, Columbia Symphony, Columbia Jazz Band (Sony Classical Masterworks). To this day, Bernstein’s performances of the Gershwin pieces are the jazziest, least-inhibited ones that I know of on disc. Elsewhere in this “expanded” edition (there are other configurations available), you get Bernstein’s brashly swaggering “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs,” written for but never played by the Woody Herman band.

“Ebony Concerto”: music by Stravinsky, Victor Babin, Morton Gould, Bernstein, Artie Shaw. John Bruce Yeh (clarinet), DePaul University Wind and Jazz Ensembles (Reference Recordings). Yeh, a member of the Chicago Symphony, displays a more idiomatic grasp of classical and jazz styles than most in this selection of mid-20th century pieces, put forth in sumptuous sound. This duplicates “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” but Yeh’s rip-roaring rendition is a match for Lenny’s own (with Benny Goodman).

Stan Kenton: “The Innovations Orchestra” (Capitol Jazz). This anthology from 1950-51 represents the furthest out that Kenton went toward embracing contemporary classical music, often massive in texture, yet not quite losing touch with the pulse and pizazz of jazz.

Miles Davis: “Sketches of Spain” (Columbia/Legacy). Of all of the sublime collaborations between trumpeter Davis and arranger Gil Evans, this one comes the closest toward landing in the Third Stream, explicitly so when Davis and Evans adapt themes by Rodrigo and De Falla into their own moody idiom.

Modern Jazz Quartet: “Third Stream Music” (Wounded Bird). Recorded not long after Gunther Schuller gave classical-jazz music a name, “Third Stream Music” is one of the best examples of what his movement was aiming for, an effective fusion of the MJQ’s cool swing with the Beaux Arts String Quartet’s classical base.

Herbie Mann: Concerto Grosso in D Blues (Wounded Bird). A beautiful, little-known piece of classical-jazz from flutist Mann and his quintet, co-composer/arranger William Fischer and 80 musicians from Berlin. The piece is structurally sturdy, even while roaming from Tchaikovsky to New Orleans to Stockhausen and back, stocked with lyrical motifs that stay with you.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra: “Apocalypse” (Columbia). Don’t listen to the jazz police who have no use for jazz-rock; this gorgeous, fiery and serene collaboration between electric guitarist John McLaughlin and the fearless young Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony belongs in the line of workable classical-jazz fusions.

Marsalis: “All Rise”: Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sony Classical). Probably the most successful of Marsalis’ efforts to merge the idioms — certainly his most exuberantly all-embracing attempt on discs.

— Richard S. Ginell

Brad Mehldau's Highway Rider with chamber orchestra; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Friday; $45.75-$118; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Los Angeles Philharmonic with Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Feb. 12 and 2 p.m. Feb. 13; $61.50-$182; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Video: Vintage clip of Leonard Bernstein leading the complete "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs."

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