The American Composers Orchestra offers jazz professionals a extraordinary opportunity with recent concerts

In a hectic week running up to my production of the 15th annual Jazz Journalists Association’s Jazz Awards, I made sure to attend the jazz symphony. Missing the Vision Fest, the first fabulously promising days of the Blue Note Jazz Club Festival and Roy Hargrove’s buzzed-about band at the Vanguard wasn’t my preference, but OK, one can’t be everywhere. The American Composers Orchestra readings of eight new five-minute compositions by musicians associated far more with jazz than classical orientations, though was a must-hear.

Because how often do so-called “jazz” composers get a visionary and committed professional and virtuosic ensemble with as empathetic and respectful a conductor as George Manahan to devote its attentions to what are typically first efforts at orchestral composition? Beyond seldom though not quite never, thanks most recently to the ACO.

Last March at Zankel Hall in a series it called “Playing It UNsafe” the ACO debuted a work commissioned from Henry Threadgill, a reedist/composer deeply affiliated with jazz who has over the past 40 years extended himself into every type of idiomatic, experimental, chamber and larger ensemble context. But the readings at Miller Theater—co-sponsored by Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies—of scores by drummer Harris Eisenstadt, bassist Mark Helias, saxophonists Erica Lindsay and Adam Jenkins, flutist Nicole Mitchell, bassist Rufus Reid, pianists Jacob Sacks and Marianne Trudel were not official premieres. They were high-level run-throughs with the composers in the audience to respond publically to the orchestra’s renditions, and resulted in recordings of the pieces that the composers could take home with them, perhaps to release in their own ways in the future. Yet that’s not the point.

Such documentation to a first-time orchestral composer is invaluable. They can, and no doubt will, listen back studiously to the way music they heard in their heads, composed on computers or on paper but really could only imagine until they heard it played by an aggregate of 40 musicians. The balances, the blends, the colors of an orchestra of strings, winds and percussion are quite unlike those of a combo or even a big band. How does one learn to write for these forces without having access to them and giving it a try? For most musicians, even composers from classical conservatories, the opportunity does not exist.

Why should it be offered to jazzers? Well, why not? Why exclude creators of the most flexible and diversified art forms born in America from any opportunity to stretch themselves? And why maintain the divide between jazz and so-called “classical” forces? There should be no barrier between jazz and what is best thought of as contemporary composition. Composers since Debussy and Ravel have dipped into jazz for ideas. Copland and Stravinsky composed for Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, respectively. It may be argued that expansive, exploratory jazz for big bands began because Duke Ellington was never able to get in front of a symphonic orchestra. (Or maybe he just liked the sounds of growly trumpets, swinging saxes and drums better than massed violins and cellos.)

There were few hints of idiomatic jazz in these orchestra pieces, developed over a year of consultation between the composers (who were selected through an elimination process) with the ACO and mentor composers Anthony Davis, Tania Leon and Alvin Singleton. Of the eight works, I liked best “Eisenstadt’s Palimpset,” which had a lovely duet passage for French and English horns; Mitchell’s “Stealing Freedom In Broad Daylight,” which was as bold as the action described by its title, and Reid’s “Mass Transit: Metropolis,” the only composition of the eight which utilized that jazz staple, the walking bass (Reid is a veteran bassist, perhaps best known for his tenure with Dexter Gordon). Those works had strong lines and structures. None had any improvisation, and if they swung or included touches of the blues, I missed them in the richness of their overall sound.

“Improvisation is not what the orchestra members do,” Eisenstadt told me after the show. “One of the composers told them ‘In this part, you can do what you want,’ and their response was, ‘We’d rather you told us what you want.’”

That’s the real divide between the orchestra and the jazz ensemble, and it goes to the root of the difference in values between Western classical tradition and American vernacular expression. However, the ACO acknowledges, as few symphony orchestras do, that to develop the age-old tradition must engage with newer concepts. Jazz musicians now have some of the freshest and most original proposals for the organization of sound of anyone anywhere. Kudos to the ACO and Center for Jazz Studies for advancing the missions of both musical forms. Fascinating music, serious and surprising, came from the efforts. Hope it happens again.