A little bit of this, a little bit of that in Minn. Orchestra's 'TimePiece'by Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The Minnesota Orchestra's first program of the new season includes something a little different.
The composers and performers behind "TimePiece" say they've found a way to truly meld jazz with classical music. It's a new work by St. Paul composer Stephen Paulus and his son Greg Paulus, a jazz trumpeter.
Stephen Paulus is a prolific classical composer who has created 400 pieces during his career spanning decards. What he knows about jazz he learned from his son, and in rather unorthodox manners.
Their common love of music has led to many long conversations about possibilities including one sparked by Greg Paulus listening to some recordings from London.
"Wouldn't it be great if you could have the best of both worlds in a piece?" he wondered. "Great improvising, jazz elements, beautiful symphonic stuff, dissonant modern music, all rolled into one."
Greg is steeped in jazz, and also in electronica, performing as part of the club duo No Regular Play, so he not only had that part covered, he knew where to get the other elements of the composition.
"You know,kind of a father-son collaboration; use each other's strengths to create a bigger whole, I guess," Greg Paulus said.
At a recent recording session, Greg ran through a few riffs as pianist Bryan Nichols and members of the jazz ensemble Fat Kid Wednesdays warmed up. J.T. Bates played drums, Adam Linz was on the upright bass. The band improvised when saxophone player Mike Lewis couldn't make it.
Stephen Paulus, or Steve-O to the band, said the final piece fell into place when he pitched the idea to Osmo Vanska, music director for the Minnesota Orchestra.
"At that time we were calling it a jazz concerto, or concerto for jazz group and orchestra," Paulus said. "And I remember his first comment was 'This is a terrific idea, and this is just what the orchestra needs to do.' "
Proving to be most difficult was actually writing the piece, and finding ways to easily move between the improvised elements of the jazz ensemble and the more structured score needed for the orchestra. The musicians talked a great deal about transitions, Paulus said.
Paulus said they took chord progressions rooted in his compositional style, and left them open-ended enough for a saxophone solo to spring out of the musical sequence.
"It's one method we used to create something that I think is truly a hybrid," he said.
Merging classical music and jazz isn't new, nor are attempts always successful. At the time of recording, the jazz ensemble had yet to rehearse with the full orchestra. But pianist Bryan Nichols said TimePiece works because both of the composers bring such respect for each other's music.
"And that's a lot of the failure in these jazz-classical third-stream projects." Nichols said. "It's either an orchestra trying to swing and not really enjoying it or doing it well, or a jazz group that is trying to play stuff that's just not in the idiom.
"With this we're both able to play in our idioms and meet really comfortably because they wrote everything in that way." The younger Paulus joins the acclaimed jazz trio Fat Kid Wednesdays to perform the composition each evening Thursday to Saturday at Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis.
Improvisation is such a part of TimePiece that both Greg and Stephen Paulus expect a different sound for each of the three performances.
The performance also will deliver on an unusual request from director Vanska, who also plays classical and jazz clarinet. There's a moment in the score where the maestro briefly puts down his baton and improvises from the conductor's podium.
"That could be 30 seconds on the first night, and might be a minute and three-quarters on the second night," Stephen Paulus said.
Paulus has had a long association with the Minnesota Orchestra and his music has been performed worldwide. But this piece is particularly special, he said.
"I'm doing something I really enjoy," Paulus said. "I'm doing it with my son, Greg.
"This has been probably one of the — niftiest isn't quite the right word — but one of the most exciting and joyous creative endeavours in my career and I've been at it for a while.
"Steve-O likes it" he laughs. "Stev-O really likes it."
- All Things Considered, 09/28/2011, 5:51 p.m.