Opera & Jazz, Side By Side: Puccini & Bechet, 23Arts Initiative & Catskill Jazz Factory

Puccini - Bechet7:00 pm • Friday, January 19th 2018
Mountain Top Library • Tannersville, NY

I recently attended the annual Chamber Music America conference in New York City.
By far, it is my favorite conference of the year as it is more than a networking or transactional oriented gathering. It is a meeting of music lovers, who happen to do business together, that stimulates the sharing of ideas and issues which flourish through not just presentation, but engaged discussion, and is more often than not carried forward by way of correspondence after we have all scattered and gone back to our various places. This year, a session that caught my eye (and I attended) was entitled “Re-Examining the Classical-Jazz Divide.” The discussion centered around two questions important to not only concert presenters, but to educators and performers as well … and ultimately placed in context in terms of the audience as it is the audience that gives reason for presenters and performers to come together to share the music. The questions posed and discussed are:

  • What do classical and jazz idioms stand to gain by being defined as two separate art forms?
  • What would be gained by being unified?

While the conversation was lively, I observed that the majority of the people in the room were performers rather than presenters. This is interesting as the presenters are, in essence, the gatekeepers for the consumers of music, the audience. In all fairness, there were a few presenters (administrators and board members), notably a representative from The Kennedy Center who sat on the panel leading the discussion. It became quite clear as the conversation was carried out that “the need” to categorize and compartmentalize music and present accordingly comes from a somewhat rigid retail marketing viewpoint (think genre record bins, drop-down menus, etc.) rather than embracing what the music actually offers performers and audience members … the glories and pitfalls of a shared experience of making music whether it is “classical” or “jazz” or magical blends of both or being able to present the genres side-by-side.

It is with this backdrop that I am delighted to see 23Arts Initiative and the Catskill Jazz Factory are coming together to present Aaron Johnson—a multi-instrumentalist and scholar of jazz history and culture—leading a performance and talk about where the parallel dimensions of opera and jazz collide. With a condensed chamber group featuring operatic vocals, piano, clarinet, and soprano saxophone, Johnson defines, examines and explores the parallels between Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s bel canto operatic tradition and the sublime sounds of Sidney Bechet’s New Orleans.

While Hudson Sounds readers probably are familiar with Puccini (1858-1924), you may not be as aware of Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), one of New Orleans’ jazz pioneers who contributed to making jazz America’s art music. Bechet originally made his mark as a clarinetist, and at one point while in Europe caught the attention of Ernest Ansermet, the noted Swiss Conductor who conducted the music for the Ballet Russa, and subsequently wrote in a Swiss musical journal, “The extraordinary clarinet virtuoso Bechet is an artist of genius!” Eventually Bechet became even better known as a virtuoso of the soprano saxophone. Although Bechet grew up in New Orleans, played some in Chicago and New York City, much of the latter part of his life was spent in France where he passed away in 1959. As a composer, many of his works stem from his love of France, including the infamous Petite Fleur, Rue des Champs Elysees, and Si tous vois ma mere. Other Bechet compositions one might be familiar with are Chant in the Night, Blues in the Air, Bechet’s Fantasy, and his ode to his Brooklyn home, Quincy Street Stomp. (click here for more info on Bechet).

Now.. getting back to Friday evening’s concert at the Mountain Top Library in Tannersville… when making an inquiry to 23Arts about what we might expect from the program, here’s the response from Aaron Johnson:

When one considers Sidney Bechet’s New Orleans, the faint tinkle of ragtime pianists, exuberance of brass bands and images of steamboats are conjured. Bechet’s jubilant, soaring soprano saxophone and clarinet are certainly the product of this environment, but are equally indebted to the bel canto tradition (the 19th century Italian school of singing). A Creole, Bechet’s doting mother Josephine ushered him to the Opera as a small child and one could imagine a young Sidney becoming enraptured by Edison cylinder recordings of his lifelong hero, Enrico Caruso. Through his study of the clarinet with master Lorenzo Tio Jr (whose methods almost single-handly shaped the New Orleans clarinet tradition), Bechet co-opted a singer’s vibrato (which to this day is unusual to the instrument) and phrased his melodies in a larger-than-life manner that was pointedly influenced by the great Italian tenors. Our programmatic suite of arias by Giaocomo Puccini and selections by Bechet aim to explore this aspect of the Jazz Legend’s artistry with hope of connecting the threads of aesthetic continuity between opera and jazz.”

As a scholar, Aaron Johnson has lectured, given talks and moderated panels regarding the state of jazz, its history, identity, culture and function at notable institutions such as New York University, Jazz at Lincoln Center, The National Jazz Museum of Harlem and the College of William and Mary. As a performer, he has appeared in concerts and jazz club settings as a sideman to notable Jazz artists and rising stars such as Jonathan Batiste, Connie Crothers, Bruce Harris, Michael Mwenso, James Langton’s NY All Star Big Band and The Jimmy Halperin Quartet as well as leading his Quintet with Trumpeter Benny Benack III at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center. In 2009 and 2014, Aaron produced historically accurate recreations of Benny Goodman’s Orchestra (2009, Oregon) and Charlie Parker with Strings (2014, NYC). Operatic soprano Faylotte Crayton-Dover and pianist Steven Feifke join Johnson who will be playing clarinet and saxophone. Among the selections to be performed are:

      • Giacomo Puccini —“O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi
      • Sidney BechetPetite fleur
      • Giacomo Puccini — “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” from Tosca
      • Sidney BechetA moi d’payer

If this whets your curiosity and you are able to go*, you might be interested to know that Hudson-Chatham Tannersville Winery on Main Street is offering an exclusive pre-concert Happy Hour from 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm as well as a post-concert hangout following the performance. A tasting menu will be available as well as complimentary cheese & crackers for attendees. Sounds pretty excellent.

Happy musicking this weekend!

* Admission is by a suggested donation of $10 | More info: (518) 589-5707

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