Chamber Jazz is a most fascinating concept. It has been present in the music’s existence since the 1920s, with the approach adaptable to a variety of styles. Chamber Jazz is essentially a small acoustic ensemble, of generally three to six (occasionally more, far less frequently in duet), musicians performing arranged Jazz, where the interplay between musicians, often very calculated, and the piece itself is the performance’s key attribute. Improvisation is present, though not the defining characteristic. It is also influenced by Western Classical, making it a hybrid (Jazz + Classical), on top of the existing Afro-Western hybrid! Quite a bit of what I name here, “Chamber Jazz”, can be categorized as Third Stream. Throughout the decades this idea has been approached in a variety of ways.
In the 1920s, one pioneer was cornetist Red Nichols and talented members in his circle. They recorded under a variety of names, most famously “The Five Pennies,” but also “Miff Mole and his Little Molers,” “The Charleston Chasers,” and other “clever” titles. This group of New York based modernist musicians, including trombonist Miff Mole, pianist Arthur Schutt, percussionist Vic Berton, and a young Jimmy Dorsey, produced a body of remarkable recordings. These Hot Chamber Jazz exploits, were mainly originals by bandsmen and their cohorts, and featured titles like “Imagination,” (1927) “Hurricane,” (1927) “Delirium,” (1927) and “Boneyard Shuffle,” (1927). These were not typical 32 Bar (AABA), or Blues structures.
Take for example “Delirium:” It begins with an ascending whole-tone intro, followed by hot tympani work from Vic Berton, then into alternating passages of solo and ensemble work, with more whole-tone interludes, and unexpected chord changes. It ends with the same motive it began. Strongly influenced by the Impressionists (Debussy, Ravel, et. al.), “Tiger Rag” and “St. Louis Blues,” it’s definitely not.
In the Swing Era, an alternate to the big bands could be found in bassist John Kirby’s Sextet. A fixture on famous 52nd street from 1937 into the late 1940s, 1930s, the combo had a very steady personnel of Kirby, clarinetist Buster Bailey, altoist Russell Procope, trumpeter Charlie Shavers, pianist Billy Kyle, and drummer O’Neil Spencer. The Kirby Sextet version of Chamber Jazz focused on originals by the band “Effervescent Blues,” “Rehearsin’ For A Nervous Breakdown,” “It Feels Good,” and (it became a hit song) “Undecided,” (all 1939). It is astounding to hear these remarkable arrangements of only six musicians; their tightness, and interplay most exceptional.
“Rehearsin’” provides a most fitting example of the group’s genius. The opening minor strain features a tightly harmonized melody in the three horns, with Kyle’s piano responding. This continues, moving into major, with a string of solos; first Bailey, then Shavers, Procope, and Kyle. Spencer trades two bar phrases with the horns, before the piece comes to a close, with notable attention to dynamics. There are plenty of other fetching moments, from the clever approach of circling the wheel of fifths in “From A flat to C,” (1939) to swinging Beethoven in “Beethoven Riffs On,” (1941).
In the post-war era, there was one group, which for many, came to be the very definition of Chamber Jazz, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Formed in 1952 by pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Kenny Clarke, (replaced by Connie Kay), and bassist Percy Heath. They carried themselves in revolutionary way, at the time, and took their music very seriously, and expected the same of audiences as well. Their repertoire consisted of compositions mainly by the Lewis, and other members: “Vendome,” (1952) “Bag’s Groove,” (1952) “Django,” (1953) and “Donnie’s Theme,” (1963). Whereas Nichols and Gang drew their inspiration from the Impressionists, and Kirby, Beethoven, the MJQ utilized the Baroque Fugue. This produced some fabulous interplay between Lewis and Jackson, on “Vendome,” and “Odds Against Tomorrow,” for example. Kay and Heath kept exceptional time, and all were brilliant improvisers. Their genius lay in their ability to channel a number of musical streams into one elegant river. Of all Chamber Jazz groups, the MJQ had the longest tenure, and most significant impact, and originated a number of standards, the aforementioned “Django,” and “Bag’s Groove,” to name only two. “Django”, in particular, demands the label Third Stream.
These three ensembles are but a handful of many groups to explore this concept. The precision and interplay between these musicians makes for most intriguing listening and represents a somewhat overlooked approach to music making. Smaller ensembles may not have the flash of a big band, or the overt draw of a star-led quartet, but provide for eminently satisfying listening.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]