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5 Great Works Of Modern Chamber Jazz

by Matt Ulery
Jun 25, 2012

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Musical genres always evolve in parallel worlds.

In the 1920s, composers of classical music such as Stravinsky and Copland began incorporating sensibilities of American jazz into their otherwise European musical culture. Various styles of folk music have always been fountainheads of inspiration for "classical" composers, so it was almost inevitable that blues-based music would make its way into the Western concert-music tradition.

At the same time, jazz artists were creating unique, personal music by blending in elements of classical and folk music. Western classical influences include the use of orchestral instruments, through-composed music and the formal presentation of a concert setting. And there are myriad examples of borrowing from other U.S. folk musics, as well as traditions from South America, North and West Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia.

To me, this merger of jazz, folk and classical music — perhaps best described as "chamber jazz" — works best when played dynamically by a relatively small ensemble of soulful, knowledgeable musicians with singular voices. The music I wrote for my new album, By a Little Light, was indeed inspired by Romantic-era classical music, American minimalist composers, Eastern European folk music, modern indie rock and the entire jazz spectrum. But I looked at the project not as going back and forth between jazz and classical worlds; I looked at it as working with great musicians.

What makes these five chamber-jazz tracks interesting is that the composers lead the band, interpret the music and improvise on it; their ensembles are made up primarily of other composer/improvisers.

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