A Little Knight Music at Tanglewood

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

Vijay Iyer (Lena Adasheva photo)

This old canard might aptly apply to the soft season opening of Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed on Friday night, which featured the imaginative and stylish New York City-based orchestral collective the Knights, joined by pianist Aaron Diehl and members of his extended jazz trio. After the past year, bewildering and exhausting for so many (and for so many reasons), a hungry audience followed the suggestion of the concert program, looking to live music as a way to “reconnect, restore, [and] rejoice.”

The evening bracketed around two well-worn but much beloved chestnuts of the orchestral repertoire: first, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (something old–forgive me!) and last, the Rhapsody in Blue of Gershwin. Sandwiched within, the new and undersung: Vijay Iyer’s Crisis Modes and four excerpts from Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite. The program order indicated a desire to position these works in dialogue with one another, to create a travelogue that might cut a byway through the jazz-infused, American urban landscape, with a possible imaginative detour to a French garden.

An enthusiastic (though only partially full) shed audience extended a fervent embrace to the ensemble, now old friends after six prior appearances, earning them a partial standing ovation even before the first downbeat.

Ravel’s beloved elegiac work, composed to commemorate not only the French Baroque composer François Couperin, but also, individual friends of the composer killed in the Great War, provided an attractive apéritif. Alexandra Knoll’s darting oboe offered a clarion call announcing the new season—a call seemingly answered by the cries of a lone, befuddled bird in the shed. One received the ensemble’s cool confidence as a warm invitation to settle back and listen well, and it dawned on me that this was the first time I was hearing live orchestral color since “the before (covid) times.” How my ears have missed these ravishing, reflective moments!

The music (and this performance) felt essentially French, an early summer garden in full bloom with reeds as fine, filigreed shoots. Piquant parallel dissonances met patient, deliberate pacing, while tiny melodic figures were passed off between players, all befitting the composer’s elegant craftsmanship. Summoning some whisps of whispered Andalusian folk melodies (memories perhaps, refracted through the composer’s childhood?), woodwinds provided playful marionette figures ascending to shimmering glass in the high registers, Ravel’s stately neoclassicisms ever nodding in the direction of the Baroque dance forms that inspired the work. The oboe of the final movement felt pillow-soft rather than puckish, revealing the composer’s placid, luxurious side — no shocks to the system here, simply graceful evening lullabies. One gets the sense that these musicians bask (or Basque?) in any chance to perform this music, which so evocatively showcases the power and potential of orchestral color.

In a French garden, the iconoclastic pianist and composer Vijay Iyer is gentian root — earthy, piquant, and tart—and while occupying terrain far from the mainstream, Iyer’s aesthetics offer a fascinating feast for the ears and mind.

Iyer has pursued a highly individual musical vision as a pianist and composer over the past two decades, drawing on his background in musical cognition and mathematics. Like Ravel’s, Iyer’s music possesses the rare quality of seeking not only a new message, but also a new musical language to express it. Iyer’s stated intention for Crisis Modes (scored for percussion and strings) is “to address the struggle” of living in the present day. Iyer doesn’t name the specific struggles that informed this piece, but his busy mind and deep socio-political commitment reveal an artist unafraid to wholly engage with his society.

Thew composer’s background in jazz seems to almost forego or bypass some of the most historically resonant and popular characteristics of the style: his music doesn’t “swing” in any traditional sense, nor is it particularly inflected with the blues. (This places his aesthetic well outside the relative orthodoxy of the “public ambassadors” of jazz at institutions like Lincoln Center, as well as the vast majority of academic jazz training programs.) Iyer does however take from jazz a deep sense of questing, questioning, and social consciousness, all filtered through a highly advanced harmonic and rhythmic toolkit. (As a long-time fan of the metrically-demanding music of the Brooklyn-based M-Base collective led by the alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who Iyer studied with in an early apprenticeship, it feels like a moment to hear music with this fervently anti-establishment pedigree finally land on the concert stage.)

Crisis Modes — for this listener the real highlight of the program — provided a fascinating and psychologically rich orchestral exploration of these influences, and more. Like Ravel’s Tombeau, the piece began its life as a piano work (in this case a recorded piano improvisation by Iyer), which was then orchestrated by the composer, intended for the LA Philharmonic.

In Iyer’s work we hear the real clatter of the modern city. His urban landscape contains a moto perpetuo of low-grade psychological distraction and torment, a scattershot journey that doesn’t linger on any one thought for terribly long, but rather, follows a Joyce-ian stream-of-consciousness that ends up coming off surprisingly organic. This work also reveals Iyer’s deep study of the 20th-century orchestral canon: traces of Berg, Bernstein, Bartók, Ives, and Steve Reich’s Clapping Music appear throughout alongside confident Iyerian passages, a feast of timbral dynamics and intimate percussion.

To some degree, Iyer’s music is predicated on the notion of “groove” — a cyclical rhythmic foundation that provides the foundation for so much African-American popular music. Groove is typically anathema to large orchestras, which tend to be too unwieldly, and frankly, unversed, ever to truly feel the funk. But Iyer’s Crisis Modes, which shuttled in and out of demented waltz grooves with dense cross-patterns, demands this facility, and the collective nature of an ensemble like The Knights, who have the institutional flexibility to commit themselves to learning a piece like this, makes them an ideal foil. As Iyer heaped praise on the group, “they actually like to rehearse!”

Delicate, pensive vibraphone passages anchored by incandescent church bells felt like a salve and balm in concluding the work. As the music coated the shed, a soft summer rain felt like a synchronous accompaniment to Iyer’s orchestration. It’s rare to hear a contemporary work that doesn’t pander to the audience, but challenged it in genuinely new ways, embraced so fervently by that same audience.

Kicking off with brassy smashes of Americana à la John Philip Sousa or George M. Cohan, Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite paired a far more traditional jazz combo approach with orchestral trappings. Like Ravel, Williams dedicated individual moments of the Zodiac Suite to her musical collaborators.

Aaron Diehl (Jaime Kahn photo)

One of the most prolific, and yet woefully underacknowledged, arrangers of the swing era, and teacher to far better heralded bebop titans like Thelonious Monk, Williams stands in a long line of black musicians (one thinks most poignantly of Joplin’s opera Treemonisha) who aspired to have their concert music taken seriously by the classical establishment, a continued battle for institutional respect that feels sadly relevant to the present moment. But Williams’s legacy as one of the most borrowed from (and yet uncredited) jazz arrangers has recently, finally earned for her—40 years after her death—the accolades her music deserved all along.

Finding a way to successfully “combine jazz and classical music” may have stood as the “solving Fermat’s Last Theorem” of American art music of the 20th century, and, with very rare exception, so often resulted in music that felt authentic to neither tradition. (As a contemporaneous New York Times review suggested upon the Zodiac Suite’s 1945 debut at Town Hall, “the composition was scarcely a jazz piece at all, making its appeal as more serious work–how successfully time will tell.”)

At least on the basis of finding a common musical language and shared cultural foundations, swing-based jazz and the rhythmic foundations of orchestral music make awfully strange bedfellows, and at least for this listener, this collision often juts out in a way that feels lurching and underbaked. (In addition to the forthcoming and final work on this program, Bernstein’s West Side Story, composed not for the concert stage but for the dance-based medium of Broadway, has stood as the most commercially successful amalgam of this canon.)

Another helpful way to consider this work then is as a direct and evocative historical artifact of a fascinating era of musical transition (between swing and bop) and attempted cultural hybridization. Williams’s work borrows freely not only from Ellington (who indeed, borrowed her arranging gifts in turn), but from the symphonic pedagogue Paul Hindemith, as well as 1940s film noir scores—especially as Anthony Harvey wistfully summoned a brassy, vibrato-drenched, “Hollywood” style of jazz trumpet playing that is rarely heard live anymore.

One wished for more moments where Aaron Diehl’s group could really stretch out.  The few moments the piece allotted were appealing, but seemed consistently to end too quickly. Similarly, as we heard only four excerpts from the larger suite, the ending to the final “Scorpio” movement felt oddly truncated and provided an abrupt ending, even for a sampling of the work. Like jazz itself, Williams’s intriguing work is perhaps best viewed as a site for continual reimagining and exploration.

Finding the appropriate pianist for Gershwin’s familiar, exhilarating Rhapsody is one of the great challenges of programming or recording this work. In Diehl, The Knights have found a collaborator with an emerging, appealing voice at the keyboard, an artist well versed in jazz but more than up to the task of fielding Gershwin’s fiendish and pyrotechnical piano part.

Diehl reveals a pensive, feathery touch at the keyboard rather than an explosive one. (That said, Diehl handled the work’s Rachmaninoff-ian double octave passages with assured grace.) On occasion, he conjured some appealing flashes of Fats Waller (and others) by “ragging” the piano part, though as with the Williams work, one wished for more chances for him to truly let go in this manner. Diehl’s silky, buttery approach, less spikey and percussive than usually heard in this work, paired with Jacobsen’s patient pacing, had the effect of forsaking the angular, Stravinsky-inspired elements of the score in favor of Gershwin’s elegant and lugubrious (yet still somehow cosmopolitan) blues influences. This worked particularly well on the Rhapsody’s famous lyrical melody. In all its many usages and resonances, does anything sound more like America? And Agnes Marchione’s sultry two-octave glissando, perhaps the most famous clarinet lick in the repertoire, felt as relaxed as a summer hammock, though also revealed a refreshing lack of self-indulgence.

In my own dedicated city-dweller’s experience of this event, Gershwin’s urbanity danced best with Iyer’s clattered city mind. The evening provided a satisfying and quite satiating return to Tanglewood’s muddied pleasure garden, and it’s wonderful to be reminded that I’m not alone in all this muddled euphoria.

Jason McCool comes from a line of people who have been asked, “Is that your real last name?” Originally from Brockton, MA, Dr. McCool completed his doctoral work in musicology at Boston University in 2020, writing a dissertation on Hamilton: An American Musical, and has been an Adjunct Professor of Music at Boston College since 2018. He holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music in jazz trumpet performance and the University of Maryland in historical musicology, and remains a proud member of Actors’ Equity even if he only gets to act out on the page these days.