SWING IT! For the Rosenthal Trio, Chopin’s “standards” are as useful as Gershwin’s or Porter’s.
The sound was maddeningly familiar. A beautiful ballad melody spelled out by a pianist with perfect mastery of the legato line — the widely spaced notes leaning one into the next, the voice leading in the left hand, the little pools and eddies of ornamentation — was supported by brushes and bass. Surely this was a standard I just couldn't recall. Those rhythms seemed to imply the syllables of written words.
But it was Chopin's Nocturne in F minor, played by the Ted Rosenthal Trio on their new Impromptu
(Playscape). The album is a collection of classical themes arranged for jazz-piano trio by Rosenthal — Chopin, Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Puccini, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky. You could argue that these mostly romantic composers with their lyrical melodies lend themselves to translation into other styles. But Rosenthal doesn't necessarily adhere to a piece's given mood. The somber first theme from the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony moves quickly into fast bebop swing (with phrasing, notes Rosenthal, inspired by Sonny Rollins's "Pent-Up House"). The same composer's "June" (Barcarolle in G minor, from "The Seasons") is a down-and-dirty blues. The Brahms Ballade in G minor, fast with brushes, moves into a Brazilian groove for the solo section.
Jazz players, like everyone else, have been adapting classical themes for æons. That goes back at least to Ellington's arrangement of The Nutcracker, to the Modern Jazz Quartet's Bach, and, more recently, to Uri Caine's Wagner, Bach, and Mahler, and Donal Fox's mash-ups of Bach, Scarlatti, Monk, and blues. Caine has treated The Goldberg Variations with electronics and turntables; Fox likes to straddle classical and jazz. Rosenthal is simply looking for good material to make traditional piano jazz with.
"Whenever I play this music with larger groups," he tells me on the phone from New York, "the horn players, say, will see 'F. Chopin' on the page, and they'll suddenly stand up straighter. I have to tell them, 'It's a beautiful melody with beautiful chord changes. Let's just play it like we play everything else.' "
That often means radically reworking the originals. "As jazz players, we usually work with much less material than you find in the average classical piece." So the scissors come out. "The Chopin has a whole middle section that I don't even deal with — which makes it work as a jazz presentation. It sounds like a 32-bar ballad." Likewise, the repetition of Brahms's asymmetrical phrases would tire over several choruses of improvisation — thus, a Brazilian vamp. "Somewhere between Brazilian and funky Brazilian, depending on how we play it," says Rosenthal, laughing. He told drummer Quincy Davis to think of Ahmad Jamal playing "Poinciana" with drummer Vernel Fournier. (The Rosenthal trio's bassist is the adept Noriko Ueda.) And for "June," he went after an Errol Garner reference. Rosenthal — a Thelonious Monk Piano Competition winner who's played in all kinds of contexts — says that the classical piano literature returns him to his early studies: "Being the typical kid in the practice room, thinking, 'This is nice the way Chopin played this, but what about playing it like . . . ?"