Absolutely hip

It wasn’t too long after jazz was invented that some people started looking for ways to combine this new upstart with classical music. Sound like a bad idea? Mostly it has been. The search for so-called “Third Stream music” has mostly dug a lot of dry holes.

Now comes a real gusher from New York City that mixes the oil and water of jazz and classical — and quite a bit more than that — more completely than this skeptic ever thought possible. The Absolute Ensemble, 17 classically trained musicians who collectively also play a good number of jazz, rock, New Music, Broadway and Latin licks, makes music that is warm, inviting, humorous, fun-filled, spontaneous … and yet deeply symphonic, even “serious.”

Yet Absolute’s two new releases on Enja Nova, Habanera and Absolution, will appeal to a much bigger audience than jazzers and broad-minded symphonic fans. So will its upcoming area debut under the auspices of the Pro Musica Society of Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts Auditorium. Yes, Absolute’s music swings like crazy even as its overall classical ensemble is indeed the real deal. But what makes this band truly outstanding is that there’s no telling where one style of music ends and another begins. The group has tossed a big bunch of musical roots into a blender and poured out something that has a truly new, unique flavor.

“What we are doing,” says Absolute’s young founder and conductor Kristjan Järvi, “is creating the vehicle for a truly American kind of musical entity. We’re not a real orchestra, we are not a real rock band, we are not a real jazz band.”

Järvi, the founder and conductor of this profoundly American band, is the son of Detroit Symphony Orchestra music director Neeme Järvi. So he comes by his bracing, eclectic musical vision honestly, reflecting his dad’s doggedly big-eared attitude toward music. But where Järvi senior is a real repertoire hog — continually presenting forgotten or undiscovered symphonic gems — his son is operating at a more molecular level, where genuinely new music is created.

“Definitely, my dad is in many ways the biggest role model for me,” Järvi junior says. “He’s always looking for new stuff, always putting a new twist on old stuff. Like Thomas Edison, if you want to make things better, you have to experiment and you have to blow some stuff up sometimes. If you don’t do that, you’ll never know if it would have worked.”

Kristjan inadvertently launched what eventually became Absolute while still studying at the Manhattan School of Music. He says he “didn’t know anything about conducting,” but fellow students were constantly writing new things for classical ensembles, “breaking all the rules” and eager for someone, anyone, to conduct their stuff. Järvi volunteered, and then gradually figured out something that was very cool.

“We realized the kind of music we were performing was really incorporating all different elements of the classical spectrum, from Renaissance to rock. That is what actually created this philosophy of breaking down all borders and really playing absolutely all music.

“But we couldn’t call ourselves ‘the band that specializes in everything.’”

So instead, starting in 1993, they called it the Absolute Ensemble. Ironically (but not surprisingly) the band has only rarely played American dates outside of New York City, where it now performs about five times yearly. It’s had its most success in the Baltic nations, where Järvi says concertgoers hear the group not as eclectic but as American — a reflection of, as Järvi puts it, “that melting pot thing.”

The arrangers who bring Järvi’s melting pot to life include Franco D’Rivera (son of Latin jazz giant Paquito), Charles Coleman and Jan Frankel — hardly household names, but each astonishingly adept at weaving a chamber orchestra’s traditional instrumentation of strings, horns, brass and percussion into ever-shifting, unorthodox but immensely appealing textures. The group’s sound, even within relatively short tunes, is always changing. Each song is a miniaturized gem that, at least in terms of ingenious orchestration, recalls Duke Ellington, Thad Jones and other great jazz composers.

Better yet, the ensemble players have a strong grasp of the disparate elements implicit in Absolute’s charts.

“There’s a lot of stuff happening with these musicians,” Järvi says. “They make a living in New York City, so they start becoming good at everything because they need to. It’s great to live in a city where you can find people who are able to play jazz gigs and classical gigs and Broadway gigs because that’s their job, and yet what they really want to do is some kind of experimental music and have their own ideas.”

Absolute’s wide-open approach gives its members plenty of running room. Just listen to pianist Matt Herskowitz’s jazz comping and soloing, and his dazzling classical cadenzas throughout the Habanera disc; then try and figure out which is which. The album dips deeply into Gershwin, Ellington, the Cuban son tradition and Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop, and features guest jazz artists such as Paquito D’Rivera, Kenny Drew Jr. and Mino Cinelu — adding distinctive flavors and directions to Absolute’s beguiling mix.

Or check out the radical sounds, lively swing and unabashed humor implicit in nearly every bar of Absolution, which is mostly devoted to American New Music. Seldom has such experimenting felt so spontaneous and nonacademic. Trombonist Dave Taylor’s star turn on the Schnyder “Concert for Bass Trombone,” for example, is full of chortles, snappy retorts and gentle caresses. But they’re brilliantly tied together with true storytelling ability, thanks to his jazz background and Järvi’s strong sense of classical structure. It’s got all the stuff most jazz-classical hybrids are sadly, even embarrassingly, lacking.

Järvi says Absolute’s live show is even more wide-open, spontaneous and untraditional.

“It has to do with a lot of lighting, how we dress, everything really creating a vibe and a real atmosphere that transcends and gets everybody ready for what they are about to witness,” he says. “It is so exciting and constantly changing that you actually feel like, ‘Hey, I never knew classical concerts could be like this!’ You are shifting gears so much that you actually keep the intensity and the attention at your fingertips.”

Järvi and company are on a mission. They are part of the new breed of classical musicians who fiercely love the grand tradition they’ve embraced, but who are impatient with the classical establishment’s resistance to change, particularly in embracing new forms that reflect the zeitgeist. Järvi believes that the under-40 crowd would love classical music — and a whole lot more beyond the latest rock, rap and alternative bands — if it were only presented in a way that makes sense to them.

“That is what we are all about — breaking down those barriers that have relegated it (classical music) into the past, making it not relevant for anybody alive today, which is completely not true,” he says. “This is part of why we are doing what we are doing. Finally, we are living in a day and age where what we have to present is good music. We can’t keep segregating one into one category and another type into another. It is retail and commerce that has created those artificial boundaries.”

Jim Dulzo writes about jazz, new music and the absolute truth for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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