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Jazz Orchestra explores Holst’s Planets

Verizon Hall
06/08/2018 -  
The Planets: An HD Odyssey”
Joseph Block: “Venus”
Tod Bashore: “Mars” & “Mercury”
Jack Saint Clair: “Jupiter”
Mark Allen: “Saturn & Uranus”
Nick Lombardelli: “Neptune”

Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia: Nick Marchione, Jon Shaw, Tony DeSantis, Joe Magnerelli (trumpets), Dick Oatts, Chris Oatts, Mark Allan, Chris Farr, Tim Warfield (saxes), Randy Kapralick, Jarred Antonacci, Max Seigel, Joe McDonough (trombones), Greg Kettinger (guitar) Lee Smith (bass), Josh Richman (piano), Steve Fidyk (drums), Terell Stafford (conductor)
Duncan Copp (filmmaker)

T. Stafford (© JOP)

Gustav Holst composed The Planets for symphony orchestra a century ago, and it became his most celebrated work, yet he balked at its popularity. He dubbed it “a series of mood pictures.” And it did indeed prove very cinematic outside the concert hall as source material by film composers John Williams and Hans Zimmer in blockbusters movies like Star Wars and Gladiator. Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia music director-conductor reimagines Holst’s mood pictures score through a jazz lens, with five composers reimagining the entire score without whole cloth sampling or vamping the composer’s sonics.

The Planets: An HD Odyssey” was a centerpiece premiere of the 2018 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, co-commissioned by the Kimmel Center and the Houston Symphony. And it had its own claim to the cinema in a film by Duncan Copp that was synced to the live performance. It was comprised of montages of stunning images from NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the Solar System and of the Rover landing and its filmed exploration on Mars.

JOP’s performance was musically HD too. Each The Planets’ seven movements proving uniquely different jazz take, and so cohesively delivered by this orchestra. The composers – Joseph Block, Todd Bashore, Jack Saint Clair, Nick Lombardelli and Mark Allen who was on the bandstand with the other players – were all in attendance in a near sold out Verizon Hall.

Among the many musical highlights “Mars” established the jazz transcendence right from the start, composer Bashore, wisely doesn’t try to compete with a jazz transcription that reached for the grandeur of Holst’s symphonics. Later, Bashore, showing a completely different orchestral contours, later on his variations of “Mercury,” the quicksilver celestial jazz messenger. Joseph Block swoops in with a sultry atmospherics for “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” with a voluptuous orchestral backdrop as soprano sax virtuoso Dick Oatts plays the St. Louis blues lead then it gives way to the famous serenading passage that blooms so voluptuously, pianist Josh Richman weighing in rhythmically on the piano and the inestimable artistry of Lee Smith on double bass. A stunning passage comes Jack Saint Clair, “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.” Holst’s surging string anthem, the fanfares and rumbling orchestral by Holst, adapted a raucous progressive big-band orchestral that Saint Clair vanquishes into a lingering dissonant bass line from Smith then the leading into Stafford stargazing clarion solo rendition of “Jupiter’s” cathartic central theme.

Indeed, the five composers admirably evoking different jazz eras, theories and genres – building it with power and depth, it careens from big band symphonics alla Ellington to Basie Band swing, to orchestral blues, hard bop and most impressive, the thrilling drive of its classical-jazz fusion.

In just five years, JOP under conductor Stafford is already among the most musically accomplished and innovative big jazz bands in the US. They have collaborated with top musicians in jazz, vanguard and veterans including Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Pat Martino, Benny Golson, Larry McKenna, Bootsie Barnes and John Faddis, et. al. This performance tapped a whole new galaxy of possibilities.

The concert opened with a few standard numbers by the superb Jazz Ambassadors of the United States Army Field Band, a jazz forward quintet inspired by the vanguard artistry of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. One hopes that JOP can have them back for a full session down the road.

Who knows what Gustav Holst would think of JOP’s jazz take of his Planets, meanwhile, the audience in Verizon Hall on this night was positively over the moon about it.

Lewis Whittington



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