From The Archives: Plumming With Schubert

I’m back from Europe, too jet lagged for any good use but reluctant to go long without posting. In such situations, trolling the Rifftides archive usually hooks something worthy of another look.


August 24, 2005

PlumsA couple of weeks ago, the Italian plum tree in our little orchard broke off at the base of its trunk and fell over, loaded with hundreds of perfect purple plums. Before the hired man chopped it up and hauled it away to a useful end in someone’s fireplace, I harvested the tree’s final crop and stashed it in bushel baskets.

This evening, I pulled a chair up to the dissecting table in the garden shed, switched on the radio and set to work cutting the plums, removing the pits and putting the halves into dehydrators. My timing was lucky. Terry Gross replayed her interesting 2000 interview with Robert Moog, the synthesizer inventor who died on Sunday, and Northwest Public Radio followed Fresh Air with Franz Schubert’s Quintet in C.

(Added for this 2014 revival of the post, here is the first movement, played at the 2008 Zagreb International Chamber Music Festival by Susanna Yoko Henkel and Stefan Milenkovich, violins; Guy Ben-Ziony, viola; Giovanni Sollima and Monika Leskovar, cellos.)

If one of the primary aims of jazz improvisation is the creation of melody, could there be a more inspirational concentration of examples than in this astonishing work? Each of the four movements is awash in melodies that implant themselves in the listener’s mind. The melodies are sustained by Schubert’s harmonic genius, as bold as Beethoven’s; visionary in the early nineteenth century. Any developing jazz player would benefit by paying close attention to the little melodies, as fleeting as thought, in the brooding Adagio, and to the ripping chromatic dance tune of the Scherzo that Shubert contrasts with the movement’s funereal slow section. They are examples to aspire to as surely as those of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, Art Farmer, Paul Desmond, Bobby Hackett, Miles Davis and the other great melodists in jazz.

Solos by Armstrong reflect his love of the Italian operas that were a living part of New Orleans when he was learning. Charlie Parker quoted melodies from classical composers, including Wagner, that he absorbed from radio, records and live performances. Desmond had a fund of Stravinsky phrases on which he worked variations and permutations. How many teachers in the high school and college programs turning out the majority of today’s prospective jazz players immerse their students in melodic geniuses of classical music as well as those of jazz and the Great American Songbook?

To browse nearly nine years of Rifftides posts, go to “Archives” in the right column. You may also enter a name or topic in the “Search The Site” box at the top of the page. There’s a lot of stuff there.

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  1. says

    Schubert was VERY hip! Oh, and Bix was a great admirer of the classics (he actually hung with Ravel in a NY speakeasy; damn, I wish there had been recorders back then)! And finally: ooh, PLUMS! (Voice of Homer Simpson) :>) Welcome home, Doug!

  2. Charlton Price says

    Another great source of inspiration for jazz can be the videos/DVDs of the late great conductor Claudio Abbado. In his long career, especially with the Berlin Philharmonic and with various orchestras and chamber groups that he founded or developed, he collaborated with, rather than commanded, his musicians. He seduced them into listening to each other, beyond just playing their parts. He maintained that the best orchestral playing comes from musicians who also play chamber music (analogous to jazz small groups, rather than big bands). Abbado’s musicians invariably “get down” and “swing,” responding to his eloquent yet subtle body language and non-verbal cues.

  3. David says

    If Schubert had been born in Brazil in the 20th century, would his songs have sounded like this?

  4. Mike Davis says

    At risk of rubbing salt into a fresh wound may I just say you’ve pulled out a real plum with this video. Pure delight.