Garrett List Brings Them Together March 6, 1978

Garrett List is finding a new way of fusing jazz and classical, and one which, to my ears at least, offers both idioms at once, and on all levels. List has been working in this direction for some time, writing many songs that sounded jazzy, composing instrumental pieces that sounded classical, and working in improvising ensembles that could go either way. But in his February 10 concert at the Kitchen, I sensed that it all had come together.

Most of the time the style leaned neither toward one side nor toward the other. Nor did it bounce back and forth between the two. Somehow the music remained serenely in the middle, drawing on both the energy of jazz and the formalistic control of classical music, without ever sounding quite like either. Much of the success of List’s recent concert had to do with his fine ensemble of 10 musicians, which included fine players from both camps: Dave Burrell, Akua Dixon, Gayle Dixon, Mel Graves, Byard Lancaster, Ursula Oppens, Carla Pool, Rolf Schulte, Sadiq Abdu Shahid, and Genie Sherman.

The first half of the program was devoted to four of List’s ‘Orchestral Etudes.’ I particularly like ‘Elevator Music,’ which moves along in 3/4 time, allowing the musicians to select their own notes from a sequence of written chords. The notation technique is derived from Christian Wolff, whose music always sounds classical, but the method of playing this notation allows for more rhythmic character, and the result is lilting, almost jazzy.

‘Slugging Rocks,’ the newest work from this series, slugs along at a slow steady beat. At first the musicians play only two or three pitches, but gradually the spaces between the slow beats are filled out with more pitches and faster rhythms. Occasionally a solo line rises out of the texture. The piece leaves room for improvising, room for a big climax, room for the musicians to enjoy themselves the way musicians generally do. But there is also a respect for strict controls and logical processes that one finds in recent classical music.

The second half offered a new work, ‘Standard Existence.’ The piece has lyrics by Jacki Apple that convey the general tone of the piece.

Last night’s revolution

Caught in the chain of evolution

It’s turning cold, growin’ old...

In spite of your resistance

Standard existence

Has got you nailed.

The first movement plumbs these doldrums with a statement by a sad, resigned housewife, extracted from Stud Terkel’s Working. The second movement digs a little deeper with the Jacki Apple poem. The third touches bottom with an account of the death of the composer’s father. The purely instrumental music of the final ‘Dance’ comes up smiling, trying to accept the whole situation, but without lifting the mood very much. In all four movements the somber emotions of the piece are conveyed neither with the open-throated wailing of a grimacing saxophonist, nor with the correctness of a well-dressed soprano, but with an in-between delivery that I found quite believable.

The work is a touching statement of a kind of ’70s futility, which I think many of us have been feeling lately, but the most touching moment of all was List’s own trombone solo for the third movement. He hardly played a note. He just breathed in and out of his horn, allowing little moans and sputters and whishes that seemed quite expressive of the final breaths of the man who was dying in the accompanying text. It was gratifying to hear these special trombone sounds taken in an emotional direction, rather than serving merely as motifs, as they so often do in recent classical music. But it was also gratifying to hear these special trombone sounds taken in the direction of subtlety, rather than serving merely as vehicles for raw emotion, as they so often do in recent jazz.