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Another Voyage on Music’s Third Stream

By Fredric Dannen

In November 1959, the Ornette Coleman Quartet traveled to New York and performed at the Five Spot, a jazz club in the Bowery. The bassist, Charlie Haden, was playing with his eyes closed, and when he opened them, there was a man on stage with his ear next to the f-hole of his double bass. Haden turned to Coleman and asked, “Who is this guy?” Coleman told him: “That’s Leonard Bernstein.”

The Third Stream Ensemble: Gershwin, Bernstein, Weill, Bolling & Piazzolla
Wed, Jul 25, 7pm
Teatro Ángela Peralta
Mesones 82
200/100 pesos
Tickets available at the theater; Longhorn Smokehouse (Salida a Celaya 6); Hecho en Mexico (Ancha de San Antonio 8); La Conexión (all 3 locations); Solutions (all 3 locations); or online at

The worlds of jazz and classical music have been colliding for more than a century, at least since 1908, when Claude Debussy composed his ragtime piece “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk.” Debussy’s harmonic language – chromatic sevenths, whole tone scales, ninth and eleventh chords – would later influence jazz composers such as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. In 1923, after spending time in Harlem jazz clubs, the French composer Darius Milhaud wrote his jazz ballet The Creation of the World (French: La création du monde). One of Milhaud’s most famous students was the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck.

To celebrate the confluence of these two musical mainstreams, classical music and jazz, the Third Stream Ensemble will give its third concert on July 25, at the Angela Peralta Theater, in a program featuring works of George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Claude Bolling, and Ástor Piazzolla. All proceeds will go to the Rural Education Institute of Mexico, a non-profit organization with the mission of aiding and encouraging rural Mexican children to further their education.

“Third Stream” is a term coined in 1957 by the American composer Gunther Schuller to describe the melding of classical music and jazz. To this day, there is no consensus on what Third Stream music is – just what it is not. In Schuller’s words, it is not simply jazz with strings in the background, nor is it “inserting a bit of Ravel or Schoenberg between be-bop changes.”

One work on the July 25 program that is surely the essence of Third Stream is Leonard Bernstein’s “Cool,” from West Side Story, which I have arranged for jazz piano trio. “Cool” is written in the form of a fugue, a style of imitative counterpoint perfected by Bach. But it is played in swing time, a propulsive jazz rhythm that results from pairs of eighth notes being played unequally. Three members of the ensemble, pianist Mauro Ledesma, bassist Antonio Lozoya, and percussionist Scott Mason, first performed the arrangement last year, to great acclaim.

Two important 20th Century composers whose jazz-influenced works have not previously been featured by the Third Stream Ensemble–Kurt Weill and Ástor Piazzolla–will be well represented on July 25. Weill’s jazz-steeped The Threepenny Opera (German: Die Dreigroschenoper), debuted in Berlin in 1928, and was immensely popular in Germany, until the Nazis banned it as “degenerate.” The work has since been translated into 18 languages, and yielded a hit song, “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” better known to American audiences as “Mack the Knife.” Violinist Alan Grishman will perform selections from The Threepenny Opera, and two guest performers, including singer/actress Crystal Calderoni, will sing selections from Weill’s Berlin and American theater works.

The composer Ástor Piazzolla transformed the tango of his native Argentina into an entirely new form, nuevo tango, a heady concoction of tango, jazz and classical music. A paradigm of Piazzolla’s ability to blend those styles is his thrilling “La Muerte del Ángel,” which will be performed by flutist Xavier Hernández and pianist Mauro Ledesma. The piece begins in a rapid fugal counterpoint between the two instruments, moves to a contemplative and jazzy piano solo, and ends with the flute and piano in an ecstatic race to the finish line.

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