Duke Ellington and Grieg to be saluted at Jazz @ The Jacobs Orchestra's debut gig
by George Varga
Jazz giant Duke Ellington performs in this undated photo. His music will be saluted at Saturday's concert by the Jazz @ The Jacobs Orchestra and the San Diego Symphony. (Photo by Herman Leonard / Courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery)
Just call it a night of many firsts: There will be multiple debuts when the San Diego Symphony hosts Saturday’s Big Band Bash concert with the Jazz @ The Jacobs Orchestra.
It will be the first performance by the orchestra, an 18-piece big band led by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos. He’s the oh-so-savvy curator of the three-year-old Jazz @ The Jacobs concert series.
It will be also the first joint performance by the newly formed big band and the symphony. They are teaming up on Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s elegantly swinging 1960 adaptation of Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite,” one of two best-known works by the famed Norwegian composer.
And it will be the realization of a goal Castellanos has had for many years.
“Mixing jazz and a symphony orchestra has always been a dream of mine,” said the trumpeter, band leader and music educator.
On Wednesday night, he will receive the Jazz Journalists Association’s national Jazz Hero awards, one of 26 being given out this year, in an 8 p.m. ceremony at Balboa Park’s Panama 66, where he leads the weekly Young Lions jam session. The city of San Diego has declared Wednesday Gilbert Castellanos Jazz Hero Day.
“One of the first ideas I approached the San Diego Symphony with was doing Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ ‘Sketches of Spain’ with the orchestra,” he continued. “That was a dream of mine, even before I got involved with the symphony.”
For now, at least, “Sketches of Spain” is on the back burner.
But Castellanos is understandably delighted to be teaming with the orchestra. It will be an unprecedented collaboration for both.
The concert will open with the big band, which features such top musicians as El Cajon piano wizard Joshua White, Los Angeles saxophonist Justo Almario, Golden Hill bassist Rob Thorsen and San Diego trumpeters Curtis Taylor and Derek Cannon. As an added enticement, charismatic Los Angeles singer Barbara Morrison will also be showcased.
“I picked all my favorite players!” said Castellanos, 44, who has been a member of the Grammy-nominated Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra since 1999. “The most exciting thing is knowing you have a very high caliber band and that the sky is the limit.”
Then comes the concert’s second half with the San Diego Symphony. Thomas Wilkins will conduct.
“I have arranged Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ so that it will be a mixture of the orchestra and the big band. This is probably the first time it’s ever been performed this way,” Castellanos said, speaking recently from Oakland, where he was teaching a series of master classes.
Gilbert Castellanos is the curator of the San Diego Symphony's Jazz @ The Jacobs concert series and the leader of the new Jazz @ The Jacobs Orchestra. (Photo by Joe Moore)
A long musical journey
In 1874, Grieg was asked to compose the music to Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play “Peer Gynt,” a five-act allegorical drama about a Nordic anti-hero seeking redemption. He readily agreed to the request from Ibsen, a good friend, but struggled for more than a year to complete the music.
As Grieg put it at the time: “It is a terribly unmanageable subject.”
The play premiered in 1876, in what is now Oslo. Grieg expanded and re-orchestrated the score in 1885 and again in 1902. It was comprised of nearly two dozen pieces that, together, clocked in at 90 minutes.
Fast forward to 1960 and the album “Swinging Suites by Edward E. and Edward G” by Ellington and his star-studded orchestra. The album featured Strayhorn-led arrangements of five movements from Grieg’s work, along with “Suite Thursday,” four original compositions inspired by John Steinbeck’s 1954 novel, “Sweet Thursday.”
The result is slightly over 16 minutes of richly textured music. It is performed by such illustrious Ellington band members as trombonist Juan Tizol and saxophonists Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney.
Alas, the Grieg Foundation in Norway reacted with immediate hostility to the jazzy adaptation, which they charged sullied Grieg’s legacy. Consequently, not only was the Ellington album banned outright for 10 years throughout Scandinavia, so were any live performances and radio broadcasts of it.
Critics in the U.S., meanwhile, generally panned Grieg’s work as being lightweight and unworthy of an artist of Ellington’s stature. More favorable reappraisals came with the passing of time, although it appears Ellington and his band never performed the Grieg suite in its entirety live even once.
A rare performance
That makes Saturday’s concert of “The Peer Gynt Suite” by the Jazz @ The Jacobs Orchestra and the San Diego Symphony all the more welcome.
But it is a task easier discussed than done. Accordingly, Castellanos is quick to sing the praises of the symphony’s Associate Director of Artistic Planning, Megan Swan.
“She’s really my right-hand person,” he said. “Megan’s been a big help to me organizing all this. And, with ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King,’ she really helped me cut and paste parts for the orchestra and make sense of it. She’s an incredible asset and she’s been super supportive of Jazz @ The Jacobs. And she’s a trumpet player, with a degree in music from USC, which is another reason we get along so well!”
Swan, who plays both classical and jazz, is equally enthused.
“Gil and I had a great time talking through what the whole experience could be with this concert,” she said. “We also really looked at how putting jazz and the orchestra in one concert could have a couple of different spins to it.
“Both of us quickly came to the conclusion not to portray differences between the two, or give any sort of reason why one person could like one part of the concert — or one ensemble’s playing — better than the other. The goal is to really show that these are two ensembles that are passionately digging into the musical essence of everything they play.”
Saturday’s performance of the “Peer Gynt Suite” will drop “Solveig’s Song,” one of the five Grieg pieces on the Ellington album. It will also change the sequence of the other four pieces, three of which will be played alternately by the orchestra and the big band.
And, in an intriguing shift, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” — the second of the five “Peer Gynt” selections on the album — will conclude the concert. It is this piece that will truly integrate the big band and the orchestra, thanks to Castellanos’ new arrangement.
“It was very important to both Gil and me to see if we could have both ensembles play together,” Swan said.
“This way, it won’t be one playing and then the other — and a checkerboard of the two arrangements, but an integration of how these two artists heard the same musical scenes. This way, you’ll hear a true collaboration of these jazz players improvising in the style of Ellington, but with the soundtrack of Grieg’s original score.”
Will concerts by the Jazz @ The Jacobs Orchestra become an annual affair?
“That’s a good question,” Castellanos said. “It will be determined, really, by the San Diego Symphony.”
“So I’m hoping our ‘audition’ Saturday night at Jacobs Music Center will go well and that we’ll get more work out of it. I want to keep it alive and going. I’d like the Jazz @ The Jacobs Orchestra to do one concert per season. This will be a new chapter, not only for me, but the San Diego jazz community. And it’s an opportunity to represent this community on a national level.”
Big Band Bash, with the Jazz @ The Jacobs Orchestra and the San Diego Symphony, conducted by Thomas Wilkins
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B St., downtown
Phone: (619) 235-0804