Monday, February 27, 2017

Orchestra U.S.A. - Debut


Pianist John Lewis, best known as the music director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, was always interested in classical music nearly as much as jazz, and throughout his career he worked on ways to combine the styles, even before the term "third stream" had been coined to describe such fusions. One of his most ambitious projects was the formation, in 1962, of Orchestra U.S.A., a chamber orchestra made up of some of New York City's best musicians. The idea was that the orchestra would be able to play jazz, contemporary classical music, or anything in between.Gunther Schuller signed on as conductor, and the original personnel included the likes of Eric Dolphy, Phil Woods, Jim Hall and Richard Davis from the jazz world, and Harvey Phillips, Robert DeDomenica, and Nathan Goldstein from the classical side - although many of the these players, and others in the orchestra, were equally at home in both musical worlds.

The first of the group's three albums came out in 1963 on Colpix, the record division of Columbia Pictures (and unrelated to the Columbia Record Company). Aside from a brief reading of "The Star Spangled Banner" as arranged by Schuller, all the pieces on Debut were written by John Lewis or Gary McFarland, who was something of a Lewis protege at the time.

This is an interesting, even valuable album; for one thing, there are a couple of solos by the great Eric Dolphy. But it seems to me that the music or Orchestra U.S.A. is, in the end, something less than the sum of its parts. It's just not very compelling, at least to my ears. For instance, the longest piece on the record, Lewis's suite "Three Little Feelings," doesn't work nearly as well in this setting as in its original brass ensemble version.

The group's final album, Sonorities, was, at least in part, a more fully realized album. But if much of Orchestra U.S.A.'s music wasn't quite successful, it was at least a noble effort.

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