New England Jazz Ensemble “Peter and the Wolf,” Fendel’s High Standards weighs in.

Sergei Prokofiev originally composed “Peter and the Wolf” to help present orchestral music, and introduce the instruments of the symphony orchestra, to young audiences. The narrative and musical adaptation of the animal sounds served to interest young audiences in the classical music of the day. Fast-forward (OK…slow forward) to the 21st century, and a big band provides an  equally compelling setting, and a tool for introducing jazz styles and genres, to all audiences. In one extended work, arranger Walt Gwardyak explores many different jazz styles including Blues, Salsa, New Orleans Jazz, Cool Jazz, Jazz Waltz, etc., and uses different instruments or combinations to represent the characters in the story. Equally renowned for his instrumental work (piano) and compositional achievements, Gwardyak is a founder and the music director of the New England Jazz Ensemble, which was formed in 1991 to showcase the compositions and arrangements of jazz musicians in the region. In and of itself, this re-imagination is a fascinating and engaging musical exercise, even without the historical context. The benefit of using “Peter and the Wolf” to introduce jazz to new audiences is an added bonus: just as occurred with classical music more than 75 years ago, new audiences will discover –and some will re-discover—jazz, America’s
cultural gift to the world.

 

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In Prokofiev’s mid-1930s world, the story engaged children right from the top; the music was a stealthy way to get their attention without even realizing they were attending a classical performance. For this recording, the much-heralded vocalist Giacomo Gates composed a hipper version of the libretto, which lends additional stylistic interest and accessibility to the work.
Despite the distractions of electronic media, today’s veteran or neo-jazz audiences are unlikely to find a musical parallel anywhere. This is the first American big-band re-imagination of Prokofiev’s masterpiece in more than 50 years, and the first ever with a spoken story line. Gates’ words are true to the original, yet spoken in jazz vernacular.

 

The piece is performed straight-through, just as the original was. And just as occurred back in Prokofiev’s day, the response to performances of this new work has been overwhelming – especially in schools. In the vernacular, followers of all genres of music – classical, jazz, big band or other— are really digging this treatment. You hip? Completing this recording are original compositions by two other members of the Ensemble’s composition stable. Inspired by things lupine and avian, and inspired by the melodic lines of Prokofiev, were written two other members of the ensemble’s composition stable: “Serge’s Birds” and “Wolves” by trumpeter/conductor Jeff Holmes, and “Waltzin’ with Wolves” and “Power Serge” by saxophonist John Mastroianni.
-Ed Bride, Berkshires Jazz, Inc.

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