Claus Ogerman / Michael Brecker

Cityscape

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German-born composer and arranger Claus Ogerman, born in 1930, must rank as one of the most versatile musicians of the twentieth century. When he was at his peak in the 1970s, writing everything from ballet scores to arrangements for Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, diva Barbra Streisand, and jazz/R&B saxophonist George Benson, there was hardly a radio station on the dial where his music wasn't heard during the course of a typical day -- and he's still quite active. The key to his success has been his ability to stay in the background behind the musician he's working with and yet create something distinctive. This 1982 collaboration with the late jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker is one of his most successful works, not least because the overlap between the extended harmonies of jazz and the chromaticism of the late German Romantic polyphony in which Ogerman was trained is large enough to allow Brecker to operate comfortably -- his improvisations seem to grow naturally out of the background, and the intersections between jazz band and orchestral strings come more easily here than on almost any other crossover between jazz and classical music. The mood is nocturnal and reflective. Brecker at this point had not yet made an album as a bandleader; he was primarily known to those who closely followed jazz and R&B session musicians. The album was originally billed as a release by Claus Ogerman with Michael Brecker. Yet notice how skillfully Ogerman eases the fearsomely talented young saxophonist into the spotlight. The highlight of the album is a three-part suite called In the Presence and Absence of Each Other, and in its middle movement, track 5, the saxophone is silent until about a minute before the end -- yet everything in the piece leads up to this magical explosion of lyricism. The packaging describes this album as a "virtual concerto for saxophone and orchestra with jazz rhythm section," but it's a little more complicated than that -- actually, it's a concerto for jazz band, with saxophone leader, and orchestra. That creates several layers, and it is precisely in handling these layers where jazz/classical crossovers tend to fail -- and where Ogerman succeeds. A very sweet experience for listeners from either side of the divide.

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