The Re-(w)Rite of Spring: Darryl Brenzel and Mobtown Modern Big Band

As the Rite of Spring approaches 100 years of public life, interest in Stravinsky’s masterpiece is set to increase, along with new ways of engaging with this infamous ballet score. There have been at least two Jazz-ifications of the Rite of Spring in recent months. The Bad Plus have been touring a live Jazz Trio version and Darryl Brenzel with the Mobtown Modern Big Band have released this ‘Rewrite of Spring’ on the Innova label.

First off, there is some stunning playing here, as well as very accomplished arranging by someone with a fine ear and knowledge of the score. Brenzel knows how to write for Big Band. The live recording is crisp and the balance is great. For me, the key issue here is the relationship between the two traditions of Big Band and the Classical Avant-Garde. What does the original piece gain from this treatment, and how do Stravinsky’s ideas influence this genre?

I have often thought that Jazz has suffered from failing to match astonishing achievements in harmonic and rhythmic innovation with structural imagination, i.e. breaking away from the ‘Head – Solos – Head’ format. In their version The Bad Plus keep pretty faithfully to the through-composed structures of Stravinsky and use their restricted palette to heighten the brutal intensity of the original. Brenzel approaches the task in the opposite way. His Rewrite embraces the varieties of colour afforded by a large ensemble. He also rethinks the structure as a more traditional Big Band format: A series of separate numbers showcasing soloists and allowing applause after each piece. While the applause reminds us of the live nature of this recording, it unfortunately sounds like the audience is small and far away.  Brenzel chooses to keep to the ‘Theme (i.e. a block of the score) – Solo – Solo plus Backings – Theme’ structure for many of the tracks, homing in on suitable riffs, backings and underlying chord progressions. This has both advantages and disadvantages.

Darryl Brenzel

Darryl Brenzel

The opening starts promisingly enough with interesting re-orchestrations of the sinewy folk-melodies. It doesn’t quite keep the tension needed however, kicking back into a lovely tenor solo from Pat Shook, but losing the atmosphere and not achieving either the seriousness or the irony needed to pull this off. Early on, Brenzel strays a little too much into big band clichés, allowing the music to feel like it’s been drained of its energy. For example, the driving Peter Gunn-like treatment of those infamous chugging chords in the second track suffers in comparison to the original. It quickly becomes a pleasant-sounding piano vamp, supporting a guitar solo. We need a bit more ugliness and subversion to give it an edge.

Track 3 demonstrates the difficulty of executing this ambitious project. The section has fantastic arrangements of the Stravinsky, with delicious baritone sax punches and chattering muted trumpets amidst muscular trombones and saxes. It then shifts abruptly to and from a breezy modal swing (facilitating a flugelhorn solo from Michael Johnston). These are uncomfortable switches, especially in a ‘Ritual of Abduction’ scene!

Spring Rounds works better, partly because this part of the Rite has a great modal groove at its heart already. An imaginative rendering of the score breaks off into a soprano solo (keeping the bare bones of Stravinsky’s groove) instead of moving into the climactic section. This insert cleverly serves to extend the build-up. Brenzel slowly adds backing riffs and piles on the dissonances to return to Stravinsky’s brutal climax. The final soprano cadenzas work well, over Brenzel’s beautifully warm harmonisation of the plaintive tune.

Old and new

The Re-(w)Rite of Spring: Darryl Brenzel and Mobtown Modern Big BandWhat is fascinating about this record is what sounds old and what sounds new. In many cases the closer Brenzel gets to the original score, the fresher the music sounds. By Track 13, Brenzel has warmed to the task and this is the most successful track. The opening sound-world is arresting and thoroughly modern. He transforms the Ritual Action of the Ancestors into a military-edged tango. This time, Michael Johnston’s flugelhorn solo feels like an extension of the preceding music with fantastic flutter-tonguing brutality, quoting fragments of Stravinsky’s melodies. The ensemble writing is superb and the whole track feels like original music has been absorbed and reinvented, enhancing not losing its bite. The menacing snare drum adds an extra dimension of ritual.

Sacrificial Dance is successful in a different way. Brenzel makes this final track a crackling funk number, strutting with James Brown-esque exuberance. This is a brilliant decision. It strikes the right balance of subversion and respect. Stravinsky’s drive, harmony and quirky syncopations are kept, but become the interjections of a funk brass section. The riotous battle between the austere Stravinskian brass and 70’s Funk rhythm section puts a smile on your face.

These excellent last two tracks are definitely worth a listen and, overall, the Big Band treatment does have something to offer the Rite of Spring. It reminds you that it is a living, breathing piece of dance music. It also makes you realise afresh how robust the Rite is; how powerful its riffs are and how startling its harmonies and rhythms. As we approach its centenary, this project illustrates the debt owed by music that followed the Rite – particularly Jazz – and how unsurprising it was that Jazz overtly fed into Stravinsky’s later compositions.

Darryl Brenzel and Mobtown Modern Big Band, The Re-(w)Rite of Spring (Innova, 2012) | Buy it on Amazon

Richard Barnard is a UK-based composer, conductor and educator, writing music for opera, dance and chamber groups. Follow him on twitter: @richardmbarnard.