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James Manheim, March 2011

The Bird’s Eye Jazz Club is located in Basel, Switzerland, hardly known as one of Europe’s major jazz centers. Thus it’s all the more surprising to hear, from a quintet led by tenor saxophonist Dick de Graaf, a fresh take here on the effort to combine jazz and classical music. The recording is live, made in 2002 in conjunction with a festival devoted to conventional Schubert performances. What’s interesting is that the idiom de Graaf develops (he composed all the music) seems to fit Schubert’s style in general, and the specific pieces used here, unusually well. The recording stimulates the listener’s desire to hear him approach works by other composers. There are five substantial pieces, each based on specific Schubert themes: in order, they come from the String Quintet in C minor, D. 956; the Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (“Unfinished”); the song Der Tod und das Mädchen, D. 531; the “Unfinished” Symphony again; and the String Quintet once again. Within each piece the material may appear in several different guises (and may disappear altogether for a time). Typically it appears at the beginning, heavily modified, and may go even farther afield as the players improvise on it. Somewhere in the middle of the piece, however, the basic Schubert theme appears in essentially its original form, and since each one, except for Der Tod und das Mädchen (heard in Fade In, Fade Out, track 3), is an interior theme in the Schubert original, it has much the same basic effect as it does in its original context. Put another way, the group transfers Schubert’s pure melodies, which usually appear within movements of music rather than at the beginning, to a jazz context, where they serve a similar function of providing a lyrical outburst in the midst of the development of a larger overall structure. The music is jazz, yet it feels more closely tied to its source material than do fusion experiments in which the classical piece serves simply as a basis for jazz improvisation, and it uniquely makes sense for Schubert. Brief and only marginally helpful notes by de Graaf and Basel Symphony Orchestra conductor Mario Venzago are given in German and English. But the album is highly recommended to anyone interested in jazz fusion.

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