Symphony No. 2 ‘Blues Symphony’
Philadelphia Orchestra/Cristian Măcelaru
Blue Engine Records BE 0039 (digital only) 63:13 mins
‘The more profound the pain, the deeper the groove,’ writes Wynton Marsalis in the foreword to his Second Symphony, an exploration of the 12-bar blues through the lens of symphonic music. Aspects of the Blues Symphony are deliberately pastiche: each of the seven movements depict styles within the African-American vernacular including ragtime, boogie-woogie and spirituals. The work draws on his experience playing in marching bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles to create a genre-breaking style like a 21st-century Gershwin.
The first movement, ‘Born in Hope’, opens with a catchy snare drum and piccolo duet that alludes to the solo in John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever. The upper melodies quickly dissolve into abstraction – but the 12-bar chord structure remains a constant presence. Later, there are nods towards historic classical-jazz pieces – some are subtle; for example, ‘Reconstruction Rag’ is written in D flat, the original key of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. The whirring brass and clarinet glissandos in ‘Swimming in Sorrow’ are more explicitly evocative of Rhapsody in Blue.
Blues Symphony was originally written for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2009. This recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra at a 2019 concert at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, benefits from the energy and propulsion of a live performance. Blues Symphony may lack the sheer originality of, say, Marsalis’s 2020 piece The Ever Fonky Lowdown, but it is a fitting tribute to Bernstein, Joplin, James P Johnson and all those who first fused jazz and classical music.