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VIEW FROM THE INSIDE: A Walk in the World Gardens

By Randy Freedman

Any examination of the intersection and distinction between jazz and classical music and culture raises a couple of interesting questions. Musical culture is something that is acquired gradually, over a long period of study and practice within a given genre. It comes along with a set of rules that become deep-seated. The more of the rules you know—the deeper your understanding of them—the more you have the impression and perhaps security of belonging to the “tribe”.

Fractures and variations on these rules can occur at any level. Do jazz musicians think fundamentally differently than classical musicians? It can be said that “fusion” jazz musicians think quite differently than “straight-ahead” or “avant-garde” jazz musicians. The same may be true for classical. World-class Mozart interpreters may stumble when playing Ravel. And the gulf between interpreters of traditional classical repertoire and more mainstream interpreters of the classical contemporary repertoire can seem vast.

The jazz musician has to adapt his or her playing to the other musicians in the band, and usually on the fly. In contrast, the classical musician typically stays on task no matter what happens with the surrounding musicians. Is there a musically attainable, definable, and enjoyable middle ground where the important elements of jazz and classical can both coexist and thrive? And who are the artists, well-schooled in both styles, that can demonstrate their comfortability with that middle ground? Perhaps this article can provide some answers.

U.S.–based Roberto Magris was born in Trieste, Italy on June 19, 1959. As composer, arranger, bandleader, and recording artist he has issued over 30 albums. Performances in over 40 countries include theatre appearances, festivals, and jazz clubs (including Chicago’s own Jazz Showcase).

Magris’s piano style has been compared to that of Ahmad Jamal. Like Jamal, he definitely seems to come from the minimalist school of thought with his composition and playing. These qualities present additional options to the other musicians he plays with.

All Music Guide says “Magris understands the underside of lyrical constructivism as one might understand how round a ball is when it rolls out of your hand onto the ground: he writes from the point of view of sound first and then individual instrumentation, taking a macro view of the tonal and lyrical picture, and he succeeds magnificently”

On November 22, 2018, the following statement was issued by Magris’s recording company. “JMood Records is pleased to announce the CD release of World Gardens by The Roberto Magris Quartet. This music remains rooted in the jazz tradition. It uses the modern jazz idioms, but, will move in different directions as we match some African type rhythms with some European melodic concepts and harmonies, Asian sensibilities and classic scales although we stir up some pop and rock references that include present urban experiences to reach a sort of modern jazz melting pot.”

It seems that the achievement of a true “modern jazz melting pot” has always been the goal of the best jazz fusion performers. How close to achieving this goal does World Gardens come? Let’s take a closer look.

Accompanying Magris on World Gardens are bassist Dominique Sanders, drummer Brian Steven, and percussionist Pablo Sanhueza—who describes this group as “village musicians whose presence and impact in the community are experienced through live performance and perpetuated through relationship building with the youth and local institutions” The CD’s 11 tracks range from a Motown classic and jazz standards to Magris’s original writing, inspired by his travels to different parts of the world.

A conversation with Magris’s about his concept for World Gardens is quoted by Jazzwax: “I wanted to pick some beautiful flowers from my musical garden for your listening pleasure. I chose a colorful variety from different places in the world that have a special meaning to me. As a musician and world traveler in search of answers, I have experienced a multitude of people, languages and cultures. I have brought home many different seeds to help my garden grow in a richness of shapes and colors. As a jazz pianist, I enjoy looking at the present and new directions in all types of music, but I never forget my roots in the jazz tradition.”

Here are some highlights from World Gardens:

“Never Can Say Goodbye” (Davis) was a song originally written for the Supremes and diverted to the Jackson Five by Motown executives. It is perhaps best known for their version and the cover done by vocalist Gloria Gaynor. Magris manages to capture all the positives, the spirit, energy, and enthusiasm of the so-called ”disco era” here with his deft, light, and precise touch on the keyboard. Sanhueza contributes with skillful reinforcement of beat using a variety of percussive instruments. Some of the music from this era can sound quite dated today. Yet, Magris has managed to make a selection and present an arrangement that continues to remain timelessly enjoyable, even when listened to repeatedly.

Written by Jimmy Dorsey and Paul Madeira (sometimes credited as Paul Mertz) “I’m Glad There Is You (In This World of Ordinary People)” is a song first published in 1941. It has become a jazz and pop standard. Allowing the lovely melody to shine through, Magris’s minimalist approach is well served here. With timing and well-placed flourish, he is able to put his own mark on an old favorite. The rhythm section provides steady support through out.

“Stella By Starlight” originally appeared as an instrumental theme by Victor Young, drawn from thematic material composed for the main title and soundtrack of the 1944 Paramount Pictures film, The Uninvited. With lyrics added by Ned Washington in 1946, it has evolved into a popular standard. Magris’s minimalistic approach pays dividends here as Sanders and Steven really shine. Sanders uses a variety of techniques and textures while Steven remains understated but effective.

The multinational origins of the “Pilgrim” composers (Lackner/Nivnergelt/Perkins) —and especially their creative style—made its selection for this album seem like an opportunity for Magris to add some electronic (at least in thinking) spice to his very acoustic garden. The overall soundscape here is balanced, intimate, and impressionistic. The mood seems to flow back and forth as though from deep streams of consciousness, yet, Magris his piano as the guiding rudder. The result is a wonderful job of adapting a more electronic sound (or at least thought about sound) to the acoustic, while maintaining musicality from beginning to end.

Magris’s solo performance of “Vse Najlepse Rozice/All The Most Beautiful Flowers” is beautiful, slow, romantic, and haunting. It literally gave me pause as I contemplated the charm, brilliance, and allure of what I had just heard.

World Gardens was a great choice as a title for this beautiful and inclusive recording. I strongly suspect that Magris is more well-known and receives better (and richly deserved) press coverage in Europe than he does in the United States. If you do not know Roberto Magris, please do yourself a favor, take a moment, and listen to him right now—and see for yourself if you agree with me. I’ll bet you do.

Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.

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