No opus number: Jazz Suite No. 1 (1934)

Jazz Suite No. 1, sans opus (1934)
CD:  “Shostakovich: The Jazz Album”, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (London 433 702 – 2; currently issued on Decca)

When I bought Riccardo Chailly’s “Jazz Album” in high school, in the early stages of my Shostakovich fervency — I think I was familiar with the fifth, tenth, and thirteenth symphonies by then, and probably not much else — I had high hopes that the Soviet composer would prove to be a polystylistic master of the symphonic jazz idiom, another Gershwin or Bernstein.  The fact that the album’s opener, the first jazz suite, contains a waltz and a polka dashed those hopes somewhat even on examining the CD packaging in the store; Elizabeth Wilson’s note in the booklet essay that “the music hardly corresponds to the accepted understanding of jazz” (which I recall reading before listening to the album, most likely in the car on the way home from Border’s) seemed a pretty frank disappointment of those teenager’s hopes for a Russified Rhapsody in Blue.  But it took listening through to the middle of the final piece in the suite, the foxtrot, to grasp just how wacky Shostakovich’s concept of jazz is:

Only for this listening expedition did I finally look up what instrument is squeakily crooning over a sliding trombone — it’s a Hawaiian guitar, which Shostakovich had used once before in his Golden Mountains film score — but I’ve been at least used to the effect for years.  On that initial listening it seemed funny, rather cutesy, and generally inexplicable.  I imagined then, as I still do now, a lazy hound dog in some cartoon set on the banks of the Mississippi circa 1940.

Since then I’ve learned to place the jazz suite within the larger body of Shostakovich’s light music but it’s remained an unusually charming example for me, due to its relatively good tunes, instrumental novelty and — not least — small size.  Even at that, hearing its opening waltz again this week made me fear that I’d killed my taste for the composer’s dance music, at least temporarily:  Working through five years of such material, especially the declawed works starting with The Bolt, is the music-listening equivalent of eating your way through a crate of increasingly stale petit-fours.  It doesn’t help that the waltz’s main theme also sees a lot of use in The Limpid Stream, written around the same time, although it’s winsome enough if taken at a smaller dosage; it also shares a four-note opening descent with the later, more sly, recently much more famous “second waltz”:

The polka, though, cleansed my brain of any toxicity:  It’s just a really good light-orchestra track, varied and charming and amiably melodic.  If you don’t the handoff in the middle of it between one operetta-like saxophone tune and another, you’re not going to like any of this stuff.

The foxtrot is a longer and heavier dance number in a minor key but Chailly keeps the music light and quick, letting the darker hue add piquancy without turning the music into vaudevillian drama or a sad clown routine, as a couple of other recordings do.  It’s really enjoyable music, probably an ideal introduction to Shostakovich’s lighter side (along with the rest of the album; see also the “Tahiti-Trot”) and, if you’re not diving too deep into the composer’s oeuvre, one of the only works you need.



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