Jazz with strings? Yes please!
Many legendary jazz musicians throughout history have been deeply interested in classical music, and the way in which it can be combined with jazz.
One clear result of this is the exploration of adding string-based lineups to recordings, mixing the potency of jazz improvisation with the intricacies and lush harmony of classical orchestration.
Whilst some believe that it’s no more than a gimmick – and indeed many collaborations do seem to fall short of the mark – the effect in the right hands can be spectacular.
In this article we take a look at ten iconic recordings that feature the ‘jazz with strings’ concept. Feel free to use the comments section at the end to highlight your favourites!
Stan Getz – Focus (Verve)
Recorded in July 1961, this is arguably saxophonist Stan Getz’s finest album.
Perhaps overshadowed by the Bossa Nova albums recorded a few years later, ‘Focus’ features seven compositions commissioned by Getz and written and arranged by Eddie Sauter.
Sauter’s arrangements are perfect for the saxophonist, and Getz fills the spaces left for him to improvise with some of his most sensitive and heart-warming playing.
It is not all slow tempos and sumptuous strings either, as the opening track ‘I’m Late, I’m Late’ demonstrates. Written in part as a homage to Béla Bartók, the composition in a tour de force for saxophonist.
Charlie Parker with Strings (Verve)
Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker had made no secret of his ambition to record with strings, and in a session held on November 30, 1949, he got his wish.
Performing a repertoire entirely of jazz standards, six selections from the date were released on a 10” LP, with a further eight titles being recorded in July 1950.
If not the saxophonists’ usual repertoire of original compositions or familiar bebop tunes, Parker relished in the opportunity presented to him. The string arrangements may, at times, be a little too sweet and predictable, the altoist’s solos still shine through.
From the first session, the song ‘Just Friends‘ by John Klenner and Sam Lewis has become synonymous with the ‘Parker meets strings’ recording and indeed the saxophonist’s light and dancing solo is a fine introduction to the album.
It’s worth noting that the album title was actually used on two separate albums; the second to capitalise shamelessly on the success of the first!
Clifford Brown with Strings (EmArcy)
At the height of his powers (and with the Max Roach / Clifford Brown Quintet one of the hottest properties on the scene at the time), Clifford Brown took time out in January 1955 to record a jazz with strings album.
The core line up remains very similar, with drummer Max Roach, pianist Richie Powell and Gorge Morrow on bass all in attendance.
In a set of arrangements by Neal Hefti, the trumpeter shines throughout. The material is drawn from standards, yet each is delivered with a freshness that, along with Hefti’s lovely writing for strings, is poised and elegant.
The trumpeter’s entry on ‘Laura’ grabs the attention from the very first note, and it is tragic to think that just eighteen months later the story would be over with Brown’s tragic death, along with Richie Powell, in a car accident robbing jazz of one of its brightest young stars.
Billie Holiday – Lady in Satin (Columbia)
The penultimate album of Billie Holiday – aka Lady Day – was recorded in February 1958. Following years of reported alcohol and drug abuse, there is a fragility and resignation in her vocals.
The voice maybe a shadow of its former self, but the resulting jazz-with-strings album (written by young arranger Ray Ellis) has a sadness and a sense of inevitability that is strangely arresting and often features on lists of the best jazz albums of all time.
The repertoire on Lady In Satin is carefully chosen, with songs that are not necessarily associated with the singer pushing her to new heights. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “But Beautiful” are particularly captivating performances and feature delicate solos from underrated trumpeter Mel Davis.
Chet Baker With Strings (Columbia Legacy)
Before his commercially-successful vocals shot him to widespread fame, iconic cool jazz icon Chet Baker demonstrated his most lyrical trumpet playing, accompanied by a jazz quintet and nine-piece string section.
The arrangements by Marty Paich, Johnny Mandel and Shorty Rogers ensure a cool West Coast feeling is preserved, and Chet is able to place his improvisations gracefully atop the gentle arrangements.
Recorded in late 1953/early 1954, the trumpeter was relatively young at just 24, but there is an air of quiet confidence in his playing that is most endearing.
He brings the little attitude on ‘I’m Thru With Love’ and his partnership with saxophonist Zoot Sims on ‘A Little Duet With Zoot and Chet’ showcases two assertive solos on the jaunty theme, albeit without the strings.
Paul Desmond – Desmond Blue (RCA Victor)
A name familiar with most as part of pianist Dave Brubeck’s quartet, alto saxophone player Paul Desmond also had a successful recording career under his own name.
Although under contract to work with Brubeck (who had inserted a clause that the saxophonist should not record with any other pianists), this didn’t stop the Desmond making some fine albums using the guitar as the chordal instrument.
As well as featuring his regular guitarist Jim Hall, ‘Desmond Blue’ finds the altoist in the company of a full string section and additional woodwinds. His light and airy sound is well suited, yet his probing and insightful solos prevent the music from settling into an easy-listening album.
His version of ‘I’ve Got You Under my Skin’ is pure lyricism, and his tone and delivery on ‘My Funny Valentine’ is masterful.
Wes Montgomery – Fusion! (Riverside/OJC)
Whilst rather strange title for an album that does not look to fuse jazz and rock as the name implies, Fusion! is a great chance to hear guitarist Wes Montgomery with strings.
Perhaps more laid back than any of the albums mentioned above, there is a satisfaction is hearing a master at work.
No pyrotechnics on this mainly-ballad outing, but Montgomery’s reading of ‘God Bless The Child’ is superb and should not be missed.
The (slightly more) up-tempo version of ‘Tune Up’ is also a hard-swinging highlight, with no fewer than 5 ‘takes’ available to listen to today.
Bill Evans Trio With Symphony Orchestra (Verve)
Recorded in October and December 1965, this is an album that Bill Evans was reportedly rather proud of.
The arrangements by Claus Ogerman at times seem rather lightweight, but they leave plenty of room for the pianist and his trio which features bassist Chuck Israels and drummers Larry Bunker or Grady Tate (there remains some confusion over who played drums on which dates).
If the arrangements are over-sweetened for some selections, then ‘Elegia’ by Ogerman makes amends, also featuring some lovely piano from Bill Evans. Ironically, the other particularly strong compositions are both by the pianist in ‘Time Remembered’ and a swinging ‘My Bells’.
Art Pepper – Winter Moon (OJC/Galaxy)
A late entry for Art Pepper, this album with strings was recorded in early September 1980 and released the following year, shortly before the saxophonist passed away on June 15, 1982.
As if aware of the limited time available to him, Pepper recorded prolifically in the last five years of his life, and this beautiful recording is one of his very best.
Arrangers Bill Holman and Jimmy Bond write sympathetically for Pepper who was not in the best of health.
Despite this, he plays wonderfully on a delightful ‘Prisoner’ and the title track written by Hoagy Carmichael. Nothing, however, quite prepares you for the beauty and fragility of Pepper’s alto sound on ‘Our Song’ and Holman’s exquisite arrangement. Gritty and moving by turns.
Phineas Newborn, Jr. – While My Lady Sleeps (Bluebird/RCA)
A musician whose name does not crop up as often as it should, pianist Phineas Newborn was an excellent accompanist and fine trio player.
Whilst the arrangements by Robert Farnon are pleasant, the interest is injected by Newborn himself, with the assistance of bassist George Joyner and Alvin Stoller at the drums.
Where you get your kicks on this recording from 1957 depends on which tunes interest you most out of the standards featured. There is enough of Phineas’s originality on show here to make the album a worthwhile listen, and then steer you on to check out some of his fine yet neglected trio recordings.
There you have it; 10 jazz-meets-strings albums for a whole range of tastes. If you’re looking for more large-ensemble outings, you’ll find a handful of key releases on our round up of the 50 best jazz albums ever.
You can also dive deeper into the topic of string instruments in jazz with our round up of some of the best jazz violin players out there.
Did we miss your favourite? Let us know in the comments section.