Ten iconic “jazz meets strings” albums

Many jazz musicians have been deeply interested in classical music, and the way in which jazz can be combined with an orchestra without diluting the potency of jazz improvisation or the intricacies of classical orchestration.

Some belief that the two never make satisfactory allegiances and indeed many collaborations do seem to fall short of the mark, but when in the right hands and at the right time, the results can be spectacular.

Here are ten recordings that feature jazz musicians with strings that really should be heard  

Stan Getz – Focus (Verve) 

Recorded in July 1961, this is arguably Stan Getz’s finest album. 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 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) 

The same title above was actually used on two separate albums, the second to capitalise shamelessly on the success of the first.  

Parker had made 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 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, and if the string arrangements are at time a little over 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 Parker with strings and indeed with the saxophonist’s light and dancing solo is a fine introduction to the album.

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 jazz scene of the time, Clifford Brown took time out in January 1955 to record his strings album.

Ok, he did take with him three of the members of the quintet to assist in drummer Max Roach, pianist Richie Powell and Gorge Morrow on bass. 

In a set of arrangements by Neal Hefti, Brownie 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)

Lady Day’s penultimate album recorded in February 1958, and one that reveals a broken woman. Years of alcohol and drug abuse had taken its toll yet there is a fragility and resignation of what is and what has gone before in Billie’s vocals.

The voice maybe a shadow of her former self but determined to make an album with strings and insisting that the young arranger Ray Ellis should write for her, the results have a sadness and a sense of inevitability that is strangely arresting.

The repertoire is carefully chosen with songs that are not always associated with Holiday, but the challenge of new songs rallies Billie into some heartfelt, if with a feeling of sadness, interpretations. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and But Beautiful” are captivating performances by Billie and both have some lovely solos from trumpeter, Mel Davis.

Chet Baker With Strings (Columbia Legacy)

No singing at this point in time, but simply Chet Baker with his most lyrical trumpet playing, accompanied by a jazz quintet and nine-piece string section.

Arrangements by Marty Paich, Johnny Mandel and Shorty Rogers ensure a cool West Coast feeling is preserved, and Baker 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, and with no little attitude on ‘I’m Thru With Love’ and in partnership with Zoot Sims on ‘A Little Duet With Zoot and Chet’ that has a happy and jaunty theme and assertive solos form trumpet and tenor saxophone.

Paul Desmond – Desmond Blue (RCA Victor)

A name familiar with most as part of pianist Dave Brubeck’s quartet, Paul Desmond also had a successful recording career under his own name.

Although he was under contract to work with Brubeck, and the pianist had inserted a clause that the saxophonist should not record with any other pianists, this did not stop the Desmond making some fine albumsusing the guitar as the chordal instrument.

‘Desmond Blue’ as well as featuring his regular guitarist Jim Hall, finds Desmond in the company of a full string section and additional woodwinds. His light and airy sound is well suited, but his cool yet often 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)

Rather strange title for an album that does not look to fuse jazz and rock as the name implies, nor fuses jazz and classical music.

What we do have is a relaxed and comfortable Wes Montgomery playing some familiar tunes. Perhaps more laid back than any of the albums mentioned above, there is a satisfaction is hearing a master at work. 

No fireworks on this outing, but there is the (slightly more) up-tempo  version ‘Tune Up’ but the session does predominantly revolve around ballads, and Montgomery’s reading of ‘God Bless The Child’ is superb and should not be missed.

Bill Evans Trio With Symphony Orchestra (Verve)

Recorded in October and December 1965, this is an album that reportedly Bill Evans was rather proud of. The arrangements by Claus Ogerman at times seem rather flimsy and lightweight.

They do however leave plenty of room for the pianist and his trio of bassist Chuck Israels, and drummer Larry Bunker or Grady Tate (there remains some confusion over who played drums on the 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. 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, however nothing 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, Newborn was an excellent accompanist and fine trio player. The music on this pleasant album perhaps does not do justice to the pianist. 

Listening to this album again, Robert Farnon’s arrangements lack any sort of inspiration, and it is left to Newborn to inject interest. This is he manages with a degree of success 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.

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