Music Monday: Baker: Cello Concerto

Back to the land of the living! David Baker was born in Indianapolis in 1931, and spent the bulk of his early life in that state, attending the University of Indiana for both his Bachelor's and Master's degrees. Somewhat unusually, both of these degrees were in music education instead of composition or performance, and indeed, education seems to be an ongoing passion of Baker's, especially when it comes to the world of Jazz. He was an early codifier of many of Jazz's unwritten traditions, and published several seminal treatises on Jazz improvisation in the 70s and 80s. Down Beat magazine made him the third ever inductee into their Jazz Education Hall of Fame, and many other organizations have recognized him for his accomplishments in this regard. He currently teaches at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University.

As a composer, Baker has been astonishingly prolific, penning upwards of 2000 compositions to date, ranging from standard Jazz charts to thru-composed symphonic works and everything in between. (Since he studied with Gunther Schuller, the term "Third Stream" — Schuller's label for works that fuse classical and Jazz idioms — is never far off from the works in the middle. I'm not particularly interested in diving into the various cans of worms associated with that term today, but it seems important to note the connection.) Today's featured work, his cello concerto from 1975, falls decidedly more towards the classical side, at least until the final movement.

Keeping in line with traditional concerto protocol, the orchestra presents a brief introduction before the soloist's entrance.  It's a swirling mass of turbulent sounds, and the cello does little to change the mood, tumbling in with angular, disjointed motives and mutterings. There are hints of lyricism and almost-tonal harmony sprinkled about the movement, but they never quite cohere, feeling instead like fragments of inert past languages dissolved in an acidic stew of contemporary disorientation. Eventually, this phantasmagoric wandering works its way to exhaustion, and the movement ends with a ghostly whisper from the cello's upper register.

Every theme in the expansive second movement is derived, in some way, from the solo cadenza that begins it, tho these derivations are not always immediately obvious. The harmonic language is still far from familiar, but there does seem to be more genuine lyricism here; for all the unusual twists and turns, things gel around long lines, singing despite their sinuousness. There are various orchestral punctuations, but they feel less like accompaniment in their own right and more like interpolations in the solo part. Despite occasional flowerings of consonance and warmth, the movement ends much as it began, in a distant, etherial world.

Right from the start, it's clear that the finale is going to have some Jazz in it, but it's a far cry from a bland injection of a tune with swing into a piece that otherwise lives in the realm of high modernism — it's a real blending of what has come before. It's a dissected, exploded Jazz tune, one that's been put thru a blender and then carefully pinned down like some massive exotic butterfly in a surrealist taxidermy shop. Even harmonically it's a mixture of worlds, with the chord changes from "Back Home Again in Indiana" alternating with a twelve-tone row. It's a wild ride, and it ends with a fittingly irreverent tumble into silence.