The New England Jazz Ensemble (NEJE) gives the classic tale of “Peter and the Wolf” a jazz update. The story was once set to orchestral music to teach young audiences about classical music. That was the 1930s, and composer Sergei Prokofiev was responsible for bringing a traditional music style to young audiences. Now, roughly 80 years later, NEJE has re-styled the story, and the music is used to introduce modern audiences to jazz. The work is necessary because even as new listeners come to appreciate jazz, the genre is more than a century old and is still a mystery to some potential audience members.
The album is titled simply “Peter and the Wolf” and the six tracks are named after characters and parts of the story, but the second song contains the entire story. The subsequent tracks are named in honor of the story’s original author and characters from the story.
The story’s language has been updated to include phrases like “…in a New York second,” “…when the wolf makes the scene,” “put the grab on her and popped her in his pie hole,” and “ya dig?” The language of jazz lives and breathes in the actual words of the story and not just in the music. The actions of characters are revealed not just in the narration, but in the way the representative instruments are played.
This version of “Peter and the Wolf” is so engaging that even adult audiences old enough to remember the days of stories on cassette will appreciate it. Further, the approach to jazz education is an effective primer on the sounds of jazz.
“Peter and the Wolf” soundscapes and storylines
There is so much that can be said about this recording. Sometimes, genres of music that are not easily understood by the general public end up accessible only to a few. Just like in Prokofiev’s day, orchestral music was not generally understood or accessed by children, today, jazz is not often the listening choice of children, or even as many adults as it once was. Part of the reason for that is a misunderstanding about the genre. Since the development of jazz, so many popular musical genres have entered the entertainment arena as to drown out the stylish swing of jazz.
If this new re-telling of “Peter and the Wolf” is shared with wide audiences, more people will know the sounds of a muted trumpet, bass clarinet, and others represented by the story’s characters.
One of the best things about this recording is the explanation that comes in the form of track 1, “Introduction.” There, the narrator tells listeners which characters are represented by which instruments. For example, trombones play the wolf, muted trumpets are ducks, soprano saxophones are birds, bass clarinet is the cat, hunters are drums, Grandfather is the bass, and Peter is the whole band.
The fact that time has been taken to do this gives the entire project the feeling of a well-structured story. It is a narrative that refuses to unfold until the audience understands exactly what is going on. It apparently isn’t enough that clarinets, trumpets and trombones play correctly or with verve. Audiences will know why instruments are playing a certain way because of the narration. There seems to be no frivolous sounds. The lively narration keeps audiences engaged.
The concept of the album, with six songs, one very long track might remind some audiences of “2112.” While those pressed for time but interested to hear the heart of the recording, tracks 1 and 2 are where those listeners will want to focus. That way, they get the introduction and the story itself.
For those who have time for a little more, the other tracks offer supplemental moods to the main story. For example, song no. 6, “Wolves.” It is a groovy, trombone-dark song that allows other instruments to augment the main brass line. The song doesn’t get so dark as to frighten, but it does illustrate the crafty, stealthy nature of the story’s wolf.
The New England Jazz Ensemble’s take on “Peter and the Wolf” is enlightening in ways that surprise. Even though the project can (and should) be used to introduce children to jazz, adults can benefit from a re-introduction to narrative with inventive language, and the inclusion of jazz and an explanation of at least some of its elements make the recording required listening for the 21st century.