One of the activities for which Michael Tilson Thomas has an especially strong passion is cultivating the traditions of great ensemble playing within the next generation of young musicians. In his work with the New World Symphony--a training orchestra for gifted conservatory graduates from around the world, which he founded in 1987--MTT has clearly inherited the mantle of inspiring educator from Leonard Bernstein. He similarly works along the popular-classical divide so prevalent in American culture--not as a dead end but a source of creative energy.
This disc showcases the vitality of orchestral jazz in various guises as it straddles that divide, from the music of American composers and European émigrés to Hollywood film scores. One of the things MTT demonstrates with the selections here--eminently incarnated by the ensemble, which has a huge sense of fun with it--is the amazing malleability and assimilibility of jazz elements, whether it's the spiky rhythmic fragments that get blown to oversize in John Adams's Lollapalooza or the brashly outrageous brass yawpings of Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (demonstrating the composer's own belief in a shared sensibility linking baroque improvisatory counterpoint with jazz). One of the real treats here is the account of Rhapsody in Blue in its first, seldom-heard version (as orchestrated by Ferde Grofé for a '20s jazz band). This is one of the freshest, most absorbingly joyful versions of the Gershwin available, full of colors you will have likely never encountered, with an exuberantly inventive MTT at the keyboard. The stardust saxophone sound in Rhapsody's slow dance tune alone is worth the price of admission. --Thomas May