January 29, 2005


Rhapsody In Blue again, for the first time in more than a decade: I'd forgotten how quick, sensuous, light-footed and coherent the piece is, especially compared to some of the other ponderous attempts to incorporate jazz into a classical framework.

The conventional wisdom once seemed to be that the classical side supposedly weighs down or fatally dilutes the jazz, and vice versa. But from this distance -- with decades of people like Miles or Coltrane behind us -- it's hard to see what's jazz about Rhapsody at all, beyond some vague references and the occasional tonal colouring. Nothing that wouldn't also be at home in (say) Stravinsky or Shostakovich. But it's a beautiful classical work, a sort of restless, concisely sprawling Romantic Modernist piece, shot through with alternating densities and space; it's short, to the point, original, inventive, and (for me) deeply evocative of the 1920's (in fact for me it's not so much classical / jazz fusion as a classical piece absolutely infused with the New York of the 1920's... which is probably what most people mean when they say it's a "jazz" piece).

Unfortunately, what it probably evokes in most Americans is the long-running series of ads from United Airlines (it's United's signature tune), and, if you've been there, the long walk through the underground concourses connecting the United terminals at Chicago O'Hare, where the main Rhapsody motif plays out in different versions every few seconds from the neon-lit walls and ceiling.

Is Rhapsody "uniquely American", as so often claimed? (And does it matter?) I don't know. But what could be more American than walking through a busy dark neon-lit tunnel between terminals on your way elsewhere, being forced to listen to dumbed-down snippets of vaguely-familiar music over the constant calls of cellphone ringers (some of them playing Rhapsody...) while surrounded by total strangers? And what could be a more American fate than being than thrown into that great cosmopolitan melting pot, advertising, or being turned into that great American backdrop, Muzak? Rhapsody In Blue may not be uniquely American in any way I'd recognise, but it's an integral and essential part of the great American experience...


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