Hall Overton, Composer

(This essay, which has been in progress for a few years, was finally completed to promote an American Composers Alliance concert May 26 at Spectrum.)

It is a testament to the importance of Thelonious Monk that everyone who had a working relationship with him retains a residual glow of relevance. Hall Overton was Monk’s arranger for the celebrated big band concert at Town Hall and this is why Overton’s name is remembered today.

The most complete portrait of the Monk-Overton collaboration is in Sam Stephenson’s The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 , which has transcriptions of rehearsal tapes made by Overton’s obsessive friend W. Eugene Smith. While planning the arrangements together, Overton describes to Monk the effect his now-famous transcription of Monk’s solo on “Little Rootie Tootie” will have on the horn players: “Boy, I tell you, they are going to sweat their balls off.”

However, Overton was more than Monk’s arranger. As a gentle bebop pianist he recorded with Stan Getz, Jimmy Raney, and Teddy Charles, but the more important original creative output was in modernist composition: teaching at Juilliard, getting significant commissions, recording for CRI.

While his legacy in classical music has lived on via those who have praised Overton’s teaching, including Steve Reich, Alvin Singleton, Carman Moore, and Dennis Russell Davies, Overton’s original pieces are mostly overlooked.

This is a common situation. Many excellent midcentury American composers suffer from neglect. What makes Overton stand out is the depth and breadth of his engagement. Understanding both jazz and modernist classical music at the same level is difficult.  Not even his slightly younger and more famous peers Gunther Schuller or David Baker managed so well.

Schuller made the mistake of thinking jazz really needed Schuller’s mastery of dodecaphony. It was a egotistical miscalculation to expect that handing Milt Jackson or Ornette Coleman a really advanced modernist score would improve Milt Jackson or Ornette Coleman.

Baker’s mistake was writing jazz-type material for classical musicians. Baker’s formal scores are successful right up until the point that there is a ponderous attempt at blues or a swing.

Overton’s knew enough to be humble in front of the real masters. With Monk, he didn’t try to inject anything unneeded. Drummer Art Taylor certainly didn’t use a chart for the big band gig. He could just participate as smoothly as on a regular gig with Monk’s quartet. (When he resurrected Mingus’s Epitaph, Schuller handed Victor Lewis a huge book for the drum score.)

Overton also showed graceful humility when seated at the piano to play jazz. He jammed and hung out, played low-key piano rooms like Bradley’s, turned up on a few records on small labels, and that was it.

In the final analysis, Overton triumphs over Schuller and Baker because there was less of a grand plan about combining the musics. If jazz found its way into Overton’s formal composition, it was a comparatively organic process.

—-

Overton was not strikingly prolific. The titles of Piano Sonata #1 and Polarities #1 suggest unrealized ambitions, as in neither case is there a #2.

Many of his works lack commercial recordings. The most glaring omission is the opera Huckleberry Finn, which was premiered shortly before Overton’s death in the early Seventies. The era and the use of electric bass suggests it may pair with Bernstein’s Mass. A comment in the New York Times preview notes that Overton’s libretto fleshed out the character of Jim. Overton: “Jim’s character is altered somewhat. He represents an older, wiser man who instructs in his own way. Towards the end, we have made a real change. Jim is freed, as in the novel, by his former owner, but instead of going back with Huck and Tom Sawyer, he takes off on his own to continue his original mission to free his immediate family.”

American Composers Alliance offers other unrecorded scores. The 3-part madrigal Captivity and the song Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount are more tonal and conservative than his instrumental works. A glance at the quasi-piano concerto Interplay suggests riffing percussive affinities with the Morton Gould piece of the same name, although not so “jazzy.” The ballet Nonage is explicitly scenario-driven. The writing is easy, perhaps for a youth orchestra accompanying a similarly modest dance company.

More intriguing is the provocative Rhythms for Violin and Orchestra, which is mature Overton in the manner of his best scores like Viola Sonata and Pulsations (both discussed below). The Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord is neoclassic and surprisingly heavy in the keyboard writing. These would be interesting to hear.

The Piano Sonata is nine minutes in one rhapsodic breath. The style starts like neo-Copland but soon becomes quite dense and polytonal, although a few comparatively placid passages stem the tide. Themes intertwine and there’s a transfigured recapitulation in the final pages but there is no conventional sonata form. Overton’s other piano pieces Polarities #1 (recorded by Robert Helps) and the single page Moods are for talented amateurs, but the Piano Sonata is worthy of an occasional airing on the concert stage. (The Sonata was played in ’53-’54 by Lalan Parrott and Avraham Sternklar but it is unlikely that it has been performed since. I learned it for the upcoming ACA concert and am tentatively planning on making the first recording. Excerpts are near the end of this page.)

The six major recorded Overton compositions are historical documents of austere beauty: Symphony No. 2, Second String Quartet, Cello Sonata, Viola Sonata, Sonorities for Orchestra, and Pulsations.

Overton said of his approach (from Wikipedia and apparently sourced from his wife Nancy):

As a composer, my main interest has been in the exploration of non-systematic, intuitive harmony, both tonal and dissonant from which other elements — melody, counterpoint and form — can be derived.

In general Overton’s dissonant harmonies do seem to be composed by ear, often with a strong suggestion of polytonality. The themes are melodic and the counterpoint is secure. There are no flirtations with European ultra-modernism nor is there a pronounced “Americana” accent. The style is mostly straightforward, romantic and generous, although it also may lack a certain rigor. In the end Overton does have a personal language, although it is not overwhelmingly distinctive. The CRI couplings of Overton with Walter Piston, Lester Trimble and Ezra Laderman make sense.

Symphony No.2 has interesting elements, including a beginning ground bass that is transformed into a kind of 6/8 dance at the end. Overall the impression is diffuse and undercooked: just as the composer builds up steam, he moves to another idea. The recording is not charismatic, so it is possible that there would be more to be discovered from a really committed performance.

The score contains a review from Lee Steele, The Blade, Toledo:

Only a small group of patrons at last night’s Toledo Orchestra concert seemed to be aware that they were witness—and audience—to an exciting event.

That was the first performance anywhere of Symphony No. 2 by a gifted American composer named Hall Overton.

Composer Overton, who was in the audience last night, briefed this reviewer yesterday on the score and permitted it to be examined. The piece calls for the usual orchestral instruments, with the addition of xylophone, vibraphone, timpani and harp, and an active percussion section.

But to listen to this work is to admire it as an endearing piece of modern music. This cannot be said of many new works in the current vogue.

Mr. Overton said he wanted to use chamber music sounds as opposed to large instrumental effects. This he did with splendid success.

The symphony, a one-movement work, gives the listener the feeling of riding in a noiseless vehicle, over a quiet roadway in a glen of rolling hills, in the warmth of a spring day. As the passenger looks about, he sees different patterns of designs and colors, now through the oboe, now through the flute, now through the harp, or the percussion.

There’s a feeling of movement, without being restless or frenetic. Even the Afro-Cuban rhythm is a delightful surprise: in place of a jazz melody, we find syncopated rhythms.

A quote from the poet John Masefield seems to fit the mood of the symphony: “What am I Life? A thing of watery, salt, held in cohesion by unresting cells.”

Mr. Overton, a Juilliard School of Music faculty member, justly earned the Composers Award that provided his work the chance for performance.

These are not great observations. Better are the liner notes for Second String Quartet by Don Jennings :

Hall Overton was born on February 23, 1920 in Bangor, Michigan. While at the Chicago Musical College he studied composition with Gustave Dunkelberger and later, composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Julliard School of Music. Subsequent composition teachers were Wallingford Riegger and Darius Milhaud. Overton was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 which enabled him to complete his Symphony for Strings, thereby fulfilling a Koussevitsky Foundation Commission for the work. In addition to the Symphony, he has written a great deal of chamber music, Nonage, a ballet; two string quartets; the Piano Sonata No. 1, several songs and a one-act opera, The Enchanted Pear Tree based on a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Overton has always shown a great deal of interest in the field of jazz, both as a performer and an arranger. As a pianist he has recorded with such jazz luminaries as Stan Getz, Teddy Charles, Jimmy Raney and Oscar Pettiford, and recently collaborated with Thelonious Monk in scoring the latter’s orchestra.

Elements of his earlier teachers as well as certain aspects of his jazz interest have found their way into Overton’s music. At no time, however, do these influences preclude his own superb imagination and originality. One reviewer, commenting on a performance that took place in 1958, noted a “smoldering intensity underlying its surface lyricism,” while another was struck by “the composer’s facility and affinity for strings.” He continued, “Its voice-leading has logic, its musical content lyricism and spirit.” All this is valid, but the imagination that Overton uses in introducing and developing the Quartet is also worthy of some discussion.

The work consists of two movements marked Allegro, cantabile and Allegro con spirito respectively, although he has managed to slip a short slow section, a quasi-third movement in the midst of the second. The piece opens somewhat Fugato with the following short theme introduced by the second violin:

string 4tet

It is then picked up by the others, one by one, with certain rhythmic changes in each voice. Thus, even at the outset, there is considerable transformation of the thematic material which is subsequently broken up and developed by fragments. The chief formal characteristic of this more or less monthematic movement is its pyramid design which reaches its apex nearly three fourths of the way through and gradually subsides to a meno mosso Closing Section.

The second movement is a quasi-Rondo with the aforementioned concealed third movement. The movement consists of short motives or theme fragments that are introduced, toyed with and, on occasion, allowed to become full themes. The technique used is subtle and, although not new, is wonderfully handled. A motivic element is suggested that may not gain prominence until further on in the movement, while some melodies that have been stated and dropped are re-introduced. Overton presents sections that are strongly chordal one moment and abruptly follows these passages that are wholly melodic in nature, nearly always carrying this material on a accompaniment of rhythmic drive and intensity. The nostalgic and sometimes whimsical slow section is followed by a coda that consists of nothing less that a condensation of the entire movement.

Jennings’s comment that, “Even at the outset, there is considerable transformation of the thematic material which is subsequently broken up and developed by fragments,” seems to be generally true of Overton’s important formal scores. The piano, cello, and viola sonatas and the Symphony No. 2 all consist of constantly varied material within a single movement. Although they are not “jazzy,” listening to them as “improvisations” or “fantasias” seems plausible. 

The Second String Quartet is given a lush and polished rendition by the Beaux-Arts Quartet. They sound particularly energized in the fast and rhythmic second movement. Undoubtedly Bartók is a big influence here, but those polytonal cadences remain recognizably Overton.

The hardest to find LP of Overton is the record of Viola Sonata and Cello Sonata. Fortunately a poorly-made digital download is available, although lacking the valuable liner notes and photos.

Overton McCracken Greene

Cello Sonata is the longest Overton movement at 21 minutes. After a lugubrious introduction, the work offers many sophisticated and brilliant variations (marked as such in the score) before a crackling cadenza and final summation on a classic Overton sonority, C minor with D-flat on top (which in this case seems to be dug straight from the innards of the cello).

Cello sonata ending

Within the variations is some of Overton’s finest fast music. One wonders what would have happened had he pursued these kind of textures with relentless tenacity. The excellent performance is by Charles McCracken with Lucy Greene on piano.

Even better is the Viola Sonata. Of all of Overton’s solo and chamber music, this is the real winner. There are even two recordings, the lovely original by the celebrated dedicatee Walter Trampler with Lucy Greene and (on YouTube) a raw live 1989 performance by Bernard Zaslav with Naomi Zaslav. (In what seems to be a typical situation for a composer who barely holds on to a footprint in the public consciousness, the Soundmark download has a horrible glitch of extraneous symphonic noise at 12:50 and the YouTube version cuts off before the final bars.)

It’s the Overton sonata that feels most like a “sonata,” and perhaps this formal constraint helped Overton get his imagination into highest gear. The opening chromatic lament is one of his most striking ideas:

Viola sonata

Later on the fast music is energetic and comfortable. Unusually for this composer, every path and byway is sufficiently explored. There can’t be many other viola sonatas that are this good.

In the liner notes of the LP Overton offers detailed and frankly dry analytical notes for both Sonatas. At one point he writes of a some phrases in Viola Sonata:

The implied jazz-like nature of this whole section depends not only on a steady beat but more (as it would in real jazz style) on an interpretive preoccupation with keeping the beat “alive” through subtle dynamic gradations in accent.

However, it must be said there is nothing in these accented sixteenths that you couldn’t find in Stravinsky. Indeed, all of the above recordings are almost purely classical in affect. Some may insist on hearing the added-tone chromatic harmony as “jazzy” but no bebop pianist would play any of Overton’s polytonal voicings. (I admit there is a touch of Tristano’s “double diminished” harmony towards the end of “Polarities No. 1,” see below.) Steele describes the 6/8 in Symphony no.2 as “Afro-Cuban” but that is just silly, the effect is similar to any other 20th-century orchestral “gallop.”

Three Overton records do have an unmistakable jazz tinge and are his most unique music.

The first is not a formal score, but a charming failure with fellow jazz musicians. In 1953 Overton’s close associate Teddy Charles tracked four pieces with Overton on piano and Ed Shaughnessy on drums. Three of the compositions are credited to Overton and one to Charles, but the aesthetic is the same throughout. Schuller had not named “Third Stream” music yet but this is surely proto-Third Stream, down to the presence of vibraphone.

It is impressive how subsumed the improvisation is into the compositional aesthetic, as it is unusually unclear how much of the material is written, even within the percussion part. The 1949 “free” improvisations of the Tristano school are a likely influence, as are the usual suspects Hindemith and Milhaud.

The performance is unsettled rhythmically. Most of the time the musicians simply aren’t quite on the same track within the beat. Still, even if they were nailing it, the material would likely be neither fish nor fowl.

In Emanuel Levenson’s liner notes to the cello and viola Sonatas, Overton reflects on his bifurcated journey:

In recent years an increasing number of American composers have shown that the chasm separating jazz and contemporary concert music is not as deep and frightening as it once seemed. One such composer, Gunther Schuller, has coined the term “Third Stream” in order to promote the idea of merging the ocean of legitimate music and the rapids of jazz into a single waterway. Hall Overton, jazz musician and pianist and symphonic composer, will have none of this channelization. He sees the “Third Stream” composer as, essentially, a non-jazz musician self-consciously grafting a highly specialized medium to the main stream of music. As he puts it, “My attitude towards jazz is one of deep respect. Having attempted to master this difficult and exacting art for several years, with some small degree of success, I feel that I have come to know it in a way that is possible only through actually performing and creating in this idiom. Jazz has had a strong influence on my compositional style, but purely on a subconscious level. For I am opposed to the practice of trying to make jazz respectable through the unnatural imposition of classical forms or materials.”

[boldface by e.i.]

It is telling that Overton did not continue in this early vein with Charles and Shaughnessy. He certainly could have! As Third Stream hotted up later in the decade this style would surely have had room to be heard.

But Overton must have known that the avant-garde trio was only interesting, not truly great. The later 1957 trio album with Teddy Charles is Duke Ellington music with Oscar Pettiford. This is as far from this first trio as can be imagined. Truthfully 3 for Duke is not perfect, either, but at least it is a humble investigation, not, “the practice of trying to make jazz respectable through the unnatural imposition of classical forms or materials.”

While attempting Ellington with Pettiford, Overton sounds like Monk, reminding us that the first Duke tribute remains possibly the greatest, Thelonious Monk’s Plays Duke Ellington with Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke.

Although he made the above effort to distance himself from Schuller and Third Stream, in the mid-Sixties Overton was involved with a genuine Third Stream project, composing the title piece to Orchestra U.S.A: Sonorities. Schuller was the instigator of Orchestra U.S.A, but here John Lewis is musical director and Harold Faberman is conductor.

The liner notes by George Avakian mentions various famous names for other tracks on the disc: Jerome Richardson, Joe Newman, Thad Jones, Dick Katz. It’s unclear whether they are on Sonorities for Orchestra. But Avakian does give the name of Overton’s guest soloist:

This, and the next two works in the album [Hex by Jimmy Giuffre and Pressure by Teo Macero], were commissioned by John Lewis for Orchestra U.S.A. “Sonorities” is a fantasy in three-part form whose outside sections are slow and utilize both concerted effects and larger instrumental forces. The middle section, which has a chamber-music quality, is in the nature of an orchestral fantasy and was inspired by the brilliant bass playing of Richard Davis.

Richard Davis has a press quote, “Igor Stravinsky’s favorite bass player.” If this quote is true, it is because Davis had a natural grasp of modernist classical music. His great collaborator was Gunther Schuller’s favorite horn player, Eric Dolphy. Dolphy’s Out to Lunch with Davis on bass is arguably the finest achievement of the Third Stream era (again, down to the presence of vibraphone).

It’s not really fair to call Out to Lunch Third Stream before simply calling it a jazz classic first. But Overton’s Sonorities is unquestionably Third Stream, even being played a group set up by Schuller.

Sonorities is short, beautiful, and gives plenty of room to all of Richard Davis’s wild animal tendencies. It really works. Because Sonorities is unavailable digitally, here is a lo-fi transfer from the rare LP:

 

The final Overton piece with a serious jazz influence is Pulsations. The unsigned note on the CRI CD:

PULSATIONS is the last in Overton’s considerable catalogue and is probably the work that most perfectly fuses his own equal and opposite musical loves, concert music and jazz. In his words, it “explores various aspects of rhythm. Instead of avoiding a pulse, my intention was to write music based largely on a strong, steady beat.” This is not, however, the primitive pulse of the typical jazz band, but ranges from “straight-ahead propulsion, lag-beat, silent beat, free time and ‘doubling.’”

The moderately knowing listener will recognize characteristic jazz figures, along with others that are subtler, more deeply imbedded in the musical texture, and also more personal to Overton. In addition to its specific jazz references, PULSATIONS sometimes achieves a strange and dreamlike atmosphere that seems to represent the unworldly aspects of the jazz scene.

The work is dedicated to Thelonious Monk, the eminent jazz pianist, who is one of the many jazz people Overton worked closely with. It was commissioned by The Ensemble of New York.

Hall Overton was born in Bangor, Michigan, February 23, 1920 and died in New York on November 24, 1972. He started composing “serious” music when he was in his teens, when his family moved to Grand Rapids. His first orchestral work was performed while he was still in high school. It was only later, during his military service with the Third Armored Division, that he learned to how to play jazz piano.

Upon his return to civilian life, he studied with Persichetti at the Juilliard School and with Riegger and Milhaud at Aspen, meanwhile playing and recording jazz—-and impressing the jazz world with his gifts.

His compositions include the operas The Enchanted Pear Tree and Huckleberry Finn, a string quartet (released on CRI 126) and other chamber and orchestral works which won him important prizes and commissions.

At the time of his death he was on the faculty of the Juilliard School and was Visiting Professor of Composition at the Yale School of Music.

If Overton had been alive he surely would have struck the unknowing phrase “primitive pulse from the typical jazz band.”

Art Lange’s comment on Pulsations:

The last work Overton apparently completed was Pulsations (1972, CRI), which perhaps surprisingly returns to his early ‘50s disruption and dislocation of jazz and classical procedures. Brisk rhythms and isolated “solos” suggest the loose syncopation and spontaneity of jazz, instruments chatter, a bass line accompanied by drum kit slides into a Schuller-like noirish feel – and then suddenly Stravinsky takes over. Brusque trombone and staggered brass, calming but ominous string sighs, all small, abstracted, yet recognizable similarities to The Rite of Spring impede the music’s progress. The jazziness returns as tempos quicken. There’s an amusing, entertaining veneer to Pulsations (the moody middle section notwithstanding) in contrast to the earlier compositions’ serious, conscientious demeanor. It suggests Hall Overton was a complex figure, capable of alert, if low-key, meticulousness as a collaborative jazz artist, and a deep, discursive imagination in a more formal mode of expression.

I personally don’t hear any Rite of Spring quotes, but do agree that Pulsations is lighthearted. It’s kind of a joke about avant-garde jazz, really. After hearing a decade of “The New Thing,” Overton might be thinking that it is about time to give those special effects to an orchestra. He begins outrageously, with a long unison line of disjunct rhythms. This is followed by groaning horn chords and a written out trumpet solo. All these are jazz-related. Later on there more “normal” treats like gauzy piano/harp duets.

Pulsations 1Pulsations 2Pulsations 3Pulsations 4

 

 

When Overton says, “Instead of avoiding a pulse, my intention was to write music based largely on a strong, steady beat,” he must be making fun of his own music. There is no steady beat in Pulsations whatsoever. At one point walking bass (sounds like Richard Davis again?) and classical drums stagger out-of-sync with each other. Swing is not possible in this situation, so why not just get drunk instead?

For the first time, Overton has a big recap: The unison “head” comes back a few minutes before the work is done. The recording is good, but a couple of long pauses in the coda seem like incorrect edits.

There is no argument to be made that if you want to listen to avant-garde jazz, you should listen to Sonorities or Pulsations.

However, for those interested in making the best music of the future, Overton’s legacy is significant and inspiring. Overton knew the real jazz masters and understood the real classical masters. He was better than most at achieving some real synthesis.

Monk and Overton (Smith)

Thelonious Monk and Hall Overton (photo by W. Eugene Smith)

 

Overtone 1: Both Gunther Schuller and David Baker were committed to jazz education, but neither could find a way to express the essentially folkloric nature of jazz in the academic idiom. They meant well, and undoubtedly there is a lot of good in their criticism and method books, but students need to tread cautiously, as the ethos is fundamentally mistaken.

In person it was different. Baker sang, shucked and jived, and told stories. He was a real jazz cat. Same thing with Schuller. He scatted syllables and admitted he didn’t really know how to describe swing.

According to Jack Reilly, Overton’s teaching of jazz included making his students learn Monk and Horace Silver. “I had to memorize everything. He always demonstrated at the piano what he taught.” This is a good approach.

Overtone 2: Herbie Nichols wrote in the liner notes to his first 1956 Blue Note LP: “Sometimes I burst into laughter when I think of what the future jazzists will be able to accomplish.” He goes on to cite Hector Villa-Lobos, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Dimitri Shostakovich, Walter Piston, and Béla Bartók as his own inspirations.

I’ve grouped Overton, Schuller, and Baker together, but many others have wrestled with how to combine jazz and modernist classical. This is a key point for the AACM/Braxton/Threadgill axis; it is also impossible to imagine the music of Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea (or any of their many disciples) without the influence of 20th-century classical piano repertoire. As noted above, Out to Lunch is almost a Third Stream album.

However, at least in years past, not too many musicians who perform at jazz and creative music festivals have written out finished scores for classical players the way that Overton, Schuller, and Baker did. Recently I’ve become of the astonishing output of James Newton, whose formal scores are strikingly beautiful. Another name for serious consideration is my old friend and mentor Pat Zimmerli.

(These days things are moving quickly. Ben Gerstein, Dan Weiss, Judith Berkson, Jacob Garchik, Matt Mitchell, Jacob Sacks, Tyshawn Sorey, Steve Lehman, Miles Okazaki, Darcy James Argue, and many others surrounding me in Brooklyn–to cite only one geographic region on this busy planet–are committed to a kind of natural synthesis. And I guess I can’t leave this footnote without mentioning The Bad Plus’s cover of The Rite of Spring.)

Overtone 3: Most classical pieces connected to avant-garde jazz have not been as successful as Overton’s Sonorities and Pulsations. Other contenders include:

Milton Babbitt, All Set.  Actual jazz musicians played the premiere including Bill Evans. Always a fun listen.

Harrison Birtwistle, Panic. A kind of furious saxophone concerto. The recording with virtuoso John Harle and respected avant-garde jazz drummer Paul Clarvis is a terrific document.

Thomas Adès, Concerto Conciso. A convincing interpretation of clunky swing! For the initial piano thunks – and indeed the “beat” that goes through the entire first movement – it sounds like a normal binary 2 or 4. However, a glance at the score gives away the secret: that “beat” is half-note triplets, an agent that works against eighths in the chamber orchestra just like a professional jazz drummer. There’s even notated drum set that lurches into full activity towards the end. The effect is surprisingly similar to Paul Motian.

Of Gunther Schuller’s many attempts, the best is a variation in Contours, which we listened to together.

For a couple of decades there was a tradition of avant-garde and jazz meeting in the soundtracks to television and movies. Gil Mellé is just one of many names to consider, although nobody else also recorded proficient straight-ahead jazz for Blue Note. Mellé’s work for Columbo was particularly good, for example the long psychedelic cue in “Death Lends a Hand.” (Excellent drumming when the time comes in. Shelly Manne, perhaps?)

Overtone 4: Another name that lives in natural relationship to Hall Overton and Gil Mellé is Mel Powell. Powell played extraordinarily fine piano with Benny Goodman and others in the Forties before giving up jazz to concentrate on classical composition, eventually becoming a resolute serialist. The dense Duplicates: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra won a Pulitzer prize. However, as far as I know, there is no formal Powell composition that obviously references jazz. A 1953 10-inch Vanguard LP has Powell playing standards with jazz greats like Buck Clayton, Walter Page and Jimmy Crawford alongside his charming neoclassic piano Sonatina.

Overtone 5: Cecil Taylor and Hall Overton crossed swords in a 1964 panel at Bennington. Overton does not come off well in this exchange. Taylor, perhaps rightfully so, needs Overton (and everyone else) to submit within the dominance hierarchy, and the result is a difficult situation.

Perhaps the biggest problem is Overton’s wanting to take Lennie Tristano as the starting point for discussion. Taylor doesn’t want to deal with Tristano until the primacy of Afro-Americans in jazz is established. It is sadly ironic that Overton is the sacrificial lamb here, because among the “classical  white elite” (or whatever you want to call it) of that era there was nobody more respectful towards jazz than Hall Overton.

Overton asks Taylor about Jack Teagarden. Although during the panel it was not the right time or place, this is an interesting point: Who is more of a jazz musician, Jack Teagarden or Cecil Taylor? (There’s no need to make a ruling, of course.)

Another irony is that many aspects of Taylor’s early masterpieces with a lot of written material –“Mixed,” “Pots,” and “Bulbs” from Into the Hot, or even Conquistador! — fit comfortably next to Overton’s “Pulsations.” Past the surface Overton and Taylor shared similar aesthetic designs. (They might not agree with this statement, of course.)

In the realm of total speculation: After getting spanked at Bennington, “Pulsations” might have been Hall Overton’s attempt to do Cecil Taylor better than Cecil Taylor.

Overtone 6: An earlier DTM look at Overton highlighted his piano piece “Polarities No. 1,” simply because I’d known and played through that work for years. It is collected in New Music for Piano, an outstanding anthology from 1963 with works by Alan Hohvaness, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Samuel Adler, Hall Overton, Milton Babbitt, Earl Kim, Miriam Gideon, Mark Brunswick, Kent Kennan, Ernst Bacon, Josef Alexander, Joseph Prostakoff, Sol Berkowitz, George Perle, Leo Craft, Morton Gould, Mel Powell, Paul A. Pisk, Ben Weber, Robert Helps, Norman Cazden, Vivian Fine, Arthur Berger and Ingolf Dahl.

The collection was recorded by Robert Helps in 1966 for CRI. Both the score and recording of New Music for the Piano were conceived and financed by the Abby Whiteside Foundation. Whiteside was a legendary piano guru who died in 1956. The posthumous foundation consisted mainly of Joseph Prostakoff and my teacher Sophia Rosoff.

I played “Polarities No. 1” at a Hall Overton event several years ago, which can be seen at this video. That’s okay but I’ve grown since then. For fun, yesterday I read through it a few times again at the Duc des Lombards jazz club in Paris before recording on the iPhone.

Polarities 1Polarites 2Polarities 3

 

 

I now regret focusing on “Polarities No.1” in the earlier essay as it undersells Overton’s prowess as a serious composer. It’s enjoyable but not important. However, it does have somewhat “jazzy” sonorities, at least compared to the rest of Overton’s chamber music. The last page is kind of like Tristano.

Strangely, a copy of the Piano Sonata has also been in my library for a long time. I found it  in a used book store in Arcata, California when on tour with the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1999. It’s been really fun to finally learn it.

Again, from the Duc, the first three pages:

Sonata 1Sonata 2Sonata 3

 

 

And the first climax:

climax 1climax 2

 

 

Overtone 7: Very special thanks to Sam Stephenson of the Jazz Loft Project and Gina Genova of ACA for invaluable assistance on this project.

Overtone  8: Reprints of Pulsations and Sonata No. 1 are courtesy of American Composers Edition. More information and complete scores for purchase at their Hall Overton page.

Bibliography:

Sam Stephenson: Bio for Jazz Loft Project (Sam will have new biographical information about Overton in the forthcoming book, Gene Smith’s Sink, to be published next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Sara Fisko: Professor by Day, Jazzman at Night

Nate Chinen: Home Life with Mikes: A Jazz History

Art Lange: Overview of Overton’s music (Kudos to Lange, my essay wouldn’t be here without this piece)

Jack Reilly: Hall Overton: Ashes to Ashes

Matt Weston’s site: The Shape of Jazz to Come (Cecil Taylor panel)

Noal Cohen: New Directions Revisited – The Rich and Unique Legacy of Teddy Charles

Hall Overton, “Out of the Shadows” (Panel with Steve Reich, Joel Sachs, and Carman Moore. I now feel like I was underprepared for this event.)