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‘Third Stream Headwaters’ explores fusions of jazz, classical

Gunther Schuller (seated, at left and below) and instructor Charles Peltz leading a rehearsal at the New England Conservatory.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Gunther Schuller (seated) and instructor Charles Peltz leading a rehearsal at the New England Conservatory.

After Gunther Schuller advocated a fusion of jazz and classical music at a Brandeis University lecture in 1957, he was attacked by representatives of both parties to this proposed marriage.

“I was vilified on both sides,” he recalls now. “Classical musicians looked down upon jazz, mostly,” he continues, “and quite a few jazz musicians were against it too, because they thought — and perhaps there was some reason for them to worry about this — that having classical music go into jazz would stultify jazz.”

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But in an epochal Brandeis concert, Schuller invited six composers (including himself) to find a common musical vocabulary between these idioms.

After its popular peak in the late 1950s and 1960s, the term he coined to describe this music — Third Stream — now bears a rusty patina. (The Third Stream department he founded at New England Conservatory, during his tenure as president there, was renamed in 1992 with the hipper coinage “contemporary improvisation.”)

But if the words once used to describe it have fallen from fashion, the music plays on.

That’s the implicit message, at least, behind a Thursday concert at Jordan Hall where the past and present of this once-controversial musical movement will commingle. Under the title “Third Stream Headwaters,” the concert highlights forerunners and early practitioners of the style.

The main event is the world premiere of a new Schuller work that interpolates jazz moves with the European classical tradition. NEC instructor Charles Peltz will conduct his student wind ensemble for this piece, plus a program that features two other composers represented at the 1957 event. Milton Babbitt’s “All Set,” which made its premiere at that forerunning concert, is included; so too is a rarely played piece by jazz bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus with a clear Schuller connection, “Half-Mast Inhibition.”

Works by French composer Darius Milhaud and rocker Frank Zappa round out the program, speaking to the breadth of musical possibilities within this niche.

“A jazz band is in essence a wind ensemble, for the most part, and within the wind ensemble genre there is a great deal of music being written in the past 10 or 15 years which we would call Third Stream music,” attests Peltz, “or as my younger colleagues would prefer to call it, crossover music.”

Schuller — the composer, conductor, French horn player, educator, and Pulitzer Prize winner described in these pages by classical music critic Jeremy Eichler as “perhaps the city’s most accomplished musical citizen”— has a long and ongoing history with Mingus and his music.

While a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra in his 20s, Schuller would meet with Mingus and Modern Jazz Quartet leader John Lewis at the Carnegie Hall Tavern, enjoying wide-ranging discussions fueled by steaks.

By then Schuller had already played in the famed Miles Davis nonet whose recordings were collected under the title “Birth of the Cool.” When Mingus recorded his orchestral effort “Half-Mast Inhibition” in 1960, Schuller was the obvious choice to conduct the 23-person ensemble.

Schuller later revived Mingus’s lost epic “Epitaph,” scored for 30-person orchestra, for a 1989 concert released as a double album. He’s written arrangements for and conducted the legacy band Mingus Orchestra, including a scaled-down arrangement of “Half-Mast Inhibition.” (NEC says the version on Thursday, featuring guest cellist Yeesun Kim of the Borromeo String Quartet, will be the first-known public performance of the piece according to Mingus’s full, original score.)

“There are many things that you would say, ‘Well, that ain’t jazz, that’s some kind of weird classical music,’ ” Schuller says of a representative Mingus piece. “And it sort of wanders through, from very strong jazz to almost no jazz and then something in-between.”

For his new work, called “From Here to There,” Schuller wrote for “the strangest wind ensemble instrumentation there has ever been,” he says. It calls for only one violin but three tubas, for instance. For one of the piece’s jazzier interludes, Schuller painstakingly adapted a rhythmically complex piano solo played by Dave Brubeck in a concert at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

“I said to myself, damn it all, I don’t just want to write another one,” he says of his attitude in writing this, his eighth composition for wind ensemble, “I want to do something really unusual, almost shocking in the wind ensemble field.”

As for Third Stream and its ensuing lineage, Peltz says the debate is unsettled as to whether new efforts deserve to be aired based on their cross-genre ambitions alone.

“We still have debates about certain Verdi operas and their relative value,” Peltz says. “It’s impossible to think we’re going to somehow set a rubric that will say: That’s a valid Third Stream—or crossover—piece and that is not. You’re going to have rather vigorous discussions about all of this.”

Schuller sees the health of his original vision not only in unions between classical and jazz, but an embrace among classical players of various folk music from around the world. He’s particularly proud to see this legacy reflected in the curriculum of the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory in Nepal, where students are required to study the history of both jazz and south Asian classical music.

“I’m proud of what’s happened with my baby, Third Stream,” Schuller says. “There are 300 musical styles on the face of this globe. I always knew that once you can combine jazz and classical, you can also do jazz or classical music and bouzouki music from Greece. Or Turkish music. Or Norwegian Hardanger fiddle music. Any kind of music.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.
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