“Jazzing the Classics” is anything but new. Jazz versions of Classical pieces have been around since the early part of the twentieth century. Such folks as Art Tatum, the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Wayne Shorter, to name just a few, have per- formed their own arrangements of well-known Classical compositions. And the Jazz pianist Jacques Loussier was famous for his interpreta- tions of Bach, Debussy, and others. Some of those previous efforts were serious and some were light- hearted. Lenny Marcus’s The Jazz of Beethoven is serious without being somber.
Marcus is a fine pianist with numerous CDs to his credit. With a conventional piano trio aug-mented by a percussionist, Marcus treats some of Beethoven’s most famous works with respect while clothing them in clever arrangements and utilizing them as vehicles for personal improvisa- tion. In doing so, he might add a Latin underpin- ning, as he does to “Waldstein Two,” which also alludes to a phrase in Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca.” Or perform “Für Elise” in 5/4, in the manner of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Or give “Ode to Joy” a bluesy, earthy groove with a strong backbeat.
All of this works because Beethoven’s original melodies are tuneful and lend themselves to these kinds of treatments and because the arrange- ments are intelligent and well-executed. The trio’s performances, including Marcus’s improvisations on the Beethoven material, would be judged excellent regardless of context.