Serial and Tonal Elements in Richard Rodney Bennett’s Concerto for Stan Getz

As a student of Pierre Boulez and a frequent visitor to the Darmstadt summer courses, it is not surprising that Richard Rodney Bennett’s music contains elements of serialism and other modernist techniques. What is unusual in the Concerto for Stan Getz, is that Bennett’s love of jazz and improvisation leads him to utilize elements of tonality alongside his serial techniques. Broadly speaking, in this work we find a tightly constructed melody, built from two sets heard in the opening line, played against a tonal, but not strictly functional harmony in the accompaniment. There is also a section of improvisation, where both the soloist and the pianist are working together in a tonal setting and an extended unaccompanied cadenza. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Concerto for Stan Getz, was composed in 1990 for jazz saxophonist, Stan Getz. The idea for the work came into being as a result of Getz’s lamentations during a rehearsal that he did not have his own concerto, as was the case with Benny Goodman and other jazz artists before him. The composer and conductor, John Williams suggested that Bennett, a composer equally versed in modern classical music and jazz might write such a work. Unfortunately, Getz’s health issues toward the end of his life prevented him from ever performing the work.

The work begins with a short introduction from the piano, which lasts from the beginning until measure eleven. In this section the piano emphasizes the pitch ‘G’ by reiterating it several times, and through a six not figure that ends with a downward half step to ‘G.’ The last four measures of the introduction consist of a three-note motif alternating between the pitches [0,1,4] and [0,1,6] in prime form. This three note motive, built on these two sets, appears frequently throughout the work.

The soloist enters in measure twelve, marking the beginning of the ‘A’ section. The ‘A’ section lasts from measure twelve to measure eighty-seven and features theme group ‘A’ from measure twelve to measure thirty-eight, and then repeated in its entirety in inversion from measure fifty-three to measure seventy-eight. The initial descending triplet line in the solo part can be broken down into two sets; [0,1,4,5,7] and [0,1,4,6,9]. The [0,1,4,5,7] may be a subtle reference to Pierre Boulez, as it is a subset of Boulez’s ‘Sacher Hexachord,’ a musical cryptogram of the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher’s name. The remaining five notes of the figure represent a T11I transformation of the [0,1,4,6,9] set. These two sets [0,1,4,5,7] and [0,1,4,6,9], in prime form, will form much of the melodic content of the movement. After the initial descending line, there is a short motive which strongly emphasizes ‘G,’ and begins a rhythmic pattern in measure nineteen through twenty-one that will return through out the composition. This rhythmic figure is immediately repeated on pitches created from an inversion of the [0,1,4,5,7] and [0,1,4,6,9] sets which began the ‘A’ section. The rest of theme group ‘A’ is built on short figures built from [0,1,4],  [0,1,6], and [0,1,4,6] sets. These are subsets of the original sets that occurred at the outset of the ‘A’ section.

The transitional area (measures thirty-eight to fifty-two) between theme group ‘A’ and theme group ‘A’ in inversion begins with a descending line in the solo part. This line is based on the three sets found in the initial descending triplet line played in measures thirteen through eighteen with a T2 transformation. The additional five notes at the end of the figure are formed from a T1I transformation of the original [0,1,4,5,7] set found in measure fifteen and sixteen. After theme group ‘A’ is heard in inversion, finishing in measure seventy-eight, the descending triplet motive returns. This time, the motive is expanded, using two new sets, [0,1,3,5,8] and [0,1,2,3,6], before finishing with the [0,1,4,6,9] set which finished the original motive.

The harmony under the solo line during theme group ‘A’ can be viewed as tonal, but perhaps not strictly functional. This marks the first instance of Bennett’s mixing of tonal and serial techniques. Beginning with the solo line in measure twelve, the accompanying harmony begins a chain of major chords which descend in minor thirds. Three dominant sevenths (C7, D7, E7) occur in measure sixteen and seventeen before the note ‘G’ is emphasized in both parts. The end of theme group ‘A’ has the first extended use of pedal in the piano part. During this section the harmony becomes more ambiguous, with chords alternating between E9, E minor, and C# minor 7th, at the outset. There are also additions of flatted fives and other chordal alterations during this section. Again, the harmony is tonal, but not necessarily functional. This type of writing is perhaps not surprising, as the intent is to evoke the jazz idiom, where dominant seventh chords do not always resolve and harmonies are freely used for their colors. The end of the ‘A’ section exemplifies this ambiguity with the pianist rolling between a cluster of notes, C#, A, F, B, and E, and then resolving to an Ab dominant seventh in second inversion.

Measures eighty-seven to one hundred and one mark a subdued transition from the ‘A’ section to the ‘B’ section of the composition. Curiously, this transition begins with an extension of the harmony which ended the previous section. The pianist begins with an A-flat dominant seventh chord, with an added raised fifth. The pianist then arpeggiates this sonority before moving to a B-flat chord, with both raised and lowered ninths present. The arpeggiated A-flat altered chord is heard again, followed by both the A-flat altered chord and the B-flat with both ninths. Another ambiguous sonority is sounded which resembles a D-flat altered chord with an added major seventh before an E-flat dominant thirteenth is arpeggiated, ending the section. It seems likely that these colorful chords with added tones were chosen simply for their sounds, and not conceived of in a functional manner. This short interlude functions as a respite between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sections, and evokes the feeling of a jazz pianist playing an introduction to a modern jazz ballad.

The ‘B’ section of the composition, which lasts from measure one hundred and two until one hundred eighty-one, features a more lyrical melody, played at a softer dynamic. This section is more developmental and incorporates new material in conjunction with sonorities heard in the ‘A’ section. The ‘B’ section begins with the soloist introducing new pitch class material. The first six notes of this section exemplify Bennett’s ability to spin short motives into longer melodies through serial techniques. The first three pitches form a [0,2,5] set in prime form. These pitches then undergo a T6I transformation to form the remainder of the six-note figure. Set [0,2,5] was not utilized in the ‘A’ section of the composition, but is used frequently in the ‘B’ section. Immediately after this opening flourish the [0,1,4,5,7] and [0,1,4,6,9] sets from the beginning of the composition are sounded again.

The melody of the ‘B’ section is free-flowing, with one phrase leading naturally into the next to create the sensation of one long melody which undergoes a series of modulations. This is perhaps imitative of Stan Getz’s seemingly bottomless well of melodic invention. Bennett achieves this melodic fluency by transforming small gestures into longer lines. An example of this process occurs in measures one hundred sixteen through one hundred nineteen, where the soloist plays a [0,2,5] shape in three different iterations. First we hear it as [9,E,2] in normal order, then it undergoes a T8 transformation to become [5,7,T], and finally a T1I to become [1,4,6]. This type of melodic development is typical of how an improviser might work a melodic fragment through a series of harmonies. Perhaps Bennett is imitating this tonal concept in a serial setting. These transformation levels form a [0,1,4,5,7] set, reflecting the importance of this set at a macro level.

Though this section is very free-flowing, there are several motives that recur throughout. The figure that occurs in measures one hundred and three through one hundred and five, built on the [0,1,4,5,7] set recurs in measures one hundred thirteen through one hundred sixteen, and again in truncated form in one hundred twenty-three and twenty-four. After this last statement of this shortened melody, the structures become more fragmented. Beginning in measure one hundred thirty-six, Bennet makes heavy use of three-note figures, immediately transforming them to create a patchwork of motivic activity. Measures one hundred thirty-six and thirty-seven are echoed in one hundred forty and forty-one after a T9 transformation. The three-note figure in measure one hundred forty-three undergoes a T8 transformation to become measure one hundred forty-four.

Throughout this section, the accompaniment makes use of similar motivic development. A four-note pattern consisting of a half-step, whole-step, and half-step in the opposite direction is found multiple times at different pitch levels in the piano part. It first occurs in measure one hundred three beginning on C, then in measure one hundred and nine on A, and then two measures later on F-sharp. In measure one hundred and thirty, the piano plays the exact melody that the soloist began the ‘B’ section with in the right hand, while beginning the sequence of four-note patterns again in the left hand. At this moment, the roles have reversed, with the accompaniment playing the main theme, and the saxophone spinning short, fragmented melodies into longer lines.

The ‘B’ section comes to a close in measure one hundred eighty-one, after soloist plays a series of three-note ideas while the accompaniment alternates between  sharply articulated B-flat and F-sharp octaves. Here, the pitch content is not modified between the motives. Bennett chooses to alternate between ideas built on discreet sets. First the soloist plays a series of three-note patterns that alternate between [0,1,4] and [0,1,6], and then beginning in measure one hundred seventy-six between [0,1,3] and [0,3,7].

After a short interlude in the accompaniment, which reflects the earlier interlude between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sections of the composition, a new idea begins the ‘C’ section. This third section of the composition, which lasts from measure one hundred ninety-eight to measure two hundred fifty-nine is a short, rhythmic section that serves to drive the composition forward into the improvisational sections. This section features the only use of mixed meters with the introduction of 5/4 meter. The soloist begins by playing a soft and articulated melody that emphasizes E. The accompaniment also makes an abrupt change, repeatedly playing the note E in octaves. The soloist and the accompaniment trade short, rhythmic figures until measure two hundred and five, where a fragment of an earlier melody is sounded. After this brief interjection, both parts return to the rhythmic phrases emphasizing E. This texture remains until measure two hundred sixteen, both parts return to familiar textures. This final part of the ‘C’ section features fragments built on [0,1,4,5,7] as well as [0,2,5], serving to combine material from all three of the previous three sections into a recapitulation-like section. Though melodic contours and pitch content from earlier sections are heard here, this section still feels developmental, as though it is moving toward something rather than bringing the work to a close.

At measure two hundred and sixty, the composition changes fundamentally. No written material is given for the soloist and they are now free to improvise over a set of chord changes. As this work was written for Stan Getz, one of the most gifted jazz improvisers, this seems only natural. The improvisation section is fifty-two measures long and can be broken down into thirteen, four measure phrases. Though both parts are clearly operating in a strictly tonal setting during this section, the chord structures are once again not strictly functional. Each four measure phrase functions like a chordal plateau, rather than a series of ii-V7-I structures like one might expect in a jazz setting. There are several instances of strong dominant to tonic motion during the improvisation such as measure two hundred seventy-one to two hundred eighty, where the A7b5 functions as a tritone substitution for the expected Eb7, resolving to Abm9. Measure two hundred seventy-nine is another example of dominant-tonic motion, with a C7b9+5 moving to Fm7 harmony. The initial written scalar passage that begins the improvisation section contains a half-whole F diminished scale, which would be a popular choice for an improviser looking to outline an F7alt harmony. This seems logical, as the next harmony sounded is a Bbm7. These brief moments of functional dominant-tonic relationships serve to link the chordal plateaus together. Throughout this section, the accompaniment texture is similar to what a jazz pianist might play in a duo setting, with chords sounding in the right hand over a walking bass line in the left hand.

After the improvisational section, the accompaniment plays a short, energetic interlude that is based on material heard during the ‘C’ section, though here it is sounded up a fourth, emphasizing A. This brief interlude ends with the accompaniment sounding the [0,2,6] set strongly for two full measures.

Measure three hundred thirty-three marks the start of the unaccompanied cadenza. The cadenza consists of two parts, a more declamatory section which is based on material from the ‘A’ section of the composition, and a more rubato section based on the ‘B’ section. The first section of the cadenza is indicated to be played in strict time, and the texture reflects that of the ‘A’ section. Short, three-note figures built from [0,2,7], [0,2,5], [0,1,6], and [0,1,3] drive into longer melodies built from [0,1,4,5,7] and [0,1,4,6,9]. This is the same pitch content found in the earlier section of the composition. Again, Bennett uses simple transformations to develop his melodic ideas. For example, the melody heard in measure three hundred forty-five through forty-seven, is heard again in three hundred sixty three through sixty-six after a T7 transformation.

In the second section of the cadenza, Bennett gives the soloist an option. They can either embellish a simple melody using the chordal structure printed in the part, or play a written-out embellishment of the melody provided by the composer. This idea of providing a written-out version of the composer’s intended embellishment is reminiscent of the studies published by Telemann, where the composer published a simple melody along with a stylistic interpretation of the ornamentation. This section of the cadenza is more tonal that the previous section, as indicated by the printed chord symbols and the implication that the performer use them in their improvisation. The melody of this second half of the cadenza is based on the melodic material from the ‘B’ section, and the option to freely embellish it is similar to the way a consummate improvisor like Stan Getz would approach playing a ballad in a jazz setting.

The closing section of the movement begins at measure three hundred eighty-nine as the accompaniment re-enters. The piano line is reminiscent of the opening introduction to the movement, as is the solo part. Built from the original [0,1,4,5,7] set, with short interjections of three-note melodies from [0,1,4] and [0,1,6], the melodies are restatements of earlier themes, intended here as a closing recapitulation of the opening material.

The combining of serial and tonal elements can be a tricky business, but when done through the lens of a jazz improviser, the transformations inherent in serial composition seem natural, as is the case in this composition. Just as an improvisor might state a short melodic fragment, transpose it to another pitch level, and then restate it in an slightly altered form, Bennet has connected short melodic fragments into longer melodies throughout the composition. This type of serial methodology driven by tonal inspiration is unique to this work in the saxophone repertoire, as is the combination of performing written material based on set theory and improvisation in a tonal context.

This analysis was done in preparation for my Masters Degree Oral Examinations at Ohio University, 2020