Review: Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! - The Amazing Keystone Big Band with David Tennant

 The Amazing Keystone Big Band - Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! album cover

The Amazing Keystone Big Band - Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! album cover

I wouldn't say that if there's one classical music piece you've heard, it's "Peter and the Wolf," because orchestral melodies are woven throughout modern life, even if you're only vaguely aware of it.  But if there's one classical music piece you've heard because somebody was trying to teach your child (or you, when you were young) the concepts of symphonic orchestral music, it's "Peter and the Wolf."

Composed in 1936 by Sergei Prokofiev in Russia, the piece tells the story of the young (and brave) boy Peter, who along with his animal friends, outwits and captures a wolf intent on eating several of them.  Prokofiev gives each character a primary instrument (strings, for example, for Peter) and a melody, and mixes and blends them both as different characters interact.  There's a narrator providing some basic storytelling guideposts, though Prokofiev tells his musical tale so well, that once the story gets going, the words are, while not unnecessary, not bearing the weight of the story.

The piece is a classic, and there are literally dozens -- if not hundreds -- of versions recorded over the years.  We've got at least a couple on our own shelves.  And because it's a classic, there's really no need to have more than one or two versions unless you like the particular narrator.

Or unless the musicians have taken an entirely different approach, which is the case on Peter and the Wolf and Jazz!, a brand-new recording from France's The Amazing Keystone Big Band.  The big band features 18 younger French jazz musicians, and this new version deftly blends Prokofiev's symphonic story with a big band sensibility.  So instead of the string section (violins, violas, etc.), Peter's theme is represented by the band's rhythm section -- piano, bass, and guitar (which are, as the album's liner notes remind us, stringed instruments themselves).  The wolf is represented by the trombones and tuba instead of the French horns, and so on -- instruments that are similar in tone, but not necessarily the same ones.

The melodies themselves are unchanged, but the band's arrangement brings in a wide variety of jazz styles -- stride piano, hip-hop, free jazz, blues, cool jazz, and the like.  None of the stylistic shifts seem out of place -- rather, they feel appropriate to the story.  The triumphant parade march at the end is a swing style which to my ears sounds something like a New Orleans second line band would play in their own parade.

As for the narrator, David Tennant, best known on these shores as one of the Doctor Whos, does a fine job telling the story.  The wouldn't necessarily recommend the album just for his narration, but it's more than up to the task.  The liner notes are excellent, featuring many pages of the narration and illustrations by Martin Jarrie along with explanations by the band of their arrangement choices.  (The 54-minute album is appropriate for kids ages 3 through whatever, but you knew that already.) 

Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! isn't the first attempt to rework Prokofiev's tale for a jazz audience, but as best I can tell, it's the first in a half-century.  More importantly, it's taken that classic piece and made it sound fresh.  As a jazz album, it's wonderful, and as a classical album, well, it's wonderful, too.  Highly recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review.