Bernstein Reimagined features the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra performing lesser-known pieces as arranged by five jazz artists working independently.
Flavio Chamis, who worked with composer-conductor-pianist Leonard Bernstein in the 1980s, has entered a new presentation medium beyond lecturing on the Jewish heritage and religious commitments they had discussed while traveling together.
Chamis, who was Bernstein’s conducting assistant, has written the liner notes for a new album planned to introduce an innovative direction to Bernstein’s original music — variations in jazz styling.
Bernstein Reimagined, with a release date of Jan. 29, features the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra performing lesser-known pieces as arranged by five jazz artists working independently. It was produced by the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh.
Jay Ashby, Darryl Brenzel, Scott Silbert, Mike Tomaro and Steve Williams added their musical approaches to pieces taken from Bernstein’s compositions expressed through symphony, opera, musical theater and film.
“These are the very serious pieces of Bernstein and not the ones you would think would be used on a jazz recording,” said Chamis, a composer-conductor who teaches about the architecture of music at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.
“There are other musicians who took Bernstein’s pieces and did jazz improvisations, but those are the pieces that sound jazzy. These are not the obvious choices — so the more I listen, the more I find new things. That is the spirit of jazz.”
The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, an 18-piece orchestra-in-residence at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, was founded in 1990 as authorized by Congress, and it became the nation’s only museum with its own jazz orchestra. Their Bernstein recording project was launched in 2018 as part of the centennial celebration of Bernstein’s life.
Among the sounds in the reinterpreted pieces are Silbert’s rapid-fire shifts in tempo and dynamics brought to “Times Square” from the Broadway musical On The Town, Williams’ reggae vibes introduced into “Waltz” from Divertimento for Orchestra written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Tomaro’s improvised section for soprano saxophone and piano added to the “Postlude to Act I” from the opera A Quiet Place.
The only piece that has a Jewish connection, according to Chamis, is Brenzel’s joyful arrangement of “Chichester Psalms I.” The original composition had Hebrew text.
“Because Bernstein’s music is already sophisticated and a jazz band arrangement is sophisticated by definition, this album is sophistication by the sophisticated,” Chamis said.
Bernstein and Chamis met in Vienna, where Bernstein was conducting and Chamis was a university music student. Chamis, raised in Brazil and later performing as a conductor there, had studied on scholarship at the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel Aviv.
Among the countries where Bernstein and Chamis worked together were the United States, Israel and England.
“In principle, music does not need words, but this project has so much behind-the-scenes material,” Chamis said. “If listeners read before about the history and culture, they will experience the CD in a much deeper sense.”
Chamis feels comfortable commenting on the way he believes Bernstein might have reacted to this recording because the two were personal friends as well as professional colleagues.
“I believe he would find things he didn’t know existed in his music, and that is why he would like it,” Chamis explained. “Jazz musicians explore new realms within the compositions of others and bring their own ideas out of that. It is communication, and I believe Bernstein would have been communicating with the jazz musicians today.”
Chamis, who worked with Bernstein during the last years of the honoree’s life, was a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center during Bernstein’s last summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival.
Chamis met his wife, Tatjana Mead Chamis, at Tanglewood, and the two decided to move to Pittsburgh when she was offered a viola position with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Raising three children, the couple became members of Temple Sinai, where they add their talents to temple services and programs.
“Bernstein was always open to new improvisation, and that’s probably why his music was so alive,” said Chamis, a Latin Grammy nominee. “He was always looking at the music in a new way — trying to find new things in the same old pieces.
“Every time was like a jazz improvisation because he found something different, something new, something fresh. He was not a jazz musician, but there was jazziness in him.”