By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Three Penny Opera
Some artists inevitably are ahead of their time; a few others are so far ahead that it’s unbelievable. Kurt Weill was one of the latter. Born in Germany in 1900, he achieved fame while he was still in his 20s, during the period when Hitler was beginning his rise to power. Because Weill was Jewish and a socialist, he fled Germany in 1933, living briefly in Paris and London before settling in New York. He died in 1950.
Weill was an amazing composer, creating cantatas, chamber music, chorals, piano music and film scores. His best-known work was the Three Penny Opera, first presented in Germany in 1928. It wasn’t an immediate hit, but it became an iconic work as the years passed. Few have been exposed to the complete opera, but almost everyone is familiar with one of its tunes: “Mack the Knife” has become a classic.
The Reynolds Jazz Orchestra, consisting of internationally famous musicians led by Fritz Reynold and his wife Helen Savari Reynold, was formed in 1999; its first performance was a Duke Ellington tribute concert that featured several members from Duke’s orchestras. That performance was quite popular, and the Reynolds have made such tribute events an annual tradition.
Their ensemble’s version of Three Penny Opera was performed in 2000 in Aarau, Switzerland; the orchestra, consisting of 15 artists — in the tradition of the Ellington tribute — included Randy Brecker and Bobby Watson from the States. The double-CD set contains 24 tunes from the original score, arranged by French-born pianist and composer Christian Jacob. He also contributed a 25th track, “Warehouses Blues,” which ends this recording.
The opera’s already marvelous score is recreated as an instrumental tour de force. I can’t think of any other almost-century-old work that would survive such a fresh interpretation of this magnitude, and sound as magnificent as this one does. The melodic lines are maintained, the solo work is fantastic, and everything swings like crazy.
Interestingly, “Mack the Knife” is presented much less frenetically than the takes we’ve heard from Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald and so many others ... but it’s still a show-stopper.
For that matter, so is the entire album!