West Side Story: How Two Jazz Artists Keep Reinventing Bernstein’s Classic

Leonard Bernstein at the West Side Story rehearsal. Carol Lawrence (who played Maria) is to her left, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim plays the piano, 1957.

Library of Congress, Music Division

Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s new production, West Side Story is back in popular discourse. Her Broadway debut in 1957 set the standard for what was possible in the amalgamation of socially conscious storytelling, exhilarating modern dance, and musical genre exploration – care of the composer Leonard Bernstein and the end Stephen Sondheim.

It was the original 1961 blockbuster film that first captivated both subjects of this week’s episode of Jazz evening in America: saxophonist Ted Nash and drummer Bobby Sanabria. They were children when they saw him in the early 1970s, Nash on TV with his family in Los Angeles and, 3,000 miles east, Sanabria on the big screen in his home theater in the Bronx. About five decades later, the two, well into their working lives as world-renowned jazz artists, revisited Bernstein’s score separately with new minds and ears.

Around 2015, Ted Nash – along with bassist Ben Allison and guitarist Steve Cardenas – formed a drummerless trio rooted in sparse but rich sound similar to bands like the Jimmy Giuffre / Jim Hall Trio. For their project Somewhere Else: Songs from West Side Story, each member of the group contributed to Bernstein’s “arrangements” which served more as sketches or improvised launching pads. “We’re not trying to recreate anything,” says Nash, “we’re just trying to use this beautiful music to create something new. And if that means we’re not playing it like the original, that’s is like that. “

Sanabria’s journey to West Side Story is more personal. “It’s my story … It’s a Nuyorican story.” Sanabria says he’s using his Big Band Multiverse to tap into what he calls “kinetic energy” from Bernstein’s score. The band of course gives punch to the Latin sections of the music, while the drummer and conductor also puts his stamp on the jazz portions, giving tracks like “Jet Song” a bit of rock and roll sparkle. .

And more than 60 years after the musical debuted on Broadway, jazz musicians like Nash and Sanabria remain fascinated by West Side Story. “The path [Bernstein] honored Latin culture, especially Puerto Rican culture and the culture of jazz was beyond, beyond pallor, ”says Sanabria. “He was just amazing to me. It still surprises me today. “

The musicians:

Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band

Bobby Sanabria, musical director, drums, percussion; Kevin Bryan, Shareef Clayton, Max Darché, Andrew Neesley; trumpet; David Dejesus, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute; Andrew Gould, alto saxophone, flute; Peter Brainin tenor saxophone, flute; Yaacov Mayman, tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet; Danny Rivera, baritone saxophone; David Miller, Tim Sessions, Armando Vergara, trombone; Chris Washburne, bass trombone; Gabrielle Garo, flute, piccolo; Ben Sutin, electric violin; Darwin Noguera, piano; Leo Traversa, electric bass; Oreste Abrantes, Matthew González, Takao Heisho, percussion.

Ted Nash, Steve Cardenas and Ben Allison

Ted Nash, tenor saxophone; Steve Cardenas, guitar, and Ben Allison, bass.

All music written by Leonard Bernstein

List of sets:

  • Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band – “Prologue” (arr. Jeremy Fletcher)
  • Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band – “Jet Song” (arr. Niko Siebold)
  • Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band – “America” ​​(arr. Jeff Lederer)
  • Ted Nash, Steve Cardenas and Ben Allison – “Cool”
  • Ted Nash, Steve Cardenas and Ben Allison – “Tonight”
  • Ted Nash, Steve Cardenas & Ben Allison – “A Boy Like That” (arr. Ted Nash)
  • Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band – “Somewhere” (arr. Jeremy Fletcher)
  • Credits: Writer, Producer and Lead Producer: Alex Ariff; Host: Christian McBride; Production assistants: Sarah Kerson and Sarah Geledi; Consulting Editor: Katie Simon; Project manager: Suraya Mohamed; NPR Music Senior Director Keith Jenkins; Executive producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.

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    Ada J. Kenney