Back in the 1950s, jazz musicians, perhaps looking to expand their horizons, perhaps recognizing a new source for quality material to experiment with, turned to the music of Broadway. The result was some very effective music—effective artistically, effective commercially. Jazz artists have always been eager to try new ideas. Creative innovation is what jazz is all about.
So when the piano-sax duo Dyad comes up with an album of jazz interpretations of the music of Giacomo Puccini, and you hear what they’ve done with it, you have to wonder what took them so long. Admittedly, classical music in general and grand opera specifically have not been particularly fertile ground for jazz reinterpretation. There is a track here, a track there, but jazz artists have generally been more interested in developing their own compositions in classical forms. Dyad Plays Puccini is an album that could change all that.
Puccini is synonymous with melody, and Dyad—alto saxophonist Lou Caimano and pianist Eric Olsen—makes his music glow. The album features 10 selections from eight different operas, including some of the most famous music ever written, played with respectful integrity by two musicians who have a real sense of its history. Opera is identified with the great passions; it is music on a grand scale. It is music that would seem to demand a symphony orchestra. But somehow, Caimano and Olsen make it work. It is testimony to their musical prowess that their reinterpretations do full emotional justice to the originals. This is a remarkable album.
From the opening track, “Musetta’s Waltz,” the playful aria from the second act of La Boheme, to the final piece, “Nessun dorma,” the Turandot aria identified so closely with Luciano Pavarotti, the music sings. Certainly two of the best known themes on the album, Caimano and Olsen have created dynamic arrangements that build on audience expectations. The glorious “Che gelida manina” gets something of a blues treatment from the sax playing against the rolling waves of the piano. “E Lucevan le stelle,” from Tosca, begins with the piano evoking the twinkling stars while the sax states the heartrending theme. It is a remarkable reinvention of the original. Less well-known, perhaps, but equally impressive are “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from La Rondine,“Inquelle trine morbide” from Manon Lescaut, and “Ch’ella mi creda” from The Girl from the Golden West. Still, Puccini cannot help but write elegant melody, and Dyad knows what to do with it. Just listen to the end of “Chi il bel sogni di Doretta.” There are two selections from Madama Butterfly, a lovely version of the lovely “Un bel di” that captures the emotional content of the original and the overture from Act 1. A dynamic version of Gianni Schicchi’s “O miio babbino caro” completes this fascinating album.
With all the Puccini arias still out there—“Vissi d’arte,” “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì,“ and “O soave fanciulla”—think of the possibilities for the next album. And after Puccini, Dyad might want to take a look at Verdi, or Bizet, or even—God help me—Wagner.