The cruel conundrum of being a trained classical musician who digs jazz: You long to play it, but in your wildest dreams you can’t stray from the printed score into improvisation, the very heart of jazz.

That was the sticking point that prevented San Antonio Symphony violinist Joan Christenson and jazz musician friends from collaborating. That is, not until Christenson persuaded pianist Mark Rubinstein and bass player Darrell Tidaback to perform Claude Bolling’s “Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio with her in a concert of Musical Offerings, a chamber ensemble she has led since 1989.

The suite combines elements of classical and jazz music but was set down, note by note, on paper.

“They laughed at me,” Christenson said, as they couldn’t take seriously any jazz on paper. “But it was a big success, and we did it the next year, too, and had a really good time.”

From that experimental start, which also included guitarist Polly Harrison, Jazz Meets Classical (JMC) has grown to 11 musicians and become a highlight of the musical year for lovers of jazz, classical, and innovation. Fans arrive an hour early to procure good seats in the Great Hall at the San Antonio Museum of Art for the annual concert.

They will have another opportunity when the series celebrates its 25th anniversary by performing new compositions and favorite works from seasons past. Brazilian singer, pianist, and composer Clarice Assad will be the guest artist.

The concerts will take place Sunday, April 30, at 3 p.m. at Christ Episcopal Church, 510 Belknap, and Monday, May 1, at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Art, 200 W. Jones Street. For ticket information, click here.  

San Antonio Symphony violinist Joan Christenson.
San Antonio Symphony violinist Joan Christenson. Credit: Courtesy / Susan Riley

The program will feature Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” which features an Afro-Cuban percussion jam session, and Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes,” both arranged by JMC guitarist Matthew Dunne. It also will include premieres of new music by Dunne, JMC clarinetist Jim Balentine, and Assad.

Balentine said he wrote his new piece, “Il y a des Fleurs,” especially for Assad and the JMC ensemble with lyrics in French inspired by a quote from Henri Matisse: “There are flowers everywhere for anyone who really wants to see them,” which Balentine expanded.

“It’s a happy song, and I think will be fun for the musicians and the audience,” he said. “Clarice Assad is the perfect guest with her skills as a singer, composer, and pianist. I expect it will be the best of Jazz Meets Classical ever.”

Assad performed with her father and uncle, the internationally acclaimed guitarists The Assad Brothers, last April in the ARTS San Antonio series. Jean Rogers Winchell said she found Christenson during intermission and said, “You have to get her for Jazz Meets Classical.”

A triple threat, Assad also is a classically trained pianist and composer rooted in the earthy, folkloric rhythms of Brazil. The JMC ensemble will perform her “Suite for Lower Strings (Based on Themes by Bach).”

The ensemble also will perform four more Balentine arrangements and a composition he wrote for the group in 1993. Those include “Glitter and Be Gay” from the operetta Candide and Wrong Note Rag, both composed by Leonard Bernstein. Christenson will perform the humorous spoken section of “Glitter and Be Gay.”

Dunne’s composition, “O Viajante,” opens with a melody for voice and guitar that progresses into a jazz tune in the tradition of Brazilian bossa nova.

Winchell, chair of the Russell Hill Rogers Fund for the Arts, said she has been attending Jazz Meets Classical concerts for 13 years; the Fund she manages makes the concerts possible.

“I’ve loved it every year, and love this particular program with its jazz elements,” she said. “They have fun and the whole place is rocking.

“I’m especially excited to hear Assad sing with them. I’ve never heard anything like her voice. It wasn’t just singing – she blended her voice with the guitars.”

The 2017 Jazz Meets Classical ensemble. Credit: Courtesy / Susan Riley

The marriage – or flirtation – between classical and jazz elements started in Paris in 1910 with a group of composers who came to be known as “Les Six,” including Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and Jean Cocteau. The one female in the group was Germaine Tailleferre. Her work “Valse des Depeches & Quadrille,” arranged by Balentine for the concert, will pay homage to Jazz Meets Classical’s musical ancestors.

In addition to Christenson, Balentine and Dunne, players in Jazz Meets Classical will be jazz musicians Joe Caploe on drums, Aaron Prado on piano, Curtis Calderon on trumpet and fluegelhorn, and Zlatan Redzic on bass. On the classical side, Daniel Wang will play viola, Holden Gjoni will be on cello, and Laura Scalzo will join Christenson on violin.

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Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.