Dyad is the name of a jazz duo consisting of Lou Caimano on alto saxophone and Eric Olsen on piano. Tomorrow is the street release date of their self-produced CD Dyad Plays Puccini, although it is already available for both purchase and download from Amazon.com. According to the advance material I received, the ten tracks on this album were the result of a metaphysical question:
Why isn’t Puccini as rich a source for jazz as Billy Strayhorn?
As metaphysical questions go, this one is not particularly challenging to those who know the music of Giacomo Puccini as well as the Strayhorn repertoire. The simple fact is that Puccini did not write tunes for songs. His vérité approach to opera required that even his extended vocal solos were always embedded in a rich (and often complex) dramatic context. If sopranos and tenors would choose to sing them out of context for recitals and recordings, they could count on most listeners to be familiar with the context already, appreciating how their respective interpretations would emerge on the opera stage.
This is not meant to diminish Strayhorn’s talent. Indeed, the quality of his craft can be traced all the way back to the traditions that the fictitious Walther von Stolzing learned from the (not fictitious) Hans Sachs in the first scene of the third act of Richard Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Had Dyad turned to the song that Walther wrote with Sachs’ assistance, they might have been on to something.
What makes Puccini’s particularly keen musical intuition for the dramatic so great a challenge for jazz interpretation is the vast extent of meaning that can emerge when the opera vocalist is simply repeating a note. Almost all of the tracks that Dyad selected for their album have at least one of those repeated-note moments that makes you hold your breath when you encounter it in an operatic setting. Thanks to the World Cup, the best known of these is probably “Nessun dorma” (none shall sleep) at the beginning of the third act of Turandot. However, those repeated notes occur in the middle and end of an aria in Puccini’s scores just as effectively as at the beginning.
The inability of Dyad to translate those repeated notes into an effective jazz interpretation is probably the main factor that undermines the whole Dyad Plays Puccini project. For all of their effort to honor (sometimes impressively) the melodic lines that Puccini wrote, the essence of the music consistently evades their jazz stylizations. The listener is thus left with moody meanderings that are, as the cliché goes, neither fish nor fowl.
The result is one of those cases in which the answer to that familiar wouldn’t-it-be-cool question is definitely, “No, it wouldn’t!”