Soulful Symphony - the blending of Classical and Jazz idioms

Soulful Symphony is a 75-piece American symphony orchestra founded in 2000 by composer Darin Atwater (pictured). It is based in Baltimore, Maryland and its membership is entirely African American. The group is affiliated with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Darin Atwater uses the terms Soulful as “expressing deep feeling,” and Symphony as in “harmony of sounds.” NRP has a video of a lovely piece entitled "Song in a Strange Land," a negro spiritual. Initially Mr Atwater uses minimalist textures to build the piece, starting with a marimba on a repeating figure, eventually bringing in strings. His instrumentation is similar to a symphony orchestra but augmented with saxophones, a drum set and gospel choir. All of these have been included in other orchestral pieces, but the sound put together by Mr Atwater has more of a jazz ensemble approach than we typically get from a symphony orchestra, even a pop's orchestra.

The harmonies are rich with some particularly some nice tight blues chords and slides to the pitch and the voices harmonized in a gospel manner, and yet... there is a complexity we don't normally hear in jazz or gospel music. In some respects it reminds me of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, as the piece moves from section to section giving glimpses of a variety of different jazz forms.

Initially the piece has a strong gospel feel, but then moves into a lament. At about 6 mins into the piece it turns to a jazz trio, drum, bass and piano. Very nice but it broke the flow of the piece for me. It seemed as if the music shifted from what was orchestral and voice to small ensemble, even though it only lasts for just over a minute. Then there comes an "improvised" section, with rapid notes on the piano and saxophone (and finally a trumpet). I'm not sure how much of the music was actually improvised of actually composed at this point, but it had the feeling of free jazz. Then the piece moved into a big band sound with the strings backing the brass and sax section, eventually bringing in the voices to bring it back to a gospel sound, although very different that the sound at the beginning. Eventually the piece does return to the beginning marimba and voice with the marimba's figure ending. It flows, but more like a collection of pieces threaded together as in a medley rather than a single piece.

I'm enthusiastic about the use of the orchestra blending jazz and classical orchestral music. However, while there are some lovely aspects about this particular piece, I'm not sure Mr Atwater captures the essence of classical music and the concept of a unified, cohesive piece. What he does accomplish is the use of gospel and jazz music on classical instruments and with a touch of classical composition. It's not there yet, but he shows real potential.

Here is a video of "Go Down Moses" by the Soulful Symphony to give you another example of their sound and a really nice arrangement of this spiritual.


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