Three pieces for orchestra and blues band

Today’s post is for our friend and occasional employee Craig, who has been reading Haruki Murakami’s Absolutely on Music, a book of conversations with Seiji Ozawa. He came into the shop last weekend looking for recordings of the legendary conductor, and we turned up frustratingly few of them. This week we came across several recordings from Ozawa’s storied career, including this one.


Seiji Ozawa conducted the premier of William Russo’s Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra in 1968, with the Chicago Symphony and the Seigel-Schwall Band collaborating. Five years later he recorded the piece for Deutsche-Grammophon with the San Francisco Orchestra. The album was a hit, by Deutsche-Grammophon standards, which led to the Seigel-Schwall band performing the piece with several orchestras around the country.

Russo’s Symphony No. 2 “Titan” was comissioned by Leonard Bernstein ten years earlier and featured jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson as a soloist for its debut with the New York Philharmonic. Russo, whose early career included writing for the Stan Kenton Orchestra, wrote a number of works which walk a line between ‘high-falutin’ classical and ‘low-brow’ popular music.

We have misgivings about music which could be categorized in our “classical gasp” section, but Russo’s composition is a successful blending of genres. While never as famous as other rock/blues acts like the Butterfield Blues Band or John Mayall, the Siegel-Schwall Band is solidly talented. Corky Siegel plays a mean harmonica on these three pieces. Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra is certainly better than this hybrid concerto we posted recently.

Russo’s work also included rock opera styled productions with the Chicago Free Theater, often on current events such as anti-war protests or the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. He remained involved in theater and music in Chicago until his retirement a year before his death in 2003. Columbia College’s Chicago Jazz Ensemble, founded by Russo, continues to perform today.

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