Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim‘s musical, West Side Story, is one of America’s theatrical masterpieces. Set in the mean streets of New York City, it is an interesting retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, but instead of two rival families, it is the tale of two rival street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, and the doomed lovers who stem from these gangs. The composers’ use of contemporary culture is also innovative; though popular song and contemporary times in and of itself is nothing new, for this play, they tap into the burgeoning rock and roll culture, building on the era’s generation gap, giving a fresh, humanizing portraits to a subculture that was considered “delinquent.” It was bold, exciting, and overwhelmingly popular; the overwhelming success of the stage production would shortly be eclipsed by the even more popular theatrical version.
What makes West Side Story even more impressive is the positive reception it received in the more conservative, mainstream American culture, most notably within the jazz community. Jazz interpretations of Broadway and Hollywood musicals were nothing new; songs from such musicals as Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma, and South Pacific were popular among the jazz crowd. El Records’ latest compilation, West Side Story: Jazz Impressions/Unique Perspectives, does an excellent job highlighting the various contemporary reinterpretations jazz artists released in the era from after the stage debut to the release of the Hollywood adaptation.
Over the course of this two disc set, the musical’s best-loved numbers are given a thorough examination. That might lead one to initially fear the monotony of repetition. Don’t. While it is true that there are a half dozen versions of “Maria” and “Cool,” this is done to help illustrate and compare the joys of interpretation. Dave Brubeck’s interpretation of “Tonight” is breezy and jaunty, whereas Cal Tjader’s take focuses on rhythm and percussion, while Shelly Manne’s version is a slightly melancholy ballad. Furthermore, relatively few performances here feature vocals, but those that do show a different side from the original song; Gerry Mulligan and Annie Ross’s take on “I Feel Pretty” is fast—almost frantic—while Ellen WInther’s take of the same is less jazz and more opera. Luis Mariano’s “Maria” is a powerful,romantic ballad sung in Spanish, while the Ramin-Kostal Orchestra’s take is light vocal harmony at its finest. The rest of the record is cool, breezy jazz, made by many of the masters of the genre.
West Side Story: Jazz Impressions/Unique Perspectives is indeed a unique perspective on one of America music’s finest compositions, and serves to show not only the width and breadth of its influence, but also to highlight just how diverse and interesting the American jazz scene was during the era.