Ever since George Gershwin composed “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924, artists from Duke Ellington to Gunther Schuller have used elements from classical music to create new and exciting jazz sounds. Alto saxophonist Lou Caimano and pianist Eric Olsen are among the most innovative musical talents to fuse these two great art forms. They transform well-known operatic arias into imaginative and unconventional jazz compositions.

The duo has been performing together for 16 years under the name of DYAD, a rubric that Webster’s defines as “two persons in a continuing relationship involving interaction.” Their musical interaction continues on this project with elegant and highly original jazz arrangements of operatic melodies mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries.

They are joined on their latest CD DYAD PLAYS JAZZ ARIAS by two jazz masters, Randy Brecker on trumpet and Ted Nash on tenor saxophone. According to Olsen, “We were looking for an even deeper jazz feel on this CD than we had on DYAD Plays Pucciniour first release. That’s why we asked Randy and Ted to join us. Their unique voices and improvisatory chops added other layers of harmonic and rhythmic textures.” Caimano adds, “Although we re-shape these beautiful operatic melodies to fit in a jazz context, the most important thing is to touch the listener on an emotional level.”

Five of the arrangements were written by Olsen, with Caimano sharing credit on two arias, including Delibes’ “Flower Duet.” Originally written for two soprano singers, it’s one of the most popular and recognizable songs of the oeuvre. Recorded in just one take, DYAD turns the aria into a swinging jazz waltz with Nash, Caimano, and Olsen improvising solos off of its soaring melody line. Caimano and Olsen also share arranging credit for “Meditation” from the opera “Thaïs” by Massenet. The melody was originally written for solo violin, but Caimano and Olsen transform it into an up tempo jazz composition that still captures the lyrical, expressive melody of the original.

Turning an aria into jazz sometimes requires making subtle changes to the original to accommodate new jazz harmonies and rhythms. The work of some composers are more amenable to the process than others. Although Olsen finds Mozart‘s music less congenial for a jazz makeover than some, he does a masterful job on “Finch’han dal vino,” also known as the Champagne Aria, from Don Giovanni. Olsen completely re-harmonized the composition, creating an up-tempo, swing version featuring Brecker on an appropriately bubbly trumpet solo. Brecker is also featured on “Do not utter a word” by Samuel Barber, one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. From the opera Vanessa, Olsen arranged the aria with a bluesy feel to give a contemporary take on the despairing mind of the character who performs it in the opera. He created a counter line for Brecker that works seamlessly with Barber’s melody.

Caimano and Olsen perform an up-tempo, hip version of “Seguidilla” from Bizet’s Carmen. It’s an intricate melody, but Caimano plays it with grace and aplomb. “Habanera” is another well-known melody that Olsen arranged with a driving, forward motion that leads you down unexpected avenues. Caimano cites the influence of Michael Brecker on his solo for this piece. The CD ends with Verdi’s “Dio! mi potevi scagliar,” an aria in which Otello bemoans his fate.  Olsen completely re-harmonized the composition with Caimano playing a version of the original oboe line and Nash playing an original counter line written by Olsen.

DYAD PLAYS JAZZ ARIAS is a gorgeous, moving album that will appeal to both jazz and classical aficionados. It features brilliant performances by Caimano and Olsen and their guests, Brecker and Nash, with arrangements that pay homage to the originals, but allow the players full expression in the jazz idiom.