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Megaphone

Portrait in Seven Shades

By Published: February 8, 2007
By Ted Nash

"Different themes inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress; it is a matter of following the idea one wants to express and the way in which one wants to express it. - Pablo Picasso

About two years ago, Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, asked me to compose a long-form piece to be performed at some future date by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. He said it could be anything I wanted, but needed a theme. It didn't take me long to think of a concept that would truly inspire me to write an hour of new music: each movement of the composition would be dedicated to a different painter.

Well, I can't believe that two years have passed. It has been a great journey for me and I wish I could share the entire creative process with the audience. Of course I look forward to the performances, but it's in the early stage of discovery, thoughts, impressions, decisions, experiments, that is most fulfilling.

One of the biggest challenges was choosing only seven painters. I decided to limit my choices to artists who lived within an approximate 100-year period, about the age of jazz itself. The period includes the end of the Impressionist period and takes us into Abstract Expressionism of the '60s. Although it doesn't correlate exactly with the existence of jazz music (around the beginning of the 1900s to present), it is a similar time frame. And during these 100-year periods each art form went through a similar amount of transformations.

There were a few choices that were no-brainers for me: Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet. I think of Picasso as sort of the Miles Davis of the art world. He was responsible for the development of different movements (like Cubism). Miles helped give birth to bebop, modal and fusion, among other styles. Ultimately the list would include those three plus Matisse, Chagall, Dali and Pollack. Not only are all of these great painters, but the difference in their styles would help lead to a contrast among each of the seven movements. I have also focused on artists that are very recognizable names because I want the listener to hear music that expresses images with which they are already very familiar. I think this will be a greater experience: people have developed their own reactions to these great artists and may have heard melodies, seen movement or even smelled smells of their own in response to these great paintings. It is my wish not that I will capture the individual reactions of the audience members, but rather that they will be able to see mine and understand, after hearing the music, how these paintings have moved me. And hopefully, as a result, people will walk away seeing these paintings in a new, fresh way.

Jazz at Lincoln Center contacted The Museum of Modern Art, who agreed to work with us by providing me access to their incredible collection. It has been a wonderful time re-exploring many of the works of art that I began to enjoy soon after moving to New York when I was 18, some of which have become truly iconic to me.

Performed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, "Portrait in Seven Shades will premiere in a concert called Jazz and Art at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I am working with director Brian Beasely to realize the vision I have of projecting the images on the band while onstage, so that the music literally rises out of the paintings.

With "Portrait in Seven Shades , I will tell a story about these painters; not through words, as in a museum description, but through music. Musicians and artists often experience similar joys, struggles, successes and self-doubts. Many parallels can be drawn between the two forms of art. Musicians talk of colors, layers and composition. Similar adjectives have been used to describe each art form: impressionistic, abstract, pop. And of course there is "the blues .

When painters and musicians embrace their own truths, working on their art can be a wonderful opportunity to get to know themselves better. It also lets other people know more about themselves. Also, when art is sincere, it usually reflects something of the society in which we live.

"Portrait in Seven Shades will also take into consideration the lives of the painters. I have read a lot about them and know a lot about their lives, but have made certain projections about their emotional state. For example, for Van Gogh I have written a ballad with lyrics - the first time I have written words to a composition - and it expresses certain feelings that I believe Van Gogh felt. These lyrics make reference to some of his paintings ("Starry Night for example) and also expresses that what he really wanted was to be loved, to have his love requited. It is my feeling he never received the love he desired. When the words will be sung, it will be is as if he is speaking to Gaugin (a peer and good friend) or to his lover (a prostitute, actually). But in a way he is singing to the world, asking for the acceptance he never got (he only sold one painting in his lifetime).

Pollack was a lover of jazz. The movement I am writing for him captures the kind of jazz I think he loved, but also reflects the music of the decade during which he did most of his well known work - the '50s. The music will deal with a swinging, beatnik style. Because much of his art is abstract, the piece will strongly reflect this, with musical phrases tossed loosely on the canvas. For Monet, I have included impressionistic harmonies and solo sections. For Picasso, I first embrace his Spanish background. The music has a sense of Flamenco in it. Later the piece develops, as his art did, into cubes: the thematic material, the harmony, the voicings all deal with fourths. At the end of the movement the four different sections come together, giving an abstract climax, but resolve to a big E chord, bringing us back to Spain.

Being privileged to have played in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for nine years, I have gotten to know the individual members very well - their personalities, their musical strengths and preferences - and have made orchestrational and soloistic choices accordingly. I have also invited great guest soloists to perform: Mark O'Connor on violin, Bill Schimmel on accordion, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and Yola Nash on vocals. Each musician will bring their musical sensibilities and help realize the musical objectives I have set out to accomplish.

The first half of the concert will feature existing works dedicated to painters by Duke Ellington ("Degas Suite ), Charles Mingus ("Self-Portrait in Three Colors ), Coleman Hawkins ("Picasso ), Maria Schneider ("Some Circles for Kandinsky) and Jim McNeely ("Cockiness for Klee).


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