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Tom Lawton: Jazz and the Modern Art of Man Ray

Victor L. Schermer BY

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In his book, Jazz Modernism: From Ellington And Armstrong To Matissse And Joyce (Yale University Press 2004), author Alfred Appel depicts the numerous but easily overlooked parallels between jazz music and modern art and literature. Many jazz musicians are art aficionados, and many of the twentieth century's great artists loved jazz and often kept record collections. Jazz icons Miles Davis and Tony Bennett have exhibited their artwork at major galleries. There's only a small distance from the ears to the eyes, and some folks actually hear colors and see sounds, a phenomenon called synesthesia.

The modern artist and photographer Man Ray was interested in music, gesture, dance, time, and rhythm, all of which manifest in jazz as well. Although there is a natural connection between art and music, it is rare to find jazz compositions based on specific works of art. So it is truly an occasion when a prominent jazz musician and composer deliberately utilizes a noted artist's oeuvre as inspiration. On October 9, 2015, revered and innovative pianist Tom Lawton will premiere his new composition dedicated to the art of Man Ray at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. All ears will be up to hear this new work for jazz sextet and see some of the artist's works that inspired it, doubtless asking, how did Lawton and his group get from the one to the other. Lawton considers that it is a work in progress, and since it will include improvisation, it will be fresh and new each time it is performed. All About Jazz cornered Lawton in the midst of putting the notes down on paper, and we asked him what he was up to.

All About Jazz: How did this project for a jazz composition inspired by Man Ray come about?

Tom Lawton: Homer Jackson, the head of the Philadelphia Jazz Project, is personally interested in the art work of Man Ray, and not too long ago got the idea to commission a jazz piece based on it. He told me that a number of people had suggested that I should be the composer.

AAJ: So the idea for using Man Ray's art came from Jackson, and he hunted around and found you to be "the man" who could do it?

TL: Yes, it was his idea, and I have to confess I never had much awareness of Man Ray at all until then!

AAJ: Do you have a long time interest in visual arts in general?

TL: Only to a limited extent. My eyes don't work the way my ears do. I don't retain visual images the way I retain music. Even if I look at a painting many times, I still have to come back to it, because I'm not naturally visual. But I've always appreciated the artistic instinct as such, regardless of the medium. I think the artistic instinct for any medium comes from one and the same place. Both my two sisters and my wife are visual artists, so I've always been around it, even though I'm very visually challenged.

AAJ: Do you have any of your own favorite painters, sculptors, or photographers?

TL: My favorites are Jackson Pollock, Monet, and Kandinsky. I've always leaned towards the abstract, although to me nothing is more concrete than abstract art.

AAJ: That's a very interesting and paradoxical thought. Could you say more about that?

TL: Most people think of abstract art as being removed from the concrete, but I see it as being a distillation of all of the basic thoughts and feelings that humans have. To me, abstract art is even more meaningful than representational art. It more resembles the way that thoughts flow through our heads. I like some representational art like Monet's "Water Lilies," which to me are abstractions of nature. My wife, Fran, is a photographer, and many of her photos are of things like grass and trees, things in nature, but she finds the abstract in nature. So I don't see abstract art as unnatural.

AAJ: That's a great understanding. It's a very quotable quote for artists. And it would seem to fit with your appreciation of modern music. I know you dig Ornette Coleman, Witold Lutoslawski, and other composers whom even some trained musicians still find "far out."

TL: In music, even Mozart is pretty abstract when you really get down to it. Music is probably the most abstract of all the arts anyway. It's subjective. It has the temporal element: it's not fixated in time. Ornette Coleman comes out of the blues, and that's what I mean when I say that the supposedly abstract is concrete. The basic primal elements are two sides of the same coin to me.

AAJ: Can you take us into yourself, into your inner experience as you were creating this music based on Man Ray? How did it unfold for you?

TL: It started last summer (2014) after Homer had given me the commission, when I met with the curator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In their regular collection, they don't have much Man Ray, but they do have one of his most important paintings, "Le Beau Temps" or "Fair Weather." And they have a couple of the objects, one of the metronomes, and his iron with tacks entitled "Cadeau" or "Gift." So I went and saw them, and the curator gave me some additional information about them. Then I went to the library and took out a few books about Man Ray, his life and work. I was too busy to compose at that point, so I used that time to read up on him.

Man Ray was a fascinating person. I identified with him because he was eclectic. He worked in many different mediums, representational, conceptual, abstract, and mixed. And even though he participated in the surrealist movement, dada-ism, and various other things, he always had his own angle on things, and the people who were purists in those movements were unlike him because he always wanted to mix it with something else. I also identified with him because he simultaneously did fine art for galleries while at the same time he made a living doing portrait photography, working for Harper's and other fashion magazines. So he was like me, a working musician, with my artistic projects and my bread and butter commercial work. And he was able to enjoy both things and keep them going.

I did some readings, and many of the books had reproductions of his paintings, photographs, and drawings. So now I came to the music. The commission required me to produce an hour and a quarter (75 minutes) of music, including improvisation. I was still very busy, but I kept a music sketchbook with me, and every time I got a germinal idea, I wrote it down, so I had ideas that I returned to later when I had more time to compose. But this May, after I did a gig with Odean Pope at the Blue Note in New York, I had more time to work on the piece between various gigs and teaching. Instead of practicing, I devoted myself exclusively to the Man Ray composition. I had my material from the sketchbooks, and I started composing the whole piece.

As for Man Ray's work, I focused mainly on "Le Beau Temps." But I wanted a variety of moods in the movements, and I took the titles of the movements from his works. Thus, the big movement which involves a lot of freely improvised playing is entitled "Le Beau Temps." Man Ray did that painting around the time he was getting ready to leave Europe because the forces leading up to World War II were becoming more oppressive there. There are hints of that in the painting, so in my music, each instrument has a couple of motifs that they play off against each other, and "war" with each other. Then it breaks into a groove towards the end, to celebrate his triumphs over his own conflicts. Then I have a movement with a bossa nova type tune but with weird block harmonies. I call that "Le Tournant," or "The Turn in the Road," based on Man Ray's drawing that symbolized both the turmoil in Europe and his own decision to return to the U.S. despite his reservations about it. The drawing was in a book called Les Main Libres by him and the surrealist poet Paul Eluard, who wrote poetry to accompany Man Ray's art. Then I used Man Ray's very busy, crazy work, "End Game" for the title of a really wild neo-abstract bebop piece.

Man Ray listened to Sidney Bechet and other vintage jazz in Paris in the 1920s-30s, so I wrote a movement that's more or less in that style. Then I have a movement called "Kitchen Sink," because it contains elements of various types of jazz. I don't believe Man Ray had a work by that name.

AAJ: But they do have a toilet by Duchamp in the Museum.

TL: Well that brings up another part of my composition. When I first got my group together to rehearse the piece, I felt I needed one more movement, and since most of the others were fairly complex, I wrote a simple but slightly abstract twelve bar blues, and I needed a title. Duchamp's toilet was in a category of art that they called "ready made"-the artists would take an article from real life and just put it in a museum! But for Man Ray, that wasn't sufficient. He felt he needed to mess with the object or juxtapose something unrelated, like the iron with the tacks. He called such works "assisted ready mades," so I called this movement "Assisted Ready Made" because I used the ready made twelve bar blues, but I assisted it by writing my own head.

AAJ: Are you thinking of these movements as parts of a single suite with an overall trajectory, or are they separate and distinct?

TL: Well, it's jazz! In jazz composition, you write material, and it sets up different possibilities for improvising. There are six movements. At the moment, I'm thinking of it as separate pieces inspired by Man Ray. If it ends up being an official suite with a certain order, that will come later.

AAJ: It's interesting to me that you used not only the art work, but Man Ray's life as inspirations.

TL: As I was working on the composition, I realized more and more that Man Ray had a very large output, and I couldn't possibly cover it all, so I focused on aspects of his life and work that had a special interest for me from a musical standpoint.

AAJ: What instrumentation are you using?

TL: It's a sextet. At the Art Museum concert, John Swana will play the EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) and the valve trombone. Ben Schachter will play tenor and soprano saxophone. We'll have Diane Monroe on violin, Lee Smith on bass, and Dan Monaghan on drums.

AAJ: Some composers write with specific musicians in mind. Is that the case here?

TL: Well, first of all, hardly anyone plays the EVI, so there was no choice involved there other than Swana. But of course I wanted Swana specifically. I always tell my students, the real instrument is your ear, so I want musicians who hear and play in a certain way. I think about the musical mind first before I think about the instrument. But then I do have to think about the instruments themselves, and I did get together with Swana, Schachter, and Monroe, just to hear how a couple of things sounded, and I did like, for example, the way doubling the EVI and violin sounded for a couple of things, especially when they're playing the upper parts. But there is still a lot I haven't heard yet at rehearsals. I have one segment where I have Monroe doing the melody and the tenor saxophone and trombone underneath her in lower registers, and I really have to hear that in order to decide whether I need to re-orchestrate it.

AAJ: You can hear it in your mind, but it may sound quite different when performed. So part of your composing is getting to hear it played. By the way, how does the improvising fit into the piece?

TL: There are some sections where I only give the chord changes. The Blues and the Sidney Bechet movement contain fairly normal forms, while the Kitchen Sink is an extended form, like the things that Charles Mingus did. One part is inspired by Schachter's tune "Fractals" for the A section. The B section, the bridge, is inspired by stride piano, and then the C section is like a Mingus take on swing.

AAJ: It's interesting that you're thinking about the musicians' minds rather than their instruments. Swana, Schachter, and Monroe each employ their own unique concepts.

TL: Swana is both unique and eclectic. He manages to sound like himself, but is very versatile and can play straight ahead swing and bebop as well as avant-garde music. The same goes for Monroe and Schachter. Probably the one for whom my composition will be most unusual is drummer Monaghan, who plays a lot straight ahead mainstream gigs for a living. But Dan also works with Norman David's Group of Four as well as Brian Woestehoff, the Big Five Chord, John Vanore, and Abstract Truth. These groups are very advanced conceptually, so Monaghan should adjust very well to what we are doing. Greg Osby once said in an interview that he likes to get someone in the band who is relatively new to his approach, which brings a novel exploratory aspect to the group.

AAJ: So even though it's your composition, you're allowing the musicians lots of freedom to be themselves.

TL: There's room, especially in "Le Beau Temps," for them to go their own way, but the structure may still be a challenge for them. For example, Schachter told me he found things in my piece that were unfamiliar territory.

AAJ: It sounds like the uniqueness of the musicians is an integral part of what you're aiming for.

TL: It's just like when we're sidemen, we want to contribute to the leader's vision and do our part to make the whole sound good. I hope they'll do that for me.

AAJ: Is there anything you would like the audience to listen for and to take home with them from this composition?

TL: I would just say they should sit back and listen with an open mind. A first performance of music of this kind can be both enjoyable and tough for the listeners, because even in public, we're still exploring and putting it all together. We'll rehearse it quite a bit, but it's never de-flowered until you go public, and hopefully people will just go for a ride. It will be a multi-media experience, because the Museum will have a slide show of Man Ray's art to accompany the performance. And then of course, people can see some of the Museum's Man Ray collection before the show, at least the ones that are in the galleries as opposed to the archives. I hope everyone will stretch their capacity for looking and listening and enjoy the experience at the same time.

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