When confronted by an album whose tracks include the names "Creation" (Parts 1 and 2), "Preludes for Memnon," "Wisdom of the Humanities" and "Reaching the Tropopause," among others, one braces for whatever may transpire, buoyed by the thought that with Glenn Close, Ted Nash
and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on board, how displeasing could it be? The verdict: not at all displeasingbut it must be appraised on its own terms, as a series of philosophical and hopefully transformative treatises and monologues, not as a paradigm of contemporary big-band jazz, although there are moments of that as well.
Any enterprise of this scope treads a fine line between gravity and bombast, and Transformation
harbors its fair share of both. The readings, by Close and others, encompass a broad spectrum from gender identity to race and racism, human relations to the breadth and depth of humanity itself. Its common thread is the "message," delivered with breathless resolve by Close, actor Wayne Brady, actress Amy Irving, Matthew Stevenson and Ted Nash's son, Eli. Close curated the literary and spoken word performances, which is one reason she commands star billing (another is that she is Glenn Close).
The panorama opens on a portentous note with "Creation, Part 1," narrated by Brady and Close, whose text is from "Tales of Ovid" by Ted Hughes. After explaining who we are and why we are here (no mean feat in roughly eight minutes), the narrators step aside to let the orchestra have its say on "Creation, Part 2." That's one of three instrumentals; the others are "Dear Dad/Response" and "Forgiveness." In "Dear Dad/Letter," a young "woman" explains to her father that she has made some life changes and is now his son, Eli. It comes across as sincere and thoughtful, and dad's response seems positive, even though no words are spoken.
"Preludes to Memnon," written by Conrad Aiken and recited by Close, is more poetic than practical but does provide a ready springboard for the orchestra and soloists Sherman Irby
(alto flute) and Ryan Kisor
(trumpet). Irving makes her first appearance on "One Among Many," whose text is by Judith Clarke, a prison parolee expressing her gratitude for purpose and freedom and regrets for the harm she caused in the past. Stevenson annotates his own text, "Rising Out of Hatred," an inspirational essay describing how perseverance and love transformed an avowed neo-Nazi into someone who bore no ill will toward anyone regardless of race, ethnicity or color. Stevenson says this is a true story. Even if it weren't, it is the sort of enheartening narrative that one wants to believe must be authentic.
Brady is up next, unraveling his own theme, "A Piece by the Angriest Black Man in America (or, How I Learned to Forgive Myself for Being a Black Man in America)," a perceptive and sometimes humorous commentary depicting his (and, no doubt, many others') uneasiness about being black in America and his struggle to overcome the "stigma" that causes. Irving narrates E.O. Wilson's portentous "Wisdom of the Humanities," Close and Brady "Reaching the Tropopause," a utopian excerpt from Tony Kushner's Angels in America
that leads to some of the orchestra's finest moments. Close's textual choices are heartfelt albeit uneven, the narrators eloquent and well-rehearsed. Nash does the best he can with the score, which has to mirror the earnestness and import of the occasion, inserting almost enough jazz to counterbalance the gasconade. In the album's booklet, we learn that Transformation
was recorded (with an audience) in January/February 2020 at Rose Hall in NYC. What it does not say (but is obvious on the recording) is that the performances were warmly received. What Transformation
does, emotionally and/or intellectually, for listeners in other locales and circumstances is for each one to decide.
Creation, Part I; Creation, Part II; Dear Dad/Letter; Dear Dad/Response; Prelude for
Memnon; One Among Many; Rising Out of Hatred; A Piece by the Angriest Black Man in
America; Forgiveness; Wisdom of the Humanities; Reaching the Tropopause.