Visual artist Jeff Schlanger has helped document some of jazz and improvisational music's most memorable moments of clarity ever since his music Witness® (mW®) project first took shape in 1975.
Schlanger first got the "drawing bug" back in the mid to late '50s. He attended concerts by Sonny Rollins, Dizzy, Miles and Coltrane in Philadelphia at places like Pep's, which is where he began sketching and drawing. By the early '70s, documenting what wasn't being documented by anyone else at that time, Schlanger's mW® project blossomed into a reality at such musician-run loft concert spaces as Studio Infinity and Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea. "Having personally heard many revolutions in jazz, I could hear that the whole thing was changing again. I could hear this excitement of people developing other approaches together. And that was of course enormously inspiring to the visual work that I was doing in the studio," vividly recollects Schlanger of the Loft Movement era. There were no photographers, video or audio tapers, so he realized that someone had to record what was going on, and instead of simply sketching Schlanger made a conscious effort to begin what has now become his personal mW® stamp.
Schlanger's real time two-handed painted creations have helped recreate many magical moments which otherwise may have vanished with a performance's last echoing note. His documentation of Cecil Taylor's concert last year at the Knitting Factory graced AAJ-NY's March issue cover, and you may also recognize the cover art on many releases by musicians who have supported Schlanger's unique gift over the years, amongst them Charles Gayle, William Parker, Julius Hemphill, and the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ). Schlanger actually witnessed the historic formation of the pioneering WSQ, a group that was cofounded by the late saxophonist and composer Hemphill, who not only encouraged the mW® project since its inception, but was one of Schlanger's initial inspirations and fondest subjects.
Each mW® picture is done directly in conjunction with a performance, and the "witnessing" of live concert events has ranged from his native New York to such far ranging lands as Paris (France) and Tampere (Finland). "I try to deal with the spirit of creation," says Schlanger. And as the musicians breathe their first notes and create their first vibrations, so too does Jeff on paper take to his colorful pens and brushes with both hands, each set of fingers dancing separately and together. "There is way too much coming at us! I wish I had more hands," jests Schlanger. Resembling two dancers, each hand responds to and translates color and rhythms to paper - it's no wonder that he sees dance as the most direct and central of all art forms. Schlanger tries his best to keep up with the music, sometimes getting ahead of it as an at-times engaging participant. But when the final sounds echo into oblivion with the end of a set, he, too - like a member of the group on the bandstand - puts his hands and instruments down. And voila, another mW® work is born!
Capturing the spirit and essence of a moment beyond the notes played, Schlanger's significant accomplishment is, in his words, "like making a visible map of the music for the listener." He makes a conscious effort to deal in real time with the music as it is being produced, created, and sent at hyperspeed to listeners, whom he credits as being, "the key part of the equation. [Listeners] really make the whole thing into a live conversation." Schlanger transforms sounds into outlines of musicians and instruments filled with and surrounded by textural splotches, lines, and colors that immediately reveal the intensity, spirituality, and most importantly the communicative element of each musical occasion. The angles and tempos and interaction on stage, and between the audience and musicians, are captured from moment to moment and translated onto large sheets of paper. As only one who has a full empathy for what is going on could possibly create, Schlanger himself has simply said of his abstract and certainly complex, though at the root very real end result - "If the music moves me, it's my most responsive way to listen."
With the ninth annual Vision Festival (May 26th- 31st), the mW® project will be at its busiest. Schlanger will be responding to such highly anticipated events as the near three-decade reunion of the Revolutionary Ensemble (violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassist Sirone, and percussionist Jerome Cooper), bassist Henry Grimes' trio with pianist Marilyn Crispell and Andrew Cyrille, and the Peter Kowald/Wilber Morris Memorial Day Tribute featuring a bassist extravaganza that includes Grimes, Barre Phillips, William Parker, and Alan Silva. Connecting the artistic community by gathering some of the world's greatest improvisers of all art forms, "The Vision Festival contains the seeds of bringing all [the arts] together," compliments Schlanger of the appropriately titled Arts for Art organization that presents the festival each year. It's only appropriate that Schlanger's front-row center seat is reserved for the ninth year in a row, his participation and creation at the Vision continuing to be vital.
The Vision Festival represents to Schlanger a continuation of the concept of a music and arts community similar to the '70s Loft Movement, "a community," he says, "that is committed to improvisation" with founder Patricia Nicholson-Parker and her husband bassist William Parker, the primary "community builders". Having witnessed many of the musicians who survived and grew from this period that nurtured and encouraged communal improvisation, Schlanger is certainly one to realize the significance of what the concept of community can achieve. It is closely interlinked with his lofty mission statement of the mW®: "The vision is to take these individual performance pictures and connect them to form one long scroll, which, seen together, will become a single seismographic record of the energies moving through creative music over time, combined with a simultaneous view of hundreds of musicians actively involved in bringing art into life."
This Memorial Day weekend's Vision Festival will offer the opportunity to not only experience the many memorable if not historic live events featuring over 150 musicians/artists, but also to immediately relive the experience only moments after each set has ended. Stroll to the front of the room, have a glance over Jeff Schlanger's shoulder, and see what his latest installment has captured. It's a rare vision as clear as the mW®, and with each new completed picture, it becomes clearer.
Original art from the musicWitness® Project will be on view next season at the Cue Art Foundation in New York Mar. 17th - Apr. 23rd, 2005. For more information on Jeff Schlanger's mW® project, visit www.musicwitness.com .
All paintings: Jeff Schlanger, music Witness®.