Sunday, February 13, 2011

Impressive Impressions: Ted Nash's Portrait in Seven Shades

Composing for jazz orchestra is not for the timid. You have to be original, accessible and most importantly, the music has to swing. The challenge of composing music based on the visual arts is even more intimidating. Duke Ellington was a master of writing and arranging for his orchestra and coming up with suites for people and places. One his most interesting was the Degas Suite written in 1968, based on the artist’s racetrack paintings. Ted Nash has now raised the bar one more time with his remarkable composition called Portrait in Seven Shades, a suite about 7 painters: Claude Monet, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall and Jackson Pollock.

Imagining music for artists obviously wasn't intimidating for Ted Nash. "Many parallels can be drawn between the two forms of art,” he remarks. “Like painters, musicians talk of colors, layers and composition." On this recording, Nash was asked to compose a long-form piece for the Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis. The only requirement from Marsalis was that it should have a theme. Nash, who's been a member of the band for the past ten years, was ready for the challenge. "It didn't take me long to come up with a concept that would truly inspire me to write an hour-long piece of music...each movement would be dedicated to a different painter." The challenge was narrowing down the list to 7 and going from there. For Nash, the criterion was simple: select an artist over the past 100 years that reflected transformative changes in painting. The character of the artist was then reflected in the music.

Monet's Reflections of Clouds on the Water-lily Pond
The result is one of the most interesting and accessible jazz compositions in many years harkening an era when the composer respected his audience and trusted the musicians to execute the musical intentions of the work. Portrait in Seven Shades starts with light percussion as we quietly hear impressions of Monet inspired by his painting of 1920, “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-lily Pond.” This track has been nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement.

We're immediately brought into the surrealistic world of Dali on the second movement, represented by his famous 1931 painting “The Persistence of Memory.” This track is lifted by the Spanish rhythms of the trumpet sections cascading into a dream-like passage full of mystery and humour. Matisse is a dance-like number starting with Dan Nimmer's solo piano introduction. Based on the Henri Matisse's 1909 work, “La Danse with Five Women Holding Hands and Dancing in a Circle,” this piece is a buoyant exploration of the work and the times.

Matisse's la Danse
The Chagall composition captures the spirit of Paris with the additional use of accordion played delightfully by Bill Schimmel opening the piece with a Gypsy-like feel. It unfolds with a slow dance featuring the violin of Nathalie Bonin who caresses each note beautifully. The band jumps in with a celebratory crescendo ending. The Pollock composition, based on painting “One: Number 31” is the most 'outside' track on the album and perfectly suited to the work and the artist in question. It captures his energy and wild abandon, only to settle down into a bluesy groove featuring Ryan Kisor on trumpet. The suite ends with a strong exclamation point that leaves you breathless for more.

This album is a triumph for its arrangements and execution by the band. Ted Nash has composed some remarkable music for the orchestra and they have stepped up to perform it so that is not only a tribute to the composer but to the jazz idiom itself.

In 2007, Portrait in Seven Shades was first performed by the JLCO in concert in association with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was released last year on the JLCO label to limited distribution. I’m pleased to report that it’s now widely available online and in stores, but pick up the CD because it has the images in the liner notes.

John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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