Jazz at Lincoln Center recently remounted its 'Jazz and Art' program to celebrate the release of 'Portrait in Seven Shades',' which features a long-form composition in seven parts composed by sax virtuoso Ted Nash. On the first night of the run, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra played the music in its entirety, with Nash introducing the tunes and talking about the art and the artists that inspired it. As the band played, the art by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet and others was shown on three screens behind the band. It made for a fascinating night of sound and vision that was an unqualified success. We caught up with Nash a few days later to talk about this unusual performance.
How did it feel up there?
Ted Nash: It was pretty amazing, actually. It was great to do it after its premiere, though four of the movements have been played at different venues and on different tours. Picasso, Matisse, Pollock and Dal - these have been played a bit, but we've just found new breadth in those pieces. So when we played them the other night, people could feel the difference. Plus, we played the whole suite for the first time in three years and we had all the stuff projecting and to see everyone in the audience reaction, it was unbelievable. I did a CD signing after that night, and people were just so expressive about the performance -- I can't ask for anything more than that.
The art made the music more approachable, or at least enjoyable.
There's no reason to sell out, to make music that is easy on the ears or doesn't challenge people. I think that there are ways to draw people in without being commercial. This opportunity to present the music with images was one way of doing that.
The way you introduced each song and spoke of the connection between the composition and a particular painting or artist worked well.
I didn't think I would do that, initially. I thought the experience would be more powerful if it was just straight through, going from one movement to another. That's what we did three years ago. Then the other night, I did a quartet version of this in the Rubenstein Atrium and we didn't have projected images, so I did speak in between and I got comments from people saying how nice it was. I didn't go one too long, but I think it's nice for people to hear what goes on in a composer's head. Unfortunately the concert went longer than we like to do, so Wynton [Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center] decided we needed to cut back on the talking. So Friday and Saturday I just introduced the tunes and I was kind of sad about that.
How did you come up with this idea of art and music?
When Wynton asked me to do this commission, he wanted me have some sort of theme. I thought doing different painters would be great, especially if they have different styles. That way we could create movements that were different from each other.
Why pick painters that were so well known?
I wanted people to be familiar with the images and artists so they already had formulated ideas. That way they could experience them in a new way when they heard the music. I went back and forth about whether to use artists who were familiar. But I thought it was more challenging to do it the way I did.
How did the process work? Did you stare at reproductions of the works as you wrote or what?
I went to the Museum of Modern Art a lot. They were really cool and told me to come whenever I wanted and gave me a bunch of tickets. The few times I went, I went before they opened so I could really concentrate on the paintings. I brought my soprano [sax] down one time and played a little bit. I brought some score paper, as well. I didn't really compose while I looked at the paintings [at the museum], but I did have a couple of books at home [with reproductions of the paintings] that I could refer to.
How did the art affect the process of composing?
I took different approaches to writing each one. For Monet, it was really based on a certain harmony based on Impressionism and based on a preconceived idea of what impressionistic music is like. I could project the water lilies and clouds reflected and the general watery effect by using a lot of double diminished chords, or dominant chords or sharp 11ths, which to me suggest Impressionism. For Van Gogh, I wrote lyrics and sort of told his story in a biographical way. With Pollock, I sat down at the piano and used the keyboard as a canvas where I struck it a number of times as if he was throwing paint on a canvas. I created phrases and from there organized it so it had more of a through line. He was very organized, though it looked abstract and random. With Matisse, I just wanted to have that feeling of dancing around.
Do you have a background with the visual arts?
I never painted. I sketched a little bit in junior high and high school, but I wasn't very good and I didn't really give myself an opportunity to explore. I remember being on vacation with my family when I was 10 and we went to the Guggenheim Museum. I remember seeing this Chagall painting where the violinist is upside down. I remember standing there looking at it and thinking there was so much fantasy in it. That particular image has stuck with me all my life.