A swinging intersect of science and jazz

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Scientific research and anecdotal evidence have made it clear that music can be a healing force. That intersection music and science is a two-way street. Look no further than Tampa-based jazz pianist John C. O’Leary III, who has composed music that is inspired by science. In this case, it reflects aspects of his research as neuroscientist.

This Mexican-born performer has had a hybrid educational life. He attended the University of South Florida where he studied tuba, jazz piano and biochemistry. He graduated with a B.A. in jazz piano performance, a minor in tuba performance, and an honors thesis in biochemistry. He then earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience. For his doctoral dissertation, he researched a group of proteins termed “chaperones” and their effects on the development of neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s, and stress-related psychiatric diseases. 

Ultimately, his love of jazz piano shifted his career track. He’s the pianist in the fine Tampa Bay Area-based trio La Lucha, which also includes bassist Alejandro Arenas and drummer Mark Feinman. But O’Leary’s interest in neuroscience inspired his 2018 solo recording project, CRISPR (Gamma Rhythm Music), which bridges his twin interests.

The repeating melody that runs through the title track, with slight variations, acknowledges the impact of CRISPR, an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.”  These DNA base pairs are found in many forms of bacteria. CRISPR technology is used to destroy viruses and otherwise improve health through gene editing. O’Leary said he considers it the most significant scientific development in this new century.

Another composition, “Polymorphism,” is built around the idea that a shift of just one note can make a dramatic change the feeling of a piece of music, just as a change in one protein in the body can have major consequences on one’s health. His blues, “Gamma Frequency,” reflects the research that exposure to gamma rays can impact goal-oriented behavior.

The afternoon’s tour-de-force was his composition “Edna Welsch.” The instrumental was commissioned by a grandchild to remember and capture the inner beauty of a woman who died from Alzheimer’s  It began as light and upbeat, then grew progressively darker and brooding, before resolving with an ending segment that, while a bit different from the opening, had a sense of peace and beauty.

“The opening melody expresses her young, vibrant life,” O’Leary said, “then it becomes more angular and depressing, and in its final stage, she has moved on to the next life.” A listener could also interpret the ending as resolving with the memories that friends and relatives retain of her vibrant years.

O’Leary shared his science-and-music perspective on June 15, at the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s Medical Grand Rounds lecture series. Several times a year, the medical forum focuses on different aspects of the links between music and medicine.

The prior evening, La Lucha performed at JD’s Bistro in Port Charlotte, performing originals and jazz standards flavored with the band’s adventurous touches. One gem, “Cheek to Cheek,” opened with the standard melody before O’Leary inserted Latin clave and blues interludes.

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This story appears courtesy of Ken Franckling's Jazz Notes.
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