Jazz is art. Art is jazz. The visual and aural senses will meet on the same stage in Rose Theater next month when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis taps into the psyche of tenor saxophonist Ted Nash. Nash has written beautiful music inspired by masters of the brush — Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Pollock — and will tell the stories of these painters through music as the audience gazes upon their artistic masterpieces projected on a large screen above the stage.
"I am very excited about this opportunity to compose new pieces that will be dedicated to painters that have inspired and moved me over the years," says Nash. "Of course, a list of great painters would be so large that it would be impossible to include even one percent of them. It's also very subjective. One way I have decided to limit the choices is to focus mainly on painters in an approximate 100-year period, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. That period includes the end of the Impressionist period, and takes us into abstract expressionism of the 1960s."
It's also, he notes, the period during which jazz was born and bred. "Both art forms went through a similar amount of transformations," observes Nash. "I think of Picasso as sort of the Miles Davis of the art world. He was responsible for the development of different movements, like cubism. Miles helped give birth to the cool movement, and fusion, among other styles."
The first half of the saxophonist's concert with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will feature existing works by composers such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Maria Schneider, and perhaps Marsalis. "The second half will be my piece," Nash says. "It will be in seven movements. The artists I have chosen to represent are not necessarily the artists I feel are the most important, or even ones who completely cover the entire spectrum of styles, but ones that give me the most inspiration. I have also focused on artists that are very recognizable because I want the listener to hear music connected to images with which they are already familiar. I think this will be a greater experience: people have developed their own reactions to these great artists, and may have heard melodies, seen movement, or even smelled smells of their own. It is my wish not that I will capture the individual reactions of the audience members, but rather that they will be able to see mine, and understand, after hearing the music and seeing the images projected, how these paintings have moved me. And hopefully, as a result, people will walk away seeing these painting in a new, fresh way."
When the concert, which is titled Jazz and Art, was originally conceived, it was natural that Jazz at Lincoln Center would approach the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to collaborate on the project. MoMA enthusiastically agreed to be involved, and Nash has spent much of this year at the museum gaining knowledge and inspiration from the Permanent Collection, which is featured prominently in the performance. "They have been great in allowing me to visit the museum before it opens in the morning, so I can have a little quiet time to observe the paintings," Nash says. "When I first moved to New York at 18, I used to go to MoMA and was so impressed by the great art. I think that much of my knowledge and appreciation of art comes from those early visits.
"Many parallels can be drawn between art and jazz," notes the saxophonist-composer. "For instance, musicians and artists often experience similar struggles, successes, frustrations, and self-doubts. And when painters and musicians are honest with themselves, their art usually reflects something of that and of the society in which they live. Being any kind of artist is a wonderful opportunity to get to know yourself better, and to let other people know more about you.
"In addition," Nash says, "many painters hear music when they paint. It is well known that Kandinsky did. Some musicians see colors and shapes when they play or compose. For me certain notes have a strong association with particular colors. For example, the note "E" for me is red — passionate, hot, expressive. "G" is blues and greens; it's cooler. Jazz musicians always talk of colors, layers, composition. There is 'the blues.' And similar descriptions have been used to describe both art forms: impressionistic, abstract expression, pop."
Musicians love to use paintings on album covers. People looking at a record in the store may not always be able to hear the music, but the cover can give an idea of what to expect. Ornette Coleman has a Pollock painting on one of his covers.
"We all link music and art," Nash continues, "but only a tiny minority of us are aware of the crossover of senses in our brains, according to one University College London neuroscientist. New research has found that vision and hearing are inextricably linked in everyone's brain, but only synesthetes, who have a rare condition in which the senses mingle, are conscious of it. In his talk at a symposium called 'Beautiful Brains,' Dr. Jamie Ward of UCL said, 'Kandinsky wanted to make visual art more like music — more abstract. He also hoped that his paintings would be 'heard' by his audiences. This seems more achievable now that we have found such a strong link between vision and hearing.'"
Combining these human senses for this great concert series on
February 22-24 (8 p.m. in the Rose Theater) will make for an unforgettable experience. For more information, visit www.jalc.org or www.tednash.com.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at
Jazz at Lincoln Center.