Jazz Recording Review: “Jazz and Art” — Paying Musical Homage to Painting

By Steve Provizer

For me, about half of the compositions here successfully reflect the artistic visions of the painters that inspired the music.

Jazz and Art: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. Blue Engine.

Sonny Rollins once likened Miles Davis to Picasso — because of their many stylistic shifts. I myself have tried my hand at finding parallels between jazz artists and plastic artists and came up with: Bix Beiderbecke and Joan Miró, Coleman Hawkins and John Marin, John Coltrane and Isamu Noguchi, Henry Red” Allen and Franz Kline, Lionel Hampton Big Bands and Romare Bearden, and Archie Shepp and Jacob Lawrence. Although my explanations for these pairings would involve subjective descriptions of “ineffable” qualities, they would also include more exacting words like “lines,” “conceptions,” “patina,” etc. In other words, there is subjectivity here, but that doesn’t mean the application of aesthetic standards is moot. In Jazz and Art, composers and arrangers respond to the work of painters with musical compositions. In listening to the effort, I tried to take the music on its own terms, but to also discern how well the sonic landscapes resonated with the visual worlds of the artists.

BTW, this project is being released under the Wynton Marsalis banner, but it should be noted that Marsalis didn’t write or arrange any of the music on Jazz and Art. He is the majordomo of the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, which performs here, and he is a featured soloist on some tracks.

Stuart Davis for the Masses: The Mellow Pad. All 3 Davis pieces Written & Arranged by Doug Wamble.

In the 1910s, Davis was an illustrator for the radical journal The Masses. His work then was “naturalistic” and fairly gritty, done in a style well within the bounds of most illustrations found in the era’s publications. Why composer Wamble associates the idea of a “Mellow Pad” with this phase of Davis’s work, I don’t know. He’s chosen to write a composition that bridges early jazz techniques with a later, ’50s semi-lounge sound, with Latin touches. Vincent Gardner on trombone is the accomplished featured soloist. He initially plays with a plunger mute. Then he plays a solo on open horn that fits the notion of “mainstream”  — it eventually builds up a fair amount of freer energy. The full band comes back in forcefully, and then Gardner’s plunger bone reenters. There’s a quiet piano coda, joined by bass. The music is interesting on its own. I understand the use of plunger brass playing as a way of referring to early jazz, but I find it an odd choice to use a ’50s lounge approach with Latin percussion. It isn’t  a convincing way to refer to this period in Davis’s career.

Stuart Davis, “Landscape with Garage Lights,” 1931-32.

Stuart Davis for the Masses: Garage Lights.

Davis painted “Landscape with Garage Lights” in the early ’30s, by which point he had developed his own, cubist-influenced style. Marcus Printup on trumpet states a melody that references the song “Sunny Side of the Street” and combines that with a gospel feel. Alto saxophonist Sherman Irby plays a brief solo, there’s an orchestra interlude, and then we go back to trumpet stating the melody. Printup has plenty of chops and pushes into the upper register. Could I dig deeply and find some congruence between “Landscape with Garage Lights” and the music? Maybe, but I can’t find it close to hand.

Stuart Davis for the Masses: New York.

This title alludes to the well-known colorful semi-cubist period of Davis’s work. Dan Nimmer starts off on piano with a swing rhythm section. The orchestra enters in an Ellington vein, mixes up the tempo a bit, then we’re back to the piano for a solo, largely in a bluesy jazz vein. Band and piano trade back and forth. Then the whole orchestra comes back in in Ellington style, with a little Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra sound lurking in the arrangement. The urbanized energy of Davis’s New York work is well reflected here.

Blue Twirl — For Sam Gilliam. Written & Arranged by Vincent Gardner.

This is the longest and most complex composition on the album. We start off with nonmelodic (semi-noise) sounds from the horns and low-register piano. Then the orchestra enters with a tremolo on top of those “sounds.” The orchestra introduces a repeated riff, picked up by piano, followed by more spacious orchestration. This pattern continues, somewhat unpredictably, until a brief melody emerges.Then comes a bass interlude, after which the orchestra comes in full bore. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis solos over an interesting set of changes. His playing is satisfying, if not riveting. Alto saxophonist Ted Nash follows Marsalis, and plays more fluidly within the harmonic structure. The full band returns for a brief background, and then Elliot Mason solos on trombone. His solo goes a little more deeply into the changes and the energy carries the performance along until the orchestra returns and brings in a section of swing, alternating with section lines. Then there’s a change of tempo and a general breakdown of that tempo, which takes us into the ending. The wind-up is a short abstraction of the original melody and, in order to return us to the initial idea, the piece concludes with “sounds” from flute and trumpet. I knew Sam Gilliam when I lived in Washington, DC, and this composition provides a satisfying aural companion to his complex, free, and playful work.

A section from Romare Bearden’s “The Block.”

Bearden (The Block). Written & Arranged by Chris Crenshaw.

Romare Bearden is, of course, one of the most well-known 20th-century African-American painters. He was also a sometime composer of jazz songs. The tune starts with a bluesy call and response. The rhythm section walks as the piano briefly solos and the orchestra returns with bluesy riffs. Pianist Dan Nimmer solos and a plunger trumpet joins in briefly, then an unmuted trumpet in the upper register (the player is uncredited, but probably Printup). There is a transition to a slow, melodic section, with Victor Goines on tenor sax contributing a pretty, lightly adorned melody. That comes to a quiet close. A New Orleans-style piano follows, and  that sets up a full orchestra section that seems only lightly connected to the previous New Orleans/Barrelhouse piano sound. A New Orleans-y vocal enters with “Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me” and the tune fades out. In terms of relating to Bearden, I find it hit and miss. The energy of the street is well represented with the blues inflections. Using New Orleans piano and “Shoo Fly,” done in a New Orleans style, seems a bit incongruous. Bearden was strongly associated with jazz, but not with New Orleans. If you’re going to use piano this way, straight up Harlem playing — or a newer New York style — might have been more appropriate.

Air Earth Fire Water — For Wifredo Lam (Orisha medley). Written & Arranged by Papo Vasquez.

The composition begins with a low sustained melody in brass with roiling percussion drums. Tympani takes over, then Afro-Cuban percussion joins and the orchestra enters with licks and byplay reminiscent of Machito, Gillespie, and other early Afro-Cuban proponents. Papo Vazquez on trombone solos over the clave and a percussive, somewhat atonal piano. Marsalis on trumpet enters, emphasizing the “off” notes and going into flutter tonguing and upper register shrieks. Orchestra enters with a number of different background riffs. The percussion section is almost stately by comparison and stays in the background. The orchestra cuts in and out, then breaks. The rhythm section steps into the breach by itself, goes into double-time, and takes the tune out. I had to look up Lam’s work and found that it is steeped in Afro-Cuban culture, but also includes a myriad of other influences — surrealism and Matisse, for two. Vasquez’s music would seem to be a good fit, though it doesn’t stretch beyond conventional borders, at least the way that Lam’s art does.

Winslow Homer: Homer’s Waltz. Both Winslow Homer tracks written by Bill Frisell, Arranged by Andy Farber.

A simple Americana-esque melody, played by Walter Blanding on tenor sax, opens. He is joined by other reeds, including a bass clarinet. A medium-slow waltz tempo falls into place and the melody is continued by sax and commented on by trumpet. The tune maintains this simple, folksy style, albeit with jazz elaborations. Piano briefly solos, as a transition to the next section. The tempo picks up a little, and Marsalis on trumpet seems to be commenting on the Americana quality. Blanding’s tenor sax solo brings in a bluesy quality. Marsalis reenters, mostly playing in the very high register of the horn, and the orchestra ends it all with a few sustained notes in dissonant harmony. I find this to be a creative take on Homer’s work, which I know pretty well. There’s a deeper familiarity with the art that other tracks here haven’t displayed.

Winslow Homer, “Croquet Players,” 1866.

Winslow Homer: Homer’s Blues.

Starts with some Monkish chords on piano, joined by various saxes, and then moves into a medium swing, still with a Monk, “Epistrophy”-ish feel. Marsalis (with trumpet plunger mute) solos on top of that opening until saxes drop out and the rhythm section remains to accompany the trumpet solo. The tenor sax of Walter Blanding follows with a facile solo. (Is he going for the sound of longtime Monk associate Charlie Rouse?). Orchestra returns to hand things briefly over to pianist Nimmer and then returns. It almost sounds like Hal Overton could have arranged this (as he did for many Monk big band concerts back in the day). Although it’s somewhat derivative, I liked the arrangement, but am somewhat puzzled about its relationship to Winslow Homer. The artist apparently had a good sense of humor. He was reclusive, but not particularly eccentric. His painting style was figurative and, of course, he dealt mainly with maritime subjects. I’m not sure why Monk figured so strongly in Frisell’s thinking.

The Repose in All Things — For Piet Mondrian. Written & Arranged by Tim Armacost..

The beginning: melodious chords from the brass expand to the whole orchestra. This stops and starts several times, until Sherman Irby on alto sax intrudes, then some Latin percussion comes in behind the orchestra’s riffing. Sax returns again, for a more extended solo, with rhythm section backing. Orchestra returns with hits behind the solo, which stops and starts, alternating with the rhythm section. Ryan Kisor’s trumpet solo handles the changes well. Some contrapuntal lines follow; the sounds grows thinner until a placid ending. The word “Repose” in the title alludes to Mondrian’s idea of “repose of the soul.” Art not as being, but as becoming — a seeming contradiction to the notion of repose. This is a conundrum I will leave for the art history majors to sort out. In the composition, I can hear musical equivalencies to the lines, squares, and geometry of Mondrian. It’s easy to imagine this music flowing down the lines of  Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.

Twilight Sounds — For Norman Lewis. Written & Arranged by Sherman Irby.

The work of Norman Lewis, I sheepishly admit, was not known to me. Lewis was a founding member of Spiral, a group of artists and writers, including Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, and Hale Woodruff, who met regularly “to discuss the potential of Black artists to engage with issues of racial equality and struggle in the 1960s through their work.” What sounds to me like a paraphrase of “Please Don’t’ Talk About Me When I’m Gone” starts the tune off. The arrangement uses a few unusual instrumental pairings, à la Gerry Mulligan or Gil Evans. Things become a little more complicated, with more lines entering. There are false cadences in some sections of the orchestra, while other sections just continue. Then the tempo accelerates and everyone comes together for a soli line. Victor Goines on bass clarinet solos, playing both inside and outside (Can anyone play this horn without referring to Eric Dolphy?) and quotes from “I Can’t Get Started.” The orchestra comes back in for a riff that’s repeated. Each time it’s nearly, but not exactly, the same. Bones and trumpets come in with a section of flutter-tonguing and other assorted sounds. Marsalis’s trumpet solo references an older, traditional style of jazz soloing. The orchestra comes roaring back, with some clarinet soloing in between hits, then a trumpet reenters for an almost Count Basie-like flag-waving close. Norman Lewis went through different phases, from social realism to abstract expressionism — this musical composition partially reflects that evolution. It seems odd to me, though, that the final section of the music refers to mainstream big band jazz styles, far from the challenging aesthetic of abstract expressionism.

Each of these compositions is well constructed and musically well rendered by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. For me, about half successfully reflect the artistic visions of the painters that inspired the music. These, at least, accurately mirror the time period and general sensibility of the art works they reference. Reproductions of paintings and explanations by the composers in the liner notes might yield more insight. But, on their own, only three compositions here deepen our understanding of the work of the artist: Frisell’s “Winslow Homer: Homer’s Waltz” and, to a slightly lesser degree, “Blue Twirl — For Sam Gilliam,” and “The Repose In All Things — For Piet Mondrian.”

Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.

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