Pictures at an Exhibition and all that jazz

Michael Brockman on alto sax

Michael Brockman | photo by Bruce C Moore

Composer, arranger, band leader and saxophonist Michael Brockman is well known to fans of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. A featured soloist, he, along with Clarence Acox, is the band’s Artistic Co-Director. He’s also a member of the UW School of Music faculty in saxophone and jazz studies, and an authority on the music of Duke Ellington.

But on April 1st through 3rd, Michael will revisit another familiar role – that of soloist with the Seattle Symphony, when Maestro Gerard Schwarz conducts Ravel’s vibrant orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Modest Musorgskiy

Modest Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky’s solo piano suite was inspired by a posthumous exhibition of over 400 paintings by his friend, architect and painter Viktor Hartmann, and was composed in his memory in 1874. Ravel, known as a master colourist, created what has become the most popular orchestration in 1922.

The music, inspired by art, went on to inspire interpretation by other musicians, ranging from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, to Ray Barretto, to Duke Ellington himself – a man Michael Brockman knows a great deal about.

Ellington’s own catalog of work includes a suite inspired by an artist, Edgar Degas. The rarely heard Degas Suite was commissioned for an uncompleted film, and was inspired by Degas’ paintings of racetrack scenes, as well as paintings by other impressionists.

Portrait in Seven Shades cover art

Portrait in Seven Shades

This connection between jazz an art continues with a recent work composed by saxophonist Ted Nash for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Asked by JALC’s artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, to compose a long-form, thematic work, he quickly decided to base each movement on his response to individual painters. He constrained his selection to a period framed by the impressionists and the abstract impressionists – a period roughly corresponding to the age of jazz. The resulting work is Portrait in Seven Shades.

To quote Nash, “Many parallels can be drawn between the two forms of art. Musicians talk of colors, layers and composition. Similar adjectives have been used to describe each art form: impressionistic, abstract, pop”.

Go to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio Archives and listen to the 2008 broadcast of the band’s performance of Nash’s Portrait In Seven Shades suite, as well as the rarely played Ellington Degas Suite, to hear what he’s talking about.

And if you attend any of Seattle Symphony’s performances this weekend, while Michael is soloing, think about the connection between the pictures, and all that jazz.


One response to “Pictures at an Exhibition and all that jazz

  1. I think of jazz as the true musical equivalent of Impressionist painting. Just like Van Gogh, Gauguin, Pissarro, Monet, and all the great Impressionist painters of the late 19th century/early 20th, a jazz musician takes a subject that is often very familiar to many (such as a popular song) and creates a new work that shows, above all else, what he/she feels about that subject. To carry the thought further, a classical performance can be considered Realism, since the performer is attempting to recreate the original as perfectly as possible . Obviously, this is done with the goal of bringing as much personal expression as possible to into the performance. A new rendition that the jazz musician creates has a partial resemblance to the original song (sometimes it resembles the original closely, but sometimes not).

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