In 2008, Ted Nash, a jazz composer and saxophonist with the elite Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, received a dream assignment from his boss. Wynton Marsalis, the eminent trumpeter and artistic director of the orchestra, asked Nash to compose a long-form jazz composition based on a subject of Nash's choosing. He quickly settled on the theme of visual art and eventually produced "Portrait in Seven Shades," a suite of compositions based on the lives and works of seven important painters: Claude Monet, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Marc Chagall and Jackson Pollock.
Nash will perform the suite with the orchestra in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts on Saturday night. He spoke with The News recently from a tour stop in Baton Rouge, La.
>Did you base the compositions on an artist's entire body of work, or did you rely on a specific painting?
I worked closely with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We have a great relationship with them, and they were wonderful. They allowed me to come to the museum on off-hours, before they opened, so I could really look at the paintings up close and not feel distracted. I decided to really limit the use of paintings to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. And then there were specific paintings that were more influential than others, like with Picasso, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," that big piece, and with Matisse it was "La Danse," and with Dali it was "The Persistence of Memory," with the melting clocks. I used some of these iconic images . . . [but] I really did use their body of work for inspiration.
>Let's talk about Picasso. Could you explain how you went about translating the visual language of his painting into a piece of music?
Well, with each movement, I took a different approach. It came about organically. With Picasso, just looking at that one painting ["Les Demoiselles D'Avignon"] was interesting, because, first of all, it's mainly a group of women and it has somewhat a seductive quality to it, and the colors are very warm and sensual. So I wanted to represent that sensuality, something passionate, and also deal with his Spanish background. So the beginning of the piece deals with that, and does it in a way that kind of sounds more Spanish.
Then it switches and I take a much more intellectual approach. I kind of break down his concept of cubism and the different layers. He was always trying to express different angles of something at the same time, so you're looking straight on, but you're seeing the left and the right at the same time. There's a lot of layering going on, and using the idea of the cube. I [used] four sides of a square, so fourths come up all the time in that piece. There are four chords, there's a lot of fourth intervals, there's fourths in the harmony, and then all the layering which you can really see in his art.
>Nationally, audiences for jazz are declining, and it strikes me that maybe one of the ways jazz can build its audience is by branching out to include other forms of art, like this piece is doing. Does it seem to you that this is an approach that might be able to broaden the audience for jazz?
Anything you do that crosses genres and pulls people from other areas could possibly broaden the audience. One of my goals with this is to actually go to museums, maybe with a smaller group, play the music and have projected images that are from those museums' collections. Then you really get people who are art fans to come to the museum, and then they learn about the jazz. That's one of my goals, is to try to create new audiences through the arts.
The problem is that such a large percentage of what is being played out there doesn't have the sense of urgency or expression or reflection of something in society that jazz had many, many years ago. It still does, but a lot of that music doesn't get exposed as much as more traditional music. And a lot of the ways people play more traditional music, they do it kind of by rote without a lot of real feeling. I think people start to lose their enthusiasm about listening to jazz because of that.
It's sort of up to people who really want to continue jazz not just as a historic tradition but as something that's alive, to bring that sense of urgency and sense of importance to it. And I think a lot of us are out there trying to do that. I think that we're going to keep the art form going. But it is a challenge.