Album reviews

Glenn Close, Ted Nash – ‘Transformation’

Glenn Close, Ted Nash – Transformation: Personal Stories of Change, Acceptance, and Evolution
(Tiger Turn. Album Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The idea that music should come first might be as old as the hills. It can certainly be traced back as far as Plato and Confucius. Salieri wrote an opera which tried to set it down as a rule: “Prima la Musica e poi le Parole”. Transformation is an interesting re-writing or re-adjudication of the age-old precept: actor Glenn Close, here in her fifth collaboration with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and saxophonist/composer Ted Nash have built a work around the idea that it is the words and ideas that should be put first…and how about letting music have the last word.

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We hear powerful words spoken about some of the major issues facing humanity. The context gives Ted Nash his first task: to underscore those words, to ensure that they are given flow and dramatic impact. These might be sounds to express the chaos at the moment of the creation of the world, or something more liturgical to render the sincerity of the letter Nash’s son Eli wrote to his parents when coming out as transgender, or some Mingus-ish backings and swirling Ligeti-ish wind for Harper Pitt’s “Night flight” monologue from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

And then comes Nash’s real work: to respond. He has in each case provided a piece which is a wordless musical comment, an attempt to transcend the topic. No pressure, then.

Transformation was designed to function as a live performance in a biggish hall. Glenn Close has described it in an interview (link below) thus: “We wanted to create an evening that would comfort and inspire people.” Transformation, she explained, is a piece that underscores “our common humanity.” And, as the very detailed press release (link below) states, Close has taken on “a co-leading role, curating the literary source material for accompanying spoken word performances and voicing some of it herself.”

It is a big work on an epic scale, and that feeling is there right from the opening. Glenn Close and Wayne Brady declaim the creation story through words from Ted Hughes’ Tales From Ovid (1997). In total there are eleven sections and 70 minutes of spoken word and music.

The recording here was made at the three premiere performances in Jan/Feb 2020 at the Rose Theater in Jazz at Lincoln Center, which has capacity over 1,200, in front of live (and audibly appreciative) audiences. In addition to Close herself it has three other speaking parts, for Wayne Brady, Amy Irving and Nash’s son Eli Nash.

There is one section which I know I am going to keep going back to, and that is Forgiveness. This one-word title is Nash’s response to the a section with one of the longest track titles anywhere. Here goes: A Piece by the Angriest Black Man in America (or, How I Learned to Forgive Myself for Being a Black Man in America).

In the first piece of the diptych Wayne Brady gives a vivid account of the racial abuse he received from fellow school children in Orlando, Florida. He does it brilliantly and flamboyantly, slam poetry style, accompanied by just the most minimal accompaniment from drums (Obed Calvaire) and bass (Carlos Henriquez).

And then comes the response, Forgiveness. It is wonderfully written. If there are sections in Transformation where the writing (perhaps inevitably) looks back to Ellington or, say, Bill Holman, here Nash is going bigger and deeper. And there is another compelling reason to listen to it, and that is the sheer range of the solo trumpet playing. There is classical-style, section-leading playing at both the beginning and the end. There is an episode with growling and plunger effects, reminiscent of Dudley Moore’s comic countertenor vocal scatting. Then comes a huge jazz solo. There being only one trumpeter’s name mentioned in the press release about that track, I checked: was all of the solo trumpet playing on Forgiveness definitely from Wynton Marsalis? “Yes! All Wynton on that track!” Wynton Marsalis appears in so many public roles these days, it is salutary to be reminded of quite how many personalities and styles he can do so well when he takes the leading role as a solo instrumentalist.

I also loved the hushed and thoughtful ending to the whole piece. We have the JLCO’s trombone section playing in perfect balance in a world reminiscent of Beethoven’s Three Equali but with an insistent piano from Dan Nimmer seeming to remind the trombones, and humanity, that time is running out.

The scale of this album might be daunting, concert recordings don’t often invite frequent listening, but this is a fascinating concoction. Close and Nash won two Grammys in 2017 for Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom. They will surely be in contention again.

LINKS: Press Release

Interview from Feb 2020 with Downbeat quoted above

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