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Musical impressionism
For 'Portrait in Seven Shades,' Jazz at Lincoln Center's Ted Nash painted with sound
Reedman and composer Ted Nash on "Portrait in Seven Shades": "I took a different approach to each movement and each painter."

For the first all–new Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra recording in four years, musical director Wynton Marsalis challenged saxophonist and composer Ted Nash to create something unique.

The result is Portrait in Seven Shades, performed by Nash, Marsalis and the other 13 members of the all–virtuoso New York big band. Nash wrote seven pieces, each inspired by – and titled after – a modern artist whose works the composer found particularly affecting.

The movements are titled thusly: “Monet,” “Dali,” “Matisse,” “Picasso,” “Van Gogh,” “Chagall” and “Pollack.” Each is as rich musically, and as eclectic, as the painter that inspired it. The brush strokes are bold, the hues sublime.

Nash and the JLCO (including Marsalis) will perform several of the Portrait pieces at Sunday afternoon’s Savannah Music Festival concert in the Johnny Mercer Theatre. The program will also include tunes by Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams and others.

Nash is no stranger to the festival – he’s played here as part of the JLCO, and with his other band, Odeon. In fact, he’ll brings his arsenal of reeds to the All–Star Swing Summit April 2.

He’s written scads of music, and made plenty of recordings, but for Ted Nash, Portrait in Seven Shades is the masterpiece.

How did this project start? Were you given a blank slate?

Ted Nash: I guess in a sense I was given a blank canvas. It was five years ago when Wynton first asked me to do this. He said “Hey, man, I really want to feature a long–form piece of yours. I want to give you the opportunity to write something in–depth – but I want you to think about a theme of some kind.”

I thought about it for a couple days, and I came back to him and said “I think I’d like to have each movement dedicated to a different painter.”

I did it for a number of reasons. I’ve always been inspired by great art and paintings, ever since I was a little kid. I remember when I was 10, the family taking me to the Guggenheim, and looking at paintings. In particular Chagall, there’s this one painting with the violinist upside down, it just stayed with me.

And I also thought “Well, what would give me real inspiration and cause me to have different feelings about each different movement?”

Did you have a list to narrow down? In the beginning, was your palette much broader?

Ted Nash: Once I said OK, I’m going to do this, I just started listing all the painters that I’ve loved to look at. It was a list of 20 names. It also included names that were not too familiar to people. But I had people like De Kooning and Diebenkorn and Motherwell, who are certainly respected painters, but maybe not household names. And I wanted this experience to be broad. I wanted people to have an idea already about the art that they’re going to see again, and experience in this new way, with music. Even though it put me at some risk, because they may have their own ideas about the paintings and what that means to them. And how they might even hear music.

Take Dali, for example. I’m sure everyone pretty much has their own interpretations of how the artist’s works feels ... or sounds. Did you read a lot or did you just sit down with the paintings and say “How does this make me feel?”

Ted Nash: I took a different approach to each movement and each painter. I didn’t set out to do that; it happened fairly naturally and organically. With Dali, it was a combination of how those paintings affect me, and how I feel when I look at them.

They’re a bit daunting, they make me feel uncomfortable in some ways, because of the way he puts things together. So the piece itself deals with that.

Now, I make musical decisions to fulfill these kinds of visions that I have, these sort of objectives that I get along the way. With Dali I wanted to do something that messed with time, because of the dripping clocks, which is such an iconic image. I messed with different ways to do that. First, I thought about having time change – like have it go up and down, tempo change, faster/slower. And then I decided to create a time signature that would create discomfort, and also deal with something that’s odd in terms of time, in reference to the clocks.

And I created a solo environment that allowed us to bend notes and also deal with the melting quality of the clocks.

How collaborative was the recording process? Do you take opinions and suggestions from the other musicians?

Ted Nash: Oh yeah. Even before the recording, because we did premiere it several months before that. The process includes rehearsals, and during those first rehearsals there’s some give–and–take, some small changes are made.

I worked really hard on this, and I had an idea of how I wanted these things to sound. So it was pretty much my feelings about everything, and expressing that to the band, and them reacting and responding in a way that helped fulfill it. To achieve what my objectives were.

And Wynton?

Ted Nash: No matter what project or what music we’re playing, Wynton always has his suggestions about things. Because he’s had a lot of experience, and he’s got a lot of great ideas. I welcome ideas from everybody in the band; I’m always willing to try things.

But I had a pretty good idea what I wanted, and the band did an amazing job helping me to achieve that.

You wrote lyrics for the Van Gogh piece. Why was that necessary?

Ted Nash: I was looking at “The Starry Night.” The Museum of Modern Art would give me free passes so I could come in before they opened, and I could look closely at it without a bunch of distractions. I was trying to think of how to approach this piece; some came more easily than others.

With Pollack, it was just a natural for me to think about the splashes and all that. With Picasso, I took an intellectual approach with all the layers and the fourths and everything coming from Cubism.

But with Van Gogh, I kept coming back to how I felt about him, you know? It seemed like his story was more well–known that a lot of other people’s, and I started to think about the struggles that he had. Just looking at “The Starry Night,” I started to put myself in his place. That was the view from the mental hospital he was in. I’m not sure if he painted it while sitting and looking at it, or from memory. But that was his view. And it made me feel more in touch with him, personally.

I wanted to express that view. I just couldn’t do it with notes – the broad brush strokes, his colors, all his shapes and his strokes ... I couldn’t conceive of a way to do that musically. I thought “Let me tell his story ... with words.” I created a safe and nurturing environment for him to tell this story, because I thought it would help take care of him in a way, or give him the opportunity to express this to people.

The band performs and tours a lot. It must be healthy, isn’t it, to not be a “greatest hits” sort of act ... to say “We have something brand new we’d like you to hear”?

Ted Nash: Although Jazz at Lincoln Center has a reputation for being repertory to some degree, because we do touch on a lot of music that’s been written already and performed in the past, it’s not as big a percentage of what we do as people think. When we go out on tour, we do a lot of original music, a lot of Wynton’s music, and I think it’s necessary for us to embrace new music, and play and write. And continue to encourage people to write new music.

I’m lucky to be the one that’s featured on this and given the opportunity. I’m just so thrilled to be the one featured ... although I think it’s really about the band, and about us playing.

We’ve released a few things that featured Wynton’s original music, Congo Square and All Rise, but this it’s the first time it’s ever been a Jazz at Lincoln Center label release.

To be blunt, Wynton is the money name. I thought it was very cool that this is a Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra album and Wynton’s name doesn’t even appear on the front cover.

Ted Nash: That was a decision they made. It was interesting, because it was going to be Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Featuring Wynton Marsalis. Which is a brand; that’s actually the name of the band. A long time ago, I said to them “I want to be considered a co–leader on this.” Because I think it’s important for the artist to be recognized in that way.

And I guess they felt that the association between Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is enough already. That’s been established over a period of so many years.

It was very cool of them to do that. I think Wynton always has the ultimate say in all of that, so the big decision comes from him.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Featuring Wynton Marsalis and Ted Nash

Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

When: At 3 p.m. Sunday, March 28

Tickets: $25–$85