The Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute: Live In Concert

Conductor George Manahan recognizes a composer at the rehearsal for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute reading. i i

Conductor George Manahan recognizes a composer at the rehearsal for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute reading. Courtesy of American Composers Orchestra hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of American Composers Orchestra
Conductor George Manahan recognizes a composer at the rehearsal for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute reading.

Conductor George Manahan recognizes a composer at the rehearsal for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute reading.

Courtesy of American Composers Orchestra

Early this month, Columbia University's Miller Theatre looked just a little bit like the set of American Idol. In the middle of the darkened auditorium was an official-looking table with seats for four panelists aglow, thanks to special lighting. Composers Derek Bermel, Alvin Singleton, Tania Leon and Anthony Davis were all smiles as they took their places, eager to spend an evening paging through oversized scores.

Although there was thankfully no counterpart to Simon Cowell among them, the panel's judgment had determined the night's concert fare. Last summer, thirty composers were accepted into the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, a creative partnership between Columbia University's Center for Jazz Studies and the American Composers Orchestra. The idea was to give composers coming from the jazz tradition access to orchestral writing techniques. Of those initial participants, eight were eventually selected to have their pieces performed in public readings by the ACO.

After months of waiting for the works to be completed, the audience was abuzz with excitement. Henry Threadgill, Marty Ehrlich, Amina Figarova and Muhal Richard Abrams were among those spotted in the full house, as well as JCOI instigator and director George Lewis. Conductor George Manahan took the podium. With only a day's rehearsal, some pieces were a bit rough around the edges. But the excerpts below, recorded June 5-6, 2011, will give you a first glimpse of these symphonic newborns, most of them subtly influenced by their jazz parentage.

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute: The Readings

Erica Lindsay.
Courtesy of the artist

Erica Lindsay

  • Album: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Reading 2011
  • Song: Inner Dialogue

Erica Lindsay describes her piece as one that attempts to "follow the narrative of an idea" — from an initial thought through a process of questioning, doubt, and increasing certainty that lead to its actual manifestation. She represents the shifting responses in this process musically, which is intended to give "Inner Dialogue" a sense of improvisational flow.

Mark Helias

  • Album: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Reading 2011
  • Song: Stochasm

Ethereal glissandi created by delicately sliding strings offer a continuously shifting backdrop for much of Mark Helias's "Stochasm." This excerpt comes the first of two ad libitum sections, which are not conducted. Helias composed material for the musicians, but each can play his or her part independently and in approximate time: a simple form of improvisation.

Harris Eisenstadt.
Peter Gannushkin/Courtesy of the artist

Harris Eisenstadt

  • Album: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Reading 2011
  • Song: Palimpsest

Derived from the Greek word palimpsestos, a palimpsest is a "papyrus or other kind of writing material on which two or more sets of writing had been superimposed in such a way that, because of imperfect erasure, some of the earlier text could be read through the later over-writing (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology)." In the first of his piece's three sections, Harris Eisenstadt gradually layers short melodic ideas, ascending runs, descending triplet figures and string glissandi and tremolos, writing one idea over the other to build dense textures.

Marianne Trudel.
Michel Pinault/Courtesy of the artist

Marianne Trudel

  • Album: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Reading 2011
  • Song: La Promesse

Marianne Trudel decided to write "La Promesse" as a dialogue between piano and orchestra, a form that would allow fluid interpretations that could change with every performance. A highly lyrical exploration, Trudel describes "moments of intimacy and gregariousness, one trickling effortlessly into the other. At once tinges of hope and pain, light and darkness imbue the music, before a great wave unites the individual voices into a collective call, the sum exceeding its individual parts."

Jacob Sacks.
Courtesy of the artist

Jacob Sacks

  • Album: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Reading 2011
  • Song: jqxz

The inspiration for Jacob Sacks' "jqxz" came while he was walking up New York City's Sixth Avenue, wondering how many people criss-crossed that block over the course of a day. Like those myriad, interwoven paths, his piece explores the "concept of a multiplicity of musical ideas that share the same time frame — some develop, some are static, some relate, some conflict, and some do it all. It's not unlike the marvelous cacophony of that block in Manhattan."

Nicole Mitchell.
Courtesy of the artist

Nicole Mitchell

  • Album: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Reading 2011
  • Song: Stealing Freedom In Broad Daylight

Nicole Mitchell's blues-inflected score celebrates American icon Harriet Tubman. "While composing the piece," Mitchell writes, "I reflected on images of Tubman journeying, often through the mysterious forest, sometimes in disguise through town, and how she relied on signs and visions to guide her movements from the impending danger of slave-catchers." Successful flights from slavery required skills of improvisation. In "Stealing Freedom," Mitchell reflects that flexibility and spontaneity by allowing musicians to play phrases "at will and in their own tempo" against the time given by the conductor.

Adam Jenkins.
Courtesy of the artist

Adam Jenkins

  • Album: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Reading 2011
  • Song: The Floating Bridge Of Dreams

Primarily a big band composer, Adam Jenkins says he came to writing for orchestra with two basic questions: how to approach melody and rhythm, as rendered by classically trained players rather than jazz musicians. Rather than write a jazz-inspired piece, Jenkins decided to let his influences come out naturally. The title is derived from the 12th century Japanese poet Fujiwara no Teika: "Spring Evening-Clouds over the Mountains Seem to be Floating Bridges in My Dreams."

Rufus Reid.
Motema Music

Rufus Reid

  • Album: Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Reading 2011
  • Song: Metropolis

Rufus Reid's "Metropolis" was not specifically composed for the JCOI readings, but as the part of a larger three-movement work called Mass Transit, premiered last month by the Idyllwild Arts Academy Symphony Orchestra. Reid's goal was to "illustrate how public transportation has changed our lives from century to century, decade by decade, year to year, and even daily." The bustling urban collage sounds very much like a modern city on the move, though some of the writing would be as at home arranged for big band as for orchestra.

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