Thursday, July 22, 2010

Clarinetist Evan Christopher makes the old sound new

Originally published at, Thursday, July 22, 2010

Evan Christopher by Jim McGuire
It’s a big deal when a major orchestra commissions a new work by a composer, especially a jazz composer. On Friday, the Twin Cities will hear the Minnesota Orchestra’s second jazz commission in two years when New Orleans-based, Créole-style clarinetist Evan Christopher performs the world premiere of his “Treat It Gentle Suite.” Titled after the autobiography of legendary clarinetist Sidney Bechet, it’s the latest step in Christopher’s plan to keep the New Orleans clarinet tradition relevant and alive.

If you’ve seen Christopher perform — whether here at Orchestra Hall with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, at the Dakota solo or with pianist Henry Butler, in New Orleans or somewhere on the road — you know this is not the clichéd, touristy treacle so often associated with “traditional New Orleans jazz” or “Dixieland jazz.”

Christopher’s music is steeped in the history and vocabulary of Bechet, Barney Bigard and other early masters, but it’s also very modern. You’re hearing something old, yet it feels fresh and contemporary. Add Christopher’s compelling stage presence and gorgeous sound — if the clarinet can be this beautiful and expressive, why don’t more people play it? — and this promises to be an electrifying evening.

“Treat It Gentle Suite” is a work in three movements that will be performed by a nine-piece jazz ensemble and the Minnesota Orchestra. The ensemble will include trumpeter Irvin Mayfield (the Minnesota Orchestra’s artistic director of jazz), banjoist/guitarist Don Vappie and drummer Shannon Powell, all of New Orleans, and area musicians from the Jack Brass Band and Mama Digdown’s Brass Band.

Originally written as a piano score, the suite was orchestrated by Ohioan David Frost and will be conducted by Sarah Hicks, someone else who knows how to marry the old with the new. The program will also include two fantasies for strings written by Christopher, one based on Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” and the other on Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans.”

I spoke with Christopher by phone soon after he returned from England, where he was making the rounds of festivals and art centers. He was in Meridian, Miss., at the Mississippi Whole Schools Retreat. He won’t have time to stop at home in New Orleans before flying to Minneapolis. He packs light, and a clarinet is easy to travel with.

MinnPost: Why did you write for such a large jazz ensemble?

Evan Christopher: It’s a New Orleans brass band. Writing something just for clarinet would have been a little self-indulgent, because a great deal of the vocabulary of the clarinet in New Orleans was ordained by its role within the ensemble. If you’re not bringing in the ensemble, you’re missing out on a huge dimension of New Orleans clarinet. Also, I needed the different textures for the clarinet to work with the orchestra. Clarinet on its own doesn’t make much sense when taken out of context.

MP: What were some of the challenges of writing for orchestra?

EC: I was required to create a fully realized piano score and give my best ideas about what I wanted the textures to be. David Frost took every note I put on the page and found a place for it. I offered some guidance—here I want strings, here I want woodwinds, here I want the sound of someone banging on the door with a cow bone.

One problem was the amount of time I had to sit down and put notes on the page. My travel schedule is insane. Five years [after Katrina], New Orleans still can’t keep me there to make a viable income. Even though they talk about the music being part of the cultural economy, it’s still subservient to the hospitality/service industry. I make my living in Europe.

MP: What was it like working with an orchestrator?

EC: Wonderful! On my way to concerts in New York, I went through Columbus and spent two days with [Frost]. We should have been working in person all along. We got so much done in the short amount of time we spent together. He was very patient and always had great ideas.

MP: Can you describe “Treat It Gentle Suite”?

EC: It’s divided into pictures—tableaus. In some moments it’s a picture of New Orleans today. At other times it’s a picture of the past. It goes back and forth within each movement. There’s a prelude, then Tableau 1, “Remembering Song.” Then a slow movement with elements of a funeral dirge, “Elegy.” The third movement, “King of Treme,” brings us back to the street and features [drummer] Shannon [Powell].

I wanted to keep the piece simple, but make the simplicity rewarding. Melodically, it’s as simple as the blues; rhythmically, it’s as simple as the rhythms we associate with what Jelly Roll Morton calls “Spanish tinge.”

Other composers have written for clarinet and used gestures of jazz, gestures of Southern music. But I definitely think this is the first time that the New Orleans style of clarinet playing has ever been showcased in this way.

MP: Are you happy with the piece?

EC: I don’t know. I haven’t heard it yet. [Rehearsals with the orchestra begin Thursday.] But I can’t wait to work with Sarah Hicks. I only know her by reputation. To be in the company of David Frost and Sarah Hicks, and of course the Minnesota Orchestra, is very humbling.
Here’s Christopher with one of his European bands, Django à lá Créole. And here he is with his Jazz Traditions Project.

Christopher will be part of a double bill with the soulful singer/songwriter Lizz Wright. Wright will perform in the first half of the program, Christopher in the second. It’s Sommerfest, so you can come early for pre-concert music on Peavey Plaza by the Dave King Trucking Company, then stay late for post-concert music by Halloween, Alaska, another Dave King band.

Lizz Wright and Evan Christopher with the Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall, Friday, July 23, 8 p.m. ($22-$60 VIP). Tickets online or call 612-371-5656.

Read a review of the concert here.

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