Monday, September 26, 2011

Behind the scenes of "TimePiece for Jazz Soloists and Orchestra" by Stephen Paulus and Greg Paulus

Greg Paulus (l) and Stephen Paulus
All rehearsal photos by John Whiting
In 2007, St. Paul composer Stephen Paulus went to a chamber music concert where Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä was playing clarinet. Stephen stuck around after to talk with the maestro and mentioned maybe writing something with his son, jazz and electronic musician and composer Greg Paulus. A work for jazz soloists and orchestra, perhaps. What would Vänskä think about that?

According to Stephen, Vänskä’s response was immediate: “That’s just exactly what we need to do with the orchestra.”

Four years in the making, composed partly over Skype (Greg is now based in Brooklyn but tours the world with his electronic production team No Regular Play), TimePiece will have its world premiere at the Minnesota Orchestra’s season opener this weekend. Joining the orchestra on stage will be Greg Paulus on trumpet, Michael Lewis on saxophone, Bryan Nichols on keyboards, Adam Linz on bass, and JT Bates on drums.

A few words about relationships: Stephen served as composer-in-residence for the Minnesota Orchestra from 1983–87. Stephen and Greg are, as noted above, father and son. Michael Lewis, Adam Linz, and JT Bates are known collectively as the trio Fat Kid Wednesdays, though each is involved in numerous other projects. Lewis, Linz, Bates, Greg Paulus, and Nichols have known each other since they were teenagers.

(l2r) Stephen Paulus, Bryan Nichols, Greg Paulus, Adam Linz,
Michael Lewis, JT Bates
In late August, I had the opportunity to attend a rehearsal of TimePiece at MacPhail, where Linz runs the jazz program and both Linz and Nichols teach. This was their third rehearsal. The first had been at Stephen’s home in St. Paul, the second (five hours, I was told) at Lewis’s house in Minneapolis.

At MacPhail, they rehearsed to a MIDI track, which was minus the percussion. The music was present enough for the musicians to play along with, and for me to get a sense of how it will sound. I missed the first movement, “Rain (all day),” but heard the other three: “Everything Happens to Me,” “Anxiety’s Edge,” and “A Night at the Cosmos,” following along with a spare copy of the orchestral score.

What I heard was beautiful, lush and descriptive, and I could only imagine what it will sound like with the enormous depth, breadth, and palette of a live symphony orchestra—strings and woodwinds, brass and drums and bells. The jazz—part composed (mainly short themes), mostly improvised—weaves in and around the orchestral sections. There are times when the quintet is heard without the orchestra, but with far less of a church-and-state separation than I’ve heard in similar efforts.

Stephen Paulus (l), Bryan Nichols
There seems to be more focus these days on putting jazz and classical musicians together. For jazz musicians, I suspect this offers significant benefits: broadening their audience, giving them much larger stages to play on, offering the rare chance to play with many other musicians and instruments they wouldn’t normally interact with. (Jazz orchestras and other large ensembles are expensive to put together and costly to run. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is supportedby a massive nonprofit organization.) I’m not sure how classical musicians feel about playing with jazz musicians. It would be fun to find out sometime.

Stephen left ample room for improvisation; it wouldn’t be jazz otherwise. At one point, he turned to Nichols and joked, “I liked what you were doing. Don’t change a note.”

Greg will bring electronics into the performance: prerecorded passages, loops, digital delays. The first movement, “Rain (all day),” which I didn’t hear, begins with a field recordingof cars, trucks, and rain, processed through effects, that is gradually subsumed by the orchestra. “A Night at the Cosmos” will bring in the loops and delays, created by Greg on the spot. “The orchestra will play against itself,” Stephen explained, “and listen to itself while playing.” It will be interesting to see how that goes. Classical violinists don’t like being miked. Feedback is bad.

TimePiece is about time, literally, and mixed meters,” Stephen said. “It’s sort of programmatic. ‘Rain (all day)’ is about the pulsating feel of a rainstorm. ‘Everything Happens to Me’ doesn’t quote the tune [a jazz standard], but it’s a jazz-oriented title. ‘Anxiety’s Edge’ is a scherzo, edgy and fast, with opportunities for consonance and dissonance. ‘A Night at the Cosmos’ is a nod to ‘A Night in Tunisia.’” Reportedly, Vänskä will play clarinet at the start of the scherzo.

“The overall idea was to use people’s strengths,” Greg added. “Jazz musicians are some of the best improvisers in the world, and orchestras are some of the best readers and players in the world.”

Michael Lewis (l), Greg Paulus
“A lot of sections [of the score] were left totally open,” Stephen said. “We’re using our rehearsals to figure out what we as a group think is best.” During the rehearsal I attended, all of the jazz musicians were reading from the whole orchestral score. “It’s obvious these guys are doing anything but winging it,” Stephen pointed out.

One complaint about jazz-classical hybrids is they leave the orchestra sitting in silence for long periods of time. (Some people felt that way about Brad Mehldau’s performance last year of his composition HighwayRider with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Walker Art Center.) About TimePiece, Greg said, “We were conscious to keep everyone in the orchestra active, with interesting parts. The idea was to create the best possible sound from the front.”

How was it to work together as father and son?

Greg: “It was surprising how easy it was. We had similar ideas of harmony and melody, and we were able to be honest with each other.”

Stephen: “It was surprisingly collegial to work together. Hearing Greg play all those years [growing up inS t. Paul] infused the sound and steered the ship in a certain direction."

What has it been like to work with the Minnesota Orchestra?

Stephen: “Osmo is a consummate musician, and he obviously has a very open mind. It’s a world-class ensemble. We’re working with great people. Out of this may come an idea for another project.”

(l2r) Lewis, Paulus, Paulus, Nichols, Linz

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