Erik Jekabson strolls through museum art on infinite chamber jazz soundtrack

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sually museums are private, silent affairs. Walk in, buy a ticket, grab a pamphlet, go to the restroom maybe, then go on a safari to other worlds and inside other minds. Unfortunately, other than the high-priced tourist trinkets out back and memories, there really isn’t another substantive way to capture the artful moments — until now.

A working jazz musician and graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has found the way, through his and his String-tet’s music in the September 18th album release, the dense and thoughtful Anti-Mass. Out on his own label Jekab’s Music, trumpeter and composer Erik Jekabson’s third major solo album is like strolling through a major museum, the San Francisco DeYoung Museum in fact.

The museum and the Intersection of the Arts in 2007 awarded Jekabson a grant to compose music inspired by whatever piece of art from the permanent collection that moved him. This grant came right around the same time he gathered together some of his favorite musicians for a String-tet chamber jazz orchestra and for a first concert at DeYoung. These musicians were entities unto themselves, with their own screen presence and major recordings: violinist Mads Tolling, violist Charith Premawardhana, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, string bassist John Wiitala, and drummer/vibraphonist Smith Dobson.

Jekabson came across a provocative, politically charged museum piece by British artist Cornelia Parker entitled “Anti-Mass.” Parker used the burnt timbers from the remnants of an arson fire that destroyed a Southern, black church, as well as some wire to suspend her art in a call for rebirth. He did a rough draft right on the spot before heading home to flesh out the 15-minute composition.

Jekabson and his String-tet were able to perform “Anti-Mass” for DeYoung’s audience. By then, he was completely inspired to write and perform more. Another grant, from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, and permission from DeYoung Museum, enabled the group to record the album for two days in July 2011 at the famed Fantasy Studios.

“With the blessing of the folks at the DeYoung, I visited the museum again to find more inspiring artwork, and, again, to sketch melodies and textures down in my notepad while viewing the artwork,” Jekabson said. The result is very much a haunting, melodic, textured masterpiece collection elevating both jazz and chamber music in a rich, densely layered fusion of all the styles this orchestra leader loves, from jazz, funk, and Latin, to the classical music he studied in school. Expanding the traditional jazz band format (typically a trio or quartet) opened up for Jekabson a wider range musically, which these artists took full advantage of.

“The music was composed for my String-tet, an ensemble trumpet, tenor sax, violin, viola, bass and percussion [and flugelhorn]. This instrumentation gives the String-tet great flexibility to go in many different musical directions, flexibility that I needed to interpret the great variety of artwork at the DeYoung Museum (not to mention interludes of strolling around looking for the next inspiration),” Jekabson wrote in his album’s liner notes. “Not only did I write the music for these instruments, but I wrote it specifically with these players in mind, and it was great hearing the music ‘come to life’ in their skilled hands.”

Such sought-after flexibility is everywhere on “Anti-Mass.” Besides the pitch- and image-perfect renderings of selected museum pieces, the onslaught rush of museum visitors, and the vibe of the museum itself, Jekabson and his String-tet’s album of original compositions could stand alone as individual chamber jazz pieces, or be taken with specific inspirational art. “Strontium” and “Park Stroll” are the best examples of this.

In “Strontium,” it rains snazzy Latin jazz, as the musicians simultaneously, energetically jump on board in a cascading free-for-all that sounds majestic but not too polished. And in “Park Stroll,” Jekabson shows what he can do, commanding with his tempered, youthful, muscular tones on trumpet. A trumpet isn’t the easiest instrument to mold into variety, yet Jekabson does it here, as if he’s playing guitar. This song could easily find favor with the intimate, extemporaneous New York City Blue Note set.

Nothing on this album is too polished. If anything, Jekabson seems to purposely want to show the process in action. The horns are heard trying to get it together, gathering thoughts, piling on, and putting on a series of notes for size before finding the right-feeling ones. It’s an innovative, daring process of controlled chaos sometimes that most definitely manages to shy away from the usual irresponsible, haphazardness of most fly-by-night avant-garde jazz, in that the process is never allowed to ride roughshod over purposeful direction suitable to the inspirational pieces.

“Silence” is a dream we’ve all had as we encounter different creatures and different levels in a parallel whirlwind. Set as the opening piece, it succeeds in taking a deep breath as the prelude to the museum soundtrack. In this, Jekabson handles his trumpet as if discovering its value for the first time, playing around with the sounds it makes, stretching its limits within the confines of a handful of notes, revealing a slow awakening, reflecting a calming of the spirit, an emptying of the world’s stresses, and a Zen-like preparation for what’s to come. The museum piece that inspired “Silence” is Gottardo Piazzoni’s pastoral painting by the same name. The feeling is one of quiet contemplation and, thanks to the horns, a disquieting shift in perspective.

The piece that started it all, “Anti-Mass,” may be 15 minutes and 41 seconds long, but it doesn’t sound too long at all. Inspired by Cornelia Parker’s organic art sculpture of burnt timber and wire — remnants from a fire set by an arsonist to destroy a black church in the South — “Anti-Mass” refuses to back away from the socio-political and racial themes insistent in the subject matter. With compassion and infinite patience, Jekobson and his orchestral bandmates, endure the fire with the congregation, forcing themselves to feel what it must’ve felt to be the victims of a horrible, violent act, perhaps because of the color of their skin.

The stumbling screams and rapid-fire rolls of the horns at the outset of this song signify the fire as it burns down the church. Then, on his trumpet, Jekabson’s narrative goes back to what the church must’ve been like on the day it would go down, clearing the chaos to find some meaning before the senseless destruction. You can hear meaning sorting through chaos in his clear, angled lines. Based on a museum grant to compose music from Anti-Mass 1, “the piece itself is really visually striking, like no piece that I’ve ever seen before, floating pieces of burnt lumber suspended in mid-air,” Jekabson said. “It’s really interesting when you find out that it came from the black church that was destroyed by arson in the South, it kind of takes on a whole other meaning even beyond whatever you just see of it. To me, it’s about the reconstruction of material that was destroyed in the terrible event, but created in something really positive and uplifting. It’s very visual to me.”

Jekabson wisely featured tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens to tell some of the rest of the story, after the fire. Stephens’ solo insert midway becomes extremely, viscously carnal — a reminder that these are human beings, with an ability to love and make love still intact — then penetrating — egged on by percussion streaks — calling to mind love-making as a primal and instinctual means of spiritual and physical refueling, as well as tangible inspiration to face the rebuild, stronger than ever. But the sensual peaks of his play could also easily relate to lovers trying to forget the tragedy for one brief night, to assert themselves into the equation, to feel beautiful to each other, to hold onto what truly matters despite evil in this world.

By the time the orchestra launches into a strain of an old black gospel, in hesitant, halting, broken steps, even before the blues sets in for celebration, you know these people will rebuild, their spirits strengthened because of the adversity — as evidenced by the metallic awakening in the strings — as their Lord sharpens the saw. Towards the end, the blues livens up the gospel in shaky but genuine (it can’t be polished, not for this story) mass fusion, as Mads Tolling lifts the congregation up with a classical, heavenly violin touch, as if God’s given his blessing.

“To Be DeYoung Again” is by far the catchiest tune on the album. The rushed, climbing melody instigated by the infallible string section will repeat in the ear long after the album’s put away. The jumping sound of the strings conjures up hundreds and hundreds of visitors bursting through the doors of the DeYoung Museum. As they come through in hordes, the horns sound out a brassy big band anthem of the delights to come, always backed up by the repeating melody in those strings, representing the people. Tolling’s violin solo brilliantly, bemusedly captures the spirit of some of those people visiting the museum, bringing out big, brash, bright personalities, the pure excitement of children, the first date, clandestine lovers sneaking out together.

When the horns and strings break out with variation together, it’s as if the stories of the exhibits and the emotion of the people admiring them mingle, intertwining as they influence each other, producing another avalanche of stories. The emotions evoked from the exhibits touch off a whole slew of new stories in the public, some who may go away creating their own pieces. The Latin in the jazz Jekabson knows and loves so well pours out full force in the flurry of horns toward the end, signifying global reach, before the staccato violin fade ushers the public back out of the museum, then a screeching horn flourish for the doors closing another day.

Erik Jekabson wanted to share his love of classical music with Latin, jazz, and funk in an orchestral format and his love of museums, with formidable players. He felt so inspired by the San Francisco DeYoung Museum as a visitor that he wrote 11 original jazz chamber compositions, hoping listeners would also feel the same, go out and “create something new and different” themselves.

Mission accomplished.

Review originally appeared in Examiner Nov. 19, 2012.

Jazz Medium©: Feeling the music, one review at a time.

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