Monday, September 3, 2018

Peter Nelson - Ash, Dust and the Chalkboard Cinema (Outside In Music 2018)

Trombonist/Composer Peter Nelson Triumphs Over His Five-Year Struggle with Mysterious Chronic Pain on Stunning New Album

Ash, Dust, and the Chalkboard Cinema, out August 31 on Outside In Music, features three ensembles taking listeners on a narrative journey through suffering, discovery and healing

“Peter Nelson is an exciting and creative trombonist making waves on the NYC jazz scene.  If his name is on it, you know you are getting something good! With the music world brimming with talent more than ever, Peter’s one to keep an eye on.”
– Michael Dease, award-winning trombonist and educator

“Nelson has a sweet, stutter shuttled virtuosity on his valveless instrument of mystical musical astronomers, floating on deep rhythmic currents.”
– Kitty Montgomery, Chamber Music America

With the evocatively titled Ash, Dust, and the Chalkboard Cinema, trombonist/composer Peter Nelson retraces his five-year struggle with a debilitating condition that threatened to end his career as a musician just as it was entering its ascendancy. The album’s vivid compositions and enthralling playing draw the listener in to experience the grueling emotional journey that Nelson undertook, from the onset of mysterious symptoms through the isolating battle with physical and mental pain through the rigor of healing and the joy and revelation of recovery.

Due out August 31 via Outside In Music, Ash, Dust, and the Chalkboard Cinema enlists three different ensembles to tell its compelling story, all featuring Nelson on trombone: an ethereal trio featuring vibraphonist Nikara Warren and the wordless vocals of Alexa Barchini; a hard-swinging quartet with pianist Willerm Delisfort, bassist Raviv Markovitz, and drummer Itay Morchi; and a brilliant septet supplementing the quartet with alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger, trumpeter Josh Lawrence, and bass clarinetist Yuma Uesaka.

A native of Lansing, Michigan, Nelson earned his degree in Jazz Studies at Michigan State University, where he studied with heavy hitters like bassist Rodney Whitaker. After recording two albums in his home state he decided to move to Brooklyn in 2013, and soon found himself performing with longtime heroes like pianist/bandleader Orrin Evans and drummer Matt Wilson. Almost simultaneously, however, he started to develop strange symptoms while playing.

At first the issues were minor: small, localized pain and subtle feelings of anxiety. Before long, the symptoms escalated to include chronic hyperventilation, severe shortness of breath, and excruciating pain in the face down his back and arms. “Here I was playing with a lot of my heroes, in musical settings that I’d dreamed about and I spent a lot of time trying to cultivate,” Nelson recalls. “And it became very difficult to be on the bandstand while at the same time fighting my horn and fighting my body. It felt like a physically violent way of losing my medium for relating to the world, and was emotionally and spiritually crippling.”

Nelson sought the help of innumerable doctors, physiologists and educators, failing to find satisfactory answers from any source. After more than a year and a half of intense pain and frustrating questions, Nelson found his way to physiologist and trombonist Jan Kagarice, one of the world’s leading authorities on musicians’ health. Kagarice diagnosed him with focal dystonia, chronic hyperventilation and Chvostek sign, and in a single lesson reversed 60% of his pain, immediately allowing him to play again.

His symptoms, it turned out, were the result not of some curious illness but of bad pedagogy – bad habits inherited from teachers working from a misunderstanding of the human body and the physical process of making music. “The stereotype is that brass players have chops problems and difficulty with endurance,” he explains. “But the entirety of brass pedagogy is not only physiologically destructive but physics-wise has very little to do with how sound is actually made.”

Five years after the onset of his symptoms, Nelson is fully recovered and playing as beautifully as ever, pain-free. Writing the ten compositions on this album meant excavating a number of difficult feelings, but the trombonist was intent on engaging fully and honestly with the full spectrum of his ordeal. He brings his experiences vividly to life with the help of his gifted collaborators, each of whom have played an important part in his life in one context or another, from the bandstand to the classroom. 

Nelson is hesitant to reveal the meaning behind his somewhat cryptic album title, but a few themes emerge: Ash and Dust make obvious references to things crumbling away and left behind, referring perhaps to the composer’s symptoms or incorrect approaches. The Chalkboard Cinema, meanwhile, suggests the somewhat illusory nature of education, jazz education in particular – lessons taught as gospel but more akin to the flickering images of the silver screen.

Ash, Dust, and the Chalkboard Cinema traces each step along Nelson’s road to recovery, from the creeping onset in “It Starts Slowly (First in Your Heart)” to the confounding spiral of “Cyclical Maze (Round and Round We Go)” through the zen-like mantra “Do Nothing (If Less Is More),” a tribute to Kagarice and her life-altering teachings. “Behind Kind Eyes (Thank You)” is a meditation on the loss of a loved one, a nod to the tragedies that can occur around us while we’re struggling through our own, while “Closure is a Wasted Prayer (Release, Relax)” ends with the ambiguous acknowledgment that expecting any chapter of life to neatly draw to a conclusion is a fool’s errand.

“We always want closure,” Nelson says, “but it’s an almost laughable concept. I’m always going to be dealing with dystonia, but it’s not something that controls my life. The idea of putting a cap on this whole process does a disservice to the process of excavating these feelings and dealing with them. Everything that I learned about brass playing -- and more importantly about myself and what music-making really means to me –those lessons are priceless and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Miguel Zenón's Yo Soy la Tradición with Spektral Quartet Out 9/21 via Miel

Yo Soy la Tradición

An ambitious concert-length work for string quartet and saxophone,
drawing upon the rich cultural-folkloric traditions of Puerto Rico and expressed through the modernist lens of Zenón’s compositions


With his eleventh release as a leader and fourth for Miel Music, saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón has produced a work of startling clarity, synthesizing and building upon Puerto Rican folkloric forms through his unmistakable, multilayered compositional approach.

Yo Soy la Tradición, commissioned by the David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, is a collection of eight works for alto saxophone and string quartet which feature Zenón and the Chicago-based, internationally renowned Spektral Quartet. These chamber works reach far beyond the formula of a horn backed by strings, with the Spektral Quartet taking a central role in both driving and navigating the intricate compositional forms that are a trademark of the saxophonist’s music.

Zenón set out to compose a series of chamber pieces taking both creative inspiration and formal patterning from his native Puerto Rico’s cultural, religious, and musical traditions. The results are thrilling, and defy neat categorization with their emergent contemporary sensibility: structural beauty paired with emotional urgency.

The traditions Zenón takes as his points of departure include some he has explored in depth before such as Jíbaro, a major musical genre of rural Puerto Rico and the namesake of a groundbreaking album by Zenón in 2005. Other inspirations include traditions, both musical and not explicitly musical, that he had not studied in depth previously.

“My goal is to identify the elements that make each tradition unique,” says Zenón. “If these elements are musical in nature, I’ll extract them and use them as the main seed for a new piece of music—not trying to emulate the original, but using the original source as inspiration.”

Another musical tradition informing Yo Soy la Tradición occurred as a result of Zenón’s extensive preparation in string quartet writing. Although he has previously written music for string quartet on Awake, his fourth album released a decade ago, this new hour-long work led him to revisit works by the masters of the Western canon.

“I studied many chamber works from various periods,” Zenón says, noting the collaborative aspect of working with Spektral as part of his compositional process. “As I was writing and revising, I was also able to integrate feedback from the members of the quartet, whom I would send sections and passages to.”

In one sense, Yo Soy la Tradición is a culmination of Zenón’s study of the cultural traditions of Puerto Rico. For over a decade, his regular trips to the country and his ongoing field research has granted him uncommon insight into the artistic resources afforded by the culture of the Island—in his words, a “seemingly endless well of information and inspiration,” which is continually replenished by the families and communities who carry it forward as it evolves over generations.

Miguel Zenón © Jimmy Katz

The album begins with “Rosario,” whose title references El Rosario Cantado, a tradition related to the Holy Rosary of the Catholic Church. The ceremonial quality to this opening of the suite—variations on a theme framed in variously contrapuntal and contrasting episodes which move between the lyrical and the animated—echoes the format of traditional rosarios, settings of the Rosary to music typically reserved for funerals and religious occasions. This accompaniment is passed down by musicians and has developed striking formal qualities due to the functional nature and specific context of the music.

“It’s one of those things that’s very folkloric, but can be very complex,” says Zenón. “Some of those songs might have a bar of five beats followed by a bar of seven and a bar of three, because the composers and songwriters were trying to accommodate a lyric or a phrase within a specific harmonic sequence.”

Cadenas,” a lively work that features the Spektral Quartet in expansive rhythmic layering, evokes the work of recent Minimalist composers while harkening to the origins of las cadenas, traditional Puerto Rican music that takes its name from a chain-like dance formation (cadenas means “chains”). With alternating passages of expressive verse statements and propulsive string interludes, “Cadenas” exemplifies Zenón’s uncanny ability to juxtapose rhythmic complexity and melodic directness in honor of this tradition with deep roots in Spanish and African music.

In “Yumac,” Zenón takes the listener on a suspenseful ride as the strings produce interwoven bursts of pizzicato while the composer improvises a delicate, virtuosic solo statement. Named after the town of Camuy (with the letters spelled backwards), where singer Germán Rosario originated this style in the mid-twentieth century, “Yumac” comes out of the Jíbaro tradition in its structural organization, but its jagged harmonies and breathtaking unison passages for violin and saxophone are unmistakably Zenón’s.

Milagrosa” begins with an unabashedly futuristic introduction, where nimble melodic shapes played by the strings filter through modern harmonies, before settling into a flowing feature for Zenón’s elegant, melodic playing. The inspiration for the work comes from the religious practice of La Promesa—making a promise to a Catholic deity in return for a favor; specifically, the title refers to a promise made to La Virgen de La Milagrosa (“The Miraculous Virgin”), a traditional song upon whose foundations Zenón crafted an entirely new and vital work. The ending is perhaps worth the price of admission for the breathless, extended soli passage with saxophone and the entire Spektral Quartet in lockstep—a tour de force of melodic invention that sets the stage for an unadorned statement of a folkloric melody that is frequently related to “La Virgen de La Milagrosa.”

Moving into an elegiac register, “Viejo” highlights Zenón’s mastery of traditional musical expression, conveying emotional impact through the tonal shifts between major and minor. In this pensive movement, the saxophone is incorporated more as an ensemble voice as the string quartet moves into the spotlight. The majestic and dignified melodies in “Viejo” are fitting as an allusion to Aguinaldo Viejo, a genre of Jíbaro believed to be the tradition’s oldest example, with a harmonic cadence traced by some historians to medieval times.

Harmony also provides the organizing principle for “Cadenza,” a brooding exploration of two fundamental cadences found in Puerto Rican traditional music, La Cadenza Jíbara (from the same Aguinaldo Viejo in the preceding movement), and La Cadenza Andaluza, which suggests tinges of Flamenco, with Andaluza referring directly to Andalucía, Spain. The latter presents an opportunity that Zenón embraces with a clever, surprising coda of accented handclaps, which through aural sleight of hand slowly morphs back into a chorus of plucked strings before concluding.

The longest piece in the hour-long suite is “Promesa,” which presents an imaginative rendering written from the same inspiration as “Milagrosa.” In this case, it alludes to the most famous promesa of all: La Promesa de Reyes, in reference to the celebration of the Three Kings.  Beginning with a haunting, accompanied statement in the cello, the work cycles through repetitions of varied melodic elements whose even, steady elaboration reveals the patience underlying Zenón’s approach—a cinematic sense of pacing that rewards the attentive listener.

Yo Soy la Tradición concludes with “Villalbeño,” named after a variant of El Aguinaldo Jíbaro from the town of Villalba. With a self-assured sense of forward motion, the Spektral Quartet lays down a restrained but infectious groove over which Zenón holds forth; this builds until a sudden breakdown section, where a repeated figure gains momentum over shifting rhythmic subdivisions leading to the climactic ending.

In this momentous work, Zenón succeeds in finding common ground between various traditions—jazz, classical, and folk musics—while continuing to elevate, honor, and extend the cultural heritage of Puerto Rico as he has done over the course of his career. “Puerto Rican music is an integral part of who I am,” Zenón writes, “and my ultimate goal as an artist would be to synthesize and express everything it means to me.”

With Yo Soy la Tradición, Zenón has attained another milestone in his musical development, music that stands at both the intersection and forefront of the musical traditions that he has studied and now made his own.

Clara Lyon, violin
Maeve Feinberg, violin
Doyle Armbrust, viola
Russell Rolen, cello

A multiple Grammy® nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow, Zenón is one of a select group of musicians who have masterfully balanced and blended the often-contradictory poles of innovation and tradition. Widely considered one of the most groundbreaking and influential saxophonists of his generation, Zenón has also developed a unique voice as a composer and as a conceptualist, concentrating his efforts on perfecting a fine mix between Latin American folkloric music and jazz. Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Zenón has recorded and toured with a wide variety of musicians including Charlie Haden, Fred Hersch, Kenny Werner, Bobby Hutcherson and Steve Coleman and is a founding member of the SFJAZZ Collective.

About Spektral Quartet

Spektral Quartet actively pursues a vivid conversation between exhilarating works of the traditional canon and those written this decade, this year, or this week. With its most recent album described by Gramophone as “highly-interactive, creative and collaborative...unlike anything its intended audience—or anyone else—has ever heard,” Spektral is known for creating seamless connections across centuries, drawing in the listener with charismatic deliveries, interactive concert formats, an up-close atmosphere, and bold, inquisitive programming.

The album release concert will take place at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, and will benefit the Chi Aid for Puerto Rican Arts Fund.

Get your tickets HERE