November 26, 2016


Ted Nash Big Band - Presidential Suite


Entire Suite (as performed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra): 

Ted Nash is a man of wide-ranging and eclectic tastes and interests, musical and otherwise.  A survey of his recorded works as a leader over the past 15 years or so includes a tribute to the film scores of Henry Mancini; a couple of recordings with a standard jazz quintet, one in a post-bop, Wayne Shorter-Herbie Hancock vein, one an exploration into Ornette Coleman-influenced free jazz; and, as reviewed in ATJ #4, albums from his band Odeon, which features an unusual front line (Nash on saxes/clarinets/flutes along with accordion, violin and trombone/tuba) playing music that somehow manages to flow from Monk to Debussy to klezmer to tango...sometimes in the same tune. In his last recordings, though, Nash has moved away from small groups towards composing extended works for big band that are inspired by themes outside of the world of music. In Chakra, he explored in seven movements the Hindu philosophy of seven centers vital energy in the body. In Portrait in Seven Shades, he composed a musical "painting" of seven modern artists, including Monet, Dali, Picasso, and Pollock.  

Ted's goal with Presidential Suite was to compose a piece inspired by great 20th Century political speeches, and as he shortened his list of possible subjects he found that the ones he kept gravitating to had a common theme (and one that is near and dear to the operators of this website): Freedom.  After choosing his 8 speeches, Nash set about transcribing the pitches and rhythms of the original orations. With that base, he has composed a nine-movement suite (8 speeches plus an overture) that deftly mixes power and restraint, the familiar and the exotic, optimism and wistfulness, resolve and joy.

Although billed as the Ted Nash Big Band, the group is really the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (of which Ted is a long time member), with J@LC's musical director Wynton Marsalis appearing as a "special guest" on "The American Promise" (LBJ's speech, made shortly after the Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in support of the Voting Rights Act).  Nash himself only plays on one cut, "Spoken at Midnight" (Nehru's speech on the occasion of Indian independence). 

Due to the nature of the source material, the main thematic statements of most of the movements are not exactly hummable tunes, yet Nash creatively uses them as springboards for his musical explorations, that reflect the spirit of the speeches but are never overt musical stand-ins for the speaker or the subject.  JFK's inaugural ("Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You") is transformed into a swinging blues with great solos from  Walter Blanding on tenor and Kenny Rampton on trumpet... a fitting anthem to match the swagger and vitality of the young president.  "Spoken at Midnight," with its 7/4 time signature and Nash's soaring solo on soprano sax,  suggests the East without ever descending to snake-charmer cliché.

Following a bluesy opening by pianist Dan Nimmer and the ensemble, "The Four Freedoms" are represented by 4 solos, each with a different jazz feel: hard bop for Rampton on trumpet; down-home gospel for Vincent Gardner on trombone; free jazz for Sherman Irby on alto sax; and Basie-style swing for Carlos Henriquez on bass. 

The next two movements are the most elegiac of the work.  "Tear Down this Wall" features the trumpets and trombones as a brass choir, with a haunting trumpet solo from Marcus Printup. The brass then step aside in favor of the sax section for Churchill's speech "This Deliverance" (or "We Shall Never Surrender"), which was given in the dark days of June 1940 following the evacuation of Dunkirk. Joe Temperley's mournful baritone sax sets the initial tone, but the piece then moves through brief episodes which are, in turn, hopeful, martial (a marching snare drum capturing the spirit of Sir Winston's "We shall fight on the beaches...we shall fight in the fields and streets...we shall never surrender") and, at last, prayerful, with a hint of bagpipe from Temperley's native Scotland.  (Joe died shortly before this album was released).

The next movement, "Water in Cupped Hands," is not based on a speech, but rather on an essay written by the then-imprisoned Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Here Nash creates a Far East feel with the use of sustained line from the flutes over a syncopated pattern in the brass and rhythm.  Nimmer's piano solo ebbs and flows (like the water in the title) through the use of varying rhythmic patterns.

Nash begins the "The American Promise" puckishly, with a loping cowboy motif in honor of LBJ's Texas heritage. But the cowboy quickly gives way to the re-imagination of Johnson's speech in the free jazz style of a Texan even closer to Ted's heart, Ornette Coleman.  Marsalis follows with an incredibly eloquent, swinging solo.  

The last movement, based on Nelson Mandala's inaugural address "The Time for the Healing" is both inspiring and just plain fun. Anchored by a reggae backbeat, Chris Crenshaw alternates reciting lines from the speech with short, improvised trombone interludes. As beautiful as Mandala's words are (comparing the peoples' spiritual attachment to their country with the literal attachment of the jacaranda and mimosa trees), this one will have you dancing in your seat.  

A word about the packaging of this release. Almost all of the music I buy these days is delivered via download directly into my phone. But I received the physical package for Presidential Suite (thanks, Ted!), and it may be the most impressive packaging I've ever seen for a recording.  First, there are 2 CD's: one with just the music; on the other, each movement of the suite is preceded by a recitation of the associated speech by a political figure (Senator Joe Lieberman for JFK; Andrew Young for Mandala), actor (Sam Waterson for LBJ, Glenn Close for Suu Kyi); or other luminary (Deepok Chopra for Nehru; historian Douglas Brinkley for Reagan). The extensive liner notes by Brinkley and Kabir Sehgal provide a  history of the speeches and insight into the pieces themselves.  Finally, it should be noted that while the composition was commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center, Nash funded this production of this recording through a Kickstarter campaign.  Given the state of the music industry (and general musical taste), it may be that this type of financing may be the primary (if not only) way that productions of this sophistication and complexity will be released in the future.

The oratory of the recent election did little to stir our souls or to touch the better angels of our nature (to steal from another pretty good political speech). Presidential Suite reminds us of two things: first, that political speech is, indeed, an art form, and, second, that great music, like a great speech, can be uplifting, unifying and inspiring.

Posted by at November 26, 2016 10:33 AM