Explorative jazz artist Steve Rush returns to Edgefest

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 - 11:56am

With autumn swiftly descending and the hibernation of nature at hand, new and exciting music is awakening at the annual Edgefest Festival, hosted by Kerrytown Concert House. The avant-garde jazz festival, now in its 20th year, kicked off on Tuesday and will continue to run through Saturday, showcasing diverse and daring performances by a variety of artists, many of them University of Michigan alumni and faculty, including Stephen Rush.

“It’s so fun that it’s damn goofy,” Rush said on the composition he will be performing at Edgefest with the University of Michigan Jazz Ensemble. “I’m okay with that; it’d be better for the audience to have fun than be miserable, right?”

Rush, who is a professor of performance arts technology at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, has been a participant in Edgefest throughout much of its existence.

“I’ve been playing with Edgefest for — oh, man, for a long time, for a long, long time,” Rush said. “It may be 20 years ago I put together a version of Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” with one of my classes, actually … I looked around the room and said ‘my god, we’ve got all the right people for “Bitches Brew,” we’ve got to do this,’ and so we just took a whole semester and ended up playing it at Edgefest.”

Rush has additionally performed at Edgefest throughout the years with other groups and in other styles, including a performance with his New York based trio Yuganaut with Roscoe Mitchell, and a performance of avant-garde composer John Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes” for prepared piano.

“There’s an old joke for people who play Edgefest a lot because you always get a T-shirt, you know? So you see these people who have a picture of themselves on Facebook during the summer, and inevitably someone has a damn Edgefest T-shirt on,” Rush said. “They’re different every year, and I’m sure I’ve got ten of these things.”

The piece of Rush’s being performed Saturday, which was commissioned by Edgefest a few years ago, is called “Jazz Piano Concerto with Graphic Score Interludes.” Like much of his work, it is eclectic and adventurous. The piece includes sections in styles taken from throughout the history of jazz and classical music, and dispersed throughout are graphic score interludes, sections of music that are improvised off of paintings created by Rush. The entire composition is a unique mishmash of disparate threads.

“My aesthetic, I think, probably is mostly informed by Hitchcock, because Hitchcock’s movies … are really sexy, and they’re always a little bit funny, and they're definitely creepy,” Rush said. “And I just think, ‘Man, that’s a good reason to pay attention,’ you know? It’s not this bullshit where back-in-the-day you go into Blockbusters, and you go ‘well there’s a comedy, well there’s a romantic, now this is a horror film,’ you know, everything is really compartmentalized, and you know exactly what it is … and I think that’s just such a drag, man … it’s like if you look at Matisse's paintings, he has this dark, weird, violence, and then cute and pretty and flowers, and you just go ‘what?’ ”

Rush also addressed many of the preconceived notions he finds people hold about music, saying he attempts to dismantle them through his work.

“[My main aim with my music is] not necessarily self-expression, which is what people seem to think music is about,” Rush said.

“You know, different pieces for me have different functions — there’s some pieces that actually do try to express things, but I think, just looking at this piece specifically, it’s kind of a pedagogical gift, because I wanted the students to be able to play music in all these different styles. I just love the breadth and scope of jazz. And also it’s a statement against people who don’t dig that.

There are so many folks who just go, ‘Oh, well, I’m going to be responsible for the music between 1955 and 1963,’ you know, and I just think that’s pathetic. In order to be a complete jazz musician, I think, you should at least have a strong familiarity of the whole breadth and scope of it.”

Along those same lines of broadening interests, Rush works in many different mediums and styles, exploring new possibilities and constantly reinventing the sort of work he does.

“I’m an artist who chooses artistic outcomes based on projects, not so much on my own identity as an artist … what I’m more interested in is the process of what’s happening when I make stuff, and being really honest about that. I’m interested in being honest about where I want to be with that particular artwork.”

For “Jazz Piano Concerto with Graphic Score Interludes,” Rush said he ultimately created a piece entirely distinct from his initial ideas.

“The pieces ended up being very different from what I’d planned on,” Rush said. “And that’s the funnest part about making things, right? You kind of sequester yourself into a room and say ‘I’m going to make something,’ and you come out and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t think that was going to happen!’ ”

Rush’s process is one of constant exploration, following his instincts and refusing to be bound by any sort of careerism or preconceived notions of what music is about or for.

“In the old days you’d say ‘wherever the spirit leads,’ … that’s the idea of it, letting yourself go down the weird path, the extremely weird path.”

As a professor, Rush also instills this outlook in his students. For example, early next month one of his classes will be constructing a piece to be performed on the pond near the Earl V. Moore building.

“This year is crazy, they’ve got a floating greenhouse on the pond, it’s just really out there,” Rush said. “And then somebody like risk management says ‘Well, we’re going to have to ask you what you’re going to do out there,’ and it’s like, ‘I don’t know, dude. It’s not done yet, man, how do I know?’ ”

Rush’s outlook as a composer and artist goes beyond his exploration, and is informed by a desire to touch people meaningfully.

“I’ve got an Air India barf bag in my studio, and it says … ‘if 40 percent of the audience needs this, then it’s your problem,’ ” Rush said.

“And what I propose to do when I write a piece of music or when I perform is I really hope that people are engaged on some kind of deep level. I’m not trying to prove anything, I’m not trying to make any major artistic statement, nor am I in any way trying to put myself in this position of superiority where they need to struggle to get what I’m getting. Not that everything I do is ridiculously accessible — that’d be the last that I’d ever say … I definitely like it when audiences are confused and then they figure stuff out. I do get really worried if they don’t figure it out, you know, like if something’s really funny and I don’t hear audiences laughing, you know, a little kitten inside me dies, man. I just go ‘damn, what did I do wrong?’ ”

Rush’s hope is that, despite the unorthodox nature of his work, that audiences will after a short while understand what he is trying to say and receive something personally important from the experience.

“There’s some things that I do, definitely, that I think are initially extremely confounding and off-putting,” Rush said. “And yet, I’m hoping that I hit that sweet spot where … the audiences goes, ‘Ah, okay, alright,’ and they don’t feel like I’m being mean to them.”