In 1874, Modest Mussorgsky composed a 10-movement suite titled “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The piece as a whole functioned as a tribute to one of Mussorgsky’s closest friends, an artist who unexpectedly died at a young age, and each movement served to represent a specific drawing or watercolor made by the artist. The circumstances surrounding the conception of “Pictures” were less than ideal, but the composition has become a celebrated staple of the classical music world and is a frequent feature piece for orchestras and piano concerts alike.
More than a century later, composer-musician Ted Nash has created “Portrait in Seven Shades” — a seven-movement suite that will be performed tonight at Hill for “Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis” — which is strikingly similar to “Pictures” in its structure and overall concept, but differs in style, purpose and inspiration.
Nash focused his seven movements on paintings by modern artists like van Gogh and Picasso. Instead of concentrating on the work of one individual, Nash is taking a broader approach in observing and celebrating some of the art world’s most recognizable paintings. This common motif between the two compositions reveals the undeniable parallels between visual art and music — a connection Nash was conscious of throughout his writing of “Portrait.”
“Painters and musicians, we go through the same tribulations, (getting) our art out there and accepted,” he explained. “And (we’re) able to express ourselves and appreciate it for that.”
Nash also points out the common language of “textures and colors and shapes and different words” that are used to describe the work of artist and musicians.
“The big difference is a painting is finished, it’s on the wall, it’s done, it doesn’t change, it doesn’t move,” Nash said. “It’s all about the process of having painted it. And music, every night — especially with jazz music because there’s so much improvisation — every performance of it is different so it’s a constantly evolving process.”
Though Nash has been given a greater role in writing music for the band, Marsalis is still the evening’s main attraction. For Nash, playing alongside one of the best-known names in jazz is nothing less than a dream come true.
“When I first became aware of Wynton … I always really fantasized about playing with him at some point, being able to play with him in a band or something, and I didn’t think it would ever really happen,” he said.
Nash also pointed out some similarities between himself and Marsalis: both of their fathers were jazz musicians and they’re relatively close in age.
“After we started working together, at the very beginning I was a little timid, a little scared of him because I respected him so much and I wanted him to like my playing,” he said of his early experiences with Marsalis.
“As I’ve grown to know him both musically and as a personal friend, he’s someone that I not only feel very comfortable with, I feel we share a lot, we have a lot in common,” he added, saying also that he enjoys being able to express these feelings musically.
Nash admires Marsalis especially for the way he selflessly conducts himself around his fellow band members.
“(Marsalis) is a wonderful person to work for because he doesn’t approach things from the point of view of a large ego like a lot of leaders will,” he said. “You’d think that somebody who’s that famous and has gotten that much recognition and notoriety might have a lot of ego and (say), ‘Well, this band’s about me and it’s really just showcasing my playing and you all are supposed to support that.’ No, he’s about us as a community playing and he loves to hear us play as much as he loves to play, so when we play concerts he’s always making sure that everybody has a chance to improvise.”
Tonight, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will continue its quest to place “Portrait In Seven Shades” in the same high-regard in the jazz world that “Pictures at an Exhibition” has in the classical community. Ted Nash’s innovative vision, Wynton Marsalis’s continued virtuosity and the band’s ability to let the piece evolve will all combine to certainly take it in that direction.