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Pianist and composer Renee Rosnes to perform Ellington Jazz Series concert

"Art is necessary because it reflects society," Rosnes says. "It is an expression of who we are and where we’ve been and where we’re headed. It is an act of human liberation, inspired by the whole spectrum of human emotion."
February 25, 2019

Renee Rosnes

Jazz pianist and composer Renee Rosnes comes to Yale this week to perform an Ellington Jazz Series concert with her quartet, which includes vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Lenny White. The group will play music from Rosnes’ two most recent albums, Beloved of the Sky and Written in the Rocks. We spoke with Rosnes, whom DownBeat has described as “a virtuoso jazz composer,” about the music on those recordings, and more.

Q: Beloved of the Sky includes music that celebrates the Pacific Northwest (where you’re from) and laments the environmental destruction that has scarred the region. …

A: There is one piece from the recording that deals with this subject and that is “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky,” which is the name of a painting by Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871-1945). Having grown up in British Columbia and seeing her work frequently, Carr’s paintings evoke a strong emotional response in me. Her canvases of the Canadian coastal landscapes and deep woods are familiar territory. She was an environmentalist ahead of her time and created several paintings that deal with her concern for the environment, and specifically the clear-cutting of forests (Odds and Ends, Above the Gravel Pit, Loggers Culls, Stumps and Sky, A Forest Clearing).

Q: To what degree do you hope audiences come to this music with an understanding of its origins, and to what degree can that information exist as your compositional motivation, without necessarily being a programmatic element?

A: I have no expectations with regard to the listener coming to the music with any background knowledge. It is not necessary that one understands the inspiration in order to enjoy it. With that said, I’m happy to illuminate or motivate people to learn about the various subjects that have inspired my music.

Q: For Written in the Rocks, you explored evolution, the earth’s—and various species’— beginnings. Technology specialist Dino Rosati’s liner notes informed your writing for this album, specifically for “The Galapagos Suite.” Would you talk about finding inspirations for new projects and how you go about conceiving and developing music from there?

A: Picasso once said, “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” This is a true statement, although often the inspiration simply comes from within—with the music coming first: a short melodic phrase, a rhythmic motif or an unusual chord progression. The sounds themselves evoke a theme or a feeling that inspires a title.

Recently, I was commissioned by Aaron Schwebel, the artistic director of Echo Chamber Toronto, to compose a jazz chamber piece for string quartet, flute, and piano. It is part of a performance series that brings musicians and contemporary dancers together on stage in collaboration with each other, and the composition will be choreographed and performed later on this year. I have never worked with dancers before, and am really enjoying the challenge of composing with movement in mind.

Q: “Goodbye Mumbai” is autobiographical in nature. Would you share briefly how this tune came to be and how you approach playing it?

A: In 1994, I was very fortunate to have discovered by maternal biological family and consequently learned of my Punjabi heritage. In 1996, I released a recording entitled Ancestors (Blue Note Records), in which many of the pieces reflected that experience. Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to visit India once, and my trip inspired this particular piece, which feels celebratory in nature. “Goodbye Mumbai” was composed with the hope that I’ll someday return.

Q: In recording Beloved of the Sky and Written in the Rocks, to what extent did you share the above-mentioned background information with the musicians with whom you recorded (and with whom you perform) the music?

A: I always share any stories or thoughts that might accompany my compositions with the band. Sometimes there is a direct musical outcome, such as at the beginning of “Galapagos.” You can hear a musical representation of ocean waves and bird calls during the introduction. Another example is in the piece “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky.” The “cry of the tree’s heart” that Emily Carr spoke of is sonically depicted by the “tall” dissonant chords with which the piece begins and ends. To whatever ends an individual musician embraces the narrative as a part of their improvisational statement is a free choice.

Q: We think a lot around here about the artist’s role in society and what that looks like from one individual to the next. What are your thoughts on the subject?

A: On the face of the old Canadian $20 bill there used to be a quote—in very fine print—by author Gabrielle Roy. It read, “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?” Art is necessary because it reflects society. It is an expression of who we are and where we’ve been and where we’re headed. It is an act of human liberation, inspired by the whole spectrum of human emotion. With regard to my work, I hope that people lose themselves in the listening and allow the sounds to take them to a place of spiritual fulfillment.

The Renee Rosnes Quartet will perform an Ellington Jazz Series concert on Friday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m., in Morse Recital Hall. The performance will showcase music from Rosnes’ two most recent albums, Beloved of the Sky and Written in the Rocks.

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