Pianist and composer Renee Rosnes to perform Ellington Jazz Series concert

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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Published February 25, 2019
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Willie Ruff awarded honorary doctorate

Willie Ruff receives an honorary doctorate from University President Salovey. Photo by Michael Marsland

As part of Yale’s 317th Commencement, which took place on May 21, the University awarded honorary degrees to “10 individuals who have received distinction in their respective fields.” Among the recipients was Willie Ruff ’53BM ’54MM, who retired in May 2017 having spent 46 years on the School of Music faculty.

Presenting Ruff with an honorary doctor of music degree, University President Peter Salovey said, “You have shared the wonders of music with the world. Introducing new audiences to the transcendent power of jazz; you discovered the echoes of distant times and faraway places in this quintessential American art form. In your ‘conservatory without walls,’ generations of young people have been inspired by jazz legends. Scholar, storyteller, and musician, in gratitude for your creativity and charisma, we are privileged to present your third Yale degree, Doctor of Music.”

The “conservatory without walls” to which Salovey referred is the “‘invisible institution’ through which African American music has been nurtured and developed over time,” explained Lucile Bruce in the Spring 2017 issue of Music at Yale. In 1972, a year after joining the faculty at his alma mater, Ruff brought 40 jazz legends to Yale — among them Duke Ellington, Marian Anderson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus — and launched the Duke Ellington Fellowship and the Ellington Jazz Series.

Throughout his extraordinary career, Ruff has introduced audiences around the world to jazz. With pianist Dwike Mitchell, Ruff — a horn and bass player — brought the art form to the Soviet Union in 1959 and to China in 1981.

Ruff’s scholarship has yielded remarkable insight into musical connections, and his eagerness to share his experiences and knowledge has enlightened many. His 1991 memoir, A Call to Assembly: The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller, earned him an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Music Writing.

At the School of Music’s 2017 Honors Banquet, Ruff was given Yale University’s Nathan Hale Award. “He’s changed all our lives,” YSM Dean Robert Blocker said.

Ruff came to the Yale School of Music to study with Paul Hindemith — because he had read that Charlie Parker would have done the same. More than half century later, the School and the University continue to recognize and appreciate his remarkable legacy.

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Published May 23, 2018
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Wayne Escoffery Quintet featuring Jeremy Pelt to perform unheard music by Lee Morgan

Wayne Escoffery

Asked about the influence that Lee Morgan has had on him, Grammy Award-winning faculty saxophonist Wayne Escoffery said, “As a young man, his music really caught my ear,” specifically because it combined styles. “One of the traits of Lee Morgan and one of the inspirational things about his music,” Escoffery said, is that it “was really a great fusion of a lot of the modern elements” of the music of the early-to-mid 1960s “with a lot of the soulful and groove-oriented elements” of the time.

On Friday, Feb. 2, Escoffery and his quintet — featuring trumpeter Jeremy Pelt — will present “Delightfulee Morgan,” a program of music by the late, legendary trumpeter and composer Lee Morgan. The program’s title comes from Morgan’s 1966 Blue Note album, Delightfulee. The concert will showcase compositions by Morgan that are seldom heard and, in some cases, unrecorded.

It was after being approached by jazz historian and archivist Bertrand Uberall, who’d come across a trove of Morgan’s unheard music at the Library of Congress, that Escoffery began conceiving what would become the Feb. 2 Ellington Jazz Series program. That process began with finding a trumpeter who he felt could uniquely serve Morgan’s music. Enter Pelt.

“Jeremy and I go way back to college days,” Escoffery said, explaining that when he was a graduate student at the New England Conservatory, Pelt was a student at the Berklee College of Music. Pelt, he said, has long been a student of Morgan’s music. There “could not be a better choice” than Pelt to present Morgan’s music, Uberall offered.

Uberall said there’s “no reason to believe [Morgan] ever performed” this music, the rights to which are held by Kiko Morgan, to whom the celebrated trumpeter was married but estranged from at the time of his death. Kiko Morgan gave Uberall permission to have the music performed.

Morgan recorded and performed with the likes of such iconic artists as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey and was a prolific composer with his own impressive discography. He was shot and killed in 1972 by his common-law wife, Helen Moore, who’d rescued him from drugs and helped resurrect his suffering career. That story is recounted Kasper Collin’s 2016 documentary I Called Him Morgan, which Escoffery pointed out brings to life the 1960s jazz scene in New York — particularly the feeling and the energy surrounding Slugs’ Saloon. “That musical atmosphere was really inspiring to me,” Escoffery said.

Escoffery’s Feb. 2 program “Delightfulee Morgan” will celebrate an artist whose music and inimitable performances have long inspired many. Uberall is expected to deliver remarks about Lee Morgan from the stage, and two of Morgan’s nephews are expected to be on hand.

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WAYNE ESCOFFERY

Published January 30, 2018
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Willie Ruff retires having given “conservatory without walls” a home at Yale

By Lucile Bruce

Willie Ruff

Willie Ruff was born in 1931 in Sheffield, Alabama, a rural town on the south side of the Tennessee River. As a child, he showed an aptitude for music and immersed himself in the musical resources of his community. A neighborhood boy shared his drum set with young Willie and they became lifelong friends. The pianist at church became his piano teacher. But the best music he heard was the drumming in the African Pentecostal church half a block from his house. “We would sit on the ground outside the church and listen to the people playing those drums,” Ruff recalled. “It was the most exciting, the most moving music. I heard them in my sleep.”

Across the river from Sheffield stands Florence, the hometown of W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues.” Handy visited Ruff ’s elementary school classroom, played for the children, and accompanied their singing. “W.C. Handy was a big presence in my world,” Ruff recounted. “When I saw him on stage in my school, talking about the importance of our musical heritage, I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I think I have.” MORE

Published May 1, 2017
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Ellington Series presents Piano Jazz Summit March 4

piano-jazz-hThe Ellington Jazz Series at the Yale School of Music presents the Piano Jazz Summit,  Friday, March 4 at 7:30 pm. The concert features three of the jazz world’s great pianists: Barry Harris, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and Aaron Diehl

The program will feature the pianists playing alone, and together as a trio, as well as speaking about their lives as performers and their relationship to jazz. The audience can also look forward to a special live video projection of the keyboard, offering the a bird’s-eye view of the pianists’ hands. Willie Ruff, artistic director of the Ellington Jazz Series, calls this concert “a rare opportunity to hear three master pianists.”

The concert takes place at Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall (470 College Street, New Haven). Tickets start at $20, $10 with student ID. Purchase online, call 203 432-4158, or visit the box office at 470 College Street.
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Published February 19, 2016
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[ in the press ]

YDN: Jazz pioneer receives lifetime achievement award

Photo by Harold Shapiro

Photo by Harold Shapiro

Yale Daily News | By Maya Chandra

Yale School of Music professor Willie Ruff ’53 YSM ’54 was presented with the C. Newton Schenck III Award for Lifetime Achievement award at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven Friday.

Arts Council Executive Director Cindy Clair said Ruff’s national prominence as a jazz figure, his lengthy teaching career and his work with the Duke Ellington Fellowship program — an initiative that brings world-renowned jazz musicians to Yale and New Haven Public Schools -— made him an excellent candidate for the award at the Arts Council’s annual Art Awards Luncheon this past weekend.

Ruff, who played the French horn and double bass alongside pianist Dwight Mitchell for more than 50 years, accompanied Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and other world-famous jazz musicians throughout his roughly 60-year career. But despite rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in jazz and being a leader in the genre, Ruff, who joined the Yale faculty in 1971, remains down-to-earth and high spirited. MORE

Published December 7, 2015
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Guilford’s New Duke to jazz it up at New Haven’s Sprague Hall

newdukeNew Haven Register | By Lisa Reisman

NEW HAVEN >> Abstract. Avant garde. Impenetrable.

It’s how a lot of people view jazz. And Guilford musician Brian Torff wants to change that.

Torff is the musical director and arranger for New Duke, an accomplished eight-piece band that infuses the work of legendary composer, bandleader and pianist Duke Ellington into funk, hip-hop, rock, reggae and other contemporary sounds. The ensemble will be performing at Yale’s Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall on the evening of Friday, Dec. 4 in a concert presented by the Yale School of Music.

“Duke’s blend of melodies, rhythms, and sonic movements gave audiences a new experience—complex yet accessible jazz that made the heart swing,” said Torff, a bassist whose musical chops have taken him to Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center, in a telephone interview. “You can’t replicate his music, but you can build on it in new ways, and that’s what we try to do.” MORE

Published December 3, 2015
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New Duke reinterprets the music of Duke Ellington Dec. 4

newdukeThe Yale School of Music’s Ellington Jazz Series presents the ensemble New Duke on Friday, December 4 at 7:30 pm.

An exciting eight-piece ensemble that brings the music of Duke Ellington alive in a contemporary way, New Duke combines the power of Ellington’s music with the grooves of jazz, hip-hop, and rock.

Compositions and arrangements are written by bassist and musical director Brian Torff. “You can’t re-create Duke’s incredible music,” says Torff, but you can build on it in new ways, just as he always did.”

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Published November 17, 2015
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Javon Jackson and We Four celebrate John Coltrane Oct. 30

Jackson, javonThe Ellington Jazz Series at the Yale School of Music presents saxophonist Javon Jackson with We Four on Friday, October 30 at 7:30 pm.

The concert features Saxophonist Javon Jackson, with drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianist George Cables, and bassist Peter Washington in an original project highlighting the music of saxophonist and composer John Coltrane.

We Four is a multi-generational group of notable New York jazz musicians, all of whom feel a connection to Coltrane. The concert will include some of Coltrane’s most beloved tunes as well as  original material inspired by Coltrane. MORE

Published October 15, 2015
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Christian McBride Trio opens the Yale jazz season Oct. 2

Christian McBride Trio. Photo by Chi Modu

Christian McBride Trio. Photo by Chi Modu

The Ellington Jazz Series at the Yale School of Music presents the four-time Grammy Award-winning bassist Christian McBride with his trio on Friday, October 2 at 7:30 pm.

McBride will play with Christian Sands, piano, and Jerome Jennings, drums. Sands, a native of the Greater New Haven area, is a local favorite.

“It’s a pretty diversified trio,” McBride says. “The real core foundation is hardcore swingin’, blues, and the American songbook.” MORE

Published September 21, 2015
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