On Dec 18th at Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair,NJ, we will present a winter solstice concert with shows at 8PM and 10PM. Our program for this concert is the 6 movement suite “Jazz in the Space Age” by pianist, composer, arranger and theorist George Russell, featuring tenor saxophonist and former member of the George Russell NY Big Band, Bob Hanlon, along with my 4 movement suite “Music of the Spheres”. Happening 3 days before the winter solstice on Dec 21st, we dive into the darkness with music about time, space, black holes, cosmic strings, Pythagoras, Johannes Kepler , planets, stars , free improvisation, Lydian chromatic and celestial harmony, and of course how all of this plays out in the ever evolving vocabulary of Jazz music. This program is a repeat from our April 10th, 2013 program and residency at the Meadowlands Environmental Center, Lyndhurst, NJ. You can read more about that program from this related post Science Meets Music, and about the support given to me for this project from New Music USA and many others.
We will also present compositions from Rob Middleton (Into The Ozone), Matt Haviland (Nascent), Ed Xiques (Triple Blues) and Jeff Raheb (Hale-Bop), the last two compositions are on our recording Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band; Live at Tierney’s Tavern (1999).
This is a rare opportunity to hear George Russell’s “Jazz in the Space Age” for it has never been played by a band other than Russell’s band, and it’s only the second time it’s been performed since his death in 2009, with the first time being our performance this past April. Many thanks go out to Marty Khan, director of Outward Visions, who introduced me to Alice Russell, and of course to Alice, who was incredibly gracious and generous in providing the music to us. I am also incredibly excited that the wonderful tenor saxophonist Bob Hanlon will be back with us!
Composing music based on the wonders of the universe is probably one of the oldest subject matters for music composition. Most everyone knows Gustav Holst’s 7-movement orchestral suite “The Planets” composed between 1914 and 1916.
In the film and performance of this piece by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and their “Beyond The Score” series, Pierre Boulez gives this introduction: “Music speaks for itself, a work of art is never born out of nothing, it is composed, written, painted at a certain time within a certain society at a certain moment of history.”
My theory is that for Jazz composers of the 1950’s it was a combination of coming out of be-bop, exploring new vocabulary and the “space race” between the Soviet Union and the United States. The launch of the first unmanned and successful orbit of Earth by the USSR’s Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957 urgently pushed the United States to create their own space program; Project Mercury, initiated two years later, during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. When John F. Kennedy became president, he asked for an additional $7 billion to $9 billion over the next five years for the space program, proclaiming that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” And of course, that happened on July 20, 1969, with the Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Montclair hometown hero, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin!
So as Pierre Boulez talked about “..at a certain time within a certain society at a certain moment of history”, Jazz composers began exploring space with their music.Notable recordings include: Clark Terry; In Orbit (1958), George Russell; Jazz in the Space Age (1960),George Russell; Stratusphunk, George Russell Sextet (1960), Horace Silver;Horace-Scope (1960),Out of the Cool; Gil Evans Orchestra (1960) which includes his arrangement of George Russell’s Stratusphunk, and Blues In Orbit; Duke Ellington, composed by Billy Strayhorn (1959 , 1960) to name a few.
And then there is Herman Poole Blount, legally known as Le Sonny’r Ra and publicly known as Sun Ra, who began his recording life as Sun Ra in 1956 and built his entire career about music from space, interwoven with civil right’s issues and issues of racism. This list is just the beginning: Sun Ra Jazz by Sun Ra (1956) Super Sonic Jazz (1956) Sound of Joy (1956) Visits Planet Earth (1956-58) The Nubians of Plutonia (1958-59) Jazz in Silhouette (1959)Sound Sun Pleasure!! (1969) Interstellar Low Ways aka Rocket Number Nine (1959-60) all released on Sun Ra’s record label El Saturn records with the exception of Jazz by Sun Ra (Transition records) and Sound of Joy (Delmark Records).
For further reading about music and astronomy, you can go to an article by Andrew Fraknoi called “Music Inspired by Astronomy” on the Year of Astronomy website.
If you are interested in viewing the night sky through a 20 inch research grade telescope, you can go to the William D. McDowell Observatory at the Meadowlands Environmental Center, free of charge and open to the public on Monday and Wednesday evenings, weather permitting. Here is their schedule.
What’s your favorite space age memory? Is it music, the moon landing, a T.V. show or film, going to a museum or maybe looking at the night sky? Leave a comment; we would love to hear from you!