Joe Gilman loves a challenge. And depicting visual art through music presented him with several. On Americanvas Gilman and his quintet celebrate works by 10 well-known American painters.
"The challenge was to try to write some pieces that were not only musical interpretations of the paintings, but also to the best of my ability would use the technique that was used to create the painting to create the piece of music."
The opening track is based on Norman Rockwell's painting "The Gossips." Fifteen frames, each containing two people facing each other. The gossip passes from frame to frame, and the faces become more animated. Gilman started with a simple melody.
(music). It just sounds like kind of tattling. And then I decided well maybe we can just take that idea and change it ever so slightly. (music) And maybe again (music). You're saying the same thing but it's gradually morphing and becoming something different. (music). It starts to get a little more heated when it gets to the middle of it. It's funny because the women in the painting are very surprised and shocked at what's happening and the men are laughing and pointing. So I don't know exactly what it is they're gossiping about."
Then saxophones join in the gossip.
By contrast with Rockwell's representational work, Monkey Puzzle, by Keith Haring is iconic and abstract. It features several playful monkeys painted in bright colors. Each monkey has a unique shape, but all are contained and connected within a single circle, together forming a new image.
"I wanted something to be kind of fun and kind of like these monkey's dancing around. At the same time… what can I do to actually give it the feeling of being a whole but also being independent. So in this piece what you hear is the piano coming in playing a melody (music) Then you hear a saxophone coming in kind of dancing around that melody but playing its own melody (music) Then the third saxophone comes in playing its own melody, kind of dancing around (music) They all sort of lock in and then eventually what you hear is a fourth new melody that's the combination of the old three, like when you put a puzzle together, there's all these independent pieces, you put 'em all together and it creates this new thing
"I've always been a fan of modern art in general. There's something that's always leaving you to fill in the blanks. You know, what is this? What does this painting mean to me? And jazz, it's extremely abstract, so I think the two really lend themselves to each other very well."
Perhaps the most abstract piece on Americanvas is "Yellow, Red, Blue," based on a multi-form painting by Mark Rothko featuring three, blurred blocks of color.
"I had looked at quite a bit of Mark Rothko's paintings. I knew that he dealt with these color fields. That it was very meditative and almost otherworldly. So I knew that it was just going to be this sort of cloud. And eventually it would sort of morph and move into these other things, but the idea was to get it to morph and move without you really realizing that it was moving around."
Along with being a pianist and composer, Joe Gilman is artistic director at the Brubeck Institute in Stockton. This project was a teachable moment for his students. Not only did they perform on the CD, they also composed a few of its tracks and were forced to go beyond the usual sources of inspiration.
"I think most the time young musicians that are looking… ok I'm gonna write blues, I'm gonna write a tune that's real fast and I just think, well look you can actually think outside of music to create a piece of music. In fact, you probably should. That's probably where we get our best music actually comes from an experience we've had or something we enjoy outside of music."
Like viewing a work by a great American painter.
Joe Gilman and the Capital Jazz Project perform selections from "AmeriCanvas" this Sunday at 7 p.m. at American River College.