Blending Genres

March 21, 2018

By Jessica Kaufman, Assistant Director of Content and Public Relations, Eastman School of Music

Today’s music blurs the lines between genres. Bluegrass can take on a folk or Americana feel, a jazz musician will improvise a solo line based on the mood of an audience, or the theme of that evening’s program, or country artists will combine their roots with today’s pop sound. So too, classical music is the basis and inspiration for many jazz artists. And none know that more than the educators and musicians of the Eastman School of Music, known for training and inspiring countless artists in both genres.

A recent performance at Eastman that perfectly showcases this collaboration of genres is the Eastman Wind Ensemble’s February 5, 2018 concert which featured Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra, composed by Roberto Sierra specifically for jazz saxophonist James Carter in 2001. In this concert, Sierra’s work was presented in a premier wind arrangement by Eastman’s Mark Scatterday, director of the Eastman Wind Ensemble and professor of Conducting and Ensembles at the Eastman School of Music. The piece has been a true collaboration from its conception, and continued that collaborative mindset at each iteration.

James Carter is no stranger to classical music collaborations. In fact, this was the second time classical music came knocking with an opportunity. In November 2001, as he performed a gig with legendary soprano Kathleen Battle, his manager, Cynthia Herbst, and composer Roberto Sierra were in the audience. Taken with Carter’s playing, Sierra immediately asked to write a concerto for him. Just a month later, Sierra came to New York to meet Carter and show him several initial musical phrases he’d put together. He made it clear that it was essential not only to meet face-to-face to get Carter on board, but also to create a true collaborative environment from the onset.

“That December meeting brought our minds together,” Carter recalls. “I was able to give input and ask questions, and that collaboration, and continued feedback throughout the process, was essential for the ultimate success of the piece as a whole.”

In January 2002, Carter received a big manila envelope – which arrived in a shroud of mystery, as it wasn’t labeled. “I pulled out these large pages, full of excitement, and it looked like someone went crazy with a paintbrush,” James shares with his booming, infectious laugh. Sierra had marked the tempos – but in a different way than James was used to.

“I needed to make sure I knew what tempo he was looking for me to convey – make sure they were mathematically correct,” Carter explains, a phrase you don’t expect to hear from a musician. “When playing with an orchestra, the math becomes important so you don’t let the music run off without you,” James says, with a smile to his voice.  “I absorbed the music that way, and as I became more familiar with it, the personality came in, and the proverbial meat on the bones was brought in and applied.”

Carter was sent the final version of the concerto in the summer of 2002 while he was on tour, and the completed piece is a true example of two artists blending their perspective territories, or genres, to create something new.

“The concerto is a very well-structured edifice,” James illuminates, further explaining, “there’s a distinctive, delicate blend of improv and written music that has such a natural flow that one cannot discern where the improvisation and the written music diverge –  the structure is on lock-down!”

The element of improvisation in the Concerto, like much of jazz, allows for free-form creativity, and also means the piece is never the same twice. As each performance has a new audience, Carter will use a mood, or outside influences, to keep things fresh and exciting.

“I listen to bass and baritone lines to provide where the actual harmonies are so it’s cohesive, but there’s incredible flexibility.” He recalls a particular performance: “A friend was a Teena Marie fan, so I put some of her favorite song into the piece.” Another performance was a tribute to Leonard Bernstein and his iconic “West Side Story.” “I took some of those elements from ‘Tonight’ and wove them in – you can hear the moment an audience recognizes what you’re doing.”

Carter credits those subtleties and influences with keeping his musical juices flowing.

“I get excited each time I approach this piece. It’s butterflies there all over again – but coupled with a familiarity because of what’s written.” He continues, “I know what a grand performance like this can evoke out of the orchestra. When you get out of the metrics and just let the music be – give it life – the music reaches its optimal potency.”

That sense of letting the music be is exactly why Carter works with students. While not his first time in a collegiate setting, having spent a week-long residence at Cornell University in 2005, his performance with the Eastman School of Music and the Eastman Wind Ensemble was the first time he performed the piece in a wind arrangement. This simply added to the experience for him.

“I thrive off of the fresh energy. With a student orchestra, there’s nuances that have yet to come out.” James recollects the many Eastman-trained musicians he’s had the pleasure of working with throughout his career, and that was a factor in him collaborating with the ensemble. He also led masterclasses and meetings with students in the days leading up to the concert.

“You can see when a student is developing a certain listening habit or how they are hearing jazz or classical in a particular way. Being able to tell them how I was affected by various disciplines and a recollection of how I came up through the ranks there’s a lesson there,” he notes. “I was able to show them the freedom you can have in your career. But also stress that you have to keep coming back to the well. The repository of the beginning. Show them I’ve been there too, where they are now. Always go back to the basics.”

Here, too, his manager Cynthia’s prior working relationship with conductor Mark Scatterday was the connective tissue for bringing about this new arrangement, and this particular collaboration about with the Eastman Wind Ensemble.

“It’s important, in this day and age, for our student performers to be able to play in many genres,” shareds Scatterday. “This concerto challenged them to ‘cross over’ from the classical world and into a medium that encouraged them to be more eclectic stylistically. Performing with an artist that is comfortable in many styles is extremely beneficial for their professional careers – the old boundaries between all types of music have really started to be quite blurry, and that’s exciting.”

“Being able to reiterate what this piece has done for me and continues to do for me every time I play it is something I wanted to share,” Carter explains. “I love to have students take that inspiration away with them. Keep pieces as new and exciting as possible. Find the relevance make them connect to you.”

Carter’s biggest piece of advice for performers? “Take your experiences and use them. You will give a more convincing performance with a hell of a lot more conviction. Audiences will feel that and take it out into the world.”  That’s exactly what music – any genre, any blending of artistry and collaboration – is about: feeling the music, allowing the audience to connect with you, and having it mean something.

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