Last night Erik Jekabson returned to the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. This time he was leading a group he called the Vista Nonet. A nine-member combo is not particularly unusual, but it is still not frequently encountered. Jekabon’s, however, was about as out of the ordinary as one could anticipate.
The first thing one noticed was that two of the members were vocalists, Becca Burrington and Alexis Lane Jensen, both of whom spent just about all of their time in the soprano range singing in very close intervals. They were joined on the front line by Sheldon Brown, alternating between tenor saxophone and clarinet, Jekabson on trumpet, and (another departure from the ordinary) Alisa Rose on violin. Rhythm was provided by Alan Hall on drums, Jeff Denson on bass, Jeffrey Burr on guitar, and Dillon Vado on vibraphone, each of whom had at least one opportunity for extended solo work.
If the presence of the two vocalists was not surprising enough, what was even more surprising was what they were singing. Four of Jekabson’s compositions were settings of poetry; and one of his sources was a poet more often associated with art song than with jazz, Elizabeth Bishop. (Those who follow art song in the Bay Area probably know that the One Art Ensemble of soprano Ann Moss, pianist Hilary Nordwell, and violist Alexa Beattie took its name from Bishop’s poem, “One Art.”) Indeed, in light of my favorite mantra that jazz is “chamber music by other means,” last night’s program turned out to be a recital of art song “by other means.”
Jekabson observed that he became interested in Bishop through finding her poems in The New Yorker. His two selections admirably sustained all of the other out-of-the-ordinary qualities of the evening. “Washington as a Surveyor” had a particularly rigorous sonnet-form rhyme scheme that took great (jazzy?) liberties with the iambic pentameter rhythm, while “The moon burgled the house…” juxtaposed fragments of text in a flow that could almost be described as stream-of-consciousness. (Note that these really were fragments in one of Bishop’s notebooks. They were collected under a title that was invented, complete with the ellipsis, by Alice Quinn when she was editing the Bishop collection Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. The New Yorker apparently published the poem as a “sneak preview” of Quinn’s book.)
The music itself would not have been out of place at an art song recital. Crooning in close harmony, the vocalists delivered readings of these texts that bordered on matter-of-fact narration, even when the words were at their most extraordinary. To some extent one might be reminded of some of Virgil Thomson’s settings of the words of Gertrude Stein (although no one would ever confuse Bishop with Stein). There was also some sense that Bishop had influenced the text that Jekabson himself provided for his song “Crescent Boulevard.”
The one real problem with these ambitious approaches to text was that the text did not always come across clearly. Since both vocalists had microphones, this could easily have been a matter of how the audio was controlled. However, there also seemed to be times when at least one of the vocalists had not quite established her own approach to diction around those words. This should not have been surprising. Jekabson may have opted for straightforward delivery in his setting; but there were still problems of phrasing that could only be resolved through performance. Most likely the vocalists were not yet sufficiently familiar with the texts to negotiate that phrasing with a firm command.
The instrumental side of the evening tended to be far more compelling. Every instrumentalist had at least one opportunity to offer up solo work and many of them had several. However, some of the most magical moments came from the blends emerging when Jekabson, Brown, and Rose harmonized a melody line. Burr was equally impressive when his guitar was required for more than rhythm, and his command of an ostinato pattern that could have been inspired by Steve Reich set just the right level of tension to introduce the words for “Washington as a Surveyor.” Both Vado and Denson, on the other hand, showed keen intuition in allowing their respective instruments to alternate between foreground and background in a manner consistent with the overall context.
As a result the performance emerged as a relatively satisfying evening of “art song by other means.” Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the primary impression was one of a first step in a new direction. Jekabson has no trouble keeping himself busy with a variety of jazz groups of different sizes, but this Vista Nonet is pointing in a decidedly unique direction. We should hope that last night was not a “one-off” and that Jekabson will continue to take this side of his jazz down the rather extraordinary path that he is just beginning to forge.