Ted Nash's Portrait in Seven Shades

Many composers, jazz and otherwise, have tried to write pieces inspired by famous artworks, but Ted Nash is one of the few who pulls it off.

His new album with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Portrait in Seven Shades, lays out musical equivalents of paintings by Monet, Dali, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Chagall, and Pollock—a conventional lot (MoMA 101, you might call it), but that makes his task more challenging because most people know these paintings, they know how they feel when they look at them, so they’ll know very quickly how Nash stacks up.

It’s good to see Nash fronting the LCJO, Wynton Marsalis’ thriving big band. He’s one of its most versatile players and composers, coming up through not just Wynton’s posse but also the more adventurous Jazz Composers Collective led by Ben Allison and Frank Kimbrough. Nash’s 2002 album Sidewalk Meetings, one of the decade’s best, displayed an Ellingtonian knack for lush colors and narrative drive. Portrait in Seven Shades shows those talents haven’t dimmed.

On “Monet,” he stacks airy winds on top of trombones, accents the mix with trumpets and his own flitting flute—and, yes, those shimmering Water Lilies come to mind (though so do Ravel and Debussy). For Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (the one with the drooping clock), he sets just slightly dissonant lines in a quirky 13/8 time—which on paper may seem a bit reductionist (weird clock, weird time), but hey, it works! I was skeptical when I read, in his liner notes for “Picasso,” that he wrote harmonies in 4ths to evoke a Cubist style, but that works, too. “Pollock” could be a mess (splatter some random chords on the keyboard, and call it “Number One, 1950”), but it’s subtler than you might imagine: yes, there’s splattered chords, but they’re aligned with a jaunty rhythm that suits the brushstrokes not only on Pollock’s vast abstract canvases but on his earlier symbolist works too.

Only “Chagall” falls short: klezmer rhythms and an accordion are a good starting point, but Nash doesn’t develop the theme. (Then again, a lot of Chagall didn’t develop either, but that’s another story.)

A few weeks ago, at Lincoln Center’s new Atrium, I heard Nash and a quartet play scaled-down versions of some of these pieces. The concert was lively, inventive, even a bit startling.

On Feb. 4-6, he’ll play the whole suite with the full LCJO at Jazz@ Lincoln Center’s acoustically splendid Rose Theater.

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