D’earth, Free Bridge Quintet jazz up orchestra
Photo by John Mason
|Jazz trumpeter and composer John D’Earth
Symphony musicians performing jazz. The thought may seem a bit off-key. But it’s an idea whose time has come, says composer and jazz artist John D’earth.
“Jazz is a revelatory art form waiting to be performed by symphony orchestras,” D’earth said after a recent performance. “It’s based on African and European roots. Hindemith and Stravinsky loved it. So far, symphony musicians have been left out of the ‘African party’ of the 20th century that has informed jazz, rock, Latin and pop music worldwide. That needs to change.”
D’earth, who came to Charlottesville in 1981, is a member of U.Va.’s music department faculty. He directs its jazz performance program and teaches improvisation and jazz trumpet. With colleague Peter Spaar, he founded the Free Bridge Quintet, U.Va.’s faculty jazz quintet, in 1997.
Recently, the quintet has gotten down to work on a new assignment: D’earth’s “Concerto for Quintet and Orchestra,” which will be premiered by the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra in concerts on March 18 and 19 in Old Cabell Hall.
In the concerto, D’earth will have some of the symphony’s principal players “shadow” members of the quintet. “I’ll be shadowing with Paul Neebe, one of the best trumpeters I have ever met.” The saxophone will be shadowed by the oboe, the bass with the bassoon, the piano with the harp and the drums with the marimba.
The first movement, titled “Heads,” will utilize tunes in the manner of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. The second movement will showcase shadowing, and the third will be a rhythmic dance movement. “I want it to run the gamut from tuneful to challenging rhythms. I’m hoping to help the orchestra swing,” D’earth said.
Also in the concert line-up is D’earth’s “Blues for Orchestra,” which he originally wrote for the Youth Orchestra of Charlottesville Albemarle. “That’s not an easy piece. I’m beefing it up a bit and offering opportunities for the symphony’s principal players to improvise,” he said.
Composing original works for symphony orchestra represents a new turn for D’earth, although he’s arranged music for the likes of Bruce Hornsby, the Kronos Quartet and the Dave Matthews Band with orchestra. Most of his original output so far has been for chamber ensembles and for large and small jazz ensembles. “I’m largely a self-taught composer,” said D’earth, who has learned by listening and studying scores. “I write what I want to hear.”
D’EARTH’S MUSICAL ROOTS
D’earth’s contact with jazz and symphony greats started at age 14 in Milford, Mass., when he began studying with alto saxophonist Boots Mussulli and trumpeter and arranger Thad Jones. “They changed my life,” D’earth said. At the same time, he enjoyed classical music, and studied trumpet with John Coffey, principal trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
After two-and-a-half years as a student at Harvard University — “I’m pretty sure I’m still on a leave-of-absence from there,” D’earth said — he was drawn to New York City. For 12 years he soaked up the Manhattan jazz scene and participated in it fully.
D’earth has recorded more than 50 CDs. His colleagues in performing and recording have included Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis/Quincy Jones, Tito Puente (he’s especially drawn to Puente’s Latin rhythms), Pat Metheny, Clark Terry and John Abercrombie.
D’earth polished his trumpet playing with, among others, Vince Penzarella, who played second trumpet in the New York Philharmonic and lead trumpet in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. “He used to tell me: ‘Never listen to what comes out of your instrument. It’s too late to do anything about it. Listen to your inner voice before you sound a note.’ … I’m crazy about music. I’m still going on what I learned from Boots Mussulli as a kid: if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. One must keep listening and growing. I tell my students … they must acknowledge their potential and grow on that.”