McIntire Department of Music

On Friday, April 18th, in Old Cabell Hall Auditorium, the UVA Jazz Ensemble presents Speaking in Tongues, an evening of big band jazz and poetry. The Jazz Ensemble's spring concert will feature several original works for big band and readers by the group's director, trumpeter/composer John D'earth. D'earth, who has directed the UVA group for many years, has a long-standing relationship with incorporating the spoken word into jazz performances. He has worked on several pieces with UVA poet Gregory Orr, and is the music director for the jazz/poetry project, which plays for poetry readings. “It interests me,” D'earth says, “that in earlier jazz the lyrics of songs told very specific stories. They delivered specific images, and the musicians played off of that imagery. I love poetry. It has always seemed natural to put poetry and music together as in our earliest epics. But it doesn't always work. It's a voyage of discovery, to find a place where the poetry and the music fit, and both can be understood.”

For this concert, D'earth is revisiting a collaboration from several years ago, with the poet Margo Figgins, a professor in UVA's Curry School of Education and founder of the renowned Young Writer's Workshop. Road to Another Life is a kind of operetta for big band and reader. It describes a harrowing, Dantesque journey from Buenos Aires, up the Pan American Highway to Laredo, Texas undertaken by the poet and her two-year-old son to escape an Argentinian coup and to separate from her former life. The poem's politically charged observations of places and events emerge from stark, telegraphic images of stops along a way that is full of danger and potential evil. “Margo's language is so clear,” says D'earth, “that it gives the improvisers in the band a deeper level of association to draw upon when they play. Jazz is all about emotion, “telling your story,” as the old-timers would put it. Here's a story that makes you feel something, and it connects out to events in the world at large, our world of today's headlines. It makes the music stand for something, maybe count for more.”

D'earth says he has two goals for this concert: that the poems be intelligible and clear, and that the presence of poetry will bring out the individual voices of all the members of the band. “Even though I'm writing a lot of this music, this will be the players' concert; I'll be writing it that way,” he insists. “We've always encouraged creativity in this band. Everyone's invited to write and everyone who is willing to solo, will solo. We love the tradition, but we know how to move away from it, too. This is jazz; do anything, everything! We have so many wonderful players that I can't wait for people to hear. And they will be featured throughout the concert in counterpoint and musical conversation with the poems being read.”

The tongues that will be speaking the poems for Speaking in Tongues belong to Margo Figgins, who will read her own Road to Another Life; former UVA music student, percussionist and poet Matt Wyatt; and D'earth, himself. D'earth will perform the role of reader in Ephemera, a setting for three sonnets written by his brother, the formalist poet, Paul Smyth, who passed away in December of 2006 and whose last collection of verse, A Plausible Light, was recently published by El Leon Literary Arts. The piece will feature fourth year trumpeter Dean de la Pena, a Jefferson Scholar who has long been a featured soloist with the Jazz Ensemble and an ad hoc assistant director for the band.

“I've tried for years to think of ways to work musically with my brother's highly formalistic poetry, because I love it and believe it can be done, even with jazz, or, especially with jazz.” says D'earth, “And I think I've figured something out: that the poem has to be notated as an integral part of the groove and of the piece, as specific as a melody, and as loose; either written out, or read, improvisationally, in a very specific rhythm and placement. Then the challenge is to elide the words, when reading, so it doesn't sound like chanting. It turns into “speaking the groove”…so to speak. I've been having some success with this and I want to try it more, so I'll be the one to read these. It's an experiment. It'll be fun to see it succeed and/or fail. The band and I are developing all of this music together over the last few, and the next few, weeks. What we come up with will be very much a group effort and a one-time-only musical experience.”

The UVA Jazz Ensemble is expecting a few surprise guests for the concert, especially of the percussive persuasion, since Matt Wyatt's three poems deal almost exclusively with drums, drummers and drumming. First year drummer Jack Kirby will be driving the band along with young percussionist, Andrew Kirk, who plays with D'earth, professionally, and has been helping with rehearsals. Recently the Jazz Ensemble hosted a residency and concert with world-renowned saxophonist David Liebman, who inspired a surge in creativity for the whole band. “We're reaping the benefits of that, now, in this concert, says D'earth. “It should be a memorable night.”

  • $10 General
  • $5 students
  • 5 ARTS$ UVa students
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Maintained By McIntire Department of Music
Last Modified: Monday, 28-Jul-2008 23:28:33 EDT
112 Old Cabell Hall, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903
Departmental Information: (434) 924-3052
Cabell Hall Box Office: (434) 924-3984