Jazz night at the opera (and other liberating acts of 2021): NPR
Ken Howard / Met Opera
In 2021, Terence Blanchard and Wayne Shorter made long-held dreams come true: the famous musicians both created operas. These are beautiful stories that represent an expected opportunity and a new aesthetic context for black composers steeped in and known for jazz, whose work mixes composition and improvisation. But more than that, these projects have further collapsed the walls that have long separated musical genres and communities.
Blanchard’s opera, Fire shut up in my bones, which opened the Met Opera season on September 27, was historic in its placement – the first presentation of a work by a black composer in the institution’s 138-year history. In telling this story – of trauma, acceptance and resilience, about a black man coming of age in rural Louisiana – Blanchard brought together the same compassion and sense of social purpose that has run through his award-winning work. at the Grammy as a jazz trumpeter and conductor. He incorporated a jazz ensemble rhythm section into the Met Orchestra and encouraged singers to honor the inflections of church music and R&B with which they grew up. Act III opened with a routine of brotherhood steps, a daring display of black unity, joy, and excellence that both rocked the house and claimed the space on its own terms.
Jeff Tang / Courtesy of Real Magic
With … (Iphigenia), Shorter, widely regarded as jazz’s greatest living composer and among its leading saxophonists and conductors, achieved an ambition he had had since his music student days: to compose an opera. Shorter, now 88, based his new work on Iphigenia to Aulis, the last thing the Greek playwright Euripides wrote before his death. The opera is meant to be disruptive: its libretto, by esperanza spalding, questions the cycles of unnecessary violence and the place of women as passive victims, in myth and in opera. Musically, Shorter continues an arc of his work that has become increasingly bold and abstract over the past 20 years, frequently involving chamber orchestras. This new piece also disrupts ideas on lyrical form; Through Act III, members of Shorter’s longtime quartet invite the orchestra and singers into a wonderfully free musical space. Shorter once said to me, “There is no beginning and no end.” He thinks so. His opera is wonderfully mutable. After a premiere in November in Boston, a Kennedy Center premiere in December included an all-new musical coda, the result of 21 pages of material Shorter had just sent.
This year has been peppered with music by black composers who demolished the walls. Autoschediasms, created and conducted by Tyshawn Sorey, was a real-time collaborative masterclass with a new music ensemble, first arriving in 2020 via Alarm Will Sound’s “Video chat variations“; it also fits well on the Double album released in August. Courtney bryan Requiem, composed ahead of the pandemic for vocal quartet Quince Ensemble and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and scheduled for 2020, premiered via streaming instead in June. The play draws inspiration from many death rituals, including the jazz funeral of his hometown of New Orleans, and “has proven to be a response to our times,” Bryan said.
We need this music. Have we ever needed these walls?