Monday, May 09, 2005

Jazz Quixote, 2

[cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

Ron Westray’s Chivalrous Misdemeanors consists of twenty-three short pieces inspired by Cervantes’ novel played in two long sets of about an hour each. While the first set is a little too picaresque, the second soars. This was the premier of the first extended jazz homage to Cervantes and there is a lot to celebrate. You can read more about Westray and the genesis of his piece at Jazz Times and All About Jazz.

I had anticipated, just from trying to imagine how I would face the challenge, an evening more indebted to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain than to Cervantes and I was delighted to be surprised. Instead, Westray has written a lovely, romantic suite, less about existential alienation and lonely questing than about the courage to dream. The music is beautiful and also diverse; for me, the vocals were the consistent stars. Dulcinea, sung by Jennifer Sanon, has a lovely song, “Never Knew,” that deserves to become a standard: it is a love song about just Dulcinea’s situation, the odd feeling of not knowing how much emotion she has inspired. It does not turn into love or resentment; the song just stays in this state of dreamy, puzzled wonderment: a great addition to the catalog of love.

The actor Patrick Tull read the narration and he brought humor and gravitas to the proceedings. Amazing as it is that Westray has boiled Don Quixote down to seven pages, there is still too much text. It is hard to switch from listening to a story (and sometimes reading along) to listening to music—partly because I, at least, found myself trying to figure out how the music represented the episode. At the opening of the second set, for example, we hear the story of the incredible loyalty of Anselmo and Lothario, which blends into a lyrical piece, one of the evening’s most melodic. Suddenly, I was scolding myself for having drifted along the melody, where were we? What was the Cervantes link? But then I saw that this was about harmony. Congratulating myself on my perspicacity, I missed a bit of music.

We were seated in a second tier box. Boxes at the glorious Rose Hall (as stunning as advertised) extend all the way around the stage of and we had the unusual (to me) perspective of being in the first box over the stage, almost directly above the narrator and composer’s heads. Because of this perspective, there were one or two moments on Saturday when I could see Westray’s delight in Cervantes’ humor which had gone by too fast for me to catch. That was a little frustrating but no more frustrating than going to opera without reading the synopsis. Some great works of art have a higher entry point than others and I think I will come to like Chivalrous Misdemeanors more as I learn to know it (and Cervantes) better.

Even on first listen, there are some things that are utterly gorgeous. Sachal Vasandani, who sang the part of Don Quixote, was terrific. He sang the role like Dean Martin at his best, like a slightly dissolute but young Sinatra—a beautiful but slightly boozy voice, a winning, sexy combination of confidence and willful persistence in illusion. All of his songs were show-stopping: his duet with Dulcinea shines but I particularly loved the plaintive ballad to Sancho Panza. He sings “life’s an adventure,” an assertion full of longing for it to be so.

The non-vocal music was no less beautiful but harder for me to write about, amateur listener that I am. I can say that there’s an exciting, funny, tough drum solo, full of cymbals, for the helmet of Mambrino episode; that the encounter with the Knight of the White Moon is violent, loud, and rousing; that Wynton Marsalis had an amazing solo using a mute that looked to me like a derby hat (I don’t know what it’s called), bending the sound around the room; that Camilla’s surrender is sexy and funny, and that the end is very moving deep, rich music and a beautiful envoi from Don Quixote sung in a richer, darker, less pretty style.

There is something really great about this piece. I want to hear it again and I’m sorry that the house wasn’t full on Saturday. Still, I felt like, especially in the first set, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra was a little reined in, like things didn’t develop. When Westray loosened the reins, giving himself (he is a trombonist), Marsalis, and others more room to play in the second set, we had all the greatness of Cervantes translated into jazz: digressions, interruptions, gorgeous lyricism, irony, words and music, harmony and chaos, tight composition and imaginative flights. That is an achievement worthy of greater praise than I can bestow, but this little blog entry is a start. Bravo, author!

1 comment:

ron westray said...

hey anne,
thanks so much.
let's do it all again.

rkw