Exploring the kinship between baroque and jazz

Consortium Carissimisubmitted photo

November 11, 2016

On the surface, early music and jazz don't appear to have so much in common. The former has origins in the urbane chambers of church and court, the latter in more boisterous zones of the street and cabaret. But in fact, the two share a deep kinship — in spirit as well as in practice. Jazz's connection with Renaissance and Baroque music, all propelled by improvisation, is more fundamental than they are with later genres of classical music despite the fact that some of them produced jazz-inspired works.

On Friday, Nov. 11, and on the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 13, there will be performances that consciously explore this kinship through an alternating series of early Baroque madrigals and newly commissioned settings by jazz composer Jeremy Walker. The madrigals and new works share the poetry of the great Italian poet Giovan Battista Marino (1569 – 1625).

Consortium Carissimi, an ensemble founded in Italy and now based in Minnesota, will perform the works with a rhythm section and with Walker at the piano for the jazz settings. "This project was conceived 20 years ago, when I had the chance to discuss the similarities between an early baroque score and a jazz chart with the late Kenny Wheeler," writes Garrick Comeaux, artistic director of Consortium Carissimi. "We agreed that the common thread between these two styles of music was the simple bass line upon which colors of voices and instruments loosely carved out a harmonic structure. We agreed that the texts produced the melodic lines (not the other way around), thereby giving great freedom for improvisation by the musician, whether instrumentalist or singer."

"I think both musics [jazz and early Baroque] are particularly performance-based," Walker says. "Improvisation is at the root of development. Both could be seen as stemming from the bass and an improvised accompaniment … It was really challenging to bridge the timbrel differences and especially the rhythmic differences. Jazz is singular in its approach to the beat. But the through-line for me, and it really runs through all music from all genres, is melody. That was the bridge between centuries, languages and genre."

The program is called Alma Gentil. "When music is gentle and easy to get lost in," Comeaux writes, "it appeals to the listener, becomes meaningful and produces something new out of something old."

Jeremy Walker is also known to some MPR listeners from his work last January with the Radio Choir from American Public Media, which performed his powerful Old Testament settings, Seven Psalms.