Tom Lawton’s ‘Man Ray Jazz Suite’

Where the ear meets the eye

Venturing from the dark caves of the nightclubs to the cavernous space of the Great Stair Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, revered jazz pianist Tom Lawton came together with five masterful cohorts to perform Lawton’s new composition, the Man Ray Jazz Suite, a work in progress with considerable room for improvisation. The suite is a Philadelphia Jazz Project commission in which Lawton studied Man Ray’s life and work, including, of course, that in the museum’s collection.

Motifs that war with each other: “Le Beau Temps” by Man Ray. 1939, oil on canvas. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Sidney and Caroline Kimmel, 2014.

Using what he experienced in a freeform way that reflects his identification with the artist, Lawton constructed a series of movements, each with a feeling inspired by Man Ray works. The result was a stunning musical evening that combined the intimate, spontaneous experience of a jazz club with the seriousness of a classical concert, with music borrowing liberally from both genres. By viewing the slides projected above the stage and strolling through the museum’s collections, listeners could form their own comparisons between the art and the music.

Jazz modernism

Jazz and modern art, which emerged simultaneously in the tumultuous 20th century, mirrored cultural influences and historical circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic. In his excellent book Jazz Modernism (Knopf, 2002), scholar and critic Alfred Appel Jr. documented and illustrated connections between them. For example, Matisse constructed a series of paintings entitled Jazz, with rhythmic patterns and African influences often appearing in his work, and Alexander Calder and Constantin Brâncusi were both avid jazz fans. Miles Davis and John Coltrane were interested in the visual arts, and Davis himself is still highly regarded as a painter. Appel shows that the connections run deeper than mutual interest, with the forms, structures, and subject matter of the artists and musicians often overlapping.

A rich source

For Lawton, the art of Man Ray conjured up numerous ideas for musical motifs, styles, and forms which he gave to his ensemble for further elaboration and improvisation. In this work, the first movement is based on Man Ray’s own enjoyment of what we now know as vintage jazz. It’s a Sidney Bechet-like 1920s blues vamp, where solos by saxophonist Ben Schachter, violinist Diane Monroe, Lawton himself (with a subtle stride emphasis), and valve trombonist John Swana all adhere to the historical idiom while incorporating later, more complex, harmonic structures.

Next comes “Le Tournant,” based on Man Ray’s drawing by that name, which shows a road curving around a precipice with a surrealist hand grasping the mountainside, perhaps reflecting the artist’s anxiety over the looming conflicts in Europe and his ambivalent decision to round the curve and return to the United States. Lawton begins with an impressionistic art deco flavor, leading up to a passionate violin solo by Monroe and a frenzied conclusion with all the musicians improvising at once. The parallels with the drawing could be heard in the forward movement, ambiguity, increase of tension, and Sturm und Drang climax.              

Man Ray, “Endgame,” 1946. Oil on canvas. (Copyright Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris)
Man Ray, “Endgame,” 1946. Oil on canvas. (Copyright Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris)

 “Endgame” is a busy, crazed painting showing two figures in combat surrounded by assorted objects with sharp contours and dark shadows, suggesting life and death tensions in diverse situations. Lawton, in his commentary, said his association was to American football, and that he was moved to create a “really wild neo-abstract bebop” movement. It features the unique combination of Monroe’s violin calisthenics and Swanas’s use of the EVI (electronic valve instrument) to create eerie, sustained, high-pitched sounds suggesting the wailing of some primeval being. On another level, the piece bears a striking resemblance to the “Sharks and Jets” theme from West Side Story. Schachter’s tenor saxophone solo reflects the post-Coltrane influence, and Dan Monaghan’s drum solo concludes the movement with a martial pulse.

A monstrous use of musical idioms

The two-hour performance proceeded with a round of free improvisation, and, after the intermission, “Kitchen Sink,” Lawton’s own title for Man Ray’s use of “assisted ready-mades” (objects of daily life put together in creative juxtaposition). Lawton stated that he used “the ready-made 12-bar blues, but I assisted it by writing my own introduction.” Lawton’s own piano work was at times stupendous, monstrous in its use of every idiom of the jazz and classical repertoire.

Man Ray described “Le Beau Temps” as the pinnacle of his career, and this large-scale richly colored and personally engaged painting occupies a central place in the Museum’s collection. In an interview I did with him, Lawton described his use of the painting: “This is a big movement which involves a lot of freely improvised playing. . . .Man Ray did that painting around the time he was getting ready to leave Europe because the forces leading up to World War II were becoming more oppressive there. There are hints of that in the painting, so in my music, each instrument has a couple of motifs that they play off against each other, and ‘war’ with each other. Then it breaks into a groove towards the end, to celebrate his triumphs over his own conflicts.”

Throughout, the musicians improvised with great flair, inventiveness, and virtuosity. Special praise should be given to bassist Lee Smith, father of another great bass player, Christian McBride. All the musicians in this ensemble are the finest Philadelphia has to offer and adept at doing whatever the situation calls for, in this case requiring rigorous craftsmanship, conformity to the composer’s intentions, and the brilliant use of imagination and ideas to create from the spontaneity and aliveness of the jazz idiom a carefully structured, meaningful work.

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