Some months ago I wrote about the connection between jazz and painting. Jazz has connections with other art forms as well and one that surfaces from time to time is between jazz and theatre. Not enough, because too many productions used canned music or no music at all. The pit orchestra, a fixture of the Broadway stage, has largely disappeared.
But a most dramatic example of the use of jazz just finished a long run at the National Arts Centre Theatre. The play is Needles and Opium by Robert Lepage and I wish I’d seen it earlier in its run so that I could have sent out a heads-up.
There are three main characters in the play. One is a jazz-loving Québécois actor in 1989. One is the French movie director Jean Cocteau. The third is Miles Davis.
Davis is in Paris in 1949, his first visit, where he meets and falls in love with the singer and actress Juliette Greco. It would not be useful to discuss the plot, since it is complicated and involves much back-and-forth in time and place among the three characters.
Visually it is a tour de force, a kind of jazz sensibility informing Lepage’s use of his imaginative set, lighting and projected imagery. Musically, it is imaginative as well, using, among other things, actual Miles solos, including some beautiful bluesy solos from his score of the 1958 film Elevator to the Gallows. More than in most theatrical productions, music — jazz in this case — is essential to the creation of a dramatic mood.
In addition to snippets of jazz from the period, you also hear looped muted trumpet sounds that form part of the dark soundscape that underlies the dialogue. If you read the program carefully you would have noticed a credit:
Trumpet: Craig L. Pedersen
That’s the same Craig Pedersen who is well known in Ottawa as prominent trumpet player, avant-gardist, teacher and occasional participant in JazzWorks jam sessions. He recently moved to Montreal but still appears here frequently.
In addition to contributing to the sound design of Needles and Opium, Craig also plays one haunting solo on My Funny Valentine. It is evocative of Miles, as the actor playing him, Wellesley Robertson III, mimes it on stage, but still Craig’s own.
(Oddly, a Miles version was available, recorded for Prestige in 1956, but it was not used, perhaps because the action takes place in 1949 or perhaps due to one of those complicated copyright considerations. Whatever the reason, Craig’s version fit perfectly.)
I was curious about what it was like for Craig to participate in the show. In an email, he told me that he recorded samples of his trumpet sound for the audio engineer/composer to use to create soundscapes and he also recorded, at his home, several versions of My Funny Valentine, responding to notes on the mood the producers wanted.
The results were impressive and important for the success of the show. Too bad Craig wasn’t in town to take a bow.
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About this blog
Tune Up won't be a calendar of events — Ottawa Jazz Happenings takes care of that. But it will discuss events and issues of interest to the JazzWorks community. Journalist, author, trumpet player and a jazz camper since 1999, Charley Gordon is a former vice-president of JazzWorks.