The Story of Jazz

Program notes

The Story of Jazz is a somewhat surreal reimagining of the history of jazz. I tried for the most part to avoid direct quotations or straightforward imitation of specific jazz styles, aspiring instead to capture (what I took to be) the inner significance of various moments in jazz history. If, as a result, the connection to jazz seems somewhat opaque, then so be it—the idea was to use jazz as an inspiration, rather than to produce a faithful documentary.

The first two movements are a single unit. Technicolor introduction is an appetizer, an over-the-top curtain-raising spectacular of the sort that might accompany the credits of a big-budget 1950s adventure movie. Prehistory is, as it says in the score, lurching and retarded, a primitive coming-together of rudimentary musical materials: an off-kilter oom-pah bass and a simple pentatonic melody that happens to be in the wrong key. It is the sort of music that might be made by immigrants from very different cultures, unable to speak a common language, musical or otherwise.

Learning to Walk imagines a more sophisticated confrontation between the two central poles of contemporary jazz syntax: 19th-century Romantic harmony and syncopated African rhythm. The movement moves back and forth between these in an increasingly hectic fashion, building to a climax in which the retarded theme of Prehistory is recalled against a wailing upper-register ostinato. The piece is based on a sequence of chords that is very interesting theoretically, but almost unknown in Western music—a kind of unexploited possibility latent in the musical language. I dedicated it to Richard Cohn, after two of us realized we were both thinking about this forgotten chord progression.

Our Story So Far is a palate-cleansing slow movement. It sets the lurching theme of Prehistory in a new harmonic context, elaborating on previously-heard material. Finally, And now, bebop is an energetic, toccata-style conclusion, in the standard tune-solo-tune format. The jazz influences are most obvious here. My recommendation is that pianists should refuse to reveal how much of this movement is improvised, much as magicians refuse to reveal their tricks.

Instrumentation: Piano

Performer: Molly Morkoski