Fusing Spellman’s words with a musical collaboration between Imani Winds, Harlem Quartet and additional jazz musicians, this seven-movement work draws on classical and jazz influences alike – particularly Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” It explores the influence of spirituality on both composers while asking, “What if Bach and Coltrane were to meet?” During a recent performance at DePauw University, 21CM director Mark Rabideau caught up with A.B. Spellman, Jeff Scott and Harlem Quartet violinist Melissa White to discuss the influences behind the piece and what it’s been like to bring such a project to life.
Jeff, you’re the instigator here, bringing together two powerful chamber ensembles. But you’ve said that it was A.B. Spellman’s work that inspired this entire project. Can you talk about that?
JEFF SCOTT: It was really A.B. Spellman [who] was the instigator. He gave [everyone in Imani Winds] a copy of his poetry. I have to admit, it sat on my shelf for a couple of years before I opened it up. I needed some inspiration. “Let me read some poetry,” I thought. “Let me open this book that this man gave me.” And then, boom. Mind blown. The music is in the poetry. You hear the rhythm, you hear the pulse, you hear the history. The music flowed after that. It wasn’t even an issue of writing the music, it was just how much of it I was going to get away with putting together. I ended up with about an hour and a half that I had to actually trim, but I could have written an opera out of what A.B. gave us.
Melissa, Harlem Quartet is the group that’s coming into the mix. How did you start thinking about how you’d like to be a part of this project?
MELISSA WHITE: You know, when Jeff called to talk about it, I had the “mind blown” moment. I thought, “Wow, it’s the worlds that my quartet merges.” We do classical and jazz. Our mission is to diversify classical music, so we work to expand the listening of our audiences. To think this project was going to do [that for the] entire night, and finally our groups were going to be on stage together working with a jazz combo. And then when I met Mr. A.B., I didn’t even know what I was in for. I knew he was going to be brilliant, but hearing [him] in rehearsal – that’s my favorite part. … It’s been a lot of fun, it’s been a great journey, it’s been a stretch for us as players. And I’m hoping we get to do it a lot more.
Why Bach and Coltrane? How are these voices in conversation with one another?
A.B. SPELLMAN: If I have to talk about people who have moved me most – I mean, really broken me down and rinsed my soul out – these are two musicians who have probably done that most in my life. There’s a particular poem [in “Passion”] based on an experience that I had sitting in a hotel room in Boston. I turn on the radio and I hear the Bach Keyboard Concerto [No. 5] in F minor which has this incredible largo, which I swear is … up in the area of the sublime. Later the same evening, I turn on a different station and I hear John Coltrane playing “Trane’s Slo Blues.” And I’m similarly moved. And so, in a hotel room with nothing else to do, the poem came – at least the first draft.
There’s a theme of religion, or at least spirituality, that exists throughout this piece. So this is another profound intersection.
JEFF SCOTT: Yeah. There’s one movement in the piece called “Out of Nazareth.” I was trying to find a commonality between [Bach and Coltrane], and spirituality was a huge thing in both of their lives. For Bach, always, but for Coltrane, later in his life – he was on a search that never really ended for something more profound. I found that [spirituality was] really the glue of this project.
Thank you all for being in the studio. It’s been great to have you.
The above interview has been edited for clarity and length.