Review: Jason Palmer’s “The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella”

Written by on April 20, 2020

Jason Palmer

As infamous as the 1990 heist of 13 priceless works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was, an approach to address the void has not been pursued artistically.

Jazz trumpeter, composer and bandleader Jason Palmer’s release “The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella” (Giant Step Arts, 2020) has taken on the challenge of composing 12 original musical interpretations of these paintings as well as several other fine art objects. Palmer describes his reaction to the vacant frames left on the wall at the Gardner as “empty forms.” With the 30th anniversary of the emboldened theft that left the art world in shock with the loss of masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Degas, among other irreplaceable paintings and objects, 13 in all, Palmer’s compositions are a reminder of what was lost March 18, 1990.

Palmer credits his inspiration from two occurrences in his life. The first, in 1997, came as a student studying jazz trumpet performance at the New England Conservatory in Boston, when he first noticed the empty frames denoting the missing artwork at the Gardner Museum. The second experience came directly from a musician, jazz saxophone prodigy Grace Kelly, who was performing with Palmer early in her career and had recently been commissioned to write a piece of music based on a famous painting from a renowned museum. Palmer’s creative wheels starting turning and as he reflected, in a recent interview for Allaboutjazz, “what would these paintings sound like?”

Having performed on over forty albums as a sideman, and with stellar jazz musicians including Roy Haynes, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Lee Konitz, and Roy Hargrove, Palmer has become one of the most in-demand musicians of his generation. Surrounding himself with a high bar of talent for this release, including saxophonist Mark Turner, vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Edward Perez and Kendrick Scott on drums – Palmer accomplishes a lot in a range of very individually expressed pieces.

Palmer was on an exploration musically, “trying to use the technique of the painting and use it to inform me about the way I compose.” The most literal interpretation was of Rembrandt’s “A Lady and Gentleman in Black,” which is a 1660s portrait of a Dutch husband and wife in formal black dress with a look of refinement and social stature. Seeing an aristocratic couple possibly dressed up for a night on the town, Palmer chose a funky, bluesy upbeat tempo, using just the black keys on the piano to create the melody. With other paintings, Palmer focused on the angle of viewpoint being an element. From a musical standpoint, Palmer expressed his approach compositionally with the music as “corresponding vertically or linearly based on the way the melodies are played on a melodic instrument.”

There is also a tempo and pace that relates to the composition of each piece such as Rembrandts’ emotionally charged “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee”(1633), where Palmer’s trumpet adds bursts to the tempest of rhythm from bass and drums. Vermeer’s “The Concert”(1663) is a study of a Dutch woman at the piano with family in the sitting room, with the artist’s signature style of natural light softly illuminating the scene.  Palmer on trumpet with duet accompaniment by saxophonist Mark Turner recreates the mood of serenity in the soft tones and scales of their horns. 

All of the related paintings and objects put to a musical score by Palmer are found at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website.

Over 2 hours, the concert invokes a unique arrangement, tempo, and musical statement for each of the 12 original compositions. Palmer reminds us with his trumpet and superb ensemble not to forget the memory of these masterpieces.

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