Concert Preview: Scrape with Jay Clayton

Originally published in Earshot Jazz October 2011

Scrape together eight violins, three violas, three cellos, one bass, one harp, and one guitar, feature a violin soloist with equal parts jazz, punk, ambient, and classical influences, add one mercurial vocalist, sprinkle with lyrics from jazz standards and poetry,  stir gently over original compositions and arrangements, then pour into an intimate resonant venue. What do you get? Two sets of transcendent music.

Branching from jazz improvisation and instrumentation, swing and blues are replaced with lushness and subtlety. Imagine composer Gil Evans deep in the Hoh Rainforest, entranced by Snoqualmie Falls, or following a sunset behind snow capped Olympic Mountains.

When Seattle sampled the new sonic cocktail served up a year ago by composer Jim Knapp and his former student, violinist Eyvind Kang, heads turned, palettes whetted, and ears tickled. This performance of the novel acoustic chamber ensemble will add singer Jay Clayton, celebrating her seventieth birthday. Jay lives in New York but was on the Cornish faculty with Knapp for twenty years.

The repertoire will emerge from the growing book of music penned by Knapp and Kang. Planned features include Clayton exploring the wide open spaces of “Wild West,” getting up close and personal with “The Nearness of You,” and quoting from T. S. Elliot during “From Burnt Norton.” Elliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” asks the question, “Can words or music reach the stillness of a Chinese jar?” and contemplates “the stillness of the violin, while a note lasts.” Knapp’s string setting of the poem for Clayton previously premiered in Zurich.

For fans of Knapp’s big band music, Scrape’s harmonic vocabulary will sound familiar. Curious students can learn Knapp’s approach through his book Jazz Harmony, available through the Cornish Music Department office. The twenty five chapter guide compiles concise lessons from Knapp’s long career as composer, improviser, and teacher. The powerful tools for arranging music are a must have for every composer.

So far, Scrape records its live performances just for documentation, but that may change. Knapp recorded First Avenue with saxophonist Denney Goodhew and cellist Eric Jensen on the ECM Records in 1980.  Knapp mentored ECM’s producer Manfred Eicher early in Eicher’s career and thinks Scrape would fit into the label’s catalog. Plans are also afoot for a spring concert with guitarist Bill Frisell.

The ensemble runs as a cooperative. The music is conceived and written by Knapp and Kang. Behind the scenes, violist Brianna Atwell herds the musicians into place. Concertmaster Heather Bentley tunes and tweaks technique. Bassist Jon Hamar anchors harmony and grooves. Several musicians contribute solos.

Hopefully, Knapp will be present for the concert to share his dry humor and efficient musical direction. He lost his right foot to diabetes on September 16 this year and will be working through rehabilitation and recovery. All that time in bed gives him space to listen, think, and compose.
We can be sure that Knapp will be mixing up new musical concoctions to serve us. He's a long way from Last Call. It's still Happy Hour.

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