Trumpeter Jason Palmer is quite comfortable wearing many different hats. As a leader, he has recorded albums of his original music and reimaginings of songs associated with soul singer Minnie Riperton. As a sideman, he has played with a huge range of artists, from Greg Osby to Grace Kelly to Matana Roberts. He’s taught at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, as well as The New School in New York. And he’s even comfortable sublimating himself into a character, whether playing the iconic music of Miles Davis in the multimedia Miles Davis Experience 1949-1959 project, or the lead character in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, an award-winning 2009 indie film by the up-and-coming writer/director Damien Chazelle.
For his next appearance at The Jazz Gallery, Palmer will wear a completely new hat—that of the science fiction storyteller. In a new project entitled City of Poets, Palmer and pianist Cedric Hanriot have reimagined author Dan Simmons’s Hugo Award-winning novel Hyperion as a work for jazz quintet. We caught up with Jason by phone to talk about his compositional process and the challenges of translating a semantic work into abstract music.
The Jazz Gallery: What are the origins of your “City of Poets” project? How did you get the idea?
Jason Palmer: It came about from speaking with Cedric Hanriot and Michael Janisch. We had gotten together to talk about collaborating on a project and applying for this grant from the French-American Cultural Exchange a couple of years ago. Fortunately, we were awarded the grant, and so we started thinking about what kind of music we wanted to present. Cedric thought it would be a cool idea to put together a project that would weave in the science fiction of this Dan Simmons novel called Hyperion. It’s a futuristic book with these seven characters traveling through the universe trying to find this one planet filled with these dementor-type people. It’s a really dense novel.
We used the seven modes of limited transposition—non-transposable scales used frequently by Olivier Messiaen—to write a suite of music about these seven characters. I wrote 5 songs based on 5 of those modes, and Cedric wrote 3, so one mode gets used twice. Working with these modes is like looking into a fridge and seeing what you have to cook with and not having what you really want, but making due with what’s there.
TJG: Did you find that using these scales was limiting creatively, or did having those boundaries help you come up with new material you wouldn’t have created otherwise?
JP: It was pretty liberating. I’m really a serial composer: I’ve written a lot of music based on numbers, Sudoku games, Social Security numbers. Just to have those new sets of colors available to me kind of helped me sit down and figure out new ways of working with material. It allowed me to be more structured, and that was something I really needed. I have a child now, so time is really valuable!
TJG: Continuing on, did you still use a lot of these numerical processes to come up with thematic material?
JP: I did it sometimes, but I tried not to do it in all of the compositions. It’s just a tool, and I’ll use it every so often, but not all the time. Instead, I really tried to make these melodies feel lyrical and hummable. I didn’t want it to sound too mathematical. Even when there are numeric processes at work, I want the listener to be able to engage with it in a more visceral way. Balancing the tuneful and the structural was an interesting challenge.
TJG: You’re translating this semantic thing—a novel—into something abstract like music. How did you try to translate the work emotionally in addition to how you’re doing it technically with these modes of limited transposition?
JP: I spent a lot of time listening to the audiobook. When I was doing that, I would sit and hum out melodies. A lot of the pieces began with just these little threads. I would then write the melody out and harmonize the melody using notes from the particular scale I had picked out. There would be a few times I would sit down and listen to a chapter, and I would have a set of chord changes come out. I think the vibe that the characters brought in each chapter helped me come up with the musical ideas.
TJG: I think a lot of people have very strong associations between certain musical gestures and science fiction—like creepy synth pads and theremin melodies and whatnot. Did you consciously try to use these kinds of gestures, or did you try to stay away from them?
JP: Initially, we were thinking of having an electronic sound world. Cedric likes to use different kinds of electronic effects and keyboards, and I was going to play with some effects pedals. But we’re not set on that, and when we do a live recording later on our tour, something different might come out than what we first intended.
The project is less about creating a background for the action of the book and more about reimagining the characters in musical form. I would respond melodically to something a character did in a particular chapter rather than texturally.
TJG: Pianist Cedric Hanriot is someone who hasn’t played in New York a lot and so isn’t as well known on the scene. Can you introduce us to him? How did you two meet?
JP: Cedric went to Berklee when I was at NEC about ten years ago, and so we would play a lot in Boston. And then there were a few instances where I went to Paris—where he lives—and I would play some sessions with him. We had always talked about collaborating on a project and applying for this particular grant.
TJG: What drew you to his playing and why were you drawn to each other as collaborators?
JP: Cedric has an eccentric way of improvising. It’s really refreshing. In the sessions we’ve played together, I’ve been really inspired to get deeper into what he’s doing. He gets me to play in a way that I probably wouldn’t come to on my own. I always try to surround myself with those kinds of players.
TJG: You’re also working with a couple of the most established players on the New York scene: saxophonist Donny McCaslin and drummer Clarence Penn. Did their personalities color the way you crafted and arranged the material?
JP: On a lot of the songs I wrote, I could really hear Clarence playing over them. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Donny’s work. He’s really versatile, but I also heard him playing particularly in certain keys, and so I wrote things with particular sections in these keys to hear the resonance of his style over the progression. The project is designed to really showcase what they can do.
TJG: One thing that a jazz composer always has to balance is the idea of specificity—having the players play what you want to hear—and openness—letting the players’ personalities shine through. Did you feel like you were leaning in a particular direction on this project?
JP: I definitely had to take a step back as a composer in terms of detail because as a group, we aren’t going to have that much time to rehearse. Cedric is coming in from France and Michael Janisch lives in London, and Clarence and Donny are really busy in New York. Knowing that, I simplified some parts of some of the songs, making sure that these weren’t parts that everyone had to sit down with and struggle through, but just difficult enough that they had to think through what they were doing.
Trumpeter Jason Palmer presents the project “City of Poets” at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, September 18th, 2014. The group features Cedric Hanriot on piano & keyboards, Michael Janisch on bass, Donny McCaslin on tenor saxophone, and Clarence Penn on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission for the second set. “City of Poets” is funded in part by a grant from the French-American Cultural Exchange and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. Purchase tickets here.
Please note that sets are at 8 and 10 pm., our new set times starting in September.