in 1594, three weeks before his death, Lasso's last work consists of 20
spiritual madrigals in Italian and a Latin motet, sung a cappella. As
the former Dean of Concordia's Faculty of Fine Arts explains, recording
the complicated work represented quite a challenge for his SMAM group.
"I put it on the shelf about 15 years ago, saying when I had the right group to perform it with, I would do it," Jackson recalls. "It's very strict a cappella music, very austere, and extremely confined in its expressive possibilities. But it's very beautifully put together."
Over the years, the SMAM group of singers evolved to the point where Jackson realized it was time to revisit Lasso's compositions. After the group performed the Lagrime di San Pietro at the Lanaudière festival, Alex Benjamin, the festival's artistic director, encouraged them to make a recording.
The resulting album received rave reviews in the press. "The Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal, led by veteran period-music leader Christopher Jackson, brings this music to vibrant life," wrote John Terauds in the Toronto Star. "Jackson's singers keep the music moving, whilst remaining attentive to the significance of the merest details," wrote Fabrice Fitch in London-based magazine Gramophone.
Before taking on the music, Jackson realized it was important to understand the psychology behind the 20 poems by Tansillo, a 16th-century poet, for whom the music was composed.
In his verses, Tansillo describes the different states of Peter's mind after he denies Christ. "He compares them to the betrayal of a lover," Jackson says. "Then he describes [...] how Christ looks at Peter, and how that look could be compared to a look of betrayed love."
As Jackson explains, the music is surprisingly restrained, considering the dramatic possibilities of the story. "Very subtle things occur which are not evident when you first look at it," Jackson says. It takes a lot of digging to see what he's doing under the surface."
Jackson says he was surprised to receive the Opus Prize for the recording, considering the SMAM group was up against some pretty stiff competition. "This time, we were up against the Montreal Symphony and I never thought we'd win," he says.
Since releasing the album, Jackson and his group have performed further works by Lasso; laying the groundwork for another recording.
American jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman was one of the major driving forces behind the free jazz movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Coleman won the coveted Miles Davis Award at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2009.
Shortly afterward, local musician Gary Schwartz, a part-time music instructor at Concordia, put together an 11-member group to perform a tribute performance of Coleman's original songs, and music inspired by him. The performance, entitled LETTINGO: The Music and Influence of Ornette Coleman, played two sold-out nights at Théâtre la Chapelle in January 2010.
A year later, Schwartz brought LETTINGO
to Sala Rossa, and the reviews of the performance were resoundingly
positive. "It was a dedicated performance by dedicated players who
invited us into a gallery of intricate, moving musical artworks," wrote
Ananda X. Suddath on local jazz site pork pie jazz.
At this year's Prix Opus gala, the performance earned the top prize in the Concert of the Year - Jazz, World Music category. It was also nominated in the overall Concert of the Year category.
Attending the high-profile awards ceremony was a unique experience for the unassuming music instructor. "It was kind of like watching the Oscars or the Emmys except I'm in the audience," he says. "They mentioned who was in the category, and then when they handed over the envelope my heart started to beat kind of fast. And then they called my name! It was really something."
Schwartz also said he was very surprised to be nominated in the Concert of the Year category. "I felt like the bad boy on the block," he says. "It was four classical concerts and the jazz guy."
A longtime fan of Coleman, Schwartz says the American jazz master's music represents the freedom to express one's individuality as a musician, while at the same time working together in symbiosis with a group of musicians.
"If letting go is not what Ornette does, then I don't know what it is that he does," he says, referring to the name he selected for his group. "I think [Ornette's approach] has a lot more to do with respect and democracy than anything else [...] As soon as you start to play with other people, there's no way that you're really going to control it."
Schwartz says he feels lucky to have corralled the group of musicians for the LETTINGO project, which includes two of his former students at Concordia, drummer Claude Lavergne and violin player Josh Zubot. "To tell you the truth, I'm pretty impressed with myself, that I've got these guys," he says. "These are top-rated players. They could play anywhere in the world."
Montreal jazz fans will have a chance to take in a performance of LETTINGO on March 25, 2012, at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts.
What: LETTINGO: The music and influence of Ornette Coleman
When: Sunday, March 25, 2012, at 8 p.m.
Where: The Segal Centre for Performing Arts (5170 Côte-Sainte-Catherine Rd.)