The question is as obvious as it is challenging to Zach Brock: How do you define the boundaries between chamber music and jazz?
For Brock, a jazz violinist born and raised in Lexington, and the artist-in-residence for the 2017 Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, the query has been at the heart of a career that has taken him to Chicago for a decade and New York for another, and to concert stages with jazz notables Stanley Clarke, Phil Markowitz, Snarky Puppy and the pre-eminent jazz violinist of the past 40 years, Jean-Luc Ponty.
“I think most jazz musicians — and definitely jazz musicians that also have a background in classical music, which is the vast majority — view jazz music as unique,” Brock said. “On one hand, it’s a folk music, and on the other, it is chamber music. I think it’s always been like that. Its traditions come from music that has largely been disseminated through an oral tradition. It’s a music of great complexity and delicate balance.
His music really blurs the boundaries between what you would call new classical or contemporary classical music and jazz. I just thought that would be the way to go.
CMFL artist-in-residence Zach Brock on composer-in-residence Matt Ulery
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Jazz is a music of connections. Among the many artists to come into Brock’s artistic orbit through the years is Matt Ulery, a composer and bassist who, along with Brock and drummer Jon Deitemyer, form a trio called Triptych. Brock met Ulery during his Chicago tenure and was especially struck by the stylistic breadth of the music he wrote. So when Chamber Music Festival chieftain Nathan Cole, who has known Brock since their days playing violin together in the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra, was in search of a composer-in-residence for this year’s gathering, there was no hesitation.
“Nathan brought up the possibility of approaching a composer, somebody who might want to write a piece, because the festival had the ability to make that happen,” Brock said. “Without even a second thought, I thought of Matt. His music really blurs the boundaries between what you would call new classical or contemporary classical music and jazz. I just thought that would be the way to go.
“Then we started thinking about the piece and what the interpretation was going to be like. Initially, we thought of him maybe writing a piece where jazz violin was sort of improvising with a string quartet and possibly having a pianist involved. But the more we started looking into the idea of what would really work best, we realized this collective — me and Matt and Jon — would make it possible for Matt to also come in and play on the piece. So it will have our ensemble meeting Nathan’s ensemble.”
The resulting composition, “Become Giant,” will have its world premiere Sept. 1. A trio of Ulery works — “Nightshade,” “Sweet Bitter” and “Kentucky Animal Orchestra” — will be on the Wednesday night main stage concert, and another, “Hubble” (from his 2016 album, “Festival”) will be performed as part of the festival’s closing concert Sept. 3. The latter two are billed as works designed for string quartet and jazz trio. With one group devoted to composition and the other schooled in improvisation, how does the resulting music avoid turning into a stylistic car crash?
“Matt is writing this piece for us and for a group of classical musicians that are not improvisers,” Brock says. “One thing he didn’t want to do was to have the more typical thing where the classical musicians play their great stuff, and then when it comes to the jazz, they just stop. It’s like they do their thing, they stop, then the rhythm section takes over and the cats start swinging. What Matt wanted to do was to integrate everything a little bit more. So in the piece, there are a few places where it opens up into a solo section with the trio. But even then, there is almost always some sort of a counter melody that’s staying within the form for a member of the quartet to work on, or sometimes the whole quartet. What that means in terms of the way I’m approaching this as an improviser is that it makes me a lot more aware of the written material and playing off of that and not just going off into the ether.”
Something like the Chamber Festival is making me have to dig a little deeper — well, a lot deeper — than some of the other ways I’m called upon to show up as a musician.
Zach Brock, Chamber Music Festival of Lexington artist-in-residence
Now living in South Orange, N.J., Brock said opportunities for classical collaboration on this level are infrequent. Sure, the chance to tackle one on his former home turf was enormously appealing. But the challenge of exploring the kind of musical diversity that will be on display this week at the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington is one he would welcome in any city.
“As much as we musicians like playing in clubs, I think everyone can agree, as professionals, that’s not a way to make a living. ... Something like the Chamber Festival is making me have to dig a little deeper — well, a lot deeper — than some of the other ways I’m called upon to show up as a musician.
“Not that I’m not happy just to show up either as a violin player for something or just as a jazz player. This is making me aware of my own need to articulate something that makes all this music come together.”
If you go
Chamber Music Festival of Lexington
Performing: Matt Ulery (composer-in-residence, bassist); Zach Brock (artist-in-residence, violin); Triptych (trio of Ulery, Brock and drummer Jon Deitemyer);
WindSync (ensemble-in-residence); violinists Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto,
violist Burchard Tang, cellist Priscilla Lee and pianist Alessio Bax (Festival core artists)
Where: Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St., and Al’s Bar, 601 N. Limestone
When: Aug. 30-Sept. 3
Tickets: $15 students, $35 adults (Aug. 30, Sept. 1, Sept. 3); $15 (Aug. 31)
▪ Aug. 30: Main stage concert I: Ravel’s “Violin Sonata No. 2 in G Major,” Miguel del
Aguila’s “Woodwind Quintet No. 2,” Matt Ulery’s “Nightshade,” “Sweet Bitter” and
“Kentucky Animal Orchestra;” Schubert’s “String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor,
‘Rosamunde.’” (7:30 p.m., Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center).
▪ Aug. 31: Cabaret concert featuring all Chamber Festival artists. 7:30 p.m. at Al’s Bar.
$15 at the door.
▪ Sept. 1: Main stage concert II: Haydn’s “String Quartet No. 4 in B-flat, ‘Sunrise;’”
Faure’s “Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor”; world premiere of Matt Ulery’s “Become
Giant.” (7:30 p.m., Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center).
▪ Sept. 3: Main stage concert III: Ravel’s “String Quartet in F Major”; Matt Ulery’s
“Hubble,” and Shostakovich’s “Piano Quintet in G Minor.” (2 p.m., Pam Miller Downtown