Jazz musicians take in sites of the city as inspiration for Philly festival

 Percussionist Milford Graves will play at Bartram's Garden.(Image courtesy of Ars Nova Workshop)

Percussionist Milford Graves will play at Bartram's Garden.(Image courtesy of Ars Nova Workshop)

Some giants from the world of experimental jazz are coming to play the city of Philadelphia — literally.

For the next month, nine musicians will improvise site-specific music in different locations around the city.

The New Paths Festival, created by the experimental jazz presenter Ars Nova Workshop, began Monday in the underground auditorium of the Barnes Foundation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Chicago-based saxophonist Ken Vandermark and his quartet, Made To Break, played an original composition inspired by the artwork in the galleries upstairs.


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Vandermark said his is often deeply influenced by visual art, sometimes moreso than music. He was struck by the depth of the impressionist and modernist art collected by Albert Barnes, and the deliberate way he arranged the works among diverse cultural artifacts from around the world.

“What I really related to was his mix of culture, his mix of time period, his mix of form in a way that when he presented it in the space, it had a logic that — even if you can’t recognize the systems he was using — you can feel,” Vandermark said.

This composition, “Fourth Foundation,” is partly improvised and partly structured around rock, funk, and jazz elements, evoking the visual mashups evident on the Barnes gallery walls. The commission by Ars Nova, with funding from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, kicked off the New Paths Festival.

“This music — jazz and improvised music — it’s not a one-size-fits-all model,” said Mark Christman, the director of Ars Nova, who participated in the two previous Hidden City Festivals before creating his own site-specific festival. “Even if we are not trying to create environments that are site specific, we are trying to elevate the work and present it in the most meaningful context.”

John Zorn will perform on the organ at the Girard College Chapel (the organ was his first instrument), German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann will play inside the historic library of the German Society (the largest private German library in America), and this weekend percussionist Milford Graves will play in a barn at Bartram’s Garden.

“I am a fan of [botanist] George Washington Carver,” said Graves who, in addition to drumming with people including Albert Ayler and Zorn, is an experienced herbalist. “What impressed me about George Washington Carver was his title, ‘The Man Who Talked to Plants.'”

While teaching drumming at Bennington College for 39 years, Graves often walked the trails around the college with students. “People would ask, ‘What plant is that? Does that plant have any medicinal qualities?’ So I tried to act like a George Washington Carver guy: I would just go ask the plant, ‘Do you have any secrets to tell me?'”

Graves will do as much at Bartram’s Garden, America’s oldest botanical garden. His improvised, free jazz drumming set will be less for the limited audience able to fit inside the barn, and more for the benefit of the plants outside.

“If you ask the plants, and you become humble, just having that kind of imagination may give you answers to what that plant, medicinally, can do,” said Graves. “At least it gets you into some kind of harmony to respect the plants.”

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