This week, I’m thrilled to be playing in the pit for The Central Park Five, a new opera by Anthony Davis commissioned by Long Beach Opera. When I studied with Anthony twenty years ago, he completely altered my understanding of Duke Ellington’s music by (among other things) explaining how Ellington’s way of writing for the individuals in his band was “operatic.” As Anthony put it, Ellington’s innovative approach to composing specifically for the unique voices of improvisers like Tricky Sam Nanton, Bubber Miley, and Johnny Hodges – a compositional innovation that Ellington pioneered, even though we now take it for granted – was much like creating characters in an opera, individual voices that would re-appear and evolve throughout the extensive body of works that Ellington crafted over a long career.
Anthony’s own compositional voice as an opera composer integrates the rich legacy of Ellington-Strayhorn-Mingus along with many other influences and studies, to form a uniquely beautiful language all his own. And like Ellington, Anthony’s scores have always featured improvisational spaces created for his close collaborators, especially the master improviser and multi-reedist J.D. Parran (who unfortunately isn’t available for these premieres, but who has been an integral part of Anthony’s operas for decades, and is here with us in spirit). I was fortunate to play on Anthony’s opera Tania many years ago and am honored to be involved again with this deeply moving new work, along with other improvisers including two great artists with decades-long histories on the creative music scene, Earl Howard (electronics) and Hugh Ragin (trumpet), as well as the wonderful bassist Kyle Motl.
And given the Ellington connection, it was great to see Mark Swed’s insightful review of the premiere in the LA Times, which included the comment that Anthony “puts a good deal of what makes American music American in his score, particularly roiling jazz. The growling trombone and heckling trumpet could be characters themselves.”