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Portraits in Music

'The Sucker Punch Requiem'
by Lisle Ellis -
enjoyed by

'Recommended ... to classical listeners interested in expanding their listening domain.'

Lisle Ellis: Sucker Punch Requiem - An Homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat. © 2008 Henceforth Records

The Sucker Punch Requiem honors the short-lived Haitian artist Jean-Michael Basquiat who, before becoming a gallery favorite, attracted notice as a New York City street-artist. He signed his early work SAMO, an acronym Lisle Ellis uses while quoting some of Basquiat's graffiti. He politely skips telling us, even in the notes, that SAMO stood for 'SAMe Old s...'

Listen -- Lisle Ellis: Summonings (Sucker Punch Requiem)
(track 1, 0:47-1:57) © 2008 Henceforth Records

Ellis says he had 'the traditional six part Mass for the Dead of the Roman Catholic Church' in mind when he began working on the Requiem. Although he may have started with a traditional Mass, except perhaps for the emotions of the Requiem's beginning and end, he didn't wind up with one in form, style, content or instrumentation. Instead we have what Rochberg has referred to, with a nod to Leibniz, as the 'art of combination'. For Rochberg this meant quotations from other composers and free use of traditional musical forms. The combinations are more diverse for Ellis. They include jazz and classical music, electronics and acoustic instruments, and improvisation and fixed notation. The result is a studio-reworked pastiche, appropriately analogous to the style of Basquiat's best-known paintings.

Listen -- Lisle Ellis: Incantation and Ascent (Sucker Punch Requiem)
(track 2, 1:00-2:14) © 2008 Henceforth Records

The Requiem is divided into sixteen sections with titles suggesting elements of Basquiat's life and art, and each section is a portrait in music. The piece actually has more in common with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition than a Mass. There are even recurring themes and fragments as we go from one picture to another.

Ellis has, for most of his career, been an avant-garde jazz bassist. The jazz idiom, with a flavoring of contemporary art music, dominates. His fellow performers are equally strong, veteran jazz players -- outstanding choices for the colors of his musical palette.

Listen -- Lisle Ellis: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict (Sucker Punch Requiem)
(track 3, 0:00-0:34) © 2008 Henceforth Records

Ellis comes closest to Rochberg's own art of combination in his use of jazz styles. While much of the material is edgy free-jazz, some sections feature playing one might hear in a conservative jazz night-club. This excerpt spotlights Holly Hofmann's bluesy flute.

Listen -- Lisle Ellis: Suicide Study (Sucker Punch Requiem)
(track 10, 1:18-2:44) © 2008 Henceforth Records

Because of its heavy jazz content, Sucker Punch Requiem may be outside the interests of most readers here, but it is a wonderfully effective piece in its evocation and appreciation of Basquiat. It also provokes thought on at least two issues of importance to the appreciation of modern classical composers and their music. First, to what extent should the arts be influenced by or attempt to be relevant to social and political issues? Basquiat's art was largely one of protest against the inequities of modern society. Ellis admires and identifies with him for that reason and the Requiem expresses his empathy.

Second, how effective is the art of combination? Since Rochberg, many composers have felt freer to mix styles. Is musical pastiche as valid as that of the visual equivalent?

Recommended to admirers of jazz as art music (pun semi-intended) and to classical listeners interested in expanding their listening domain.

Copyright © 9 March 2009 Ron Bierman, San Diego, USA




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