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Ted Nash Plays Jazz Inspired by Art

Ted Nash

His new album “Portrait in Seven Shades” was influenced by seven important painters.

STEVE EMBER: I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Many people may know what the artist Pablo Picasso’s paintings looks like. But what would they sound like if they were turned into music? Jazz musician Ted Nash explores this question in his album “Portrait in Seven Shades.”

Nash studied the works of seven important painters who lived during a one hundred year period, a time frame similar to that of jazz. Then, he created a jazz composition in seven parts influenced by their art.

STEVE EMBER: Wynton Marsalis is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. He asked Ted Nash to write the hour-long composition “Portrait in Seven Shades.” Nash said one of the hardest parts was limiting his choice to only seven artists. Jazz at Lincoln Center worked with the Museum of Modern Art in New York to give Ted Nash access to its art collection. The music is performed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, of which Ted Nash is a member.


Ted Nash next to a painting by Claude Monet
Ted Nash next to a painting by Claude Monet

BARBARA KLEIN: That was Ted Nash’s composition “Monet,” influenced by the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet. He was famous for painting flowers, buildings and the natural environment in a way that explored color and the changing effects of light. Ted Nash was influenced by Monet’s famous series of huge paintings of water lilies. Nash liked how these works express the feeling of nature, lightness and air.

When he looked at the paintings up close, he saw brush strokes, texture and fields of color. But seen from a distance, these elements come together to create a dreamy representation of water lilies. Ted Nash said he wanted his music to be the same way. Up close, it is made up of individual sounds and instruments. But when you step back and listen to the composition, all these elements artfully come together.

STEVE EMBER: Salvador Dali was a Spanish surrealist painter whose works often represent a strange, dream-like world. Ted Nash’s composition “Dali” was influenced by the painting called “The Persistence of Memory.” The painting shows melting clocks, insects, and a dead tree in an empty landscape.


Ted Nash says that Dali combined everyday objects in a way that creates a feeling of insecurity. Nash did the same thing with music by layering sounds and creating an unusual timing.

BARBARA KLEIN: The French painter Henri Matisse is known for his use of bright colors and expressive forms. His nineteen-oh-nine painting “Dance” shows five women energetically dancing in a circle.

The painting is mostly three colors -- blue, green and pink. Matisse was a master of expressing great beauty using the simplest combinations of colors and forms.


Ted Nash said his main goal in “Matisse” was to express the painting’s playfulness and feeling of joy. He says Matisse showed a child-like quality in his work. Nash wanted his jazz composition for this artist to be swinging, and make you feel good.

STEVE EMBER: Pablo Picasso was a revolutionary modern artist who painted in many different styles during his long career. He had a very strong influence over several art movements, including cubism. His nineteen-oh-seven painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” turned the art world upside down. This painting of five women went against the traditional values of artistic representation and changed modern art forever.


Ted Nash explored cubism and the four sides of a square through the idea of fourths in this composition. For example, four musical chords are repeated in this work. The music also has two parts to express different sides of Picasso.

The first part explores the artist’s romantic side and his love of women. The second part is about the emotional effect of Picasso’s paintings.


Ted Nash with his saxophone near "The Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh
Ted Nash with his saxophone near "The Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh

BARBARA KLEIN: The Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh is famous today for his bold works that use thick paint and bright colors. But while he was alive, he received little respect for his art. Vincent Van Gogh’s life was filled with sadness and struggles. Ted Nash chose to express the tragic side of the artist’s life with this composition. One Van Gogh painting that especially influenced him was “The Starry Night”, painted in eighteen eighty-nine. The curving brushstrokes of Van Gogh’s expressive sky look like explosions of blue fire.


This is the only part of “Portrait in Seven Shades” that includes singing. Ted Nash imagined what Van Gogh might say to his friend, painter Paul Gaugin.

STEVE EMBER: The artist Marc Chagall was born in Russia to a large Jewish family. He spent most of his career in France. Chagall painted colorful works filled with imaginative details such as floating people and dancing animals. His work was also influenced by his interest in theater. Ted Nash wanted his composition about Chagall to express his ties to family and Eastern European culture. He wanted the music to sound like the streets of Chagall’s neighborhood in Russia.


Ted Nash paid special attention to Chagall’s nineteen eleven work “I and the Village.” It represents the artist’s memories of his childhood village and its farmers, cows and buildings. The work is colorful and playful, just like this music.

BARBARA KLEIN: Of all these artists, Jackson Pollock was the only one who grew up during the age of jazz music. Jackson Pollock helped create the art movement called Abstract Expressionism. His work redefined modern art and brought new attention to American artists.

Pollock’s paintings do not represent objects. They are examples of pure color, action and emotion. Pollock placed the canvas on the floor and threw different colors of paint onto its surface. His works are rivers of paint that are filled with an expressive energy.

Ted Nash wanted to copy the idea of thrown paint musically by creating a composition that sounded big and free. He also wanted the music to express the kind of jazz music that Pollock listened to and enjoyed. We leave you with “Pollock,” the last part of “Portrait in Seven Shades.”


STEVE EMBER: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein. You can read, listen and comment on this program on our Web site, Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.