Donna Wickham | Myth and Memory

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Jazz: Chamber Jazz Avant Garde: Structured Improvisation Moods: Mood: Intellectual
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Myth and Memory

by Donna Wickham

A thoughtful and moving marriage of poetry and chamber jazz featuring Donna Wickham on vocals, Art Lande on piano, Dave Peterson on guitar, Bijoux Barbosa on bass, and Matt Houston on drums.
Genre: Jazz: Chamber Jazz
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  Song Share Time Download
1. Invocation
9:05 $0.99
2. Brisingamen
8:59 $0.99
3. The Search
5:01 $0.99
4. You Are the Future
5:30 $0.99
5. Willow
5:24 $0.99
6. Under Her Dark Veil
4:46 $0.99
7. I Taught Myself to Live Simply
7:53 $0.99
8. Pájaros
5:53 $0.99
9. November 1
8:11 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
Album Notes

Look up the word “beautiful” in the dictionary and the definition will relate to the physical world, specifically to objects that are pleasing to the eye. But whose eye makes that judgment? Consider the wonderfully titled Thelonious Monk composition, “Ugly Beauty”. At first, the title seems to be a simple oxymoron until one considers its implications. Have we not all seen the ugliness in something considered beautiful? And what of the opposite: the beauty in something considered ugly? Donna Wickham knows about the latter first-hand, recalling how she comforted her dying brother with a favorite Pat Metheny recording as he drew his final breath.

“Beautiful” may be the most useless adjective in the English language, simply because the quality it describes—beauty—is so highly subjective. Yet in the arts, beautiful is the closest description of an experience beyond words. Every artist strives for the moment when the art transcends its physical attributes and becomes a spiritual entity. It is, in effect, a crossover to the spiritual world. These ecstatic moments are what inspire artists to continue their quest for a higher spiritual existence. Such a moment happened during the creation of this CD. Donna described it as a sort of out-of-body experience; my own experiences with this phenomenon are more like a spiritual cleansing. Even with a shared artistic goal, the results are different for each person.

The spiritual and physical worlds interact in all of our lives, and in many ways, that very interaction is the theme of this recording. The quest for beauty in both the spiritual and physical worlds was the driving force behind the music herein, and as the texts jump between (and eventually connect) the two worlds, Donna’s musical settings explore elements of jazz, classical and folk music, creating a hybrid form that stands on its own terms.

To perform this arresting marriage of poetry and music, Donna, who teaches vocal jazz at the University of Denver, enlisted the talents of an extraordinary group of progressive musicians. Pianist Art Lande seemed to be on the same artistic plane as Donna, and on at least one song, he helped her find the right musical direction to complete her setting. Art and bassist Bijoux Barbosa were sensitive enough to the song texts to create improvised solos that enriched the stories, and did so without verbal suggestions from Donna. On the Freyja and Rilke settings, guitarist Dave Peterson and drummer Matt Houston fill out the rhythm section, with Peterson portraying the musical embodiment of the necklace Brisingamen, and Houston providing a rich mixture of time and texture to the music. Percussionist Paul Mullikan joins Art on the Akmatova trilogy, saxophonist Peter Sommer weaves a delicate countermelody to Donna’s vocal line on “Nov. 1”, and an ensemble with Donna on piano, Richard von Foerster on cello, Mark Clifford on marimba and Michael Spencer on ethno-percussion evoke Guatemalan folk music on “Pajaros”.

Freyja is a Norse goddess whose story resonates with many modern women. As Donna tells it, women are faced with two intersecting arcs, one representing physical beauty and the other representing wisdom. Just as her wisdom arc reaches its peak, her beauty arc starts to decline. Freyja, not subject to these mortal arcs, had both abundant beauty and great wisdom. In the opening Invocation, Donna’s words and music offer an introduction to the goddess and to the album’s concept of the search for beauty. Freyja was not without her troubles—she had a frequently absent husband, Od, and when she cried for his return, her tears were colored amber and gold. Those were also the colors of her magic necklace Brisingamen. Freyja commissioned a group of dwarfs to create the necklace, but the dwarfs were reluctant to release it when it was finished. Taking advantage of Freyja’s beauty, the dwarfs insisted that she sleep with each of them before they would let go of the necklace. Donna’s setting of this story is told without words and uses Wagner’s technique of leitmotivs—i.e., each event and person receiving its own melody (The use of this technique is especially appropriate as Freyja is a character in Wagner’s Ring cycle). In the improvised section, each soloist recounts his night with the goddess. From its text, The Search appears to be about Freyja’s search for her husband, but Donna suggests that the search could also be for Brisingamen (famously stolen by Loki in another Freyja story). The piece is set for 5-part women’s choir, and Donna creates her own Greek chorus by overdubbing all of the vocal parts and then overdubbing an additional canon for 5 more voices on top. Scott Griess’ masterful engineering creates an impressive and fascinating soundscape on this track.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, You Are The Future is from his collection “Love Songs To God”. In it, the poet revels in the many faces of God, the shape that changes its own shape. Donna’s setting, arguably the most straightforward jazz performance on the disc, evokes the changes described by Rilke with gently shifting backgrounds and meter changes. Rilke’s poem also introduces another textual theme, that of nature as the great intermediary between the spiritual and physical worlds: created by a spiritual God, but residing in the physical world. While the same belief system carries that man was also created by God, the CD’s sequential texts by Rilke, Akhmatova and Wickham all advance the theory that nature is on a higher spiritual plane than mankind.

Donna feels a special kinship to the three poems by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, in that the events of these poems mirror events in her own life. In setting these poems, Donna employed an aleatoric composition method where the melody notes are fixed pitches but the rhythms and tempo of the melody line are free. The melodies were set on top of a mixed meter vamp with cues in the music for background changes on important words. Willow captures a special friendship between a child and a willow; in Donna’s case, it was an elm tree in her parent’s front yard that she climbed and repelled from as a child. And strange!—I outlived it. When Donna’s tree died from Dutch Elm disease, she mourned it in the same way that she mourned her brother’s passing. Under Her Dark Veil changes the mood from childhood innocence to adulthood’s painful romances. A sharp-edged comment marks the end of a relationship, but before leaving, the wounded partner makes a caring remark; Donna told me that her marriage ended in a similar fashion. The angular melodic lines in this setting were inspired by Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, and Donna utilizes word-painting (another Renaissance style attribute) to emphasize the key word “agony”. As the agony subsided in her own life, Donna used the same method that Akhmatova describes in I Taught Myself To Live Simply: a return to nature and a time of peaceful solitude.

The final two selections, Pajaros and Nov. 1 reveal Donna at her most autobiographical. Yet the themes of these pieces will resonate with anyone who has experienced and recovered from a painful breakup. Pajaros (Spanish for birds) tells of a trip to Guatemala near the end of Donna’s marriage. Although Donna only saw a few clues that the relationship would end, the birds knew what I could not see. Tellingly, Donna and her husband did not know the bird’s language, so they did not realize that the birds—nature’s messengers—knew what their human counterparts did not. The bird calls that are overdubbed on this track are all native to Guatemala. Nov. 1 describes the day when the pain finally subsided. Its matter-of-fact recounting of the day’s events is set to a simple gospel-like tune. Donna said it wasn’t an unusual day at all, but all of the beauty and meaning was right there in the simple act of doing the laundry. As her quest for beauty ends in her own back yard, Donna sings, there’s enough beauty in this day for me. What a beautiful thought.

Tom Cuniffe



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