Although it's been more than a decade since saxophonist Ben Opie made the rounds of Pittsburgh with his downtown-ish jazz-rock ensemble Water Shed 5tet, the influence of that band is still felt in the "Concerto for Orkestra," which he'll debut this Friday at the North Side's New Hazlett Theater.
"As that band progressed in the '90s, the pieces became more elaborate, except at the tail end, where I did more traditional jazz quartet material," recalls Mr. Opie, adjunct music technology instructor at Carnegie Mellon, adding that he enjoys building surprises into his compositions. "But I found working with a good rhythm section, the pieces started to become scaled down and open, without tons of parts, and more room for the band to play."
Hence, Mr. Opie's further musical development involved both a slow-burning jazz trio (Thoth Trio) and the big band Opek, which has played ensemble jazz compositions since 2000. "It's been mostly about mining interesting stuff by Sun Ra, Miles Davis and [Charles] Mingus. My [electric Miles-styled] group Flexure also draws from the same circle of players," he explains. "So with Opek I had an existing ensemble and some people I could really count on, and given the opportunity to fund this [concerto] project, I wanted an expansion."
He's added five new players and a conductor -- Nizan Leibovich (Edgewood Symphony, Ph.D candidate at Pitt), whom Mr. Opie met during a production for Quantum Theatre. "On an average Opek gig, I'm trying to play alto sax and direct the band simultaneously, which sometimes is difficult or not even possible," Mr. Opie relates. "I wanted Nizan to run the piece smoothly onstage, so I could simply play. Everyone in the ensemble gets an improvised feature at some point. The way I see it, if you get good people together, you give them something to shine on, and with 10 movements, you don't want the same solos over and over."
With approximately an hour and 15 minutes of music and a roomful of 16 professional musicians, costs can skyrocket when attempting a work of this complexity. Hence the Hazlett Theater's key role in this event, having previously designated Mr. Opie as unofficial "house composer" by seeking out his performances. "It started with Alex Bard, the former program director, who recently joined the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. The current head of the Hazlett, Rene Conrad, has also been very interested in what I do."
The theater's active interest in hosting Opie's first concert-length work led to a grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation (not Opie's first -- he received an achievement award from the Cultural Trust in the '90s).
"The idea is that this money is supposed to help a regional artist realize an opportunity that will further their career. Most of the funds are paying for rehearsals and performance, because it's too big a commitment to just rely on whatever we'd get from the door."
With a fair degree of dramatic contrast between movements in the "Concerto" (although there are some thematic threads that run through the entire work), Mr. Opie traces three influences that led him to writing for jazz orchestra. "Duke Ellington would write his suites related to some nonmusical topic, like 'Such Sweet Thunder' inspired by Shakespeare. Then I was thinking of Anthony Braxton's big band and their recording on Arista, which I love. And finally, there's a little hint of [playful Dutch jazz giant] Willem Breuker, because one movement has a humorous character to it."
He's had a bit of fun, as well, with the movement titles labeled after quirky modes of transportation: "Fiat," "Pram," "Dromedary," "Dirigible," even the 'Burgh-related "Incline." "The short story on that is that somebody once paid me a compliment on my playing, 'It's no longer music, it's transportation.' That gave me the naming idea. [Plus] the opening movement is the processional, and the closing movement is the recessional, so musicians could be entering and leaving in groups ... [transported] on and off the stage."
Although jazz fans can still catch Mr. Opie in more informal settings -- his third year of weekly sheddings with Chris Parker, Dave Throckmorton and Matt Booth in the Space Exchange Tuesday night residencies at Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville, or his occasional outings with Thoth Trio at venues such as James Street Tavern on the North Side -- his "Concerto for Orkestra" promises to be an artistic pinnacle for his second half-century. "I wanted to do something big for my 50th year and almost made it! I turned 51 just before I was able to stage this."
"It was an interesting experience to write, and I would do it again, because there are certain ideas I wanted to explore that never found their way into the piece," he continues. "If I was to repeat the experience, I'd want there to be some organizational infrastructure so I wouldn't have to deal with arranging rehearsals and booking the players, because I've been the business manager as much as the composer and player."
"One of my arguments in the grant proposal was that this might draw more attention to my compositions and open some opportunities. I've discussed this with Nizan -- we want this work tightly edited, in case it does have 'legs' and we have the chance to play it again."
Manny Theiner is a freelance writer.