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At present the Asheville Art Museum at Pack Place is undergoing major renovation and expansion. The Pianoforte Concert Series is usually presented in one of the museum's galleries, but due to the construction, the series is using the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville this year. The first of these concerts on Sunday afternoon featured the jazz pianist Marilynn Seits, recently relocated to Asheville after a career in New York and West Palm Beach. Her son Sean McAusland joined her, playing a six-string fretless electric bass.
Terms such as avant-garde, post-bop, cool jazz, and jazz fusion are bandied about to describe music written in the time period from the 1950's to the 1980's, and continuing to the present. What all these forms have in common is complexity, sometimes uniquely innovative and sometimes borrowing ideas from twentieth-century composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Béla Bartók as well as ethnic "world music." But always, the music leans heavily on the original sources of jazz: African-American gospel and blues that coalesced with French band music in New Orleans and came up the river.
Modern jazz of this ilk was the body of work that we were treated to on Sunday. And although some elements of improvisation always creep into jazz performance, the twenty selections on the program were mostly "composed" jazz. Heavily represented among the composers were Charles Mingus and Seits herself. Other composers included Miles Davis, Chick Corea, and Scott LaFaro.
A jazz samba called "Aries," written by guitarist Jim Watkins, started the program and set the stage for later complexity. Next came the pianist's own composition, "Vibrations," which made use of a Burmese temple gong in G-flat. Seits recruited an audience member, Anna Hayward (herself a distinguished pianist), to play the gong. The musical style of this piece reminded me of Seits' earlier fusion project, documented in the 2000 CD Along the Silk Road.
The high point of the first half came just before intermission. Making a small adjustment in the order of the program allowed her to play Mingus' "Good Bye Pork Pie Hat" and segue into the classic "Orange is the Color of Her Dress, then Blue Silk." An elegy for Lester Young led directly into the complexity of the second work and ended with an up-tempo triumph in the final measures. For my taste, this was modern jazz at its thoughtful best.
The second half included Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," another work in Seits' favorite key of D-flat and Seits' Bossa Nova entitled "Chromatic Bossa." Seits' jazz waltz "Afterthoughts" was an interesting collaboration, with a notable bass solo during which the pianist retreated into a non-accented background providing harmonic underpinning. And she seemed particularly in rapport with two more Mingus pieces, "Peggy's Blue Skylight" and "Nostalgia in Times Square."
Throughout, McAusland was a fine collaborator, especially on Scott LaFaro's "Jade Visions" and Miles Davis' "Nardis." McAusland was given one solo spot, performing the traditional Appalachian Celtic song "Wedding Dress." A versatile musician on several instruments, McAusland has performed and recorded acoustic folk (on the mandolin), bluegrass, blues, and progressive rock as well as jazz.
Seits and McAusland are both now Asheville residents, and the community is enriched by their presence in our midst. Cool and cerebral, Seits was thoroughly at home with the repertoire of this concert and "laid back" as is appropriate for a jazzer. A small but enthusiastic audience showed their appreciation at the end of this concert.