Pianist Fox and poet Troupe present "Star-Spangled Banner Fractured" at Conn College
On August 18, 1969, to close the last set at Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix turned "The Star-Spangled Banner" into a sonic horror-scape. Using his Stratocaster and a tremolo bar, he protested the Vietnam War through eerily accurate sounds of dive bombers and explosions, firefights, screaming victims, sirens and a ragged, survivor's recitation of "Taps." In doing so, he positioned the National Anthem as an artistic symbol for discontent.
It was an indelible performance, and one that certainly resonated with esteemed Boston-based classical/jazz pianist Donal Fox. His own "Star-Spangled Banner Fractured" is a jazz-centric solo piano work fueled originally in protest of the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and re-energized over the years by a variety of current events such as the ongoing fight in American for social justice. "The Hendrix piece is incredible and certainly opened the door to interpretation," Fox says by phone from his home last week. "I was certainly inspired by it, but I wasn't trying to replicate it."
Fox's "Fractured" is a breathtaking, multi-faceted showcase that causes the listener to spin from cautious hope to brooding menace — all supported by sonic dynamics, textures and stunning dexterity that recalls Hendrix as well as Thelonious Monk and Charles Ives . Given the broad spectrum of his career and musical projects and the diversity of the various ensembles he works with, Fox doesn't perform his "Fractured" that often. He'd hoped to put it away after the election of Barack Obama. But he dusted the piece off after President Trump took office and, occasionally, Fox uses the work as a titular focus for an entire evening's program. In that context, along with activist poet Quincy Troupe, Fox will present a program of piano improv and spoken word Friday in Evans Hall at Connecticut College in New London. The performance, the final of the season for Conn's onStage Guest Artist Series, is in fact called "Star-Spangled Banner Fractured."
"This isn't part of a tour; it's a one-off show for the time being," Fox says. "Quincy and I will explore a variety of things we have floating in the wind. It's the sort of collaboration we don't do often but that we certainly look forward to."
Fox has always delighted in musical exploration. In 1991, he became the first-ever composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony, and he's toured extensively with his trios, quartets and various one-off ensembles. He received a 1997 Guggenheim Fellowship in music composition, was the Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Academy Award in Music. His often hard-to-categorize recordings such as "Ugly Beauty," "Boston Duets" and "Gone City" — with Troupe featured on the latter album — explore a variety of styles in oft-experimental fashion.
For his part, Troupe is the author of 12 volumes of poetry and numerous nonfiction books, including a collaboration with Miles Davis on the trumpeter's American Book Award-winning biography. Troupe is also the recipient of last year's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History Award and is the perfect literary match for Fox's Monk-like pianistic ruminations.
On the page, Troupe's poems are bubbling and evocative, and they both celebrate and mourn the realities of the contemporary black experience. Wondrous stuff — but at readings, Troupe's passionate delivery rings with a electric, Chautauqua-tent intensity.
"Quincy has a long history of bringing poetry to situations like (Friday's performance), and his circle of friends includes many jazz musicians," Fox says. "To hear him read is a delight; he has a very percussive style, but there's also a melodic quality that reminds me of a horn player. When I'm playing (while he reads), I listen to his voice and don't look at a score. It's consciously a very interactive experience between two artists."
A long friendship
The two met when Fox was with the St. Louis Symphony while, he says, "Quincy was justifiably riding high on the Miles autobiography. We were at a private party, and he was delightfully holding court, and we really hit it off. I just casually said, 'We should do something together sometime,' not really sure anything would happen."
Shortly thereafter, Fox relocated to Boston, and Troupe came through town for a variety of projects.
"I proposed an evening a poetry and music," Fox says, "and it worked really well. That led to some concerts in California. As importantly, they resulted in a friendship. I met his wife and young son, and we've just kept in touch over the years. Given today's political climate and the idea of truth and justice, our performances together seem more relevant than ever."
Indeed, in the years since Troupe and Fox met, the the country's attitude towards and progress in social justice has ebbed and flowed in ways that seems at times maddening. But Fox, who says he's an optimist, calibrates each version of "Star-Spangled Banner Fractured" depending on any given day.
"A lot of times, it's a two-steps-forward, one-step-backwards situation," he says, "and there can be a backlash from the crowd depending on the mood and what I do (with the piece). I remember doing the song in Germany right after the election of (George W. Bush), and they got it right away. Sometimes, it's not necessarily like that. To me, the axiom is that social justice is not a straight line. It's a trajectory over a long haul."
Friday's presentation is only the latest in what Fox hopes will be a continued if sporadic tradition with Troupe. In that spirit, Fox is asked about "The Old People Speak of Death," a piece from the "Gone City" album in which Troupe reflects in heartfelt wonder on mortality and familial relationships over the pianist's windchime arpeggios and wistful single-note ruminations. He laughs.
"I think about that song and run and do push-ups, trying to delay death as much as possible," he says. "It's important to keep that child-like quality about art and life. I don't want to be ossified. I enjoy the energy of young people — it helps if you can stay as excited as they are and not get trapped by that 'Ah, I did that years ago' way of thinking. Something will happen today that will make me excited and I hope that happens with each performance. I hope that happens (at Conn). It's the same with social and political justice. Have that attitude that we will not be defeated, and stay hopeful that we listen and learn."
If you go
Who: Donal Fox and Quincy Troupe
What: "Star-Spangled Banner Fractured"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Evans Hall, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London
How much: $22 general admission, $20 seniors, $11 students
For more information: (860) 439-2787, www.conncoll.edu
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