For several years now, Mark Landson’s growing-in-popularity outfit Open Classical has been an invaluable happening in the local performing arts scene. The event—which has weekly open mike nights in Dallas, a monthly one in Frisco and soon-to-be bi-monthly in Fort Worth—has also branched out into performing concerts around town.
We recently chatted with him about his current project, Classically Jazzed, opening Friday at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson and repeating Saturday at the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge in Fort Worth.
TheaterJones: Tell us a little about the Classically Jazzed program that you will premiere this weekend.
Mark Landson: As with most everything we do, so much of the stuff is new, and no one has ever done it before, so it’s always a little bit interesting to see it come together [laughing]. This is classical music made into jazz. We do that in a couple of different ways. It was actually inspired by a recording my mom sent me a year or so ago. My mom is a former concert pianist, so she’s a good musician in her own right. She sent me this recording of a violinist from the 1930s named Eddie South. He was a classical violinist, but he didn’t have a lot of opportunities in classical music, so he turned to jazz and went to Europe. [Eddie South was African-American in the days long before blind auditions, so like many women and people of color, was largely excluded from the classical music mainstream despite a prodigious talent.]
Eddie South did some recordings with Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt in France. Some of those recordings were classical tunes in a jazz style. For example, he recorded the Bach Double [Concerto for Two Violins] with Grappelli and Reinhardt. So I heard that, and thought that was amazing and definitely something I needed to use as inspiration. We play in all these alternative venues, and I have been trying to figure out for some time what would be good, classically-based music that would be good to play in a jazz club where people are talking—it’s a show, but it’s also background music in some ways. So I thought we needed to try this, and it turned out that we were able to do it pretty well. In the original recordings that we were inspired by, they played the tune, then they went off improvising off a repeated harmonic pattern, which is the normal thing you’d do in jazz.
But I thought that the actual compositions by Bach, by Vivaldi—Baroque music especially—would work really well for this without changing the original composition. We’d just switch out the Baroque “rhythm section” of the continuo for a jazz rhythm section. So we’re performing all three movements of the Vivaldi Violin Concerto in A minor, and the first movement of the Bach Double. The other violinist on this program is Marek Eneti, who is classically trained but plays Western Swing with the Light Crust Doughboys.
We’re also doing four jazz songs sung by Damon Clark, who is a jazz and classical tenor. Just an amazing voice. We’re going to be doing three new tunes I’ve written. Two of them take melodies by Mozart and Beethoven and create jazz songs around that. The other song is by Debussy, and we’re taking it from 3/4 into 4/4, but with the original French lyrics.
The second half of the program features a Polish jazz artist, Grazyna Auguscik, who lives in Chicago. She’s kind of the headliner. She’s a jazz vocalist, well known in Chicago and Europe, but not here. Her set is a combo of Chopin and Lutoslowski made into jazz, plus her own material and some songs by Nick Drake.
What are your goals for the Classically Jazzed program? Is it a one-off?
No, it’s something we’re definitely going to expand on. First of all, there will definitely be a recording. I plan to publish my violin arrangements. Who knows? Maybe we’ll do a tour.
What can the audience’s expectations be?
If you like classical music, you’ll love it, I think. We’ll play a snippet of the original beforehand, so people can really hear the difference. It works as music, but it’s also surprising. They’re great artists. Our rhythm section is really great. There’s rehearsal video of the Vivaldi available on YouTube [it is at the bottom this story].
How are the two venues different, and how do you think that will affect the way viewers experience the two shows?
The Eisemann Center—the show is in a 250-seat theater there. It’s a good cross between a theater and a more intimate space. The Live Oak is the premier listening room in the DFW Metroplex. I think some people will prefer one, some the other, and of course they’re on opposite sides of the Metroplex.
What sorts of classical music transitions well into a jazz style? You mentioned that Baroque music works well; is there anything you’ve tried that hasn’t worked?
The thing is that I try a lot of stuff in my head, and when it doesn’t work in my head, it doesn’t get out there to having live musicians trying it. Baroque music lends itself well to this because it has a driving rhythm that can be placed in a different context, whether it’s jazz or tap or swing. But not all Baroque pieces work equally well. I was thinking about The Four Seasons [by Vivaldi] but I didn’t think about a way to do that well. The pieces I’ve chosen are all in minor keys. I’ve tried to use some of the major key concerti by Vivaldi and swing those, but they don’t work as well.
Why should readers come hear this show?
Anytime Open Classical is doing a show, you know it’s going to be something no one else is doing, and it’s going to be worth your ticket price.