Actress Close, Reedist Nash Explore ‘Transformation’ at JALC


Ted Nash conducts the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra during a presentation of Transformation with Glenn Close and Ted Nash.

(Photo: Frank Stewart)

A few years ago, actress Glenn Close and saxophonist Ted Nash started to toss around ideas for a new collaborative project. They were fresh off the success of Nash’s Grammy-winning recording, Presidential Suite: Eight Variations On Freedom (Motéma), which had featured Close’s spoken word, and Nash had just received a commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center for another such inspired work.

On Jan. 30–Feb. 1, they presented that new project, Transformation with Glenn Close and Ted Nash, in the Rose Theater at JALC. A kaleidoscopic pastiche of music, dance and recited texts, the two-hour program focused on several socially charged issues—racial and religious discrimination, gender identity, sexual orientation, addiction, the environment, justice. With this program, however, they sought not to incite or challenge, but to invite the kind of personal reflection that leads to deeper social transformation.

“We wanted to create an evening that would comfort and inspire people,” Close said in a joint phone interview with Nash. A piece, she added, that underscores “our common humanity.”

Close took on the formidable task of curating the texts for such an effort, and Nash, a JLCO member and composer, wrote or arranged all of the music. To begin, Close selected excerpts from a few classic literary works that held transformation as their underlying theme.

“[These pieces] were so absolutely perfect for what we were trying to express,” Close said. “They’re the foundation on which I built the rest.”

At the top of the program, Nash and the 15-piece JLCO introduced “Creation,” from poet Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid, using only a smattering of sounds, tossed out randomly before the audience had quieted. Soon, Close and actor Wayne Brady took the stage and delved into Hughes’ retelling of humankind’s birth—the “transmogrifications in the stuff of life”—against the spare backdrop of Nash’s composition.

Probably no story was more personal than Nash’s own. “My son [Eli] is transgender, and he wrote a piece about that,” Nash said.

That piece, “Dear Dad”—performed by Eli on two nights and actor/transgender advocate Morgan Sullivan on another—is a gentle explanation of Eli’s decision to transition to a male body. Over Nash’s sweet, subdued accompaniment, Eli’s words spoke of transgendered individuals as just “another beautiful color” in the “rainbow of diversity that is the human species.”

“There are so many personal stories being told [here],” said Nash, whose galvanizing through-composed compositions reflected the evening’s narratives and enriched their telling.

Intriguingly, one of the most viscerally touching stories of the evening was wordless. As Nash led the orchestra, modern dancer Nijawwon Matthews moved from shame to pride while looking into a mirror, throwing off societally imposed denigration of his African American identity.

But Close also knew that she wanted to include a scene from Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. In it, Close and Brady describe the heavenward ascent of newly departed souls who join hands to form a network that saves the Earth from humanity’s destructiveness. Its message: On the other side of transformation lies redemption.

With Transformation, Close completes her fifth project with JLCO. Through these collaborations, she’s changed, too: “I used to be intimidated by jazz,” she said. “But now I feel that it is a really profound expression of the human spirit.”

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November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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