Jason Palmer Draws on Stolen Art Objects for Latest Album

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Jason Palmer aims to interpret the visual world of stolen art objects on The Concert: 12 Musings For Isabella.

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

Some moments linger for years—even decades—before they spark creativity. And one of those singular times inspired trumpeter Jason Palmer’s latest disc, The Concert: 12 Musings For Isabella.

In 1997, when an 18-year-old Palmer moved from North Carolina to Boston to attend New England Conservatory, he went to a concert at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and saw several empty picture frames hanging on the museum’s walls. It left Palmer in a quizzical mindset.

“I hadn’t visited many museums at that point, but it was my understanding that when you go to a museum and see a frame, you’re supposed to see something in it. I never lost that bizarre feeling from seeing that,” he recalled.

Those empty frames were the result of a March 1990 heist in which 13 artworks—pieces by Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer and Edgar Degas, among others that were worth $500 million, according to the FBI—were stolen from the museum. The theft was significant enough to inspire episodes on TV shows like The Simpsons and The Blacklist, as well as Jamie Mason and B.A. Shapiro’s respective novels, The Hidden Things and The Art Forger.

Still, it took several other events in Palmer’s life to spur him to create his own musical impression of the stolen works. He recalled doing a gig with alto saxophonist Grace Kelly at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art about 12 or 13 years ago. “That piqued my interest in experiencing how sound and composition can be influenced by visual art,” he explained.

More recently, though, Palmer listened to WBUR’s 2018 true-crime podcast Last Seen, which focuses on the Gardner museum heist. Not only was the trumpeter intrigued by the extensive investigation and the case remaining unresolved, but Palmer happened to be amid a composing binge.

“So, the idea for The Concert came to mind,” he said, before mentioning the unique challenge of viewing the missing artwork online, as opposed to in-person, before creating the related music.

But after closely studying digital replicas of Édouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni, Vermeer’s The Concert and Degas’ La Sortie de Pesage, Palmer took as many cues from the painters’ uses of color and lighting as he did from the actual scenic depictions. His approach led to dazzling music, animated by a spry quintet that includes Palmer sharing the front line with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and vibraphonist Joel Ross, as well as contributions from drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Edward Perez.

The Concert is steeped in 21st-century jazz, without a hint of the caginess that marks other heady themed works. But that doesn’t mean Palmer’s interpretations lack ingenuity. For instance, the 15/8 time signature inside the roiling “Christ In The Storm On The Lake Of Galilee (Rembrandt)” nods to the 15 people Palmer counted in Rembrandt’s titular 1633 oil-on-canvas painting. For “A Lady And Gentleman In Black (Rembrandt),” Palmer created the barbed-wire melody using only the black keys of the piano.

The most challenging piece for Palmer to compose, he said, was the album’s title track: “The Concert (Vermeer).” It begins with a fugue-like melody, played in unison by the bandleader and Turner. The momentum picks up with a billowy waltz feel, as the horns issue a leapfrogging melody next to Ross’ graceful accompaniment.

“For that work, I did my best to write out something that would fit more for vocals. But I wanted to also make it intricate and display a bit of musical virtuosity,” Palmer explained. “I tried to imagine what kind of music they were performing at that moment in time. In the painting, there’s a trio of musicians—a singer, a harpsichordist and a lute player. That song definitely took me the longest to write.”

Earlier albums in Palmer’s discography—masterful tributes to Anita Baker, Janelle Monáe and Minnie Riperton—have demonstrated his deft interpretive prowess. But The Concert is his first album connecting to the art world, and the bandleader said that he’s open to collaborations with living visual artists.

“I’ve already had some artists do visual improvisations while I played,” Palmer said. “There are some dope visual artists in Boston with whom I would love to possibly create something new.” DB



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