BDJF: talking with bob, part II

(This is the second part of a two-part article about the conversation I had with Burlington Discover Jazz Festival critic-in-residence Bob Blumenthal on Friday, June 10, 2011. Here’s the first part.)

Bob and I continued talking for quite a while after the video had stopped rolling, covering topics including Coltrane, Myra Melford, and the age-old connection between visual art and music. As someone who’s studied both, the interwoven (and wholly inter-dependent!) nature of the arts has always fascinated me. And it’s a subject Bob himself has raised a number of times over the years, most notably in the listening session he led a couple of years ago on Ornette Coleman’s landmark 1958 album The Shape of Jazz to Come (which does not have especially notable cover art, but rather the musical sensibilities in the album itself mirror the explosive visual art of that era) and at this festival’s “Meet the Artist” educational session on June 3rd in a discussion about Miles Davis’ 1970 album Bitches Brew (with iconic art work by Mati Klarwein).

We also talked about Bob’s collaboration with photographer John Abbott, the new book Saxophone Colssus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins. “John got the ball rolling on the project,…” Bob began – and he went on to describe how the project evolved to become the glossy, 160-page volume that was released on its subject’s 80th birthday last September.

It’s not the only book written about the sax legend, so I was curious about what Bob wanted people to take away from this one – what this book offers that’s unique on the subject. The answer came immediately: “To me Rollins was not only right from the outset one of my top 2-3 musicians, he was a role model for me. He was a role model for me and I wasn’t even a musician.”

When it comes to Sonny Rollins’ relationship with both Bob and the photographer John Abbott, it’s both musical and personal. That’s evident right from the outset, in the introduction paragraphs written by each of them. That sensibility carries through the rest of the book as well, with the relation of story after first-hand story, and in intimate images that capture Rollins at home, traveling, signing autographs, and practicing his instrument outside of his home studio.

Keep in mind as you leaf through the book the insight that Bob shared about its stunning photographs: the ones Abbott is especially pleased with are the shots taken off-stage in concert, as the camera captures Rollins making eye contact with the other musicians in the band. Every photo in the book is a product of long experience and no small measure of talent, to be sure, but as any seasoned photographer can tell you, at least 90% of getting any great shot is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. That proves to be true even for someone as experienced and familiar with his subject as Abbott: these live concert shots are a real catch!

Bob said he was hoping to get a book proposal written while visiting Burlington this week, but as often happens during the Jazz Festival the time just…melted away. As a future project, he’s interested in writing about how the LP record really defined an era in recorded music, and culture in general. Along those lines, if you’re going to be in the Boston area between now and Labor Day he highly recommends including a stop at the ICA on the waterfront to visit the temporary exhibit, The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl.

You can also see Bob’s work in the nine online essays he’s written for the PBS Freedom Riders series website.

It’s been another great jazz festival this year, brimming with countless memorable experiences in both music and learning. Future festivals have every opportunity to be equally as meaningful as long as they continue to encourage curiosity and thoughtful discussion of the art in sessions with people who share Bob Blumenthal’s passion for this special music.

Still curious? Here’s more:

  • Interview with Bob Blumenthal and John Abbott

Big thanks to Paula at the Flynn Center for opening the Flynn Space on short notice and providing Bob and me a quiet place to have our talk yesterday afternoon.

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