It all started at a luncheon.
Thompson Jazz Studies Program Director John Gunther was sitting next to Assistant Professor of Violin Chas Wetherbee. They were just chatting when one of them mentioned that they should work together on a project.
“We’re both always open to trying new things, so we thought it would be really cool to do something together,” Gunther says.
“I’m fascinated with the similarities and differences between jazz and classical music,” Wetherbee says. “So I asked John if he would write something outside of the classical medium for string quartet, which is perhaps the most pigeonholed of all types of ensembles.”
The chat turned into an idea, and the idea turned into a collaboration between Wetherbee’s quartet, Carpe Diem, and multi-instrumentalist Gunther.
Now, they’re getting ready to do a recording together in front of an audience.
This Thursday, Wetherbee and Gunther, along with Wetherbee’s colleagues Amy Galluzzo, Korine Fujiwara and Carol Ou, take to the microphones at Mighty Fine Productions in Denver for a live studio recording of Gunther’s original piece, “Anansi and the Sky God.”
Recording with a string quartet is a first for the jazz artist, who’s more used to improvising with a jazz ensemble.
“It’s challenging. It takes me out of my comfort zone as a jazz musician,” Gunther says. “So much of what I play is improvised, but lately I’m finding myself playing more and more written music. I’m also enjoying having the opportunity to compose for groups outside the typical jazz setting.”
As for Wetherbee, he looks for performance opportunities just like this. “If you come from a classical background, you have all this skill, yet you play just classical music. But I’ve been exploring ways to perform some of the other kinds of music that I’m interested in.”
The piece they’ll record is based on a West African folk story about a trickster spider named Anansi and his adventures with Nyame, the Sky God.
According to folklore, Nyame has kept all the world’s stories to himself. Anansi can have the stories, but first must capture Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, Mboro the Hornet and Mmoatia the bad-tempered fairy. So Anansi sets off to capture this cast of characters.
“The piece is in six movements, with each movement highlighting both a character in the folktale and a specific African musical instrument or tradition.”
With just two violins, a viola, a cello and a saxophone as tools, that means Gunther had to get creative with the orchestration. The group plays with extended techniques to mimic the different African instruments. At one point, the cello is played like a traditional African harp. There’s even drumming in the stringed instruments.
“There was a learning curve, but it was very exciting,” says Wetherbee. “We did our homework by listening to different recordings, but in the end working with John and hearing his vision as the composer is how we found the right sounds.”
This won’t be the first go around of the piece: The ensemble premiered “Anansi” last year at the Dairy Center for the Arts in Boulder. They thought it would be the perfect work to record with a live audience on hand.
“It’s not the traditional way to do classical recordings,” Wetherbee says. “You tend to record in an isolated room without even the sound of an air conditioner to disturb the perfect acoustics.”
“We wanted that energy and spirit of a live performance and the exchange with the audience,” Gunther adds.
This probably won’t be Gunther’s last foray out of the jazz world. Also a member of the Throw Down or Shut Up quartet with fellow faculty members Daphne Leong and Mike Tetreault and alumnus Patrick Sutton, he says he relishes the chance to collaborate with a variety of musicians.
“I enjoy the richness and diversity of the music. And Chas and the other members of Carpe Diem are just awesome virtuosos. I really have to be on my toes!”
Wetherbee hopes the recording will be an inspiration to other musicians. “You never know what will come of it, but it might inspire other musicians to do their own collaborations beyond the traditional boundaries.”
The recording is organized in part by Gift of Jazz, a Denver-area non-profit organization that promotes and supports jazz artists in the region. The public is welcome to attend; for more information about the recording and to purchase tickets, visit the Gift of Jazz website.