ARTS FEATURE Acclaimed Jazz Pianist Donal Fox to Teach at MIT

Arts Faculty Exclusive

For musicians, it’s easy to get caught up within a genre. Classical musicians tend to find jazz messy and undisciplined. Jazz musicians find classical music square. Pop musicians find both groups stuffy and academic. Both groups stereotype pop as superficial and uninventive.

Not that there isn’t the occasional crossover. Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew single-handedly invented jazz-rock, and Stravinsky was known to be an ardent admirer of jazz. These are but the beginning. Up in the ranks of the creative world, successful fusion has been going on for years. Music is constantly being infused with new, original influences. Currently, I don’t believe any composer can create art without stirring together several influences.

A problem remains at a more basic level, namely in the field of musical education. In an effort to create structured curricula, the battle lines between “Classical,” “Jazz,” and “Rock” have been clearly drawn. Young musicians choose (with varying degrees of parental influence) which field to go into, and for the next decade they’re stuck with it. Sometimes it leads to a brilliant career. Others, a dull pursuit of the flawless performance, the perfect solo: a blind journey of etudes and scales with little or no emotional foundation. In all but a few cases, one fails to realize the true breadth of musical expression.

For MIT musicians, at least, there may be a solution. As part of an ongoing artist-in-residence series, MIT will be inviting renowned pianist and composer Donal Fox to direct a new improvisational ensemble for the coming academic year. While Fox is typically regarded as a jazz composer, he has an extensive classical background; in a telephone conversation, he informed me that the planned ensemble would best be described as a fusion ensemble.

Prospective members with pre-existing notions of what “fusion” means shouldn’t judge too quickly. Fox is intent on making the group a true fusion, and the direction of the ensemble will be determined not by Fox but of the constituent musicians.

The benefits are several. At its most basic, improvisation is an emotional exercise. It is where all music begins. After all, even Bach, whose music is extremely mathematical and ordered, worked extensively through improvisation. At another level, it is a lesson in musical dialogue. No longer constrained by a single set of “rules of conduct,” ensemble members will get a chance to communicate with someone speaking an entirely different language. Violinists and gamelan players should communicate, because they can. In all aspects of music — listening, performance, and composition — this is invaluable.

There may be no one better to teach that fact than Fox. In many ways a disciple of Third Stream pioneer Gunther Schuller, Fox weaves seamlessly between the classical, jazz, and compositional realms. In his May 2 performance at Sculler’s in Boston, his setlist included both Coltrane and Schumann (the latter arranged by Fox) — not to mention several completely original compositions, each uniquely portraying Fox’s distinct and dynamic style. His style at that performance seemed more emotive and less ruggedly academic than Schuller’s recent “Where the Word Ends.”

In speaking with Fox, he agreed that this was at least a partially conscious effort (I had seen Fox perform some time before my sophomore year of high school. My ear was entirely different back then, but I remember that the music then was more difficult — beautiful, but in a painful sort of way). He said that his goal was “to find beauty and express beauty in music … pretty but not pretty on the surface level … probing … [allowing our] minds to slow down to … the beauty around us.” His work was as inspirational then as now — the same eternal groove, but with wholly different notes.

It’s something timeless, and not limited to one man, one instrument, one genre, one continent, or one era. It’s about music, and life as a whole.

That’s what Fox hopes to share — an opportunity any MIT musician would not want to pass up.