Brian McCarthy brings Civil War music to saxophone.
As America stood on the brink of Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln used his inaugural speech to plead for peace.
Inspired by this seminal moment in history, American saxophonist and composer Brian McCarthy’s has created a new work for jazz ensemble, which includes both new compositions and re-workings of the music of the Civil War period. It’s called “The Better Angels of our Nature”. We caught up with Brian to find out more.
SL: What inspired you to create this project?
BM: I’ve had a historical fascination with the Civil War most of my adult life. As an educator, it’s also the era where I begin my Jazz History classes.
Exploring the history of events, I began to also uncover the music of the era. The melodies are wonderful, memorable, and the lyrics offer a glimpse
into life at the time. Songs often have a Union version and a Confederate version. They were based on poems, stories and famous abolitionists, like
John Brown. When I received a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council for a large ensemble work, it was an easy decision to explore the music
further by re-imagining it in the context of jazz.
SL: Lincoln’s speech was clearly a big inspiration. What drove you to interpret the speech through music in this way?
BM: In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he ends the speech with an appeal to “…the better angels of our nature,” in the hope to avoid war. The phrase resonated with me as a jazz musician and as a human. Out of America’s sad history of slavery, racism and discrimination, jazz music emerged and truly represents one of the better angels of our nature. I saw a parallel which made for perfect, yet challenging, original material for the project.
Inspiration for the project
SL: What was the process for composition and arrangement? Did you work alone on the composition before bringing in the rest of the ensemble, or was the writing a collaborative process?
BM: I started the composition process by researching the original sheet music first. The Smithsonian archive has much of the original material online which gave me a starting point. Each piece really took its own path, for example with “Battle Cry of Freedom” I started with a Wayne Shorter approach in the first half of the piece, which I then wanted to transform into an entirely new vibe half way through.
Writing the arrangement for “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” was the most challenging. It was a while before I decided I would even tackle the song due to the racist nature. I. wanted it to be reflective and celebratory, so I brought out the “DNA” of jazz in this chart through the blues and gospel. “Shiloh”, an original, was based on the first typical battle of the war, with unimaginable casualties at the time, and was meant to transport the listener to the battlefield as the smoke clears from the final shots fired. This was a “lone wolf” project I tackled over the course of a year, and it was great to explore, but even more fun to hear the charts for the first time in rehearsal.
Performances and reception
SL: Where has the work been performed so far? How have the performances been received?
BM: We did a two-night premiere back in November of 2015 at The Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Vermont, along with a student matinee. The evening performances were packed, but it was really great to see the Middle School kids get excited about the music during the matinee. I think the familiarity of the original songs, the incredible talent of the individual musicians, and the honest joy we have playing this music was felt by everyone who was there. This was the first personal project where people came up to me after, still wiping the tears from their eyes. In that moment, I realized that I had no idea of the power of this project.
SL: What would you hope that audiences take away from the performance? Do you see it as an act of remembrance for the Civil War, or a tribute to Lincoln,
or is it more about the music itself?
BM: I’d like people to look for more of those “better angels” Lincoln was referring to. Jazz is certainly not the only one, but when spoken responsibly and honestly, it can be one of the best. This project is an opportunity to honor an important time period that allowed us to be what we are today (good, bad and everything in between), while at the same time honoring an American art form that would never have been if not for the sacrifices made by so many in this time period.
You can learn more about the project, hear excerpts, and find information about future performances at http://brianmccarthyjazz.com/better-angels-epk
About the author:
Clair Wright is a writer and music lover based in Yorkshire, England.