All This Jazz
Local composer Mel Graves offers world premiere of 'Spirit Changes'
MEL GRAVES is what some might call "a spiritual guy." He can talk easily about meditation, Buddhism, or sacred Sufi poetry. He's built his own spiritual practice, devoting two hours a day to prayer and study, reflecting on the thoughts of teachers ranging from the Dalai Lama to Neale Donald Walsch (Conversations with God). He can quote Pablo Neruda and Lao-tzu and Sri Ramakrishna.
But he's also a master of the bass guitar who plays and teaches jazz, as well as writing demanding musical compositions for the likes of the Kronos Quartet. It is through jazz, in fact, that Graves' eclectic skills and interests have found a comfortable home.
"The thing about jazz," he muses, "is that old idea of, you know, 'being in the moment.' Well, to play really good jazz you have to be in the moment, and it takes an incredible amount of concentration to be in the moment--to be able to go anywhere, musically, with whomever you are playing with.
"I try to do my life the same way," he says, "to really be in the moment, not to be thinking all the time of the past or the future, but just to really be there performing whatever is before me."
This weekend, Graves will have a very special opportunity to be in the moment, and in the spotlight, when he joins a team of world-class musicians--New York vocalist Thomas Buckner and the award-winning Turtle Island String Quartet--for the world premiere of his newest piece, a remarkable 13-movement composition titled Spirit Changes.
Commissioned by Buckner, for whom Graves has composed twice before, the demanding piece draws on several obscure yet luminous texts, from Sutta Nipata's Discourse on Good Will ("May all beings be filled with joy and peace; may all beings everywhere . . . be filled with lasting joy") to Robert Bly's adaptation of an ancient Zuni prayer ("This is what I want to happen: that our earth mother may be clothed in ground corn four times over; that frost flowers cover her entirely").
Spirit Changes will be performed three times in February, beginning with the premiere on Saturday, Feb. 5, at SSU's Evert B. Person Theatre, followed by a Sunday night show at Herbst Theater in San Francisco and, later in the month, a performance at Lincoln Center in New York City. Graves devoted six months to the writing of Spirit Changes, following a solid year spent searching through libraries for the right half-dozen texts.
"I looked at writings covering the last couple thousand years of Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Zuni Indian, and Jewish thought," he says, "looking for texts that would provide a positive message for the millennium." The time paid off. On the strength of the finished work, Graves was able to build a team of musicians that is nothing short of top-notch.
"I really feel fortunate to have all the people I wanted in the piece," Graves says, nodding slowly. "Turtle Island was essential, because the piece requires a string quartet that can do all the contemporary classical stuff, but can also improvise over the jazz material. They all solo throughout the piece as well. Turtle Island is one of the very few groups that can do that."
A player on the jazz scene for over 35 years, Graves, originally from Ohio, has lived in the Bay Area since 1967. He spent some time at the San Francisco Conservatory as a composer and bassist, after which there were occasional moves away--to San Diego, to New York, and then to Italy for a lengthy residence. But Graves kept returning to Northern California. In 1981, he was asked to teach a few jazz courses at Sonoma State University, a gig that turned him into a full-time local. Graves is now a full professor of SSU's Jazz Department, one of the few places on earth you can take a four-year degree program in jazz studies.
ONE OF HIS FIRST pupils was flute player Bob Ofifi--"My first star student," says Graves with a grin--who's made a name for himself as a versatile musician able to swing easily from classical to jazz. Ofifi will be joining Graves and Turtle Island for all three performances, along with drummer George Marsh, pianist Smith Dobson, and Jon Crosse on winds.
As for the sound and style of Graves' admittedly ambitious composition, Spirit Changes is mainly a "third-stream, world-concept piece," with a foundation of contemporary classical music that frequently soars off into segments of full-on improvisational jazz, with multilayered passages revealing Afro-Cuban and Brazilian influences, as well as touches of reggae and Indian music.
"In terms of the rhythmic fields of the tunes," says Graves, "it's jazz and all the outshoots of the umbrella of jazz."
Of the 13 movements, six are settings of the poem, six are jazzlike vehicles for the musicians to improvise on, "and the 13th," explains Graves, "is a real mix of things." With a gentle chuckle, he says, "I can't really describe it, but it's the most avant-garde thing in the piece."
Graves points out that Spirit Changes is dedicated to his father, Clyde Graves, who died last summer, as his son was completing the piece.
"My father was one of my most important spiritual influences," notes Graves. "He was a very giving, very generous man. And jazz is a very giving musical form. To play really good jazz with a band, you have to give generously to the other players, you have to be interdependent.
"That's what I love about it."
Catch the premiere of Spirit Changes on Saturday, Feb. 5, at 8 p.m. at Sonoma State University's Person Theatre, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $8 for students and seniors. For details, call 664-2353.
From the February 3-9, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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