AS RENOWNED AS the Barnes Foundation is for its collection of artwork by masters like Cezanne, van Gogh, and Monet, it's equally famous for the idiosyncratic way that Dr. Albert Barnes arranged his collection.
The elusive connections and intuitive leaps represented on the Barnes' walls resonated with saxophonist and composer Ken Vandermark, whose own work incorporates inspirations from the entire history of jazz as well as avant-garde classical, post-punk, Ethiopian music and other styles from well outside the usual tradition.
"To say I was blown away would be an understatement," said Vandermark, who recently visited the collection in preparation for a new piece, which he'll premiere Monday at the Barnes, kicking off Ars Nova Workshop's monthlong New Paths Festival. "What was so striking, aside from the quality of the art and the ingenuity with which it was assembled and presented, was the correlation between the way that the collection was organized and the way that I'm thinking about my music right now. I didn't expect that."
Vandermark penned the new piece for his quartet, Made To Break, which brings together musicians from his native Chicago with collaborators from Vienna and Amsterdam. Already involved in a postmodern exploration of varied genres, the group proved ideal for the Barnes project.
"This is an example of one way jazz can be made in the 21st century," Vandermark said. "So when I saw the artwork at the Barnes, it really connected to this idea of how history reflects backwards and forwards. You don't necessarily understand all of the correlations, but you can feel them."
The New Paths Festival was inspired by a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail."
According to Ars Nova Workshop executive director Mark Christman, "The idea here is that we're connecting artists to spaces of rich history but at the same time very little, or no connection to jazz and improvised music."
The festival includes performances by legendary drummer and herbalist Milford Graves at Bartram's Garden; John Zorn playing the organ at Girard College Chapel; and saxophone provocateur Peter Brotzmann at the German Society of Pennsylvania, among others (see schedule).
On four nights in May, bassist William Parker will premiere a new four-part suite at the First Unitarian Church inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit there as a seminary student, where he was inspired by a lecture on Mohandas Gandhi's ideas on nonviolent civil disobedience.
The piece will invite four local jazz greats - Marshall Allen, Dave Burrell, Odean Pope, and Bobby Zankel - to join Parker, drummer Muhammad Ali, and a chamber-jazz ensemble to premiere the piece, titled "Flower in Stained Glass Window."
"The stained glass window is the church, and the flower is a young Martin Luther King, who had not totally blossomed yet," explained Parker. "Unitarian churches have always been the one denomination that's been open to host improvised music. I think there should be a great conjuring of spirits because it's being done in a church."
Founded in 2000, Ars Nova Workshop has never had a venue to call home, so the organization has thrived by continually finding new spaces in which to present jazz and improvised music. New Paths is an evolution of that mission, making the sites themselves integral parts of the performances.