After a short set in the Kimmel Center's SEI Innovation Studio last week, the members of the Fresh Cut Orchestra fielded questions from the audience. Perhaps inevitably for a group of young local musicians, the issue of the health of Philadelphia's jazz scene arose.
Trumpeter Josh Lawrence had a simple answer: He gestured to the crowd, noting a full house for a work-in-progress presentation on a rainy Tuesday evening.
Jay Wahl, the Kimmel's artistic director of programming and presentations, says that's the main goal of the new Kimmel Center Jazz Residency program: "We want to be a megaphone to help tell the world that we're sitting on world-class talent here."
For its inaugural year, the Jazz Residency program has commissioned new works by three local composers: Lawrence and the Fresh Cut Orchestra; saxophonist and bandleader Bobby Zankel, in collaboration with hip-hop choreographer Raphael Xavier and Cuban-born percussionist François Zayas; and Grammy-winning percussionist Pablo Batista, expanding his 10-piece Mambo Syndicate with a strong quartet and Batá drummers.
All three pieces will premiere June 21 as part of the Kimmel's annual summer solstice celebration. It caps off a series of arts education workshops and work-in-progress concerts, providing audiences with a look into the process of composition.
Zankel, who presents his work-in-progress on Friday, teamed with Xavier on a workshop for dance students from the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. He was surprised by how easily they adapted to his avant-garde music.
"That first workshop opened up my mind a lot," he says. "We were playing odd rhythms, and these kids are break-dancing with no issue, doing something radical and revolutionary like it was totally natural. I think having to have an audience at an early stage of development has made us a little more reflective about how things work and how things are fitting together."
Applications were assessed by a panel of judges from other notable arts institutions, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. "So if nothing else," Wahl says, "even if we weren't able to help all 35 applicants this season, all these local jazz musicians were heard by the head of programming at the Kennedy Center."
The projects chosen are very different, but each has an overarching narrative component. The Fresh Cut Orchestra is composing a four-part suite inspired by the various stages of life, each piece written by a different composer. The orchestra was formed in 2012 through a commission from the Painted Bride, which put together Lawrence, bassist Jason Fraticelli, and drummer Anwar Marshall and gave them the task of assembling a 10-piece band. Each coleader is writing one piece of the Kimmel Center suite, with the final section to be penned by guitarist and electronic musician Tim Conley.
Zankel's piece takes on the theme of aging, from a less common perspective: the good things about it. "It's about the period of maturation and the wisdom that comes with time rather than the idea of youth being lost and 'Woe is me, I'm old,' " Zankel says. "It's more, 'What can I do or even do better now than I could do when I was young?' It's relevant to a dancer in a particular way, it's relevant to a musician in a particular way, and it's relevant to human beings in a general way."
Batista, whose concert is scheduled for May 15, is writing a suite called The Journey, inspired by the dark legacy of involuntary migrations through history. "It's a piece that really could be applicable to anybody and everybody," he says. "You can apply it to the exodus of the Jews out of [Egypt], you can apply it to the slaves from Africa who were brought to the Americas, or you could look at it on a smaller perspective, as one person who's on a constant journey and struggle through life."
The Jazz Residency program will continue for at least a second year. It came about, Wahl says, as the Kimmel, reflecting on its local connections, concluded that "jazz is really important to us artistically. Of course we'll continue to bring world-class jazz artists like Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra here. But we were thinking about how we could deepen the engagement both in terms of musicians around the country and in terms of the community here. This program came out of a desire to work more deeply with the local community and to think about the future of the art form."
Kimmel Center Jazz Residency
8 p.m. Friday: Bobby Zankel,
Raphael Xavier, François Zayas.
8 p.m. May 15: Pablo Batista
with the Mambo Syndicate
SEI Innovation Studio, Kimmel Center,
300 S. Broad Street. (Entrance on Spruce St.)
Tickets: Free: seating first come, first served; standby line at the door.