Saxophonist jazzes up WCMA galleries

The normally silent halls of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) were ringing with the sounds of jazz this past weekend as Erik Lawrence, professional saxophonist and Williams adjunct instructor, lead a musical tour through the galleries. This event was part of the annual weeklong Williamstown Jazz Festival, which began on April 29 and ends today with a performance at the Clark by the Vijay Iyer Trio. The Festival’s shows ranged from a dance class at MASS MoCA to the headliner, the critically acclaimed and energetic jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenon in the Miguel Zenon quartet. Also included was the 18th Annual Intercollegiate Jazz Festival featuring college jazz ensembles from as far as Ohio and as close as the Williams College Jazz Ensemble. The art-walk at WCMA is a new addition to the yearly jazz festival that was well received by those who had a chance to enjoy the experience.

In an exercise of free-form jazz improvisation, Lawrence walked around while allowing his music to flow in a response to the artwork he saw. Viewers were intended to view the works of art instead of looking at the musician, simply allowing the rhythm of the music to inform and articulate the experience of viewing art. Beginning with an airy sound that utilized a lot of the upper register of his antique baritone saxophone, Lawrence walked slowly around the gallery on the first floor of WCMA.

After playing his evocative solo for several minutes, Lawrence told a brief story about one of the artists exhibited in the room, an acquaintance of his, saying that he was both an artist and a novice saxophone musician. His story culminated in his advice about art – music specifically – when he said, “If you want to play, you should play.”

Following a short break during which the group moved upstairs to the Kroh McClelland Gallery, Lawrence improvised next to work from the “Studio Art Faculty Exhibition” with an edgy, rhythmic solo, utilizing the deep, lower register of the baritone saxophone. His piece also incorporated a few interestingly nontraditional saxophone techniques as he played high notes above the range of the instrument (overtones and a kind of purposefully controlled “squeaking”) to create an effective, rhythmic sound that varied in tempo and style.

Next, guitarist Freddie Bryant, who has been helping to organize and run the Festival in the absence of Andy Jaffe, director of jazz activities and a senior lecturer in music who is on sabbatical, played guitar in an impromptu nature after having been invited by Lawrence to play. They played together in a similar improvisational style, feeding off of each other’s energies as well as the art surrounding them in the Lincoln and Manifestos galleries. The experience of reading founding documents with the backdrop of creative, avant-garde jazz improvisation was a thrilling experience that added greatly to the tour of the gallery.

The tour then moved into the “Matter of Theology: A Conversation with the Collection” while Lawrence put down his saxophone in favor of his flute. The combination of the ethereal sounds of the improvised flute with the chords of the guitar transformed the experience and dialogue between viewer and the religiously charged items displayed in the gallery.

Finally, the performance moved out of the dark purple room into the light and air of the museum’s rotunda, which currently exhibits Sol LeWitt’s complex pyramid sculptures on the pure white walls. Here, the tour had the opportunity to join in with Lawrence and Bryant as assistants passed out various percussive instruments, shakers and bells. The high twinkling sound accompanied Lawrence’s switch to the higher-pitched alto saxophone in the high airy space of the gallery. The rhythm and music became a very personal experience for the viewers-turned-listeners, who now literally became part of the artwork on display in the museum. The connection amongst various forms of art was an important theme of the performance, exhibiting the idea that there is rhythm in all of the arts. The performance truly reflected Lawrence’s belief that everyone can experience “more art, more music and more rhythm.”