Ted Nash joins the Santa Barbara Symphony Feb. 18-19 at the Granada. | Credit: Courtesy

Among other attributes, the current Santa Barbara Symphony (SBS) season can be hailed as a season of premieres of different stripes, sizes, and, especially in the case of this weekend’s model, genres. After the world premiere of Cody Westheimer’s ambitious multimedia piece Wisdom of the Water, Earth, and Sky two programs back, and a new version of Elmer Bernstein’s Toccata for Toy Trains — arranged by his son Peter, last month, the SBS returns with yet a different brand of premiere.

This weekend (Feb. 18-19) marks a return of Ted Nash, the noted reed player, composer, and longstanding member of the great Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis. Nash has appeared in different settings in Santa Barbara, with and without Marsalis in tow. Now comes his debut with the Symphony, in orchestral garb. As musician and composer, he will premiere a new orchestral expansion of his piece Transformation, with the orchestra boldly led by maestro Nir Kabaretti. He will also perform with the trio led by respected Los Angeles–based jazz pianist Josh Nelson, as well as be warmed by the spotlight as a soloist in Ravel’s ever-popular Boléro.

The SBS has worked with the merger of jazz and classical elements before, as it did last season with the appearance of pianist Marcus Roberts, with his trio and as soloist on Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. But the upcoming Nash adventure takes on a different cast and promises a new level of invention.     

We recently checked in with Nash regarding his latest return to the 805.

Having appeared here in connection with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, educational and otherwise, in many Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts and other settings, is there a local connection, beyond your being a SoCal native?

Over the years, I have developed a deep connection to Santa Barbara, from the many concerts I have played here with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, as well as my own quartet. In particular is my association with the SBMA, which has sponsored many educational workshops focusing on composition and using their beautiful collection as inspiration.

I met Nir Kabaretti many years ago, and we have always talked about working together. That moment has finally come, and I am beyond thrilled to have composed pieces for and solo with the orchestra.

I also have a wine project that I have developed with my partner, singer Kristen Lee Sergeant. Our wine, Two Notes, is produced here in Santa Barbara County. You can find it in several stores and restaurants in the area. 

You have worked in so many different contexts — obviously with a rich connection to big band culture linked to Jazz at Lincoln Center, but also smaller groupings and projects with extra-musical inspirations. Is working in the orchestral world something you’ve always wanted to expand into?

It has been a dream of mine to compose for the orchestra. Having the opportunity to do so with the Santa Barbara Symphony is a natural extension of the years I have spent teaching and playing here. I can’t think of an orchestra I would rather have performing my first works for for this beautiful tradition.

Transformation sounds like a fascinating new turn in your oeuvre. Can you tell me about the origin and evolution of the piece? Are there certain precedents you can point to, in terms of influences on your jazz-meets-symphonic palette?

A few years ago, actress Glenn Close appeared on my album Presidential Suite. Her artistry has always inspired me; her creativity in developing her characters is the type of commitment that I always talk about with my students. I asked her about her method for preparing for her roles and she said she didn’t have a particular technique. “I just use my imagination,” she said. I didn’t think much about that answer at the time, but now I can’t think of anything more important in being creative than using your imagination. It’s everything. 

Ms. Close and I decided to collaborate on a larger project, and we chose the theme of transformation. We developed so many different ways to express this theme, many through deeply personal stories. One of those was my son Eli coming out as transgender. During this concert Eli read his letter to me while the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played a supportive background. As Eli finished his letter, the piece transformed into my response, which I played on the soprano sax.

For the Symphony concert, I have orchestrated these pieces, and I think having the extra colors and textures is really going to expand the emotional feeling of the piece. Imagination played a very important role in the development of the music for these concerts with the Symphony, and I am excited and curious to hear them played. And a little nervous….

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Wynton [Marsalis] has long crossed over the jazz and orchestral worlds: Was he an influence on you in that regard?

Wynton has always been a big influence on me, in so many ways. When I was in my early twenties, I had a fantasy to play with him someday. I never thought it would actually happen. Now he is one of my closest friends and collaborators. We have performed many of his compositions for big band and orchestra, and this has certainly had a big impact on me. The way he hears music is so personal and expresses the deep love he has for both jazz and classical traditions. 

I see that the S.B. Symphony program includes Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration and Ravel’s ever-popular Boléro — with you in the ensemble mix — are on the menu on this program. Do those pieces resonate in some way with the concept of your piece?

I love that I get to play the sax solos on Boléro. When I was 14 years old, I had my first clarinet solo and it was Ravel’s Boléro. I love that decades later I have come full circle and get to play it again. But playing it with a middle-school band is a little different than standing in front of a world-class orchestra.

Do you find a satisfying symbiosis in a program such as this, in terms of classical culture interweaving naturally with jazz — what Ellington called “America’s classical music?” Or do you view it in such culture-crossing terms?

I have always loved combining musical disciplines. My band Odeon embraces Eastern European, South American, New Orleans, and classical styles of music in a base of modern jazz. Classical music and jazz share so much, especially in terms of harmony and rhythm. I think the big band can certainly be considered jazz’s orchestral ensemble. Although the big band was more popular decades ago, there have been so many composers continuing to develop this important ensemble, keeping the tradition alive.

Funny, but Dizzy Gillespie once said “One should not consider it an achievement to lose one’s orchestral tradition.” One thing I love is bringing improvisation, which is such an important characteristic of jazz, into the rich environment of the orchestra. I am also thrilled to have the wonderful pianist Josh Nelson and his trio with Luca Alemanno on bass and Dan Schnelle on drums in the context of the orchestra. 

From another corner of your work, and in trio mode, I was just listening to/loving your tribute to the great composer/bandleader Carla Bley, Healing Power: The Music of Carla Bley. Beautiful work. Was that a special project for you, an ode to an inspiration?

My trio has always embraced the music of composers we love. Our first album, Quiet Revolution, was dedicated to the music of Jim Hall and Jimmy Giuffre. Somewhere Else features the music of West Side Story. Healing Power is our third release, featuring the music of one of the most original composers, Carla Bley. Steve Cardenas, our guitarist, has had a wonderful association with Ms. Bley over the years.

When she heard the album, she said “That’s me.”


Transformation with the Santa Barbara Symphony takes place at The Granada Theatre on February 18 at 7:30 p.m. and February 19 at 3 p.m. (with a 2 p.m. pre-concert talk with special guest Ted Nash). See thesymphony.org.

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