Pianist Chris Pattishall’s debut as a bandleader at Duke Performances was originally envisioned as a sweeping affair. The Durham native and rising figure in the New York jazz scene would spend a year-long residency giving performances and collaborating with students from Duke University and Jordan High School, which he attended.
When the pandemic made in-person performances impossible, Duke Performances shifted its season online, commissioning high-quality films from artists who normally would have performed in-person. He took this as an opportunity to create a film that draws upon his many musical (and extra-musical) inspirations, with visual elements (shot by Nick Hughes) that are suffused with close shots and dynamic moods.
The program includes selections from Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite, a movement of William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, and an assortment of songs with South African singer Vuyo Sotashe that push well beyond the standards. Ahead of the performance, which premieres this Saturday—the penultimate show of Duke Performance’s fall season—Pattishall discussed the themes of the performance.
“Mary Lou Williams”
There’s a photograph of her imprinted into my mind: She’s leaning back against an upright piano in a white dress; there’s a birdcage next to the piano. There’s something so strong and defiant and resilient in her expression. Mary Lou, for me, is a constant guiding light. I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but she feels like someone whose presence has been around me for a long time.
I see playing part of her Zodiac Suite as an effort to raise awareness of her brilliance as a performer and composer. A lot of times people mention her almost like a side note, saying, “Oh yeah, she was a composer. She also was an educator.” I used to think that was dismissive—a short pause before moving on to Coleman Hawkins or whatever. But the thing is, there’s a profound understatement in a sentence like that, because she was an incredible performer and educator. She was so committed to community and developing talent and supporting people around her. She did that all through her life before she got to Duke, and she did it at Duke, too.
I first met Vuyo probably in like 2013. He was getting his master’s at William Paterson University on a Fulbright. I had also gone there, and David Demsey, the head of the program, very enthusiastically said, “You’ve got to hear this guy sing.” Vuyo has one of the most perfect instruments I’ve ever heard. His voice is incredible. His technique is unbelievable. He is in control of the instrument, and it’s just beautiful and resonant. His phrasing and his imagination are incredible.
He is kind of the archetype for me—the combination of the most meticulous detail and brilliant use of the language to evoke metaphor, allusion, historical reference. His command of the language allowed him to create such a dense web in such a brief amount of space. And to contrast that with these unbelievably imaginative ways of rendering the universe—of thinking about time, space, and self and how we know ourselves, really grappling with so much information and doing it with this dry humor and this sardonic, quirky wit. I’m always aiming for something like that.
I spent a lot of time this year, in particular, studying Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. That was one of my COVID projects: transcribing cues of theirs and stuff. I had done a handful of live streaming things at the beginning of COVID, and I knew that at least in March, April, and May, so many of them were so pathetic in terms of production value. If I’m going to do this, I want the things that I’ve gathered from all the films I’ve watched and all the books I’ve read and all my other interests to really feed into this. And not just have a flat document with a compelling performance, but also a compelling document where hypothetically you could mute the volume and hopefully still be compelled to watch, you know?
We start the second half of the film with “I’ll Never Be the Same.” I was listening to this incredible recording of Art Tatum called In Private, which has this incredible version of that song where he feels especially free and improvisational. I used to play it in all these kind of cute fashions. I went and listened to Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson, and I was on the edge of tears. I don’t know if it’s a dark joke, but I think “I’ll never be the same” is a thing that all of us can say in 2020 at this point. Everybody is dealing with a completely new reality. It’s not really a song about love lost anymore. It’s a song about the stages of grieving that we’ve all had to go through.
The emotional pinnacle of the whole show, for me, is “They Say I Look Like God” by Dave and Iola Brubeck, sung by Louis Armstrong. I think the piece speaks to this summer and everything that we watched happen with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. All of its potency is delivered in the form of a question.
There’s something about that that is very powerful, because I think if you try to shout somebody down and tell them that they’re wrong, you’re probably gonna encounter some resistance. There’s something about the Socratic method of just asking a question in such a way that you reveal the cruelty in the question.
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