In 1874, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote his most famous piece, Pictures at an Exhibition, in 20 days as a tribute to his friend the artist Viktor Hartmann, who had died suddenly from an aneurysm. The music celebrates 10 paintings in a retrospective of the artist’s work.
The Montreal born and raised saxophonist Chet Doxas has his own pictures for an exhibition of music coming to the Ottawa Jazz Festival’s winter concert weekend.
Doxas’s exhibition, however, draws from the art scene in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s and includes the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Doxas isn’t inspired by the death of an artist friend, but by his own love of visual art, something that goes way back to his childhood in Montreal and enhanced by his time on the road with the Sam Roberts Band over about six years.
“We were on the road 200 days a year. It was crazy,” he said over the phone from his current home in Brooklyn, New York.
“One of the things we would do when we got to a town was go to a museum or a gallery. We’d get to see parts of the and even got inside the archives. That drew me closer to the visual arts.
“But if you take it way back I was very interested as a kid. My parents got an art teacher for me. It’s one of those things you don’t think was different until you look back on it and realize the other kids didn’t have that.
“She was a neighbour. One day I would do plaster casting, the next mix acrylics.”
Music too was a big part of the Doxas family home.
“There was so much music at that time. My dad (George) built the house to be a beautiful music studio. He’s an engineer and recorded tons of records. A lot of the music was happening in the house. At that time he was doing a lot of choral directing and sometimes we’d have 30 voice choirs singing in the house.”
With both art and music in his life it was probably inevitable that Doxas woulld combine the two.
“This will sound a bit bizarre but about five years ago I woke up and I had this thing that when I saw people I would see a colour in my head. Talking to you right now it’s a royal blue.
“I have that with people. And certain musical chords have certain colours. Purple, for example, is a minor sixth.”
One day when he was on the road with the Sam Roberts Band, he says, he was looking at an art show poster from turn of the 20th century Paris. And the fonts on the poster caught his eye and his inner ear.
“Looking at those fonts I started hearing notes.” He also started to freak out a little, he says.
But going with the flow he then stood in front of a Georgia O’Keefe painting.
“It started coming out in sheets of music.” Eventually Doxas started to contemplate turning this into music for a concert.
To complete the thought he decided to use art from the 1970s and ’80s, which was also the time of the No Wave movement in music was erupting in New York.
“If there is one central theme to this whole thing that I’m trying to distill, is the idea of transcendence and where do these two things — art and music — meet. If you stand in front of Starry Night or you hear opening phrase of Around Midnight played by Miles Davis, what is it that breaks your heart?
“I even think about the air that I am sharing with these pieces. You are touching these pieces. If you were ever lucky enough to be in a room with John Coltrane you were touching that air.”
He also really likes the grassroots feel of the work of Basquiat, Haring and others.
The culmination of all this thinking and doing is an album called Rich in Symbols, which has cover art done by him
His show in Ottawa next weekend features all the album. The visual art that inspired the songs will be projected as the music is played by Doxas and Matthew Stevens on guitar; Rob Ritchie, guitar and synths; Zack Lober, bass and turntables and Eric Doob, drums and electronics.
Doxas says the music owes much to the rock influences he assimilated with six years on the road with a rock band.
But the fact that he’s drawing from rock isn’t surprising. He loves all kinds of music.
“I love jazz and I love classical. We play a lot of early music at home. But there is power in a rock band. It moves a lot of air.”
Great thing about new York galleries. If an art fan it is a place to be.
Doxas has been in Brooklyn for three years with no regrest.
“I’m not happy about the politics but we are insulated in New York. It’s so big you can’t entertain the idea of getting a handle on it all, so that’s actually kind of a relief.”
As far as music goes: “People move here are pursuing a dream. I walked out the door the other night and heard one of my very favourite guitar players. Being able to do that every night of the week is very special.
He says he’s imagining an installation project. He has approached the National Gallery of Canada with an idea to do something around the Group of Seven. “You’d come in after hours and they’d light up a painting as I play piece of music written for it. We are talking about it.” But no decision yet.
And, after the summer festival circuit, he’s mapping out a tour of concerts in museums for the fall.
Chet Doxas Rich in Symbols
Ottawa Jazz Festival Winter Concert series
When: Feb. 9 at 9 p.m.
Where: La Nouvelle Scène Studio, 333 King Edward Ave.
Tickets and more information on the full weekend lineup: ottawajazzfestival.com