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Jazzing up the Bard

Posted by Scott McLennan  July 15, 2013 02:41 PM

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The Shakespearean Jazz Show on stage last spring at the Cutler Majestic Theater. (Tripp Clemens photo)

To beat, or not to beat.

A horn, a horn. My kingdom for a horn.

OK, I'll stop, and assure you that the Shakespearean Jazz Show will have a far more sophisticated twist than the above when it merges traditional New Orleans jazz and various Shakespearean passages during performances July 18 and 19 at the Paramount Center in Boston.

The Shakespearean Jazz Show is a tale of two cities (OK, now I'll stop). First there is New Orleans, where the show's main creator Alex Ates was born and raised. Before he became a student at Emerson College, Ates learned a few things back home while acting in a Shakespeare company and absorbing the jazz created in his hometown's French Quarter.

"There was a frustration with the Shakespeare I was performing not being relevant to a contemporary audience," Ates recalls. "Then I'd go to the French Quarter, and the musicians were working in a tradition, pretty much playing the exact same songs each time they performed, but it was always energetic and exciting and connecting with people. How do you get that kind of excitement with Shakespeare's texts?"

It was a question Ates carried with him into his junior year of college when he was on the board of Emerson's Shakespeare company and under a bit of pressure to come up with a performance idea.

A case of homesickness probably never paid off so well for a student.

"I just decided to put Shakespeare's text with the New Orleans jazz," he says.

What he found is that the music lets the words simply fly. He also found that Shakespeare's lyrical writing fit into a musical model quite nicely, so there was no real tweaking of the sonnet verses and dramatic lines used in the performance.

The theater-arts major enlisted musical collaborator Patrick Greeley to compose music. The performance ensemble grew to include musicians, dancers, actors, and puppeteers. Ates and Greeley reached across town to Berklee College of Music to fill out the ranks of the so-called Nine Worthies (a name taken from "Love's Labour's Lost").

As the project has grown and solidified, Ates says he could not be more pleased with the integration of the jazz musicians and theatrical team.

"I think we're redefining each discipline by using the other," he says of the music and theater collaboration that isn't really traditional musical theater.

The Shakespearean Jazz Show made its debut in the basement of an Emerson dorm in Dec. 2011. And since then, made its way to bigger stages in Boston and into a Shakespeare festival in New Orleans.

The Shakespearean Jazz Show is back home for shows at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday at the Paramount, 559 Washington St., Boston. You can order tickets from the the Shakespearean Jazz Show's web site.

And like jazz itself, the Shakespearean Jazz Show is never the same twice.

"Our attitude is that anything is fair game," Ates says. "A huge component of jazz is improvisation, and we've adopted that philosophy. We can tinker because we trust each other."

To that end, you'll see every member of the ensemble_ the musicians, the dancers, the actors, the tech crew_ on stage all the time for every performance.

While Ates graduated in May, much of the 15-person ensemble is still in Boston and attending school, so the future for Shakespearean Jazz Show is still tied to a schedule of studies, finals, and the like.

But what Ates does know is that Shakespeare can be sprung from the academic trappings the student-turned-producer first found the Bard.

"In New Orleans, the music on the street is being made for the people," he says. "In theater, 'populist' is a negative for some reason. But in this case, it makes the text engaging."

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Scott McLennan is a Boston Globe music correspondent and previously wrote a music and entertainment column for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette for 15 years. After seeing the band Boston in the Boston Garden as a teenager he never looked back and eventually figured out how to be a professional fan. Scott is very good at writing in the dark. This blog is an ongoing discussion about music happening in and around Boston. Scott will be leading the trek across genres looking for new releases and hot shows as well as just checking in with the people who make Boston such a great place to listen. More »
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