Ted Nash has distinguished himself as a saxophonist and as a Grammy-nominated composer-arranger. For 18 years he has been a member of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), and Wynton Marsalis has expressed awe at Nash’s virtuosity.
In 2014, JALC commissioned a large-scale work from Nash, and the result is now available in a two-CD set from the impressive Motéma Music label: “Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom.”
Nash took eight famous speeches from 20th-century political figures and presented the words followed by the music each inspired. Half are U.S. presidents: John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald Reagan; the rest are leaders from other countries: Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Nash has written about the genesis of the work:
“When I hear a speech offered from the soul of a great person, I’m moved by the rhythm, the cadence, the pauses, what it communicates, and even the audience’s reaction. It’s like music. Great political speeches inspire us to believe we are capable of achieving great things together. It is my hope that when people listen to ‘Presidential Suite,’ they will be reminded of not only how far we have come but also of how much we still have to do regarding human rights and freedom.”
The first CD contains the reading of each speech followed by the music played by the Ted Nash Big Band. (Composer-arranger Nash also conducted the ensemble.) The second CD contains the music without the words.
Two of the readers are actors: Sam Waterston, who reads LBJ’s “The American Promise” on the Voting Rights Act, and Glenn Close reading Suu Kyi’s essay “Water in Cupped Hands,” the only piece that was not originally delivered as a speech.
The other readers include political figures who were inspired by the speeches, such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman reading JFK’s “Ask Not” speech; and Andrew Young, a friend of Mandela’s, reading his speech on “The Time for the Healing of the Wounds.” Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited Reagan’s diaries, reads his “Tear Down This Wall” speech. Chair Emeritus of the Roosevelt Institute, Ambassador William vanden Heuvel reads FDR’s “The Four Freedoms” speech. Author and television personality Deepak Chopra, who met Nehru when he was a boy, reads the prime minister’s “Spoken at Midnight” speech.
Nash is unusually inventive in his approach to the material. His music reflects the cadences of the original speakers as well as their cultures. The JFK piece conveys the president’s youthful drive as well as a sense of coming tragedy at the end. His Nehru piece (which features the composer on soprano sax) is influenced by Indian classical music, while the musical response to Suu Kyi’s reflective piece contains characteristics of Burmese music. Chris Crenshaw’s voice and trombone add charm to the Mandela piece, which has a catchy South African vibe.
My only regret is that the original speeches were not used, since most of them were preserved as recordings and are quite familiar. The readers are fine but don’t sound, for example, like JFK or Churchill.
There are splendid solos throughout, by such masters as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on “The American Promise” and baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley (who died shortly after the recording session) on “This Deliverance.”
The liner notes by Douglas Brinkley and Kabir Sehgal provide a wealth of details about the speeches and the music.
Amazingly, Nash composed this intricate, carefully researched work in only two months. It stands as an important contribution to our music and history.
As the world seems to be heading backward, it’s important that we remember the higher ideals conveyed by these leaders and keep striving to achieve these goals of universal freedom.
Will we someday have a musical setting of presidential tweets? Only time can tell.
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.