The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Pianist Laura Caviani talks about the ties between classical music and jazz before her upcoming concert and workshop in Madison this coming Sunday. Part 2 of 2.

September 5, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fusion – the combining of different or contrasting art genres — is a big trend in classical music today as classical musicians seek to build both audiences and relevance.

It is a very postmodern cultural phenomenon.

One local example is the upcoming concert by pianist Laura Caviani. It is “From Bach to Bop” on Sunday, Sept. 9, with a concert from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. and workshop from 6 to 7 p.m.

The concert will be held at the Brink Lounge (below), 701 East Washington Avenue., in Madison.

Concert Admission is: General public: $12 advance, $15 at the door on day-of-show; Students with ID, Members of Madison Music Collective and Madison Jazz Society: $8 advance, $10 at the door on day-of-show

Workshop Admission is FREE

Advance tickets can be purchased online at

The concert is sponsored by the Madison Music Collective, Mad Toast Live, Lillianis Restaurant, WORT-FM and the Improvisational Music Workshop.

Pianist Laura Caviani recently spoke with The Ear via email about the links between classical music and jazz 

For you, what do classical music and jazz have in common?

Well, there’s the familiar quote by Duke Ellington (below): “There are only two kinds of music: Good and Bad”. As I get older, I really find this to be true. It does help to categorize music, because it makes us feel smarter. But in the end, either you like what you’re listening to, or you don’t.

When I analyze J.S. Bach, the chord progressions that reveal themselves to me feel so jazzy! His harmonic language is full of extensions and alterations. Yes, Bach (below) was truly a jazzer. Same with Debussy. Schumann feels more like folk music to me; his melody line is so simple and clear and strong. Embellishing that melody becomes a really fun challenge.

Do you see a trend of different genres of music closing the gaps between them, or at least being combined in live concert events? If so, why is that happening?

I think the advent of YouTube has brought our culture to this amazing time when everything is available to us in an instant. This is both good and bad, but the good part is that if musicians want to make comparisons between genres and/or performers, they can do so in a heartbeat. I think this new technology will connect unlikely musical collaborators in new ways and will bode well for the future of music, as long as we don’t take this new technology for granted.

Some of my favorite jazz pianists have also recorded classical works. One of my favorite jazz pianists, Keith Jarrett (below), recorded the Handel Suites, Bach and more. The hand independence that is required to play Baroque music is evident in his improvising. Clearly, his understanding of Classical music in general has informed his improvising and made him a better musician.

Actually, this is an important point:  I would argue that all classical musicians would benefit from learning how to improvise, just as jazz musicians can learn from classical musicians.

You are from the Twin Cities. Do you know Madison and its audiences and what do you think of them?

About my Wisconsin ties: I have so many fond memories of my times in Wisconsin. My first memories are from my times at Lawrence University, where I studied jazz with the great Fred Sturm (below). He’s back there teaching (after a brief stint at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY) and is, hands down, my all time top jazz mentor.

Shortly after graduating from LU, I spent a summer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison completing a degree requirement, and have many fond memories of practicing in the music building. Kurt Dietrich was my unlikely mentor at that time, as he took the time to show me to the music library, where he played McCoy Tyner‘s “Passion Dance” for me. (He heard me practicing it like a Bach etude from a transcription book. Clearly I had never heard the recording before!) Hearing that recording, in that library, changed my life forever, and I knew then that I wanted to play jazz for the rest of my life.

Many years later, I remember meeting Joan Wildman (below) in Madison one weekend, while I was teaching jazz at UW–Stevens Point. She inspired me in that she was doing what I wanted to do: combining her own work with teaching and composing.

Finally, one my fondest Madison memories is adjudicating for one of the best high school jazz festivals in the country, which just happens to be in Madison’s backyard, at Sun Prairie High School, with Steve Sveum as the band director. Madison is so lucky to have such talent in the area.

More recently, I was just in Madison two years ago to celebrate the music of the great Mary Lou Williams, who would have turned 100 in 2010. Jim Doherty brought me in to work with some of the local high school jazz bands, and to perform with the U of WI Jazz Band. What talent I heard that day! Before that, I hadn’t performed in Madison since 1995 or 96, when the marvelous vocalist Debbie Duncan and I drove down in a blizzard to play at a small jazz club.

The fact that we made it was a minor miracle. Ben Sidran (below) was in the audience, and sat in. That was a memorable weekend.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I feel strongly that music must remain a priority in our schools. Retaining strong music (and art) programs is imperative to the well being of all students. There is overwhelming evidence that the skills students gain from their experiences in band, orchestra, choir, and jazz ensemble, help them as they mature into creative and contributing members of society, whether or not they go on and become musicians.

About the upcoming concert: Both Pete Whitman (below) and I are so looking forward to performing in Madison. We’ll be performing selections from our Bach to Bop program, along with original compositions by both myself and Pete.

Pete is a fine composer in his own right, and is on faculty at McNally Smith College in St. Paul, Minn. He plays a mean sax, and has performed with Glenn Miller and Woody Herman, to name a few. Pete and I also look forward to performing some of these pieces with your local bassist and drummer, John Schaffer and Rand Moore.

We are really looking forward to this concert.

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