Jazz musicians, like their colleagues in the other performing arts, are not exactly known for being politically conservative. Hear of a jazz project with political overtones, and you can be forgiven for expecting that it will have a stridently left-wing "message."
How refreshing—astonishing, even—is the new recording, then, by saxophonist and composer Ted Nash, a work for big band called "The Presidential Suite." Originally written for a performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the suite is a musical interpretation of eight famous political speeches. On the new disc, an actor or politico reads a section of a speech and then Nash's big band performs the music inspired by that oratory. What's astonishing about the project is the selection of speeches.
Perhaps unsurprising are the choices such as JFK's Ask Not speech and FDR's Four Freedoms; but what struck me was the inclusion of speeches by two of the most notable conservatives of the 20th century. One movement of Nash's suite renders in music Winston Churchill's defiant Battle of Britain promise to fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets. Another movement of the suite—get ready for it—is inspired by the speech that won the Cold War, Ronald Reagan's Berlin demand that Mikhail Gorbachev Tear Down This Wall.
Some of the other speeches chosen are also not what one might expect upon first hearing about the project and its theme. Particularly moving is Aung San Suu Kyi's call (an essay read by actress Glenn Close) to throw off oppression by fighting fear and the corruption born of fear.
A further surprise is what's missing: There is no obligatory selection from President Barack Obama.
The music is serious and impressive, and the project proves to be admirably nonpartisan. It is a credit to the maturity and thoughtfulness of Nash that he has recognized that having something important to say is not the sole province of one political party or persuasion.