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Gambit Weekly John Scott's Optical Jazz

By D. Eric Bookhardt

JUNE 8, 1998:  Set back from Bamboo Road, an obscure, oak-shrouded byway at the border of Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, Longue Vue House and Gardens resembles a displaced European estate lost in time and space. An island of serenity boxed between Metairie and the distressed anonymity of Airline Drive, Longue Vue conveys a sense of old European aristocracy transposed to the semi-tropical chaos of south Louisiana. The house itself, a classical French manor, might resonate echoes of empire and old colonial memories were it not for its air of contemplative quietude.

  It is a far cry from the raucous cacophonies of Storyville in the heyday of hot jazz or Harlem in the bebop era for that matter, which is why the current John Scott at Longue Vue show makes for such an intriguing contrast. Scott's efforts are often inspired by the legacies of hot and cool jazz and the pantheon of the great jazz pioneers, but, rather than being "about" the music or the musicians, his efforts have largely been directed toward visually conjuring the underlying essence of jazz.

  In this, I am reminded of Alfred Steiglitz's early abstract photographs, which he called equivalents for their ability to evoke essential patterns of energy, form and motion without actually portraying any distinctly recognizable subject. In like manner, Scott is a conjurer of essences, and while his finished works look a lot like modern art, they also recall the tribal shaman's appeal to the spirits -- only in this case, it is the jazz spirits who are being summoned and propitiated.

  In a sense, Scott's efforts are like doors or windows into a world of subtle energies, a kind of bebop take on the music of the spheres. Hence, works like Doorway for the Blues or French Window for Sidney Bechet are emblematic. Like a dream portal painted in polychrome rainbow patterns and festooned with finely balanced rods floating diagonally upward like the levitating staffs of obeah men, Doorway evokes something of the mellow celestial lyricism of Coltrane ballads. Yet even though its ascending harmonies can function as a mood elevator, this multi-hued doorway is really the threshold of a spirit house in the tradition of old Africa, a checkpoint presided over by Elegue, or Papa Legba, the guardian of the threshold between the worlds.

  Similarly, French Window is like an aperture into another realm, a swirling world of dancing crimson and tangerine tones pulsating out from a skylike backdrop of pale cerulean blue. Some rhythmic black rods seem to punctuate the cerulean with vertical black slashes, giving the whole thing a kind of rhythmic contrapunto. Fashioned from layers of sheetmetal painted and cut in curvilinear swatches that fold in and out like heavy metal origami, French Window melds the flatness of Matisse and the School of Paris into a more Afro-Caribbean modality -- a dance of color, light and percussion. The result is rhapsodic, like a second line or a Brazilian samba society in high hormonal party mode, an effect both spontaneous and controlled.

Sculptor John Scott's Doorway For The Blues evokes the mellow celestial lyricism of Coltrane ballads.
  In this sense, French Window for Sidney Bechet really does evoke something of Bechet's superb style of clarinet and soprano sax playing, that controlled fusion of heat, light and coolness that set off Roman candles of minor key ecstasies in the minds of Parisian jazz buffs. By mixing sweetness and light with flashes of dark irony, both Scott and Bechet transformed ordinary realities into something more like epiphanies.

  The source of the irony is summarized in Scott's I Remember Birmingham series of cast-glass blocks featuring quoted narrative snippets from the early days of the civil rights movement. This takes the form of a series of comments on the conditions of those times, excerpted, abstracted and printed with polychrome paint. Sandblasted into the smooth surfaces and printed intaglio style, the often unsettling remarks, which hark back to the Birmingham of fire hoses and police dogs unleashed on protest marchers, contrast sharply with the light, airy qualities of the glass. As an experiment in new ways of approaching old memories, Scott's Birmingham is his personal memorial to where we have been as a region and a nation.

  On the grounds behind the house is a sampling of Scott's recent outdoor sculpture, buoyant concoctions of circles and rods arranged in obliquely musical patterns. Their unpainted surfaces also might seem experimental at first glance, but, in fact, they are continuations of Scott's longstanding themes -- his process of taking life as he finds it, abstracting the music from it and distilling it into a higher octave of experience. Consequently, his works possess a spirited yet healing presence, a visual harmonizing of the present with the future and past.

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