Jazz and Oberon may seem unlikely soulmates, but this summer season began a trend that may not soon decelerate. To the south, in San Diego, jazz drumming legend Max Roach wrote a score for the San Diego Rep's modern version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." To the north, in Solvang, audiences at the PCPA Theaterfest were treated to jazz drummer Peter Erskine's own musical view of this "Dream." (Jazz pianist Milcho Leviev was also a PCPA (Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts) resident composer this summer, for John C. Fletcher's staging of "Good.")
The Theaterfest edition, with Erskine's score intact, has made the journey down the coast to Los Angeles--the first to do so--where it opens Tuesday night at the Westwood Playhouse. (Sets, costumes, props and most of the company are the same as the Solvang production but the Westwood edition is being produced by Actsport Productions.)
Why all these sudden marriages of jazz idioms and theater?
Erskine, a multi-talented time keeper, suggested a possible reason as he spoke on the phone from Canada (where he was holding a series of drum clinics): "Theater possesses this great element of chance about it. It's most focused on the actor, having to create one moment after another on stage.
"Watching the rehearsals, I noticed how much of an improvisatory spirit there was. In Jack Fletcher's theater, that involves much response and timing. It's not all that far from the improvising that musicians do off of a tune--they have to know the notes and they have to listen."
He was quick to add, however, that the music for "Midsummer" isn't strictly jazz. "A few years ago, I started listening to those wonderful, rich movie scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner. Their big orchestral sound, with huge heroic strains, is partly what I was going for, plus a mixture of Caribbean, R & B, African sounds. Shakespeare's universe in this play really allowed me to grab at just about anything.
"My years (from 1978 to 1982) with Weather Report (the feted jazz fusion ensemble founded and led by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and reedman Wayne Shorter) really helped me out with this score, no question about it. It's not just in the Third World influences that were so much a part of that band, but also in Joe's way with the keyboard. He taught me how to compose while playing, as well as all the possibilities with electronics.
"When Joe (an Austrian) heard my stage music, he said: 'You write in the Viennese tradition.' I couldn't have received a higher compliment than that."
Erskine and Fletcher may have only collaborated twice so far (their first venture was the Fletcher/PCPA "Richard II" last year) but their history goes back to their high school days, when they attended Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. The fledgling director loved to fiddle with the drums, and the young jazzman was fascinated by the actors' craft, "especially their (actors') emotional commitment."
Erskine went on to what has become an extraordinary career, starting with Stan Kenton's and Maynard Ferguson's big bands, through Weather Report and on to sizzling ensemble work with the groups Steps Ahead, Bass Desires, regular dates with guitarist John Abercrombie and his own settings (his second album as leader, "Transitions," has just been released, along with Bass Desires' "Second Sight").
A busier jazz artist is not likely to be found--he has even written a book, "Drum Concepts and Techniques," just published. But, as he tells it, he couldn't resist his old friend Fletcher when they met in New York two years ago.
"He challenged me--could I write music for 'Richard II?' I'm so glad he put me up to it, because this has turned out to be one of the most rewarding gigs I've ever had. Seeing how enchanted the audience becomes by the magic on stage really surpasses most of the time I've spent playing drums to big crowds who didn't seem to be listening."
Surprisingly, Erskine largely stayed away from the rehearsal process for "Midsummer." Instead, he read the text and came up with ideas which he punched into his MacIntosh computer/electronic keyboard configuration at his Santa Monica home studio.
"I'd send the tapes up to Jack," he explained, "and he would bounce new ideas off of me. His one rule was, 'No pumpkin dance-kind of music.'
"Oh, and another good thing about working on the keyboard: I'm learning to write in keys other than C."