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  • Glenn Siegel

Jane Ira Bloom Channels Emily Dickinson

To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, on Wednesday and Thursday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel. It wasn’t the circus that rolled past, it was Jane Ira Bloom and her ensemble that came to Amherst to interact with the enduring legacy of the great poet. Bloom, the remarkable soprano saxophonist and composer, was at the center of three events culminating in the April 28th world premiere of Wild Lines: Jane Ira Bloom Plays Emily Dickinson, performed at Bezanson Recital Hall at UMass. It was the concluding concert of this year’s Magic Triangle Jazz Series, produced by the Fine Arts Center.

The day before Thursday’s spellbinding performance, Bloom, actor Deborah Rush and pianist Dawn Clement spent the afternoon at the Dickinson Museum and Homestead, soaking in the spirit of the Belle of Amherst. Along with Bloom’s husband, the celebrated actor and director Joe Grifasi (The Deer Hunter, Ironweed, The Bronx is Burning) and Rush’s husband Chip Cronkite, a videographer of note, our entourage was given an exclusive tour by Executive Director Jane Wald. A lovely reception was followed by a short musical performance in The Evergreens, Austin Dickinson’s home. With Clement playing the family piano, Bloom on saxophone and Rush speaking Emily’s words, 35 invited guests were transported on this “bright Wednesday afternoon.” It was clear Bloom and company understood the profound poetics of visiting and performing in Emily’s space.

The next morning at Amherst Media, Bloom, Rush and Wald joined me for an engaging conversation about Dickinson and her deep effect on generations of readers. The discussion will be available on channel 12 in Amherst and on line, at Bloom’s aha! moment concerning the poet came during a New York Public Library presentation by scholar George Boziwick, Chief of the Music Division of the Library’s Performing Arts branch, who was at the UMass concert. When Bloom learned Dickinson liked to make things up on the piano, it confirmed for her the felt improvisatory nature of Dickinson’s poetry and started her to writing Wild Lines.

A Chamber Music America New Works grant allowed Bloom to bring Clement from Seattle, where she teaches along side Tom Varner and Wayne Horvitz at Cornish College of the Arts, and hire Rush, whose extensive credits include Broadway productions of Noel Coward and Wendy Wasserstein, films of John Schlesinger, Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet, and the TV shows The Good Wife, Law and Order and Orange is the New Black.

Grifasi, an extremely affable and focused guy, “directed” the concert, setting up the stage with a hanging lace curtain, much like the one that hung on Dickinson’s famous window. On the opposite side of the stage were a vintage table, rug, hurricane lamp and chair. Rush, dressed in a flowing white dress much like the one Emily often wore, moved through the space, even sitting at the piano next to Clement. Rush was such a professional, so convincing with every gesture, expression and utterance. That professionalism was tested when the lavalier mic she wore came loose about half way through the program. While behind the curtain, she discreetly removed it from her dress and held the unit in her hand the rest of the way.

The pace of the 80-minute performance was brilliant, with just the right amount of words and music. Having long-time collaborators Mark Helias on bass and Bobby Previte on drums must have been of enormous comfort to the composer. Not only blessed with rock solid time and temperament, both are extremely compelling soloists and possess gorgeous tone variety on their instruments. Jane Ira Bloom is one of the top saxophonists in jazz and the premiere soprano saxophonist of our time. Constantly moving as she played, making large arcs with her instrument to provide dynamic range, her vitality on stage was a thing to behold. The writing was gorgeous, full of slowly spooling, deeply grooved lines.

As if there was not enough star power in the room, Meryl Streep was in the house. A friend of Bloom and Grifasi from their days at Yale University, Streep made the trip from her home in Salisbury, Connecticut. While news of her siting prompted about 30 young people to congregate outside the Hall, my partner Priscilla Page was as impressed with the presence of Anne Catteneo, dramaturg at the Lincoln Center Theater and an authority in the field. I was equally excited to meet Steve Elman, the veteran WBUR jazz host, who in the late 1970s, gave me my first taste of what jazz really sounded like.

Wild Lines will next be performed at The Kennedy Center in October and then at the NY Library’s Lincoln Center space. We were thrilled that the premiere of this work took place in Amherst and that we could play a role in making it happen.

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