Cut Out for It: The Matisse Jazz Project explores the art of improvisation


The Matisse Jazz Project, Christopher Bakriges, Gwen Laster

Christopher Bakriges and Gwen Laster return to their native Michigan for three concerts by their Matisse Jazz Project.

In 2009, pianist [|Christopher Bakriges], a former student of Oscar Peterson, had the idea to compose music that corresponded to individual pieces in Henri Matisse’s [|Jazz] series, which was published in 1947 and consists of 20 striking paper collages inspired by improvisation. It was 2012 when Bakriges finished all 20 compositions, and [|The Matisse Jazz Project] was born soon after.

Prior to 2017, Bakriges had performed his Matisse-inspired compositions with violinist Stanley Chepaitis, but now the project features [|Gwen Laster] on violin. The duo will play three shows in Michigan this weekend, including two concerts in Ann Arbor and one at the Detroit Institute of Art.

“It’s expansive. It stimulates the senses differently," Laster said about the Project. “Each piece has a distinct personality and flavor in your mind."

The pairing of piano and violin without a rhythm section gives the Project a minimalist sound. This openness allows listeners to take a magnifying glass to the receptive, organic back-and-forth that develops between the two improvisers. Songs like "The Clown" and "Worlds Away (The Cowboy)" feature Laster playing the melodies while Bakriges provides rich harmonies and countermelodies, and the compositions allow for each player to take expansive solos.

Bakriges and Laster, despite both being Detroit natives, only met each other this past year and began collaborating. They've played three concerts on the East Coast, but this weekend's shows will be their Michigan debut as The Matisse Jazz Project.

Laster grew up about a mile from the Motown Museum and graduated from Northwestern High School, a fine-arts magnet school. As a high schooler gigging around Detroit with her friends, Laster performed Frank Zappa songs, classical tunes, and jazz standards alongside their own compositions.

When she was 17, Laster left home to attend Eastern Michigan University, and shortly thereafter transferred to University of Michigan. “It was a much more competitive environment (at U of M),” Laster said.

Receiving both her bachelor’s and her master’s degree in music from U-M, her education was certainly impactful, but Laster said it didn’t fully define her: “At my time at U of M, there was no jazz (for me). So to keep myself balanced, I would gig in Detroit and visit back home on the weekends. I needed that balance, both musical and cultural.” Having studied classical at U-M, Laster’s Detroit trips allowed her music to grow organically across genres.

Laster went on to found the [|Creative Strings Improvisers Orchestra] and curriculum. This was the first non-traditional strings program to be taught at Interlochen Summer Institutes. The CSIO curriculum allows young musicians to learn how to compose and perform their own pieces, offering a more balanced approach to music education that expands beyond canonical classical repertoire. “It’s necessary now, in the 21st century, for a musician to have a versatile skill set,” Laster said. The CSIO program is also offered at various schools, colleges, and summer camps.

For more than 20 years, Laster has also played with the [|Sphinx Symphony Orchestra], which provides young African-American and Latino strings players a supportive and competitive musical community. “If you sort of look at orchestras, it’s not often you see people of color in them,” Laster said.

Currently, the Beacon, N.Y.-based Laster plays with the Go: Organic Orchestra and leads the [|New MUSE4tet], which she founded to perform her original composition "The Black Lives Matter Suite."

The Matisse Jazz Project represents one of many ongoing musical projects for Laster, part of a whole synthesis of creation, education, and art. "It's challenging," Laster said of the Matisse project. "It is melodically simple but harmonically complex music."

Oscar Calinescu is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library. He holds a bachelor's in anthropology from U-M and his interests include grammar and getting lost in the beat.

The Matisse Jazz Project plays Friday, August 11, 7 pm, at [|Detroit Institute of Arts], 5200 Woodward Ave.; Saturday, August 12, 1 pm, at [|Pontiac Public Library], 60 E. Pike St.; Sunday, August 13, 10 am, at First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, 4001 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd.; and Sunday, August 13, 4 pm,
[…|Kerrytown Concert House], 415 N. 4th Ave., Ann Arbor.