Guitarist Ross Hammond adds another first to an increasingly expanding résumé with his performance Thursday at the Crocker Art Museum.
Hammond, with a specially assembled sextet, will perform the world premiere of the Crocker-commissioned “Humanity Suite.” Hammond composed the hourlong work to accompany the current exhibit “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power.”
Walker is an internationally renowned African American artist who was born in Stockton but moved with her family to Stone Mountain, Ga., just outside of Atlanta, when she was 13. Her provocative and often controversial work, mostly in black cut-paper silhouettes, looks at racial and gender issues exploring themes of history, power, sexuality and repression.
Hammond, who moved from Kentucky to Sacramento when he was about 12, was already familiar with Walker’s work when he and the Crocker’s Rika Nelson started talking about a musical performance to work with the exhibit.
“We both had the idea at the same time of me writing music specifically to coincide with that show and make it a real special night,” Hammond said. “It’s not something I’m gonna be playing at the Fox & Goose a month later.”
Nelson said it’s her job to translate themes in the museum’s galleries into live performances, lectures or films to reflect ideas the curators want visitors to walk away with. She talks with musicians about the exhibition, explaining the content and why it’s important, creating a dialogue about how those themes can extend into a live musical performance.
“We try not to just have concerts here,” Nelson said in an interview at the museum cafe. “We try to make sure that it makes sense for why it’s happening at the Crocker. It’s got to be more than just a show; we’ve got to tie back to what we’re doing,” Nelson said.
Not knowing exactly which Walker images were going to be in the show helped Hammond concentrate on more general themes in her work. He composed six major themes that allowed him to highlight each member of his sextet partners, saxophonists Vinny Golia and Catherine Sikora, trombonist Clifford Childers, bassist Kerry Kashiwagi and drummer Dax Compise.
Hammond’s latest CD release, “Cathedrals,” just received a four-star review in the jazz bible Downbeat, and the self-produced quartet record has received strong national notices since its June release. He plans to record the Crocker concert for a future release.
“The actual music didn’t take so long to get together, but trying to figure out how to structure it with six different movements and different themes was tricky,” Hammond said.
Though there are composed sections, Hammond also built in improvisational triggers for the soloists so the music could theoretically come out differently each time the composition is played.
“I focused a lot on the stuff she (Walker) had done with the old Harper’s Weekly drawings, where she puts a silhouette on top of the original,” Hammond said.
“It’s like here’s the aftermath of the Civil War, and here’s what Harper’s is trying to show and here’s what Kara is trying to show — ‘This is what really happened in this landscape, here’s a mother with her dying child.’ Its very powerful stuff,” Hammond said.
Nelson agreed and said she believes giving fine art a musical correlation — especially in this case — can make it more accessible to more people.
“The (Walker) series takes old Harper’s illustrations, these idyllic illustrations of the South, the bayou, and transposes these silhouettes onto them and the silhouettes represent the non-idyllic elements of those times that Harper’s isn’t depicting. The violence, the slavery, rape,” Nelson said. “ I think translating it into music can be an access point for people who don’t look at contemporary art a lot. This is a way to put it into a different context and have people think about it in a different way.”
“Obviously she’s an African American artist and the content relates to that history, and there was a discussion about having a white male musician creating this music,” Nelson said. “But what I like about Ross is that it’s not about him, it’s about the music he’s making. I feel like he took on a piece of the exhibition that makes sense for him to take on,” Nelson said.
“I tried to pick similar images, telling the untold-story types of themes she would plant,” Hammond said. “I try to acknowledge that and have a message of hope, or the hope that we’ve learned something from Kara’s work.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder