For Evermore

Bassist and composer Matthew Parrish presents a program of original compositions based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

By: Daniel Shearer



photo by Daniel Shearer

Sponsored by the Lower Makefield Society for the Performing Arts, Matthew Parrish will present Poe on the Delaware Jan. 11, featuring musical settings of "The Raven" and other works from the tortured poet.

   Delivered in the right context, darkness has a certain appeal. As an illustration of that point, bassist and composer Matthew Parrish, a resident of Yardley, Pa., selects an aptly titled recording from Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come.
   This is not pretty music, by any standard, but the style holds up remarkably well for something more than four decades old. An anguished sax and trumpet duet sets the tone in the opening passages of "Lonely Woman," with subsequent solos expanding on mood of the theme, rather than concentrating on harmony.
   "It’s tough to describe in words," says Mr. Parrish, pausing pensively. "The sounds of that record, the anger, it’s like wailing animals or something. It reminds me of the way Poe phrases his poems. To my ears, it’s sort of macabre."
   Mr. Parrish has been making music professionally since the early ’90s, when he arrived in Philadelphia after jazz and classical studies at Rutgers University. He became the house bassist at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus at Third and Poplar, playing five nights a week with heavyweights from Duke Ellington’s band and others passing through town. There, he befriended drummer Bobby Durham, who helped him land his "first big job" with Al Grey, planting the seeds for Mr. Parrish’s globetrotting three-year tour with the bebop trombonist.
   Living in Philadelphia, he would regularly walk by Edgar Allan Poe’s former residence on Seventh Street, where the writer lived between 1838 and 1844, penning The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Hart, The Masque of the Red Death, Murders in the Rue Morgue and many other works. Mr. Parrish’s knowledge of the author came primarily from watching Vincent Price films, but he has since embraced Poe’s writing, producing a number of original compositions over the years that explore his work in musical themes.
   Performing with pianist David Leonhardt, drummer Taro Okamoto, guitarist Vinny Valentino and vocalist Ruth Naomi Floydd, Mr. Parrish will present Poe on the Delaware at the Lower Makefield Municipal Building Jan. 11, an afternoon concert sponsored by the Lower Makefield Society for the Performing Arts.
   "Particularly with this concert, it’s not something I would take to a nightclub," Mr. Parrish says. "The overall idea for the program is for me to combine art forms, which has been done lots of times, but what I bring to it is a really heavy knowledge of jazz, and Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music."
   The program will feature nearly a dozen works, opening with a lament for Poe’s wife.
   "The first piece on the program is just a really beautiful ballad," Mr. Parrish says, "one of the few times that I’ve completely written a tune whistling in the backyard. It just totally wrote itself in five minutes, and it’s been that way ever since I did it, and it hasn’t changed. That’s when I was reading his biography. And it just struck me how sad his life was, but kind of gruesome, too."
   Poe’s short life was indeed filled with tragedy. Orphaned in early childhood, he was raised by John Allan, a businessman, and at age 6 traveled to England with the Allan family, where he studied in private schools. Returning to the United States in 1820, he eventually attended the University of Virginia for a year, but his foster father, displeased with Poe’s drinking and gambling, refused to pay his debts and forced him to work as a clerk.
   Poe disliked the job and quit, estranging Allan, and moved to Boston, where he anonymously published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), following it two years later with a second volume of verse, Al Aaraaf. His relationship with Allan had a brief reconciliation following Poe’s two-year term in the Army, but Allan disowned him permanently after Poe was dismissed from the United States Military Academy for neglect of duty.
   The writer moved to Baltimore in 1832, where he lived with his aunt and her 11-year-old daughter, Virginia Clemm, whom he married in 1836. Virginia was ill for much of the next decade until her death in 1847, at which time Poe became ill. He died two years later, at age 40, an early demise reportedly brought about by alcohol and drug abuse.
   Mr. Parrish found Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death was an easy fit for a musical composition.
   "Aside from the content," Mr. Parrish says, "it lent itself so well to music because he takes the time to describe each passageway in the castle — there’s seven chambers connected by seven doorways. Each one has a different color and a different ambiance, and that’s perfect for music."
   Mr. Parrish had originally set "The Raven" to music, but after listening to it decided the poem didn’t work with a melody.
   "It seemed kind of pompous to have people singing all those words," he says. "It lost its meaning, so I kept the melody I had originally written for it, and then the group will break down into a very acoustic setting, while (Ms. Floydd) recites ‘The Raven.’ We’ll put down a nice blanket for her to solo, except she’ll be reading. And then we’ll do the melody out."
   "The Delaware" makes an appearance because of Poe’s Philadelphia years. The river also has a personal connection for Mr. Parrish; he’s lived within biking distance or walking distance of the Delaware since age 13. Originally from Fresno, Calif., he eventually moved with his family to Flemington, N.J., where he attended Hunterdon Central High School.
   "All of my firsts were on this river in some way or another," he says. "I’ve been skinny dipping in it, my wife and I have been in that river since we met, the dogs, the kids. I lived down by the docks in Philly. I used to watch the tugboats come in every day. I just love the whole atmosphere. I could do a whole concert on that, but it related to Poe as well."
   Poe on the Delaware represents a shift in Mr. Parrish’s career aspirations. Although he performs regularly in Manhattan, including a weeklong engagement in December with violinist Regina Carter at Birdland, Mr. Parrish wants to spend less time away from home. He’s working to expand his composition skills to include film scores and plans to renovate his studio to allow him to work from home as a producer.
   "Being the permanent bass player in a group is wonderful," Mr. Parrish says, "and I always thought that I could want that, and I had that with Al Grey and it was awesome. But it was a burden to be locked into one group because in jazz, with the exception of two or three people, I don’t think there’s a way to make a really great living playing with one person. When a tour schedule gets inflexible, when things start to pop up, you have to dedicate yourself to that job."
   In addition to performances with Clark Terry, Marion McPartland, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Pieces of a Dream, Linda Hopkins, Miri Ben-Ari and Wynton Marsalis, in 2000, Mr. Parrish released Circles on HiPnotic Records, his first album as a bandleader. Circles included eight original jazz compositions, along with a hip-hop-flavored rendition of Miles Davis’ "Seven Steps to Heaven" and a bluesy cover of Duke Ellington’s "Flirtibird."
   Even though it will be a departure from the theme of the upcoming Lower Makefield concert, Mr. Parrish intends to play the Ellington chestnut "Come Sunday."
   "I always play Duke Ellington, no matter where I am," he says. "It’s just my absolute admiration for the man and his music. His accomplishments and his life were off the hook."
The Lower Makefield Society for the Performing Arts presents Poe on the Delaware at the Lower Makefield Municipal Building, 1100 Edgewood Road, Yardley, Pa., Jan. 11, 3 p.m. Tickets cost $10, $8 seniors/students, $5 under age 12. For information, call (215) 493-3010. Matthew Parrish on the Web: