Obsidian Animals preview: Jazz journey

Art and nature inspire young Eugene keyboardist Torrey Newhart's musical philosophy and his band's diverse new album

by GARY FERRINGTON

When seven year old Torrey Newhart purchased a small hand carved obsidian kitty while visiting Mexico’s Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, it was just a simple toy. Like many items of childhood, it was eventually put away and forgotten.

Almost two decades later, that rediscovered souvenir has taken on new meaning. Newhart, now a jazz composer, musician, and educator, has snapped Facebook selfies of it wherever he has performed: France, Switzerland, Italy, South Korea, and beyond. The obsidian kitty has come to represent a journey of change.

Because Newhart’s recent creation of a band and its first album release, Sound In-Sight, represents a major transition in his career, it seemed appropriate to him to name the group Obsidian Animals — with the iconic kitty prominently displayed on its album cover. On Sunday, December 11, the band makes its Portland debut at Turn! Turn!Turn!

1 - Header Photo 681px width. Caption: The Obsidian Animals at Roaring Rapids Pizza, Springfield. Photo: Adam Carlson.

The Obsidian Animals at Roaring Rapids Pizza, Springfield. Photo: Adam Carlson.

Obsidian Animals made their live debut at the Jazz Station in Eugene and at the Old Stone Church in Bend, Newhart’s home town, this past June. Its members include some of Eugene’s finest young musicians: Eddie Bond (guitar/effects), Adam Carlson (drums), Tony Glausi (trumpet), Joshua Hettwer (tenor sax/clarinet), Sean Peterson (bass), and Jessika Smith (alto sax/flute), with Newhart on piano. The ensemble performs original material to which it adds rare pieces from various jazz periods and traditions.

Sound In-Sight includes 18 musical “scenes” with performances by the seven member Obsidian Animals with guest artists Ken Mastrogiovanni (drums), Jim Olsen (flute/alto-flute), Halie Loren (voice), Matt Hettwer (trombone), Stephen Young (tuba) and Andy Armer (piano). Newhart, in an ArtsWatch interview, describes the group’s debut album as a “playlist of sorts” reflecting his multifarious musical interests over the past several years. In addition to Newhart’s own pieces, it includes music he enjoys by bebop trumpeter Booker Little, the late legendary pianist/vocalist Nina Simone, and Tony Glausi. The Bend Bulletin’s Go Magazine praised the album’s “adventurous spirit, blending avant-jazz melodies, R&B grooves and shifting-on-a-dime dynamics.”

Newhart says his goal is to present a broad “diverse palette of music (listeners) might not always hear together,” he says. “I’ve always loved jobs where I get to do lots of different things and I think my musical preferences are the same. There are so many wonderful sounds being combined to create new sounds, why not share them all?”

New Jazz Generation

Torrey Newhart is one of a new generation of jazz musicians who have recently emerged from the UO School of Music and Dance’s Jazz Studies program and bring youthful excitement to Oregon’s jazz scene. Like his contemporaries, he is an active performer, composer, and educator who believes that music has the potential to help people step back from everyday issues in life and reflect on and experience the “manifold of human emotions” that music can trigger.

Newhart’s musical journey began at age four when he took up the violin followed at age six with studying piano. By his sophomore year in high school, he was performing at local Bend venues where he met bassist Corey Adkins and drummer Adam Carlson, with whom he still occasionally plays as a trio.

Torrey Newhart (piano), Sean Peterson (bass) perform at Eugene's Jazz Station. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Torrey Newhart (piano), Sean Peterson (bass) perform at Eugene’s Jazz Station. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

By the time he was a freshman at the University of Oregon in 2008, Newhart had more than 100 live performances to his credit. After saying with pianist Toby Koenigsberg, director of jazz studies and saxophonist Steve Owen, trumpeter Josh Deutsch and composition/ arranging with Paul Krueger, Newhart graduated Cum Laude in Jazz Studies with a Philosophy minor in 2012, earned a Masters degree in Music in 2014 and was recognized that year as the University’s Most Outstanding Performer in Jazz Studies.

Since May 2009, when the first Torrey Newhart Quintet performed, Newhart has established himself as collaborative pianist/composer who has performed and recorded with fellow musicians Tony Glausi, Jessika Smith, Inner Limits, Michael Radliff, Paul Krueger, The Long Shots and Kevin McDonald in addition to his own album Marmara. He’s also performed as a band member in musical productions such as They’re Playing Our Song, Hair, Grease and Bat Boy.

When not performing, Newhart is an educator who teaches choir and general music at the Springfield Academy of Arts and Academics and was a quarterfinalist for the Grammy Music Educator Award in 2015 and 2016. He’s also served as an adjunct jazz piano instructor at the UO.

Sound and Vision, Art and Nature

Newhart says he “is most inspired to create music because of a connection he sees between music, philosophy and art and the unique universality that all three share with the human experience.” This blending seems natural for a musician who grew up in a home where his father, a Bend artist, often paints to the colorful rhythms and textures of jazz. (Related: Plato, Socrates and Jazz).

Along with drawing inspiration from visual art, Newhart wants his music to produce vivid images and feelings in his listeners. “I feel I succeed when people experience something visceral or visual in their minds in response to my music,” he says, “or when I take someone out of their everyday lives for a moment.”

To make that happen, Newhart uses techniques “employed by impressionist composers to create images in the listener’s mind,” wrote Doug Anders, host of radio KLCC’s Jazz Inside Out, in the Sound In-Sight liner notes. The title track expresses Newhart’s interest in the interrelationship of imagery and sound. Like an abstract artist splashing paint on a canvas, the album opens with “pointillistic phrases tossed around by the ensemble,” Newhart explains. The piece acoustically evolves and changes to reflect that moment when the artist, “looking at her canvas, finds something that clicks, and out of that inspiration the painter finds herself in an even more profoundly beautiful space than before.”

Artist Bob Newhart and son. Credit: Torrey Newhart

Artist Bob Newhart and son. Credit: Torrey Newhart

Newhart speculates that his love for abstract art, both visual and musical, grew out of his love for nature. “I’ve always been attracted to natural beauty in landscapes which are inherently changing all the time,” he says. “This has probably led to my interest in impressionist and abstract art where things are not always clearly defined. I get the same excited anticipation and feeling of butterflies in my belly when I see a beautiful sunset sky as when I play certain sounds on the piano. Those connections are not always in the front of my mind but they are there, and when I improvise as well.”

Before a November 10 Obsidian Animals appearance at the Eugene Jazz Station, Newhart sat down with KLCC radio host Eric Alan and discussed how he envisions live music, abstract art and improvisational dance coming together as a unique sight and sound experience. Listen here as Newhart describe that show’s collaboration with improvised live painting by his father, Bend abstract artist Bob Newhart, to selected pieces the sextet performs.

Vibrant Future

Newhart believes that “a vibrant music scene (including jazz!!) is possible in Oregon” and he plans to keep doing what he can to make Eugene a great place for musicians. He joined the board of directors of the Willamette Jazz Society (WJS), the non-profit organization that runs the Jazz Station, where he’s serving his fourth year in promoting jazz in the community including heads the Jazz Station’s Sunday Learner’s Jam Team and its Development Committee.


Studio recording session of Booker Little’s “Victory and Sorrow.”

Newhart is aware of the decline of the jazz scene in Portland and remembers the folding of Bebop Biscotti, Bend’s only dedicated jazz venue. But the growth of jazz in Eugene/ Springfield has been enhanced by what he describes as “a shocking influx of participation from the many great musicians in the Portland area. Some of the best players are making trips down to play at our venue (Jazz Station) and it seems like one of the few places that really is making stuff happen and helping to keep jazz alive in our region.” He cautions that musicians can only thrive in a community that is willing to financially support their performances. This remains a challenge for all to address.

“Jazz is evolving all the time with new combinations of rhythms, harmonies and grooves.” Newhart observes. He thoroughly enjoys introducing non-fans to jazz. “Most people seem to have a great time when they are led through what to listen for and what interactions on stage to watch for.

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Newhart believes that even though his band members have completed their academic studies, most will be around for at least another year and he’s positive about the future of the Obsidian Animals. “Ideally, I’ll be able to get those who move away back for most projects as the music was written for specific people to play,” he explains. “Of course, there will inevitably be some subs — one reason we are the Obsidian Animals is that I can have other animals join us from time to time.” At least one animal — that obsidian kitty — is sure to be present.

Obsidian Animals release Sound In-Sight December 11 at Portland’s Turn, Turn, Turn, in a show that also features George Colligan and quartet (Jon Lakey, Michael Raynor and Dr. Enzo Irace) as part of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble series. See the band’s Facebook Event Page for details and performance calendar for other album-release appearances. Sound In-Sight is available on Band Camp and CD Baby.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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