As a descriptor for Stephen Rush and his music, even the word “eclectic” is much too confining. Rush, a professor at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance for nearly twenty-five years, has composed operas, chamber music, scores for dances, and orchestral works. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra premiered his Tango Symphony in April. Rush has long been a jazz performer, he’s studied Carnatic vocal music in India, and he is the director of the Digital Music Ensemble, whose outdoor sound installation, “Gypsy Pond Music,” is performed in a new incarnation as an annual rite of fall at the Music School.
Rush’s latest recording, Naked Dance! is—to coin an oxymoron—typically unique. First, it’s being released on vinyl. Yes, children, one of those big, black, Frisbee-like objects on which your grandparents used to listen to music when they were teens. Why? Besides valuing the dynamic range of vinyl versus the compressed sound of .mp3s, (it will, of course, be available in that format as well) Rush adds, “We grew up listening to vinyl recordings but then never got to make them.” He also appreciates the visual possibilities of the large format and enlisted Jef Mallett, of the famed Frazz comic, to create the cover art.
Naked Dance! features Rush’s jazz aspect. “That Damn Tango Thing Again” starts the album. You know what they say about the tango, that it takes two; this is take two on the theme Rush used for Tango Symphony. The Detroit Free Press raved about, among other things, that piece being “exquisitely orchestrated.” This is the stripped-down version for Rush’s piano and Jeremy Edwards’ drums. Edwards, who started jamming with Rush when he was studying with him as an undergraduate ten years ago, is now Rush’s music school colleague and frequent collaborator.
“Aos,” introduces clarinetist Andrew Bishop, the recording’s only other musician and a familiar name to local jazz fans. “Aos” opens with a ten-second theme, a repeating four-note descending chromatic phrase, which is followed by fifty seconds of musical mayhem, all three musicians going virtuosically berserk—to hilarious effect—before the theme returns to close the track. Your phonograph needle, or ear buds, will get a workout.
The direction on the piano score for “Far and Away and It’s OK (We Can Always Skype)” is “Open … Fluidly, Sometimes Epic.” Which is a pretty good CliffsNotes description of Rush’s music, ranging as it does from meditative to playful (he briefly uses a duck whistle to mimic hip-hop turntable scratching) and from non- or multi-metered to rhythmically insistent, sometimes poignant, even spiritual, and with touches of humor woven throughout.
Stephen Rush, Jeremy Edwards, and Andrew Bishop play music from Naked Dance! at Kerrytown Concert House on Friday, November 4. Jef Mallett will also be on hand to autograph his covers.