Matisse was working at a time, between the first and second World Wars, when jazz was just emerging. Arriving with the Allied American troops, music by the likes of Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet reached Paris through the American soldiers that took over nightclubs. It was hip, slightly underground - and it was about dancing. We know that Matisse listened to jazz for enjoyment, and his colour print series Jazz shows an easy affinity between his joyous shapes and colours, and jazz’s alive, improvisatory spirit. It’s an affinity familiar to the British jazz musician, Courtney Pine.
‘For me, Matisse’s work reflects music. To my eyes, he has a whole motion that music and improvisation has, he was able to capture that,’ Pine told us on a visit to Tate Modern’s current exhibition. ‘When I first saw Jazz, it was almost like ‘I know this’… It made sense. A lot of the motion that I could see in the work reflected the Afro-American spirit, a lot of the mixtures of colours reflected to me African art.’
We had invited him to the gallery to create a set for the upcoming Matisse cinema broadcast - to choose a work of art by Matisse and compose a response to it. He made his choice with a breezy smile; naturally, a work from the Jazz series.
‘A piece called Forms jumped out at me. Forms looks very simple, but it’s a very deep piece. When I first saw it I thought it was two beautiful women, it was very sensual. But everytime I look at it I see something different. That’s what I wanted to do with the piece.’
So, how did he create the piece?
‘The music came immediately. Sometimes it takes eons, but this time the instrumentation came to me straight away. There will be three of us performing, representing the three tones in the work, but every time you hear it, it will sound different. The bassline came to me as I was walking out of the exhibition. It’s a walking bassline, for the people walking around the exhibition.’
The public response was part of it too, he says.
‘Walking into the exhibition, there were lots of people, and they were all excited. There was a buzz, a hum. It was a really nice experience, and it was really easy to take that and turn it into music.’
If you’re Courtney Pine, perhaps.
To see the full Courtney Pine set, book tickets to the cinema broadcast of Matisse Live on June 3