D’earth, UVa musicians explore chemistry through jazz.

By Jane Norris
Published: February 25, 2011

Move over, “Schoolhouse Rock.” Now there’s a chemistry lesson that swings.

Saturday’s concert by the University of Virginia Jazz Ensemble and the Free Bridge Quintet, UVa’s faculty jazz quintet, will include the premiere of “Green Chemistry,” a new five-movement work by composer John D’earth.

School’s in session for a musical exploration of the Green Chemistry movement, which encourages chemists to take a closer look at the environmental repercussions of their creations — both positive and negative — and to take a more musical approach to collaboration and communication.

“Chemists should be more like musicians — they should play together and work together,” D’earth said. “It’s about this question, which is a social question and a science question.”

The Green Chemistry phenomenon discusses the many benefits that scientific discoveries and advances have brought into our lives — a safe, comfortable modern lifestyle shielded from infections and infestations — while acknowledging the darker legacy of a planet packed full of chemicals, including environmental destruction, mutations in wildlife populations and cancer and other illnesses.

“I’m actually dedicating this piece to Rachel Carson,” D’earth said. Carson wrote the 1962 book “Silent Spring,” an examination of the damage caused by pollution and pesticides. The work is credited with helping to launch the environmental movement.

D’earth, who leads the UVa Jazz Ensemble, also performs on trumpet and flugelhorn with the Free Bridge Quintet. His quintet colleagues — Jeff Decker on saxophone, Wells Hanley on piano, Peter Spaar on acoustic bass and Robert Jospe on drums and percussion — will spend the evening as special guests, teaming up with their own students.

While D’earth is using his music to explore the complex mixed blessing of chemistry in the modern world, he also is using the concert to recognize a different kind of chemistry — the bonds that draw people together and keep them focused on important goals, whether they’re handing down valuable musical heritage or building marriages and families.

Free Bridge members are collaborating and performing with their students. Decker, for instance, is teaming up with his student Danna Thomas, the Jazz Ensemble’s lead alto saxophonist.

“I’ve learned more about jazz by performing and teaching with students that through anything I’ve ever done,” D’earth said.

D’earth’s opening movement is “Nothing Lost; Everything Transformed,” which explores matter and planetary and human needs — including the need to forgive but not forget. The idea of moving away from petroleum-based chemicals and toward plant-based alternatives is in there, along with inspiration from Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, and Buddhist teachings.

“There’s a legacy to every chemical reaction,” D’earth said.

The second movement, “The Portal,” is a short piece of music played three times.

“It’s like a portal into three universes,” said D’earth, who named them “Legacies, Tragic and Otherwise,” “Beekeepers and Transfigured Frogs” and “Markets.” Two drummers add intensity.

“Water is the Blood of the Earth” is the third movement.

“This is the piece that’s closest to my heart,” the composer said. “It’s a ballad. It’s got lots of emotion.” He suggested listening for the flutes and tenor saxophone.

“State o’ the Nations,” the fourth movement, is “the politics part,” D’earth said. “It’s a straight-ahead jazz piece that becomes pretty intense — a cry for freedom from all that junk.”

The final movement, “Advancing Green Chemistry,” is what D’earth calls “straight-ahead, good old blues.”

The work was made possible by the James Dunton Gift to the McIntire Department of Music’s Jazz Performance Program.

The complex interplay of chemical gifts and burdens hits close to home for D’earth during his wife’s cancer journey. Her experiences during cancer treatment have left her husband in awe of the resilience of both the human spirit and the creative impulse.

Jazz vocalist Dawn Thompson “is so psychically and spiritually vigorous, and that has been an inspiration,” D’earth said.

Plan to get there early, because at 7 p.m. Saturday, D’earth will take part in a pre-concert discussion in Old Cabell Hall, Room 107, with John Warner, a musician who’s one of the founders of the Green Chemistry movement.

Warner, co-author of “Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice,” is president, chief technology officer and chairman of the board of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.


University of Virginia Jazz Ensemble and Free Bridge Quintet 8 p.m. Saturday Cabell Hall Auditorium $10; $5 students; free for UVa students who reserve in advance www …

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