Al Bright jazz exhibit a study in the color of music

A review by Kurt Shaw from TribLive

Jazz lovers and art lovers of all kinds are in for a treat when they find the genres combined in the exhibit “Al Bright: Abstract Jazz Works,” on display at 709 Penn Gallery, Downtown.

Nearly a dozen large-scale, vibrantly colored abstract paintings made by Bright make up the exhibit, and nearly all are the product of a performance in which the artist created them in front of an audience to the sounds of live jazz music.

Works range from “Homage To Art Blakey,” which was painted on Aug. 22, 1980, at a performance by Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (one of which was a 19-year-old horn player named Wynton Marsalis) to “Portals In Time,” which was painted just last year at the Akron Art Museum when the Jesse Dandy Jazz Trio played on Super Bowl Sunday.

“3,500 people came to watch me work,” Bright says. “It was the largest attendance the museum has ever had.”

Bright, 73, was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, and taught painting for 47 years at Youngstown State University.

He has had more than 50 one-man exhibits, including shows at the Butler Institute of American Art, Stanford University, Kent State University and the Canton Art Institute.

And though he has exhibited everything from his large abstract expressionist paintings to smaller portrait studies, it’s his live performance paintings that really excite him when speaking about his work.

“I paint alla prima (wet-on-wet),” Bright says. “I go to the stage with a blank canvas, no pre-described idea or notion as to image or even color, and I try to paint the color of the music, the energy of the sound and the feedback — the ebb and flow of the spectators. It’s totally a creative process, and an aesthetic process for the audience.”

Bright began painting this way back in the late 1960s, when, as a jazz flute player, he would accompany his brother, the late jazz pianist Richard Bright, to gigs at universities and art museums.

Since then, he has painted in conjunction with classical concert performances, ballet dancers, church organists, even a spoken-word performance in which the performers started “primal screaming,” he says.

“I’ve been performing at a variety of venues, but the works in this show are specifically works that I created to jazz musicians, or in homage to them,” Bright says.

Well, perhaps with one exception. “Jam Session,” with its hot red and orange glow, was painted along with a Dixieland band performance in 2010 in Aurora, Ohio.

“I don’t remember the name of the band, but all of the musicians were in their 80s and very talented,” Bright says. “That was a very, very hot performance.”

As for his use of color, Bright says his experience as a musician helps guide his color choices.

“Since I play music, I can actually feel the color of the music,” he says. “In certain tonal ranges, my palette will shift. I’m constantly turning the painting, so I’m painting on the left side of my brain, and the right side of my brain is constantly re-orienting everything in the composition. I destroy and create, destroy and create. I’m an abstract expressionist, and I’m just moving with the rhythms and the patterns (of the music).”

Bright says that, in this way, the whole act of painting becomes an “out-of-body experience. I’m not thinking, I’m not planning. It’s as though my hand is being driven by a muse that dictates the creative process.”

“There are points in the performance where I have a definite effect on the energy of the musicians, and, at the same time, there is energy coming, an ebb and flow, from the audience. They are pouring their energy into both the musicians and myself as well,” he says.

“They’re having an aesthetic experience at best. I cannot have an aesthetic experience, because I am having a creative experience. I have to be objective in that regard,” he says. “I’m in a totally different zone than the spectator. So, the spectator will see things on the canvas that they want not to be destroyed. And then when it’s changed, or I go through something and they see that what I’ve created has been destroyed, you feel the passion and the energy and that just pours out from them. And then, a few minutes later, it’s on to another, higher level.

“But there’s a beautiful moment in all of these experiences where there’s a feeling that the music is coming to a closure, the painting is coming to a resolution, and I step back and move away, and the painting is complete. I present it, and that’s the final moment.”