Ted Nash & Glenn Close
Glenn Close & Ted Nash Talk Their Multidisciplinary New Album, 'Transformation' & Where Music And Acting Intertwine
In the beginning, Wayne Brady created the heavens and the earth. Well, actually, he just described the event captured in Genesis 1:1.
"Before sea or land, before even sky/Which contains all," the "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" actor booms along with the GRAMMY-nominated acting legend Glenn Close at the top of a unique and ambitious new album, quoting Tales From Ovid. "Nature wore only one mask/Since called Chaos." Never thought you'd hear the improv comic famous for "Scenes from a Hat" dramatically plumb The First Book of Moses? Thank Close and GRAMMY-winning big-band leader Ted Nash, who invited him into their latest multidisciplinary project, Transformation.
This isn't a pairing people generally think of. Fans of Close's performances in The Natural or Fatal Attraction may not be aware of the New York multi-reedist and composer's work, or vice versa. But when they get together, it's hand-in-glove. Why? Because, as it turns out, improvising a graceful saxophone solo and inhabiting a character fires up many of the same neurons. (Same with goofing off on "Whose Line," but that's another story.) All these talents—acting, playing jazz, cracking jokes—are more similar than people think.
That's partly why Close and Nash named their new album Transformation: Personal Stories of Change, Acceptance and Evolution. Featuring everyone from Amy Irving to Wynton Marsalis to Nash's son, Eli, and underpinned by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), the album, which was recorded in two nights and arrives May, braids jazz with spoken-word segments, many of them derived from literary and poetic sources. And the themes, from spiritual light to the transgender experience, don't get headier—or heavier.
Transformation never gets ponderous or preachy, though. At its essence is the trust and rapport between Close and Nash; even over Zoom from her digs in Montana and his in New York, their mutual admiration radiates from the screen. GRAMMY.com caught up with the prestigious pair to discuss the making of Transformation and Close's personal account of how she got into jazz—which, if you're curious about the genre, is absolutely worth reading.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you two arrive in each other's orbits?
Close: I think the first thing I ever did with you guys was a Christmas something. But the truth is, I was walking a street I lived on in the West Village and I heard this jazz music coming out of an open house. The door was open and I walked in and it was Wynton and Ashley Schiff raising money for Jazz at Lincoln Center. So, when was that? When was it founded?
Nash: It's been 30 years.
Close: So, it was 30 years ago because it didn't exist! They were raising music. I mean, raising money.
Nash: It's so interesting because Jazz at Lincoln Center started off as just a tribute to Duke Ellington. They did a series of concerts back in '89, and this woman named Alina Bloomgarden asked Wynton to be part of it. She said, "Hey, would you front the band and talk about Duke?" So, they did this series of concerts and it was so successful they started a whole thing called Jazz at Lincoln Center, which was at Lincoln Center. That's probably when you were there—when they started to raise money for it.
The thing that I remember, Glenn—and I have a couple of memories of our first [meetings]—the first was "Let Freedom Swing," or whatever it was.
Close: Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Nash: You and Patricia Clarkson and Morgan Freeman. There were a few celebrity actors and people who came and read really beautiful pieces. We played the music. It was a very emotional experience for me at the time, I remember, just because of some of the thematic material. The idea of freedom. Having parents who were civil-rights activists. I remember we were backstage between the sets during the intermission and Wynton gave me a hug and started crying. It was so deep.
And you were there, and I remember walking up next to you backstage and I was so super-shy. I was like, "Um, hi!"
Close: You were!
Nash: I was starstruck because I just loved your work for years.
Close: I think I read that incredible Lyndon Johnson speech about civil rights. And, of course, the latest collaboration—I was invited by Ted to be on Presidential Suite.
Close: That's true.
Nash: We hung out at your house and we had a jam session where you played bongos or congas or something.
Close: The presumption is breathtaking!
Nash: It was great! It was so much fun. I still have a video of that somewhere.
Glenn Close and Wayne Brady. Photo: Frank Stewart
Close: I always got the feeling from Wynton that if we ever came up with an idea that we wanted to build an evening around, that he was very open to it. We toyed with various things. I remember, for a while, I was thinking of women in war. And then we were in this incredibly traumatizing time in our country and I thought, "No, no, no, no."
We talked about it and we thought the best thing would be to try to articulate what transformation meant. Pre-COVID, it's kind of stunning that we actually did it, because this has all been about transformation—this whole last year. Do we transform to what's happening around us? But that's how it started. We found these pieces.
Nash: Yeah, we came up with the concept. And I agree with you. I think our first idea was very attractive because it was going to be dramatic, and maybe sort of cinematic. I was thinking about all the ways I could write, underscoring. We could invite either readers or actors to do something. I liked that idea, but as we started talking about it, we agreed that we needed to embrace something that would inspire people toward change. You always talk about how we need this—how people need this.
Close: The comfort. So that they walk out of the theater being surprised, which they certainly were. Hopefully inspired.
Nash: And challenged. Glenn curated this so beautifully. She chose pieces that involved prose or poetry or different concepts and created this beautiful art for the evening that embraced all sorts of different themes, from transgender to racial issues to religion. People trying to find themselves in different ways. The creation of the world—going to heaven. It was all in there.
It was a lofty and ambitious program, but the pieces you picked were, I thought, right on. Right on.
Close: You were on fire when you wrote it. I've been doing interviews, and I think people who are part of the trans community are so completely blown away.
Nash: I'm so happy to hear that.
Close: Totally blown away and so moved by what you and [your son] Eli did together.
Nash: For me, that is the most poignant and personal part of the evening. I almost didn't keep it together while I was playing. It was so personal. I remember Danny Gorman, our director—when Eli showed up and we did a soundcheck and Eli began to read some of his letter, Danny couldn't even work. He was so emotional. You were there.
And Eli was so cool. Eli's studying to be a doctor in medical school. And he came in and read that piece—he was not nervous.
Close: He had never performed like that before. That's what I loved about it. You don't know when you pass somebody in the street. You wouldn't know, if you passed Eli in the street, what his story is. Every day, I'm aware. Whenever I see somebody, I say, "What is their story?" To come together again, I think our only hope is to listen to other peoples' stories without judgment. I think that's the basis of what this evening is about.
[astonished] And how about Wayne? I'm embarrassed! I didn't know that Wayne was talking about his mother!
Nash: When I first read the piece, I read it a couple of times because I wanted to make sure that was what I was seeing. Talk about forgiveness. [exhales through pursed lips] You have to forgive yourself before you can forgive everybody else. That's what his piece is about. To forgive yourself for feeling the way you do about yourself, [so] that you can forgive people for giving you a hard time.
We're so quick to judge people. I think one of the beautiful things about getting older, for me, is that I start to realize that what's more important than money or success or fame or any of this kind of stuff—I've never had a tremendous amount of any of it—is connecting with people. And you hope that your art is inspiring.
As a musician, when we're younger, we're always trying to impress people with our craft, and then we get to a certain point of realizing we want to move somebody emotionally with what we do. These stories—Judith Clark's, Matthew Stevenson's, Brade's, my son's—were so personal, and yet you can imagine, all over the world, that people are judging because they're anti-trans or racist or don't like Jews or whatever.
But look at the example that Matthew Stevenson gave us. Who could have more excuse not to like somebody than in [his] story [of] Derek Black, for being a white supremacist—almost a neo-Nazi, really. What does that teach us? You know?
Close: That we're capable of transforming.
Nash: We are.
Close: We're probably the only animal that can.
Nash: In a short amount of time.
Eli Nash. Photo: Frank Stewart
Where do you both feel this co-billing will go in the future?
Close: We'll do something! We'll have to think of something to do next! It's such a luxury. I used to be totally intimidated by jazz.
Close: I never listened to it. It's like [how] I was intimidated by poetry in college. There's always some smart kid who knows the meaning, you know? Jazz seemed the same way. It was kind of heady and cerebral. But I tell you, getting to know the Jazz at Lincoln Center guys, I now feel that jazz is probably the truest expression of the human condition. I honestly do.
Nash: I love that.
Close: I actually love it now. I can go into it. I get out of it what I get out of it. But when I think of the dissonance of what it means to be human—sometimes, we come together and play together, and then somebody will go out—it's just so f***ing human. Even the way you guys perform is inspiring because it's so organic. I mean, holy s***! How do you know who's going to come out next? And the way you support each other. If somebody makes a mistake, you wouldn't in a million years know it. It changed my life, in a way. It opened it up as far as what that kind of music is.
Nash: You touched on something about what jazz is, which I think is the same in acting at the high level: trust. You talk about a mistake, and yes, a mistake can be something where we have a written note and we play the wrong one. There are choices you make that might be incorrect or not appropriate for a time, but when we get to a higher level, we feel that thing. We're all listening. We're all trusting. We're responding in a way that feels organic. That's what I love about jazz: It is mostly improvised. And I think a lot of people don't even understand that.
Close: We only did three performances, unfortunately, but I did notice that the orchestra started responding. Sometimes, just a single musician to a single word. They'd pull it out. I've had people say, "It would be great to do this again." It would be wonderful to do it again because we could get other people—whoever's free, you know?
Nash: I would love to do it again, certainly.
Glenn, you hit on something that is kind of the bane of my existence as a jazz writer. This music is for everybody. You don't need to read a manual. You don't need accreditation. Get into the swing, get into the bluesiness of it, and enjoy it. When that's lost in jazz journalism, it pushes people out, right when we need new blood in this community.
Close: Jazz is so deeply American. I always think of baseball when I think of jazz. And baseball is a sport that's full of names. You don't know how fabulous they are until you actually see them play. I think of jazz in the same way.
Nash: A lot of newbies in the jazz listening world will be like, "I walk in a record store…" [scoffs] I'm dating myself. "I don't know what to look at! I don't know where to begin!" That's a question with a lot of people. "Where do I start? Where do I start?"
There are all these go-to records. "Well, start with Kind of Blue." We give a few examples of what some of the parts of jazz music are without being too heady or over-the-top. I think if people just gave it a chance … and one thing Jazz at Lincoln Center is doing a lot is showing people what this music is and allowing them to see it, stream it and all that.
Close: I love what Jon Batiste said when he won his Oscar: "We were given 12 notes."
Ted Nash. Photo: Frank Stewart
Is there anything else you'd like to express about the making of or intention behind Transformation?
Nash: I would. The process of working with Glenn was so revelatory to me. I don't know if you realize this, Glenn, but when I was small-talking with you about your process as an actor—because it's so deep, how you can have all these roles where you transform yourself so beautifully—I said, "What's your method? Are you a method actor? What's your technique?" and all this stuff.
And you just said, "You know? I don't really think about that. I just use my imagination. That's the most important thing." It was a very simple answer, but that was the deepest thing. Because I went home and I started thinking about imagination, and I realized that I do use my imagination when I compose. A lot of times, I'm still stuck in technical things like chords and scales, not just closing my eyes, sitting back and imagining where this piece could go.
Now, I talk about this a lot with students, but this piece, in particular, required a big imagination for me. Using what you said to me and applying that to that composition process, I found voices inside myself I had never found before.