Jazz specializes in combining far-flung elements, just to see and hear what happens. The principal goal always has been joyous surprise.
Singer Angela Hagenbach still sounds joyously surprised by the results of her latest project, a jazz musical inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” tied to the book’s 150th anniversary. The combination of elements here might seem unlikely indeed: Carroll’s stories and John Coltrane’s music. But they clicked.
“Lewis Carroll was a mathematician. That was his main gig,” Hagenbach says. “He definitely has a rhythm to his writing. In some ways it’s mathematical — it’s timing. Coltrane’s modal jazz is also very mathematical in my mind. My challenge was to make it fit. Once I got the hang, it just flowed.”
Hagenbach says she spent all summer “down the rabbit hole” with Alice and Trane.
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“I feel like I had a little Lewis Carroll on one shoulder and a little John Coltrane on the other, saying, ‘Try this’ and ‘Try that.’ … It’s just startling how well they fit together. It’s almost spooky.”
The result is “JazzAlice: An Adventure in Wonderland,” being presented by the Kansas City Public Library and the Mid-Continent Public Library as part of a citywide “Alice” celebration.
“JazzAlice” isn’t Hagenbach’s first book-inspired jazz musical, but it’s her most ambitious. Previously, she put together a “Maltese Falcon” for the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, singing re-lyricized jazz standards from the period. She has also made a version of “The Great Gatsby.”
Earlier this year, she approached the Kansas City Public Library about staging one of them. But it didn’t work out as she’d planned.
“They said, ‘We’d love to do this, but we have a big event coming up with Lewis Carroll. You wouldn’t be interested in doing something for that, would you?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ Then I got home and said, ‘What just happened?’ ”
But the muse arrived quickly. At the time, Hagenbach was binge-listening to Coltrane (an activity wholeheartedly recommended to everyone by the Jazz Town executive board). When “Syeeda’s Song Flute” came on, with its scampering, leaping introduction, “I heard the rabbit hopping into Alice’s dream. And that was all she wrote.”
She zeroed in on Coltrane’s music in the period from “Blue Train” (1957) to “Giant Steps” (1959). Within a few weeks, she had created a stack of lyrics to Coltrane instrumentals, figured out much of the structure of the show and begun to recruit friends to perform it — starting with pianist Roger Wilder, who leads the band, and singer, dancer and trumpeter Lonnie McFadden, described by Hagenbach as “the most perfect White Rabbit ever.”
Yes, the story had to change a bit for jazz purposes, Hagenbach says. “My Alice is a student. Since I’m playing her, she’s an adult studying for a master’s. She’s reading a book called ‘Mathematical Mysteries of Jazz.’ She falls asleep with Coltrane music in her head and all these things happen. In addition to experiencing all these things, she’s also internalizing Coltrane’s music.”
Of course, you can’t deal with Trane without a tenor saxophone — in this case, played by Steven Lambert. In the show, “he’s sort of the embodiment of John Coltrane and Lewis Carroll, orchestrating things out of his mind and his horn.”
Hagenbach’s partners in the Book of Gaia vocal group are very much present: Nedra Dixon (“The only bona fide actor in the cast, I’m pretty sure”) is the narrator, the Knave of Hearts, the March Hare and the Duchess; and Pamela Baskin-Watson is the Caterpillar, the Dormouse and the Queen of Hearts. Singer Bryan Hicks appears as the Mad Hatter.
The rhythm section — Wilder, bassist Zach Beeson and drummer Brian Steever — is costumed to fill out the deck of cards. The stage manager, Doug Perkins, is also the King. There’s even a little chorus, the Carrollers, directed by the busy Baskin-Watson.
“JazzAlice” also has a cast of volunteers who have made costumes and props and contributed in many other ways.
“It’s a lot of work,” Hagenbach says, “and a labor of love at this point. But I’m lucky to have such talent around me to pull it off.”
She’s hoping that “JazzAlice” will have more chances to be seen and heard — maybe in schools.
But this Alice is off to a good start. The libraries originally scheduled two performances, on Wednesday and Nov. 10, and potential audience members were asked to RSVP. The first performance was booked to capacity a week before the show, so another has been added, on Nov. 2.
▪ Jazz-inflected singer/songwriter Kat Edmonson, who has been heard on “Austin City Limits,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and a Lyle Lovett album, comes to the Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The singer/songwriter known as Milton is also on the bill. Tickets are $20; see Ticketmaster.com.
▪ Guitarist Ron Carlson has put together an intriguing jazz series in a new-ish venue, the Art Factory in the Prairiefire development. The next show, at 9 p.m. Friday, features bassist Bob Bowman’s group. The spot is at 5621 W. 135th St., Suite 2630, in Overland Park.
▪ The Blue Room also has trombonist Jason Goudeau running the Monday jam at 7 p.m. The KC Latin Jazz All Stars appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, and pianist Michael Pagán brings a quartet with bassist and composer Tom Knific at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
▪ Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., has the Foundation 627 Big Band at 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Organist Chris Hazelton and his Boogaloo 7 band, mainstays of the club, will play for a live recording at 8 p.m. Monday. The Sequel Trio is on at 9 p.m. Tuesday; organist Ken Lovern’s OJT is on at 9 p.m. Wednesday; saxophonist Brett Jackson’s quartet plays at 6 p.m. Thursday, followed by bassist Karl McComas-Reichl’s trio at 9 p.m.; pianist Tim Whitmer’s quartet is on at 5:30 p.m. Friday, followed by pianist Mark Lowrey’s trio at 9 p.m.; and the Sons of Brasil play at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, followed by OJT at 9:30 p.m.
▪ Broadway Kansas City, 3601 Broadway, has the New Jazz Order big band at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
▪ Singer Kelley Gant and her group give the next show on the free Johnson County Community College jazz series at noon Tuesday in the Recital Hall in Carlsen Center.
Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751
“JazzAlice: An Adventure in Wonderland”
The jazz adaptation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” sponsored by the Kansas City Public Library and the Mid-Continent Public Library, will be performed at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Nov. 2 at the Plaza Library, 4801 Main St.; it’s free, but attendees are asked to RSVP at KCLibrary.org or 816-701-3407. The show will be performed again at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at the John Knox Pavilion, 520 N.W. Murray Road, Lee’s Summit. This show also is free, but RSVP at MyMCPL.org or 816-524-0567.