Pure jazz, if there is such a thing, has often entered into marriages with other art forms: jazz & symphonic strings, jazz & rock electronics, jazz & dance, jazz & poetry. To these can be added the hybrid performances of Thomas & Muse, the Wales-based duo of trumpeter Ben Thomas and the artist Lucy Muse, whose collaborative creations embrace jazz, visual art and the theatrical.
Perhaps the means by which they deliver all this to their audiences – via both social media and live performance – says something about the way jazz is being absorbed and sent on its way in new, often brighter, livery.
The two met at a gig when Ben was playing and Lucy was sketching the musicians. They instantly found creative common ground, formed Thomas & Muse, and in a few weeks were giving cross-genre performances live. Elly Raine, also Welsh, joined the team and often delivers Welsh-language spoken words. Lucy’s sister, also an artist, has contributed too.
Ben said the decision to fuse jazz and art was personal. When he heard Miles Davis for the first time, the clear tone and reflective phrasing conjured images of the sea. Ben lived near Tenby at the time, so to know that it was possible to reflect in the sound and phrases of his trumpet playing the visualisation of the place he most loved was revealing and the beginning of a creative crusade to express the widest spectrum of multi-sensory thoughts and ideas.
“So the fusion of jazz and art was second nature and the beginning of a wider creative statement,” he said. Lucy added: “My experience of music, much like my mode of expression, has always been visual. Having met Ben at that gig, it was a natural progression that a visual artist and a visual musician should combine forces.”
All that said, it’s difficult to describe the precise nature of this collaboration, especially bearing in mind that Lucy adopts a “naked lifestyle”. Some might regard that as mirroring the risqué elements jazz has often courted. After all, the music had some of its origins in the more colourful districts of New Orleans. But it’s not about that.
“I don’t really recognise shock and scandal within jazz but perhaps that is due to my poor academic pedigree,” Ben said. “I understand that for many people the concept of nudity is outrageous but I am not seeking to shock anybody. Nudity within our performances and visualisations have come about naturally in order to reflect ideas. I try not to dwell too much on potential audience reaction or perception for fear of losing sight of what we need to say.
‘We have brought some nudity to relatively unsuspecting jazz audiences and I have definitely recognised shock among some fraternities – but I feel more shocked by apathy, copycats and academic trendsters saturating what I believed to be potentially cutting-edge art forms’
“However, common sense occasionally kicks in and we recognise that certain ideas cannot be brought to certain audiences. We have brought some nudity to relatively unsuspecting jazz audiences and I have definitely recognised shock among some fraternities – but I feel more shocked by apathy, copycats and academic trendsters saturating what I believed to be potentially cutting-edge art forms. Nudity is not outrageous!”
Lucy agreed: “Yes there are elements of those things in our performances, but I think we are a little less tease and a lot more in-your-face. The most important thing is that we express ourselves; how people define what we do is out of our control. Nudity is a very natural thing. It’s a great equaliser. My nakedness is recognised by my unclothed body, but we also share a naked expression of our minds, especially when performing. I often feel far more naked (regardless of clothes) when I’m pushing the limits of my emotional expression, usually when improvising with Ben, just trumpet and art. It’s very raw, exposed and emotional for me.”
Ben said: “We produce everything in-house, including merchandise, recordings, filming and whatever else we fancy doing. We run our own TV channel – TMTV (Thomas & Muse TV) – which contains series such as Lucy Muse & Friends, Boutique Robyn and Educating Elly, plus lots of music videos, and a long-running podcast series called Lucy Musings. Our TV channel showcases our creative work as artists and musicians as well as Lucy’s work and life as a ‘naked person’. Lucy’s lifestyle features throughout our work as both artists and performers. We have hosted artistic live performances to ‘clothing optional’ audiences.
“When we perform to an audience we seek to be entertaining but recognise that this isn’t always possible. I don’t think we have created a new art form but I do think (for good or bad) we are seeking to be ourselves and delivering that to a wider audience. I would hope that audience members will recall our shows. Whether they have enjoyed them or not is a different matter and not something that I can afford to worry about too much.”
In all exercises of fusion, jazz has a tendency to be the prime mover that allows other things to come into being.
“I’m certainly not a jazz historian or a jazz academic,” Ben said. “ I recognise that I enjoy going against the flow. I would struggle to describe myself as exclusively a jazz musician so I certainly don’t worry about the consequences of working across many different art forms and genres. It’s fun to try new things. And I’m not afraid to fail (which I often do). The desire to not fail could be seen as a danger, within jazz, as in the rise of academic jazz, of which I am not an advocate.”
The areas opened up by having jazz and art as instigators are recognised by Lucy too. “Collaboration has opened up new and exciting possibilities and my art has become much more true to who I am and what I represent,” she said. “I have found myself doing things in performance that I never thought I was capable of. I feel so focused and committed to our ideas that I want to offer the best representation of our hard work; so I’ve found myself singing, shouting, throwing parsnips at the audience, being naked in front of a conservative (clothed) audience, slapping paint all over myself, frenetically improvising words and melodies while I create images – and even pushing the boundaries into physical contact with the audience: scary but very exciting!”
The two have a back catalogue of productions such as the albums Within This World Within My Mind, Cult Of Clay, and Scenes Of Winter. There’ve been many singles, including their latest effort, Achilles Heel, written by Ben and featuring his trumpet playing, some grungy guitar by Richard Jones, and Lucy’s spoken word. They make music videos to accompany their creations. And they’ve built up a friendly, enthusiastic and supportive community of online followers on platforms such as YouTube and Twitter.
Jazz, whatever has happened to it in these collusions, will surely be having a good time.
Links to Thomas & Muse
TV Channel: https://www.thomasandmusetv.com/
Ben Thomas’s website: https://benthomastrumpet.com/2018news