A Visionary Voyage

by Catherine Trifiletti

Rocker Jim James teams up with Louisville Orchestra’s Teddy Abrams to create a “large-scale symphonic suite” and an album called “The Order of Nature.”

Music’s ability to transcend the basic human sensory experience is important to prolific musician Jim James. Beyond being an aural engagement, music can provide the groundwork for a visual journey, so says the 41 year-old My Morning Jacket frontman. “When you think about listening to music, there’s a whole other part of your brain that does the work of seeing visions,” he explains, comparing the exercise to reading a book. “The words create the story in your mind.”

For his latest cinematic expression, James joined forces with Louisville Orchestra director Teddy Abrams to create a nine song album called “The Order of Nature,“ which James and Abrams are performing at select opera houses across the nation, including a collaboration with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center last month. What makes this project different for James is the interplay of instruments outside of his usual repertoire. “I think that’s one of the cool things about an orchestra,” he says, “you have such a larger paint box of different colors and different textures that your mind could see in a different way.”

James and Abrams toyed with the idea for several years before making it reality. When the timing was right, James provided Abrams with a musical framework of vocals and guitar chords, which the composer then orchestrated into a seamless piece of music. Listeners can expect to hear four new songs on the album along with a handful of covers and a few from James’ solo catalogue. Of the actual technicalities associated with creating an original score, James was excited to hand over the reins to his co-collaborator. “That was fascinating to have a back and forth between Teddy and I,” he explains. “You tell him, ‘I want something to feel like a purple balloon floating off a mountain,” and he’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s F-sharp.’”

The audience can expect more than pretty balloons though – the work’s underlying narrative addresses broader themes about the state of politics and the environment. For James it’s a way of contributing to a larger conversation about hate. “I’d love to figure out how we can stop fighting each other and get to a place where we can save the planet,” he says, referencing the anger-laden rhetoric dominating politics and dialogue surrounding the climate crisis. James emphasizes the fundamental aspects of life that connect humans. “We all need our families to be taken care of and we want to be able to live on a planet where we can breathe the air,” he says earnestly.

For his part, he is encouraging young people to get out and vote and generally to resist hostility. “Let’s talk about the issues, without necessarily getting mad at people who want to change things,” he says. “Let’s change things rather than starting petty fights on social media.” Reflecting on the natural world through “The Order of Nature” is the antidote to the divisiveness he sees in the world.

Keeping with the Kennedy Center’s ongoing efforts to be fresh and appeal to younger audiences, the Jim James/ Teddy Abrams collaboration shaped up to be the perfect fit for the NSO Pops and the Vocal Chorus of The Capital Hearings.

So, what does the highly-anticipated show sound like? “I think there are purple balloons everywhere,” James tells us with a laugh.

The full album will be released on October 18 along with a three-part documentary series about the making of the project.

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