Real improv at the Wilma
By A.D. Amorosi FOR THE INQUIRER
Life as we know it may have stopped during Winter Storm Jonas, but not for the Wilma Theater production of playwright Tom Stoppard’s new work, The Hard Problem, or for its most striking cast member, saxophonist Michael Pedicin.
The tall, bald, tan Pedicin marched down snowy Broad Street for weekend evening performances and Sunday’s matinee. As he’s done since Jan. 6, he appeared on stage, playing as scenes changed and characters considered their quandaries.
“I’m one of those crazy people who enjoy snow in the city,” Pedicin said between performances. “It was wild getting there, but fun.”
That “wild getting there, but fun” axiom could describe his journey as one of Philly’s most prominent ax men: the son of jazz/ R&B sax great Mike Pedicin (“still sharp at 98”); a student of legendary local music teachers Buddy Savitt and Dennis Sandole; asession man for albums from Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records; and a sideman at Atlantic City gigs for Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
Pedicin the player has done it all. As a leader, he’s been making exquisitely soulful and subtly complex jazz albums since 1980, such as The Ballads and his most recent disc, Why Stop Now/Ubuntu.
Pedicin has a Ph.D. in psychology from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, with a practice specializing in the creative mind and its practitioners. He’s also a professor of music and coordinator of jazz studies at New Jersey’s Richard Stockton College. He was wrapping up 2015’s semester in December when he caught wind of his next wild, fun excursion.
“I got a call from Daniel Perelstein, the Wilma’s resident composer and sound designer, about music for the show,” Pedicin said. “I assumed they wanted an orchestra, so I inquired as to how many pieces, when Danny says, ‘One. You.’ ”
Stoppard never wrote a saxophonist into his play, based on the “hard problem of consciousness” and its theories as formulated by Australian philosopher and psychologist David Chalmers. Yet Stoppard’s 22-year relationship with Philadelphia’s avant-garde Wilma and its prime motivator, Blanka Zizka, meant the playwright trusted his director.
In a chat with a reporter during rehearsals, Stoppard said: “When Blanka first told me about her idea for a saxophonist, I asked if she was sure, then simply trusted her instincts.”
Zizka claims that in the play, the main character, Hilary, struggles with the consequence of a decision she made as a 15-year-old. “I thought about this moment of decision as something I call ‘frozen time,’ something that Hilary carries with her, always,” the director said.
“I wanted to express her longing, hope, and fear in a play that speculates about origins of consciousness and is deeply saturated with ideas about biology, evolution, and neuroscience, [using] something that doesn’t represent science — by art.”
Zizka didn’t want recorded music for transitions between scenes; she wanted the music to become another character. “I wanted a live saxophone player who can improvise over a basic composed structure so that the performances can breathe and change every night,” she said.
She also wanted a reed sound but isn’t sure why. “It was intuition; probably something to do with breath, and that a saxophonist must give himself completely to the instrument.”
That would be Pedicin, who speaks of his improvisational largesse and its freeing sensibilities as one would a child or a lover.
He believes his life is improvisational (“which must be hell on my wife”) and even teaches a course called “Improvisation, Creativity and Consciousness.” “It is about freeing oneself of bias, of dogma, and to allow yourself to live in the moment,” he said.
Pedicin got The Hard Problem gig immediately, due to his abilities as a player, and, Zizka noted, “his interest in neuroscience.”
He started during rehearsals, even reading lines with the actors on stage. At first, he played from the corner of the stage apron, in the audience, and backstage. It was only by chance that he played on stage with the actors moving in and out of a scene, which made him part of the action. “Suddenly, I could relate to Hilary [Sarah Gliko] because I could look into her eyes and see what she is going through, as a character and as an actor,” Pedicin said.
Though improvising, Pedicin is not blowing manically or harmolodically, as would Anthony Braxton or Ornette Coleman. “I want to blow hot but always remember I’m working a scene,” Pedicin said of being respectfully corralled. His flow is liquid, smooth, and soulful within the confines of a scene’s feel and vibe.
His physical presence is daunting — a bald man in black against an all-white stage set. Performing with an audience in front and behind the stage gives the illusion that Hilary is peering right through him; that he is a spirit guide. This etherealism has led audience members to theorize that Pedicin is either Hilary’s conscience or perhaps even God.
“When I cast Michael, I knew it had to be an older player, someone with a long life experience,” Zizka said. “I guess that’s why now so many audience members think of him as a presence of God.”
Pedicin thinks he could be The Hard Problem’s inner voice or guiding light. “God is good, too,” he said with a laugh.
The Hard Problem, Wilma Theater,
265 S. Broad St., through Feb. 6, showtimes vary; $45;