20 years ago drummer and composer Mark Lomax, II, then in a high school junior, began hearing beyond his "chops" when he started writing an oratorio with an mixed ensemble consisting of orchestra and improvising ensemble. "I couldn't figure out how to make it work," says the composer, "because I wanted everything to be seamless. I wanted to create what I heard as an organic hybrid where both ensembles played as one regardless of the forms, tonality, or genre." The young composer was familiar with recordings of famous improvisers like saxophonists Charles Parker and Sonny Rollins, and drummers Max Roach and Tony Williams, which featured the musicians with strings. He was also familiar with the "pops" concerts and "gospel meets symphony" concerts, but felt as though the gimmick never realized the potential inherent in bringing such disparate ensembles and styles together.

Lomax began experimenting with achieving his idea of an "organic hybrid" when offered the opportunity to be the musical director for the city of Columbus' annual Martin Luther King, Jr. day celebrations where he'd pull together a quintet of improvisers (tp, ts, p, b, dr) with strings (2,2,2,1) to play a grand prelude and opening theme for the televised show. This process gave Mark the confidence to compose 'A New America' for his masters thesis. 'A New America' was an ambitious project that used text from Paul Laurence Dunbar and others to suggest that being free to be great was the way to inspire others and change the world. The ensemble chosen to deliver this message was an improvising septet (fl, tp, as, ts, p, b, dr), a string orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists. The piece was rejected by his professors who used terms like "derivative," and "not the stuff of art" referencing the composers choice to create a Negro Spiritual as the source material and use improvisation as an aleatoric device.

Hurt by the rejection but undaunted, Lomax continued with his "education" and completed doctoral work in composition while awaiting another opportunity to apply his concept. He arranged 8 of 10 gospel pieces for the Prague national symphony's proms concert in 2011 employing as much of his ideas on integrating the ensemble as possible. Four years later, he was commissioned by the Johnstone Fund for New Music to honor August Wilson as part of a year-long celebration of the playwrights legacy. Jack & Zoe Johnstone were excited at the prospect of bringing together a chamber ensemble consisting of a traditional string quartet and saxophone trio (ts, b, dr). On Wednesday August 17, 2016, Lomax proved his concept and introduced The Urban Art Ensemble to the world.



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Mark Lomax & The Urban Art Ensemble premier Lomax's “The 400 Years Suite” at the Lincoln Theatre in Columbus, Ohio.