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Jazz trumpeter Jason Palmer’s disparate inspirations: stolen paintings and stolen lives

Jason Palmer
Jason PalmerJimmy and Dena Katz

Jason Palmer isn’t particularly well known, but he’s a phenomenally busy guy. As an educator, the trumpeter juggles his jobs teaching jazz ensembles as an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music and giving private lessons at New England Conservatory.

As a musician, Palmer has spent 15 years leading bands at Wally’s Cafe on Friday and Saturday nights whenever he was in town, some of it documented on his pair of 2018 releases “Jason Palmer at Wally’s,” volumes one and two. Palmer, 41, has released more than a dozen albums under his own name, and is a much in-demand sideman for the likes of saxophonists Mark Turner, Greg Osby, Grace Kelly, Matana Roberts, and Noah Preminger.

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Such busyness explains why Palmer’s recent interview concerning his two imminent Boston-centric projects took place at an Indian restaurant on Mass. Ave., a convenient stop for dinner on his walk from a full day of teaching at Berklee to a private session with a student that same night at NEC. Those high-concept projects include the release next month of “The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella,” inspired by the famous theft of 13 irreplaceable pieces of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (the release date, March 18, is the 30th anniversary of the heist), and performances Feb. 28 and Feb. 29 of his Upward Mothers Project at the Regattabar and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Palmer moved to Boston in 1997 from his (and John Coltrane’s) hometown, High Point, N.C., to study jazz trumpet performance at NEC, and first noticed the empty frames denoting the missing artwork at the Gardner during his student years. The idea to write music inspired by each stolen work came years later, when New York’s Whitney Museum commissioned his friend Kelly to write music inspired by a piece of the museum’s choosing.

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“I thought it was a cool idea,” says Palmer, while awaiting his just-placed order of lamb saag, “so I kind of put those two ideas together. I said, ‘What would happen if I could write something that was inspired by those [stolen] works?’ ”

What happened was the new album, recorded with a quintet including Mark Turner and rising stars Joel Ross, Edward Perez, and Kendrick Scott, its title taken from the most valuable of the stolen paintings, Vermeer’s “The Concert.”

“I took the techniques that were used to create those works to inform the songs that I wrote,” Palmer explains. “Some of the interpretations were pretty literal. Like, there’s one Rembrandt of a couple dressed in all black. so I wrote a song with all the melody notes on the black keys of the piano. We did a live [recording] at the Intercontinental Hotel in New York. We pulled it off.”

The incident that sparked the project Palmer is bringing to Regattabar on Friday occurred the year after the museum theft, and has a more personal connection to Palmer, dating to when he was learning to play trumpet as a High Point middle-schooler.

“There were about 20 trumpet players,” he recalls, “and every week we had tests where we had to play, make sure we knew our scales, knew our music for the week, and if we did really well we could move up in rank. I was 19th or 20th chair. I was one of the worst. One of my seat mates — he was beside me — his name was Shane Efird, and he passed away from an accidental gunshot wound. The week before that happened we promised each other that we would practice and get better so we could move up in rank, and then he passed away, and I was like, ‘You know, I’m gonna really work on this.’

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“That’s what inspired me to want to create a program that’s like a gun buyback program, you exchange [guns] for instruments and music. So that was an idea I kind of bandied around, and I couldn’t really figure out how to do that. It kind of snowballed into this idea.”

Palmer enlisted a Berklee colleague and frequent collaborator, pianist Kevin Harris, for what became Upward Mothers. Harris had himself lost a tae kwon do classmate named El Hajj to gun violence while growing up in Lexington, Ky. The two men interviewed four Boston mothers who had lost children to gun violence, Palmer assigned musical motifs to key spoken phrases extracted from the interviews, and they divvied up the motifs to compose six songs apiece.

The music premiered at the Kroc Center/Salvation Army in Roxbury in 2018, with Palmer and Harris joined by the same three musicians who will perform with them next weekend: Berklee colleague Ron Mahdi on bass, Berklee Global Jazz Institute graduate student Tyson Jackson on drums, and Berklee undergraduate Raven Moran on guitar. Moran is the niece of Kennedy Center artistic director for jazz Jason Moran, who had an additional reason to consider the project important: While working with student musicians at Chicago’s Kenwood Academy in 2014, one of the students, 15-year-old Aaron Rushing, was killed in a drive-by shooting.

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Palmer emphasizes that the Upward Mothers Project music is not somber.

“I wanted it to be a celebration of the mothers’ memories of the children,” he explains, “and so the music that we play, it’s not ballad-y or dark or anything. It’s more of a way of highlighting the bright moments that the mothers had with their children.”

And yet the theme is deadly serious. As Harris puts it in an e-mail, “Perhaps a unique question that helps us to strike at the root of senseless acts of violence that mothers should not have to experience is this: Why should an African-American trumpet player from North Carolina and an African-American pianist from Kentucky have this same story in common in the first place? Why do so many Boston mothers [and mothers] throughout the US in general have these unfortunate stories in common?”

“I learned so much just from listening to the mothers and where they’re at in their lives,” says Palmer. “It kind of makes you feel how small you can be but also how powerful you can be. It’s a been a big learning process for me. And I feel more connected to the community by doing something like this.”

JASON PALMER

The Upwards Mothers Project, featuring Kevin Harris

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At Regattabar, Cambridge, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $22-$27, www.regattabarjazz.com

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.