The iconic photo “A Great Day in Harlem” caught 57 prominent jazz musicians posing in front of a brownstone in 1958. There’s a lot going on in the picture — Dizzy Gillespie is sticking his tongue out at Roy Eldridge; Count Basie is slouching on a curb next to a row of children; a cigarette is hanging from Charles Mingus’s grimacing lips. But when musician Brendan Burns looks at the photo, he’s more taken with its effect as a whole. He sees a symbol of a thriving, communal music scene.
“This is what jazz was,” says Burns, 36, as he looks over the image on his laptop screen. “They changed the face of jazz due to each other’s inspirations and challenges. It’s a beautiful thing to see these people together.”
In February, Burns set out to capture the musical community he experiences in Boston, but not with a still image. His project “TimeStamp” brought 15 collaborators to the Somerville Theatre over the course of three days to record original compositions and improvisations. His co-conspirators include people he plays with frequently, co-workers at Brookline Music School, friends, and friends of friends.
TIMESTAMP CD RELEASE CONCERT
“I’ve been calling it an aural photograph,” says Burns, who is from Binghamton, N.Y., but has lived in the Boston area since he enrolled in Berklee College of Music in 1994. “I found these three days where we all could get together. . . . I wanted to create a document that captured it.”
On Monday, Burns and several of the musicians featured on the project will return to the Somerville Theatre for a concert celebrating the CD release of “TimeStamp,” which is Burns’s first album of his own compositions. The event will also premiere a documentary by Alexia Prichard that chronicles the endeavor.
What “TimeStamp” captures, though, is not as clear-cut as the jazz embodied that day in Harlem. The musicians recorded in six groups — from a rock quartet with a horn section, to a string trio, to Burns’s solo guitar noodling — and span an array of genres. Burns points to post-rock, alternative country, and ethereal music as signposts, but is hesitant to define a style.
“The characters of the musicians determine the body and the direction the songs go to,” he says. “There’s a lot of conversation in here. That’s one thing I do hear.”
Burns says he only selected musicians that he trusts, and wrote specifically for them. He even threw out a piece written for a player he had in mind who couldn’t attend the session.
“It’s not like I needed a tenor sax part, I needed this human being,” he says.
With each recording session just two hours long, that familiarity was important to creating something special.
“It’s not a perfect performance. There are mistakes, there are some weak points. But I find them really beautiful because they become part of the story,” he says. “As a group, we get into a spot, but then we get out of it. It becomes sort of a redemption.”
The Somerville Theatre, too, was part of Burns’s vision. He’d previously performed in the venue as part of its Midnight Movie series and for a show about Edgar Allen Poe, and for years he’d imagined putting on a show of his own there.
“It’s a beautiful place, it’s a historical place, it’s a venue that I’ve seen so many inspirational shows at. It’s been something that I’ve always wanted to create in and to be a part of,” he says.
In Prichard’s documentary, Burns describes the venue like a collaborator with the musicians. One scene in the film quickly jumps among shots of string players Valerie Thompson, Eliza Kopczynska, and Michelle Rush shuffling around the stage, searching for the ideal acoustics.
Adapting those varied marathon recording sessions into an album was a long process, but Burns says he had a strong idea of what he wanted from the beginning. He likens his approach to that of a sculptor who can picture a finished piece in a slab of granite.
“The takes I chose are the ones that took the most fascinating journeys,” he says.
When Burns takes the stage of the Somerville Theatre once again on Monday, he won’t be trying to duplicate what he and his friends built that day in February. There will be a new tune with some of the same players and a similar style, new pieces of free improv, and even a dance piece. He notes that the “TimeStamp” was marked several months ago — all the musicians are different players and performers now.
Those months between the project’s recording and its release have only reinforced Burns’s belief in Boston’s music community. In August, the Central Square house where Burns and three other musicians on “TimeStamp” lived suffered a fire. He says there were about five benefit concerts in response. But he seemed most struck by the concern of the firefighters at the scene, who lifted many of the instruments off the floor to minimize water damage.
“After the fire finished, these guys went in and carried out like 20 of our instruments,” he says. “I talk to one of the head guys, and I told him how much that meant. They didn’t have to do that.” He offered anyone who works for the Cambridge Fire Department or Police Department free admission to Monday’s show. “I want them to check out these instruments that were saved.”
Burns has found a new place — just a few blocks from the Somerville Theatre.
Andrew Doerfler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.