Are Jazz Cats Hip to Electric Scenes?

What happens when you mix four jazz virtuosos with new technology aimed at breaking their sweet sound down to its elements?

Creating a smartphone app that strives to pictorially “explain” the intricacies of a musical genre characterized by its improvisations might seem like the antithesis of “jazz.” But on April 23, one intrepid quartet is going to turn their jam on its head in the name of science.

“Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will.” – J.J. Johnson

About this time last year, Dr. Youngmoo Kim the director of Drexel’s Expressive & Creative Technologies Center (ExCITe), pulled together four acquaintances– some who happen to be big names in the world of jazz – on stage for a one-of-a-kind concert at the Philadelphia Science Festival.

Kim, whose background includes multiple degrees in both music performance and engineering, is the embodiment of the ExCITe Center – the confluence of creativity through both artistic expression and scientific inquiry.

“Technology and artistic expression have always been symbiotic,” Kim said. “New technologies expand creative possibilities, which in turn push the development of new technologies. A goal of my research is to bring these two worlds even closer together and to provide a place for others with similar passions to pursue their creative visions.”

Working connections from both the scientific and musical communities, Kim pulled together a group of jazz musicians who all shared his penchant for innovation and technological exploration. Among those artists, who will also be featured in this year’s event, are:

  • Marc Cary, Grammy-nominated jazz      pianist who has traveled the world to integrate indigenous sounds into his      style of play while collaborating with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie,      Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Macy Gray, and Ani DiFranco.
  • Will Calhoun, Grammy award-winning      drummer of the group Living Colour, who is an innovator of jazz, rock      hip-hop and ambient music genres.

Kim’s vision was to put together an event pairing world-class musicians and technology to develop a unique concert experience.

“The project was developed in partnership with the Philadelphia Science Festival to introduce audiences to the scientific principles behind music,” Kim said. “In the six months leading up to the event, we worked to define the genre, the combination of performers, and to develop the technology and apps that would be needed. In the end, it worked fantastically, but we didn’t actually see the visualizations with live music until the day of the concert!”

Kim’s iOS smartphone app essentially translates the measurable phenomena of music –frequency, intensity, rhythm- into a visual form. It strives to represent the sound produced by each musical instrument in a way that allows the audience to see how they fill out the sonic spectrum of the concert.

Science of Jazz app’s real-time acoustic modeling of the theater during the concert.
The app indicates where the sound produced by each instrument falls on the harmonic sequence.
The pitch and intensity of each instrument is represented in a real-time graph displayed on the app.

With the band jamming on stage, audience members tracked the concert on their smartphones or followed the “visual jam” projected on screens above the stage.  The wail of the saxophone became a series of pink mountain peaks representing the pitch of the instrument (the frequency of the sound waves it produces) and the intensity of its sound. The syncopation of the drums and keyboard and the strum of the base added their notes and colors to the rainbow range of sounds scrolling up the screen.  With a touch of the phone screen, viewers could change their view to a ring of musical octaves with a color-coded depiction of how the instruments filled it out, with each note and corresponding color block changing in real-time with the music.

With the success of the concert last year –playing to a capacity crowd in Mitchell Auditorium- Kim decided to try it again at this year’s Science Festival. But in order to keep pushing his musical colleagues to the edge of their comfort zone, he’s introducing a new instrument and striving to visually represent new aspects of the music.

“We’re putting Marc Cary on our magnetic resonator piano, an electromagnetically enhanced piano that can play sounds no other piano can,” Kim said. “I think this fits perfectly with the spirit of jazz: to be in the moment, and express ideas through improvisation and new sounds. Overall, the goal of the technology isn’t to ‘explain’ jazz, to freeze it on a smart phone… it’s to show how amazing it is…it’s a way to show how the sound is always evolving and changing in highly organic way.”

The Science of Jazz concert will be held on Tuesday, April 23 at 7 p.m. at Drexel’s Mandell Theater. For tickets click here.

For media inquiries contact Britt Faulstick, news officer, Drexel Communications, 215-895-2617 or

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