Anyone who doubted the vitality of big-band jazz in the 21st century should have cruised the Chicago area on Saturday, when two of the city's finest ensembles offered distinctive ways of re-evaluating tradition.
Though each concert had its minor flaws, the dynamism of the presentations argued persuasively for the enduring value of orchestral jazz.
Orbert Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic stands at the forefront of redefining the meaning of Third Stream music, a term that loosely refers to the merger of jazz and classical techniques. To Davis, however, Third Stream encompasses a vast array of styles and languages, and on Saturday afternoon he added his own musical voice to the mix.
Davis' Emmy-winning score to the 2010 documentary "DuSable to Obama: Chicago's Black Metropolis" had been quite effective as accompaniment to a beautifully crafted film by Barbara E. Allen and Daniel Andries. But performed live – with an occasional film clip – at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, Davis' composition took on considerably more heft and presence.
Though any film score amounts to a series of snippets and truncated musical vignettes, Davis substantially expanded his material for the Logan Center's Family Saturdays matinee (and for a follow-up, evening concert). With film clips periodically playing on a screen in the Logan Center's Performance Hall, the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble showed the high craft and elegance of Davis' writing, as well as his uncanny ability to evoke particular periods in American history.
To hear the pastoral orchestral sounds of the "Reflections" movement that opened the concert, while images of cotton fields and slavery flickered on the screen, was to perceive the poetry of Davis' writing and the power of his musical understatement. Who else would juxtapose the exquisite filigree of Steve Eisen's flute solo (plus percussion accompaniment) with such harsh images from the bloodiest chapter of America's past? In so doing, Davis brilliantly – and subtly – underscored the tragedy unfolding before our eyes.
The main musical theme of "DuSable to Obama" is at once heroic and streaked with sadness, and Davis picked up his trumpet to deliver its bittersweet message, the CJP Chamber Ensemble providing ample color and atmosphere alongside him. This motif coursed through the "DuSable to Obama" score, Davis constantly reshaping it to suit the historical moment at hand.
But the suite pushed beyond that indelible tune, as well, as in "Rag for Reginald," an orchestral ragtime opus that conjured Chicago history at the turn of the previous century while somehow sounding freshly contemporary, as well. The splashes of dissonance and chromatic turns of phrase helped give the piece its modern sensibility, while the buoyant ragtime rhythms left no doubt as to which epoch Davis was reimagining.
The concert version of "DuSable to Obama" also benefited from narration based largely on poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, delivered with palpable fervor by Chicago vocalist Maggie Brown. Her impassioned oratory and throaty singing, plus Ari Brown's raspy blues solos on tenor saxophone, helped "DuSable to Obama" make the leap from screen to stage, no small feat.
The only shortcoming here concerned some extra-musical matters: The matinee program booklet did not list the names of the movements, and Davis said little from the stage about the pieces being played. With so many children in the house for this first installment of the Logan Center's new Family Saturdays series, further explanation of what was happening on stage would have been helpful (adults would have appreciated the information, as well).
Still, the music mattered most, and in this regard Davis and the CJP Chamber Ensemble made deep impact.
On Saturday evening, Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra presented "A Tribute to Ray Charles" that hardly could have found a better home than North Central College's Wentz Concert Hall. This superb venue serves orchestral music exceptionally well, and the CJO – plus guest vocalists – pushed its capabilities.
This was a Ray Charles homage, in other words, that turned the energy and decibel levels up high – yet just short of what the room could tolerate. At peak passages, therefore, listeners encountered about as much sound as the ear could absorb, a heady experience.
Though the CJO hit hard in its opening instrumental pieces, musical interest dipped a bit when singer Allan Harris stepped forward for the unenviable task of addressing Charles' repertoire. There was much to admire in Harris' gravelly vocals and earthy delivery on a Charles signature such as "I've Got a Woman," but the shadow of the original version hung heavily over Harris' account. No competition, really.
Once Harris was joined by Chicago vocalist Dee Alexander in "Baby, It's Cold Outside," however, the tone of the concert was transformed. Alexander and Harris duetted ingeniously here, trading phrases as if born to sing together. The grit and growl of Harris' instrument met its match in the purr and cry of Alexander's, the two parrying phrases as only accomplished jazz improvisers can.
And when vocalists Joan Collaso and Yvonne Gage joined Alexander to form a latter-day version of the Raelettes, this concert took flight. Harris and the vocal trio wrung every drop of soul from Charles hits such as "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "What'd I Say," the CJO detonating chordal punctuations in the background (with gutsy solos from tenor saxophonist Eric Schneider).
Yes, this evening was awash in nostalgia, but the vitality of the performance certainly helped listeners relive the glory of Brother Ray.