Miguel de la Cerna tells a tragic story with 'Almas Perdidas' ('Lost Souls')

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Miguel de la Cerna

Miguel de la Cerna performingn at the Jazz Showcase. (May 9, 2013)

Chicago jazz musician Miguel de la Cerna likes to refer to himself as "your basic piano player, commercial musician," but that modest self-assessment greatly understates the case.

De la Cerna proved the point dramatically last year, when he partnered with the Orion Ensemble for the world premiere of his jazz suite "Livingston 8 – A Fantasy." Though the pianist-composer had expressed some trepidation about creating a major work for a Chicago ensemble as esteemed as the Orion, he needn't have worried.

"Livingston 8" proved to be a richly evocative, somewhat autobiographical piece drawing upon the sounds de la Cerna heard growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Jazz, blues, gospel, funk, R&B and poured out of apartments and car radios around 41st Street and Berkeley Avenue when de la Cerna was coming of age. And he somehow managed to express the spirit of those times in a chamber-music setting.

The piece proved quite effective, prompting Orion to commission another work, which launched its world-premiere run this week and culminates in a concert Sunday evening at the Music Institute of Chicago's Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston.

But this time, says de la Cerna, he's taking a considerably different tack than in "Livingston 8." His "Almas Perdidas," which translates to "Lost Souls," embraces jazz but also digs into a technique that classical musicians call "12-tone" or "serial" composition. Most famously associated with composer Arnold Schoenberg, 12-tone method essentially requires a composer to build a theme on all 12 notes of the chromatic scale without repeating a single pitch. That motif becomes the spine of the work and the basis for its development.

If it all sounds a bit intense, that may fitting, considering the subject matter: "Lost Souls" refers, in part, to the indigenous peoples of the Americas who died with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and other Europeans. They "lost their lives mostly due to exposure to germs carried by European explorers," de la Cerna observes in a statement from the Orion Ensemble.

"I'm not really political – certainly progress has to happen," adds de la Cerna in an interview.

But when Orion commissioned him again, he kept thinking about "the people who were annihilated, not by war, but just by germs and the progress of things happening.

"Even today, there are a lot of lost souls, people who are just victims of circumstances," continues de la Cerna. "They're somebody's father, somebody's mother, they're kids, they're people, and a lot of people love them. … Every day, in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are people who have nothing to do with what's going on, and they're just losing their lives."

In response, de la Cerna has created what he considers a very "programmatic" work, meaning it tells a specific narrative regarding the Taino tribes of the Caribbean that were wiped out with the arrival of Spanish colonists in the 15th and 16th centuries. The piece begins serenely, reflecting a culture flourishing in peace, but the music soon erupts "with a lot boom-booms that represent the slash and burn," says de la Cerna.

So if "Livingston 8" buoyantly celebrated the music of de la Cerna's youth, "Lost Souls" looks at a much darker chapter of human history.

"This is just a very powerful story that he's working from," says Kathryne Pirtle, executive director and clarinetist of the Orion Ensemble. "And I think he did a great job at transforming something that I don't think has probably ever been (expressed) in a chamber work before."

Pirtle adds that the Orion Ensemble gave de la Cerna no parameters or restrictions on what he might compose. But the concert's theme, "Folk Inspirations with a Musical Flair," and its focus on music of the Mexican composers Manuel Ponce and Arturo Marquez, led de la Cerna to create "Lost Souls."

Scored for violin, viola, cello, clarinet and piano, the piece runs about 10 minutes and emerges at a rather hectic time in de la Cerna's career. His ongoing solo work, outreach projects the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago and accompanying-arranging for the eminent Chicago vocalist Dee Alexander has kept him in near-constant motion – and in a state of some anxiety. For just as he was completing "Lost Souls," he also was recording with Alexander.

"After you do a recording, you almost want to go to your therapist," says de la Cerna, who will be watching and listening – but not performing – during the Orion Ensemble concert. "A thousand notes, and I play one wrong one, and I think: If'd taken that one harmony course, I wouldn't have done that.'

"The writing (process) is exhilarating and happy, but all of us musicians are just basket cases when it comes to our art.

"We're just praying it all works out."

As far as "Lost Souls" is concerned, we'll find out on Sunday if it has.

Miguel de la Cerna's 'Almas Perdidas'
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Music Institute of Chicago's Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Tickets: $10-$26; 630-628-9591 or orionensemble.org

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To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich

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