More than a decade ago, vocalist Rodrick Dixon traveled to Lincoln Center in New York to sing a piece of music he couldn't get out of his head. He then decided he had to persuade someone to stage it in Chicago.
This weekend, "Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah" returns to the Auditorium Theatre for the eighth annual edition, a testament to Dixon's vision and, more important, to the enduring value of the work.
Though classical purists may scoff at a version of Handel's oratorio "Messiah" transformed through jazz, blues and gospel techniques, its appeal is unmistakable once singer Dixon, Alfreda Burke (his wife) and Karen Marie Richardson take the stage — joined by a small army of jazz musicians, strings and massive choir. Handel's indelible, indestructible tunes remain, but rhythmically the piece takes flight in ways that the great composer never could have anticipated.
Moreover, to hear this magisterial score recalibrated is to understand anew the power of the original and the eloquence of the jazz-gospel contribution to it.
Arranged by Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson in 1993 and a popular attraction across the country ever since, "Too Hot to Handel" represents the European classical tradition in eloquent dialogue with its African-American counterpart. Though easily accessible, the music conveys the profundities of Handel's original.
"This piece is not popcorn and bubble gum," says Dixon, and he's right.
Dixon offers ebullient scat singing in "The People That Walked in Darkness"; Burke brings fervent blues expression to "The Trumpet Shall Sound"; and the choir swings buoyantly in "And the Glory of the Lord." All of this points to the depth of this score and the challenges of performing it. In a way, the musicians who take on "Too Hot to Handel" carry a heavier load than those who address the "Messiah" as written, for these artists must be persuasive and technically adept in two musical realms: classical and jazz (and related idioms).
"You make it look easy, but there are a lot of things happening at a lot of times, and you're out there on a wing and a prayer," says Dixon. "A piece like this will stretch you, because you don't know what your instrument can do until you jump out there.
"And it's not just the improv. It's everything you need (to draw upon) in terms of your training. … I'm moving my voice around to create all different colors that (many) opera singers would never take the chance on."
But the effort is well worth it, say Dixon and Burke, who have sung the piece in Chicago since 2006 and in Detroit since 2003.
Why does "Too Hot to Handel" keep coming back like a song?
"I believe it's a powerful piece," says soprano Burke. "You have Handel's 'Messiah,' the text, the scripture. It touches people, motivates people.
"They don't leave (the performance) the way that they came."
Burke goes so far as to describe the piece on her blog as "'Messiah' on steroids."
This time around, says Dixon, audiences will notice some fine-tunings. For one, the jazz solos are more extensive, he says, while large screens will be positioned so that the audience can get a closer look at what's happening onstage.
Listeners still ask why "Too Hot to Handel" hasn't been presented here at Christmastime, and the reasons remain the same: A scheduling conflict prevented the event from being staged at the Auditorium during the Christmas season in 2006, so instead the theater staged the performance as a celebration of the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Handel himself, it should be noted, performed "Messiah" during Easter, a custom that endures in Europe to this day.
With "Too Hot to Handel" having become practically a civic tradition, Dixon is hoping to help bring another major crossover work here: Hannibal Lokumbe's "Can You Hear God Crying?"
In the meantime, though, doesn't Dixon get tired of singing "Too Hot to Handel"?
"No more than I would get tired singing 'Tales of Hoffmann' or 'Rigoletto,'" he quips.