Trumpeter Orbert Davis has worked for years to train his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic in Third Stream techniques – that is, playing music that embraces both jazz and classical traditions.
But during the CJP's season-opening concert Saturday night at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, it wasn't so much the methods but the very nature of Third Stream that came into focus. For although listeners tend to think of Third Stream as anything involving a jazz band plus strings, Davis and friends reaffirmed that the term has several meanings and many different sounds.
Above all, this performance showed the breadth of Third Stream, an idiom that encompasses multiple genres, styles, historical periods and musical languages.
Though Davis was leading a smaller contingent of his organization, the 18-piece Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, there was no mistaking the expressive range of this music. Indeed, the reduced instrumentation gave the ensemble the nimbleness needed to transform itself stylistically from one composition to the next.
The evening began tenuously, with William Russo's signature arrangement of Bix Beiderbecke's "Davenport Blues." A touch of overamplification plus a perhaps too-slow opening tempo meant the introductory passages didn't really cohere. Individual instruments, in other words, didn't quite come together to form a definable ensemble sound. Once the uptempo swing section began and Davis picked up his horn to solo, however, the CJP Chamber Ensemble gained its footing and, in fact, was off and running for the rest of the evening.
Consider "Amadeus Has a Dream," Davis' jazz fantasy on the fourth movement of Mozart's String Quartet No. 13 in D Minor, K. 173. After a gorgeous, ballad-like opening solo from pianist Leandro Lopez Varady, the piece blossomed into a fugal work for classical strings, before changing once again into an ultra-elegant, medium-swing reinvention of Mozart's themes. Here was Third Stream performance in the manner of the Modern Jazz Quartet: sleek, understated, texturally transparent – and thoroughly appropriate to music of Mozart.
Yet Davis' band – and the definition of Third Stream – sounded wholly different in "El Moreno," Davis' dramatic reworking of a movement from Miles Davis' and Gil Evans' "Sketches of Spain." Though thematic snippets of the original were plain to hear, the piece took on deep-amber colors, alternative string motifs and tremendous harmonic-rhythmic tension. In essence, Orbert Davis reimagined both "Sketches of Spain" and the nature of the CJP Chamber Ensemble, the conductor-composer developing the Moorish undercurrents of the original to striking effect.
Davis' "An Ellingtonian Renaissance," by contrast, emerged as practically a concerto for trumpet and orchestra, the piece at first evoking late 1920s Ellington but then rushing headlong into more contemporary vocabularies. Essentially, Davis and his colleagues traversed several epochs in this work, with high-flying solos from the trumpeter and from tenor saxophonist Michael Salter.
So it went, each composition casting a different light on the music we loosely call Third Stream. Davis reconfigured Isaac Albeniz's "El Albaicin" for string quartet, bringing new sinew and contrapuntal interest to the work. And the trumpeter showed how deeply the Miles Davis-Gil Evans partnership has influenced him in his "Family Portraits," a virtuoso piece of orchestral writing.
It would be difficult to overstate the critical role drummer Ernie Adams, bassist Stewart Miller and pianist Varady played in most of this music, for they, more than anyone apart from Davis himself, helped bridge the gulf between jazz and classical approaches to rhythm.
Finally, notwithstanding the overamplification of the first few minutes of the concert, the North Shore Center's concert space proved a model setting for the CJP, the hall's intimate dimensions magnifying the effect of the band's groundbreaking work.
For information on future Chicago Jazz Philharmonic concerts, visit chicagojazzphilharmonic.org or phone 312-573-8932.