Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile may come from different points on the musical spectrum, but their odd couple partnership engrossed the attentive, enthusiastic, and younger than usual, audience at Orchestra Hall Friday night.
For jazz lovers, Mehldau is a known quantity, probably the most significant pianist to emerge in the last two decades. Thile is a mandolin player and singer who operates largely in the bluegrass musical venue as a member of the Punch Brothers band.. Thile is an outgoing charismatic instrumentalist and singer. Mehldau is more introspective. Together they are making beautiful gimmick-free chamber jazz during a nine-city cross country tour.
Mehldau is the senior member of the duo by about 10 years but Thile served as the master of ceremonies, relaxed and informal, sometimes soloing and sometimes providing percussion backup for Mehldau. Together they offered the spectators an eclectic program during their single 90-minute set, running the musical changes from pop to bluegrass to funk to blues to folk to boogie woogie. They played a delicate waltz called “Dark Turn of Mind” and Fiona Apple’s “Fast As You Can,” which zigzagged unpredictable but coherently from one tempo to another.
The audience favorite may have been Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a romping number that flirted with the spiritual and the honky tonk and displayed the chemistry between the two musicians to a joyous perfection. Thile held the listeners spellbound with his understated vocal of the pop standard “I Cover the Waterfront.” “Daughter of Eve” started out as a lullaby and shifted gears tempo-wise to a crescendo of notes.
Throughout the set there was much give and take between the pair and no attempt at one-upsmanship. The respect and admiration between the two musicians was palpable. And the music was pure acoustic, with no electronic enhancements. What they played was what the audience heard, and applauded.
Normally performers at a Jazz at Symphony Center subscription concert have the opportunity to buy CDs in the lobby before and after the show. Not so Friday night, which suggests that the team hasn’t recorded yet. One hopes that one CD or more would emerge from the tour, if not from a studio session. The rapport between Mehldau and Thile demands repeated hearings. For selections like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” one listening isn’t enough.
The Jazz at Symphony Center series continues on May 24 with Osbert Davis leading the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic in the debut of a new work celebrating the Chicago River and its role in the life of Chicago.
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Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour
At Orchestra Hall
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour consists of five musicians and a singer who have performed at the annual Monterey festival in northern California, a distinction they share with virtually every important jazz musician during the 55-year history of the festival. The group is in the middle of a 40-city tour through the United States and Canada, stopping off at Orchestra Hall Friday night to play a two-hour set.
The musicians consist of the rhythm section of Benny Green on piano, Christian McBride on bass, and Louis Nash on drums. The front line was made up of Chris Potter on tenor saxophone and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet. Dee Dee Bridgewater supplied the vocals. The six performed in various units, from solo through sextet, with the rhythm section, individually and as a unit, providing most of the evening’s best musical moments.
There was a stylist divide between the rhythm and the horn men, with Green, McBride, and Nash playing what could be called mainstream modern jazz while Potter and Akinmusire played in a later edgier manner. As a quintet, they generally replicated the hard bop sound of the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers groups, with Potter in the Wayne Shorter chair and Akinmusire channeling Freddie Hubbard.
The music was of a high level as long as the instrumentalists were in charge. Bridgewater, unfortunately, assumed the mantle of master of ceremonies whenever she was on stage, kibbitzing and joking with the musicians and audience in an excessively breezy manner that took up time that would have better been spent with the members of the quintet. As a singer, she did her Ella Fitzgerald bit, plus hanging Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” out to dry with an operatically emotional delivery.
There was too much “Are you having fun?” chat with the spectators from everyone on stage. And did we have to hear the musicians introduced to the audience after every solo?. Subtracting the conversation and much of Bridgewater’s stage time, there were plenty of highlights. Benny Green has been a top jazz pianist for decades, widely known but perhaps not given the recognition he deserves. Green can play in any style, from Debussy-like delicacy through funk to bebop. He has technique to burn and tossed off some runs of blinding speed, maybe just to show that he can. But mostly his solos were beautifully structured and accessible and his comping for his colleagues was sympathetic and supportive.
McBride and Nash have been peerless rhythm players since well into the previous millennium. McBride is one of the most musical bass players on the scene, with his big fat tone. His extended solo on “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” was a model of eloquent swing. Nash is fascinating to watch. He isn’t a showy drummer, but his rhythm work with wire brushes is a master class in subtle support, and his sense of humor radiated through his concise but flawless solos. With McBride and Nash providing the beat, a cigar store Indian would swing.
Potter’s Coltrane-ish style goes down easily enough. His solos are angular but rarely strident, and his solo in a quartet rendition of his “Fear of Flying” was a gem of melodic improvisation. Akinmusre was the least known member of the group and it was hard to get a reading on his skills. His presence consisted of a handful of comparatively short solos that went down smoothly enough without making any distinct impression. It would have been worth hearing him in a spotlight number backed by the rhythm section to hear what he’s really got as a soloist.
All in all, the concert was pleasing when the performers played and didn’t attempt to lather the audience with bonhomie.. The music didn’t rewrite the jazz record books, but any opportunity to hear Green, McBride, and Nash must be counted as a privilege.
As previously announced, the March 29 appearance by Sonny Rollins has been rescheduled to September 13 because a respiratory illness. So the next concert in the jazz series will be April 19, when pianist Brad Mehldau teams up with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile in what should be a feast of offbeat acoustic jazz.
Contact Dam: ZeffDaniel@Yahoo.com March 2013
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –-The Orchestra Hall stage was populated Friday evening by some of the most luminous names in contemporary Latin jazz. The featured group in the Symphony Center Presents jazz series was the Ninety Miles Project, a septet of jazz stars who took their name from the 90-mile distance between Havana and the Florida Keys. Their stated aim is to break down the political and cultural boundaries that separate the United States and Cuba. But their set had no obvious political agenda. They performed a feast of superior music, most of it emphasizing Latin styles.
The concert opened with a solo performance by Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The 90 Mile Project who followed was awash in affability, especially with vibes star Stefon Harris chatting expansively with the audience. Rubacaba, on the other hand, gave an introspective performance. He didn’t speak a word during his nearly one-hour set, playing one number after another with no announcements or commentary. Presumably all the selections were the pianist’s compositions.
Rubalcaba is fabled for his virtuosity and he didn’t disappoint. His style occasionally reflected such virtuoso stylists as Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau and even a bit of Ahmad Jamal in his skillful use of space. But Rubalcaba remained his own man throughout the set, and the intensity of his playing had the audience leaning forward in their seats in rapt attention. He performed in muted lighting, which could have come across as an affectation but in his set seemed entirely proper for his total involvement in his music. The audience even coaxed him to playing an encore, a rarity for the opening act in an Orchestra Hall jazz concert.
The Ninety Miles Project consists of a front line of Harris, trumpeter Nicholas Payton , and saxophonist David Sanchez. The rhythm section consisted of pianist Edward Simon, bass player Ricky Rodriquez, drummer Henry Cole, and percussionist Mauicito Herrera. Most of the musicians were born in Latin America, with Payton giving the group a pungent New Orleans flavor.
All the compositions were written by members of the band. The majority of solos came from Peyton and Sanchez, with Payton delighting the audience with his sizzling technique and breathtaking range. Sanchez played fewer solos but more extended solos, all of them beautifully structured, minus the Coltrane-ish squawking that afflicted his playing at earlier Orchestra Hall appearances. Harris’s solos were brief but effective on both vibraphone and marimba, sometimes at the same time. Harris’s large, colorful mallets, played a warp speed, gave his performance a striking visual quality. Simon was limited to a single extended solo, a spare piece in sharp contrast to some of Riubalcaba’s more florid deliveries.
The band’s set opened with an emotional, almost invocative bass solo from Rodriguez. It turned out to be his only solo of the evening and got the set off to a striking start. Hererra presided over a vast assortment of Latin percussion instruments, playing all of them with delicacy, with none of the exhibitionism that sometimes afflicts Latin jazz percussion performances. Indeed, the entire band sounded exceptionally together. The Project is touring the country and they have developed into a superbly tight group, listening to each other with enjoyment and respect.
The Project members kept the audience informed of what was happening on stage, though without any garrulous time soaking chit-chat. Only Harris spoke at length at the set’s opening, praising his colleagues and generally expressing his happiness at being in Chicago. But the men were there to play and not talk. They performed a long set, ending about 11 p.m. Some people left earlier, doubtless to catch their suburban trains. But most of the enthusiastic crowd stayed to the end and seemed ready for more. Being in the presence of affable and committed musicians tends to produce that reaction in audiences.
The jazz series goes into recess until January 18, when Dianne Reeves returns to honor some of the great jazz vocalists of the past. She will be joined by Lizz Wright and Angelique Kidjo in a celebration of the music of Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln, Odetta, Billie Holiday, and other jazz immortals. For tickets call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org.
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The Symphony Center Presents jazz series opened Friday night with “The Great Flood,” and it looked promising. The program consisted of authentic film footage of the disastrous Mississippi River flood that ravaged the American heartland in 1927 with a live jazz accompaniment. Unfortunately, interesting concepts don’t always translate into good results. “The Great Flood” has some attraction as a slice of Americana, but mostly it just doesn’t work, either as history or as a satisfying evening of jazz.
The motion picture portion of “The Great Flood” was projected on a large screen above the stage at Orchestra Hall. The musical accompaniment was provided by a quartet led by guitarist Bill Frisell, who composed all the music for the production other than some thematic riffs on Gershwin’s “Old Man River.”
The show runs about 85 minutes without an interruption and is broken down into 13 short segments. The motion picture record of the flood, compiled by filmmaker Bill Morrison, is made up primarily of newsreel and privately photographed images. Frisell, trumpeter Ron Miles, bass player Tony Scherr, and percussionist Kenny Wollesen provide the soundtrack, mostly consisting of bluesy riffs on the projected film.
The biggest problem with “The Great Flood” is the lack of narration. Other than a few inadequate titles flashed on the screen to introduce the various segments, no information is provided on what the audience is seeing. The flood engulfed the country from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans, but there is no sense of place in the film. We could be watching a single area being devastated or destruction along the entire Mississippi River. There is no back story on what caused this catastrophe, other than the fact that the river broke out of its earthen embankments in 145 places and inundated 27,000 square miles. But no reason is given for what triggered the enormity of the flooding. Occasionally the film captures the immediacy of the disaster, but the scenes will be of more interest to motion picture historians than the viewers in attendance Friday night.
Several segments have no apparent relation to the natural disaster. We get a rapid tour of pages from the 1927 Sears Roebuck catalogue but no indication of what that has to do with the flood (though the segment did allow the musicians a too rare opportunity for some serious blowing). One segment is called “Dynamiting Poydras,” but its significance is unexplained. What purpose did the dynamiting serve and what or where is Poydras? Near the end of the show we watch an unending exodus of black worshippers from the Friendship Baptist Church in Chicago, again with no suggestion of how it connects with the flood. A segment called “Politicians” portrays various middle aged and well tailored white men gesturing toward the waters and talking with victims, some of them poor blacks. Is this a satirical bit blaming politicians in some way for the flood? Its reason for inclusion in the program is never explained.
Most of the film footage is in good condition, but Morrison includes bits that are badly deteriorated. He apparently feels the decayed film stock contributes to the aesthetic of the visual presentation, but it’s just distracting.
The spectator who took the time to read the extended program notes before the show began will learn the essential facts about the flood and its impact on the country, especially its role in driving destitute Southerners, many of them black, from their rural existence to the urban North, where their migration changed the demographic face of the country. It makes for informative reading but the film lacks the narrative arc to flesh out the written text. The influx of blacks to Northern cities, especially Chicago, is portrayed with close-ups of a black man playing a guitar, a pointless visual bit that leads nowhere. There are scenes of black children playing in an urban slum, and we presume they are the end result of the migration from the flood, but the footage offers no clue as to why we are watching these kids entertaining themselves.
The meager jazz element is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the evening. Frisell and his three colleagues are all fine musicians, but they are on stage to provide background music. The audience is watching the film more than it’s listening to the music, which has a sameness to it that sometimes grows tedious. There isn’t a consistent attempt to match the music with the film images, so we watch tumultuous rapids churning across the landscape while the musicians play a languid blues. On the few occasions when the quartet is allowed to open up, we hear some solid traditional jazz from Frisell, from Miles with his pungent Chet Baker-like trumpet, and from Wollesen on vibraphone. But their musical contribution is primarily background, which could trouble some attendees who expected to hear a jazz concert.
What I missed most of all in the program was the human element. We see a lot of nature’s destructive power, but the people we see look stoic and almost accepting. Matters of survival are never addressed. The most dramatic scene shows a parade of cattle struggling through deep water flooding an inundated town street. That scene suggests the drama of the flood on a personal scale and the show needs much more of it.
“The Great Flood” demands a voice-over narration to tie all the disparate individual segments together into some kind of story. The music could just as easily be recorded as played live. Because of the comparative brevity of the film, the show Friday night might have concluded with a short instrumental set. That could have helped satisfy some viewers who came to Symphony Center expecting to hear an evening of jazz.
The jazz series resumes on November 2 with the appearance of an all-star trio consisting of guitarist John Abercrombie, bass player Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette celebrating his 70th birthday. For tickets call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org .
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – For lovers of pure jazz piano, Symphony Center was the center of the universe Friday night. First Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes put on a dazzling display of two-piano jazz, followed by Danilo Perez with a superb tribute to Thelonious Monk, marred only by some inexplicable attempts at comic shtick.
Charlap and Rosnes are part of a wonderful generation of jazz pianists born in the 1960’s, along with Perez. The two have slightly different repertoire but they play as one (they have been husband and wife since 2007). Charlap moved to the head top tier of jazz pianists in the last 20 years, mostly leading a trio with Peter Washington (bass) and Kenny Washington (drums) that concentrated on the standards of the Great American Songbook. Rosnes, a Canadian with cultural roots in India, is a little edgier.
At Orchestra Hall in Symphony Center, Rosnes and Charlap faced each other on twin pianos, no rhythm section, just two consummate musicians feeding off each other in perfect tandem. Their performance was more like a single musician playing with four hands than two individuals. I occasionally closed my eyes, trying to isolate the two pianists but their sound remained indivisible.
The Charlap-Rosnes program started with Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry” from his rarely staged musical “Greenwillow.” There were jazz compositions by Joe Henderson, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and a dazzling duet on Charlie Parker’s bebop standard “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” that displayed the team’s virtuosity and swing in all their glory. That was followed by a thoughtful rendition of “My Man’s Gone” from “Porgy and Bess.” The set wrapped up with an unidentified joyous slice of extended improvisation that celebrated the playing chops of the two with so much elan that there was no call for an encore. As far as exuberance and musicianship were concerned, this piece said it all.
Most of the duo’s selections were concise, maybe four minutes in length. There were no solos or even solo breaks within the selections. It was a continuous display of four-handed piano excellence that flowed with unbroken musical simpatico. There is a certain sameness to the sound of two unaccompanied pianos, but the music was presented at such a high level that aural monotony was never an issue. Either Rosnes and Charlap put in uncounted hours of practice or they exist on the same magical musical wavelength. It’s probably a combination of the two, the result being a spectacular show.
After the intermission, Danilo Perez took over the stage, also with no rhythm accompaniment. Perez is an exuberant personality who loves to connect with his audience (Charlap and Rosnes mostly limited themselves to announcing the names of their selections). Perez started out by trying to convert the audience into a giant humming choir, embellished with the sound of bird calls. It was supposed to be humorous but it was pointless, and when he began his program with a series of meandering baroque-like exercises, the set looked like it was in trouble.
Then Perez hit his stride, performing a kind of suite with Thelonious Monk compositions deftly embedded in musical settings tinged with Latin American rhythms (Perez was born in Panama). ,Perez injected musical references to Monk compositions like “Monk’s Mood,” “Bright Mississippi,” and “Little Rootie Tootie.” But the peak of the set was an extended and haunting rumination on “Round Midnight,” a hypnotic salute to the Monk standard in a melancholy strain that amounted to a reinvention of the number.
It would have been a joy to hear Perez share some playing time with Charlap and Rosnes or even for Rosnes and Charlap to each play a solo, but nobody could complain that the musical cards the pianists dealt to the audience Friday night were from the very top of the jazz deck. The concert matched the recent appearances by pianist Brad Mehldau in excellence and individuality, and no praise can go any higher.
The Jazz at Symphony Center series ends Friday with the promise of another special exhibition of pianistic splendor, Jason Moran’s honoring the music and style of Fats Waller.
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Brad Mehldau may be the greatest living jazz pianist. He may even be the greatest living jazz musician. His appearances at the Symphony Center jazz series have been red letter concerts for jazz fans, and he served up more brilliance at the series concert Friday night in Orchestra Hall.
The concert was actually a two man presentation, with Mehldau on piano teaming up with Joshua Redman on soprano and tenor saxophones. Redman was outstanding, especially as the 100-minute single setreached its conclusion. The concert was actually a two man presentation, with Mehldau on piano teaming nup with Joshua Redman on soprano and tenor saxophones. Redman was outstanding, especially as the 100-minute single set reached its conclusion. But it was Mehldau’s night, the man treating the overflow crowd to a display of invention and technique that simply dazzled the ear.
Even when Redman was playing, the spectator was drawn to Mehldau’s accompaniment. He wasn’t simply throwing in fills to support the soloist. Without trying to upstage his colleague, Mehldau was soloing as accompaniment, often with each hand improvising separate pieces, each with its own dynamics and tempo.
Mehldau has the greatest left hand in the business, rolling along with an uninterrupted flow of rhythm while the right hand takes the melody. Sometimes the hands switched, with the left hand taking the melody and the right hand providing the rhythmic underpinnings. What a great boogie woogie performer Mehldau would be! But the same could be said of his classical skills. An evening of Mehldau playing Chopin would be a ravishing experience.
Mehldau has gained his fame mostly with trio recordings, both live and in the studio, but he played Friday night with no rhythm section support. And none was needed. He played fast, slow, intermediate, with classical tinges and an occasional; dab of funk. And he makes it look so easy. Mehldau plays with no histrionics. His manner at the piano is intense but not flamboyant. His brief comments to the audience show he’s a pretty cool guy, but he lets his playing do his talking.
The program consisted mostly Redman and Mehldau originals, unusual because Mehldau likes to dip into the Great American Songbook for his material. The only two selections that could be called standards were the familiar Thelonious Monk number “Monk’s Dream” and the Charlie Parker bebop anthem “Ornithology.” Mehldau’s interpretation of “Monk’s Dream” was perhaps the highlight of an evening of highlights. He turned “Monk’s Dream” into a personal; symphony of sound without ever losing thematic contract with Monk’s spiky original. He and Redman teamed up with a blistering “Ornithology,” showing Redman at his fiery best, soaring through the number at a blistering, but still swinging, pace. And Redman’s long solo on his composition “Let Me Down Easy” was a model of passion and eloquence.
Mehldau and Redman demonstrated an unforced rapport throughout the set. Mehldau is the more romantic of the two but their musical instincts connected on every level. They sounded well rehearsed and spontaneous at the same time.
A Mehldau performance really disarms criticism. His body of recorded work sets the highest bar for creativity and artistry. The man never seems to have an off chorus, much less an off night. Occasionally he gets into a groove that threatens to ramble a bit, but the virtuosity remains mesmerizing, so who cares of a solo segment meanders on a chorus or two too long?
The jazz series has announced its 2012-2013 subscription series and Mehldau returns, this time teaming up with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile on April 19.
The 2012-2013 series opens on October 12 with guitarist Bill Frisell and his quartet playing a suite inspired by the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. Percussionist Jack DeJohnette celebrates his 70th birthday with his an all-star trio on November 2, consisting of guitarist John Abercrombie and bass player David Holland .
A session of Cuban inspired jazz is scheduled for November 30 performed by an all-star group including Gonzalo Rubalcaba on piano, Stefon Harris on vibes and marimba, Nicholas Payton on trumpet, and David Sanchez on tenor saxophone. On January 18, Diana Reeves returns, leading a tribute to the great female jazz and blues singers.
The Monterey Jazz Festival plays on March 22, featuring singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. The venerable Sonny Rollins comes to town on March 29. The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic performs on May 24, the Wayne Shorter quartet on June 7, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis closes the series on June 21.
For information on the concerts, call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org . April 2012
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Since the mid 1990’s, Nicholas Payton has been one of the preeminent trumpet players in jazz. Now, with the formation of his mysteriously named Television Studio Orchestra, Payton now ranks as o ne of the top bandleaders in jazz, right up there with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Payton led his big band in a superior concert in the Jazz at Symphony Center series at Orchestra Hall Friday night. Payton’s band is really big, 18 pieces plus a vocalist. None of the musicians is a familiar name but everyone who blew on Friday night (including five women) displayed great chops.
Payton was in great form on the Orchestra Hall stage, looking super cool in his black suit, pink shirt, and fedora and majestically directing with his horn as baton. The concert showed the leader’s many stylistic sides, the long middle register lines echoing Miles Davis and the virtuoso high register swoops of Dizzy Gillespie blended with the man’s own personal manner. The evening was another affirmation of Payton’s skill at doing anything he wants to on his horn.
The program consisted primarily of Payton originals, arranged by the leader. The selections touched plenty of bases, from New Orleans to soul to swing to bossa nova, with whiffs of the “Bitches Brew” flavor that took the audience back to the fusion days of the late 1960’s. The group also captured a nice Henry Mancini sound, Payton being a great Mancini admirer. The powerhouse brass section (five trumpets and four trombones) also called up aural images of the Stan Kenton orchestra from the 1950’s.
The orchestra performed only one standard, and it was the evening’s highlight, a ramped up modern version of the Dixieland classic “Tiger Rag.” Payton laid out for the number to showcase the ensemble’s section work peppered with bright short solos. The trumpeters knocked off one dazzling break after another, starting with Canadian Bria Skonberg and going down the line with Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix, Philip Dizack, and Omar Abdulkarim.
Other soloists had their spotlight moments, notably trombonist Emily Asher, baritone sax player Patience Higgins, guitarist Mike Moreno, and Max Siegel galumphing along on a tuba. Drummer Marcus Gilmore propelled the rhythm section and delivered that jazz rarity, really creative percussion solos.
Johnaye Kendrick provided the vocals, displaying a lithe, expressive voice. Payton joined her in a few duets as well as an occasional solo vocal of his own. Payton caused no harm with his singing but his place in music definitely resides with his instrumental work. His singing in the romping swing piece “In the Zone” actually wasn’t bad except that it took playing time away from his horn work.
The band played a single 100-minute set, long enough to satisfy attentive listeners that they were hearing an important ensemble with deep roots in the jazz tradition that still sounds up to the minute. Given the economics of jazz today, one wonders how long Payton will be able to keep this group together. Hopefully the TSO will record often . The terrific music that audiences enjoyed Friday night needs to be documented.
April will be a
big month for the Symphony Center series. On April 13, pianist Brad Mehldau and
saxophonist Joshua Redman team up, following on April 27 by the always
anticipated visit by Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Hearing the TSO and the JLCO on consecutive months will be as good as it gets
for big band jazz fans. For tickets, call 312 294 3000 or visit cso.org.
Contact Dan @ firstname.lastname@example.org March 2012
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Jazz at the Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –There can never be too much of a good thing at a Roy Haynes concert. The 85-yrear old drummer brought his current edition of his drolly named Fountain of Youth Band to Symphony Center Friday night. His set started a bit after 9 p.m. and he was chatting with the crowd at 11 p.m. when I left. He may still be on the Orchestra Hall stage now, captivating listeners with his music and his conversation. After more than 60 years accompanying a who’s who of jazz immortals, nobody could deny Haynes as much time as he wants to stimulate and entertain.
Haynes organized his first Fountain of Youth Band about 10 years ago, a quartet that features a saxophonist plus rhythm section with the leader presiding over his drum kit. For the Friday night concert the quartet was expanded by the addition of eminent trumpeter Roy Hargrove. But Hargrove was more than the typical guest artist. He was on stage the entire set and meshed perfectly with the other musicians to form a hard driving, precision playing quintet.
Haynes has developed a unique percussion style during his long career, emphasizing the interaction between the bass drum and snare drums with lots of rim shots rather than relying on the ride cymbal. That produces a distinctive rhythmic sound that is as visually as aurally striking, especially when Haynes uses mallets rather than drumsticks. Yet while his solos are fascinating (though sometimes overlong) exercises in his personal manner, his rhythm section work is strictly supportive and even self effacing, as when he uses wire brushes to produce a delicate, almost inaudible sound.
The latest edition of the Fountain of Youth Band consists of Jaleel Shaw on alto and soprano saxophone, David Wong on bass, and Martin Bejerano on piano, as well as Haynes. The star of the evening was Shaw, a master on both the alto sax with his straight-ahead Sonny Stitt hard bop style and soprano sax work that stirs echoes of Sidney Bechet. In a day when most young saxophonists seem clones of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, Shaw is his own man, with a smooth sound, superb technique, and soul to burn, especially on the alto sax. He provided the most consistent and swinging reed playing I’ve heard in Orchestra Hall in many a concert.
Bejerano has been with Haynes off and on since the early days of the Fountain of Young Band and he demonstrated he’s a fine soloist as well as an attentive listener to the music around him as an accompanist. Add him to the seemly endless list of fine younger pianists that are illuminating the contemporary jazz scene. David Wong delivered strong accompaniment and several melodic, well constructed solos on bass.
Hargrove may be the finest jazz trumpeter of his generation and he demonstrated his unlimited chops on the instrument, as well as the flugelhorn. He tore through the up tempo numbers with his spiky solos and displayed great feeling on the slower and more intense pieces.
The program consisted of a range of selections spanning jazz from the be bop days of the 1940’s and 1950’s to today, mercifully sparing us any fusion and free jazz caterwauling. The quintet can play fast but one of the evening highlights was a deeply felt rendition of the ballad standard “These Foolish Things” with lovely contributions by the entire group.
Haynes was silent during the first 90 minutes of playing time, occasionally breaking out into a soft shoe dance to the audience’s delight. But late in the set he took the microphone and starting chatting with the spectators, some of them directly, reminiscing and storytelling and generally holding forth like the skilled raconteur he is. Haynes is the last star standing from the golden age of jazz in the 1950’s. The man may be 85 but he looks 30 years younger and talks and plays younger than that.
The concert opened with a concise but entertaining set by Chicago ragtime composer-pianist Reginald Robinson. Ragtime was a piano style that thrived around the turn of the last century but petered out by the end of World War I. The music is fairly limited in style but Robinson’s pieces showed considerable variety in tempo and dynamics. This wasn’t heavyweight music but it was melodic and listenable and Robinson was a marvelous interpreter of his compositions on the keyboard.
The next Symphony Center Presents concert takes place January 13 when guitarist Russell Malone brings in his quartet to open for vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and her tribute to the music of Billie Holiday. For tickets call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org .
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – John Scofield brought his electric guitar and his quartet into Orchestra Hall Friday night, displaying his full bag of styles—straight ahead jazz, fusion, funk, and rock. Unfortunately, the audience was forced to fight through an over-amplified sound system to reach Scofield’s many-sided music.
Scofield and Gregory Hutchinson, his drummer, are not demure players and do not require electronic embellishment to enhance the volume of their playing. The hyper-miking of the sound produced some teeth rattling moments and offended further by distorting several solos from Scofield’s gifted pianist Michael Eckroth. Too frequently, Hutchinson’s take-no-prisoners accompaniment and solos ascended to a deafening decibel count. The unbalanced sound system converted some early numbers into a demonstration of ferocious percussionwork that buried leader Scofield’s music.
Some very good music managed to filter through the overbearing amplification. Scofield played a rousing personal version of the Dizzy Gillespie bebop standard “Woody’n You.” He wore his funky hat at a jaunty angle with an extended version of “Red Top” that he dedicated to the Chicago blues scene. And his eloquent interpretation of the pop classic “My Foolish Heart” was a balm to the ears of spectators after the aural indignities inflicted by the blasting sound system.
Scofield played electric guitar through his long set, denying the audience the pleasure of hearing him display his mastery of the acoustic guitar. Eckroth was a joy in all his solos, ready to take his place among a corps of today’s bright young jazz pianists like Robert Glaspar and Reginald Robinson (who will be featured in the next Symphony Center concert in December). The rest of the rhythm section was filled out by Hutchinson and bassist Ben Street.
The concert opened with a set by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. What a burden and responsibility it must be to carry the name of the most influential saxophonist, for better or worse, of the last half century.
Ravi was only two years old when
father John died, but there is a bit of jazz DNA in the son’s style. Ravi may
not play the endless 30-plus minute solos that plagued his father’s studio
records and live appearances the last 10 years of his life. But the long
multi-note runs that made up most of Ravi’s performance demonstrated he is very
much John Coltrane’s son.
The pianoless trio meant that Coltrane carried the melodic load in all his numbers. There was some variety in tempo in his set but essentially he traveled at warp speed up and down his horn (Coltrane is a proficient also saxophonist but we just heard his tenor sax Friday night). Coltrane’s sound is smooth and accessible when he slows down. His eloquent, deeply felt rendition of the pop standard “Autumn in New York” showed a personal side denied to the audience in his more volcanic solos.
Coltrane received sturdy assistance from the rhythm section of Robert Hurst on bass and Karriem Riggins on drums. Hurst contributed a rich tone and melodic presence in his solos on top of his solid rhythm accompaniment. Riggins was all over his drum kit, though not with the aggression of Gregory Hutchinson.
Coltrane is one of the major jazz saxophonists of the last 20 years and doubtless has many fans of the free jazz persuasion. The Orchestra Hall audience seemed to approve of his performance, though some may have returned home to the comfort of their Stan Getz and Ben Webster recordings.
Next up in the jazz series, along with Reginald Robinson, is Roy Haynes and his Fountain of Youth Band on December 9. The 85-year old drummer will lead a quintet featuring the eminent trumpet player Roy Hargrove. For tickets call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org .
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Symphony Center Presents Jazz
By Dan Zeff
Chicago– It isn’t what he plays but how he plays it that makes Keith Jarrett such a magical jazz pianist. His concert at Orchestra Hall Friday night, which opened the Symphony Center Presents Jazz 2011-2012 series, was a conventional Jarrett program dominated by love songs from the American songbook. But how he interprets familiar numbers like “Golden Earrings,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “When I Fall in Love” puts Jarrett on a pedestal among jazz pianists.
Jarrett plays his selections with obvious affection and respect. The melody is cleanly stated, though perhaps only after several choruses of fascinating prologue. But the man doesn’t only play the notes, he plays the lyrics. Jarrett understands the meaning of the words in such standards as “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and his interpretations are stunning in their illumination of the song’s content. Attentive listeners should grasp what each song says even if they hadn’t heard the number before.
Jarrett’s virtuosity on the piano is legendary but on Friday night there were few pyrotechnics--no “Look how fast I can play” bravado that infects so many modern jazz pianists. Certainly Jarrett played some dazzling runs, but the cascades of notes served the song and not the ego of the pianist. Jarrett concentrated on the middle portion of the keyboard, but that didn’t limit his invention or eloquence. His immersion in each selection was reflected in his famous moaning and grunting, not as obvious or distracting Friday night as they have been in other Jarrett concerts I attended. His body language frequently lifted him off his seat, creating a physical intensity to his playing beyond what emerged from his fingers.
Jarrett played with the rhythm section that has become the most impressive jazz combo of the last 25 years. Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums have performed regularly with the leader since 1983 and their psyches now merge seamlessly with Jarrett’s style. Peacock in particular is a rock of rhythmic underpinning and his concise, musical solos were a refreshing departure from the overlong exercises that often afflict bass playing. DeJohnette was a self effacing percussionist, laying down background carpets of sound that perfectly responded to Jarrett’s always adventurous dissections of pop standards.
Every selection Friday night was a pleasure to hear, but my favorite was Jarrett’s first encore, a down home version of “God Bless the Child” that flowed into ruminations on the song that could have gone on endlessly. This was the pianist at his most Jarrett-like, and the second encore of “When I Fall in Love” sounded almost tame after the ebb and flow of Jarrett’s deconstruction of “God Bless the Child.”
The trio gave a generous concert that didn’t end until 10:30 p.m. after van 8:10 start. Jarrett plays extended selections, most more than 10 minutes in length. He was not made for the three-minute pre long-playing era in jazz recording. But his solos never sounded padded or inflated. I would love to hear Jarrett play a concert devoted to just one song, played perhaps a dozen times. Every version would be a composition in itself and testify to the man’s nonstop musical ideas and his genius at shifting tempos and rhythms.
As usual, Jarrett did not announce any titles during the concert, just moving from selection to selection. There were a couple of moments of his banter from the stage that I couldn’t hear, though the members of the audience who did understand him thought he was pretty funny. But Jarrett comes to play and not to talk. His interpretations of numbers like “I Thought About You” speak volumes for his insight, musicianship, and passion for his music.
The jazz series continues on November 11 with performances by quartets led by guitarist John Scofield and tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. For tickets, call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org .
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Charles Lloyd closed out the 2010-2011 Jazz at Symphony Center series Friday night by leading a large and appreciative audience through the music of two small bands—an East-West trio called Sangam and Lloyd’s current quartet.
The result was a
musical feast that ranged from Asian
spirituality to hard bop, all performed by five instrumentalists performing
in various combinations. The accent was on a ravishing display of percussion,
enhanced by Lloyd’s superior work on tenor saxophone and flute. Some of the
music wasn’t jazz as most people understand it, but the concert added up to
nearly two hours of uninterrupted mesmerizing pleasure—virtuosity in perfect
balance with creativity.
The concert opened with the Sangam trio of Lloyd, drummer Eric Harland, and percussionist Zakir Hussain from India. Lloyd dedicated the opening selection to Billy Higgins, his drummer and friend who died in 2001. The number was a fascinating mix-and-match sound feast, with Lloyd and Harland alternating between drums and piano while Hussain presided cross-legged over a battery of delicately tuned small drums. Hussain sometimes sang, perhaps in Sanskrit, as the trio laid down a lush carpet of percussion rhythm with an endless variety of dynamics.
Later in the set Lloyd brought on his long-time pianist Jason Moran and bassist Larry Grenadier, substituting for Reuben Rogers, the quartet’s usual bassist. The group lost nothing by the addition of Grenadier, a veteran of previous Lloyd groups and a star with the Brad Mehldau trio for many years. Grenadier swung hard, taking a marvelously lively solo in an unidentified number that followed a soulful Lloyd presentation of a Thelonious Monk ballad.
Lloyd’s work on the tenor saxophone was post John Coltrane, though with a lighter sound and minus the Coltrane weakness for playing 100 notes where 10 would do. But it was Lloyd’s melodic flute playing that was most stirring. Indeed, the man’s performance on saxophone, flute, drums, and piano must qualify him as the Renaissance musician of modern jazz, and at the age of 73. Lloyd brought a clarinet-like instrument called a tarogato on stage but never played it.
There was remarkable technical skill at every station on the Orchestra Hall stage but for the audience the exotic performance by Hussain likely was the revelation of the evening. His fleet fingering was stunning and the musical quality to his percussion was remarkable. Hussain and Harland combined for percussion work of dazzling density and drive. It all sounded spontaneous but the playing never flagged in intensity or imagination. Audiences who have suffered through interminable drum solos in the past could revel in percussion playing that lifted the emotions while engaging the mind. Hussain and Harland combined to give the audience an unforgettable aural and visual experience.
During one of the encores, Lloyd sat at the piano reciting texts from Hindu wisdom literature, possibly the Bhagavad Gita. Lloyd’s sonorous delivery flowed through the audience, capturing the attention even of those listeners who didn’t catch every word of the lush poetry.
Lloyd obviously is a spiritual man at peace with himself and his music. He closed the concert with an affecting solo rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” from the Duke’s “Black, Brown, and Beige” suite. It was a heartfelt and unfussy conclusion to a concert that escorted audiences to new and rewarding places musically and religiously.
Patrons left Orchestra Hall content that they had been in the presence of five towering musicians in perfect sync with each other artistically and emotionally. Moran in particular ranks among the finest jazz pianists of his generation and Symphony Center happily is bringing him back to close out the 2011-2012 jazz series in an entirely different context, playing the music of Fats Waller. Only in his mid 30’s, Moran obviously is a pianist who can take us anywhere in the jazz world with joyous results.
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –Orchestra Hall was converted into the Church of Mahalia Jackson Friday night as the Jazz ay Symphony Center series commemorated the centennial of the great gospel singer’s birth.
The Orchestra Hall stage was filled by the Chicago Jazz Ensemble orchestra complemented by the 51-voice choir of the Christ Universal Temple Ensemble. Former Jazz Ensemble artistic director Jon Faddis served as the laid back master of ceremonies as well as featured soloist on trumpet in an evening devoted primarily to gospel and spiritual music.
was born in New Orleans but moved to Chicago as a teenager and both cities can
properly call her their own. She was a religious person who sang with dignity
and feeling rather than the tear-it-up stomping style of some gospel
performances. Still, the highlights of the evening were provided by a pair of
vocalists who belted out the gospel message with a fervor and high decibel count
that the great Mahalia surely would have enjoyed.
The vocalists were Terisa Griffin and Queenie Lenox and they both had the audience jumping as they roared through a half dozen numbers. The singers shared the honors with Duke Ellington, who provided the program with three pieces from his later extended works. Griffin won the evening’s musical honors with her personal and deeply expressive rendition of “Come Sunday,” from Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige” suite, a number Mahalia sang on the original 1958 recording. On the piece, Griffin received sensitive support from pianist Fred Nelson, the musical director of the Christ Universal choir.
The orchestra played a soulful version of “Portrait of Mahalia” from the Duke’s 1970 “New Orleans Suite,” and the concert concluded with a hand-clapping and foot stomping version of “The Lord’s Prayer” from Ellington’s 1965 “Concert of Sacred Music.” Griffin and Lenox shared the stage for the finale, exhorting the audience to share a call and response “amen” that perfectly captured the good times side of gospel music.
Aside from the Ellingtonia, the program relied primarily on traditional religious pieces, though there was a version of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” And Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” was melded into a gospel foot tapper with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” propelled by Griffin’s emotional and high energy vocalizing.
The Christ Universal choir contributed fine backup and provided an impressive physical presence, arranged in three extended rows at the back of the stage. Their power was a little defused by the expanse of Orchestra and the entire concert would have likely taken on a greater exuberance and intensity transferred to a South Side church.
Faddis played several solos, notably a duet with Jazz Ensemble pianist on “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” that was marred by some shaky upper register work. But generally his normally virtuoso playing was concise, even self effacing, in the spirit of Mahalia’s non-theatrical style. Mahalia disliked being called a jazz singer, but she would have approved of the swinging Chicago Jazz Ensemble, with fine solos by Pat Mallinger on tenor sax and driving percussion work by Jazz Ensemble director Dana Hall.
I’ve attended gospel concerts that reached higher peaks of emotion, but Friday night’s event honored the spirit of Mahalia, tamping down the musical dramatics in favor of a respectful and sincere approach to the sacred music she loved. Fair enough.
The Jazz at Symphony Center 2010-2011 series ends on June 3 with a concert by veteran jazz reed man Charles Lloyd, featuring tabla performer Zakir Hussain and pianist Jason Moran. For tickets, call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org.
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –Count Basie died in 1984 and about eight years later the Count Basie Orchestra was formed, led over the years by a succession of former Basie sidemen. The current unit, including members of the original ensemble from the early 1990’s, was the attraction Friday night at the Jazz at Symphony Center series in Orchestra Hall.
The orchestra is led by Dennis Mackrel, the last drummer for Basie before the leader’s death. He presides over a 17-piece band that offers the power and precision that was Basie’s hallmark during the final decades of his career, though for the first set the band mostly played like any talented big band primarily devoted to the Basie book, professional but not distinctive.
The first set featured the familiar Basie repertoire from arrangers like Ernie Wilkins, Neal Hefti, and Frank Foster. During the evening the group played three numbers from Hefti’s “Atomic” album recorded in 1957 that jump started Basie’s reputation and carried the band through to Basie’s death. Indeed, the entire concert relied almost exclusively on a Basie play list from the 1950’s onward, with only a slight nod to the great band of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s in an updated version of ”Lester Leaps In” and a fragment of “One O’Clock Jump” that signed off each set.
The opening set was a formulaic hour that touched on the usual suspects from the later Basie, like “Sixteen Men Swinging,” “Kansas City Shout,” “Shiny Stockings,” and “Flight of the Foo Birds.” The numbers were short, with brief solos. The band sounded crisp and disciplined but there were no revelations.
The evening picked up mightily in the second set with the appearance of the great Marcus Roberts taking the piano chair. The band now swung harder. The numbers were longer and allowing for more blowing, especially two Roberts originals, “Ostinado Ritmos” and “Evening Caress.” Roberts’ dazzling right hand on “Ostinado Ritmos” had the band starring at the piano in wonder.
Roberts brought his rhythm section of Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums. The trio was augmented by Will Matthews on guitar from the band, who delivered the chomp-chomp chords that made rhythm guitarist Freddie Green such a vital component of the original Basie orchestra. Roberts had his triumphant moments during the second set but felt underused in some numbers. He was clearly in great form and at least one trio number would have been appropriate to allow him to stretch out.
The band was led by a veteran trumpet section of Mike Williams, Scotty Barnhart, Freddie Hendrix, and Derrick Gardner. But the outstanding soloist was tenor saxophonist Doug Lawrence who roused the large and appreciative crowd with several virile extended solos in the Frank Foster tradition.
Overall, the concert was unequally divided between the ghost band performance of the first set and the livelier, fresher music of the final set, thanks largely to the contributions of Marcus Roberts. The entire show was emceed by Mackrel, who supplied the spectators with a flow of anecdotes and information, genially leading the audience through the program, down to the inevitable encore of “April in Paris,” complete with “One more time” shouted from the spectators.
The next series concert comes May 20 when Jon Faddis leads the Chicago Jazz Ensemble in a tribute to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
The Jazz at Symphony Center schedule has been announced for the 2011-2012 season. The 10-concert lineup is highlighted by the appearance of perhaps the two biggest attractions on the present jazz scene, the Keith Jarrett trio (with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette) opening the series and the always welcome visit from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis.
The upcoming season will be a delight for connoisseurs of jazz piano. In addition to Keith Jarrett, there will be appearances by Mulgrew Miller, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, Reginald Robinson, and in one “Jazz Piano Showcase,” Danilo Perez, Bill Charlap, and Renee Rosnes.
The complete series consists of:
Keith Jarrett – October 21;
John Scofield quartet with Mulgrew Miller – November 11;
Roy Haynes quintet with trumpeter Roy Hargrove, plus Reginald Robinson, December 9;
Singer Dee Bridgewater and the Russell Malone trio, January 13;
Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Trey McIntyre Project, February 17;
Nicholas Payton Television Studio Orchestra, March 9;
Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman, April 13;
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, April 27;
Jazz Piano Showcase, May 25;
Jason Moran in a tribute to Fats Waller, June 1.
Subscription packages of five and 10 concerts are now on sale. Tickets for individual concerts go on sale August 12.
For information call 312 294 3000 or 800 223 7114 or visit www.cso.org. April 2011
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Dianne Reeves has been called the best jazz singer alive. Certainly it’s hard to name anyone on the current scene as her equal, especially with the passing of the generation led by Ella Fitzgerald, Carman McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Betty Carter (a notable Reeves influence).
A large and enthusiastic crowd in Orchestra Hall received a full dose of the Reeves skill set Friday night. There was jazz, blues, pop, and even an unclassifiable wordless song. Whatever her selection, Reeves demonstrated her vocal range and agility, warmth of tone, and storytelling genius.
A Reeves song is more than a superb display of vocalese. The lady can sell a story with humor, poignancy, and drama. Her rendition of “Stormy Weather” made the number her own, with no disrespect to Lena Horne, who put her personal trademark on the song. The lyrics sounded fresh and penetrating as Reeves virtually reinvented the tune musically and as a narrative hymn of pain and longing.
Then there was her performance of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” a similar deconstruction that melded daring vocal flexibility with love lyrics that cut right to the bone. Reeves is on a cross country tour, some of the concerts called “Sing the Truth,” a commemoration of female singers and composers. The Friday night crowd got a taste of the event with the Horne and Holiday selections. A full concert of such commemorations would be well worth hearing. Reeves did tip her vocal hat to a male song master by opening the show with a lilting version of the Johnny Mathis standard “The Twelfth of Never.”
Reeve’s rendition of the Temptations’ classic soul song “Just My Imagination” turned Orchestra Hall into a spontaneous sing-along as patrons joined in on the refrain. She also treated the crowd to a couple of her own compositions, “Social Call” and “Nine.” The latter was a funny, charming, nostalgic tribute to her youth, stuffed with memories of her carefree days as a child when children actually played outdoors.
Another concert highlight was a lively number with indecipherable lyrics I thought might have been sung in an African dialect. It turns out that the number was a wordless song with Reeves inventing the syllables as she swung along. It wasn’t exactly scat or nonsense singing. It was a personal non-language that carried the audience along on a surge of hard-driving invention.
Reeves was supported by an accomplished quartet consisting of Peter Martin (her musical director) on keyboards, Romero Lubambo on guitar, Reginald Veal on electric and acoustic bass, and Terreon Gully on percussion. The band got the evening off to a swinging start with a 12-minute instrumental piece before Reeves made her entrance.
The band’s accompaniment leaned toward a bossa nova beat, possibly because of Lubambo’s Brazilian roots. The guitarist is a master soloist as when as a solid rhythm section component and his features were a highlight of an evening loaded with highlights.
Reeves has a knack for turning a large room like Orchestra Hall into an intimate setting. She was a gracious hostess between numbers, relaxed and personal. She easily brought the listeners into her musical world with an informality that never clashed with the vocal pyrotechnics that illuminated some of her selections.
The Orchestra Hall program ran a tight 90 minutes without an intermission, just the right length to leave the audience satisfied, even as some shouted for more at the end. Reeves could go on all night with her musical surprises and eloquence, but the 90 minutes met everyone’s needs.
The Jazz at Symphony Center series continues next Friday with a concert presenting the Count Basie band and the Marcus Roberts trio.
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Allen Toussaint made his reputation in rhythm and blues and rock music, but Toussaint is a New Orleans man, so jazz is in his musical DNA. He didn’t record his first jazz album until 2009, after more than 50 years in music, but anyone fortunate enough to attend his concert at Symphony Center Friday night would leave the hall convinced that the man stands among the finest pianists and band leaders in jazz today.
Toussaint’s concert was built on music from that 2009 CD, “The Bright Mississippi,” which revisits many of the songs and performers in the New Orleans jazz tradition. Thus there was music associated with Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong, as well as blues and gospel standards. Curiously, the title number in the CD was composed by Thelonious Monk, not normally identified with New Orleans music. But in Toussaint’s fertile musical imagination, Monk is thoroughly at home, the spiky melody easily accommodated within the New Orleans sensibility.
The concert was never a simple
archeological investigation of old time New Orleans sounds. Toussaint and his
sextet playing many of Toussaint’s own competitions, notably “Southern Nights.”
Toussaint played stunning piano, sang with a pleasing voice, and put together a
program filled with continuously entertaining, sometimes humorous, occasionally
Toussaint brought in the two horn men from the CD, reed player Don Byron and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, a welcome and familiar performer at Symphony Center. In various combinations, the musicians reinvented and reinvigorated those New Orleans standards, never violating their spirit. In an evening crowded with highlights, perhaps the apex was the ensemble rendition of the warhorse “St. James Infirmary,” a lengthy interpretation that was moody, slightly country-ish, and stirring—applying a new coat of musical paint to a number perhaps second only to “When the Saints Go Marching In” among over familiar New Orleans anthems. “Saints” wasn’t in the Friday night repertoire but the group’s take on the tune would be well worth hearing.
night of revelations, Toussaint’s extended piano medley was the biggest eye
opener, at least among listeners comparatively new to the man’s keyboard
genius. Toussaint touched bases from jazz to classical to pop—his swinging
two-handed style ricocheting from gut bucket and barrelhouse and boogie woogie
to mainstream and those classical references. His tantalizing snippet from
Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto stirred the spectator to fantasize how well the
man could play the entire work. My money would be on a fascinating rendition.
Byron is best known as a clarinet player and he delivered big on that demanding instrument, his confident technique displayed in a multitude of styles. But Byron also played some terrific tenor sax solos, including one in a bebop vein. His performance certainly liberated Byron from any traditional-style pigeon hole. Payton, of course, never disappoints. His duet with Toussaint on “West End Blues” glowed with intensity and invention. The original recording by Louis Armstrong is one of the perfect records in jazz but Payton, supported by Toussaint, still found fresh and personal things to say.
Unfortunately, the program didn’t list the musicians in the rhythm section—electric guitar, electric and acoustic bass, and drums—but all three musicians made invaluable contributions to the triumphant concert. The guitar player especially delivered edgy, inventive solo lines, especially in “West End Blues.”
Throughout the presentation, Toussaint was a gracious, informal, and amusing master of ceremonies, his manner condensing the auditorium to the intimacy of a New Orleans jazz and blues club. The Friday night concert coincided with Toussaint’s 73rd birth and the audience cheerfully sang “Happy birthday” to the man. But the large and appreciative crowd really were the recipients of a birthday gift, two golden hours of music.
The Symphony Center jazz series continues on February 4 with the always anticipated appearance of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. For ticket information call 312 294 3000 or visit cso.org, but hustle. The orchestra’s appearances are invariable sellouts.
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Jazz at Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago– It was ladies night at the Jazz at Symphony Center concert in Orchestra Hall Friday night. Violinist Regina Carter and bassist Esperanza Spalding led their chamber jazz groups in an evening of jazz that, if it wasn’t unorthodox, certainly was different.
The music emerged from instruments not normally associated with jazz. The audience enthusiastically applauded sounds from the violin, viola, cello, an African stringed instrument called a kora, even the accordion. There wasn’t a horn to be heard in either set but the music was still striking, even at times when the connection to jazz was a little tenuous.
Carter has been established as the premiere violinist in jazz since the mid 1990’s. She has a rich tone, unlimited technique, and most of all, she swings like mad. Spalding is a recent arrival on the jazz scene, recording her first album in 2006. But her ascent has been meteoric and Oprah Winfrey named her one of “Ten Women on the Rise” in 2010. And Spalding is only 26. Both leaders were promoting their most recent albums, Carter’s “Reverse Thread” and Spalding’s “Chamber Music Society.”
Carter started off the evening with a hugely satisfying hour-long set. The program opened with explorations of African folk music and then branched out into Spanish music and what sounded like Irish jigs and American funk and hoedowns. The music displayed Carter’s virtuosity but even more impressive was her tight ensemble, a group that makes wonderful music out of a most unconventional instrumentation. In addition to the traditional bassist (Chris Lightcap) and drummer (Alvester Garnett), the Carter combo featured Will Holshouser on accordion and Mali-born Yacouba Sissoko on the kora, a 21-string instrument played between the knees like a cello and producing a sound that’s a cross between a harp and a balalaika.
The African music never veered into the exotic. It was accessible to Western ears, melodic and rhythmically enticing. Sissoko was a crowd pleaser with his nimble, multi-note solos that would have made Charlie Christian proud. Holshouser has been Carter’s colleague for years and we missed hearing him during Carter’s last visit to Orchestra Hall when he was weathered in on the east coast. Holshouser is an extraordinary musician, turning maybe the most scoffed-at instrument in jazz into a tour de force fountain of hard-driving solos keyboard-style solos. Forget the accordion as a pleasant purveyor of sweet sounds at weddings. Holshouser can rock and swing with anyone and his solos are filled with invention, not just licks. He has to be heard to be believed.
Carter has amalgamated her disparate collection of instruments into a combo that plays seamless ensemble passages between the glittering solos. Carter presided over the set as a gracious mistress of ceremonies, establishing an intimate rapport with the enthusiastic audience. In Carter’s group we were hearing music we don’t normally encounter, and performed at a flawless level of musicianship. She deserves a full evening at a future Jazz at Symphony Center presentation.
The Spalding performance was a different kettle of musical fish. The set opened with Spalding seating herself in an easy chair on a Persian rug at one corner of the stage. Next to the chair was a small end table with a lamp and a bottle of wine. Spalding seated herself, poured a glass of wine, and watched as the spotlight focused on a string trio playing at the rear of the stage. After a few moments, Spalding joined the trio with her pianist and drummer and a backup vocalist, and began playing her bass. What then followed was an uninterrupted flow of original music, obviously very personal to Spalding and highly listenable, though its jazz content was sometimes a matter of dispute.
Spalding is a striking presence, a huge mop of hair atop a slender body. She performed barefoot, sometimes sinuously dancing as she sang or listened to her sidemen. She sings in a pleasing and flexible high pitched voice, the music varying between wordless scat and lyrics, very few of which I understood. The string trio was beautifully integrated into the music, with Sara Caswell carrying the major solo load on violin. The trio was a full partner in the music and not just a background gimmick.
The audience could have used some guidance from the leader about the music but the numbers were performed without interruption. This was a set to be enjoyed on Spalding’s terms or not at all. The presentation was challenging but the music was never less than listenable, though spectators with a familiarity with the “Chamber Music Society” CD had an advantage over the rest of us. I did enjoy Leo Genovese’s few swinging piano solos and Terri Lyne Carrington kept the set moving with her incisive percussion work. Leala Cyr was the unobtrusive backup singer for Spalding’s vocals.
The crowd was one of the largest I have ever seen at a Jazz at Symphony Center concert and they were both attentive and responsive, proving that there is a large local audience eager to hear jazz off the beaten track. The Carter set was magnificent and Spalding did what she did extremely well. It may be an acquired taste but her music is a taste easily acquired for people with open ears and minds. Still, a bit of beforehand preparation would enhance the pleasures Spalding dispensed, and I still don’t get the opening bit with the wine and the easy chair.
The next concert will feature New Orleans pianist/composer Allen Toussaint on January 14. He will bring in star musicians Don Byron on clarinet and Nicholas Payton on trumpet and doubtless will play selections from his acclaimed “The Bright Mississippi’ album from last year. For tickets call 312 294 2999 or visit www.cso.org.
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Jazz at Symphony Center
At Orchestra Hall
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Audiences at Orchestra Hall Friday night got the full exposure to Hugh Masekela—musician, singer, comedian, political activist, even dancer. The evening started out as a jazz concert and about halfway through shifted into a cabaret show. It added up to one of the feel good-upbeat presentations in the recent history of the Symphony Center jazz series.
Masekela is a black South African who is probably best known for his hit record of “Grazing in the Grass” in 1968 and his marriage to South African singer/political activist Miriam Makeba during the 1960’s. But Masekela has been a significant presence on the international scene for five decades. He performed Friday night on the flugelhorn, the big brother to the trumpet, and his music moved from pure jazz to fusion to lite jazz to South African pop to rhythm and blues. I even caught a whiff of disco, reggae, and bossa nova.
Masekela performed in front of a five-man rhythm section that laid down a smooth carpet of sound behind his rich and soulful solos (he also joined in as percussionist on some numbers). The chief soloist in the section is Cameron Ward, a guitarist good enough to command his own group.
Masekela is not a cutting edge musician. His sound is mellow and his selections often veer toward easy listening without ever crossing over into tedium. As a point of musical reference, Masekela’s style recalls the cool sounds of Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Art Farmer. But he can play with real bebop fire.
Masekela is a master of the ballad and medium tempo number. He didn’t identify any of the songs he played, but the musical roots were obviously ethnically South African. He sang in an appeal raspy voice and punctuated his performance with delightful get-down jive dance steps.
About halfway through the intermissionless two-hour set, Masekela segwayed from jazz musician to entertainer. An hour into the concert he embarked on a long monologue that began as comedy and eased into a plea for prayers for the abused and underprivileged people of the world. Using body language and vocal inflection, Masekela made even the non-English verbal portions of the monologue entertaining. The man does know how to build rapport with an audience and the large Orchestra Hall crowd was solidly with him throughout the evening, even dancing in the aisles on one number. Talk about user friendly music!
The only familiar number in the concert was the finale of the regular program, an extended treatment of “Grazing in the Grass.” The rendition ended with a curious and overlong keyboard solo that had nothing to do with the song at hand.
Masekela’s rhythm section consisted of Ward on guitar, Randal Skippers on keyboards, Fana Zulu on bass, Francis Fuster on percussion, and Lee-Roy Sauls on drums. They are all from South Africa except for Fuster, who is from Sierra Leone. Each musician is steeped in the South African music tradition and they are all in wonderful sync with the leader (Fuster has been with Masekela for 28 years and Zulu for 10 years).
If there was any downside to the concert, it was Masekela’s lack of commentary on his selections. Each number was unfamiliar to the average listener yet clearly had meaningful narrative or emotional content, so it would have been instructive to hear Masekela’s explanations. The man represents a fascinating musical world so why not provide some insights from the horse’s mouth, especially from a man with such raconteur skills?
The jazz series takes a break until December 10 when it presents a challenging double bill of jazz and world music. The attractions will be violinist Regina Carter and bass player Esperanza Spalding. For tickets call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org.
Contact Dan email@example.com October 2010
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At Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The 2009-2010 Jazz at Symphony Center subscription series closed Friday night at Orchestra Hall with a septet of young musicians playing a tribute to the late jazz immortal Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy would have been honored by the commemoration, though he may have been a bit perplexed by the presentation of some of the numbers associated with him.
The concert was labeled “Things to Come: 21st Century Dizzy.” The band, on a cross country tour, is fronted by Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez. The best known sidemen in the group are Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist David Sanchez and Brooklyn-born bassist John Patitucci. The rest of the combo consists of trumpeter Amir ElSaffar (Iraqi heritage), also saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (India), Brazilian percussionist Rogerio Boccato, and New York City drummer Adam Cruz.
Dizzy would have approved of the international composition of the band, being one of the forerunners in spreading the music throughout the world. Dizzy led the United Nations jazz orchestra in 1989 with a very young Danilo Perez as his pianist.
The septet may take its texts from the bebop era, but the music ventured more into the free jazz realm of a couple of decades later. The rhythm section laid down propulsive walls of sound that often blanketed the front line horns. Sanchez, always a free spirit on the tenor sax, Mahanthappa, and ElSaffar played raucous solos and turbulent ensemble passages in which each horn man seemed to go his own way.
The program was familiar Gillespie (“Salt Peanuts,” “Manteca,” “Kush,” etc.), though the arrangements, mostly by members of the band, tended to deconstruct each number into turbulent waves of notes. The normally lilting and swinging “Algo Bueno” was almost unrecognizable in the frenzied arrangement. And that wasn’t the only selection during the evening that flirted with controlled chaos.
There was one lyrical interlude, Perez paying homage to Hank Jones, the eminent jazz pianist who had died a few days before the concert. Perez led a moving trio version of the Thelonious Monk classic “Round Midnight.” Sanchez joined the performance with a disciplined and reflective solo that revealed a new face to his otherwise ferocious style.
Curiously, the most successful number in the concert was a long rendition of an original work by Adam Cruz. The highlight was a trumpet solo by ElSaffar that was drenched in the melancholy strains of bullfight music. The band moved into a hard bop mode that was pure Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers before reverting to its regular turbulent manner.
Perez was a distinctive and occasionally eloquent soloist throughout the evening and an engaging master of ceremonies. Patitucci was a major contributor with his large sound and Mahanthappa displayed a fiery Phil Woods-ish attack played at warp speed. Cruz and Boccato were relentless in their rhythmic underpinnings with an emphasis on a Latin beat.
The audience seemed to warm up to the group as the intermissionless concert moved along, perhaps adjusting to the band’s loud and intense sound. The music may have been born with Dizzy Gillespie in the mid 20th century, but it was speaking with a new and tumultuous voice. If that’s Dizzy in the 21st century, then so be it.
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org. May 2010
Jazz at Symphony Center
(Redman & Cohen)
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Jazz fans concerned about today’s state of the art form should have left the Symphony Center Presents Jazz concert Friday night feeling pretty good about the present and future of the music. They had just heard two excellent sets by two quartets of very talented young instrumentalists.
The quartets were led by the Israeli clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen and saxophonist Joshua Redman. Redman, who seems like he’s been around forever, recently turned 40 and has been well known on the jazz scene since the early 1990’s. Cohen moved to the United States from Israel in 1996 and just started making her mark as a soloist and leader a couple of years ago. Both should have an artistic shelf life that takes them well into the new millennium. They are both wonderful performers and on the evidence of Friday night’s concert they both can build a superior rhythm section that acts as full partners in the music making and not just as accompanists.
Cohen appeared in a November concert in the Symphony Center jazz series and blew everyone away with her tenor saxophone and clarinet playing. Friday night Cohen played a short set using only the clarinet. There are certainly no complaints about her clarinet playing but one number on tenor sax would have enriched the set.
Cohen is bravely trying to reestablish the clarinet as a major voice in contemporary jazz. The instrument fell from popularity with the popularity of bebop in the 1940’s and has never completely recovered. Cohen played three extended selections that demonstrated her total command of the instrument in all registers and at all speeds. She started off with a deconstructed version of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” and continued with the Cuban romantic ballad “Siboney.” After a brief rendition of a modern Israeli ballad she ended her set with a white-hot interpretation of the swing era classic “After You’ve Gone.”
Cohen has a sleek sound that doesn’t quite achieve the richness of the big band masters Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. But she yields to nobody in her dazzling technique, especially in the difficult upper register. But her style isn’t just pyrotechnics. Cohen is smooth in the middle register and warm in the lower register. She took off like a rocket in “After You’ve Gone,” playing avalanches of notes at warp speed.
Cohen’s rhythm section was led by her longtime colleague Jason Lindner on piano Lindner soloed with a winning impressionist, sometimes introspective style. Israeli bassist Omer Avital and Miami-born drummer Obed Calvaire supported deftly and delivered tasteful and musical solos. This was a very tight trio and the entire combo deserved more than its 40 minutes of stage time.
The Redman group took the stage after the usual excessive 25 minute intermission and performed nonstop for 80 minutes plus an encore. I say nonstop because the quartet went from one extended number to the next, omitting any introduction or commentary. The audience didn’t hear a word from the normally gregarious Redman until the end of the regular set, when he introduced his associates. All of the numbers likely were originals composed by members of the quartet, but the listeners were none the wiser. The band calls itself James Farm for reasons never disclosed.
The audience may not have heard
verbally from Redman but they heard plenty from his tenor and soprano
saxophones and his associates—Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and
Eric Harland on drums. The group played at a magnificently high level on every
piece, whether it was funky, straight ahead post bebop, or edgy modern. Redman
alternated between long flowing lines and jagged bursts of notes, occasionally
ending in squawks that sounded like a cry of pain supplication. His total commitment to the
music led in one number to his dropping to one knee and bowing his head as if
in prayer or meditation as his compatriots soloed.
Parks delivered one fascinating solo after another, sometimes playing with Brad Mehldau-like lyricism and other times with the density of a Keith Jarrett. Penman was all over the bass as a rhythm provider and soloist and Harland offered one groovy solo after another.
A tenor sax-led quartet runs the brisk of monotony, especially during a long set. And performing nothing but unfamiliar originals can tax an audience’s attention span. But James Farm held the stage from first note to last, no matter what the mood and tempo of the piece and no matter who held the solo spotlight. This was jazz at a very high level, aesthetically and professionally.
The 2009-2010 jazz series concludes April 21 with the appearance of pianist Danilo Perez leading an international septet in a celebration of the music of Dizzy Gillespie. For tickets, call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org. April 2010
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Symphony Center Presents Jazz (2010-2011)
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO--The Symphony Center Presents Jazz bookers have done a handsome job of program building for the Center’s 2010/2011 jazz subscription series. The concerts at Orchestra Hall will have something for most jazz tastes—big band swing, vocal, New Orleans, gospel, and international.
The series will be especially attractive to lovers of jazz piano and jazz trumpet, bringing in pianists Chick Corea, Marcus Roberts, Allen Toussaint, and Jason Moran, along with trumpeters Hugh Masekela, Nicholas Payton, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Jon Faddis.
The 10-concert series opens on October 8 with Chick Corea leading an all-star trio with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. The concert will mark Corea’s first appearance in the series in more than 10 years.
On October 22, Hugh Masekela brings his trumpet and flugelhorn to Symphony Center in a program melding jazz, pop, and the music of Masekela’s native South Africa.
On December 10, violinist Regina Carter and singer-bassist Esperanza Spalding join musical forces. Carter is probably the preeminent violin virtuoso on the contemporary jazz scene. Spalding, who appeared at last year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, is a singer and composer as well as an instrumentalist and deals in edgy modern jazz flavored with Spanish and African influences.
On January 14, Allen Toussaint comes up from New Orleans for his Symphony Center debut, leading a group that includes Nicholas Payton and clarinetist Don Byron. The program will explore both traditional and today’s New Orleans music.
On February 4, Wynton Marsalis will come to Chicago with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The JLCO appearances have always been among the most popular in jazz series history, so it would be prudent to get tickets early.
On March 25, another Marsalis comes to the series, Wynton’s brother Branford Marsalis. Branford and his soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones, will share the program with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, like Branford an arranger and composer as well as a performer.
On April 15, Dianne Reeves will return for a follow-up visit after her stunning appearance in the current jazz series.
On April 22, the Count Basie Orchestra will perform along with Chicago favorite Marcus Roberts and his trio. Roberts will play with the third Marsalis of the series, drummer Jason Marsalis.
On May 20, trumpeter Jon Faddis will lead the Chicago Jazz Ensemble in a tribute to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
On June 3, the series concludes with an appearance by veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd, for years one of the elder statesmen of the freer line of jazz. For part of the evening Lloyd will perform with Indian tabla star Zakir Hussain. Lloyd will then lead a quartet featuring Jason Moran on piano.
All concerts will be held on Fridays beginning at 8 p.m. This year’s schedule is especially user-friendly in presenting only three concerts during the winter months, thus sparing audiences additional freezing walks to Symphony Center on the lakefront.
Three jazz concerts have been scheduled outside the subscription series. Herbie Hancock performs on August 21. Wynton Marsalis accompanies a film homage to Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin on August 25, and pianist Chucho Valdes leads the Afro-Cuban Messengers on October 10.
Subscriptions can be purchased in five- and 10-concert packages. Prices range from $204 to $746 for the complete series and $115 to $418 for the five-concert package. The subscriptions provide 33% discounts over single ticket prices. For information call 312 294 3000 or 800 223 7114, or visit www.cso.org. April 2010
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At Symphony Center
By Dan Zeff
Chicago - The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra made one of its treasured visits to Orchestra Hall Friday night as part of the Jazz at Symphony Center series, devoting the evening to a program of original works, all connected to the theme of modern painting.
The modern art theme was a little tenuous and many of the pieces bore no discernable aural connection to the visual character of the modern art. But that didn’t prevent the orchestra from delivering its usual superior performance, a top notch blend of ensemble musicianship and spot-on solos.
The centerpiece of the concert was a new suite called “Portrait in Seven Shades,” composed by orchestra reed man Ted Nash. Nash’s work was preceded by a small cluster of works that included celebrations of African American painter Romare Bearden and nineteenth century American realistic artist Winslow Homer.
The concert was primarily a showcase for the orchestra’s crisp and clean section work from the reed and brass players who collectively have produced the best big band sound in jazz for almost two decades. The solos were distributed evenly through the band, with artistic director Wynton Marsalis himself taking only two extending breaks, a gutsy plunger mute solo on “Winslow Homer” and a virtuoso turn on “Picasso” from Nash’s suite.
The solos were fine but the ensemble playing carried the evening, tastefully supported by the rhythm section of pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and drummer Ali Jackson. In his short solos, Nimmer once again demonstrated his brilliant technique and distinctive style, and once again the listener could reflect that the young man would be well worth hearing in a trio format for an entire set.
Jackson played tastefully and musically, showing that a percussionist doesn’t require a tedious five-minute solo to make his mark in a concert. The same could be said for Henriquez with his concise solos and rock solid rhythm work.
Nash introduced each piece in his suite, imparting personal reflections with a disarming informality that never seemed false or affected, even though he’s likely delivered the same verbal material in numerous concerts.
The orchestra has retained its personnel over the years, the newest member, trombonist Elliot Mason, joining the group in 2007. The musicians obviously feel comfortable with each other and that relaxed feeling communicated itself to the audience, which jammed the stage and the balcony behind the musicians as well as filling the main hall itself. Marsalis’s usual witty commentary further enhanced the intimacy and accessibility of the concert.
The best pieces of the evening were a matter of taste. I particularly liked the “Chagall” segment from Nash’s suite, with its eastern European flavor punctuated by the klezmer sound of traditional Jewish music. The “Jackson Pollock” segment captured the unpredictable energy of the artist’s abstract style with a sequence of honks and squeals climaxed by a long, pungent solo by trumpeter Ryan Kisor.
But every musician had at least one glory moment, typified by a lyrical trumpet solo from Sean Jones on the suite’s “Van Gogh.” Unfortunately, that piece was lumbered by a vocal interlude from trombonist Vincent Gardner that was corny to the max. Fortunately, we soon heard an eloquent soprano saxophone solo by Walter Blandings that righted the artistic ship.
After completing Nash’s suite, the orchestra left the stage except for the rhythm section and Marsalis, who treated the audience to an encore of numerous choruses of New Orleans trumpet playing, maybe the musical highlight of the evening and a perfect end to a glowing evening.
The Symphony Center series continues on April 9 with a visit from the eminent tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and his quintet. For tickets call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org. March 2010
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At Symphony Center
by Dan Zeff
Chicago– It was Latin night at Friday evening’s Jazz at Symphony Center concert, offering one set of pure Latin jazz and a second set of straight ahead jazz with a Latin flavor. The Latin flavored set was pretty good but the pure jazz opener was scintillating.
The first set belongs to a quartet led by Brazilian born Eliane Elias, who is not only one of the best pianists in jazz today but also the most glamorous. Elias made an eye popping appearance in an off the shoulder basic black dress that contrasted luminous with her long blonde hair. But once the music started it was her artistry rather than her sex appeal that blew away the audience.
Elias presided at the pianist, providing informative and relaxed commentary on the music, which concentrated almost entirely on bossa nova compositions. She included a couple of American pop standards with Latin jazz inflections (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “Tangerine”) but the set was largely given over to works by the stars of Brazilian bossa nova—Gilberto Gil, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Joao Gilberto. Yet Elias stayed away from the bossa nova standards—no “Desifindo,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Corcavado,” or “Morning of the Carnival.” No matter, because her program waved the bossa nova flag bravely, in both instrumental and vocal renditions.
Elias is a classically trained pianist and it showed in her virtuosity on the keyboard. But she swings like crazy, not only in Brazilian rhythms but also in bebop and even barrelhouse modes. She is brilliant with both hands, unlike so many jazz pianists who let their right hand do the playing while the left hand adds a few chords along the way.
Elias is also a persuasive singer. Not many of her listeners understand Portuguese but she was able to communicate the spirit of her Brazilian music even when we couldn’t understand a word she sang. Elias doesn’t have a big voice but bossa nova doesn’t encourage blast furnace vocalizing. Her firm, emotional singing suited the music perfectly. She even slipped her shoes on and moved from the piano to the center of the Orchestra Hall stage to sing a stand-up vocal accompanied by her rhythm section, suggesting Elias would have as secure place in jazz solely as a vocalist.
Elias’s intimate style could have been diminished in the spacious Orchestra Hall venue, but she was able to shrink the auditorium into an intimate night club atmosphere through her ability to reach out to the audience like we were all a group of friends gathered to hear her play, sing, and chat. Her animated body language at the piano certified a musician who really enjoyed her music and that carried into the appreciative audience.
Elias led an exceptionally tight quartet consisting of Rubens de La Corte on guitar, Marc Johnson (Elias’s husband) on bass, and Rafael Barata on drums. They all complemented the leader to a turn, though it would have been nice to hear more guitar solos. But the role of the three sidemen was to lay down solid rhythm accompaniment for Elias and that they did. Barata even pulled off that rarest of percussion feats, delivering an exceptionally inventive extended drum solo at the end of the set.
was the misfortune of Conrad Herwig’s Latin Side All-Star Band to follow Elias’s
exceptionally entertaining set. Herwig leads a septet that plays Latinized
versions of music associated with Miles Davis and three of his most illustrious
associates, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter. Thus we heard
Latin adaptations of such numbers as “So What” and “The Sorcerer.”
The front line consisted of Herwig on trombone, Mike Rodriguez on trumpet, and Craig Handy on tenor saxophone and flute, with Bill O’Connell on piano. They are all strong soloists with Handy particularly effective on the flute. But with one exception, all the music was performed in an up tempo hard bop style that gave the set a sameness of impact. Much of that sameness can be attributed to the “one size fits all” rhythm section of Ruben Rodriguez (electric bass), Robby Ameen (drums), and Pedro Martinez conga drums. They laid down a dense carpet of Latin rhythm sound that leveled the music’s impact to a single continuous sound. And where is it written that a conga drummer always must be allotted a long, long percussion solo? Martinez is an accomplished performer but the congas are best taken in much smaller doses.
Herwig has recorded several albums in the last five years dedicated to Latin interpretations of Davis, Hancock, Coltrane, and Shorter. The audience could have profited from Herwig explicating a bit on the concept of the band and its choice of music. Elias explained her music with grace and informality and intelligence.
Jazz at Symphony Center continues on March 19 with the hottest ticket of the series, the annual appearance of Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. For information call 312 294 3000 or visit www.cso.org/jazz. Feb. 2010
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