Jazz at Symphony Center

Symphony Center Presents Jazz

   At Orchestra Hall


By Dan Zeff

Chicago – Roy Hargrove was scheduled to play with the Branford Marsalis quartet at the second concert of the 2018-19 Symphony Center Presents jazz series at Orchestra Hall Friday night. Regrettably, Hargrove called in sick and the quartet had the set all to itself. That’s not really a bad thing, Branford being one of the premiere saxophonists on the jazz scene. But Hargrove’s clear, bright tone and accessible virtuosity would have been an agreeable counterbalance to the edginess and intensity of much of the quartet’s performance.

Marsalis played a generous 75-minute set dominated by compositions by his sidemen—pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis (both with Marsalis since the early 2000’s) and drummer Justin Faulkner. The musicians were in attack mode much of the set, with Faulkner wailing away on his drum set with breathtaking ferocity.


The quartet did have its mellow moments, with a couple of lovely extended solos by Calderazzo and some fine turns by Branford, especially on the soprano saxophone, which now seems to be his instrument of preference over the tenor sax. But the set was filled with jagged, almost confrontational solos.

Just to demonstrate to the overflow and appreciative audience that his little band could swing as well as bellow, Marsalis gave the listeners some outstanding melodic moments, perhaps not coincidentally, all of them pop standards. His soprano solo on “The Sunny Side of the Street” was pure gold but the number of the night was his swinging rendition of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” a lustrous breath of musical fresh air after all the in-your-face heat of the group’s originals. And Marsalis chose to send the audience home with a tasty finale rendition of the pop chestnut “Three Little Words.”

Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

The audience clearly did not share my resistance to the John Coltrane-ish frontal assaults of the majority of selections. This clearly is Branford’s preferred style and it has move him to the top of the contemporary jazz pyramid in the last 25 years. The Orchestra Hall crowd continuously and loudly expressed its acceptance, especially when drummer Faulkner went into one of his manic percussion binges. But Hargrove would have been a balm.

The concert open up with a slice of jazz archaeology. Symphony Center is celebrating the centennial of the end of World War I in 1918 with several classical presentations. To contribute to the occasion, the jazz series commissioned Chicago ragtime pianist Reginald Robinson to write a tribute to James Reese Europe, an African American bandleader and composer who played a leading role in the transformation of orchestral ragtime into jazz in the early 1900’s.

Although black, Europe ascended to the top of musical life in New York City shortly after the turn of the last century. In 1912, Europe led a 125-member orchestra and chorus in a “Symphony of Negro Music” concert at Carnegie Hall, the first appearance in that august hall by a black 0rchestra. During World War I Europe led a military band called the Harlem Hellfighters, winning widespread praise in France for introducing blues, jazz, and ragtime to European audiences.

Europe is one of the great “what ifs” of American music. At the peak of his fame, he was stabbed to death by a mentally disturbed band member in 1919 when the leader was only 39 years old. He could have put his stamp on early jazz in the manner of Duke Ellington or Jelly Roll Morton had he lived. We will never know.

Obviously Europe is a person of interest in early jazz history but Robinson’s 10-piece band made no reference to him during their set. The group did play music associated with the 1900-1925 period in America, and played it well. The instrumental makeup of piano, drums, tuba, two violins (with one violinist doubling on mandolin), soprano sax, clarinet, trumpet, and trombone was tight and swinging.

The music had an antique charm that delighted the audience and the finale, called “Afro-Brazilian Carnival,” was a complex ensemble piece that had the spectators cheering, especially when they exited the stage playing away in the manner of the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The musicians were not primitives. All the soloists had great chops. Trumpet player Robert Griffin in particular consistently laid down swinging licks. Whether the music reflected the style of James Reese Europe Was never established. But the band did set up the audience for considerable culture shock when Marsalis and his free form warriors took over after intermission.

             Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

The jazz series takes a three-month break, returning on February 1 for what should be one of the concerts of the series. It will combine the Joshua Redman quartet with a tentet led by clarinet star Anat Cohen performing a newly composed concerto co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Symphony Center.

For information or tickets, call 312 294 3000, visit cso.org/jazz, or order by mail at Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Subscription Services, 220 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL  60604.                                                                                                  November 2018

Contact Dan: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com

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