Mardi Gras will arrive a little early this year for Chicago listeners, thanks to a most unusual and promising concert this weekend by Orbert Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.
While revelers in New Orleans will celebrate the traditional Fat Tuesday on March 4 (though parades already are underway), Davis and a 15-member contingent of his CJP will present a "Mardi Gras Carnival" Saturday evening at Governors State University, in the southern suburb of University Park.
What's critical to note here is that this is not some expediently themed program featuring a few Crescent City tunes. On the contrary, Davis has conceived a far more substantial program that will include the world premiere of his homage to New Orleans, a three-movement symphonic work titled "The Survival of the Saints," plus appearances by two of Chicago's most distinctive jazz artists: harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy and MacArthur Fellowship winner and pianist Reginald Robinson.
That virtually all the repertoire on the bulging program relates directly to New Orleans suggests that Davis has something significant he wants to say about the city, particularly with his "The Survival of the Saints."
"It's a tribute to the spirit of the people of New Orleans and what they went through to survive Katrina," says Davis, referring to the hurricane of 2005 and its devastating aftermath. The score "is orchestral in nature in the beginning, and it follows the tradition of a New Orleans funeral."
Which means a dirge-like opening movement, reflecting the way New Orleanians traditionally proceed to a funeral; a reflective second movement, complete with sermon; and an exuberant finale, designed to capture the high spirits with which New Orleans citizens celebrate a life, parading home from the cemetery grounds to an ebullient beat.
The sermon, to be delivered by CJP trumpeter and pastor David Spencer, draws inspiration from the biblical passage Ezekiel 37, "The Valley of Dry Bones," in which "the prophet Ezekiel was looking over a valley of dead dry bones, and the spirit of God came into the bones and brought them to life," says Davis.
"That's what New Orleans had to do, as well. … They went through this horrible death (after Katrina), literally and figuratively. So this piece sort of brings out that emotion, and of course it's dedicated to the people who survived, in hopes that this artistic representation will have influence on them as well."
It's not difficult to guess why Davis also would want to feature in this program Chicago pianist Robinson, whose neo-ragtime compositions evoke the pre-history of jazz.
But Chicagoan Levy, who plays piano adroitly and harmonica at a technical level that has not been matched, does not necessarily evoke New Orleans.
Davis begs to differ.
"The fact that he's multi-genre, multi-instrumentalist – that's what New Orleans is all about," says Davis. "I wanted to bring that spirit into the music that we'll play. …
"A lot of people don't know it, but I toured with Dr. John," adds Davis, referring to a great proselytizer of New Orleans musical vernacular. "And those few concerts just floored me – the essence of the spirit of New Orleans again, and being able to hear it in Caribbean influences, rock, funk, blues, all in the same music. I wanted to feature Howard Levy in that spirit of the music."
No doubt there's a joyousness to Levy's playing that might reflect what Davis hears in New Orleans music. And Davis will attempt to bring that out so by asking Levy to perform in orchestral transcriptions of New Orleans classics such as "Iko Iko," "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" and "Ja-Ki-Mo-Fi-Na-Hay."
Whether an orchestral setting can do justice to so much folkloric music remains to be heard, but surely the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic is well positioned to try. Since 2004, when the ensemble was founded, Davis has sought to find a home for jazz idioms in a symphonic setting and vice versa.
Even during the orchestra's debut performance, during the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2004, Davis was shattering musical barriers. In that performance, he fused swing and classical rhythms in an excerpt from his four Tone Poems for Jazz Quintet and Orchestra, Davis' fleet trumpet solos answered by Ari Brown's blues-drenched exhortations on tenor saxophone and set against a pulsing orchestral accompaniment.
Since then, the CJP has developed as not only a vehicle for Davis' large scale compositions – such as "The Chicago River," "Havana Blue" and "DuSable to Obama" – but as an increasingly prominent educational force. The orchestra's Jazz Alive program now serves more than 500 students in 10 schools; CJP workshops teach classical musicians the fundamentals of jazz improvisation and syntax; and the organization's summer camp initiates young musicians of far-flung musical interests into the pleasures and rigors of jazz.
"I would say we do as much education as performance," says Birdie Soti, executive director of the CJP. "Education is at the center of a lot of what we do. Even when we do performances, we incorporate as much of our education (efforts) as we can, either through open rehearsals or through trying the themes of our (concert) performances into the school curriculum," so that Jazz Alive students can hear classroom ideas put into practice in the concert hall.
With a full-time staff of four, a core of about 10 teaching artists and an annual operating budget of $575,000, the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic has developed into a small but entrepreneurial institution unique in America. Details of its 10th anniversary season won't be announced until later in the year, but the ensemble's forthcoming release of three albums – "Sketches of Spain (Revisited)," "The Chicago River" and "Havana Blue" – and a second trip to Cuba in December suggest that the next decade could be even more eventful than the first one.
"Our goal," says Mark Ingram, Davis' longtime business partner and the producing director of the CJP, "is to not just be performing as local boys in Chicago but (taking) the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic internationally (and) get to some of the major cities that can appreciate this throughout the country."
To Davis, the primary objective is to educate America about the concept of Third Stream, a term that roughly connotes a merger of jazz and classical sensibilities.
"We call it Third Stream education," says Davis. "We've got to get a building. My goal is to get our own space and (create a) Third Stream Institute where people from all over the world can come and learn about this incredible fusion of cultures."
Which, when you think about it, is exactly what happens in a great Mardi Gras celebration.
"Mardi Gras Carnival" plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at Governors State University, 1 University Parkway, University Park; $35; a buffet dinner starts at 6:30 p.m., $25; 708-235-2222 or govst.edu. The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. March 22 at the McAninch Arts Center of the College of DuPage, Fawell and Park Boulevards, Glen Ellyn; $28-$38; 630-942-4000 or atthemac.org or chicagojazzphilharmonic.org.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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