No other orchestra in America looks, sounds or acts quite like Orbert Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.
For though various bands play Third Stream repertoire — a term that loosely refers to jazz-meets-classical fare — the CJP immerses itself in this exotic corner of the jazz tradition. That means the CJP plays both jazz-tinged classical repertoire and classically inspired jazz pieces with comparable authority. Because trumpeter-conductor Davis has been building the CJP for years, his classical musicians have been learning to finesse swing rhythm, while his jazz players have been increasingly successful in blending with their classical counterparts.
In effect, these musicians are forming a shared musical aesthetic in taking on music of Duke Ellington and William Russo, Miles Davis and Gil Evans and, of course, Davis himself, all of whom have ignored the usual borders that separate jazz and classical idioms.
- Bio | E-mail | Recent columns
- Fall music preview: Chicago jazz greats coming home
- PHOTOS: On The Town: 10 things to do in Chicago this weekend
- PHOTOS: Must-see fall concerts in Chicago
9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL 60076, USA
1490 Chicago Ave, Evanston, IL 60201, USA
806 S Plymouth Ct, Chicago, IL 60605, USA
1131 E 57th St, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
"This is our brand of Third Stream," says Davis, who will launch the ensemble's eighth season Saturday evening at the North Shore Center for the Arts in Skokie with a concert by the CJP Chamber Ensemble.
"(Trumpeter) Jon Faddis told me years ago that what he liked about CJP is that his experience of Third Stream (was that the) ensemble would play a little classical, then swing to the jazz side and go back and forth. Our band is creating Third Stream as its own genre, by truly fusing" the two worlds.
You can hear that most lucidly when the CJP performs Davis' originals, as it will Saturday, when the "Strings & Things That Swing!" program will include his brilliant "Family Portraits." Davis and the CJP Chamber Ensemble played the world premiere of the piece last year at the Chicago Jazz Festival, and the relentless rhythmic and harmonic tension of the piece proved gripping. Unfortunately, the dismal acoustics at Grant Park's Petrillo Music Shell turned the orchestral sound into mud whenever the band was playing at forte or louder.
This time, listeners should be able to hear a lot more orchestral detail.
The rest of the program, as of press time, looked promising, the lineup including Russo's arrangement of Bix Beiderbecke's "Davenport Blues," Neal Hefti's arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's "Star Dust," Davis' "An Ellington Renaissance" and his arrangements of everything from a movement of a Mozart String Quartet (titled "Amadeus Has a Dream") to music from Gil Evans' and Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain."
Still, one wonders why Orbert Davis — a top-flight trumpet soloist who excels in small-group jazz improvisation — has poured so much of his energy into Third Stream dreams.
"I think it's the essence of being American," says Davis. "When you look at our history, especially in academia, we tend to hold so tightly to this European (classical) model, which isn't bad — but what we do is we separate people.
"When I went to college, they asked: 'Do you play jazz or classical?' Because I'm black, they assumed I played jazz. But I started with classical. We as Americans weren't ready for that kind of diversity. But now's the time."
To Davis, then, the Third Stream efforts of the CJP are designed to bring together people of various races, backgrounds and cultural traditions.
It's worth noting that Davis' work extends beyond the bandstand, his CJP organization teaching students at various Chicago Public Schools, including the Lionel Hampton Fine & Performing Arts School on West 77th Street, Horatio May Elementary Community Academy on South Lavergne Avenue and the Mary E. McDowell Elementary School on East 89th Street.
Classroom by classroom, Davis and his colleagues at CJP — particularly his collaborator Mark Ingram — are changing the world.
Beyond the CJP's forthcoming season of concerts across the area, Davis envisions tours, commissions and broadcasts, as well as continued expansion of its already deep well of repertoire.
"This is what I want to do," says Davis. "I think I've found my element."
Strings & Things That Swing!
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Admission: $35-$55; 847-673-6300 or northshorecenter.org
Also worth hearing
Bobby Watson: The last time alto saxophonist Watson played the Jazz Showcase, in April, his opening night careened between fervent playing and surprisingly rough collaborations with the Willie Pickens Trio. Perhaps this time Watson will have established a better working relationship with Pickens, one of Chicago's most admired pianists, and his colleagues. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $20; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.
SFJAZZ Collective: This superb ensemble represents a kind of West Coast response to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. For if the New York band provides highly polished, big-band accounts of jazz classics and original compositions, the smaller, San Francisco-based SFJAZZ Collective puts emphasis on unfamiliar and contemporary repertoire. 7:30 p.m. Friday at the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall, 1131 East 57th St.; $10-$35; 773-702-8068 or chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.
Larry Gray: The estimable Chicago bassist has accompanied a broad range of major jazz figures, but this time he steps to the forefront. And though listeners already know of Gray's virtuosity as soloist, they'll also be able to explore his impressive work as composer-arranger. Gray will lead a quartet, with saxophonist Ari Brown, pianist Willie Pickens and drummer Samuel Jewell. The event is presented by the non-profit Hyde Park Jazz Society. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; hydeparkjazzsociety.com.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich