No single concert could possibly sum up the achievements of Chicago composer-conductor William Russo – or even reference all of the high points.
But Saturday evening's expansive homage, which attracted a turn-away crowd to the Jazz Showcase, surely reminded Russo devotees of the breadth and craft of his work, while introducing neophytes to some of its glories.
At his best, Russo penned ambitious orchestral scores deeply influenced by Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton but distinctly expressive of his own voice, as well. Or perhaps we should say voices, because Russo's orchestral work ranged from lean and transparent to thick and thunderous, from blues concertos to jazz-tinged symphonies to epic works that embraced multiple musical languages.
None of this music was easy to play, which explains why the most effective segments of the Russo tribute were those that featured soloists deeply versed in Russo's way of thinking: trumpeter Orbert Davis, harmonica player Corky Siegel and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz.
Russo penned "The Horn Blower" for Davis in the early 1990s, the piece unfolding essentially as a jazz concerto in one movement, complete with solo introduction, dramatic development of themes and trumpet cadenza. Weightier even than Russo's better known "Frank Speaking," a mini-concerto for trombone and orchestra, "The Horn Blower" sounded still more impressive than when Davis, Russo and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble introduced it more than two decades ago.
The passage of time, in other words, has enhanced the stature of this piece, perhaps because nothing quite like it has been composed since. Its stripped-down themes, crystal-clear architecture and exclamatory climax show no wasted notes or extraneous gestures. The sheer muscularity of this piece, as well as the musical and technical opportunities it provides for the soloist, has an instantly rousing effect on an audience.
Certainly it did this time, thanks partly to Davis' command of the work. From the spare lines of the opening themes to the intricacies of his solos to the rhetorical punch of the final pages, Davis made a compelling case for "The Horn Blower." He was assisted by the Columbia College Jazz Ensemble, which had started the concert sounding unsure of itself but gained confidence with each piece. By the time "The Horn Blower" came around, the band was strong enough to give Davis the sinewy accompaniment he needed.
Earlier in the evening, Davis and the band, under the expert direction of Scott Hall, brought nervous rhythmic energy to Russo's "Blues Before and After" and both whispered intimacy and shattering fortissimos to Russo's volatile arrangement of "Autumn in New York."
Russo famously composed symphonic blues works for Chicago harmonica wizard Siegel, who recorded "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra" and "Street Music," from the 1960s and '70s. This time, Siegel and the Columbia College Jazz Band took on a much later opus: the culminating "Corky" movement of Russo's Chicago Suite No. 2. Siegel rode its chugging, boogie-woogie rhythms to gripping effect, punctuating these passages with buoyant melodic riffs.
And 86-year-old alto saxophonist Konitz, who grew up in Chicago alongside Russo, shaped plaintive phrases in Russo's arrangement of "Lover Man," sometimes interrupting himself to sing out a phrase rather than play it.
To bring the set to a close, Siegel and Davis returned to the spotlight to improvise a big and lusty blues, Siegel's raspy harmonica answered by Davis' clarion trumpet, the Columbia band blasting away in the background.
Considering that Russo had helped launch Siegel's and Davis' careers and had created the music department at Columbia, it's fair to say that everyone on that stage owed a significant debt to this protean musician.
They helped repay it on this night.
Marsalis celebrates the season
Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra have appeared prolifically in the Chicago area through the years, but only once before in the jewel box known as Wentz Concert Hall, on the campus of North Central College in Naperville.
VIPs, dignitaries, funders and other select individuals had been invited to that "soft opening" of the Wentz in 2008, which made Friday night's performance a chance for everyone else to hear how the most accomplished repertory band in America sounds in a space uniquely equipped to present it. The results were revelatory, virtually every detail of voicing rendered lucid to the ear, yet the entire orchestra sounding warmer and more plush than in any other setting I've heard it in this region.
At first glance, this might have seemed unlikely, for Marsalis and the ensemble were devoting the program entirely to holiday songs, not necessarily the ideal repertory for testing a formidable jazz band. But this program was no mere recitation of sugary Christmas tunes. On the contrary, Marsalis led his organization in technically demanding, creative orchestrations by JALC members and past masters, as well.
The musicians set a high standard for themselves from the outset, opening the concert with reedist Victor Goines' subtle arrangement of the biggest holiday chestnut of them all, "White Christmas." Everyone knows Irving Berlin's classic tune, but the softly shimmering version by Goines (director of jazz studies at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music) showed that it's possible to say something new with a weathered standard. As the piece progressed, the JALC Orchestra gathered energy without increasing velocity, a testament to this band's ability to control tone and sonic impact.
Saxophonist Ted Nash's arrangement of Mel Torme and Robert Wells' "Christmas Song" yielded some of the most luxuriant sounds of the evening, the long lines and midnight-blue shadings of the reed choirs answered by shattering, Kentonesque blocks of sound from the brass.
On purely technical terms, the band finessed an obstacle course in a brisk account of "Peanut Brittle Brigade" from the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn "Nutcracker Suite," which still stands as an ingenious blues-swing transformation of Tchaikovsky's ballet score. Here listeners heard multiple layers of crisp orchestral sound, Goines' hot clarinet lines soaring above it all.
Marsalis gave considerable space to guest vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, for understandable reasons. At 24, she's still discovering the colors and textures that her unusually malleable instrument can produce, and she experimented freely with them. If there was no mistaking the influence of Sarah Vaughan in her throaty low notes or of Betty Carter in her elongated lines or of a young Ella Fitzgerald in the sweet tones of her high register, Salvant put these tendencies together in novel ways. She offered soft and gauzy sounds, plus ample depth of feeling, in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," lingered gently behind the beat in "Sleigh Ride" and produced artful, unhurried scat singing in "It's Easy to Blame the Weather."
With Marsalis' elite band alongside her, Salvant brought plenty of swing to Christmas.