The year may be drawing to a close, but not before two world premieres light up our stages.
That they originate from opposite ends of the musical spectrum – one from a master of age-old ragtime, the other from a fearless experimenter in new forms – only enhances interest in the two events.
For the past couple of decades, no one has been more important in showing the enduring value of ragtime than Chicago composer-pianist Reginald Robinson, who won a MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius grant," in 2004. Through his fiercely original compositions and thoroughly persuasive pianism, the mostly self-taught musician has proven repeatedly that the genre Scott Joplin brought to a high point early in the 20th century still has new things to say in the 21st.
But this weekend Robinson will push beyond ragtime, when he offers the world premiere of a suite of four original compositions that will accompany "Memories 'N' Time," a new work performed by the Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts. Robinson's compositions will span several genres and will be played not on solo piano, as he usually delivers his music, but by an ensemble featuring some of Chicago's most admired jazz musicians: saxophonist Ari Brown, violinist Samuel "Savoirfaire" Williams, bassist Yosef Ben Israel, trumpeter Pharez Whitted and Robinson at the piano.
"I love ragtime music, but I just needed to take a break for awhile," says Robinson, who composed the music this year, with orchestrations by Stu Greenspan.
"It's a new stage in my creativity. It's a new statement. … I didn't' relinquish ragtime – I love it. But I do other styles of music."
Specifically, Robinson has taken on calypso with the song "Carrianne Wait for Me"; jazz balladry with "Heaven Only Knows" (written with Sondra Davis, who will sing it); highlife with "Highlife Til Dawn"; and, inevitably, a touch of ragtime, with "Strutting Your Troubles Away."
The departure from the music for which Robinson is widely admired may be surprising to fans but felt quite instinctive, says Robinson, in that he always has been influenced by these far-flung musical idioms – even if the music world didn't realize it.
The jazz ballad "Heaven Only Knows," for instance, was inspired by music of Nat "King" Cole, whom Robinson has been listening to practically "since I was a baby, right along with ragtime," he says. Highlife has moved him since at least the early 1990s, he says. And even the ragtime piece, "Strutting Your Troubles Away," breaks free of certain conventions of the form, particularly in the way certain themes repeat to accommodate the dancers.
That Robinson should collaborate with Muntu Dance Theatre on such a venture also was natural, since he has worked with the troupe before and found its artists eager to collaborate with him.
"Reginald, to me, is a genius" says Amaniyea Payne, who choreographed most of "Memories 'N' Time."
Robinson's new music, adds Payne, "is spirited, it's invigorating. It gave me a vision to create a movement to it."
Though "Memories 'N' Time" doesn't tell a specific narrative story, says Payne, it evokes particular moments in African cultural life and shows their connections across time and space. In essence, the work shows that "we are still there, from whence we came," says Payne.
As for Robinson, he believes this project is a way of "setting new perimeters" for himself and his fans, he says. "It's expanding the perimeter. … It gives the public more of what I can do – more of me."
"Memories 'N' Time," 7:30 p.m. Friday (with 6 p.m. reception); $30-$75 (higher ticket price includes reception); also 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday; $30, University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; 773-702-2787 or muntu.com or muntumemories.bpt.me
New ground for Aoki
Bassist-bandleader Tatsu Aoki long has been at the forefront of weaving Japanese cultural traditions with the bracing sounds of the Chicago jazz avant-garde. And for the next two weekends, he'll present new manifestations of these experiments.
On Friday evening at the Garfield Park Conservatory, Aoki for the first time will pair his Miyumi Project, which revels in Japanese folkloric traditions, with the mighty forces of the Great Black Music Ensemble, which crystallizes experimental techniques nurtured on the South Side of Chicago and is led by Mwata Bowden.
The following weekend, Aoki will appear at the Museum of Contemporary Art to preside over "Reduction," in which he will perform with several leading Chicago experimenters: saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, Jr., flutist Nicole Mitchell and percussionists Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang. While they play, dancer Ayako Kato will improvise movement.
Together, these performances will represent Aoki's latest step in building bridges between East and West, tradition and experimentation, music of Japan and Chicago.