10:24 AM CDT, June 15, 2013
Seventy-five years ago, a kid from the West Side of Chicago transformed the world with the sound of his clarinet.
In January of 1938, jazz musician Benny Goodman conquered Carnegie Hall and in August of that year performed the same mission at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. Neither temple of the classics would be the same again, each thereafter allowing swing music and other populist sounds to have their say.
That Goodman also dared to tour his integrated band across the country – at a time when that was considered scandalous by many – underscores the stature of his achievements.
So Friday night's Goodman celebration at the Ravinia Festival did much more than mark a moment in time: It acknowledged Goodman's still-exalted position in our culture and, of course, his deep roots in the jazz city that launched him: Chicago.
Because no single clarinetist could be asked to assume Goodman's outsized role in jazz, three took on the task. The result was a concert that veered freely from the Carnegie Hall and Ravinia events – in both programming and presentation – but captured the joy and verve of this music. With Jeff Lindberg leading the muscular Chicago Jazz Orchestra, solo clarinetists Anat Cohen, Eric Schneider and Larry Combs affirmed that Goodman lives wherever the art of swing still flourishes.
Each of the clarinetists approached this repertoire quite differently, and each illuminated a distinct facet of Goodman's music. But Cohen surely came closest to evoking the sensuousness of Goodman's sound, the propulsion of his rhythm and the soaring high spirits of his up-tempo playing.
From Cohen's first notes in "After You've Gone," it was clear that she understood the essence of Goodman's clarinet work. The warmth, ripeness and roundness of her tone were pure Goodman, but so was her sense of phrasing and the cry at the center of her sound. A lamenting quality born of the Jewish klezmer tradition influenced Goodman, and Cohen has it inside her horn.
She also brought a signature technical wizardry to this concert. Her fast-flying virtuosity in "Avalon," melodic creativity in Mary Lou Williams' "Roll 'Em" and soulful, klezmer-tinged obbligatos to Sylvia McNair's vocals in "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" explained why Cohen stands at the forefront of the next generation of leading jazz clarinetists.
Chicagoan Schneider offered a quite different, more autobiographical tack, his tone sharp-edged, his swing rhythm aggressive, his improvisations ornate. If you had to guess which of these three clarinetists spends the most time hitting hard in late-night Chicago jazz clubs, you'd pick Schneider every time. The tenderness of Cohen's work, to put it another way, found bracing contrast in Schneider's more acidic tone. No one on this stage produced more extensive transformations of the tunes at hand than Schneider, who built solos of considerable complexity and daring.
Combs long reigned as principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but few of his orchestral colleagues have been nearly as persuasive in a jazz setting. That said, there was no mistaking the classical purity of sound and fastidiousness of phrase that defined Combs' work on this evening. Though his playing often seemed surprisingly light of tone, its delicacy and detail in several pieces – most notably Fletcher Henderson's ingenious dance-band re-imagining of Ravel's "Bolero" – were worth savoring.
When all the clarinetists shared the stage, listeners heard something even Goodman could not have achieved alone: three-part counterpoint of remarkable intricacy and rhythmic freedom. To hear Cohen, Schneider and Combs simultaneously spinning long lines on "Honeysuckle Rose" and driving hard in "Sing, Sing, Sing" was to perceive these Goodman-era classics in a bright new light.
Not that everything in this concert proved quite so successful. By featuring two vocalists, this program offered at least one too many. Singer Cyrille Aimee sounded quite pleasant, but the brilliant instrumental solos that preceded and followed her work consistently outshone her contributions. McNair sang straightforwardly and with greater interpretive depth, but by the second half of the concert, all this vocalizing became tiresome.
And why did this evening need a narrator reading behind a lectern? Does anyone believe this music can't speak eloquently for itself? The annoying, spoken-word interjections interrupted the evening's flow more than once.
A band as magisterial as the CJO doesn't need such distractions. Its corporate virtuosity radiated from virtually every work, and especially in a too-brief but still explosive version of the aforementioned "Sing, Sing, Sing."
That's the way to salute Goodman – through music, not chatter.
The Chicago Jazz Orchestra plays at 8 and 10 p.m. Tuesday at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $15-$20; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.
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