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All-American music from the Gunns and DeJohnette

Howard Reich

7:07 AM CST, November 4, 2012

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American song comes in many forms, and two brave artists took on several of them over the weekend during the 23rd annual Chicago Humanities Festival.

Rarely does one get to hear the thorny harmonies of Charles Ives alongside the bluesy phrases of Harold Arlen, the elusive lyricism of Paul Bowles juxtaposed with the craggy melodies of Tom Waits.

But the husband-and-wife team of baritone Nathan Gunn and pianist Julie Jordan Gunn took on all this repertoire and then some before a sold-out house Saturday night at Francis W. Parker School.

The connective tissue among all these songs, of course, was that they were penned by Americans, reflecting the broadly arching theme of this year's festival: "America." Though singer Gunn proved a bit more persuasive in some pieces than others, the program illuminated the vast stylistic range of American songwriting — as well as the expressive urgency of all of it.

Gunn, who has built his reputation in the world's opera houses, nonetheless proved remarkably effective in homespun Americana. The lonesome feeling and darkly muted tone he brought to "Home on the Range" will last long in memory. What many of us consider a little ditty from grade school became a kind of art song that said a great deal about the cowboy spirit and the American West.

Gunn also brought an aptly childlike sense of wonder to Ives' "Circus Band," a smoldering sensuality to Bowles' "Heavenly Grass" and a disarming forthrightness to Arlen's "Over the Rainbow."

The centerpiece of the program, a suite of war songs, took on the dark themes of death and deliverance, with singer Gunn probing as deeply into traditional songs such as "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" and "Tenting Tonight" as one might imagine possible.

If he lavished too much operatic vibrato on Waits' "Whistle Down the Wind," he nearly made up for it with a surging version of Cole Porter's "From This Moment On" (though a little more rhythmic tension and swing feeling would have made this still more effective).

Pianist Julie Jordan Gunn was more collaborator than mere accompanist, her playing crisp and startling in Ives, jazzy in Porter and Arlen and richly atmospheric in repertoire of the Old West. Very few pianists can do what she does.

The sooner we hear the Gunns perform this music again, the better.

Jack DeJohnette at 70

Drums master Jack DeJohnette hasn't lived in Chicago for decades, but the city where he was born and grew up shaped him as a musician. Specifically, Chicago's unquenchable interest in everything innovative and daring in jazz encouraged DeJohnette to seek out unconventional forms of expression, and he emphasized the point Friday night at Symphony Center.

DeJohnette had been invited back to his hometown to mark his recent 70th birthday, which is being celebrated around the world, and he chose to do so with a characteristically groundbreaking ensemble, the Gateway trio. Named for its 1975 album of the same title, the reunion band featured DeJohnette in ephemeral interactions with two comparably adventurous improvisers, guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Dave Holland.

Inarguably, this music asks a lot of its listeners. Its rhythmic pulse can be difficult to detect; its melodies often emerge in shards; its harmonic backdrop usually is intentionally ambiguous, leaving the audience to wonder where a piece of music is heading.

Yet through most of Friday evening's intermissionless performance, DeJohnette and colleagues offered enough musical incident and shimmering ensembles textures to keep the audience engaged.

The music-making started simply enough with Holland's "Back-Woods Song," its tuneful main theme disarming listeners and, in so doing, setting the stage for the rigors yet to come. The proceedings quickly intensified in Abercrombie's "Sing Song," its harmonic underpinning as uncategorizable as it was intriguing. Moreover, with Abercrombie playing mostly single-note guitar lines, Holland offering rhythmically volatile bass figures and DeJohnette providing delicately articulated colors, the music conveyed a wide-open, ethereal esthetic of a kind one rarely encounters.

From this point forth, the trio offered varying degrees of musical complexity, from the buoyant rhythms and free-flowing phrases of Holland's "May Dance" to the airborne guitar lines and translucent tones of Abercrombie's "Short Cut."

DeJohnette reminded listeners of his early years as a pianist by stepping over to the keyboard for his "Blue." No one is going to call DeJohnette a strong technician on the piano, but he certainly showed a distinctive way around the instrument. Layered colors and subtle voicings were his stock in trade, while his stream-of-consciousness approach to melodic lines reflected the long years he has spent in the company of pianist Keith Jarrett.

If Abercrombie's "Calypso Facto" gave listeners an unmistakable backbeat they could latch on to, the three musicians nevertheless often liberated themselves from it, straying into unmetered passages and indulging in periods of nearly free improvisation.

Throughout, DeJohnette showed a sleek yet unostentatious technique, even in extended solos. There was no grandstanding here or self-celebration: As always with DeJohnette, it was all about the music.

hreich@tribune.com
Twitter @howardreich