Duke Ellington (left) and Billy Strayhorn
By Dennis Polkow
When Bruce Mayhall Rastrelli first came up with the idea of devoting an entire concert to the music of Billy Strayhorn more than a decade ago, the first question was often, “Billy who?”
“It was for a gay chorus that I directed for eight years in Los Angeles,” recalls Rastrelli, “and they had a tradition of doing single composer concerts: Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman. I wanted to move beyond doing composers that were obvious. I wanted to challenge the chorus and the community with things they didn’t know, specifically jazz, and especially a black composer who was out and gay at a time when that was not at all typical.”
Strayhorn is best known for his near thirty-year association with Duke Ellington, from the time they met in 1938 until Strayhorn’s early death from cancer in 1967 at the age of fifty-one. Often given direct credit, sometimes not, Strayhorn is estimated to have composed and arranged some forty percent of the entire Ellington catalogue and was, as Ellington himself put it in his autobiography, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” Read the rest of this entry »
Frank Sinatra Jr.
By Dennis Polkow
“There is a lot of traffic out there in this kind of show for this year,” admits Frank Sinatra Jr. on the myriad of Sinatra salutes happening throughout 2015, the centennial of his father’s birth. “Many, many people have taken it upon themselves to do this kind of thing. They can, of course, recreate the music. But because this is the one-hundredth anniversary, I felt it was very important that people also learn something about the individual.
“We’re no longer talking about a man who is a famous performer, a famous movie star. Now we’re talking about somebody who is being time-honored with a century of recognition. For that reason, I think it’s time to know that person. We already know his accomplishments, now let’s concentrate on the person.”
From the beginning of his own career some fifty years ago, Frank Jr. always performed “at least a song or two of Sinatra,” as he calls the public figure, “but I worked hard to have my own identity.” Read the rest of this entry »
Afrobeat, Big Band, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Experimental, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Vocal Music, World Music
Marie Daulne of Zap Mama
By Dennis Polkow
Marie Daulne, founder and lead singer of the Afropop female group Zap Mama, has always straddled two continents. She never knew her European father; he was killed at the hands of Simba rebels in the Congo, where Daulne was born and from where she, her mother and sisters escaped to live in her father’s native Belgium.
One of Daulne’s primary influences growing up was Afrobeat and Fela Kuti. “All Africans living in Europe listened to him,” she says. She even saw Kuti perform as a teenager and was delighted years later when she was living in New York and “Fela!” opened on Broadway. “Prior to that, the most African thing on Broadway was ‘The Lion King’! I returned to the show several times to see Antibalas perform.” Antibalas is the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat ensemble that arranged and performed all of the music for “Fela!,” modeled on Kuti’s own Africa 70 band. Read the rest of this entry »
Big Band, Blues, Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Holiday Music, Interviews, Jazz, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, R&B, Reggae, Rock, Soul, Vocal Music
Alfreda Burke and Rodrick Dixon
By Dennis Polkow
“We’re both preachers’ kids,” says soprano Alfreda Burke of herself and husband, tenor Rodrick Dixon. “And as classical singers, we had both done our share of traditional Handel ‘Messiah’ performances.”
For the past ten years, however, the couple has been headlining the “Too Hot to Handel: A Jazz-Gospel Messiah,” each Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend at the Auditorium Theatre. With the Auditorium celebrating its 125th anniversary this season and these being the tenth anniversary Chicago performances of “Too Hot to Handel,” Burke says “this is going to be a very festive celebration this time around.”
“It really started with [conductor] Marin Alsop in New York City with the Concordia Orchestra,” explains Dixon, who became familiar with the piece by being asked to substitute for Thomas Young, the work’s original tenor. “Marin had commissioned it from Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson, to do a whole rearrangement of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ with a modern twist that kept the famous melodies that people have come to love all over the world, except modernizing them in the sense of jazz, gospel, blues and some cinematic orchestration ideas that Bob and Gary were very well known for in New York.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Dennis Polkow
“When we started, the world knew me only as a jazz trumpet player,” admits Orbert Davis, the founder and artistic director of the sixty-piece Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this season. “Even the musicians were like, ‘What is he going to do, standing up there? He’s not a conductor!’ When we did our first recording, some of the sub musicians looked around and said, ‘Who wrote this?’ ‘I did!’ ”
Davis’ vision of a full-scale “third stream” ensemble has evolved over the past decade. “We think of the first stream, which is classical, and the second stream, which is jazz, but it’s difficult to understand how they come together; we tend to think of what keeps them apart.” Originally the orchestra featured both classical and jazz musicians, and the school each belonged to was obvious. Now the members have synthesized into a core group who “get it,” Davis asserts. “They are a community. I can reference [Ellington’s] ‘Jubilee Stomp’ or a Beethoven symphony and everyone knows what I’m asking for!” Read the rest of this entry »
“Sketches of Spain” is a masterful collaboration by Miles Davis and Gil Evans that has been deconstructed, imitated and recreated by countless musicians over the years, but few have had the audacity to create a new adaptation that would include new material arranged for a philharmonic orchestra. But Chicago-born trumpeter, composer and arranger Orbert Davis (no relation to Miles) stepped up to the plate with a fantastic take on the classic.
The album begins with a seventeen-minute version of “Concierto de Aranjuez” that is faithful to Evans’ original arrangement but completely revisited for an orchestra format. The bandleader performs an accomplished solo that does not copy Miles Davis’ take but retains many of its sonic elements. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Jeffrey Dupuis
Even those who aren’t typically into New Orleans jazz or brass band music will invariably swivel their hips when introduced to the Rebirth Brass Band. The band’s blend of brass, jazz, contemporary r&b and hip-hop have made them a staple of the New Orleans music scene for three decades and, after a stint on HBO’s love letter to NOLA “Treme,” a crossover hit with fans around the world. Read the rest of this entry »
There was a time when it was natural for show tunes to make their way to the pop realm—singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra all borrowed songs written for the stage and turned them into standards—including “On the Street Where You Live” (from “My Fair Lady”) recorded by Nat King Cole; “Luck Be a Lady” (from “Guys and Dolls”), a hit for Sinatra; ‘Till There Was You” (from “The Music Man”) famously covered by The Beatles; and of course “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (from “Evita”), a tune overplayed even before Madonna got her hands on it.
Nowadays it is unlikely for such songs to contribute to the Hot 100 even with the help of heavyweights like Bono or Elton John—the business has just changed too dramatically for that to happen (do you really hear anyone belting out “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” at your local karaoke bar?). That doesn’t mean that some tunes don’t deserve to be heard by non-musical theater fans, and that is where Billy Porter comes in. Read the rest of this entry »
By Dennis Polkow
Columbia College is honoring its first-ever full-time faculty member and the legendary founder of its music department, the late William Russo, with a two-day festival called “Celebrating William Russo: Artist & Educator.”
A Chicago native, Russo’s influence and legacy must be measured in decades and across genres and disciplines. Having studied with pianist Lennie Tristano as a boy, Russo was composing music of his own as a teenager and soon leading jazz bands.
Although Russo joined Stan Kenton’s forty-piece Innovations Orchestra as a trombonist in the early 1950s, he ushered in a pioneering style of orchestral jazz as arranger and composer for that ensemble that remains unparalleled.
Iconic Russo works such as “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West” and “Frank Speaking”—both of which will be performed as part of a December 7 concert of Russo’s works at the Jazz Showcase—spotlight Russo’s fascination with cross-fertilizing multiple forms.
“People may not realize how much of a surprising and interesting influence Bill has been on American music,” assesses bluesman Corky Siegel, himself one who loves to bridge musical worlds, and who considers Russo his mentor in doing so. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s that time of year again, when artists of pretty much every genre do everything possible to grab your attention with new recordings of holiday classics. From major stars like Kelly Clarkson to obscure indie bands—everybody wants a piece of the holiday action. Last year, my roundup contained quite a few compilations and original releases, but this time I will keep it short and point out two favorites that came across my desk during this joyous season.
First on the list is Grammy-nominated jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon, whose “Christmas” collection features familiar favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” but man, does she swing those tunes, freely improvising around the melodies with the help of the John Brown Big Band, who expertly add their own nuanced grooves. This is not your traditional singer-backed-by-a-big-band disc. In tracks like “Spiritual Medley,” the arrangements are quite subtle, while things get hot with Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” and even “Silent Night,” is subjected to a Gospel treatment. The album closes with a New Orleans take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” that immediately gets your feet tapping. Read the rest of this entry »