Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Bridge Builder: Celebrating Jazz Composer William Russo for his Eclecticism and Influence

Big Band, Chicago Artists, Festivals, Jazz No Comments »

By Dennis PolkowWilliam Russo

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 »

Record Reviews: New Takes on Holiday Classics

Big Band, Holiday Music, Jazz, Orchestral, Pop, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »

nnennafreelonandjohnbrowIt’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 »

Preview: Hyde Park Jazz Festival

Big Band, Chicago Artists, Festivals, Jazz No Comments »
Dee Alexander, Photo by Jim Newberry

Dee Alexander/Photo: Jim Newberry

RECOMMENDED

High expectations for a festival in the neighborhood where the current President of the United States makes his home is a given. That the festival actually delivers on these expectations is quite remarkable, especially since there are no truly big names scheduled to perform. Instead, the focus is sharply attuned to the local free jazz scene. Perhaps the support of the festival’s lead and founding sponsor, the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, had an impact on the amount of research done to cater such an excellent set of Chicago musicians. Now in their seventh year, the festival opens with a panel devoted to the legendary Sun Ra, whose earliest Chicago performances often took place in the now defunct Club DeLisa nestled in the far less affluent, adjacent Washington Park neighborhood. To be sure, the University has done much to market to a broad range of Chicagoans, hence the importance of the inclusion of the DuSable Museum, and Little Black Pearl in Kenwood as venues for performances. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Hayley Sings” by Rachael MacFarlane

Big Band, Jazz, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

Rachael MacFarlane is best known because of her famous last name (her brother is Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane) and various voiceover roles; few have been aware of her singing chops, at least until now.

On “Hayley Sings” (Concord), she runs through a series of jazz standards backed by a big band, including “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Someone To Watch Over Me,” which she nails with the expertise of a weathered torch singer. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Multiverse” by Bobby Sanabria Big Band

Afro-Cuban, Big Band, Jazz, Latin, Record Reviews, World Music No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

Master percussionist,  maestro and drummer Bobby Sanabria might come from a classic Latin jazz background (he played with both Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente and was a featured musician on the soundtrack for the 1992 film “Mambo Kings”), but that doesn’t stop him from innovating within the format. A clear example of this is “Multiverse,” which takes the music into unexpected directions starting from a very interesting take on Don Ellis’ “The French Connection,” which was the main theme for the Gene Hackman movie of the same name. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Sweepin’ the Clouds Away” by the Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra

Big Band, Jazz, Pop, Record Reviews No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

A half a century ago, Johnny Crawford was a teenage idol charting Top Ten hits such as “Cindy’s Birthday” and “Rumors” and playing Chuck Connors’ son on the popular western ABC television series, “The Rifleman,” which remains a daily dinnertime staple of Chicago-based MeTV. Crawford also sang on the show (and as an original Mouseketeer before that) and recorded five albums.

Still, none of that prepared me for the shock that I had upon first hearing his new album, “Sweepin’ the Clouds Away.” A vintage recreation of authentic dance band arrangements from the 1920s and 1930s, “Sweepin’ the Clouds Away” is a collection of live tracks of the Los Angeles-based Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra, an eleven-piece collective formed in 1990 following Crawford’s stint as the vocalist of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks Orchestra. With Crawford as leader/vocalist, the Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra painstakingly seeks to perform music of that elegant bygone era, paying careful attention to the performance practices of the time. A fixture at Hollywood celebrity parties and entertainment industry functions, this is the group’s first album. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Basie Meets Ellington: Chicago Jazz Orchestra & the Count Basie Orchestra

Big Band, Jazz No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

As the Big Band era waned, record companies were ever on the lookout for publicity stunts that would grab public attention, and 1961’s pairing of the Kansas City sound of the Count Basie Orchestra and the New York sound of the Duke Ellington Big Band on “First Time! The Count Meets the Duke” (Columbia) would be the equivalent of having a jam session between say, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the early 1980s, had that been possible. In the Big Band era, Ellington was The Beatles, to be sure, but in a new millennium when both the Count and the Duke have long departed but when there is still a Basie Orchestra that has been playing the Count’s own charts for decades, this pairing of that group’s actual descendents and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra temporarily taking the A Train, as it were, and playing Ellington covers, is hardly a fair “Battle of the Big Bands,” as this is being billed, but the result will be a rare chance to hear a bunch of classic charts of the era played by top-notch live acts. Read the rest of this entry »