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 »
Dee Alexander/Photo: Jim Newberry
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »