Chicago Jazz Philharmonic engagingly bridges the genres in “Third Stream” homage

Sat Feb 07, 2015 at 10:56 am

By Jack Zimmerman

Orbert Davis led the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic in a “Third Stream” program Friday night at Symphony Center.

Midway between the birth of jazz and the present day, composer, conductor and deep thinker Gunther Schuller coined the term “Third Stream.” Schuller was lecturing at Brandeis University in 1957 and came up with the label in an effort to describe a new genre that drew equally from the mainstream European Classical tradition and mainstream jazz.

Of course, purists of both disciplines were appalled. But six decades later, the idea of a jazz and classical fusion is hardly troubling to fans and practitioners of either music.

Trumpeter-composer Orbert Davis and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic offered a Third Stream gala Friday night at Symphony Center, celebrating the presence of the 89-year-old Schuller as well as the tenth anniversary of the ensemble. The program–titled “The Godfather of Third Stream: Gunther Schuller”–traced the development of the genre from its origins to the present with works by Schuller, Orbert Davis, William Russo, and a newly commissioned work (the first-ever by the CJP) by Swiss-born composer-saxophonist Daniel Schnyder.

The first half of the program, ran just 34 minutes, with an Orbert Davis piece based on a Puccini aria dropped at the last minute. No matter, the evening offered plenty of engaging music and opened with a brief Russo piece, Resist.

Davis, who furnished numerous trumpet solos throughout the night and conducted the CJP from the podium, is also a composer of considerable prowess. His five-movement suite, The Chicago River, was represented with  an excerpt, “Brewing the Toxic Stew.” This single movement describes the river at its most toxic and vile and is a captivating bit of musical portraiture.

The final piece in the first half was “El Moreno” the third movement of an Orbert Davis reimagining of the 1960 Miles Davis-Gil Evans Third-Stream classic Sketches of Spain.

Orbert Davis’ trumpet work is much more muscular and exuberant than what Miles recorded 55 years ago. His playing is immediately engaging – impossible not to like. Tenor saxophonist Steve Eisen offered a blazing take-no-prisoners solo and guitarist (acoustic guitar for this piece) John Moulder summoned plenty of Iberian ambiance.

After intermission Davis and the 55-member CJP tackled two extended pieces, bookends in Third Stream history. Written for the Modern Jazz Quartet, Schuller’s Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra is an early piece in three movements that contained some wonderful orchestral sounds. Friday night it offered virtuosic solo work by Justin Thomas on vibes, Leandro Lopez Varady, piano; Stewart Miller, bass; and Ernie Adams, drums. This night, Thomas on vibes was clearly the audience favorite.

Listening to this early Schuller piece in 2015 makes one wonder what was once so troubling about jazz and classical influences present in the same composition. Schuller, though, was there and in his brief after-intermission remarks explained that there was considerable outrage, which didn’t subside for at least a decade. (The composer was honored with an official proclamation from Mayor Rahm Emanuel making February 6, 2015 Gunther Schuller Day in Chicago.)

The evening concluded with the commissioned work, Suite for Jazz Band and Orchestra by Daniel Schnyder, a sprawling seven-movement piece with the composer providing soprano and tenor sax solos throughout. His second movement, a lush, dreamy landscape with Schnyder’s tenor weaving a fabric of stunning melody was particularly memorable. Schnyder’s work is an ambitious piece with each movement creating its own sound world. The orchestra was challenged with restless, shifting meters and some screamingly fast tempi, and navigated the thicket of difficulties admirably.

Schnyder, who for a time was the Milwaukee Symphony’s composer-in-residence, will see his opera, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird premiere in June with Opera Philadelphia.

Jack Zimmerman grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago and has worked as a parking lot attendant, dock hand, college instructor, piano tuner, trombone player and as public relations man for the Ravinia Festival and Lyric Opera of Chicago. He spent four years in the Navy during the Vietnam War and in his middle years, authored 2,300 newspaper columns. New Leaf Books published his first novel, Gods of the Andes, in 2006 and his recent mystery-thriller, Cooked, in 2014. His spoken-word CD, The Gift, was released in 2012 and won the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Arts Achievement Award.

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