Chicago Philharmonic’s jazzed-up program proves a mixed holiday bag

Mon Dec 09, 2019 at 12:37 pm

By Michael Cameron

The Marcus Roberts Trio performed with the Chicago Philharmonic Sunday at the Harris Theater.

Tis the season when cozy familiarity is prized above all, and performers are eager to tap into this desire with programs of well-worn holiday chestnuts. Choirs dust off Handel’s Messiah en masse, and ballet companies balance their yearly books with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

Scott Speck and the Chicago Philharmonic brought the Marcus Roberts Trio and a program of well-known fare to the Harris Theater Sunday afternoon, but most of it was presented in works that dressed up the familiar in unusual garb.

English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor may deserve more attention than he receives, but his Christmas Overture isn’t likely to help his cause. The only interest in this mash-up of holiday tunes are the carols that were apparently once popular, but haven’t survived– at least on this side of the pond—to live on in  the genre of contemporary mall music. The re-harmonizations of a couple of melodies are only of passing interest, and the transitions are awkward and trite, even with the considerable sheen bestowed on them by Speck and company. 

Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons is a 12-movement piano work of short character pieces, each representing a single month of the calendar. They are well-known training pieces for young pianists, but here the single movement December was performed in an orchestration by Aleksander Gauk. Speck led a stylish, understated reading with subtle rubato in the Viennese waltz tradition. 

Duke Ellington was already a seasoned crossover composer in 1960 when he and collaborator Billy Strayhorn joined forces on a tongue-in-cheek re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, complete with new movement titles that better reflected the character of the transformations. Though usually performed by a big band alone, Speck chose a version that includes full strings, although little of musical substance was achieved with the addition.

There are nine movements in the suite, all of which were included in the program, though Speck announced from the podium that only five would be performed. The trio’s bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis (younger brother of Wynton and Branford) were positioned at the front of the stage while the jazz band component of the ensemble (the impressively versatile winds and brass members of the Philharmonic) remained at the back.

Despite superb playing from all involved, the separation of the rhythm section from the band (as well as uneven amplification) made for difficult listening. The brass section was only heard clearly in fortissimos, and much of the woodwind playing was barely audible, including crucial melodic passages. Since the tunes are familiar, listeners could no doubt fill in the blanks. But even in a light-hearted work such as this, the Ellington-Strayhorn orchestrations and re-harmonizations are a formidable achievement, yet too many details were swallowed in the mix for the work to be fully appreciated.

The Overture alternated scraps of the original melody with deftly crafted solo improvisations. “Toot Toot Tootie Toot” (Dance of the Reed-Pipes) is a bit slower than the original, and, like all of the suite, is n swing time. The main tune is split between three different instrumental groups, but parts of the melody didn’t project into the hall.

“Dance of the Floreadores” (Waltz of the Flowers) was a more intimate take on the original, though the final bars included some amusing brass blow-outs.

The most beguiling of the arrangements is “Sugar Rum Cherry” (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy), which is transformed into a sultry number reminiscent of Henry Mancini film music from the 1960’s. Marsalis used his hands in place of the sticks, while the lower registers of the saxophones and muted trumpets evoked states of inebriation in a smoky nightclub.

“Peanut Brittle Brigade” (March) contained some of the more amusing applications of jazz color, including dissonant touches in the final climactic bars. 

Gershwin’s Concerto in F may not be associated with the holiday season, but the trio’s unique approach nevertheless fit in well with the eclectic spirit of the evening. It’s not nearly as well known as the epoch-defining Rhapsody in Blue, but it showed the world that he was not a one-trick pony in the concerto genre. 

In their version, drums and bass joined with the pianist as soloists, though the latter did most of the heavy lifting. The addition of a rhythm section steered the concerto even closer to a bona fide jazz composition. 

Roberts showed ample chops in this challenging work, and not surprisingly his reading was imbued with an authenticity not heard in most performances. Some of the most memorable moments of the first two movements occurred when the original written cadenzas were extended into full-blown improvisational jams by the trio.

The finale was pumped up into an exhilarating romp, with the Philharmonic’s gleaming brass section providing ample heft, and Robert’s propulsive passage work leading to a rousing conclusion. 

The trio stuck with Gershwin for their encore, an imaginatively deconstructed arrangement of “I Got Rhythm.” Bassist Rodney Jordan, who had been relegated to the background for much of the concert, due in part to getting the short end of the under-powered amplification, contributed some tasty solo turns.

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