Jazz meets contemporary classical at UC show
January 18, 2010
By Andrew Patner, critic
Rands Chicago premiere and Werner/Potter duo reunion are highlights
Contemporary “classical” music fans and jazz-heads have a lot in common but they rarely intersect. Both groups are demanding, curious, knowledgeable, and focused listeners. But often the contemporary crew doesn’t “get” improvisation and the jazz crowd can find contemporary art music too academic or restricted.
The University of Chicago’s Contempo Contemporary Chamber Players have been trying for several years to bring these musics and their audiences together and at least get the dialogue going. Though each of these annual concerts have featured great performers with terrific presentations, Saturday night’s was the most successful pairing to date. The types of works and the spirit of the players fit together and even made a kind of serendipitous whole.
Central to the new music half was the Chicago première of the 2006 ‘now again’ — fragments from Sappho by American composer Bernard Rands. Rands, who turns 76 in a few weeks, has made Chicago his home in recent years and might also be the composer with the closest relationship with Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director designate Riccardo Muti, having been Muti’s composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra for three years and speaking fluent Italian. All of this is great news for Chicago, and Rands already has a new orchestral work coming for Muti’s first CSO season.
The 17-minute Sappho piece shows Rands’s welcome marriage of precise technique and sensuous lyricism and scoring. Former Chicago mezzo Susanne Mentzer sang fragments (in Paul Roche’s English translations) from the great ancient Greek celebrator of the love between women with a cool but darkly meditative consistency. Fine local singers Amy Conn and Nina Heebink were equal part Greek and alternative theater choruses. Five members of Chicago’s own eighth blackbird joined by three other players offered the ravishing score impeccably under Cliff Colnot’s direction.
U. of C. doctoral student Shawn Brogan Allison’s 2009 Towards the Flame opened the concert with its playful and inventive movements inspire by, of all things, the lives of moths played by four blackbirders. Blackbird percussionist Matthew Duvall was the superb one-man band we are used to in Yu-Hui Chang’s 10-minute 2007 Binge Delirium, although what the rather obvious-sounding piece itself contributed was lost on me.
Pianist Kenny Werner, 58, and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, 39, are revered by other jazz musicians, and no wonder. These are technically accomplished wizards with tremendous musical vocabularies that range across genres, methods, and continents. Werner was once Potter’s teacher at the Manhattan School of Music, yet their communication is that of colleagues and mutual mind readers, not mentor and protégé. Their joint approach — an intellectual understanding of music that leads to a free, atmospheric, and playful performance style — was a perfect complement to the goals of the program’s first half.
Offering six original works, each half-charted, half-improvised, the two men both entertained and challenged the large audience at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. One piece, transcribed by Potter from an Indian raga, seemed to wrap Olivier Messiaen’s mystical “classical” explorations, Lester Young’s smooth tone, and Art Tatum’s keyboard mastery into one amazing three-part whole. And when was the last time you saw a jazz pianist bopping so happily at his instrument while wearing a beret?