Contempo’s Contemporary/Jazz Crossover
January 29, 2010
By Jesse McQuarters, critic
Crossover concerts that meld different kinds of music often walk a fine line between accessibility and authenticity. At one extreme, they’re watered-down versions of the original that offend the purists and lose some of the qualities that made a particular genre of music attractive in the first place. At their best, audiences come for one reason, and have their horizons opened up to new experiences and other types of music.
Contempo’s recent performance at the Harris Theater, “Double-Bill: Where Jazz and Contemporary Music Intersect,” falls mostly into the latter category, combining three recently-composed pieces by Shawn Brogan Allison, Bernard Rands, and Yu-Hui Chang with a piano-sax jazz set by Chris Potter and Kenny Werner.
The University of Chicago-based Contempo has contemporary music down to a science; talented, very technically capable performers play the well-programmed music with authority and élan. Rands’ piece was particularly interesting, setting short sections of Sappho texts that, while fragmentary, flowed from one to the next in an artistically logical way. A word or concept from one fragment would overlap into the next, providing continuity and progression to the piece. Soprano Susanne Mentzer was joined by a soprano and alto who provided a Greek-style chorus as counterpoint, as well as a chamber orchestra led by an unengaging Cliff Colnot. The musicians and singers explored this ‘sandbox of sound’ with energy and exacting attention to detail.
The only time the concert truly faltered was when Mentzer came back on stage to provide the literal “crossover” point- a piano and voice version of Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” which has been sung with distinctive panache by Ella, Sarah, and even June Christy, to name just a few. In doing research for this article, I came across videos of Mentzer, who could certainly sing her heart out with the best of them when dealing with Mozart, Puccini, or even the newer music earlier in the program. Her performance of the Weill, though, fit the music like a square peg in a round hole. A beautiful song lost nearly all its beauty through a too-fast tempo, bad mic technique, too much vibrato, and an overwhelmingly classical approach that didn’t fit its jazz/Weimar Republic sensibilities.
Saxophonist Chris Potter and pianist Kenny Werner provided a breath of fresh air after that, giving the audience a fluent set of free-form jazz improvisation using mostly their own compositions as starting points. Though they lacked some of the interactivity that can make this lifting of harmonic and formal boundaries truly enrapturing, they did an outstanding job of speaking the same language and engaging each other and the audience. They ended on a particularly strong note with a trance-like raga with fiery solos and an exciting buildup to the return of the tune.