With each passing year, William Russo's Chicago Jazz Ensemble becomes increasingly vital to this city's musical landscape.
Moreover, the season-opening concert that the orchestra played Wednesday night at Columbia College Chicago, where it is in residence, suggested that the band is reaching a new artistic level. The fervency and commitment of this performance, as well as its technical acuity, could only come from a top-rank ensemble with a signature sound and style.
After several years of developing and expanding its repertoire, the CJE now sounds unlike any other comparable group. Ultimately, it may have only one real peer: the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis.
That the CJE acquitted itself so well on this occasion probably should not have come as a surprise, since much of the evening was devoted to music from the repertory of Stan Kenton's bands. In the 1950s, Russo served as trombonist and composer-arranger in Kenton's organization, so his knowledge of that ensemble and its repertoire is as comprehensive as it is intimate.
But the CJE never had devoted so much of an evening's program to the Kenton book, nor revealed as much about its expressive breadth. In part, the Kenton theme was designed to heighten awareness of the CJE's new recording, "Kenton a la Russo."
Even in a whimsical piece such as "Shoo Fly Pie," the sheer amount of musical detail that these artists provided was startling. To hear vocalist Bobbi Wilsyn's saucy lines answered by trumpeter David Young's gauzy blues phrases (with plunger mute) was to realize that no piece of music is a mere throwaway to these performers.
The Wagnerian orchestral swells that Russo drew from the band in Kenton's "Eager Beaver" and the heroic scale on which Russo cast his reading of "Artistry in Rhythm" and "Artistry Jumps" would have served as a fine grand finale. But the fireworks had just begun.
For the second half of the program, guest conductor-trumpeter Buddy Childers (another Kenton alum) presided over several showpieces. None was more viscerally exciting than "Resist," from a rarely heard Russo jazz requiem titled "In Memoriam." Judging by Childers' rendition, the work ought to be heard in full. The screaming dissonance, airborne swing passages and bristling dialogue between solo trumpet and orchestra underscored the originality of Russo's writing.
And if the trombones sounded a bit rough in the opening passages of Russo's "23:N/82:W," the band quickly recovered, with characteristically propulsive Latin percussion by the great Alejo Poveda.
Chicago Jazz Ensemble will repeat this program Friday at Wheaton College and Sunday at DuSable Museum of African American History; phone 312-344-6245.
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