Chicago Jazz Orchestra Review – A Tour de Force Performance of American Masterpieces

What an ambitious program! What talent! What reverence for phenomenal artistic material! The Chicago Jazz Orchestra did it all. Right there, in a more than sold out Pick-Staiger Concert Hall (honestly, people we sitting in place that weren’t places and happy to be there!), we were mesmerized, surprised, amused and astonished by spectacularly fine music.

Chicago Jazz Orchestra

The program got off to a slow start. Northwestern Alum and Associate Artistic Director, Charley Harrison arrangements, “The Kicker” and the “Bill Evans Suite” and Charley Harrison’s “A Bowl by Any Other Name…” (written the year NU went to the Rose Bowl) were intriguing and melodic but were too short to give the orchestra the traction it needed  to show off the its depth and range.

Charley Harrison, Associate Artistic Director and Conductor, Guitar

And Frieda Lee’s vocal, “Pure Imagination,” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, left us wanting more.

Frieda Lee

The fireworks came when Anthony Molinaro came to the piano.  Nothing in the previous program prepared us for the gravitas he personally invested in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The masterful orchestration by Charley Harrison and innovative arrangement by Molinaro had the huge audience riveted to every note. From the very beginning—when Molinaro dropped the signature wail of the clarinet (gasp!)—throughout the tempo and mood changes, the originality of the improvisation was complemented by the orchestra’s power here, tenderness there. Nobody in the hall moved.  I think some people stopped breathing.  Thank goodness it was followed by an intermission! (During which everybody in the hall rushed out to buy CDs. Molinaro's  Blue CD sold out.)

Anthony Molinaro

Jeff Lindberg's turn came after the intermission, when we were presented with Nelson Riddle’s 1958 Grammy-winner, Cross Country Suite, a piece so seldom performed that many of the movements were provided by the Nelson Riddle estate (Rosemary Acerra) and Buddy DeFranco.  One in particular, “Smoky Mountain Country,” was edited and transcribed by Lindberg, a Professor of Music at the College of Wooster.  One of a new breed of American conductors equally adept with the literatures of the American jazz orchestra  and the European symphony orchestra,  Lindberg invited the Northwestern student orchestra to join the CJO for this multi-faceted eleven-movement piece.

Jeff Lindberg, Artistic Director and Conductor

Director of Northwestern’s Jazz Studies Program, Victor Goines’ clarinet provided the unifying texture of each location in the suite.  Some movements were wild and melodic. “The Great Plains,” called up images of wheat fields swaying in the wind; “Gulf Coast” the sweet, bourbon-y essence of pre-Katrina New Orleans. And when we arrived at “The Mississippi,” we had yet again another surprise— Howard Levy, who does impossible things with the harmonica. His lyrical duet with Goines carried us downstream with Huck Finn and paddle wheel showboats.

Victor Goines, Director NU Jazz Studies Program

The movements that followed were equally captivating.  Some had such a heroic, noble tone, they were reminiscent of Copeland. And the last movement, “Long Horn,” even required the orchestra to sing along.  The human voice is an instrument, too!

This performance was the final concert in the Northwestern University Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music’s 2009 spring festival, “Collaboration Exultation: A Festival of Musical Connections.”

Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University

A personal note:  Luckily, I was seated next to two friendly jazz DJ’s: Linda Hall, WHPK-88.5 FM (on the air from 2-4 pm. Sundays) and James Walker, Jr. , WNUA 95.5 FM (on the air Sundays from 10 pm to midnight and  Linda introduced me to A. Alyce Claerbaut, Executive Director of the CJO and niece of Billy Strayhorn as well as Charley Harrison’s father, Charles Harrison II.  Now I’d like to introduce them to you.  Add them to your presets.

On May 3, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra presents its last concert of this season at the DuSable Museum of African History. For more information, visit

Photos: Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Victor Goines and Northwestern University, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall

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