Beloved Styles, Crossing and Colliding

For months the American Composers Orchestra has been touting an adventurous collaborative program with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. But as the concert on Thursday night at the Rose Theater showed, bold collaborations are sometimes easier to plan than to pull off.

The linchpin was still George Gershwin, a pioneer in bridging the worlds of the jazz club, the musical theater house and the concert hall. And the major offering took place as planned: the premiere of “The Migration Series,” an ambitious 30-minute work by the composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel, who, in the spirit of Gershwin, has moved among the worlds of jazz, rock and classical contemporary music. The premiere was conducted by Steven Sloane, who presided effectively over the entire program.

But a spokeswoman for the American Composers Orchestra said that Mr. Bermel’s piece had proved so time-consuming to rehearse that three heralded works had been dropped at the last minute, including Charles Mingus’s “Revelations” and John Lewis’s “Milano,” both seldom-heard scores by jazz giants.

Instead the combined ensembles added several Gershwin songs to an announced group, mostly in arrangements by Nelson Riddle. Patti Austin was the alluring vocalist in “By Strauss,” “Embraceable You” and “Lady Be Good.”

Still, despite the brilliance of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, music director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and of the other virtuosic musicians in this ensemble, there was something smug about the playing of the instrumental selections. It seems unfair to knock staid symphony orchestras for preserving the classics when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra sometimes seems comparably stuck in the past. Moreover, for 45 minutes the members of the American Composers Orchestra were reduced to adding some string parts to band arrangements.

Mr. Bermel’s “Migration Series” was inspired by the set of paintings by Jacob Lawrence depicting the migration from the South to the North by African-Americans in the early 20th century. The work opens with a moody episode built atop a repetitive descending bass riff, with plaintive harmonies and sinewy solo lines. When he scores bluesy brass chords, Mr. Bermel spikes them effectively with gnarly modernist dissonance. There were riveting passages that combined choralelike harmonies with unhinged rhythms; a bleakly comic episode in which the brass players from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra evoked a wondrous gaggle of squawking, whining and pleading human voices.

The program ended with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in what the program misleadingly called the “original version.” The version presented did hew to the original 1924 scoring for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band with supplemental strings. But the soloist, the pianist Marcus Roberts, presented a very free take on the work, with plenty of opportunities for him and the other members of his trio (the bassist Roland Guerin and the drummer Jason Marsalis) to improvise.

Mr. Roberts is an arresting artist. Blindness has not hindered his ability to leap fearlessly about the keyboard. Still, this was more accurately a riff on Gershwin’s rhapsody and, for what it’s worth, not what had been advertised.

The Gershwin program ends tonight at the Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street; (212) 721-6500;

by Anthony Tommasini
Source: The New York Times

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