Sonic pleasures - Marsalis and Barenboim marshal their forces for outstanding Ellington tribute

There has been no shortage of Duke Ellington tributes this year, but few have marshaled quite so many resources – or used them as ingeniously – as the program in Symphony Center this week.

The very sight of the combined forces of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra suggested that an enormous range of sound and a provocative juxtaposition of musical styles were about, to unfold. Moreover, with CSO music director Daniel Barenboim and LCJO music director Wynton Marsalis leading their respective ensembles (Barenboim from the podium, Marsalis from the trumpet section), this event clearly was intended to be something more than a routine, Third Stream affair. In fact, in its unabashed merging of distinct musical traditions, the performance often recalled Ives’ Fourth Symphony, which similarly places European symphonic and American brass traditions on the same stage at the same time.

Though none of the repertoire that the CSO and LCJO performed was quite so avant-garde as Ives’ score, which revels in collisions between symphonic strings and marching-band brass, the Barenboim-Marsalis evening carried sonic pleasures of a subtler kind.

The first half of Thursday’s concert offered a profound lesson in swing, with the two ensembles alternating in performing select movements from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” suites. With each ensemble seemingly trying to live up to the expectations of the others, both bands turned in excep tional work (though a couple of LCJO brass players produced a few technical gaffes in solos).

To hear the graceful waltz that drives the “Anitra’s Dance” movement of “Peer Gynt,” dispatched with exquisitely subtle rubato by Barenboim and the CSO strings, was to savor the spirit of romantic-period European dance rhythm. But the three-quarter time of the 19th Century was answered, in sonically robust terms, by the propulsive swing rhythm of the 20th. In the Ellington-Strayhorn version of “Anitra’s Dance,” Marsalis’ band leaned hard on syncopated accents, aggressively pushed rhythms forward and produced a unanimity of attack and phrase that epitomized what American swing and blues vernacular are all about.

To this listener’s ears, the jazz “Peer Gynt” is more Ellington than Strayhorn, and Marsalis and friends emphasized the point with full-bodied orchestral sound, an emphasis on low-register voicing and a ferocious rhythmic drive. But the first half of the program amounted to a curtain-raiser for the second, with the two ensembles joining forces in Ellington compositions orchestrated by Marsalis.

Like most of Marsalis’ large-scale works, these offered witty, mercurial and unabashedly idiosyncratic part writing. The plunger-muted growls and rasps that Marsalis played in the bolero-inspired “Afro Bossa (Bula),” the crisp dialogue between bassoons and double-basses in “Blues in Blueprint” and the intricate pictorial detail in “Happy Go Lucky Local” attested to the increasing virtuosity of Marsalis’ pen.

But the tour de force was Marsalis’ new orchestration of Ellington’s “Harlem,” retitled “A Tone Parallel to Harlem,” which conveyed considerably more instrumental detail and refinement of color than the Luther Henderson version of the same work. Marsalis’ cunning use of inner-voice dissonance, constantly shifting orchestral textures and New Orleans-style counterpoint should make his re-orchestration the preferred version in symphony halls everywhere.
The concert will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

By Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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