For a few minutes, it could have been any other string quartet. The musicians sat poised in their chairs facing the conductor. A violin came in with a descending melody, and one by one the other instruments echoed the same tune in shifting harmonies. But after several times through the theme, a ride cymbal started to land on every beat. A few bars more and the drummer began to swing the rhythm, an upright bass started to walk below it, and a horn section came in around the strings with full-on jazz chords.
Last Saturday night at the University of Chicago’s International House marked the debut performance of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble. Under the artistic direction of composer and trumpet player Orbert Davis, the thirteen-member ensemble brings together some of the best talent from the larger Chicago Jazz Philharmonic to play smaller arrangements that blend jazz and classical influences. Saturday night’s program built the bridge across genres from both ends. After a modern rendition of Mozart, the ensemble played lush string arrangements of jazz standards, and contemporary pieces by Davis and legendary Chicago arranger Bill Russo.
The play between styles went well beyond the piece selection and into the live performance itself. Davis often played his trumpet with one hand and directed the accompaniment with the other. At moments where the score called for improvisation, he walked entirely off the stage and let the musicians lead each other. The crowd of a few hundred was appreciative, and their reactions followed the music across genres. The audience sat still and attentive through the classical sections, but when the rhythm loosened, so did the atmosphere, and throughout the darkened room heads started to nod and feet started to tap. During the noisiest sections of free improvisation, several kids in the audience bounced wildly in their seats; when the flute player stood up and delivered an astonishing reproduction of a Charlie Parker solo, most of the audience had a similar reaction.
There was a lot to talk about after the performance, but words weren’t the important part. In a question and answer session following the concert, Davis tried to resolve some of the tensions that arise in bringing musical traditions together. “With this music,” he said, “we need to let go of the boundaries and let it be what it is.”