CSO Goes Jazzical And Gets Scorched: Part I

Jazz is only a word and has no meaning . . . I don’t know how such great extremes as now exist can be contained under the one heading ~ Duke Ellington

Ok, well the Chicago Symphony Orchestra didn’t get scorched in the literal sense, but it was an evening filled with Jazz inspired classical music. Over the weekend, the CSO performed Three Black Kings by Duke Ellington and SCORCHED by Mead Composer-in-Residence, Mark-Anthony Turnage.  The CSO was joined by Jazz greats John Scofield, John Patitucci, Peter Erskine, Willie Pickens, and Donald Harrison, Jr. It was a rare and amazing experience.

Symphony orchestras rarely perform compositions that are jazz inspired. In fact, these works were the very first performance for the CSO, and SCORCHED made its US premiere. So, in the fall when I saw these works listed as one of the programs, I just knew I had to go to this particular concert.  These are the concerts I most enjoy at the CSO. Not that there is a problem with listening to more traditional works, but these performances of rarely performed works are the ones I enjoy the most.  I mean, come on… when was the last time you saw an orchestra performing with John Scofield and John Patitucci?

Ellington’s Three Black Kings

The concert began with Three Black Kings, which happened to be Duke Ellington’s final composition.  In fact, Ellington didn’t complete the work, his son, Mercer, completed the work.  The work is orchestrated for Jazz trio – piano, drums, and alto sax – and orchestra.  Each movement was inspired by a different “black king”: 1) King of the Magi, 2) King Solomon 3) Martin Luther King.

The program notes include the following description about the work:

Three Black Kings, a commission from the Dance Theatre of Harlem, was inspired by a stained-glass window Ellington saw in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, the great Catalan Gothic cathedral in the Ribera district of Barcelona, when one of his Sacred Concerts was performed there. Reflecting the window’s depiction of three biblical kings, Ellington eventually conceived his own triptych. The opening movement, in the words of Mercer, “represents Balthazar, the black king of the Magi. King Solomon is next, with the song of jazz and perfume and dancing girls and all that; then the dirge for Dr. King.” Three Black Kings was first performed on April 29, 1976-the date that would have been Duke Ellington’s seventy-seventh birthday.

I really wasn’t familiar with Ellington’s orchestral works.  Three Black Kings had really great moments, and those that probably would have been revised and expanded on had Ellington lived longer.  What is clear is that Ellington had a distinct musical language clearly able to combine elements of jazz within a traditional classical framework. All in all, Three Black Kings is a great introduction to a master’s orchestral repertoire. I wish I could get my hands on an orchestral score to take a closer look. I look forward to listening to others.

More to come about Scorched and my final take of the concert…

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