Musicians Pay Tribute to Composer William Russo in Chicago
Posted 12/11/2013

The Jazz Showcase in Chicago was the site of a Dec. 7 tribute to William Russo, the jazz composer and arranger who passed away in 2003. The concert featured special guests alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, trumpeter Orbert Davis and harmonica player Corky Siegel performing with the Columbia College Jazz Ensemble (CCJE), a band comprised of undergraduate students.

In 1999, Russo co-created the CCJE with Scott Hall, who heads up jazz studies at Columbia and also directs the ensemble. Russo’s importance as an educator cannot be overstated. In 1965, he founded the music department at Columbia College, where he stayed until he retired in 2002. The presence of quite a few former students in the audience testified to the high esteem in which he was held.

A series of events honoring Russo, held on Dec. 6–7, included a film screening, a panel discussion and the concert. The homage to Russo comes at an interesting time since the future of one of his main legacies, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, remains uncertain.

The connections between the three guests are obvious to jazz fans. Konitz and Russo both studied with pianist Lennie Tristano and later worked for Stan Kenton in the early 1950s. Russo was instrumental in furthering Davis’ and Siegel’s careers.

The concert opened with two Kenton staples. The Cuban song “Peanut Vendor” became a Kenton signature piece and “Frank Speaking” is a piece that Russo wrote as a vehicle for trombonist Frank Rosolino. The orchestra appropriately rendered the latter’s luscious voicings, leaving to Xavier Galdon the less-than-envious task of tackling the trombone solo parts. The piece served as a reminder of how Russo’s music could be challenging to execute yet easy on the ear. The band returned to a Latin feel with another Russo composition, “23º North 82º West” (Havana’s coordinates), before launching into Duke Ellington’s “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” from the overlooked Deep South Suite.

Favoring a small-group setting, Konitz only performed one piece with the full orchestra—a Russo arrangement of the classic ballad “Lover Man.” It seemed that his distinctive and unusual way of swinging was received with a mix of admiration and apprehension by his young cohorts. This resulted in some onstage miscommunication involving pianist Justin Bowse during their treatment of Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street,” where Konitz’s instructions and sung lines were destabilizing factors. On Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee,” however, the sextet came together. Alto saxophonist Alex Kerwin and trumpeter Parris Fleming did not stumble in the shadowing and dialoguing role they respectively took on.

Orbert Davis’ incisiveness and good humor gave a renewed confidence to the CCJE. His powerful and clear tone was evident on Russo’s “Blues Before And After.” The brightness and liveliness of the performance also offered a nice contrast to the Konitz portion of the evening.

Russo’s arrangement of “Autumn In New York” revealed another side of Davis—thoughtful and gracious. Davis ended his contribution with a rendition of “The Horn Blower”—a most fitting homage to the composer since he specifically wrote the piece for Davis. The solemn introduction gave way to spontaneity and candor following a tempo shift. Davis demonstrated an admirable use of dynamics, though the enthusiastic trumpet section sounded a tad too forceful.

“Corky,” the final segment of Russo’s Chicago Suite No. 2, is a piece Russo recorded shortly before he died, though it has yet to be released. Like “The Horn Blower,” it illustrates the burst of inspiration that Russo enjoyed in the 1990s. Here, his dedicatee, Siegel, imbued the piece with exhilarating boogie-woogie fervor. He built on the momentum Davis generated and showcased his fiery and gritty delivery.

For the grand finale, Davis joined Siegel for an impromptu blues and provided some more excitement trading fours with trumpeter Endre Rice across the stage. The audience surely left with the impression of a job well done.

Alain Drouot


In addition to performing at a concert, Lee Konitz also participated in a panel discussion dedicated to the composer William Russo. (Photo: Kent Richmond)

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