CJO Salutes Legends in New Digs


As part of Joshua Redman’s preparation for an upcoming tribute to Dexter Gordon, he did a lot of listening. Luckily, he said, “listening to Dexter Gordon is never homework.”

(Photo: Janna Giacoppo)

From a legendary Dexter Gordon session to saccharine Frank Sinatra standards, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra will offer new context to a few of the jazz genre’s pivotal recordings with the help of a new home base in the heart of Second City.

The orchestra will round out much of its 2017-2018 season in the friendly confines of the Studebaker Theatre—a departure from the variety of small performing arts venues it’s used in the past. Jeff Lindberg, CJO artistic director, said the remainder of the season was shaped with the new venue in mind; a mid-sized historic building with intimate seating, Vaudevillian ambience and stunning natural sound. The space also will provide a unique launchpad for additional one-off shows at smaller halls.

“Over the years, our programming has fluctuated,” said Travis Rosenthal, CJO executive director. “By creating our own series at the Studebaker, we can plan a higher volume of programming year to year, while being more creative and selective.”

The Studebaker will be put to the test during what likely is the benchmark of the season’s remaining programming, a March 25 celebration of Gordon’s 1979 Sophisticated Giant. Showcasing guest tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, the performance will showcase original transcriptions and include a 12-piece ensemble alongside the material’s original arranger, trombonist Slide Hampton.

While learning the material is an immense undertaking, Redman said, “listening to Dexter Gordon is never homework.”

“Studying for this test is going to be fun,” said Redman, who figures Sophisticated Giant as an ambitious project beyond the many Gordon recordings he already has transcribed. “I have learned so much, not just about saxophone playing, but the basic building blocks and idioms of jazz improvisation from studying Dexter Gordon’s music. Manhattan Symphony, the Blue Note recordings from the ‘60s, Doin’ Alright … I have a lot of great influences, but not a lot that I transcribed like him.”

This iteration of Sophisticated Giant, Rosenthal said, takes a heavy hitting player like Redman to shine a light on Gordon’s classic and truly do the original justice.

“I did a lot of listening to Joshua prior,” said Rosenthal, who commissioned the saxophonist to perform the piece. “That’s a heavy work, and we’re looking for someone with a creative approach who can pay homage in the historic way necessary. Joshua is a creative traditionalist, with a bread and butter tenor sound. He’s not afraid to expand upon that.”

According to Redman, unique interpretation happens in the moment—it’s not learned. That organic momentum, along with the room itself, is something that will create a whole new sensory experience outside of the recording.

“I find that I’m at my best musically when I’m not conceptual or strategizing,” he said. “I can live organically in the moment. You can’t replicate what you have in the studio. There’s an attention to detail that you’re not going to get live. But when people can palpably feel and experience the spontaneity of the performance, when space has a character and when there’s feeling in the audience, that will condition the music in a special way.”

Revisiting and revitalizing legendary ventures is CJO’s bread and butter as well. Lindberg, who transcribes almost all of CJO’s material exclusively, referred to previous Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie tributes as evidence of that reputation.

“[The Redman performance] is consistent with what we did with Clark Terry, when we did Porgy and Bess,” he said. “All of the transcriptions were the original arrangements from Gil Evans that he did for Miles. We are good at that and we plan on continuing that tradition.”

Hampton too will provide a cohesive thread throughout much of the CJO’s early 2018 programming. The 85-year-old NEA Jazz Master brings his experience and wisdom from the stage to the classroom during the Evanston Township High School Jazz Festival on Feb. 10. An extension of and prelude to Sophisticated Giant, Hampton will conduct a series of clinics and concerts alongside his nephew, trumpeter Pharez Whitted, all of which will be recorded for archival use by the CJO and Chicago-area public schools.

“The main focus, of course, is the big band,” Whitted said of the clinic, but said the repertory could venture out from Hampton’s standards. “He has plenty of music for the occasion—tributes to Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, even Venus and Serena Williams. He’ll cover the gamut. He’s truly an encyclopedia of the music. Once he starts talking about Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, people listen. So few can still talk about those experiences.”

The ensemble also will back singer Sarah Marie Young on Jan. 30 at City Winery as a testament to its ongoing showcase and support of vocalists. Young, a singer-songwriter who boasts folk, indie and jazz credentials, as well as regularly conducting workshops with CJO at the Merit School of Music, said she always jumps at the chance to perform with the ensemble.

“Most of the time, we’ll do Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald—that type of thing. I’m really excited, as I don’t always perform big band material,” she said. “It’s a really great, warm-sounding room.”

When it comes to tribute-centric programming, Young and Redman are just the tip of the iceberg. CJO will close out its season on May 12 at the Studebaker with a performance of 1969’s Sinatra At The Sands. The concert, featuring the ensemble alongside vocalist Paul Marinaro, is a testament to the orchestra’s growing audience, and Lindberg said the location of the venue—the center of Chicago’s Loop—is a plus.

Rosenthal hopes the diverse programming will entice jazz fans back next year for the orchestra’s 40th anniversary season, which he said will expand on the mission of celebrating emerging musicians and historic moments of the genre with the poise, polish and, of course, CJO’s unique approach.

“For us, the approach is being able to revisit guest artists or themes from the past,” Rosenthal said. “We’ve performed with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Arturo Sandoval. Being able to revisit our history in new settings is the lens we like to look through. We’re going to bring in a lot of new people, and they’re going to continue to love what we do.”

For more information about CJO, visit its website. DB

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