Saturday, February 25, 2012

Paying Tribute to Bird, With Strings, Miguel Zenon Soars With the Chicago Jazz Ensemble -- Jazz Review

Jazz Concert Review

Ornithology: The Music of Charlie "Bird" Parker
Chicago Jazz Ensemble
with special guest Miguel Zenon
February 24, 2012
Harris Theatre, Chicago

High on the shortlist of my all-time favorite sounds is that emitted by a well-played saxophone.

This likely emanates from being such a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, with Clarence Clemons' sax having been such a distinctive and definitive part of their music.

While I wouldn't quite call myself a jazz aficionado, I long ago came to love hearing recordings of--and particularly solos by--such legendary sax players as Charlie 'Bird' Parker, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, the last two of whom are still alive and who I've been fortunate to see in concert.

I've also been dazzled by many saxophonists at the club level, most of whose names I'll never know.

Although I don't follow the jazz genre with the same avocation I do rock, I take note when someone is hailed as a great sax player, especially as I feel being a jazz virtuoso doesn't bring the recognition it once did. (I remain unclear if no one is rising to the level of Miles, Mingus, Monk and those named above because America en masse doesn't care much about jazz or if there just aren't many players of that caliber anymore. Or perhaps both.)

Which brings me to Miguel Zenon. Along with Joshua Redman and maybe a couple others, he is one of the few young, in-their-prime saxophonists I have come to know enough to seek out in concert. And if you care about jazz to the level I do--or anywhere beyond it--he is someone you should know.

Last night, he was in Chicago to join the Chicago Jazz Ensemble--led by artistic director Dana Hall on drums--in a program titled Ornithology: The Music of Charlie "Bird" Parker.

Though I would have been thrilled to hear Zenon play anything associated with the great Bird, the focus of the evening was recordings Parker made in 1949-50 called Charlie Parker With Strings. As the affable Hall explained, Parker was the first jazz musician (at least of note) to record with strings, playing "standards" with violins, violas, cellos, etc. At the time when Parker was pretty much inventing be-bop, this exploration may have been seen as somewhat soft, but as Hall mentioned, an essential part of great artistry is the need to try new things.

I have Charlie Parker With Strings, the Master Takes and while it might not excite like more conventional Parker, it still sounds quite good to my untrained ears. Likewise, Zenon playing with the CJE and a guest string section (plus oboe, English horn, French horn and harp) sounded delightful. Songs like "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Autumn in New York" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" lent themselves more to Zenon demonstrating a silky dexterity rather race car solo runs, but there was nothing not to like.

As with classical pianists, when it comes to elite saxophonists, neophytes like me probably often equate playing fast and loud with greatness, but it's not hard to conceive tone and texture as being just as important. Especially as Zenon gave ample proof that he could "blaze," as when soloing on the closing number, "Rocker," even when his playing was more restrained, his talent--like the sound his sax was making--was clear and delectable.

For about half of the two hour performance, Zenon was accompanied only by the string section plus Hall on drums, Jeff Parker on guitar, Jeremy Kahn on piano and Dan Anderson on double bass. But I particularly enjoyed the songs when the rest of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble was onstage as well and the audience was treated to some nice trombone and trumpet solos.

The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," Zenon has often explored the music of his Puerto Rican homeland, including on his acclaimed 2009 album, Esta Plena, about which a rave review by the Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich spurred my awareness and subsequent attendance of a Zenon gig at Jazz Showcase. He dazzled then, but it was just as much a pleasure to see and hear him tackle Parker--and rather unique Parker at that.

With balcony tickets only $18, it would have been nice to see the Harris Theater more full, but at least in Zenon's case--while also applauding the fine work by everyone onstage--it's encouraging to know that even if they aren't bringing out huge crowds, there still exist some new jazz musicians who deserve to.

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