Jazz Institute of Chicago

Celebrating John Lewis: The New Black Music Repertory Ensemble

Celebrating John Lewis:
The New Black Music Repertory Ensemble

reviewed by Rahsaan Clark Morris

The Center For Black Music Research's New Black Music Repertory Ensemble continues to produce some of the more entertaining and educational events around. Thursday, May 10, the program held at the South Shore Cultural Center was originally conceived as a celebration of the work of John Lewis but, because of his untimely death last March, became instead a memorial tribute to the composer and founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

It also became a survey of the different Black musical expressions that developed from the conjunction of strings and other instrumentation, whether under the heading of Gospel, classical, or jazz.

Opening the evening were works for string orchestra and flute—the Spiritual "Deep River," and the hymn "Amazing Grace"—arranged and conducted by Coleridge Taylor Perkinson. Because of a mix-up with the printer, there were no programs describing the evening's musical fare; so instead, 2001 CBMR Resident Fellow Marcello Piras introduced the program from the stage. His enthusiasm for the music of John Lewis, as well as his knowledge concerning the music of William Grant Still, which followed the Spirituals in the first half of the program, gave his aural notes a substance and liveliness they might not have had just reading them off paper. It proved to be a wonderful way to involve the audience.

The evening's music proved as wonderful and moving as its description had promised. With the use of strings and spirituals and the plaintive melodicism of Nicole Mitchell on flute, a mood of solemnity was established by Perkinson, et al. The languid tempo of the string orchestra gave lushness to the background of Mitchell's sweet reading of "Deep River," while the strings' function during "Amazing Grace" was to act as a sort of refrain. The pizzicato accompaniment (the musicians plucking their strings) during one chorus of "Grace" was astonishingly beautiful.

The less familiar work of Black composer William Grant Still (1895-1978) was given exposure by the ensemble performing a four-part suite for small string orchestra entitled Danzas de Panama, composed in 1948. The middle-register interplay between the violin and viola sections was the highlight of the light-hearted opening—Tamborita. The danzon that was the second part, entitled Mejorano y Socavon, was bold, taken at an up-tempo 6/8 time. The third section, Punto, was ballad-like in its delicacy.

I noticed a lot of unison playing between the concertmaster Ashley Horne and his partner Terrence Gray, carried off with great aplomb. The final movement, Cumbia y Congo, with its African-ese percussive effects, achieved by the string players knocking on the bodies of their instruments, dispelled any similarities to the mariachi music of Mexico, an influence which I detected early on in the Mejorano movement. It was noted by Mr. Piras that Mr. Still, in his notes to the orchestra, specified that the strings "be tapped sonorously on their backs with the knuckles of the right hand." It brought an absolutely explosive finish to the first half of the program.

Following the intermission, the audience returned for the tribute to the music of John Lewis, one of the leading exponents of the movement in jazz known as the "Third Stream", the confluence of jazz and classical musics. The orchestra was joined by the four musicians who were to comprise the MJQ: Roger Harris on piano, Warren Smith on vibes, Richard Armandi on the contrabass, and Frank Parker, Jr. on drums.
Together they performed six of Lewis' compositions.

The first and most well known was itself a tribute piece—Django—written for the great Gypsy guitar stylist Django Reinhardt. With its dirge-like movement and then up-beat ending it had the feel of a New Orleans funeral parade. Kansas City Breaks followed and Nicole Mitchell joined in on the rousing tribute to Basie and the Kansas City big band sound. During a passage of Kansas City Breaks, first the bassist Armandi and Mitchell, and then Armandi and pianist Harris showed some nimble playing trading measures before returning to the theme.

There was also an example of Lewis' achievements scoring for film, a composition from the soundtrack to the Roger Vadim film, Sait-on Jamais (One Never Knows) entitled Three Windows. Mr. Piras had described the piece as Baroque with an intricate, fugue-like construction, and he did not miss the mark. Piras had also originally described D and E as a straight-ahead blues and indeed it was, almost to the point of being finger-popping along the lines of Patti Page's version of Fever.

For an encore, the quartet returned to play Django without string accompaniment and what a revelation was vibraphone player Warren Smith during his solo. The second half of the show exemplified the feel for collaboration that John Lewis and the MJQ was all about.