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Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble: Havana Blue

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Orchestral jazz is always a bit of a dicey proposition, teetering on the edge of pretentiousness. And when it’s performed by a “chamber ensemble” comprising 11 pieces, it’s even less promising. But trumpeter Orbert Davis, director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (Chamber Ensemble and all), pulls it off on Havana Blue. He never yields to the worst temptations of so many instruments, taking from them only what he needs to achieve his seven-part “Havana Blue Suite”-whose premiere, at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater, constitutes the bulk of the record.

“Congri,” the suite’s stirring second movement, combines the best of all possible worlds. Drummer Ernie Adams, conguero Jose Rendon and percussionist Suzanne Osman play interlocking rhythms at a boil, something that might be heard on a Havana street corner (or an American one). The strings sweep into the terse ensemble statements for flashes of color that give the music a ballroom elegance; over top, Davis plays a muted trumpet with delicious melody and all the after-hours smokiness of the jazz club. “El Malecon,” a feature for the strings (with an ensemble interpolation), maintains melodic shape and discipline-no look-what-a-skilled-classical-writer-I-can-be pomp here; “Al Fin Te Vi,” a duet between Anna Najoom’s clarinet and Michael Salter’s bass clarinet, really does skew classical, but that’s easy to forget in its delightful dance. And “Havana @Twelve” is a big old mambo-with a trumpet/trombone duel and uproarious solos by Davis and flutist Steve Eisen-that would have done Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente proud.

Four studio tracks, two standards and two originals, fill out Havana Blue. Leandro Lopez-Varady’s Fender Rhodes gives “Chega de Saudade” and Davis’ “Seraphim” a remarkably funky edge, but the tunes are otherwise fun without being revelatory. The meat is in the suite.

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Originally Published