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Symphonic Jazz Orchestra: Looking Forward, Looking Back

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The Symphonic Jazz Orchestra’s slogan, displayed prominently at the top of the non-profit organization’s homepage, is “Where the Passion of Jazz meets the Power of an Orchestra.” Put together with the title of this set, Looking Forward, Looking Back, it’s easy enough to get a sense of what the ensemble’s goal is: finding commonalities and complementary ideals amidst two traditionally disparate worlds.

In theory, jazz, fueled by improvisational fervor, and the classical orchestra, with each note strictly prescribed, should not have much to say to each other, and yet they always have. It’s generally accepted that the first time the two genres did meet and greet, and with great fanfare, was with the premiere of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The program-closing arrangement here is based on Paul Whiteman’s original 1924 version, although the dominance of guests Bill Cunliffe (piano), Robert Hurst (bass) and Peter Erskine (drums) throughout much of its three parts suggests correctly that great liberties are openly and thankfully taken.

The preceding two sections make no attempt to tie the orchestra to the roots of symphonic jazz. The first, “Dark Wood: Bass Concerto for McBride,” was written by the late George Duke, a key figure in the SJO prior to his 2013 death. Its four distinctive movements, as would be obvious from the title, spotlight Christian McBride’s bass, his soloing above the orchestra often rather aggressive while never out of place, even at its funkiest. Pianist John Beasley and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith also bring contemporary coloring.

And “Symphonic Captain’s Journey,” composed by Lee Ritenour-whose guitar is right at home within an impelling arrangement he co-created with Gordon Goodwin and Dave Grusin-virtually defines the orchestra’s slogan: Its two sections, “Calm” and “Storm,” also featuring McBride, Grusin (piano) and Chris Coleman (drums), are equal parts passion and power-and more than a little pluck.

Originally Published