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Jackie McLean

John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Leaps of faith --

Leaps of faith --
Two prominent Chicago musicians went way out on a limb over the weekend at the 32nd Chicago Jazz Festival.
Unveiling new work that challenged previous assumptions about the nature of their music, pianist Ramsey Lewis and flutist Nicole Mitchell dared to push beyond the sounds that listeners expect of them. Though the artistic results weren't always completely fulfilling, you had to admire the intrepid spirit behind both their sets, and their faith in the adventurousness of their audiences.
In the past few years, Lewis has launched a wholly new phase of a long and storied career, creating ambitious, evening-length compositions such as "To Know Her …" and "Proclamation of Hope." The acclaim these works have received apparently has inspired Lewis to keep writing, and on Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park he led his trio in mostly new and original pieces. This approach defied Lewis' earlier practice, the pianist having built most of his career on pop-tinged covers of other people's hits.
At the Pritzker, however, Lewis celebrated his recent 75th birthday by often venturing beyond predictable song forms, ignoring conventional backbeats and developing ethereal, difficult-to-categorize compositions. That Lewis had not played most of this music publicly before said a great deal about the kinds of risks he's now willing to take, in the twilight of his career.
Not that Lewis has exactly wandered into avant-garde territory. The sleek tone, elegant voicing and lushly Romantic spirit of his pianism remained very much in place. Sounding like a slightly scaled down version of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lewis' trio dealt in lustrous, ultra-refined sounds.
Yet this wasn't music you could always tap your foot to, either. In an untitled new work, Lewis played big, unorthodox chords while Larry Gray bowed long lines on bass and Leon Joyce produced shimmering colors with brushes on drums. The delicacy, polish and subtlety of this work would have been impressive in a recital hall; pulling it off in a large, outdoor amphitheater represented a still greater achievement.
In a new and untitled ballad, Lewis and friends produced one of the most beautifully realized climactic passages in Lewis' oeuvre. And in an untitled solo work, the pianist developed his themes with unmistakable rigor.
If some of this music would benefit from a little less harmonic sweetness and a little more rhythmic bite, there was no doubting its high craft and personal tone.
Flutist Mitchell preceded Lewis on stage to lead the world premiere of the most ambitious work of her career to date, "Arc of O." Scored for a "double orchestra" – with two pianists, two cellists, two drummers, etc. – the 42-minute opus cast Mitchell less as soloist and more as an integral part of the orchestral fabric.
Like Lewis, Mitchell may have caught listeners off guard, unveiling music that leaned much closer to contemporary classical idioms than to jazz-swing-experimental models. Even within the classical context, "Arc of O" often proved texturally dense and packed with dissonance.

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