Live Jazz: The Symphonic Jazz Orchestra at Royce Hall

By Don Heckman

The mission of the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra is “perpetuating the uniquely American genre of symphonic jazz.”  There’s no disputing the desirability of that goal, and Saturday night’s concert at Royce Hall was clearly intended as a display of the Orchestra’s current achievements toward that end.

The program began promisingly, with co-Music Director Mitch Glickman conducting “Elements,” a new work from composer Charles Floyd, in which a jazz soloist – tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb – was positioned within rich orchestral rhythmic densities.

Next up, a “Tribute To Jobim,” arranged by Vince Mendoza for singer Luciana Souza and the SJO, was even better.  Mendoza’s multi-hued palette provided the perfect setting for Souza’s far-ranging voice, with especially memorable versions of “Aguas de Marco” and “Modinha.”  Closing the program’s first half, Souza whipped through the intricate melodic and rhythmic byways of Hermeto Pascoal’s delightful “Chorinho Pre Ele,” arranged perfectly by Gil Goldstein.

So far, so good.  But the program’s second part – largely devoted to the music of the SJO’s co-Music Director, George Duke, and singer/songwriter Raul Midon – slipped into different territory.  A movement from Duke’s “Muir Woods Suite” attractively displayed the SJO’s instrumental resources.  Other Duke pieces verged close to the string pad timbres and back beat rhythms of contemporary smooth jazz and r&b.  Midon’s segments, often with minimal orchestral involvement, were largely devoted to his brisk, jazz-tinged vocal/guitar offerings.  And it remained for the return of Souza, dueting with Midon on Duke’s “Festival,” to bring the proceedings to a dynamic conclusion.

But it was hard to see how this particular presentation reflected the SJO’s stated mission.  Excellent orchestra though it may be, there was little in the program that applied its skills to the “uniquely American genre of symphonic jazz.”  A meaningful expression of that concept might include, say, music by George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, a revival of Eddie Sauter’s remarkable suite for Stan Getz’s tenor saxophone and strings, “Focus,” any one of a large number of works associated with the “Third Stream” movement of the late ‘50s.  And, of course, new original works – perhaps from composers such as Maria Schneider — exploring the full creative possibilities of “symphonic jazz.”

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