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Chicago Jazz Ensemble 

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CHICAGO JAZZ ENSEMBLE

In June composer and conductor William Russo led his Chicago Jazz Ensemble in a Navy Pier concert celebrating his own 70th birthday, and we might never hear this busy and accomplished band in better form. The performance justified a couple CJE trademarks that have raised eyebrows over the years: its lengthy programs and the overwhelming predominance of compositions by Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and the arrangers--including Russo himself--who shaped the book for Stan Kenton's band in the early 1950s. For one thing, the big outdoor stage provided a well-proportioned frame for the vocalists, costumery, and acrobatic dancing that Russo uses to spice up his concerts--all hallmarks of the elite nightclub shows that some of this music powered in the 20s and 30s. Mostly, though, the band played its collective heart out, with crackling ensemble precision, a sense of adventure on even the most ancient arrangements, and terrific contributions from the CJE's noteworthy crop of current soloists. Ambitious and hardworking, the group doesn't always sound this good, and truthfully I'm not that keen on repertory re-creations of classic arrangements in general. Still, only a couple of American jazz orchestras can top the CJE at this game, and the rest run way behind. On a couple Mondays this month, Russo will lead the orchestra's 17 or so members in the relatively informal setting of the Jazz Showcase--which means they'll probably leave their tuxes and the elaborate stage show at home. But whereas a Monday booking often translates to an open rehearsal where listeners can observe the nuts and bolts of a performance being screwed into place--a convention put to especially good use by Charles Mingus and Thad Jones--the perfectionist Russo will present typically polished CJE programs. This week's puts the horns in the limelight, with sets emphasizing soloists Art Hoyle (to whom Russo has dedicated a piece that he'll premiere here) and Scott Hall; the subsequent program concentrates on compositions by George Gershwin. This Monday and Monday, August 24, 8 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marc PoKempner.

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