Chicago Jazz Orchestra | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Chicago Jazz Orchestra 

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Of the ten or twelve major composer-arrangers to steward the growth of swing music into the most popular jazz idiom in history, none gets shorter shrift today than Sy Oliver. I'd suggest this has a lot to do with the way the intervening years have treated the bands where he did his best work. Jimmie Lunceford's orchestra, which employed Oliver from 1933 to '39, combined top-drawer musicianship with flamboyant showmanship and complex, inventive arrangements--many of them supplied by Oliver--and built a following among black listeners that approached that of Duke Ellington or Count Basie; most modern jazz fans, however, rarely notice Lunceford in the shadow of those two greats. You can't say the same for Tommy Dorsey, for whose band Oliver wrote from 1939 to '46 (many of his contributions have been collected on a reissue called Yes, Indeed!, available on Black & Blue). But when people hear Dorsey's name, not many remember Oliver's rambunctious arrangements--despite the fact that they helped change the orchestra from a "sweet" outfit, emphasizing smooth contours and danceable rhythms, into a genuine jazz band. Instead they remember the bandleader's buttery trombone, or maybe that his group introduced Frank Sinatra to an international audience. And the few folks who know about Oliver these days almost always identify him as a writer, which is in itself an oversight: during his swing-era career, he earned as much if not more popular acclaim for his trumpet playing and occasional vocals. Oliver's latter-day obscurity makes him a ripe target for revivalists, and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra will do its part here with a concert of material from his stints with Lunceford and Dorsey. In its excellent and inventive programs, the CJO has exhibited an uncanny ability to get inside the skins of the arrangers whose work it presents, evoking the canonic strength of Ellington as well as the translucent power of Gil Evans. Artistic director Jeff Lindberg deserves the credit for that, but for this concert he'll yield the baton to Indiana University's David Baker, a renowned educator and arranger who also serves as music director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra--arguably the best repertory band going. Sunday, March 25, 3 PM, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State; 312-409-3947.


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