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Chicago Jazz Ensemble and Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts at Chicago Symphony Center

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Chicago Jazz Ensemble
Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts
Symphony Center, Chicago
January 20, 2006
The latest event of the 2005-2006 Chicago Symphony Center's Jazz at Symphony Center series promised the best of two worlds. The 20-piece Chicago Jazz Ensemble would surely provide impeccable, big-band wallop—their reputation for hard-swinging tightness having been bolstered of late by their new artistic director, Jon Faddis. Meanwhile, drummer/composer Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts quartet would bring a less bombastic, small-ensemble flexibility and wit to balance out the evening. It really seemed like a perfect pair of acts.
Well, one out of two's not so bad.
There was nothing at all wrong with Arts & Crafts, composed of drummer Wilson, pianist/Hammond B-3 organist Larry Goldings, bassist Dennis Irwin, and trumpeter Terrell Stafford. The band opened with the limber, straight-ahead swing of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Stomping Grounds, Wilson's vicious snare work and Irwin's walking bass providing a tightly propulsive undercarriage for Stafford's scenery-chewing trumpet work. Wilson's own bluesy, sly "Free-Range Chicken featured a writhing, thick B-3 solo from Goldings that flowed into an understated-but-hot three-way groove between Goldings, Wilson and Irwin (Stafford listening and nodding his head with a look of rapture as he stood about fifty miles away on the huge Symphony Center stage).

Samba composer Nélson Cavaquinho's "Beija Flor began with a sweet, flowing piano mini-sonata from Goldings before Stafford played its perfectly elegant melody on fluegelhorn over Wilson's swaying brushes. Wilson's a strange and amusing mixture of underplayer and showman and manages to make quite a show of something as simple as the combination of his right-hand brushed ride cymbal and his left-foot high-hat—certainly the bright red brushes don't hurt. The band went deliciously outside for Wilson's "Freelancer —its rubato free section of Stafford trumpet blues-meander and monstrous Wilson snare-roll flowed into an up-tempo, biting trumpet break from Stafford before Goldings went back to that sonata form, playing dissonant, percussive piano over a darkly simmering rhythmic bed of bass and drums.

Great set, but it was downhill from there. The Chicago Jazz Ensemble's been getting raves for its cohesion and swing since trumpeter Jon Faddis took over the helm of the august, William Russo-founded big band. This night saw the group sticking to a set of mostly ballad standards, and while drummer Dana Hall played ably—and seemed delighted with how the tuxedo-clad band sounded—the band didn't really swing. Michael Phillip Mossman's arrangement of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes started off the set with lugubrious, undulating sections and big, loud accents—but the collective playing seemed queasy and unrehearsed and trumpeter Art Hoyle and trombonist Tim Coffman sounded strangely out of sync with the band. The shout choruses were pretty effective, though.

Michael Abene's arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's "Lucky To Be Me had some effective brass ensembles supporting the fine tenor work of Rob Denty, who played thrillingly over Peter Saxe's piano comping and Hall's brushed snare—but the charts overall were stodgy and thick and effectively pulled the piece thuddingly down to earth. Ira Gershwin's "Sure Thing —another ballad—featured Faddis's sweet, authoritative trumpet, but again, the ensemble work was, if not ragged, utterly workmanlike and robotic. The band seemed listless—and perhaps cowed by the musical director—and the arrangement lacked playfulness, counterpart, and above all, color. A group so large has the capacity to do almost anything—but this band seemed often to simply occupy time.

Vocalist Bobbi Wilsyn injected some much-needed life on a pair of Duke Ellington and Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley numbers; her operatic control and visceral soul were anodynes after the soddenness of what had preceded her. But one vocalist can't rescue such a set. Surely it was an off-night for the CJE—and on a better one, the arrangements might have taken flight and achieved the weightlessness at which the group's performances occasionally hinted. The group's packed with great players; the musical director's got a remarkable résumé; the material's above reproach; the arrangers are all respected veterans. The results were puzzling.

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