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Jack Reilly's "Jazz Requiem" at College of DuPage, March 13, 2005

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The lines separating jazz and classical music blur in pianist Jack Reilly's compositions as he imagines Mozart in the 21st Century, not as the romanticized classical giant, but as an improvising ensemble member in a jazz band. It's an intriguing concept: Is composition simply improvisation slowed down? And is improvisation merely composition sped up?

Modeled on Mozart's own Requiem, Reilly's Jazz Requiem is difficult to perform. You need a choir to sing along with your saxophone quartet; you need a space big enough to accommodate such an amalgamation; and you need an audience willing to suspend some of its preconceptions and openly engage the improvisation vs. composition debate. Reilly found all three in the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage in Chicago's western suburbs (home of one of Chicago's dwindling number of jazz radio stations, 90.9FM, WDCB).

Things got off to a rousing start with the opening first section of the 12-part piece, as Reilly on piano led his band with his eyes, and New York sessionman/ saxophonist Dave Tofani, bassist Larry Kohut, and drummer Jack Mouse responded with propulsive swinging rhythm, singer Janice Borland replied with scatted swoops and the nearly 100-strong DuPage Chorale, led by music director Lee Kesselman, delivered soaring vocalizations.

Kesselman has demonstrated ambition in the past, taking the Chorale outside their natural element with works by the likes of Ellington and Brubeck, and Reilly's Requiem at times seemed equally unsettling to the singers. But soloist Mary Elliot, in her short feature, went up-up-up into the area of high C. It couldn't have been easy, but she nailed it.

The blues is the prevailing idiom in Reilly's composed/improvised work, and Tofani was money in the bank on his horn, linking spirited ideas to emotionally direct solos with the strength of his confident tone, starting his solos right on cue and stopping on a dime as Reilly moved the work through its parts, meeting the entire work in all its variety. For the "Recordare , Reilly moved over to an electric keyboard, and its sitar-like sound pulled the audience's attention from the subtleties of Tofani's delicate flute and Kohut and Mouse's Indian rhythms.

From the blues, to ragas, to bossa nova, and freely dissonant improvisations, Reilly's work surveys the harmonic and rhythmic richness of 20th Century jazz in a form fit for the 21st Century. By the "Benedictus , a straight-ahead blues tune, the quartet and Borla were working at full steam, and Reilly, with the Chorale behind him and the audience in front, was surrounded on all sides by grateful listeners.

Branford Marsalis brings his quartet to the McAninch Arts Center's mainstage, May 20, 2005.

Visit Jack Reilly on the web.

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