Ecstatic Dissent

December 14, 2003
By Howard Reich, Tribune arts critic

Amazing what a little financial support can do for jazz.

Earlier this year, HotHouse — a cauldron for art music in Chicago — began dispensing checks to some of the city’s top jazz composers. The money, provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, enabled the club to launch the Innovative Composers Project, which encourages Chicago jazz musicians to create their most daring work.

Over the weekend, the first of the new compositions were presented at HotHouse. If Friday and Saturday night’s performances were a fair indication of the quality of music this experiment is producing, the Innovative Composers Project may represent one of the best investments the NEA has made in jazz.

On Friday evening, reedist-bandleader Edward Wilkerson Jr., offered a concert reading of scenes from an opera he has been conceiving for years, “Harold in Chicago.” Based on the extraordinary career of Mayor Harold Washington, the piece clearly has a long way to go until it’s a fully realized stage work. But the vignettes that Wilkerson, three singers and several instrumentalists unveile d suggested that “Harold in Chicago” could emerge as the signal achievement of Wilkerson’s already distinguished career.

By far the work’s most striking passages came from “A Scene From the Cell,” in which the future mayor of Chicago seethes in prison, where he’s serving time for failure to pay back taxes.

Before Washington utters a word, his cellmate sings long, fluid lines accompanied by a small chamber ensemble. The arias for the cellmate and two sopranos represent some of the most expressive, carefully crafted phrasemaking to have come from Wilkerson’s pen. For here the composer invokes a quasi-classical musical language that’s harmonically bold but melodically direct and unaffected.

When Washington begins to sing, the musical language abruptly shifts, the future mayor expressing his thoughts in a straight-ahead, jazz-swing vernacular evoking the popular music of Washington’s youth. Though these passages contrast dramatically from the classically tinged arias that precede them, the switch from four-square rhythm to colloquial swing brilliantly underscores Washington’s identity as a man of the people. At the same time, however, the words he sings — penned by the composer’s sister, Elizabeth Wilkerson — attest to Washington’s verbal eloquence and virtuosity.

Two other scenes from “Harold in Chicago” emphasize the unmistakable promise of this work. In “Favor for a Neighbor,” which addresses Washington’s charismatic way of interacting with his constituents, Wilkerson unfurls inspired musical dialogues between vocalists and instrumentalists. And “Conditions,” which dramatizes the earliest days of Washington’s political career, reaffirms the nearly seamless merger of Elizabeth Wilkerson’s text with Edward Wilkerson’s jazz-based vocal writing.

Judging by these excerpts alone, “Harold in Chicago” deserves every penny of funding its supporters can raise.

On Saturday evening, the versatile Chicago percussionist Michael Zerang gave the world premiere of a project that’s significantly closer to completion. Despite its somewhat cryptic title, “Ecstatic Dissent,” this suite of nine instrumental pieces addresses — and transforms — the chant-like Aramaic religious music that Zerang first heard as a child.

The melodies, Zerang told the audience, have held his attention ever since, their exotic scales indeed proving utterly beguiling when performed by the sextet Zerang convened for the occasion. Considering the work’s mixture of sacred and secular impulses, Zerang hardly could have scored the piece more effectively, the tintinnabulation of Alan Kushan’s santur (a kind of hammered dulcimer or cimbalom) supported by Zerang’s hand-held percussion, two woodwinds, cello and bass. Each of Zerang’s players — including flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Fred-Lonberg Holm, bassist Kent Kessler and clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio — enhanced an already shimmering score with intricate, jazz-driven improvisations.

The sooner this piece is recorded, the better.

Copyright © 2003, The Chicago Tribune