Four years ago, the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band embarked on a journey that would make headlines, history and searing music.
Jason Moran, an exceptional jazz pianist and MacArthur Fellowship winner, had been commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Center to create an evening-length work of his choosing. Because of Moran's admiration for virtuoso Chicago pianist Willie Pickens, who created the Kenwood band program in the 1960s, and daughter Bethany Pickens, who teaches music there, Moran decided to pen his new work for the school's jazz band (Willie Pickens died in December at age 86).
This meant that these young musicians, many of whom never had been inside Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, would perform alongside Moran and his Bandwagon trio on the same stage where Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the world's greatest jazz artists regularly perform. So though the trek from Kenwood Academy to Symphony Center spanned just a few miles, it represented an enormous artistic leap that any high school band might find daunting.
More striking still, Moran created his "Looks of a Lot" opus, in part, to reflect upon the violence that scars, and often ends, young people's lives on the South Side. In effect, Moran would be empowering these students to tell their own story, through jazz, at Chicago's most revered musical address.
Tragically, less than two weeks before the premiere, 15-year-old Kenwood band guitarist Aaron Rushing was shot to death near his South Side home. Shaken but undeterred, the Kenwood students gave a brilliant reading of "Looks of a Lot" in Orchestra Hall on May 30, 2014, following that up with a high-profile performance last year in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center, where Moran serves as artistic director for jazz.
Now the Kenwood ensemble has made news again, with Moran releasing the superb digital album "Looks of a Lot," featuring the complete score and Chicago cast, including reedist and MacArthur Fellow Ken Vandermark, vocalist-bassist Katie Ernst and artist Theaster Gates (who created sets and recited text).
The recording, available at https://bandcamp.com, gives listeners a chance to hear what happens when two MacArthur Fellows and a hard-working high school band -- led by Gerald Powell and Bethany Pickens -- join forces in a singular score. For the "Looks of a Lot" recording captures the fascinating dynamic of world-class artists collaborating with teenage musicians. Though the students obviously command less technique than the pros, the emerging performers can summon unmistakable ferocity of expression, as they demonstrate throughout the album.
Recorded last June at Chicago Public Media (home to WBEZ-FM 91.5) in a session paid for by Moran, the album proves gripping from its opening track. Here Gates softly reads and Ernst imploringly sings an English translation of Heinrich Heine's lyrics to Franz Schubert's song "Der Doppelganger," reimagined in a jazz-blues context. Instantly, we're immersed in a dark, mysterious world that foreshadows the travails yet to come.
But "Looks of a Lot" also radiates optimism and hope as early as its second track, "Big News," which illuminates the ingenuity of Moran's writing. For this up-tempo sequence of two-note riffs -- which recurs throughout the piece -- proves at once technically manageable for the young musicians to play but profound in its musical message. The drive, energy and concision of "Big News" brings forth the muscularity of the Kenwood jazz band's corporate sound, the students' passages embellished and enriched by Moran's deep-into-the-keys pianism.
And who could resist the allure of the Kenwood band playing trumpeter Roy Eldridge's 1937 "Wabash Stomp," a piece rendered freshly appealing via Moran's arrangement and the students' surging rendition. Yes, you can hear the young musicians struggling with the tricky twists and turns of this music, but their sweat represents a testament to the value of the enterprise.
The "Face/Fade" movement, much later in the suite, suggests a jazz funeral procession, just as it did on stage, when the students played and marched around a prop evoking a coffin. In effect, they were grieving not just for all the kids slain in Chicago violence but for one of their own, guitarist Rushing.
As "Looks of a Lot" comes to a close, Moran unfurls some of its most poetic sections, playing the "Big News" theme on a self-styled instrument recalling the sound of a music box. The students then respond by gently whistling the tune. With these two movements -- "Music Boxing More News" and "More News" -- one forgets that pros and students are searching for common ground: They have found it within the ethereal lyricism of Moran's score.
In the grand finale, "Shoulder to Shoulder," Moran points his young colleagues to the future, intertwining an original, marchlike theme with strands of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 1, a beloved anthem for graduations. To hear the Kenwood organization and Moran's Bandwagon (with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen) driving inexorably to the work's climax is to understand anew the miracle that occurred with "Looks of a Lot."
For Moran and his Kenwood colleagues proved that a Chicago public high school band can achieve the seemingly impossible, when simply given the opportunity.
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