CJE featuring Miguel Zenon

Miguel Zenon (r) with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. Photo by Farrad Ali.

The Chicago Jazz Ensemble closed out this year’s season at Chicago’s Harris Theater with a tribute to the legendary Charlie “Bird” Parker. True to form, the Ensemble brought together tradition and innovation by featuring renowned saxophonist and pioneer, Miguel Zenon, recipient of a Guggenheim, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and multiple Grammy nominations.

Just as Charlie Parker pushed the boundaries of jazz in his day, Miguel Zenon is doing the same, blending the folkloric flavors of Puerto Rican music with American jazz – both art forms inspired by and rooted in African traditions.

The Ensemble performed from Charlie Parker with Strings, a set of recording sessions in which Parker stepped away from his fast tempo, explosive sets to play with a classical string section. A student of classical music, it was a long-held dream for Parker, and many say these were his favorite recordings.

For this concert, CJE was joined by a 10-member ensemble that included violins, violas, cello, French horn, oboe, and even a harp. It was clearly a departure from a typical jazz session, with the CJE on stage left and the string musicians stage right. Always the educator, CJE Artistic Director Dana Hall shared context on each piece throughout the night, turning the theater into his classroom and the audience his students. On the strings side of the stage, the guest musicians clearly enjoyed their jazz experience, bobbing their heads, tapping their feet, and downright grooving in appreciation of their onstage collaborators. Miguel Zenon consistently delivered incredibly intense and emotional solos.

CJE and Zenon played a full roster of favorites including Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love,” Johnny Mercer’s “Laura,” and Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”. The Ensemble even presented three selections that were left on the cutting room floor when Parker’s original recordings were done – Gold Rush, Scootin’ and Ezz-thetic.

The night closed with the aptly named, upbeat tune, “Rocker,” as members of CJE came up one by one to offer up center-stage solos, followed by a back-and-forth improvisation between Hall and Zenon that brought the house down.

For those who had not experienced this side of Charlie Parker, it was a fitting introduction. For those who have listened to the recordings countless times over the years, CJE and Zenon brought these sessions to life in a way that deepens and expands your relationship to this music. Well done.

For more information, visit chicagojazzensemble.com and miguelzenon.com.

By Nyasha Nyamapfene

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