Two strikingly different ensembles came to Atlanta over the weekend, each excavating their musical histories. But the assembled artists, who sounded and looked nothing alike, had one key thing in common: they played ethnomusicologists for the day, exposing audiences to the history of their art forms.
On Saturday, trumpeter Jon Faddis, who rose to prominence while playing with Lionel Hampton and Charles Mingus, led his Jazz Orchestra of New York in a tribute to Duke Ellington at the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech. Less than 24 hours later, the 66-member Taipei Chinese Orchestra began its concert at Emory’s Emerson Concert Hall with the triumphant opening chords of Leung-Fai Lo’s “Ceremonial Music Joyful Dance.”
For listeners eager to hear the roots of modern jazz, there’s really no better music than the pieces Ellington and his composition partner Billy Strayhorn made famous during the swing era. Many of the tunes are etched into America’s collective subconscious. It’s a safe bet to assume that most people, even those of high school age and younger, have at least a passing familiarity with “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing)” or “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
But the omnipresence of Ellington’s music can be a stumbling block to the many bands that perform the material — even those as stacked with professional talent as Faddis’. To deliver a thrilling performance, these artists need to either carve out a unique interpretation or play Ellington’s music with unbridled energy and impeccable adherence to style.
For the first half of Saturday night’s concert, such energy was evident only in short bursts, mainly during solos. Enthusiastic and inventive improvisers staff this band, but as a whole, their ensemble playing on Saturday lacked drive. After Faddis displayed his technique — a big, brassy sound marked by a stylistic resistance (it sounds like he’s really, really working to push out those notes) that can extend to vertiginous heights — he picked up his horn only sparingly. He chose instead to conduct the band through renderings of “The Mooche,” “Boy Meets Horn” and other numbers. Perhaps a bit of the band’s vitality was zapped by the clotted, cinder-block acoustics of the Ferst Center hall, which immediately swallowed up the ensemble’s sound once it left the stage.
Charenee Wade joined the group midway through the first set to sing some Ellington classics, and the band perked up a bit, foreshadowing its dynamic second-half performance of Ellington’s orchestral jazz band suite “Black, Brown and Beige.” During the 40-minte second set, Faddis coaxed a lively performance from his players, saving what had seemed destined to be an uninspired evening.
Where Faddis’ music was recognizable to most Americans, everything about the Taipei Chinese Orchestra, from the instruments to the musicians’ brightly colored suits and dresses (how strange not to see a sea of tuxedoes on stage!), was unfamiliar. Basses, cellos and a timpani were the only recognizable instruments on the stage; the rest consisted of various plucked, bowed and strummed string devices, trumpet-like reed instruments, a wind instrument made of what looked like tiny organ pipes, and lots of exotic percussion. The ensemble, augmented by string soloists Wu Man on pipa (plucked) and Ming-Yu Wang on daguangxian and Ke Zai Xian (both bowed), presented a wide swath of Asian classical music, enough to give listeners a good taste of another culture.
Lo’s “Ceremonial Music” and Yi-Chen Chou’s “Portrait of Taiwanese Opera” were full of luscious, film-score passages played nimbly by the ensemble. It has a gorgeous sound, and conductor Yiu-Kwong Chung coaxed a wide range of dynamic contrasts and emotions from the group. It’s odd to hear a whole section’s worth of reedy instruments capable of piercing shrieks create such a quiet, lyrical sound.
The allure of experiencing a foreign music got people into the seats, and Chung delivered a big payoff, navigating an enthralling program full of interesting pieces. Chung’s “The Yang’s Saga,” with the celebrated Wu Man on pipa, and “Northwest Suite,” by China’s most famous living composer, Tan Dun, were standouts of the evening. The pipa concerto introduced the style of that stringed instrument — single lines played with a heavy tremolo and liberal ornamentation, frenzied chordal strums — and Tan’s piece brought European classical ideas to the ensemble.
For Atlantans savvy enough to attend both concerts, the two events worked together to provide a unique glimpse at orchestral music that lies outside the standard European tradition, a delight in itself.