The National Symphony Orchestra's Friday night foray into jazz-informed repertoire proved to be a mixed bag at best. The second evening of "Jazz in the Concert Hall" featured three short works by the stride pianist and composer James P. Johnson, elements of two contemporary symphonic suites and Billy Taylor's Suite for Jazz Piano and Orchestra. The overall effect was one of well-intentioned crossovers--classical and jazz, small improvising ensemble and large orchestra--undermined by often ineffective bridges. There were moments of elegant lyricism and dynamic expression, but also times when the music offered no particular entry point for fans of either genre.
Two movements from Johnson's "Harlem Symphony"--the sweetly syncopated "Nightclub" and the elegant "Subway Journey"--suggested the evolution from ragtime to the jazz age and captured the work's origin as ballet music. In both, brass and brittle percussion tended to override the rest of the orchestra.
That problem was less evident in "Charleston," a 1923 Johnson composition whose melody and energy came to define its time. It kicked off elegantly as trumpeter Jon Faddis explored the theme in spare, stately fashion, with the song's evocative hues burnished by Loren Kitt's clarinet and Milton Stevens's trombone. The work subsequently shifted into its more familiar pulse, with Faddis serving up spirited plunger-driven growls.
The elements of Hale Smith's "This Ain't Blues" weren't particularly well integrated. The lush, sonorous cello-brass-oboe opening simply gave way to a series of solos by a self-contained sextet--highlighted by Frank Wess's spry, airy flute and Faddis's exhilarating brass flurries--before reuniting small and large ensemble to no particular effect.
Frederick C. Tillis's "Outburst, Thunder, Clouds and Mists" was a dramatic showcase for drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who managed a great variety of forceful rhythms and supple textures that were sometimes swallowed up in the Concert Hall. But the orchestral sections felt like gladiator music, and the ebb and flow of the piece quickly wore thin.
Taylor's suite (arranged by Manny Albam) featured a warm, lyric homage to his son, "Duane"; the somber spiritual stateliness of "Well it's been so long" (which took off when Taylor reclaimed it with a rhythmically riveting left-hand-only solo and a furious, near-orchestral two-handed exploration); and the exotic "Cote d'Ivoire." The fact that the composer was also the performer imbued this piece with the evening's greatest immediacy. Taylor, artistic director for the series, made a valiant effort to connect the jazz and classical audiences, and conductor Marin Alsop worked hard to make the NSO swing where it needed to in an ambitious program that was only partly realized.
CAPTION: Billy Taylor, shown in 1997, provided a suite satisfaction at Friday's concert.