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Home of the "Bull," major universities, and Yankee transplants, Durham, North Carolina, is also home to music lovers as well as legendary and young talented jazz musicians. On a fine Sunday afternoon, the Durham Symphony (DSO) presented "And All That Jazz: NC Connections" with guest vocal divas Lenora Helm, Lois Deloatch, and Rozlyn Sorrell; guest saxophonists Greg Gelb and Brian Horton; the John Brown Trio; and composer Steven Bryant. And taking us right up to Fat Tuesday 2014, the orchestra performed William Henry Curry's homage to New Orleans, "Mardi Gras 2006." The well-attended concert was performed at Carolina Theatre.
At first glance, the concert looked like a program of recital pieces. But Artistic Director and Conductor Curry had a plan. This was a musical tribute to musicians, mainly from the South, who bent the arc of musical progress from Western Europe toward the west. The orchestra opened with Scott Joplin's ever-popular "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) and Robert Russell Bennett's Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture (1942), based on Gershwin's opera. They played with rhythmic precision and grace, providing a splendid beginning. And if these pieces didn't wake us up, Steven Bryant's "Loose Id"* surely did.
Lenora Helm, Brian Horton, the John Brown Trio, and the DSO performed two arrangements by Brian Horton: "I Remember Clifford," Benny Golson's tribute to Clifford Brown, and the world premiere arrangement of "My Favorite Things," from The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. A familiar presence on the jazz scene, Lenora Helm has an amazing range and flexibility that matches Horton's virtuosity on the soprano sax. And except for a minor technology glitch with the microphone, both were glorious renditions.
The Durham-based John Brown Trio joined hands with Lois Deloatch for "Feeling Good," a tribute to Nina Simone by Newley-Bricusse and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." Deloatch is the perfect match for Simone. She is a wonderful musician with a powerful instrument.
The instrumentalists offered John Klenner's beautiful tribute to Charlie Parker, "Just Friends" (arranged by Jimmy Carroll). Greg Gelb played with panache. And the John Brown Trio brought down the house with Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone." Along the way, all three (John Brown, bass, Ryan Hanseler, piano, and Orlandus Perry, drums) played fabulous solos.
Curry's colorful orchestral piece draws on the Dixieland textures and delicious flavors from New Orleans' palette. Rozlyn Sorrell's "Valse de Ko-Ko" sent chills down my spine. Oh, what a voice she has! The orchestra was tight and responsive; this, too, was a fine performance.
The trio of singers joined hands for the last piece and Curry invited the audience to provide a chorus for McCrae Hardy's arrangement of "I'll Fly Away." It was a perfect closing. I left energized and optimistic.
*Bryant talked to a curious group of listeners before the concert about his composition, "Loose Id." Turning the balance of the orchestra upside down, the brass and percussion drive this piece melodically, with the strings swirling around. The Juilliard Orchestra first performed it in 1997 and this performance was the North Carolina premiere. Curry introduced the composition with his usual wit, making the connection to jazz improvisation obvious-- the "Id" let loose.