Once upon a time categories of music were clearly delineated, and composers or performers crossed them with the artistic risk equivalent to crossing the old Iron Curtain. Classical musicians stuck up their noses at anything resembling jazz or popular music, and many jazz players resented having to prove that they were “legit” in order to gain respect. For the most part, fortunately, that narrow-minded and confining attitude has changed, and there are many artists willing to use influences from all musical spheres. On June 17, in Duke University’s Reynolds Theater, Duke Performances (renamed from Duke Institute of the Arts) presented a great example of how “different” kinds of music can blend into a wonderful and magical evening.

Anyone even remotely aware of the cultural life of this community would be aware that for the past 20 years the Ciompi Quartet and singer Nnenna Freelon have been two of this area’s musical treasures. This concert gave us a rare chance to hear them perform together, with each retaining the essence of what they do best, yet melding into a distinct flavor. The works featured were by Mark Kuss and Paul Schoenfield, young composers who have worked closely with and had numerous works premiered by the Ciompi Quartet.

The first work, “Elegy,” for string quartet, by Mark Kuss, had first violinist Eric Pritchard wired to a monitor, and there were two small speakers on low stands flanking the quartet. Composer Kuss sat in the first row at a control board regulating the pre-recorded part of the work. This recording featured an anonymous otherworldly voice singing the spiritual “No more, my Lord” recorded by archivist Alan Lomax at Louisiana State Prison in 1937. The recording comes in three times in increasing volume till the final complete version at the end of the work. Pritchard mimicked the vocal part in a beautiful, sensitive and understated performance without trampling on the singer. The recording gave the feeling that it was indeed coming from “the other side,” and the interludes between the recordings were deeply spiritual and moving. What could have easily passed over into gimmickry instead felt totally natural and appropriate.

We next moved on to a totally different character when Freelon joined the quartet as narrator for a performance of Paul Schoenfield’s Tales from Chelm : Four Pieces for String Quartet. Each movement is a programmatic piece based on stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. These are mostly silly tales involving a very small village whose residents are not the brightest bulbs. Good singers need to be good storytellers and Freelon excels in this.

These childlike tales had the proper effect as the young children present laughed at their more ridiculous aspects. The music is similar to Schoenfield’s Café Music that I recently heard performed by the Carolina Piano Trio. Inventive and vibrant rhythms swirl around in a style that approaches sophisticated Klezmer style, but the piece does not get bogged down in that tradition. The quartet played with a high level of spirit and obvious affection for this wonderful work.

One of the signs of a great artist is the ability to turn the mundane – or something you’ve heard or seen a thousand times – into a creation that’s new, fresh and exciting. Great jazz improvisers distinguish themselves by what they can bring to standards. Composer Mark Kuss has done this with lullabies in a work he calls Nnenna’s Lullabys , which had its world premiere at this concert. As Freelon explained as she introduced this work, lullabies are probably the oldest forms of song, and many are among the most well-known melodies. As good as both Freelon and the Ciompi Quartet are, the real star of this work is the composer. His arrangements are miniatures of brilliant harmonization and rhythmic diversity. The highlight for me was the background for “A tisket, a tasket.” This simple, silly early Ella Fitzgerald hit was transformed into an amazing swirl of rhythms that sounded as complex as anything by Bartók. The songs run the gamut from the beautiful Appalachian ballad “All the Pretty Little Horses” to that tiresome summer camp sing-along “Kum-bah-ya.” It takes more than just being a good singer to carry these off, and Freelon, a five-time Grammy award-nominee, is the whole package. She brought the audience into each song and personalized the lyrics – even the insipid ones.

This evening seemed to me to be a fitting tribute to the great Ray Charles, who died one week earlier. In the early ’60s, many of his fans were appalled that this great artist would record an album of country and western songs. It turned out to be one of his most successful recordings – both artistically and commercially. Good music is good music: categories or labels don’t mean anything. This was demonstrated by Freelon, the Ciompi Quartet, and composers Schoenfield and Kuss.