Music » Critic's Choice

George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band




Swiss pianist George Gruntz has chosen the Ellingtonian model for his sleek but blustery big band, and his success reminds you how few bands exploit that model today. Throughout jazz history most large ensembles have succeeded either by presenting exciting and innovative writing or by collecting enough star soloists to rescue the ho-hum arrangements. But Duke Ellington had the writing and the talent: his ingenious compositions provided the fuel, and some of the most distinctive players in jazz lit the flame. Gruntz aims for the same blend in his concert jazz band, which he assembles on a frequent basis for touring and recording. A tireless composer, arranger, and producer, he writes big, ambitious charts (his Chicago Cantata, commissioned for the 1991 jazz festival, brought together big band players, jazz and blues soloists, and gospel singers), and he cherry-picks his lineups to include distinctive soloists from both sides of the Atlantic, insuring a wide range of memorable solos. In this edition look to altoist Chris Hunter for edge, tenorist Donny McCaslin for hearty power, trombonist Dave Bargeron for sass, his counterpart Art Baron for finesse, and tubaist Howard Johnson for lumbering ballet. (The band also features ace trumpeter Earl Gardner, tenor man Larry Schneider, bassist Mike Richmond, and Burhan Ocal on oud and saz, suggesting at least a couple of tunes with an Arabic flavor.) Taking another page from Ellington's book, Gruntz tailors his compositions to the personalities in his band; each tour features several new pieces to spotlight newly incorporated members, resulting in an evolving repertoire that fits the ensemble like a glove. You couldn't pay me to miss this one. Sunday, 5 PM, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Christian Vogt.

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