When Chicago pianist Miguel de la Cerna was growing up on the South Side, the sound of jazzand blues, gospel and funk, R&B and soul was everywhere. It blasted out of clubs and apartments, car radios and storefronts, inspiring a kid growing up near 41st Street and Berkeley Avenue to build his life in music.
Now de la Cerna, 51, has tried to translate what he calls “the landscape” of his musical childhood into an ambitious composition that will receive its world premiere Sunday evening at the Music Institute of Chicago. But de la Cerna’s “Livingston 8 – A Fantasy” veers far from the jazz-band settings where listeners usually encounter him.
Instead, he has scored the piece for the Orion Ensemble, a classical chamber group that commissioned him to write the work for its “Chamber Treasures Meet Chicago Jazz” concert, which will be repeated in Chicago on Wednesday and Geneva on May 13 after Sunday night’s premiere.
Before the Orion Ensemble approached him about the venture, he never had entertained creating such an opus.
“I was kind of nervous at first,” he says. “But I had to kind of jump at the challenge, and that’s how it happened.”
Actually, it was a bit more complicated than that. Even after he accepted the commission, he thought he might write a thorny, 12-tone work that he believed might suit the high-toned classical aesthetic of Orion.
“I had been listening to a lot of Gunther Schuller and things like that,” adds de la Cerna, referring to a major American composer who’s proficient in both classical and jazz idioms.
But Florentina Ramniceanu, the Orion violinist who originated the idea of the commission, “said they wanted me to write from my heart – what I feel.”
Not that 12-tone music can’t have plenty of heart, as many works of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg attest. Yet de la Cerna took Ramniceanu’s advice as a cue to think beyond compositional technique and reach for something bigger and deeper. This led him to thoughts of his childhood on the South Side and the transformative effect music of that corner of the world has had on his life.
The phrase that kept coming to mind was “Livingston 8,” the prefix of what was then his home phone number (back when phone numbers had names such as Graceland and Orchard). The numerals 548 spell out “Livingston 8,” and de la Cerna – who apparently is fascinated by numerology – used those numbers as the basis for many of the chords and intervals of his suite.
Unless you’re a trained musician equipped to study the score, however, the numerology behind it will be imperceptible. But the period-piece sounds of the suite should be hard to miss.
“The piece has a variety of styles: funk, jazz, even rock-and-roll,” says Kathryne Pirtle, executive director and clarinetist of the Orion Ensemble. “I think the audience is going to appreciate what this piece is saying, especially with Miguel there to talk about it.”
But can a classical chamber ensemble really finesse such eclectic fare – particularly when the music is scored for violin, cello, clarinet and piano, not exactly the instrumentation of hits from the ’50s through the ’70s.
“He’s written things out very well,” says Pirtle. “It’s not technically difficult. It’s really about how you accent the notes. It’s just following what he wrote, and listening to him play his part, and listening to him. …
“All of us in the group have experience playing jazz, even in orchestral settings, jazz and rock-and-roll, just through the music we’ve played throughout our lives.
“When he’s writing in a certain style – funk or rock-and-roll – everybody knows what he’s talking about.”
Whether this music – and the Orion’s performance of it – sounds true to these idioms won’t be known until Sunday evening. But, at the very least, de la Cerna believes he has sketched the soundtrack of his youth. Or at least tried to.
“Normally, I write with a client in mind, and they say: ‘We need this and we need that, can you do it?’ And I provide that,” says de la Cerna, who left Chicago in 1988 for more than a decade of touring the globe before returning here in 1999.
“This was: ‘Here’s a blank canvas. Just go for what you know,’” adds de la Cerna, whose composition will appear on a program that also includes a clarinet-and-piano arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and a quartet by Gabriel Faure.
“It was an extreme challenge, and I’m glad that they asked me to do it. We’ll soon see if I rose to the challenge.”
“Chamber Treasures Meet Chicago Jazz,” featuring Miguel de la Cerna and the Orion Ensemble, will be performed 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Memorial Hall, 430 S. Michigan Ave.; and 7 p.m. May 13 at Fox Valley Presbyterian Church, 227 East Side Drive, Geneva; $10-$26; 630-628-9591 or orionensemble.org
Also worth hearing
Cyrus Chestnut: The ebullient pianist brings the church-music sensibility of his youth to his jazz improvisations. An accomplished technician as well as an engaging performer, Chestnut appeals to connoisseurs and casual listeners alike. He’ll lead a trio. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.
Matt Wilson: Drummer Wilson has a deft touch and a nimble technique, though his solos can sound a bit anemic. He brings his Arts & Crafts ensemble, with trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist-keyboardist Gary Versace and bassist Martin Wind. 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.
Poncho Sanchez and Terence Blanchard: Conguero Sanchez and trumpeter Blanchard celebrated the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo in their recent album “Chano y Dizzy,” and they’ll explore that repertoire in this concert, titled “Cubana Be! Cubana Bop! A Tribute to Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie.” 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.; $34 to $38; 773-728-6000 or oldtownschool.org.
Cecile Savage: The bassist-vocalist appears under the auspices of the non-profit Hyde Park Jazz Society, which presents these uncommonly intimate weekly sessions. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; valet parking available; hydeparkjazzsociety.com.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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