CJO Leader Questions JazzFest Critic
September 11, 2012
Dear Chicago Jazz Lovers,
I am compelled to comment on Howard Reich’s review of the Chicago Jazz Festival’s opening night performance, “Jazz Fest Launches with a Warm Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald” published on August 31 by the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune, one of the world’s great newspapers, includes on its staff fine music journalists who are capable of thorough research, perceptive listening, and faithful written musical analysis (e.g., John von Rhein). Based on this review (and many previous Howard Reich reviews), however, Mr. Reich is clearly not one of them.
In this review, Mr. Reich glossed over the unique essence of Thursday’s tribute: the performance of Ella Fitzgerald’s original Songbook arrangements, including masterful scores by Nelson Riddle, Billy Strayhorn, and others. Instead, Mr. Reich chose to devote space to superficial and peripheral comments, like his contrived criticism about the use of “clichés” in the spoken introduction (which is very ironic, given that in his writings Mr. Reich has singlehandedly made banal such adjectives as “incendiary,” “bluesy,” and “blues-tinged” by his overuse of them) and the order in which the vocalists sang on the program. With that criticism, Mr. Reich revealed complete ignorance about the vocal demands of this music.
The worst omissions of this review, however, were regarding the orchestra itself. Even though there were nine different instrumental soloists during the performance, Mr. Reich did not mention a single one. Any person who has researched the Ella Songbook recordings (or is, at the very least, somewhat familiar with them) would know that instrumental soloists are also integral to those recordings. Mr. Reich did not even notice that the Chicago Jazz Orchestra was augmented by 17 string players, three French hornists, an extra percussionist, harpist, flutist and oboist––the instrumentation also being an essential element of the tribute. The orchestra included diverse personnel drawn from symphony and opera musicians (players from the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra and the Chicago Sinfonietta, and players who have performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra, etc.) and jazz musicians with experience in such organizations as the Count Basie, Ray Charles, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, and Maynard Ferguson orchestras. Mr. Reich completely avoided discussion of the CJO’s role in performing the accompaniments as they were originally recorded. Perhaps he did so because he simply could not discern the exceptional qualities of playing required of the orchestra’s musicians in order to bring this music to life: fine blend and balance, correct intonation of sophisticated jazz chords, and extremely nuanced phrasing and accompaniment, among other qualities.
Mr. Reich is certain to counter this letter by saying that, in his review, he called the CJO “splendid” and described the music as “sumptuously accompanied.” But the question is: why did not Mr. Reich devote more space to the orchestra to more specifically describe what actually occurred Thursday evening? There can be only two reasons: 1) Mr. Reich is incapable of hearing the intricacies of these arrangements and subtleties of this music, and is therefore unable to write about them; or 2) Mr. Reich is consciously avoiding discussion of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra for personal reasons, or because of some sort of political, non-musical agenda. The former reason would be due to incompetence; the latter a result of bias, journalistic irresponsibility and, ultimately, incompetence as well.
Tribune readers, the Chicago Jazz community, and the entire Chicago Arts community deserve better.
Jeff Lindberg, Artistic Director
Chicago Jazz Orchestra
Cc: Howard Reich