Story by Brad Walseth and Photos by John Broughton
Pianist and composer Robert Irving III brought his new 34-piece ensemble, called the Sonic Portraits Orchestra, to the Pritzker Pavillion Thursday, August 13. Special guests, including trumpeter Wallace Roney, guitarist Fareed Haque, drummer Charles "Rick" Heath, and percussionists Dede Sampaio and Felipe Fraga, joined the orchestra, which also included Miles Evans, son of the late arranger Gil Evans. This was entirely appropriate as Irving, a former Miles Davis band member, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans masterpiece, Sketches of Spain,was debuting a new work entitled Sketches of Brazil. Following the lead of Davis and Evans' Quiet Nights recording, Irving sought to utilize Evans-like orchestral colors to explore the music of the southern American continent, while also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the death of the great Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa Lobos. And with special guest Roney - perhaps the finest of the young trumpeters to follow in Davis' footsteps playing the part, there was an anticipatory mood in the large crowd.
The Jazz Links kids opened the concert again, this time in a quartet setting and they played an Eric Alexander, along with some originals by saxophonist Tim Bennett. The set was enjoyable and very well-played. It is always a pleasure to see these young performers who will hopefully continue to keep the great tradition of jazz alive here in Chicago. The Jazz Institute deserves credit for this wonderful educational program.
The Sonic Portraits Orchestra eased into the concert and it was clear that Irving had put in a considerable amount of time and care into writing brilliant arrangements, which exhibited the colors and spirit of Evans. A great cheer went up from the audience when after the orchestral opening, Haque began playing on his guitar. Roney later picked up the mantle, delighting the audience with his masterful trumpet work, while the always-exciting Charles Heath contributed explosions of rhythm.
Irving's arrangement of Villa Lobos' "The Jet," originally written for cello and flute, featred Felipe Braga on percussion and reminded one of how wonderful and under-appreciated the great Villa Lobos is here in North America. "Song for the Rainforest" brought the jungle alive, complete with birdcalls from the horn section. Building subtly around the guitar and strings, Irving seemed content to conduct. Roney was featured to good effect, the vamp turned into an urban groove and Irving hit the piano to showcase his stunning skills. At one point in this fascinating piece, Irvings piano shimmered like water and you could almost visualize the streaming Amazon. Inspired by a colorful painting by Brazilian artist Totonho, which juxtaposes industrialization with natural rainforest beauty, this piece was incredible!
Of course, no Brazilian concert would be complete without a taste of Carnivale, and Irving's samba brought out some scantily-clad dancers to shake to the percussion section's beat. This addictive number highlighted the delicious interplay between the sections, while again Irving treated the audience to magic whenever he touched the ivories.
Irving's "Havilah" - written for, but never performed by, Miles, was given a lovely treatment by Roney on his muted horn, and the concert ended with a version of "Will O' the Wisp" (from Sketches of Spain). Or so I am told. I unfortunately, had to leave and missed this last selection, but I am sure the Sonic Portraits Orchestra and their talented leader did justice to this number and look forward to seeing this group together for years to come.