Evening of Gershwin and Ellington - with a touch of Dexter Gordon

Saxophonist Dexter Gordon's recent appearances with the New York Philharmonic here at Avery Fisher Hall were his first public performances in more than four years. The veteran jazz musician has been in a different kind of limelight this past year with his starring role in the movie ``Round Midnight'' and subsequent Grammy Award nomination. The program, ``Gershwin and Ellington: American Masters,'' included Gershwin's ``Catfish Row Suite'' from ``Porgy and Bess'' and his Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra; excerpts from Duke Ellington's ``Suite from The River;'' and a composition by David Baker, comissioned by the New York Philharmonic, entitled ``Ellingtones, A Fantasy for Saxophone and Orchestra.''

Overall, the performance I attended, which opened with the Gershwin pieces, was a disappointment for two reasons: Although Mr. Gordon was the draw of the evening, he played only on one piece; and the concert tended to magnify the problems so often found in attempts at jazz/classical crossover. Gershwin's ``Catfish Row Suite,'' essentially a medley of songs from ``Porgy and Bess,'' is a wonderful example of his peerless songwriting and arranging skill. It was effectively played by the Philharmonic, conducted by James DePreist, music director of the Oregon Symphony. But the Concerto in F, though it was skillfully played by pianist Leon Bates, is a stilted, self-conscious attempt at ``jazzed-up'' classics, much in the same vein as ``Rhapsody in Blue,'' but without the latter's endearing melodies.

The Ellington work, by contrast, succeeded because Ellington was not only an excellent arranger, but, unlike Gershwin, a genuine jazz composer. The excerpts from his ``River'' suite are full of rich orchestral sonorities. Ellington, who was wise enough to know that classically trained musicians are not usually equipped to play with a swing feel (even if the composer has attempted to write such a feel into the score), composed in a manner compatible with the concept of classically trained musicians, yet still well grounded in the jazz idiom.

The Baker commission, however, was another unfortunate example of the academic approach to jazz composition. The work, which Baker himself explained in the lengthy program notes, was intended to capture the spirit of Ellington's music by incorporating some of his stylistic approaches as well as a number of his actual songs (``Caravan,'' ``All Too Soon,'' ``Drop Me Off in Harlem,'' etc.) into an extended work. Despite some truly pretty arranging and original melodies - notably a serene waltz scored for muted strings and woodwinds in the second movement - the piece was generally a disjointed hodgepodge.

Gordon, who appeared to be bored by the whole thing, played his saxophone with deliberation but little inspiration. His improvised solo sections were too short and often drowned out by the orchestra. Ironically, the piece closed with a theme based on Ellington's ``It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing.''

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