Holidays review- Chicago Philharmonic with Marcus Roberts Trio lights up the season

The Marcus Roberts Trio; Jason Marsalis, drums; Rodney Jordan, bass; and Marcus Roberts, piano; with Scott Speck conducting The Chicago Philharmonic; photo by Elliot Mandel
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On Sunday, December 8, 2019, Chicago Philharmonic led by Maestro Scott Speck continued their 30th Season, Family, with an exciting and engaging concert entitled Holidays featuring the Marcus Roberts Trio, at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St., Chicago. A fine event with a definite holiday spirit, swinging hot and highly jazz inflected in the second half, the afternoon was an infectious joy filled crowd pleaser. 


  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Christmas Overture, 1900

The Overture is far from simply a potpourri of Christmas tunes; it is well-crafted and reveals direction, a sense of purpose and consistency, containing a deal of original material unrelated to Christmas carols. It does, however, contain a good “workout” of Good King WenceslasHark the Herald Angels and God rest you, merry gentlemen, which the Philharmonic presented with insouciant ease. 

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, arr. Aleksandr Gauk December from The Seasons, Op. 37a, 1876

The Seasons is a set of twelve short character pieces composed for solo piano, originally commissioned to be inserted individually in a Russian magazine each month for an entire year. Each piece is meant to reflect the characteristic of a different month of the year in Russia.  Individual excerpts have always been popular, and the work is also heard in orchestral and other arrangements. 

Arranged by Gauk in 1942, this last segment is among the least well known. Sprightly and upbeat, it contains a sparkling, lovely waltzing melody.  Speck and the Philharmonic, still in the course of regular performances of the Joffrey Nutcracker, gave this little gem a bright polish. 

The next and largest portion of the concert involved the combined efforts of the acclaimed Marcus Roberts Trio playing with the Philharmonic.  How is it that the numerous members of a classical orchestra can fit so cunningly together with such a strongly styled 3-person jazz trio? The answer lies first in the nature of the music itself, then in the flexible abilities of the musicians. Jazz evolved as a bridge of cultural fusion, creating compositional formulas for improvisation on a global scale. In jazz, rhythm is the motivational conduit for melodic and harmonic exploration.

Conductor Scott Speck leads Chicago Philharmonic in “Holidays:Marcus Roberts Trio”
  • Duke Ellington/ Billy Strayhorn The Nutcracker Suite, 1960

The Nutcracker Suite is an album recorded by American composer, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington for Columbia Records in 1960 featuring jazz interpretations of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, (1892) arranged by Ellington and his frequent collaborator, composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn. While both arrangers obviously respected the underlying themes of the classic original, this version seems both new and fresh as well as an homage to the original masterpiece, itself crafted by a master orchestrator. The differences are in the order and title of the movements, in the using of massed winds and brass rather than massed strings, and in the addition of jazz beats, textures, and harmonies.

The Philharmonic and The Marcus Roberts Trio played the entire Orchestral version, in order. The titles of the segments from the Ellington Strayhorn Nutcracker Suite and their corresponding titles from the original are as follows:

  1. Overture
  2. Toot Toot Tootie Toot (“Dance of the Mirlitons”)
  3. Danse of the Floreadores (“Waltz of the Flowers”)
  4. Sugar Rum Cherry (“Dance of the Sugar-Plum Cherry”)
  5. Peanut Brittle Brigade (“March”)

The Overture transforms the delicacy of the original to an easy stride, with some unusual syncopated counterpoint. Toot Toot Tootie Toot begins with highly original solo winds and percussion; when the Tchaikovsky theme appears, it does so with added dissonance and counterpoint.  Danse of the Floreadores rocks Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” into a dazzling wind/brass exploration while The Sugar-Plum Fairy transmuted into Sugar Rum Cherry sports a suggestive saxophone solo. Finally, Peanut Brittle Brigade is a driving big-band escapade with heaps of parallel chords emanating from the saxophones. 

Some of the pieces seem to use the original as a takeoff point, others actually seem like new renditions of Tchaikovsky, particularly Sugar Rum Cherry. Throughout, there were plenty of opportunities for unabashedly demonstrative and compelling solos.

It would be difficult to exaggerate Ellington’s contributions to jazz; certainly he elevated orchestral jazz to its height, writing specific portions to emphasize the individual performers. The uniting of jazz’s rhythmic and instrumental characteristics with the scale and structure of an orchestra helped to create its unique sound and open it up to audiences like the one at the Harris Theatre.

The Marcus Roberts Trio joins Chicago Philharmonic at The Harris Theatre, December 8, 2019
  • George Gershwin Concerto in F, 1925

This complex and wonderfully rendered version of Gershwin’s superb concerto opened with a knockout first movement: exciting percussion/drum rhythms, stated and repeated, leading into the famous “Charleston” motif, followed by serene/playful themes, and then the complicated layering of multiple melodic lines simultaneously. This music, its symphonic nature inviting elaboration and development, sounded spontaneous and free. 

The second movement Andante switched moods to a prowling in the night, poetic, romantic bluesy feel, particularly difficult to perform on the piano, sumptuously accompanied by the strings, which sound like banjos! 

The final movement can well be described as an explosion of rhythm, beginning almost violently and proceeding pell mell throughout, with the Trio displaying the equal opportunity for shaping musical direction for which they are known. The piece was delivered with a striking emotional impact, Orchestra and Trio coalescing in a fluid meld.

With the partnership in equal measure of master pianist Marcus Roberts, the superb Jason Marsalis on drums, and Rodney Jordan virtuoso and vivid on double bass, this work was rendered classically precise yet colorfully jazzy. Roberts proved himself, as always, a powerful articulator of the complex, tricky rhythms, and the concert ended with joyful applause, bringing on the delightful encore, for which the Marcus Roberts Trio returned to Gershwin.

  • In encore, George Gershwin, I Got Rhythm, 1930

This beloved jazz standard began with Marcus Roberts fondling the ivories, tinkling out the famous “rhythm changes”, playfully inviting his bandmates to join in. The impossible to mistake melody rises and falls with syncopated, witty rhythm, a memorial to the Gershwins (Ira wrote the lyrics) and to 20’s swing. 

Maestro Scott Speck onstage with Chicago Philharmonic at The Harris Theater, Chicago, for “Holidays: The Marcus Roberts Trio”

For information and tickets to all the fine programming of Chicago Philharmonic, go to

All photos by Elliot Mandel.

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