Anytime you try to combine jazz with classical music, you risk alienating both audiences. Jazz fans may worry the music will be too snoozy; classical fans may fret it will be too jazzy. We Minnesotans especially don’t want hot sauce on our hot dish.
Not to worry. “Dreaming the Duke,” at the Ordway on Sunday, won’t offend anyone and should please most, though it is described as “jazz meets classical.” It celebrates the music of Duke Ellington, who composed both classical music and jazz. (Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” is an orchestral suite; “A Tone Parallel to Harlem” is a sort of concerto grosso for symphony orchestra and jazz big band. Ellington’s collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, was a classically trained pianist.)
Commissioned by the Kennedy Center and first performed there in November 2008, “Dreaming the Duke” brings together jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, Metropolitan Opera soprano Harolyn Blackwell, and versatile pianist Mike Garson with a string quartet and five more musicians for an evening of Ellington hits (more accurately, Ellington-Strayhorn hits). Selections include “Prelude to a Kiss,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and “Love You Madly,” less familiar songs from Ellington’s oeuvre, and “Come Sunday” from “Black, Brown and Beige.”
I don’t know Blackwell or Garson, but I’m a longtime Nnenna Freelon admirer. The six-time Grammy nominee is a singer of style and substance, lovely to look at and possessing a beautiful voice.
“Dreaming the Duke” was Freelon’s idea. “I wanted to bring [Ellington’s] musical philosophy to the performing stage by combining two of his great loves — jazz and classical music,” she has said. “Harolyn was the first person I thought of as I began to dream about this project.”
“Dreaming the Duke,” Sunday, Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m., Ordway Center for the Arts ($25.50-$30.50). Box office, 651-224-4222.
More jazz picks for the weekend and into the week:
Friday and Saturday, Matt Slocum Trio. NYC drummer Slocum was born in St. Paul and raised in New Richmond, Wis. He studied with local hero Phil Hey and at USC with Peter Erskine and Shelly Berg, among others. This will be his Twin Cities debut as a bandleader; he’s bringing his first CD, “Portraits,” out last month, and two of the musicians heard on the recording: tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and bassist Massimo Biolcati. Wish alto sax player Jaleel Shaw could be here, too. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 19 and 20, Artists’ Quarter ($15).
Sunday-Tuesday, Ahmad Jamal. If there were justice in the world for jazz, people would line up around the block to see this show. Master of the ivories and jazz legend Jamal has a new CD, “A Quiet Time,” barely out but already acclaimed (DownBeat’s March issue praised its “exquisite touch, profound grace, [and] audacious maneuvers”). Jamal is up there in the jazz pantheon. Go if you can. Read last year’s MinnPost interview here. View a video from 2005 of Jamal playing his signature hit “Poinciana.” Sunday-Tuesday, Feb. 21-23, Dakota, http://www.dakotacooks.com 7 and 9:30 p.m. ($45-$25).
Thursday-Sunday, TU Dance at the Ritz. Heads up for next week’s TU Dance residency at the Ritz, featuring the Jeremy Walker Quartet and actor/musician friends Thomasina Petrus (“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”) and T. Mychael Rambo (“Caroline, or Change”). TU Dance’s Uri Sands drew on memories of Central Park to choreograph a series of new solos, duets and trios. Walker’s quartet — Jeremy on piano, Chris Thomson on tenor and soprano saxophones, Jeff Brueske on bass, Chicagoan Andre Beasley on drums — will play music by Coltrane and Mingus and originals by Walker; Petrus or Rambo (depending on the night) will sing. Watch for a review next Friday co-written with Ben Johnson, curator of dance for Northrop. “Live music plus dance has an intensity to it,” Walker told me earlier this week. “The program is about an hour long, about the length of a typical jazz set. It’s a very accessible way for people to get into both jazz and dance, very inviting.” Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 25-28, Ritz Theater, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday ($25/$22 students). Tickets online here or call 612-436-1129.