Composer, Arranger and Jazz Saxophonist


02 January 2013

Chicago Tribune Sea Songs - Preview

Published Mar 14, 2011 - By Howard Reich Chicago Tribune

Can the poetry of Emily Dickenson be set to jazz?

And what about e.e. cummings and Robert Creeley – can their distinctive poetic voices sway to a jazz beat?

Three noted Chicago artists think so, and they've spent the past year toiling to prove it, conceiving a 45-minute suite that will receive its world premiere performances this weekend.

At the very least, "Sea Songs" should make a bit of musical history, in that it's penned for soprano saxophone, jazz string quintet and 24-voice choir – not exactly conventional forces.

"All the poems have posed challenges," concedes saxophonist Jim Gailloreto, one of Chicago's more accomplished jazz musicians and composer of "Sea Songs."

"But as I always tell my students: Just sit down in front of your paper or computer, try not to judge what happens – just let the ideas come out of your head."

They started bubbling up in Gailloreto's mind about a year ago, when he attended a performance of Chicago's venerable William Ferris Chorale and "was floored," he says, by the group's gorgeous sound and technical acuity. So Gailloreto immediately contacted artistic director John Vorrasi and music director Paul French, suggesting they collaborate on a jazz opus.

French quickly realized that "nobody is writing music for the kind of ensemble Jim had in mind," he says. Plus, "we had a hole in the schedule."

Vorrasi began rooting around for poetry that Gailloreto might use as text and found several works that dealt with water, though Vorrasi says doesn't know exactly why he picked that theme.

Then the struggles began.

"When I got the poems, I thought: 'These are not what I would have picked,' "says Gailloreto. "But then I thought, 'Let's see what happens.' So I started reading about them, and I got into it."

Certainly the works Vorrasi selected seem to lend themselves to jazz expression. Dickenson's "Wild Nights," for instance, portrays torrid sensuality, complete with the metaphoric rocking motion of a boat. Cummings' "maggie, milly, molly and may" explores the wonders of the seashore and the vast emotional reactions it evokes. Creeley's "Water Music" ponders the beauty of the sea – and the language we use to describe it.

Not surprisingly, Gailloreto felt comfortable composing for saxophone and strings but found himself, well, somewhat at sea writing for two dozen voices.

"I wrote the music, but Paul (French) spent hours with me manicuring the scores, making them appropriate for vocals," says Gailloreto.

Adds French, "We would get together during the compositional process, and he was writing elegant, virtuosic music for strings. … My job was to say: 'Come on, Jim, you need to make it more challenging for the singers.'"

Whether the suite ultimately sounds like jazz, classical or some odd mixture of the two won't be known until Saturday and Sunday's performances, in Chicago-area churches. But Gailloreto believes he has figured out how to bridge the two worlds.

"I didn't want the singers in there scatting … I don't want them to swing," says Gailloreto. "I'm not asking them to do anything they're not trained to do.

"But the content has jazz harmony. Plus, when you hear a jazz saxophone improvising over that, the listeners can hear that this comes from the world of jazz. …

"Anyway, I don't think this has been done before."

That's putting it mildly.

"Sea Songs" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University, 1032 W. Sheridan Rd.; and 3 p.m. March 20 at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 203 S. Kensington Ave., La Grange; $20-$25; 773-508-2940 or



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