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« My Chicago Bucket List: The LIST Review: Chicago SketchFest 2012 Day 2 @ Stage 773 »

Performance Fri Jan 06 2012

Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah


Through George Frederic Handel's classic oratorio, Messiah, the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University hosts the return of Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah, a tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Featuring more than 200 musicians, including Chicago-based soloists Rodrick Dixon, Karen Marie Richardson and Alfreda Burke, this jazzy version of Messiah is sure to capture the spirit and message of the late civil rights leader. Here, pianist and composer Alvin Waddles talks about this special Chicago performance.

You're a Detroit native--did growing up in a city with such a rich musical culture have any influence on you becoming interested in music?

I was fortunate enough to have parents who recognized my musical ability from the age of 8 and I had a wonderful teacher who exposed me to a lot of different musical genres. From the time I started, I heard all kinds of music--classical, along with a lot of jazz and gospel, so that helped to shape and motivate me. Because I was exposed to so many different types of music, I think it helped to form my style.

You are a classically trained musician--what steered you in that direction as opposed to strictly staying with gospel or soul music?

The teacher I had was always a proponent of keeping an open mind and listening to all sorts of music and as I would listen to something and like it, I'd study it and try to play it. As I grew up, I realized I didn't want to be restricted to just classical music; I wasn't interested in that "singular" career and started to explore other venues. The most important thing was my parents and my teachers taught me to just not be afraid.

Throughout your career, you have worked with many different artists from a variety of genres: Aretha Franklin, Placido Domingo, and Stephanie Mills, to name a few. How did those collaborations come about?

A lot of it just happened. I met Aretha Franklin because for a long time, I was the minister of music at New Bethel Baptist Church, which was her father's [Rev. C.L. Franklin's] church. I had the opportunity to work with her a couple of times. I met Placido Domingo in Los Angeles and then I met him again in Chicago at the Chicago Lyric Opera during a performance. I met Stephanie Mills through George Faison, the Tony Award-winning choreographer from The Wiz, and we had an opportunity to work together in Detroit years ago on a production he directed and choreographed and that I was the musical director for. Basically, one connection tends to lead to another.

You've been the musical director for a number of theatrical shows including West Side Story and A Chorus Line. Do you favor musical theater over regular concert performances?

Every project has its own merit and its own attraction. I like musical theater and the collaborative aspect of it. I was fortunate when I was at University of Michigan to be part of some musical theater as a performer, so it helps to understand what they go through to know how you as a musician should support them. It's fun and it's a different experience--doing the same thing all the time gets monotonous, so it's nice to do different things. And actors are so entirely different than musicians--that in itself is a bit of a rush. Singers are one thing, but singer-actors are something else entirely.

How did you become involved with Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah?

It's a classic work and I actually started doing it in Detroit. The conductor for the Chicago performance, Suzanne Acton, is from the Detroit area; it did well there, they heard about it in Chicago and wanted us to do it. The rest of the orchestra is contracted out of Chicago which is nice because there are some amazing musicians in Chicago. We kind of keep the core feeling in place, but the Chicago musicians add a totally different flavor to it.

Tell us what we'll see from this performance.

It's very interesting--it's best described as kind of a high-octane version of Messiah. There are about 44 pieces in the actual version and in this production, we probably do about 27 of them. It's very true to the original work and gospel, rock, jazz--and even some R&B--creeps in there. It is like a reimagining of a work that's very well known and well respected; even for people who do love the original or traditional version of Messiah, it gives them a different outlook on it. It has an immediate appeal because of the original quality of the arranging, which lends itself to a lot of improvisation. Every time we do it, it's different.

Traditionally, during the King Holiday, there are always lots of concerts, theatrical performances and other tributes in his honor--how does this one stand apart?

I don't know another show like Too Hot to Handel; it's a very good show with some world class musicians and you're not likely to see anything like it any other time of year. The first couple of years we did it in Detroit, we did it around Christmas, but it takes on a different meaning when you do it around the King Holiday. There are so many people onstage from different walks of life and it really speaks to a sort of ethnic and cultural unity by bringing people together around a common theme--not necessarily just a Christian theme, even though Messiah is based in Christian philosophy, it speaks to much broader issues of love, togetherness and working toward a common cause. These are all the things that are the embodiment of what Dr. King spoke of and worked towards. I think you can't find a better tribute to what Dr. King worked for his entire life.

See Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Saturday, Jan. 14 at 7:30pm and Sunday, Jan. 15 at 3pm. Tickets are $30-$72 and are on sale online, at the box office or by phone 1-800-982-2787.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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