Jazz symphony sails the Chicago River

Chicago Symphony Orchestra rehearsing

Orbert Davis leads a rehearsal of faculty, students and other members of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic for their debut at Symphony Center. Photo: Chicago Jazz Philharmonic

When he’s not teaching UIC jazz students or leading the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, trumpeter Orbert Davis has been composing a jazz symphony to tell history through music — specifically, the mercurial history of the Chicago River.

Davis and his orchestra will perform “The Chicago River,” commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, in their debut at Symphony Center this Friday.

The symphony is the first of a new series, “Rivers: Nature. Power. Culture.”

The five-movement symphony will accompany dozens of projected historic photos that Davis chose from a 2011 book, The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond, by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams.

The book contains historic photos of the Chicago River from 1894 to 1928 that were lost for decades in the basement of a water reclamation plant.

The images document some of the reasons for the reversal of the Chicago River, such as refuse from tanneries and stockyards.

“From my first reading of the book, I was immediately hearing sounds. I was able to connect literally thousands of ideas and water/music parallels,” said Davis, clinical associate professor of jazz.

“I think the most compelling music is the second movement. I call it, ‘Brewing of the Toxic Stew.’”

The 60-member orchestra includes two other faculty members — drummer Ernie Adams and bassist Stewart Miller — and five UIC students: Erendira Izguerra on violin and saxophone, Justin Boyd, Jonathan Wenzel and Jonathan Reed on percussion and Sonam Dodhia on cello. Alumna Suzanne Osman will also play percussion.

“We have always included students in our performances,” Davis said.

“Playing in a professional setting is the ultimate educational experience.”

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