Pick of the Week: CJO w/ Franc West: ‘Jazz and Other Genres’ in Youngstown (Feb. 8) and Cleveland (Feb. 9)

The Cleveland Jazz Orchestra large ensemble gives two performances this weekend of “Jazz & Other Genres, Classic Tunes, Contemporary Styles.” The group will appear at Stambaugh Auditorium in Youngstown on Friday and at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland on Saturday. Both shows start at 8 p.m.

Working with Cleveland R&B vocalist Franc West, CJO will present new arrangements of songs from across the pop music spectrum: rock, country, gospel, blues, R&B, Brazilian and hip-hop (but, apparently and notably, not Great American Songbook fare). Led by trumpeter Sean Jones and featuring a host of Cleveland’s best jazz musicians, CJO always brings the goods. I’m not really familiar with West’s work, but sample tracks on his website leave little doubt he’ll be adding a heavy dose of soul to the proceedings.

Breaking away from the Great American Songbook can be a shaky proposition for jazz groups that feature a vocalist. Blues, of course, isn’t an issue for them. And groups generally seem at home with gospel, R&B and Brazilian songs. But for whatever reason (reduced emphasis on melodic/harmonic complexity? poor song choice? less-than-authentic connection to the music?), rock and country songs don’t always translate well into the jazz idiom. Hip-hop has worked well with jazz, but such concoctions can, as with rock/jazz and country/jazz mixes, sacrifice too much of the unique character of each form to be convincing as a whole. Still, simply trotting out the tried and true GAS numbers can amount to little more than museum work. So it’s good to see CJO continuing to reach for more. Maybe all these arrangements won’t work, but who cares? With CJO’s track record, the program should, at the very least, be an interesting experiment. And I’m guessing it’ll be a good deal more than that.

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