“Too Hot To Handel” The Jazz Gospel Messiah

chi-20130117-chicago-weekend-events-pictures-009Reviewed By: RUSSELL GOELTENBODT

One of the famous psalms from the Bible reads, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord with sounds of trumpets, lutes, harps and voices”. The performance last weekend of “Too Hot to Handel” (The Jazz Gospel Messiah), which celebrates the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Roosevelt’s Auditorium Theater, proved this psalm to be true in every possible way.

Personally singing in various choirs over the past 35 years, I have had the opportunity to experience many great musical pieces, classical, liturgical, and contemporary. The musical work of Georg Frederick Handel’s “Messiah” that was adapted to a Gospel-Jazz arrangement is something that I have never experienced or have enjoyed so much. The creative team of the original conductor, Marin Alsop, along with co-originators Gary Anderson, and Bob Christianson created this gospel /jazz adaptation of the ” Messiah” in 1992. The creative team decided their adaptation would take the original composition from the Messiah and would encompass jazz, rock, gospel, and funk, to break the classical barrier. Their efforts resulted with a swinging performance of the traditional oratorio “that breaks the traditional classical sound barrier”. Alsop also wanted to have the audience experience this work by inviting them to participate by clapping, swaying, and physically involving themselves with the composition, while ignoring the quiet, dignified, polite protocol of a classical concert.

The conductor of this work is Suzanne Mallare Acton, who was brought to Chicago from Detroit by Auditorium Theater Executive Director, Brett Batterson. Mr. Batterson arrived from Detroit in 2004 to begin work at the Auditorium Theater. One of his first initiatives as Executive Director was to bring “Too Hot to Handel” from Detroit to Chicago. Along with Ms. Acton, Batterson also contacted esteemed singers Alfreda Burke and Roderick Dixon to discuss the Chicago production. Together they met with Chicago’s Old St. Patrick Church music Director, Bill Fraher to collaborate on this work. Fraher had been familiar with “Too Hot to Handel” since attending the performance in New York in 1998 and had introduced and directed a number of musical pieces from this work for an Old St. Pat’s Christmas concert in 2000. With this creative team on board, Batterson was able to premier this work at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theater in 2005, and has continued to do so for the past 8 years to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I will have to admit, before walking in the theater I did not know what to expect. I had seen a preview of the Halleluiah Chorus on a local news show this past week, and was not impressed. The preview had 25% of the choir, with piano accompanying. This was a stretch from the 120 member choir and the 60 piece orchestra that performed at the concert. By the way, the entire choir and orchestra would not fit in the television studio space. Therefore, providing the minimal television preview was not necessary and led to an incorrect impression on my part. If this work was to be aired as a preview, it should have been taped with the entire production. Anything less, provided an incorrect impression of this fabulous performance.

The 120 plus member choir, consisted of local participants combined with members of Detroit’s Rackham Symphony Choir, which are imported for the Chicago production to bring familiarity for this difficult piece of music to the other members of the choir. This suggestion was made by Maestro Acton, who has brought the Rackham Choir to Chicago since the Chicago inception. I must say that I really enjoyed watching the choir and really yearned to be a part of it. Their combined musical talents were fabulous. However, watching the choir on stage moving with the music and having a great time is something that you usually don’t witness when seeing and hearing the classical version of the Messiah. This year, three video screens were provided above the stage, so the audience could witness individuals and groups from the choir and orchestra perform, along with the three soloists. This was a great initiative by the directors. Usually the soloists are the featured performers during this type of concert, and the choir is their back up. The video screening made everyone participating at the concert a featured performer, not just the soloists. This was also evident during the final curtain call where Ms. Acton made certain that each performer received the proper recognition.

The vocal soloists included the husband and wife duo of Alfreda Burke and Roderick Dixon, who have also been involved with the Chicago production of “Too Hot to Handel” since its 2004 inception. Alto, Karen Marie Richardson provided the gospel jazzy contrast to the classically trained voices of Burke and Dixon. Ms. Richardson’s musical counterpart to the choir brought the gospel contrast to the piece where you felt you were in church. Ms. Richardson’s beautiful musical interpretation and facial expressions added to the excitement of the music that she was singing. Alfreda Burke’s powerful soprano voice provided the classical contrast that was required to balance the composition. When I reviewed Ms. Burke in November for her performance with Rod Dixon for their cabaret show, “Songs of a Dream”, I commented that I was not certain if cabaret was a proper experience for her classical voice. Witnessing her performance in “Too Hot Too Handel” confirmed my original thought that Ms. Burke’s forte is classical voice, and not cabaret. She proved the truth to my statement very well during this performance. Roderick Dixon’s rousing tenor was flawless. His voice is soothing and warm. Mr. Dixon’s phrasing and passion for the songs he is singing is very apparent from his facial expressions and body movements. Rod Dixon along with Alfreda Burke and Karen Marie Richardson proved to be a strong part of this production along with the orchestra and choir.

The orchestra under the direction of Suzanne Acton provided the unique direction of the Messiah moving the tone from classical to gospel, to jazz, to rock, to blues and Latin. The orchestra featured many fine solo performances for trumpet, trombone, bass, drums, sax, bass guitar, electric guitar, and finally piano. The pianist, Alvin B. Waddles, III, was fabulous. Mr. Waddles further proved his talent during the final part of the performance when he played an improvisation consisting of various musical stylings of Fats Waller, Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, to name a few, and many other great musical composers. His performance brought the audience to their feet with applause.

The freshness and the freedom of “Too Hot to Handel” provided a unique musical experience that left many smiling faces, including mine when we left the Auditorium Theater. It is an experience I will never forget. “Too Hot to Handel” is a concert not to be missed when it returns next January. It has run every year in January during the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, and hopefully will continue the tradition for many years to come. I know I am looking forward to seeing it again next year. Who knows, maybe I will audition for the choir. I know it would be great fun to perform with these talented musicians.

“Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah” performed at The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University January 19-20, 2013.