Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) Celebrates University of Kansas Basketball Greats with “Rock Chalk Suite” (ALBUM REVIEW)

The release of this project from the JLCO celebrating the greats of the University of Kansas basketball greats was obviously timed to coincide with March Madness. So, because the sports world, and many other aspects of our daily lives are not shut down, this may be a vicarious way to experience the basketball we don’t have this year. Yes, it’s an unusual project. Why Kansas? For the vast network of Kansas Jayhawks worldwide, there is a singular reverence for the sport. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas observed, “If you love basketball; if you love and respect the history of the game, every road leads back  to Lawrence, Kansas.”

Here is the Executive Director of Lied Center of Kansas, Derek Kwan – “As we prepared to celebrate the Lied Center’s 25th anniversary throughout the 2018–2019 season, our goal was to create an indelible sense of community. It was decided that an anchor of this milestone season would be the debut of a new work. To avoid commissioning a piece that would be mostly forgotten after its premiere, we found inspiration in KU basketball. As a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center family since 2000, I knew many members of the JLCO loved hoops, was aware of David Stern’s service on the board, and had heard Wynton philosophize about the parallels between jazz and basketball. So, in 2015, we pitched the idea of commissioning each member of the JLCO to compose a movement in a collective suite honoring 15 KU basketball luminaries. Wynton and JALC’s Concerts & Touring team agreed to pursue what would eventually become Rock Chalk Suite. Our work within the KU community then began in earnest. Through extremely heated discussions, an advisory committee established a list of over 60 KU basketball luminaries before paring it down to 15. We then worked to engage individual sponsors for each of the 15 movements.”

As Marsalis says, both basketball and jazz “reward improvisation and split-second decision making against the pressure of time,” and the JLCO’s composers have turned the Jayhawks’ rich basketball history into a stylish album. This is the third JLCO project we have covered on these pages so most should be familiar with the musicians in the JLCO. On certain performances, there are substitutes but you may want to search previous posts. Here are the specific performances, composers, and soloists:

The suite was first performed at The University of Kansas on October 1, 2018 and later recorded on April 11-13 at the JLCO’s Frederick P. Rose Hall.  Notably, you’ll hear snippets of the Harlem Globetrotters theme in the piece for Lynette Woodward, the only female ever asked to join the iconic team. Also, while all are instrumental except “Truth” for Paul Pierce, Chris Crenshaw’s vocal on that tune is quite good. Finally, you’ll note the incorporation of the Kansas fight song into the last piece. 

The JLCO has been criticized in some quarters for not being progressive enough, making jazz a kind of “museum piece.” This work certainly negates that perception. This is bright, playful, energetic music with each piece about four minutes in length so the solos are appropriately crisp and impactful. 

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