Orbert Davis

photo: courtesy of obert davis

The composer’s Chicago Jazz Philharmonic joins with the River North Dance Chicago troupe to premiere Havana Blue this weekend.

Orbert Davis is no stranger to taking on big projects. The trumpeter and composer’s Chicago Jazz Philharmonic—a 50+ member ensemble exploring the “third stream” intersection of classical and jazz music—is in itself a massive undertaking.

But this weekend at the Auditorium Theatre, Davis and the CJP are only one half of the equation in Havana Blue, a world premiere collaboration with the River North Dance Chicago troupe.

Here, Davis talks about finding inspiration in a trip to Cuba with River North Artistic Director Frank Chaves, composing for dancers and bringing a little taste of Havana to Chicago.

Talk about the experience of visiting Cuba in preparation for this project. How do you feel that trip helped influence the final piece?
I feel like for me the trip helped take it from a one-dimensional experience to a three-dimensional experience—like low-res to high-res. Without actually going down there to interact with the people and the places on a first-hand basis, this all would have just been book knowledge. Now I feel like I have a deeply personal connection to the culture, so that when I’m composing I can see the buildings and feel the people and taste the food.

Describe the process of collaborating on something like this with another organization in an entirely separate discipline. How was the experience of putting together a piece that utilizes dancers different than simply composing a strictly musical work for the CJP?
Knowing from the outset that this was going to be a true collaborative effort, Frank (Chaves) and I had to sit down early on and talk about our processes and how we planned to bring these two genres together. For example, most of Frank’s experience had been working with recorded music; so if something’s not working with the dancers, you just move on to something else. Well, that wasn’t going to happen here—I couldn’t spend hours composing something and then find out that it wasn’t going to work and start over from scratch. So I’d come in to the dance rehearsals with a synthesizer or whatever and compose what I call tone poems right there—just to sketch out the basic ideas. We’d also have the CJP rhythm section sit in to get a notion of how the dancers moved and improvised to the music. From there, I could begin adding more and more pieces and colors.

What do you want the audience to take away from this performance?
I think the main thing is that I want people to walk away feeling like they’ve really experienced Cuba. It’s a shame that Cuba is so close with so much to offer, but most people in the U.S. have never really experienced it because of the strained relations between our two countries. I don’t want this to just be a rundown of Cuban styles; I want it to be a thematic evening that unfolds naturally based on the inspiration that we brought back from our journey there.

Will you be doing any dancing on Saturday night?
Well, if the spirit moves me, you never know (laughs). But what I am going to do during our opening movements when it’s just the CJP playing is invite the audience to get up and dance out in the aisles if they feel like it. I think when they hear this music it’s going to be hard to resist.

The CJP and River North Dance Chicago perform Havana Blue on Saturday, April 13 at 8:00 p.m. at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress. $32–$76.