The Ford Amphitheatre decided to ignore the calendar Saturday night and celebrate the Kurt Weill centenary about five months after it supposedly ended. But Weill was only the reference point; the real focus of the concert was the iconoclastic imagination of composer-pianist Roger Kellaway turned loose upon a crack 25-piece big band, plus two guest soloists who both happen to bear the name Ford.
This brand of ambitious, sometimes experimental, category-leaping big band music usually materializes only through the backing of government-funded European radio stations these days. Sure enough, Kellaway’s one-hour, 45-minute Weill show came about through the auspices of West German Radio in Cologne, which originally commissioned the scores for a Weill 90th birthday concert in 1990 and a revised sequel in 2000. The latter version — which was recorded and awaits release — was performed in Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Liege, but not in the U.S. until Saturday.
Kellaway lost no time in jettisoning any hints of nostalgia, going way outside with some madcap avant-garde piano in the opening tune “My Ship,” in league with longtime vibraphone co-conspirator Emil Richards. He exploited the doubling capacities of his reed section to the max — one tune featured three flutes, clarinet and bass clarinet; another just clarinets and piccolo — and pairs of oboes and cellos to the right served as a separate classical annex. The novel combinations of sound; the zany shafts of wit; Frank Marocco’s accordion; the references to sources as diverse as Gil Evans, Cecil Taylor, Gene Krupa and Paul Dukas — executed as crisply as you could want and conducted with relish by Kellaway — showed that the big band is far from spent as a creative medium.
Yet amid all of this invention, you sometimes wondered where Kurt Weill was hiding — or at least the American Broadway incarnation of the composer, who was transformed by the jazz process into a somewhat different figure than the increasingly bittersweet tunesmith of the 1940s. When the program finally wheeled around to the Berlin theater pieces “Threepenny Opera” and “Happy End,” Kellaway shrewdly stayed mostly within that idiom — and we got a clearer portrait of the unique flavor of Weill in the 1920s.
Interestingly, the Broadway-voiced singer-actress Anne Kerry Ford seemed more at home in the Berlin material than the Broadway jazz, characterizing the Weill-Brecht songs with more communicative effect. Her husband, guitarist Robben Ford, swung mightily all evening whenever he had a solo spot.