Irvin Mayfield had them at hello. Three hellos, actually, calling for louder and louder responses from the audience, letting you know this wasn’t going to be a sit-down, shut-up concert. Mayfield’s quintet jammed its way through the premiere of Mayfield’s beautiful new work at Orchestra Hall on Thursday evening, blending orchestral and jazz music, and signifying a new, more American era for the venerable ensemble.
Mayfield arrived in the Twin Cities a year ago as something of an outsider—a young New Orleans native brought in by the Minnesota Orchestra to curate its new jazz series, expanding the musical and audience potential of the orchestra. The commissioned work, Passion, which he debuted on Thursday, was also part of the deal. The quintet stood center stage, with the orchestra arrayed around the jazz musicians. The Art of Passion opened with a wild bass solo, exemplifying the break from tradition. And as the trombonist, bassist, pianist, percussionist, and trumpeter (Mayfield) took their solos, the orchestra, as led by conductor Andrew Litton, swept up around them in emotional swells.
Mayfield is a charismatic, indeed passionate, bandleader and musician who won the orchestra audience with his playful virtuosity and that of his bandmates. The music and performances demonstrated the sonic possibilities of an orchestra with a jazz sensibility at its core. At times, however, the impression was of a jazz ensemble backed by strings, Nelson Riddle style, the orchestra not being given shared responsibility for this project of pushing boundaries. In time, following the lead of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, whose music opened the program, the integration may go deeper and the audience seems prepared to follow Mayfield wherever he leads.