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Chicago River runs through Orbert Davis’ new musical creation

(From left) Musician Orbert Davis with Authors Michael Williams Richard Cahan Chicago River near Dearborn St. Davis was inspired by

(From left) Musician Orbert Davis with Authors Michael Williams and Richard Cahan at the Chicago River near Dearborn St. Davis was inspired by Williams' and Cahan's book about the river. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $23-$74

Info: (312) 294-3000;

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Updated: June 21, 2013 6:03AM

Most people see a boat rolling down the Chicago River.

Orbert Davis hears a tuba.

The Chicago composer is finishing a five-movement piece for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ambitious “Rivers: Nature. Power. Culture” series.

Davis is using the acclaimed Richard Cahan-Michael Williams coffee table book “The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed its River and the Land Beyond” as a pilot for a piece that looks at the river’s reversal. Davis’s 60-piece Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, which blends elements of classical music and jazz, will debut the piece Friday at Symphony Center.

“The Lost Panoramas” features crisp black-and-white photographs from 1894-1928 that Williams discovered in a glass plate photo collection taken by the Sanitary District of Chicago. The book was published in 2011 on the authors’ own CityFiles Press.

The Chicago River runs just 156 miles. You can take a boat on the Chicago River through the Sanitary and Ship Canal to the Des Plaines River, where it meets the Kankakee River and builds to the Illinois River, which flourishes to the magnificent Mississippi.

That’s the kind of American song that needs to begin with a solo.

“There are thousands of connections,” Davis says during a conversation in Marina City along the river. “A river starts at being small. In music that represents one voice. As other voices join that voice they can be on that same melodic figure or it could be in harmony. We see the river as one entity.”

The trumpet player looks out the window at gentle ripples in the river. He continues, “The water we see now is soon gone. So there’s always the sense of being refreshed. And there’s change around the river. We can see it in the images.

“Look at the river. Right now I’m hearing a drumroll but I’m also hearing a flute playing a trill. We see movement based on the natural flow, but we also see movement affected by environment. A boat just passed, so we see waves and the wake going in a separate direction. Actually, my childhood home was on the banks of the Kankakee River. I didn’t realize it, but I spent a lot of time studying water just by being there day after day. Looking at the pictures gave me a sense of being home again, especially the cover.”

The book’s cover image was taken in 1907 at Buffalo Rock in LaSalle County.

“The single figure sitting next to a large body of water — that was me.”

The photos were made with large-format view cameras using glass negatives in the days before film. The original stash contained 21,834 photographs, and about 175 were used in the book. In 2000, Williams found the pictures in boxes in a giant metal shed in Springfield.

“Here’s the thing about the pictures,” Williams says. “These pictures were taken for engineers, scientists and bean counters. These were never intended to be pictures that would be inspirational or trigger the imagination. But you add 75 years and this collection that was about absolute right angles is now something we look at with incredible inspiration because they document the last part of a natural Illinois.”

Davis had spent hours looking at the pictures, but he did not refer to them as he composed.

Between seven and 10 photographs per movement will be shown at Friday’s performance. The first movement will use photos from the Illinois River. Davis referenced titles from the book. He calls the first movement “A Lost Panorama,” the second movement “Brewing the Toxic Stew.”

“So my job is to answer, ‘What does that smell sound like?’ ” he says with a laugh. “Wait until you hear it. I broke every rule of traditional harmony. Think about it: from the stockyards to human waste to the tannery, all these things mixed together, created all these gases. That’s the sound. The third movement is ‘Retrograde,’ which in music is taking a theme and playing it backwards, like the reverse of the river.”

His second movement, “Fortress of Solitude,” honors his youth along the Kankakee.

“I would just sit for hours and play over the river,” Davis explains. “And I would have this natural reverb and natural echo.”

Davis’s late father, Herbert, was a South Works steelworker, his late mother Dorothy was a cook. Davis was born in Chicago but the family soon relocated to Momence. He returned to Chicago to attend DePaul University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance.

Davis won a 2011 Emmy for the composition and production of the original score for the PBS documentary “Du Sable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis” and was a 2010 Arts Legend Award recipient from the Arts Alliance Illinois. Davis met Cahan, a former Sun-Times picture editor, when he had an office in the same building where the photographer was directing the City 2000 project.

Davis bought “The Lost Panoramas” as soon as it came out. He was reading it when CSO director of programming James Fahey asked him to compose a piece connected to the 160-page book.

“I had already started [composing]!” Davis said. “I compose through making connections. When I saw the pictures the music started writing itself. That was about a year ago.”

How did the photos hook Davis?

“The clarity,” he answers. “There’s so many devices of creating time and imagery through music. Through our history we can picture what 1917 sounds like by the music that was recorded. But the pictures become timeless. Because of the clarity of the picture, I started hearing modernized music. If I had never read the story behind the pictures, I would have sworn the pictures were created for the sake of art. The same thing happens in music. Sometimes music can be playful or a bar song, and once it filters through tradition, ‘It’s the greatest work ever, let’s be quiet and serious.’ ”

The entire CSO “Rivers” series was inspired by a suggestion from CSO creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma. More artists are blending music with nature; Bill Frisell draws inspiration from gorgeous Northern California in his upcoming “Big Sur” (Okeh) album that was recorded through a residency at Big Sur’s Glen Deven Ranch.

Davis reflects, “The music writes itself as the aspects of nature connect with human emotions. Sometimes I consider myself a self-taught composer because I write for the moment. It comes from a nature of jazz. When I’m playing jazz it is spontaneous composition. It is a matter of being totally immersed and letting go of the thought process. By using imagination, no matter where we are the music can take us away from our present state. Through the years if I am near water I always go back to that Kankakee River.

“It is like a character, it is like a friend.”

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