Heartfelt Tributes, Sheer Showmanship Ignite 2012 Chicago Jazz Fest
Posted 10/4/2012

With standout performances by Roy Haynes, Ken Vandermark, Ambrose Akinmusire and Allen Toussaint, the 2012 Chicago Jazz Festival on Aug. 30–Sept. 2 was a meticulously designed program that encompassed a wide range of jazz styles. Despite some moments of inclement weather, the proceedings were executed with very few pitfalls.

Festivities kicked off on Aug. 30 with a Stu Katz and Willie Pickens duo performance followed later in the day by a rather predictable Ella Fitzgerald tribute by Jeff Lindberg’s Chicago Jazz Orchestra and a 17-piece string section.

But it was 87-year-old drummer Haynes, who danced jovially against the backdrop of his Fountain of Youth Band on Aug. 31, that sent the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park into a frenzy. Despite a long Q&A session that distracted from his set, Haynes proved to be a seasoned showman who knows how to communicate with his audience on multiple levels.

Prior to Haynes’ appearance, audiences were treated to a tasteful tribute to a hometown hero, saxophonist Von Freeman, who died Aug. 11 at age 88. The heartfelt musical accolade, led by Freeman’s saxophonist son Chico, was a stark contrast to the sweltering showcase by the Chicago Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, which set fire to the brisk night air with dramatic syncopations, versatile rhythmic prowess and first-class instrumental artistry.

From the witty repartee of Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts (featuring trumpeter Randy Brecker) to the mathematical countermelodies of Steve Coleman and Five Elements, the festival offered plenty of highlights. One could easily hear threads of Akinmusire’s highly emotive 2011 Blue Note debut, When The Heart Emerges Glistening, during the trumpeter’s afternoon performance on the Jazz on Jackson stage. Akinmusire stretched and extended the tone of his horn, from intimate muting to arena-worthy trills. Understated tenorist Walter Smith III breezed effortlessly under the radar and into the mix amid the no-frills brushwork and cross-sticking of drummer Justin Brown. The quintet offered a solo spotlight to pianist Sam Harris, who contributed some unexpected 88-key theatrics.

Vandermark, the festival’s artist-in-residence, played in two extremely different settings—with the 11-piece Resonance Ensemble and in a duo with tenorist Joe McPhee—on Saturday evening (Sept. 1) and Sunday afternoon (Sept. 2), respectively. But whether it was the highly layered compositions of the Krakow cohort, for whom the multi-reedist wrote new material, or his engaging musical conversations with McPhee, Vandermark retained the Chicago-informed free improvisational style that has become his signature.

Toussaint concluded the festival with an exuberant celebration on Sunday night. An architect of New Orleans r&b, he demonstrated his deep affinity for early jazz on the 2009 disc The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch), which was the focus of this set. As on the disc, clarinetist Don Byron and guitarist Marc Ribot proved ideal partners for Toussaint’s rolling piano lines and classically informed stride. Byron’s short phrases contrasted with Toussaint’s extravagance, but their shared sense of swing brought them together on “St. James Infirmary.” Playing acoustic, Ribot conjured Django Reinhardt on a stirring version of “Solitude,” coaxing lovely trills from the pianist. Toussaint didn’t abandon his own soul legacy, offering rousing renditions of classics like “Southern Nights” and “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On).” A man of impeccable class, Toussaint ended with a shout-out to Chicago piano great Pickens.

On the same Labor Day weekend, other jazz aficionados headed to Motor City for the Detroit Jazz Festival, which DownBeat also covered.

Hilary Brown
(additional reporting by Aaron Cohen)


Ken Vandermark (Photo: Michael Jackson)

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