Chicago Jazz Festival Performers Revere Tradition, Embrace the New
After three-and-a-half decades of hosting international stars and hometown heroes, the Chicago Jazz Festival made a crucial move. While the free Labor Day weekend event had previously been held in Grant Park, this year’s concerts were mostly staged in the newer Millennium Park a few blocks north (there were also afternoon concerts indoors at the nearby Chicago Cultural Center). The performers, and their audiences, more than deserved the upgrade.
The festival’s basic structure remained the same: headliners in a pavilion in the evening, and other musicians performing at side stages during the afternoon. While the sound at Grant Park’s Petrillo Music Shell had been substandard, Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion is an acoustic marvel. The festival’s daytime stages used to be in less-than-comfortable locations (sometimes on the street); now they’re in more commodious tents—one of which has been named in honor of the late Chicago jazz icon Von Freeman. That combination of revering tradition while embracing new ideas emerged as the weekend’s primary theme.
On opening night at the Pritzker on Aug. 29, former Chicagoan Jack DeJohnette led a supergroup, and rare local reunion, of AACM veterans Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill along with bassist Larry Gray. Each member of the group contributed a composition, and even though they only had a couple of days to get acquainted, their pieces seemed written to everybody’s strengths. DeJohnette’s fluid drumming tied together Mitchell’s extended flights of circular breathing and Threadgill’s ethereal turn on bass flute. The group’s emphasis on cyclic patterns re-emerged in Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Gamak on Aug. 31 on the same stage, especially in the saxophonist’s rapid dialogue with guitarist David Fiuczynski.
Another early AACM member, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, returned to Chicago to perform his civil rights epic, Ten Freedom Summers (released last year on CD by Cuneiform), at the Pritzker on Aug. 30. The flowing sense of movement between the tense, dissonant string section and Wadada’s own Golden Quartet reflected the complexities inherent in America’s civil rights struggle but set a new bar for jazz-and-classical hybrids.
Pianist/conductor Satoko Fujii brought her extended large-band composition Ichigo-Ichie to the festival, which she performed on Aug. 31 at the Freeman Pavilion. Performing under the name Satoko Fujii’s Orchestra Chicago, this ensemble included her regular working Japanese/French band with a host of locally based players. The piece moved as a series of waves that shifted in tone at surprising moments. She let the gradually changing dynamics of the piece frame extroverted solos from saxophonists Ernest Dawkins and David Rempis.
Young artists’ tributes to jazz masters was another recurring theme. Veteran tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath flowed freely behind drummer Winard Harper’s extroverted forays on Sept. 1. Chicago-based saxophonist Geof Bradfield’s Melba! featured his interpretations of the late Melba Liston’s arrangements on Aug. 30. Her former colleague Randy Weston made a guest appearance, and his dark registers added a new dimension to the tribute, before he performed his own “African Sunrise.” Jason Moran sat in with Charles Lloyd and Friends; the group’s loose approach gently prodded the saxophonist’s warm and indirect approach to melody. Moran’s Fats Waller tribute on Aug. 31 brought new energy to such classics as “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” despite the distraction of onstage dance performers.
Chicago drummer Hamid Drake, this year’s artist in residence, also paid tribute to his heroes, including Kidd Jordan. While his collaborations with the tenor saxophonist, bassist William Parker and pianist Cooper-Moore go far back, they found new ways to challenge each other at the Freeman Pavilion on the afternoon of Aug. 31. Drake brought his Bindu: Reggaeology project to the Pritzker on Sept. 1. Equally experienced in reggae and jazz, Drake found new and unexpected ways to combine the two genres, including a reworking of his mentor Fred Anderson’s “Three On Two.” Drake and bassist Joshua Abrams subtly shifted the familiar Jamaican rhythm while trombonists Jeb Bishop and Jeff Albert reworked the low-end horn lines of ska. Dub producer Lee “Scratch” Perry had a field day with Jason Adasiewicz’s vibraphone attack.
Also on Sept. 1, Robert Glasper, armed with his rack of keyboards and amorphous compositions, challenged the audience with his new rap-influenced take on jazz fusion. A guest appearance from Lupe Fiasco might be the first time a local hip-hop celebrity performed at this event. But the set felt merely irritating because of singer Corey Benjamin’s relentless use of a vocoder.
Singer Gregory Porter, who performed Aug. 31, showed that a classic baritone with r&b inflections will win over a large audience without any gimmicks. The crowd’s enthusiastic response to the material from his new album, Liquid Spirit (Blue Note), was an important step in the ascending trajectory of his red-hot career.