Every Labor Day weekend the spotlight of jazz focuses its orb upon Chicago. Chicago's annual Jazz Fest isn't the best around.... but it is free!
And it ain't so bad, either. Lack of grand finances (and admission fees) prevent the organizers from bringing in a lot of top national acts to fill the bill. The stage offerings are limited to one main stage for evening performances and two side stages in the afternoon. Actually, over the past few years, things have been expanding in the days before the formal fest. An extravaganza at Orchestra Hall now kicks things off on Thursday night. This ticketed event (which does carry a cost) featured Herbie Hancock this year. On Wednesday there is a jazz club tour available all evening for a quite reasonable (even cheap) cost of just 25 bucks. Tuesday night has a special concert at the Harris Theater. A tribute to Dizzy Gillespie this time around. Monday's free concert in Millennium Park gets things started. A showcase of local vocalists along with the Orbert Davis led Chicago Jazz Philharmonic took that stage.
So, all in all, it's a highlight week for music here. Chicago is, after all, a center of the arts, and the jazz scene is quite active. More than a few musicians like to call it their home base.
The formal fest runs Friday through Sunday in Grant Park. It's a lovely lakefront setting. Beyond the music available, one can wander over to visit Buckingham Fountain. You could browse through the arts exhibition (which has a lot of jazz related stuff), have a bite to eat. Sponsors provide games and other trappings to draw you in and get you to take the bait for their products. Some good deals can be had, if it is something that you truly do desire. You watch the boats pass along Lake Michigan across the street. Have a seat on the grass to take in some jazz.
Now, despite the pleasant situation of the festival grounds, I must insist that it's time for the city to pick it up and move. Not far. Just a couple of blocks away: to Millennium Park. The Chicago Jazz Fest's attendance does not seem so overwhelming that it requires the huge facilities of Grant Park, it's Butler Field lawn, and the horrible sound system of the Petrillo Band Shell. Millennium Park with a shut down Monroe St. bridge between the park and Art Institute ought to give plenty of space and make for an overall better experience. The environment and sound system available with the Pritzker Pavilion is just so much superior. The cache of that stage may even attract notable artists. And there is no reason why the side stages can't be set up on Monroe, at the south end of the Promenade, or on the Harris Theater rooftop. Just because the Grant Park area has long been the large space which Chicago had for these events (and this is now considered to be something of the "festival" grounds) doesn't justify sticking around in the area when something so much more could be done so close. If the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony can have major annual concerts with huge crowds at Millennium Park, there is absolutely no reason why the jazz fest ought to be given short shrift and not see this music presented in the best of environments the city has to offer. Shoot, as another alternative or addition, there is even a nice stage on Northerly Island (the former Meigs Field), not all that far away from the present festival grounds, which would make for an interesting secondary featured venue. And if money is a problem (which it always is) may I ask why the individual stages are not specifically sponsored. "Jazz on Jackson" sounds alliteratively alluring. But I'd happily accept "The Sears Stage" if it brings back some dollars which could be spent for more music.
Enough with the rant (which I shall make EVERY year until the city accomplishes this) and onto a brief review of what I attended Friday - Sunday.
Friday afternoon, I caught "A Salute to Jimmy Ellis". Featuring three generations of Chicago sax players, Ellis was joined by Ernest Dawkins, and Jabari Liu. It was a nice tribute where Dawkins showed best.
Then it was over to the Petrillo. Upon arrival I listened to a set of Monk's music. Not the greatest presentation. The band wasn't always together as much as I'd like. And, really, I heard too much of the standard tunes for my tastes. They did break out a bit. This I appreciated. There is a need for balance between the familiar and stretching out into things which can be presented as an entree into the lesser known. Too much of either can prove hard to take. Still, though the audience clearly liked the music they readily identified, I heard a lot of stuff which I can get ad infinitum anywhere else.
On Saturday, I arrived in time to see Keefe Jackson's Fast Citizens. Their band has an interesting concept of playing a form of free jazz while still maintaining more structure as touch point. And they actually accomplish this well. So often, avant garde jazz is difficult to follow. "Disorganized noise" it is sometimes (perhaps rightly) dismissed as by many. But this group maintains it's ability to just naturally go wherever the sound scape leads, while still hanging onto something of worth which you can follow. They use jazz to explore a musical world in a way that perhaps no other form is able. I believe that this group finds a worthy reconciliation between the extremes of what was experimentally occurring in the classical music world last century, where you had hyper (almost mathematic more than music) rigorism of serialsts at the one end and open ended ideas taken too far with the likes of John Cage at the other. It's quite an accomplishment!
Then I wandered to the Jazz and Heritage stage a block away where Typhanie Monique was appearing where her longtime collaborator Neal Alger.
Typhanie is an interesting vocalist. She enjoys taking on tunes from more recent decades, reinvigorating them in a jazz idiom and context. Whether providing a new spin on these or something from the standard repertoire, she adds a certain heft and edgy improvisation which keeps you on your toes. Even more lovely selections by way of ballad find strength of new meaning in her capable hands. In fact, it may be here that she subtly does some of her best work, backing things way down from the chops she employs on other stuff. Neal Alger, who also plays extensively with Patricia Barber, is flat out one of the best guitar players the city has. Always an unexpected, intriguing turn on a phrase - he never runs out of new ideas. His sound is something which draws you in and calls for you to pay attention.
The Mulligan Mosaics is a really quality big band led by the excellent and versatile sax player, Ted Hogarth, which draws together a number of the city's better instrumentalists to present music written by Gerry Mulligan and composers who were significantly influenced by his compositional style. Nice soloing work by several players complemented these arrangements. There was a real buzz among the audience for this group's work. It is one which ought to be followed.
"The Cookers" started off the evening performances at Petrillo. It took them awhile to get going, but once they were into it they were on. Mostly post bop. The depth of playing by Cecil McBee on bass was most notable, particularly in his own composition "Peacemaker".
The highlight of the night, I thought, was hearing a small band which featured legendary performers Ernestine Anderson and Frank Wess.
Anderson, at 79, still has such a strong, bluesy voice.. amazing for someone her age. Her phrasing illustrates musicality par excelance. This is not simply a singer, but someone who is a member of the band. I could listen to Wess play all night long. His performance is something which young lions could learn so much from. There is not necessarily a need to always go out there wildly in trying to push the envelope when such beautifully subtle and supple solos can be derived by simply sticking closely to the natural melodic line with sensitivity.
Unfortunately, their set (which some suggested was cut a little short due to the overrunning of the previous band) got plagued by sound problems and feedback. This kept the stagehands running around trying to fix things. Still, it didn't damper the brilliance shown on songs such as "A Time For Love", "You Better Trust Your Heart", and a wonderfully laid back, easy sounding vocal of "I Love Being Here With You".
The jazz festival had a privilege of hosting as special guest artist "in residence" bass player, Charlie Haden.
Each of the three days he took the stage with different groups: a young musicians selective on Friday, a Chicago all-star combo Sunday, and Saturday's main stage performance.
Billed as a sort of patriotic protest, but "Dedicated to Peace in the World", the Liberation Music Orchestra made their way through selections with either a political or Americana theme. Haden noted that his significant recordings with this longstanding group have all been released during Republican Presidencies. One is, ironically, left to wonder whether the angst which such leadership inspires within him calls for their continued election, just so that we can hear more of this top notch artistry.
Works included, "Not In Our Name" and "This Is Not America", but turned to such folk tunes as "Amazing Grace", the "Mockingbird" Spiritual theme as arranged in Dvorak's 9th Symphony, and "We Shall Overcome", upon which the group flung far afield from the melody in extensive soloing, including one by the tubist, Joe Daley, which drew fanfare from the crowd.
Sunday, I caught the latter part of the music and discussion hour entitled, "The Art of the Solo". Vocalist Janice Borla her band offered some insightful thoughts and performing demonstration of the things which go into creating good music and jazz solos.
The Apex Club revisited featured Kim Cusack and John Otto playing through old standards in dixieland style of Jimmy Noone, who was the featured bandleader in the aforementioned Calumet club of the 1920s. This was a refreshing contrast to some of the more contemporaneous stylistic which much of the fest provides. Besides, there aren't enough quality clarinetists in this town. So catching two of the tops together is a rare opportunity!
A quick pass by the mainstage later that night placed notes in my ear which were all good and well. Still, I think I had enough wild improvisation (as this was) which is harder to follow and not always so aesthetically pleasing to the listener. By the end of this great, but long, weekend I longed for appetizing melody as a center to return.