Sunday, September 1, 2013

Back From Chicago

I've just come back from my second straight trip to the Chicago Jazz Festival and I enjoyed myself. The weather wasn't always the greatest. There was a bad thunderstorm Friday night that delayed that evening's show half an hour and Saturday evening it got so cool I was kicking myself for not packing a jacket. The music however was superb. Chicago's festival is a free event they have on Labor Day weekend every year in a huge park just off Lake Michigan. It had been headquartered in Grant Park but this year it moved just up the street to Millennium Park, a place full of impressive public structures including the Pritzker Pavilion, the outdoor auditorium where the evening shows were held.

The fun of going to this festival, other than the sheer volume of great music, is seeing many musicians for the first time often playing in unique combinations. There were three stages of music during the day and a few preliminary events in other locations that happened before I got there. This time out I got to two Midwestern saxophonists I'd reviewed  live for the first time, Chicago's Mike Smith and Cleveland's Ernie Krivda.  I also got to experience Wadada Leo Smith with his quartet and a string section playing excerpts from his massive Civil Rights Movement opus, Ten Freedom Summers and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and guitarist David Fiuczynski cooking up heady Indian-Jazz fusions

G. Porter blesses the crowd.

I'd seen singer Gregory Porter locally a few months ago but it was fun hearing him again and watching him win over a larger crowd. Porter is a soulful baritone who sounds like a cross between Marvin Gaye and Leon Thomas and with all the gospel and blues in his voice, he's a marvel to hear. He's about to have a CD come out on Blue Note which will hopefully lead to him becoming the star he deserves to be. His presentation was a little slicker this show in that he now has a saxophonist who wanders into the giddy froth of smooth jazz at times but the rest of his group charged hard throughout the set. His new material sounded fine but when Porter kicked into his old favorites like "The Work Song" and "Be Good" he set the place on fire.

Hamid Drake
Each year the festival has an artist in residence who seems to always be a local who's part of Chicago's deep jazz tradition. This year it was drummer Hamid Drake and I got to see him in a couple of settings. On Thursday, he played to a packed hall in Roosevelt University across the street from the park in a trio with two other local heavyweights, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins and bassist Harrison Bankhead. That hall was so packed I didn't stay long but I did hear him at length on Saturday in a group called Palm Of Soul that was another congregation of masters. The group featured William Parker on bass, Cooper-Moore on piano and New Orleans sax legend Kidd Jordan on tenor and they created a deep set of fire-breathing energy music steeped in blues.  I also got to hear a bit of local guitar master George Freeman at the dedication of a performance space named for his brother, the late Von Freeman and a boiling young alto player named Nick Mazzarella.

One of the other pleasures of the trip was a pilgrimage to what now probably is the one of the last full-scale physical Jazz record stores in the country, Jazz Record Mart, the home of the legendary Delmark label, and a place stocked wall to wall with CD's and vinyl like a store existing ten years in the past. I easily and happily dropped $100 there buying discs by people like David S. Ware, John Zorn and Roswell Rudd.

Jack DeJohnette

Each day I was there though I saw one show that was really special and transcendent. On Thursday it was Chicago-born drummer Jack DeJohnette leading a group called Special Legends Edition Chicago that contained some of the founding fathers of Chicago's important AACM organization, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams and Henry Threadgill. With long-time Chicago player Larry Gray on bass, the band was as powerful as could be imagined playing compositions by each member and sounding alternately stormy, pensive and ominous. Everyone sounded good but Mitchell playing soprano and sopranino saxophones was really in incendiary form.

Friday it was Charles Lloyd evidently still doing his 75th birthday tour as he was when he played the Kennedy Center in March. His quartet did not have the special guests that appeared on that occasion but they did have an added voice, guitarist Bill Frisell.  I don't know if Lloyd and Frisell ever played together before but here they made a far more natural pairing than you might think. Lloyd played with his usual ethereal soulfulness and Frisell made his concepts fit right in. On the opening tune, "Go Down Moses" he played more actual Jazz guitar than I'd ever heard from him before, sounding like Jim Hall or Jimmy Raney, but as the set went on his sustains and effects came into play blending very well into into the exotic melodies Lloyd conjured. At one point they hit an ominous Spanish mood redolent of a Morricone Western soundtrack. Hopefully this activity means Lloyd and Frisell will be recording sometime in the future.

The Talented Ms. Fujii

Then on Saturday came a bit of a surprise, Satoko Fujii's Orchestra Chicago.  I knew that Fujii was a formidable pianist and composer but I hadn;t listened to much of her large group music before. For this show she came up with a special piece for the quartet she's currently touring with, KAZE (Fujii's husband, Natsuki Tamura and Christian Pruvost on trumpet plus Peter Orins on drums) plus eight of Chicago's heaviest current players, Dave Rempis, Ernest Dawkins, and Keefe Jackson on saxophones, Jeb Bishop on trombone, Corey Wilkes on trumpet, Kent Kessler on bass, John McLean on guitar, and Michael Zerang on drums. The result was one of those strong Ascension-like blowouts with each musician soloing between statements of an imposing massed theme.  There were striking solo moments like Wilkes' bleeding electronic distortions and Tamura's impressive arsenal of whispered and mashed trumpet noises but the thing that most struck me was watching Fujii, a tiny Japanese woman, directing all this musical firepower while playing some bits of her own jangling, explosive piano to boot.  I was similarly moved watching Maria Schneider coaxing beautiful music out of her orchestra a few years ago.

And with all that there was still a lot of stuff I missed, old masters Jimmy Heath and Randy Weston, the young Chicago bands Fast Citizens and the Engines and the Swedish group Atomic.  Hopefully I'll be able to return next year. If I can ever get my hands on a Chicago subway map I might be able to branch out and hit some of the prominent city jazz clubs next time out.

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