Say this for tough-minded Chicago. Even in an age of belt-tightening, the city values culture as a marketable commodity, and the free-to-all Chicago Jazz Festival held just before Labor Day offered proof. The four-day 36th edition was as ever undiluted by pop acts added to lure in crowds, because the crowds come anyway, from all over the world. As usual, there were daytime gigs on two or three small stages, and big stars on the evening program, now held in the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. And as always, it was heavy on hometown talent and ear-stretching new music.
The action began at the nearby Chicago Cultural Center, Thursday noon with local fave Chris Foreman, the kind of veteran Hammond B3 organist the term “blues-drenched” was coined for. He played solo, with an upright piano by his right hand, so he could switch between instruments, or play both at once. (When the organ developed an intermittent hum, he’d switch to piano till an engineer could fix it.) He swings like crazy and is ruthless with dynamics: He’d bring the organ’s volume down so low you had to lean in, then he’d come back blasting.
Daytime shows overlap, and jumping from one to another yields odd juxtapositions: upstairs, Keefe Jackson’s reed septet Likely So played music far from Foreman’s bailiwick, the wind choir utilizing 16 saxes or clarinets from tiny to gargantuan, their riffs and cross-riffs yet another transformation of West African drum choir principles. Still, parallels with Foreman’s set popped out: the instrument switching and extreme dynamic shifts, even that intermittent hum, when saxist Marc Stucki played background drones on an Indian harmonium.
Tenor saxophonist David Boykin has the reverent air of John Coltrane’s late-period spirituals down pat, though he doesn’t mimic Trane’s sound. Boykin’s five horns/five rhythm Expanse brought out diverse background colors, from Nicole Mitchell’s piccolo and flute to Alex Wing’s skronky guitar. There were shapely melodic hooks, and roiling free-for-alls that didn’t run on too long.
Thursday ended in the park with saxophonist Ernest Dawkins conducting a big band in a tribute to Nelson Mandela, during which singer Dee Alexander intoned the great man’s last name dozens of times. Its main theme was in the style of South Africa’s catchy three-chord kwela music. Dawkins’ more typical riffs-and-solos charts set up the band’s formidable, mostly younger players. Crackling Corey Wilkes was the most impressive soloist in a power trumpet section, but only by a nose. I witnessed it from out on the lawn behind the amphitheater, out where families and beer drinkers cavort, and followed the action on a jumbotron screen, which provided a little unintentional avant-garde dislocation: title cards laid out poet Khari B’s political script (“We know apartheid!”), but sometimes he’d go off script, and sometimes the on-screen text was way out of sync, so spoken and written words contradicted or counterpointed each other.
Friday in the park (and on the weekend), two smaller open-air pavilions hosted concurrent gigs, again mostly featuring Chicagoans. Bassist Joshua Abrams’s super plump, shades-of-William-Parker tone propelled his quartet (with Boykin on tenor, Jason Adasiewicz on vibes and drummer Frank Rosaly) through a brace of tunes that hit good grooves but didn’t wear any out. They romped even in 11/4. Fellow bassist Clark Sommers’ trio (Ba)SH bashed in a good way, thanks to the great drummer Dana Hall who loudly prodded his mates, lifting the bandstand with cymbal crashes and snare explosions. Even when he favored a heavy backbeat, Hall played little side figures that amplified details in Geof Bradfield’s tenor solos. The fine trumpeter Russ Johnson’s tight two-horn freebop quartet batted clean-up, and his drummer Tim Daisy kept raising that roof.
Those sets were held in the Von Freeman Pavilion. The late saxophonist is almost impossibly beloved hereabouts, and the evening program started with a two-guitar quartet fronted by brother George Freeman and Von’s longtime crisp and clean picker Mike Allemana. It was more love fest than cutting contest, but George got a disarmingly nasty tone from his axe, and slid into weird, contrary patterns on the blues, rather like Von.
Bass titan Rufus Reid got his start playing local clubs, and his straightahead sextet’s sound was surprisingly rich, owing to a great front line — altoist Bobby Watson, tenor J.D. Allen, and trumpeter Derrick Gardner — sparked by cooking drummer Winard Harper. It was a pleasure just hearing Reid and Harper keep time, and pianist Steve Allee kept the blues close at hand.
Another warm homecoming followed: pianist Myra Melford, who grew up in the ’burbs, brought her quintet Snowy Egret, stoked by yet another drum phenom, Tyshawn Sorey, and featuring warm-toned cornetist Ron Miles and Liberty Ellman on amplified acoustic guitar. (Acoustic bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi’s constant contortions were comically out of proportion to his modest playing.) Melford, like Joshua Abrams, writes tunes that hit good grooves and then move on. As pianist, she’s all over the place in a good way, playing one intro that referenced gospel, barrelhouse blues, ragtime and stride piano in short order. On one animated solo she slammed clusters with her forearms, and the audience went bonkers — a rare sighting of the crowd-pleasing avant-garde. But not the last we’d see.
The crowd also dug trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s set, for some reason. The loud opener was a hot mess; Justin Faulkner, subbing for the usual drummer, bashed in a bad way, seemingly unconnected to whatever else was going on. The slow one up next was rather aimless, ditto guest Lionel Loueke’s long guitar improvisation. But when the band’s other ringer, Ravi Coltrane, came out and played a fluid soprano sax solo with a lovely, cushy tone that owed little to his famous father, the rhythm section finally meshed, albeit temporarily. Blanchard’s showy, sometimes screechy solos were more about peacock-strutting than musical sense. He’s a funny talker, but yakked so much the set ran long, and his guest never got to solo on his other horn. Now that’s jazz festival irony — no time for a Coltrane tenor solo.
Tenor (and soprano) saxophonist Ari Brown kicked off Saturday’s evening program, playing Coltrane-y lines in his own voice, and bluesy variations in the great brawny Chicago style, and then two horns at once without sounding like Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He also did a fine “In a Sentimental Mood,” in a year oddly light on Ellington tunes. So why is Brown only a local hero?
Gary Burton followed, with a new band of hotshots (whose geeky moves and facial expressions were ill-served by jumbotron close-ups) plus his returning guitarist, the fine Julian Lage. Burton is the master of lush, four-mallet doorbell-style vibes, but always stays well within his comfort zone. I wish he’d put together a band that’d kick his ass.
The night’s final sets featured sidefolk whose fame gave the proceedings a lopsided air. Flugelhorn and trumpet player Tom Harrell has a gorgeous tone and lyrical sensibility, and was effectively flanked by contrasting saxophonists Jaleel Shaw on torrid alto and busy-in-a-good-way tenor Wayne Escoffery. But folks couldn’t help but focus on one of the sextet’s two bassists — not the formidable Ugonna Okegwo, but jumbotron-ready Esperanza Spalding, who’d occasionally sing along with the horns, and sang a couple of features, accompanied by runaway hand gestures. Using two basses can be tricky, but these two never collided. Drummer Johnathan Blake, another one to watch, keeps his set as low to the ground as possible; his cymbals are at the same height as his snare drum, so he doesn’t have to reach.
I liked last year’s album by Dave Holland’s electric quartet Prism, because it didn’t devolve into a ’70s-fusion speed-riff derby all the time. Alas, their closing set Saturday did exactly that, and was surely one of the loudest in this festival’s history. The sideman the crowd wanted to hear was shredding guitarist/ex-Leno bandleader Kevin Eubanks, and they got plenty of him — so much that keyboard wiz Craig Taborn was all but shut out. Even on a festival studded with great bassists, Holland stood out for his extraordinary clarity, precision and power. He’d pound those grooves, with plenty help from drummer Eric Harland. But they played only four tunes, locking into their riffs for ridiculously long periods. Power riffs are great, so let’s hear more of ’em, not fewer.
Sunday afternoon, on only their second gig, cellist Tomeka Reid’s quartet sounded like a seasoned band. Chicago’s Reid and bassist Jason Roebke blend well, plucking or bowing. Their East Coast allies are Mary Halvorson on guitar, and bow-tied drummer Tomas Fujiwara who started the set playing a South Side blues shuffle — a hipper way to say “Hello Chicago.” The band’s a great vehicle for Halvorson, playing her warped take on traditional jazz guitar with more of a swing feel than usual.
The odds of two drummers sporting bow-ties on the same stage are steep, but two sets later there was elder Albert “Tootie” Heath with pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street, playing jazz for the people: short (sometimes quirky) solos, lots of variety, and good tunes, including one oldie enjoying a modest revival — Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” — and one almost nobody touches, James P. Johnson’s 1923 dance-craze smash “Charleston.” They also played the only other Ellington number I heard, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” with a loose locomotive beat.
That evening, guitarist Bobby Broom’s trio warmed up the main stage, their take on Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” sounding like Chet Atkins’ version in hyperdrive. Altoist Miguel Zenon’s quartet followed. He likes to play fast, but he’s best when he slows down, and shows off his oozy, sizzling tone; he’ll give long notes a little rising and falling curve of dynamics and pitch. At such moments you can hear his unexpected kinship with passionate alto master David Sanborn.
Your reviewer had been looking forward with anticipation and some dread to Cécile McLorin Salvant’s set. The young singer has such incredible range, and has gotten so much praise so soon, I feared she’d use that powerful voice as a battering ram. She showed she can do that, on the one bona fide standard she sang, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” taking extended flights on the long vowel heard in the words moon and do. But she had something different from audience-bludgeoning in mind. Elsewhere, she’d make herself at home in her port-wine-rich lower register, then suddenly leap to one pitch-perfect high note. Or she’d sing one syllable low and loud, the next high and soft, or sneak up on a note by degrees.
McLorin Salvant is a charmer, with a cabaret artist’s love of obscure or unlikely material (“Stepsisters’ Lament” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, vaudeville comedian Bert Williams’s “Nobody”), and she writes new ones that sound like unjustly forgotten Broadway tunes. She can really milk a lyric too, giving the Nancy Wilson standby “Guess Who I Saw Today?” the pacing and concentrated emotion of a great short story. Clearly we were in the presence of greatness. Aaron Diehl’s backing trio was a perfect fit — they too can swing hard with a light touch.
A band would have to be insane to go on after her. Luckily, the festival had just the outfit for the job. The late Sun Ra’s music could seem anarchic, but the bandleader was a strict disciplinarian who knew exactly what he wanted, and how to get it. When he left the planet in 1993, his Arkestra kept going, but (at first anyway) that discipline was sadly lacking. The Arkestra that closed the festival (led by longtime Ra altoist Marshall Allen, and including vets such as tenorist Charles Davis, cart-wheeling altoist Knoel Scott and Vincent Chancey on french hornist) played a couple of oldies too sloppily to pass the master’s muster.
But everything else was as close to experiencing Sun Ra as you can get in this century: the can-they-be-serious air, the glittery costumes, space chants and sing-alongs, the goofy electronics, the awesome spectacle — pianist Fareed Baron played a remarkably good one-handed solo lying on his back on the bench. There was the inevitable conga-line through the audience, and Ra’s recorded voice came booming from the beyond once or twice. The jumbotron even blinked off a few times, suggesting cosmic interference. (The bandleader named for Egypt’s sun god once walked into an Egyptology exhibit, and all the lights went out.) That was when I noticed how much the Pritzker Pavilion looks like an alien craft, and for a split second feared we might take off for parts unknown. But then a Chicago blues brought us all back to Earth.