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A jazz week in Chicago…

September 9, 2012

The mainly jazz in Bristol header signals that other music gets mentioned here and there. Sometimes jazz happens outside Bristol too, so here are a few notes on a week of that in Chicago. (Note: this post goes on a bit.)

We went more or less on a whim: holiday time agreed with employed partner, tempted to go to the US. New York again? Or how about trying the second city – known only through the filters of Saul Bellow (especially The Dean’s December), Sarah Paretsky, the icy Chicago of Richard Powers’ Generosity,  the mythical Chicago of Mike Westbrook’s Mama Chicago…? A jazz festival in the week we had in mind clinched it.

This was the 34th year of the festival, which runs in various venues Thurs-Fri, then in Grant Park by the lake over the Sat-Sun of Labor Day weekend. All events are free – it is the last of a series of music jamborees the city holds every year, and has held on to its budget, apparently. That means some municipal politicking in the programming, but encourages folks not devoted to jazz to give it a try. The local paper’s critic has a downer on the venues and sound quality in Grant Park, but he exaggerates – he’s pretty reliable on the music. They all seemed better than anything comparable you’re likely to come across in the UK. We were hoping for something a bit like this, the late, great Von Freeman trading choruses with Clifford Jordan in the same park back in 1988…  quite a tradition to live up to!

Almost 25 years in from that, like any good festival there was too much to take in, but here’s a brief run down of what we managed to hear.

A paid for concert to kick off – Jet lag be damned: Wynton Marsalis‘ quintet playing symphony hall Tuesday night seemed to good to miss. This was unconnected to the festival, in more ways than one (though like practically every other set we heard, the performance was dedicated to Von Freeman). Hadn’t seen Wynton without the Lincoln Centre orchestra for a decade or more, and certainly didn’t realise how traditionalist the quintet has become. First tune: Sweet Georgia Brown. Others included Tennessee Waltz (Rollins and Bennie Wallace do it better) and some Morton. A different (wealthier) crowd and a posh indoor venue. There was engaging commentary, and any amount of impressive technique. The first half seemed curiously bloodless, even so. There is a place for sets which try and evoke the entire jazz tradition, but the overall impression is that Wynton is trapped in the concert hall, putting on a performance with an odd feeling of a kind of strained polish, and doing little that catches the ear. A slight disappointment to start the week (though the local critic heard more to like)

Then on to the jazz festival proper. Too many sets to describe, so notes only.

Thursday began at the Chicago Cultural Centre (the old public library) with the Damon Short Quintet. Nice, gnarly post bop here from a drummer-led band, two saxes and the excellent Ryan Schultz on bass trumpet – a half way house between trumpet and trombone. Then pianist Yoko Noge sang and played Japanese-inflected blues, with an amazing band incorporating  blues guitar, Taiko drums, shamisen, cello, trombone and fine alto sax from an old blues player, Jimmy Ellis. The whole thing was rounded off by local vocal star Dee Alexander, and her duets with Noge, especially on a Japanese lullaby, were superb. As they said, only in Chicago. Oh, there were Japanese dancers for a bit as well.

Thursday evening was first of two in the stunning Frank Gehry designed Pritzker Pavilion. It would be amazing to hold the entire festival there but it holds 11,000 people so I guess it is too big. In any case, the most remarkable concert space I’ve ever been in – an arrangement of hoops supports an overhead sound system which gives outdoor sound better than most indoor halls.

Not your average concert venue

Music didn’t match the venue this time. A tribute to Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook albums featured a home grown big band with added strings, and three singers – only one of whom (Dee Alexander again) should really have been “doing” Ella. Still, nice evening (it was 30 degrees Mon-Friday) and nice atmosphere.

Friday: a marvellous duet show at Roosevelt University’s ornate Ganz Hall, packed out for Ken Vandermark and Joe McPhee. A moving hour or so as Vandermark, the festival’s artist in residence, played alongside the man who inspired him to begin playing jazz, and their improvising styles were wonderfully compatible. This had everything about live jazz that you can’t bottle for recording and would normally have satisfied the ear for a day or two. But then back up to the Pritzker for a Cuban-jazz big band who sounded OK but grew monotonous in the way Cuban bands will and Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band. Haynes was the most interviewed and featured player in the pre-festival build up. He pretty much justified it. The band is the same one seen on the circuit for some years, and plays the same set, and Haynes talks (or rambles) too much and tap dances. On the other hand, he can still do this

which is bloody miraculous.

Saturday: Caroline Davis quartet starting a full day in Grant Park – a Chicago underground star on alto, and one of the very best things we heard all week. A real stylist, with lots of  Konitz in tone and line, and playing well up to that standard. The CD came home.

Jason Stein Quartet – bass clarinet led. Nice.

Ken Vandermark and Paul Nilsson-Love. The artist in residence in duet again. Simply astounding – fierce, surprising and lyrical by turns. Energy music with heart.

Marlene Rosenberg quartet – bass-playing leader another Chicago jazz luminary, and a fine band completed by soprano sax, guitar and drums. Easy on the ear but not at all lightweight. Would probably buy new CD if  not getting anxious about the weight…

The park days feature three small stages simultaneously through the afternoon, which is good though they ought to be set farther apart. Then everyone migrates to the main stage which does look a bit tatty after the Pritzker – what wouldn’t? – but works well enough. Certainly worked well for Billy Hart‘s quartet (with Ethan Iverson, Ben Street and Mark Turner). Really wanted to hear this as their recorded work is superb and Hart is such a great contributor to so many bands. Live result was even better than I hoped, and great to see them play to such a good crowd.

Then Ken Vandermark yet again, with his large Resonance ensemble – part missed because of a need for downtime, and Dianne Reeves, who was majestic and moving in the evening. Here’s a sample which was early in the set but probably the best bit.

Sunday: Jeff Newell’s New Trad project – a brassy, New Orleans updated ensemble having fun and making great music. Matt Wilson‘s Arts and Crafts quartet – third drummer-led set, and another highlight. Superb playing from substitute trumpeter Randy Brecker (some sub!) and a brief guest spot from Caroline Davis again. You can hear a set from this band with regular trumpeter Terrell Stafford later the same week at the Village Vanguard on NPR.

Finally, there’s a good review of the final festival session with Steve Coleman, Pierre Dorge and Allen Toussaint here.  Toussaint has great keyboard facility but isn’t really a jazz player, so brought Don Byron and Mark Ribot along to enliven the proceedings. Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra I’d heard on record but never seen and they are quite something live. The South African-inflected numbers were the most effective, I thought, and nice to see Thomas Dyani – son of the leader’s old collaborator Johnny Dyani put in an appearance on percussion. Like this…

They didn’t quite rise to the heights of the Brotherhood of Breath, but would be a great festival booking in the UK if anyone had the budget.

Coleman seemed an adventurous choice for a Sunday in the park event, but delivered a stunning set. The quartet had more going for it than the trio he brought to London last year, to my ear – the bass adds a lot – though the vocal fireworks in the quintet edition of five elements that played Newport in 2011 were perhaps even more remarkable. A fine thing to see the man in the city he once called home, though.

All these programmed riches meant we had no energy to follow the jazz club tour on Wednesday night, still less move on to any of the after hours sessions at various clubs after the festival. Maybe another time. We did hear some nice, easygoing playing at a Sunday jazz brunch in the Jazz Record Mart, though. This afforded a glimpse of Ira Sullivan, who once played as a teenager with Charlie Parker, now an octogenarian multi-instrumentalist who seems to play somewhere in the city almost daily.

A glimpse of Ira Sullivan

The record mart is a nice old-fashioned joint, too. You can believe their claim to be the largest jazz and blues store anywhere. They have everything. They don’t make stores like this any more. CDs may have been purchased in quantity at this point.

No music in mind, but a tour of the remarkably well-appointed Harold Washington Library turned up an evening talk by Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, so we slipped back in the evening into a packed lecture theatre listening to Guy answer questions about his just published autobiography.

Completely fascinating: “when I came to the city, there were no entry fees to blues bars. Beer was 25c a bottle. If Muddy Waters was playing, it was 35c”. One bluesman (I forget who) to businessman: “So you’re a producer? – produce me a bottle of wine…”

In short – Chicago is a city that always has something going on, and loves its music. Bristol may seem a little more provincial for a while…

Oh, and the festival is pretty good for people watching, too.

Impressively cool if you know how hot it was!

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