The 42nd annual Chicago Jazz Festival – returning to Millennium Park Thursday through Sunday, September 1 through 4, after a pandemic-induced hiatus – is celebrating the city’s rich music legacy, presenting the sounds of our stellar locally-based artists along with leaders from elsewhere who have something to add.
As curated by a committee of the Jazz Institute of Chicago the fest has jazz of all styles and depths, for everyone from casual listener to longtime devotee, those seeking sheer entertainment or transcendent exploration. Top
Chicago Public School bands perform, programmed simultaneously with some of today’s coolest up’n’coming pros. Yes, with more than two dozen performances to choose from, there will be choices to make. But you can’t really go wrong.
Following Thursday afternoon programs in the Cultural Center (including a “What is this thing called jazz?” lecture at the Cultural Center by Grammy-winning Louis Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi), the music scheduled at the Jay Pritzker Pavillion mainstage announces the fest’s historic themes, for its known worldwide: Regard for jazz’s traditions and embrace of its present with ears to its future.
“Vonology,” guitarist Mike Allemana’s tribute to the late, great South Side saxophonist Von Freeman, is a suite in five parts for a hand-picked ensemble (including voices) of musicians who knew Freeman’s mentoring firsthand from his decades of club sessions. A community love letter to a soulful, swinging jazz master, proving his influence and spirit persist. The composition is informed by Allemana’s research of South Side jazz in completion of his Ph.D in ethnomusicology at University of Chicago, but there’s nothing academic about it. Mikehas collaborated closely with Von’s brother George Freeman (now 95),Von’s son Chico, and Von, of course, himself.
“Vonology” is rooted in Chicago’s hardswinging, blues and bebop basis. Henry Threadgill, native borh Pulitzer Prizewinning composer and performer, is of the Chicago generation that radically advanced those resources, retaining their essences. A proud early member of the fabled Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Threadgill at youthful age 78 exemplifies fearless originality. Zooid, his longstanding guitar-tuba-cellodrums band, employs his unique concept of shifting pitch intervals instead of, say, chords, to structure collective interplay by turns stark, lyrical, funny, ethereal, gritty, often grooving, always expressive.
The Friday afternoon acts in both the Freeman tent and Pavillion’s rooftop stage are all appealing. In the former, poet Regina Harris Baiocchi debuts a piece commissioned by the Jazz Institute through its Mellon Foundation grant supporting “New Works Fresh Voices.” Then trumpeter Russ Johnson, a flexible, dependably inspired favorite on our local scene (also director of jazz studies at University of Wisconsin Parkside), and finally fast rising New York City-based trumpeter Adam O’Farrill with his brother Zack on drums in the Stranger Days quartet.
At the same time on the rooftop, vocalist Roya Naldi revisits songs from the Roaring ‘20s, saxophonist Lenard Simpson (winner of the Luminarts Jazz Competition, graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute, recipient of a Jazz Institute Jazz Links fellowship, too) leads a group and the hip-hop-reggae horns of the Low Down Brass Band are poised to delight. If a flight of stairs isn’t daunting, go ahead — run back and forth to sample the six acts. But dang! You’re bound to miss something.
Pritzker Pavilion Friday eve begins with bassist Ethan Philion’s “Meditations on Mingus”– a centennial tribute to the great, late Charles Mingus. Philion is another “New Works Fresh Voices” honoree. As recorded, his “Meditations” features top rung Chicago players — saxophonists Rajiv Halim, Geoff Bradfield and Max Bessesen, trumpeter Victor Garcia (as well as Russ Johnson), pianist Alexis Lombre and drummer Dana Hall among them. Whenever those folks are in ensembles – such as the Bradfield/Hall trio with Bay Area clarinetist Ben Goldberg in the Freeman space on Sunday –quality music is assured.
Friday continues spectacularly: New York City-based tenor saxophonist JD Allen (heard at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival last fall, head to head with our own Isaiah Collier, whose New Works Fresh Voices commission is premiered Sunday in the Freeman tent); singing sensation Jazzmeia Horn, who has drive akin to the late Betty Carter’s, and guitarist Bill Frisell, who in trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston has an honest, open-hearted, all inclusive sensibility that conjures beauty for troubled times.
Saturday afternoon stretches out in the tent – from De Paul University educated singer Christy Bennett’s evocation with Fumée of the so-called “gypsy jazz” of guitarist Django Reinhardt through trumpeter Marques Carroll’s muscular mainstream quartet and saxophonist-vocalist Auroa Nealand importation of New Orleans jazz inspired by clarinetist Sidney Bechet to Atomic, highly lauded all-stars of the progressive Scandinavian jazz scene.
But listen here on the rooftop! To high school competitors from Jones College Prep, Lincoln Park High School, Kenwood Academy, Whitney Young High School and Chi Arts. Do not sleep on the coming generation! – tutored by Jazz Institute clinicians as well as their own devoted faculty, these teens are sharp, and the future.
Chicago generates great saxophonists — alto saxist Greg Ward, on the Pritzker stage Saturday night, is of that line. Always sounding like himself, Ward is a composer, established educator (ass’t prof at Indiana U.) and improviser who bursts with energy and ideas. He fronts Fitted Shards, featuring guitarists Dave Miller and Matt Gold, and the rhythm team Matt Ulery (bass) and Quin Kirchner (drums).
The sax theme is reinforced with next up altoist Miguel Zénon, and with the two hornmen in bassist William Parker’s band, altoist Rob Brown and tenorist James Brandon Lewis (Chicago’s Hamid Drake is drumming, and rarely touring multi-instrumentalist Cooper- Moore will be heard on organ). Also throughout Sunday in the Freeman space, when New Yorker Joel Frahm provides obbigati to singer Abigail Riccards, altoist Immanuel Wilkins (widely hailed for his initial two Blue Note albums) makes his Chicago debut, and Collier and Bradfield-Goldberg-Hall offer their sets.
This fest’s final night in the Pritzker Pavillion proceeds with Chicago Nick Mazzarella, an altoist with terrific chops, referential breadth and individuality, accompanied by tenorist Nate Lepine, guitarist Tim Stine and the Ulery-Kirchner team mentioned above. It concludes with always rousing NEA Jazz Master/Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group Donald Harrison.
Not to neglect artists who don’t fit my paradigm – at deadline information is coming fast. Pianist Kris Davis Diatom Ribbons quartet includes drummer Teri Lynn Carrington (director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Justice), DJ Val Jeanty and bassist Trevor Dunn.
Who’s playing with with bassist-leader Linda May Han Oh? What to expect from veteran singers’ singer Carmen Lundy? The answers will be surprises, experienced in person, right there and then, Millennium Park, Labor Day weekend – free of charge! The jazz event of Chicago’s summer. Not to be missed.
By Howard Mandel