A curious alchemy occurs whenever Jay McShann plays the piano: everything, whether old or new pop songs or 30s swing numbers, is transformed into blues. There’s an irresistible rocking swing about his playing, and since his band includes other excellent swing-era veterans–his old Kansas City pals Buddy Tate (the big, bold tenor saxist) and Claude Williams (the energetic fiddler) with drummer Bobby Durham and Chicago bass great Milt Hinton–their set may well be the highlight of a promising Friday night at the Chicago Jazz Festival. (John Frigo, Lorez Alexandria, Gary Burton, and Ray Anderson will share the stage tonight.) Other tantalizing highways and byways at this year’s fest include, on Saturday night, Wardell Reese’s Jazz Motivators, with superb organist Chris Foreman, and the Chicago Cantata, an extravaganza created by Swiss composer George Gruntz to be performed by all kinds of jazz, blues, and gospel musicians–including Sunnyland Slim, Billy Branch, the Norfleets, Von Freeman, and Rabelaisian brassmen Lester Bowie and Ray Anderson. On Sunday afternoon New Orleans banjoist-guitarist Danny Barker will lead a traditional jazz band, a phenomenon that’s becoming increasingly rare with the passage of time; perhaps inevitably it’ll include some revivalists, the fine pianist Butch Thompson among them. Sunday night will offer some unknown quantities: What will pianist Yosuke Yamashita do, and can highly touted young Ralph Moore really smoke the tenor sax? Will tenorist Ravi Coltrane, in Elvin Jones’s sextet, sound like his father? But the festival’s closing act, the South African pop-jazz of trumpeter Hugh Masekela, with his infectious rhythm, is a known quantity. Today through Sunday, noon-5 PM, Jazz on Jackson Stage, Grant Park, Columbus and Jackson. Tonight and Saturday, 6-10:30 PM, and Sunday, 5-10:30 PM, Petrillo Music Shell, Grant Park, Columbus and Jackson. 744-3 315. For a complete schedule of acts, see the listing in this section.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lauren Deutsch.