While the 18th annual Chicago Jazz Festival lacks some of the creative edge and conceptual savvy of past fests, there is nonetheless plenty of worthwhile music to be heard. In addition to these highlights, you can find Critics’ Choices for the Dizzy Gillespie big band tribute and the Carla Bley Big Band elsewhere in Section Three.
AHMAD JAMAL QUARTET If his recent album The Essence Part 1 (Verve) is any indication, Ahmad Jamal’s percussion-enhanced quartet leavens his proclivity for florid right-hand piano tinkling by accenting the complex rhythmic dynamics of his music. His ornate upper-register machinations are offset by propulsive block chords and an effective rhythm section that features bassist James Commack and drummer Yoron Israel. (Friday, 5 PM, Petrillo Music Shell)
ARI BROWN QUARTET For years an indefatigable sideman with Elvin Jones, Lester Bowie, and Kahil El’Zabar, Chicago reedist and pianist Ari Brown has finally begun to collect his due. His debut album as a leader, Ultimate Frontier (Delmark), for which this writer contributed liner notes, captures his remarkable range, from blustery hard-bop tenor to hypnotic African-tinged meditations to turbulent soul-searching, yet everything is conveyed in a singular, authoritative voice. Few musicians navigate the murky waters between tradition and the avant-garde with as much confidence, intuition, and accessibility. This quartet is rounded out by bassist Yosef Ben Israel, drummer Avreeayl Ra, and Ari’s brother Kirk on piano–except when multiinstrumentalist Ari himself sits at the keyboard. (Friday, 6 PM, Petrillo Music Shell)
CHICAGO SOUND REVISITED This tribute performance, named for the Wilbur Ware album The Chicago Sound, promises to invoke the spirit of the great Chicago bassist. Ware was a self-taught bebopper who played with Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins; his organic, open-ended approach helped change his instrument’s role in jazz and influenced free-jazz bassists from Charlie Haden to William Parker. The brilliant tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, drummer Wilbur Campbell, and pianist Junior Mance will reprise their roles from the 1957 recording, with rarely heard alto great Bunky Green playing John Jenkins’s parts and Victor Sproles filling the giant shoes of Ware. (Friday, 6:55 PM, Petrillo Music Shell)
ERIC ALEXANDER & LIN HALLIDAY Decking out Eric Alexander and his elder Lin Halliday in black leather on the cover on the recent Stablemates (Delmark) makes the album look like a Tom of Finland send-up, though the music is straightforwardly modeled on Coltrane and Rollins’s Tenor Madness. On the recording, Halliday doesn’t provide enough of a spark to ignite the proceedings, but with additional support from baritone sax legend Cecil Payne, hard-driving pianist Harold Mabern, former longtime Thelonious Monk bassist John Ore, and drummer Joe Farnsworth, the young lion Alexander should put forth some of the best unadulterated hard bop of the weekend. (Saturday, 12 PM, Jackson stage)
CHICAGO JAZZ ENSEMBLE In an effort to promote Columbia’s recent box set of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaborations, Saturday’s Sony-sponsored evening includes William Russo’s Chicago Jazz Ensemble performing orchestral selections from Sketches of Spain. Russo has already established the group, which features lead trumpeter Orbert Davis, as a major-league repertory outfit, and this particular work has rarely been performed live. (Saturday, 7:50 PM, Petrillo Music Shell)
JIM BAKER TRIO Nearly a decade ago guitarist-trumpeter Daniel Scanlan raved to me about Jim Baker, a pianist he claimed bridged the gap between Bill Evans and Cecil Taylor. I was regrettably late in discovering how right he was. Baker is one of the most criminally ignored pianists in the country, let alone Chicago. In the group Caffeine he unleashes ferocious skeins of discordant but harmony-thick sound, while his participation in Steam showcases his bebop abilities, from unpredictable, angular phrasing to a dead-on sense of blues rightness. He almost never plays his own craggy, complex tunes, so this rare opportunity shouldn’t be missed, especially since he’ll be supported by longtime cohort Kent Kessler on bass and the fabulous Hamid Drake on percussion. Tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, with whom Baker plays at the weekly Velvet Lounge jam session, is the trio’s special guest. (Sunday, 2:20 PM, Jackson stage)
MUSIC FROM KANSAS CITY Robert Altman’s Kansas City has drawn poor notices for both its convoluted theatrical premise and the historical inaccuracy of the musical performances. The sound track, which features an all-star cast ripping through KC classics associated with Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and Coleman Hawkins, reveals a sharp but incongruous modern edge, ignoring the music’s original subtleties and playing up its brashness. Live and freed from the obligation to create period ambience, though, the Kansas City band holds more promise. With trumpeter Nicholas Payton, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, clarinetist Don Byron, saxophonists David “Fathead” Newman, Jesse Davis, and Ricky Ford, among others, spirited, rambunctious performances are all but guaranteed, as the big band stretches amiable swing chestnuts across the stylistic expanse of a 60-year tradition. Conceptually, at least, it’s a good way to close the festival, invoking the Art Ensemble of Chicago motto Ancient to the Future. Unfortunately it’s in service to bloated capitalist enterprise–see the movie, buy the sound track. (Sunday, 9 PM, Petrillo Music Shell)
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ahmad Jamal, by Jacques Beneich.