The Chicago Jazz Festival debuted in 1979, spurred by a dictate from our own Calamity Jane, Mayor Byrne; the first edition, plotted in about three weeks, landed like a ripe pumpkin, obliterating the rest of the typically depleted late-summer jazz schedule. But about halfway through the festival’s 23-year run, club owners, record-shop managers, other city agencies, and even the Jazz Institute of Chicago–which programs the festival–figured out how to share the wealth, transforming the festival from lakeside display to citywide showcase.
Once again this year, many of the unofficial events will serve to complement the festival lineup for Grant Park attendees, not to mention those main-stage performers who, somewhat shackled by the tight scheduling at the park, grab the chance to extend their evening by attending (and sometimes sitting in) at the various after-fest jams. The official stuff still ends early, thanks to the 9:30 PM curfew in Grant Park, so if you skip the events listed below you risk missing some of the real festivities.
AFRICAN FESTIVAL OF THE ARTS
What began as a Labor Day crafts fair has grown into a major musical event, with a cross-cultural lineup reflecting the broad musical interests of its “entertainment curator,” Kahil El’Zabar–who also happens to be an attraction at this year’s Jazz Fest. The African Festival of the Arts, held Friday through Monday from 11 AM to 10 PM in Washington Park (55th and Cottage Grove), includes three performances that might steal more than a few patrons from the Grant Park event.
The first of these, at 4:30 PM on Saturday, involves El’Zabar himself: a recreation of the new album, The Calling (Justin Time), his awfully good collaboration with keyboardist D.D. Jackson and low-reeds specialist Hamiet Bluiett, playing baritone sax and the rare (not to mention bizarre) contra-alto clarinet. The album’s grooves are loose and swingy and its textures unexpected; El’Zabar also does some vocalizing. For this concert, they’ll be joined by poet and playwright Ntozake Shange, a dicey proposition at best–with luck, she’ll restrain her recitations to allow the musicians as much room as they want. On Sunday at 7:15 PM, pianist Eddie Palmieri performs with his salsa-jazz orchestra; his exploration of his Puerto Rican roots in the 50s helped save Latin jazz from novelty and transform it into a vibrant facet of American music. Best for last, though: Monday at 5:45 PM–when there’s no longer any conflict with Jazz Fest–saxist Gary Bartz, keyboardist Robert Irving III, and drummer Lenny White will participate in a tribute to their old boss Miles Davis. On trumpet the band features Eddie Henderson, whose command of Davis’s early-70s fusion style made him ideal to handle the horn parts in the first band led by Herbie Hancock upon leaving Davis’s employ.
CHICAGO CULTURAL CENTER
The Cultural Center (78 E. Washington) is going for quality over quantity in its festival-week offerings: only two bookings, but both of them more-than-welcome additions to the schedule. As usual, a late-Thursday-afternoon concert serves as a warm-up for the Grant Park event; this year it’s the much praised pianist Jason Moran, a regular member of Greg Osby’s quartet (performing at the festival Saturday). Moran, who recently received a prestigious Chamber Music America compositional grant–and whose widely anticipated third Blue Note album, Black Stars (featuring Sam Rivers), comes out next week–has a maturity of concept and a dynamic range way beyond his 26 years. Somewhat reminiscent of a young McCoy Tyner, he energizes Osby’s band; this engagement will give Chicago listeners a rare chance to hear him in an unaccompanied setting.
Friday, August 31, at noon the Cultural Center hosts the local debut of Modular Theatre, led by trumpeter Ralph Alessi. The lineup for the quartet (which is sometimes a quintet) has changed since the gig was announced: saxist Peter Epstein, an original member, will play in place of previously announced reedman Ravi Coltrane, along with New York bassist Drew Gress (who has a new album of his own on Chicago’s Premonition label) and Chicago drummer Ted Sirota. Alessi plays with a full-throated tone and much ornamented technique; when he uses a trilled passage to catapult a line into the upper register, he shows how much he learned from listening to Lester Bowie’s recordings of the 70s and 80s. On Hissy Fit (Love Slave Records), the band justified the “theatre” in its name with careering poetry recitations, but those will not find their way into this performance.
Reggie Nicholson, a drummer who grew up in Chicago but splits his time between here and New York, presents his Brass Concept, a pocket-size wind ensemble with Bob Griffin on trumpet, Steve Berry on trombone, and Gerald Powell on tuba. Nicholson’s played with plenty of inventive arrangers in his time, including Muhal Richard Abrams, Ernest Dawkins, Douglas Ewart, and Henry Threadgill. Assuming he’s learned from their example, his little brass chorale should sound fresh; regardless, given the personnel, count on some marvelous, disciplined improvising.
The weekend’s headliner is semi-legendary tenor man Dewey Redman, a veteran of noteworthy bands led by Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (even if younger listeners know him only as Joshua Redman’s dad). Redman plays with a slippery, almost evasive freedom: it not only determines his rollicking melody lines, but also informs his throaty tone and mercurial inflections, and it places him among a handful of modern jazzmen who can truly blur the boundaries between thought and expression. The players in his intriguing rhythm section rarely make it out to Chicago: pianist Charles Eubanks, a cousin of trombonist Robin and guitarist Kevin, has performed with David Murray in New York; bassist John Menegon offers fast-moving lines and a marbled timbre; and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff has applied his explosive swing to bands led by Oliver Lake and Ray Anderson. This has all the makings of a festival-week highlight.
JAZZ RECORD MART
Over the past seven years the Delmark All-Stars Jazz Brunch has grown into a comfy Sunday-morning tradition–sort of like going to a church social, except with more and better music. Held at the Jazz Record Mart (444 N. Wabash), which like Delmark Records belongs to storied record producer Bob Koester, the brunch provides a perfect launch for the last day of the Jazz Festival–provided you
can rouse yourself before noon. The Mart opens up at 10 AM with a
free Chicago-size version of a continental breakfast, featuring bagels, juices, coffee, pastries, and a mountain of fresh fruit. This year the guests of honor are the well-regarded trad-jazz band the Original Salty Dogs, who have a new Delmark disc, Yellow Fire, to hawk on the eve of their 55th anniversary. The confirmed lineup also includes young tenor man Frank Catalano, reedist Ari Brown, unflappable pianist Jodie Christian, unsinkable trumpeter Malachi Thompson, soul-stirring vocalist Francine Griffin, and Frank Chace–a dark wizard on clarinet–playing against a rhythm section of bassist Larry Gray and drummer Leon Joyce. Of course, you can also expect the usual “special surprise guests.”
The after-fest jam sessions at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase have become such an integral part of the festival weekend that you’d hardly believe Segal once used to close up shop during the Jazz Festival, on the grounds that he simply couldn’t compete. But as it turned out, a day in the park merely whetted many listeners’ appetites for the more intimate magic of an established club, and often enough the festival players were eager to cut loose in less restrictive surroundings. In those days, the Jazz Showcase was on Balbo, practically in the shadow of the Petrillo Music Shell, but even now, at 59 W. Grand, it’s still just a 15-minute promenade from the park.
As usual the house band (saxist Eric Schneider, pianist Willie Pickens, bassist Larry Gray, and drummer Robert Shy) will handle the first set before opening it up to out-of-town guests and select Chicagoans. Good bets include trumpeter Orbert Davis on Thursday; pianist Laurence Hobgood, vocalist Kurt Elling, and former Chicago tenor men Eric Alexander and Ed Petersen on Friday; saxists Greg Osby, Billy Harper, and Teddy Edwards on Saturday; and trumpeter Terence Blanchard and tenor great Benny Golson on Sunday. Stay late enough any night, and you might even get to (have to?) hear Segal himself tackle the drums.
Dancing fools needn’t ignore their calling during Jazz Fest. On Friday, August 31, Summerdance–the city’s open-air summer dancehall, on Michigan Avenue between Harrison and Balbo–presents a swing jazz program, with dance instruction from 6 to 7 PM, followed at 7:30 by serious rug-cutting to the music of the Alternatives Big Band. The group is fronted by baritone saxist (and WDCB-FM jazz host) Barry Winograd and features delightful Chicago vocalist Jackie Allen. The fun ends at 9:30, at which point you can reunite with your festgoing pals and hoof it to the nearest club.
POPS FOR CHAMPAGNE
Programming at Pops for most of this weekend is business as usual, but Southport Records takes over on Saturday night to present a CD-release party for Joel Brandon’s Haven’t We All . . . ? Everybody whistles at one time or another, but practically nobody whistles like Brandon, who has puckered up for projects led by Muhal Richard Abrams, David Murray, Chico Freeman, Donny Hathaway, and the Dells and on pops concerts with several symphony orchestras; one reviewer called his sound “otherworldly,” and you’ll get no argument from me. In his eerie, octave-plus glissandi–like the swoop that concludes his rendition of John Coltrane’s “Countdown”–Brandon exercises an amazing control over a tone that sounds as if it should be flying all over the place. Open and airy, but oddly focused at its center, it reminds me of the shakuhachi, the open-end bamboo flute used in Japanese music; it’s a sound that few people have managed to create with just their lips. As it turns out, Brandon also sings pretty well, and he plays flute (the conventional western silver job) with aplomb, improvising soulful but not sleepy lines at medium and up tempos. The party at Pops (2934 N. Sheffield) starts around 8:30 PM and features several of the album’s guests, including pianist Kirk Brown, bassist Harrison Bankhead, and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye.
Tenor legend (and original AACM member) Fred Anderson bought the Velvet Lounge (21281/2 S. Indiana) mostly to ensure his own livelihood but also to showcase his own exploratory music; by the mid-90s, though it still had all the ambience of a 70s basement rec room, the tavern had become a haven for a whole new crop of experimenters. The Velvet’s fest-week schedule includes Thursday regular David Boykin, an exciting young Chicago saxist, and his group Expanse, which makes its Jazz Fest debut two nights later. Friday it’s the terrific Chicago flutist Nicole Mitchell & the Black Earth Ensemble, and on Saturday and Sunday, in a tradition that dates back to 1992, New Orleans septuagenarian free-jazz saxist Kidd Jordan heads north to hook up with the club owner and the multifaceted rhythm team of Tatsu Aoki (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums). This year they’ve invited the young Chicago bassist Joshua Ramos to beef up the band; Chicago Underground guitarist Jeff Parker will guest on Sunday only. I’d be surprised if the Velvet stage isn’t crossed by at least a couple more horn men by last call on Sunday–the venue has become justly famous for hosting the city’s most adventurous after-fest jams. They usually run till 2 AM or later, and you can count on standing the whole time if you arrive anytime after 9.