The Jazz Institute of Chicago’s bookings for this year’s Jazz Festival reaffirm the organization’s commitment to presenting a variety of music by local, national, and international acts. Everything on the bill is worthwhile, but these are the sets at the top of my list.

Chicago Jazz Festival
Thu 9/1, 11 AM-9 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, and Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph; Fri 9/2-Sat 9/3, 11:30 AM-9 PM, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph; Sun 9/4, 11 AM-9 PM, Maxwell Street Market, 800 S. Desplaines, and Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph; free, all ages

Henry Threadgill Credit: Michael Jackson

Henry Threadgill Zooid

Thu 9/1, 7:45 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion

Alto saxophonist, flute player, and Pulitzer-winning composer Henry Threadgill has been based primarily in New York City since 1970, but he was born in Chicago in 1944. During his musical development, he took in everything our city could provide: in addition to being an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), he played in blues, R&B, and polka bands as well as church ensembles. These experiences primed him to survey the broad landscape of music and judiciously select the best bits from everything he studied. His early ensembles, Air and the Henry Threadgill Sextett, were paragons of advanced small-group interaction and creative arrangement. More recently, he’s composed mainly for unusually configured large bands, and in May 2022 he staged a multimedia event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that included projections of images from his forthcoming book of COVID-era photography. 

For this concert, Threadgill will appear with Zooid, his main performance vehicle of the past 20 years or so. The quintet, which also includes guitarist Liberty Ellman, tuba and trombone player Jose Davila, cellist Christopher Hoffman, and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, uses intensively rehearsed investigations of harmonic interval series, rather than scales or chords, as the foundation of its rich, constantly shifting group improvisations. Zooid will perform selections from Threadgill’s 2019 piece Pathways, which he wrote in response to the revitalization of Lake Erie.

A documentary short on the collaboration of Zooid and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble to develop Pathways

Henry Threadgill Zooid released this album in 2021.

JD Allen Credit: Michael Jackson

JD Allen

Fri 9/2, 5:25 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion

JD Allen’s voice on the tenor saxophone combines adroit phrasing with a full tone across all the instrument’s registers. During the pandemic, he moved from New York to Cincinnati, and he spent his lockdown time developing the material for his first unaccompanied solo album, Queen City (Savant). The record demonstrates his dogged commitment to tunefulness: he plays originals and Great American Songbook material (“Just a Gigolo,” “These Foolish Things”), and no matter where his improvising takes him, his pithy extrapolations always stay in touch with the melody. As a bandleader, Allen often favors stripped-down settings, and at the Jazz Festival he’ll bring a trio with bassist Tyrone Allen and drummer Kayvon Gordon. Allen also plays Thursday, September 1, at Constellation.

JD Allen released this trio album (with a different lineup than performs at the Jazz Fest) in 2011.

Bill Frisell Credit: Monica Frisell

Bill Frisell

Fri 9/2, 7:45 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion

It takes about three seconds to recognize Bill Frisell. Countless guitarists have been influenced by his command of outboard effects and his attunement to harmonic subtleties, but his warm, glassy tone and sinuous phrasing defy imitation. In a career that’s spanned more than four decades, he’s pursued an epically inclusive aesthetic, making deep dives into Beatles and surf-rock tunes, Buster Keaton movies, the sounds of Nashville and West Africa, the jump-cut methodology of John Zorn, and the cartoons of Jim Woodring. But no matter how far his pursuits have taken him from jazz convention, he’s stayed committed to drawing out the harmonic and emotional potential of every tune he tackles. Frisell is also a generous accompanist, even when he leads a band. He’ll play here with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, the combo that he leads on his latest album, Valentine (Blue Note).

The title track of Bill Frisell’s 2020 album, Valentine

Atomic: Håvard Wiik, Fredrik Ljungkvist, Hans Hulbækmo, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and Magnus Broo Credit: Courtesy the artist


Sat 9/3, 3 PM, Von Freeman Pavilion

If the members of Atomic weren’t musicians, they might be high-wire artists—they’re that good at keeping their balance under pressure. The Scandinavian quintet expertly realize the nuanced, dynamic compositions of pianist Håvard Wiik and reeds player Fredrik Ljungkvist, which owe as much to contemporary classical music as they do to postbop jazz, but they also relish exhilarating, no-holds-barred improvisation. The group—rounded out by drummer Hans Hulbækmo, trumpeter Magnus Broo, and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten—have carried on for 22 years, even though their members (originally from Norway and Sweden) are now dispersed as widely as Germany and the United States. But all good things come to an end, and Atomic will disband at the end of their current U.S. tour. They’re also playing at Constellation on Friday, September 2, which makes this festival set their final Chicago appearance.

The most recent Atomic album, released in 2018

William Parker Credit: Anna Yatskevich

William Parker Quintet

Sat 9/3, 7:45 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion

William Parker turned 70 this year, and he can already look back on a lifetime of extraordinary accomplishments as a bassist, composer, improviser, sideman, bandleader, organizer, and author. But who’s looking back? Parker is still immensely productive. His releases in the past two years include a ten-disc collection of music that spotlights women’s voices, a mind-melting live set recorded at CBGB in 2002 with Peter Brötzman and Milford Graves, more than a dozen appearances as a sideman or coleader, and a pair of new trio recordings—one quietly ritualistic, the other a fearless dive into scorching jazz-rock. Parker often uses small groups to explore the continuum that connects mid-20th-century modern jazz and freer idioms; the quintet he’ll lead tonight features three of his enduring comrades—alto saxophonist Rob Brown, pianist Cooper-Moore, and drummer Hamid Drake—and one newer associate, soul-stirring tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis.

This 2019 William Parker album features four of the players in this quintet—everyone but James Brandon Lewis.

Geof Bradfield, Dana Hall, and Ben Goldberg Credit: Courtesy the artist

Geof Bradfield, Ben Goldberg, and Dana Hall

Sun 9/4, 1:50 PM, Von Freeman Pavilion

On the last day of any festival, it’s easy to sleep in and show up late. But if you do that this weekend, you’ll miss the simultaneously adventurous and ingratiating music of this marvelous cross-country trio. Drummer Dana Hall and reedist Geof Bradfield, who plays bass clarinet and tenor and soprano saxophones, are from Chicago; Ben Goldberg, who plays B-flat and contra-alto clarinets, is based in San Francisco. On their 2020 album General Semantics (Delmark), the absence of a bass or chordal instrument gives the music a wide-open quality—on the pithy original “345,” that airiness makes it easy to appreciate the trio’s precision maneuvers and tricky syncopation. Bradfield, Goldberg, and Hall fly easily through the music’s history, from the New Orleans-steeped polyphony of “Last Important Heartbreak of the Year” to a strikingly graceful interpretation of Cecil Taylor’s “Air.” Bradfield and Goldberg also play Saturday, September 3, at Constellation.

Geof Bradfield, Ben Goldberg, and Dana Hall released this trio album in 2020.

Kris Davis Credit: Michael Jackson

Kris Davis Diatom Ribbons

Sun 9/4, 6:25 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion

It’s hard to think of a more audacious reinvention than the one Kris Davis undertook on the 2019 album Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic). The Canadian-born pianist, who’s been based in New York for two decades, had already established herself as a bracingly rigorous, exceptionally lucid instrumentalist and composer, both as a bandleader and as a collaborator with the likes of Craig Taborn, Rob Mazurek, and Hafez Modirzadeh. But over the ten tracks of Diatom Ribbons, she creates a vast new palette for herself by drawing on a wider range of musical communities than ever before. She incorporates Val Jeanty’s poetry-wise turntablism, Terri Lynne Carrington’s organically morphing drum grooves, the dueling guitars of Marc Ribot and Nels Cline, and the languorous vocals of Esperanza Spalding (among other things) into a celebration of limitless possibility. For this appearance she’ll perform in a stripped-down quartet with Jeanty, Carrington, and bassist Trevor Dunn, who also appears on Diatom Ribbons—a lineup I’d expect to drill down into the project’s rhythmic core. Davis also plays Saturday, September 3, at Constellation.

Kris Davis’s Diatom Ribbons features a complement of ten musicians.

2022 Chicago Jazz Festival