Larry Gray leads his trio in the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center on Thu 8/29.
Larry Gray leads his trio in the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center on Thu 8/29. Credit: John Broughton

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Thursday 29

Randolph Cafe, Chicago Cultural Center


Singer and story­teller Mankwe Ndosi, who splits her time between Minneapolis and Chicago, leads this dynamic quartet with AACM reedist Edward Wilkerson Jr., bassist Darius Savage, and percussionist JoVia Armstrong; you may recognize her from her roles in groups with flutist Nicole Mitchell and cellist Tomeka Reid. Peter Margasak

Fat Babies
1:30 PM

The Fat Babies, a Chicago septet led by bassist Beau Sample, play spirited 20s-style trad jazz with nary a whiff of irony and not one straw hat in sight. Their 2012 album, Chicago Hot (Delmark), bursts with energy, and when they play live, egged on by the crowd of committed dancers who come out to their weekly gigs at the Green Mill and Honky Tonk BBQ, they get even more unhinged. Sample, drummer Alex Hall, banjoist-guitarist Jake Sanders, pianist Paul Asaro, trombonist Dave Bock, clarinetist John Otto, and cornetist Andy Schumm are joined for today’s gig by reedist and former Chicagoan Jon Doyle. Peter Margasak

Randy Weston
2 PM
Jazz elders don’t come much older than pianist Randy Weston, who turned 87 in April. A literally towering presence in jazz since the 1940s (he stands six foot seven), he’s not only celebrated the music’s African roots but also steeped himself in them, living on the continent for extended periods and working with Gnawa trance musicians from Morocco. However, Weston’s compositions never stray too far from the rich hues and sophisticated rhythms of Duke Ellington. The last time Weston came to the Chicago Jazz Festival, he led an orchestra; today he’ll play solo. Bill Meyer

Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center

Larry Gray Trio
12:15 PM
Few players have had as sustained an impact on the Chicago jazz scene as bassist Larry Gray. As de facto house bassist at the Jazz Showcase, he’s worked with a who’s who of jazz celebs, but Gray is much more than a great pickup sideman. He proves it again on the 2011 CD Three Equals One (Chicago Sessions), which features the same group he’ll have in tow at the festival—John Moulder on guitar (Gray’s first instrument) and Charles Heath on drums. John Corbett

Harrison Bankhead Sextet
1:45 PM

Harrison Bankhead has been such an in-demand double bassist for so long—for the likes of Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson, and the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra—that he didn’t record an album of his own until he was 55 years old. On 2011’s Morning Sun Harvest Moon (Engine), the Chicago veteran leads a sextet that flows from turbulent free-for-alls to solemn, spiritual grooves to a lilting Latin excursion. Because Bankhead’s sidemen are in demand too, the group doesn’t play out often, which makes it doubly worthwhile to show up early enough to catch this set. Bill Meyer

Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center

Hinda Hoffman Trio
12:30 PM
Vocalist Hinda Hoffman puts her soul into her phrasing, trusting in the melodies and chord changes of the standards in her repertoire. She delivers those melodies with care and concision, which in an era of pyrotechnical jazz singers is an extraordinary approach by virtue of its restraint. She’s supported by pianist Ron Perrillo and bassist Dennis Carroll. Peter Margasak

Garland Room, Chicago Cultural Center

What Is This Thing Called “Jazz”?
12:30 PM & 3:15 PM
The Jazz Institute presents drummer Paul Wertico in a program called “The Rhythm Method,” an insider’s view of the intricacies of jazz performance. The Garland Room is on the Cultural Center’s first floor, on the Washington Street side.

Roosevelt University

Hamid Drake’s Chicago Trio with Ernest Dawkins and Harrison Bankhead
Ganz Hall
5 PM

Drummer Hamid Drake isn’t just a remarkable musician and improviser with dazzling technique, huge power, sensitive intuition, and an encyclopedic rhythmic vocabulary—he also makes anyone he plays with sound better. Saxophonist Ernest Dawkins is one of Chicago’s best, and he sounds as good as I’ve ever heard him on the Chicago Trio‘s 2011 album, Velvet Songs: To Baba Fred Anderson (Rogue Art), a remarkable double CD cut live in 2008 at Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge with Drake and bassist Harrison Bankhead. Drake, Dawkins, and Bankhead have their feet planted among jazz’s roots in blues and swing, so even though the music is entirely improvised, it gravitates toward familiar tropes. Anderson was a mentor to all three of them, and in many ways this trio embodies the late saxophonist’s brand of Chicago free jazz—full of soul, grit, and swaggering grace. Peter Margasak

Pritzker Pavilion

Jack DeJohnette with Muhal Richard Abrams, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell, and Henry Threadgill

6:30 PM
I could fill this entire festival guide with the accomplishments of drummer and Chicago native Jack DeJohnette, a 2012 NEA Jazz Master whose restless creativity and eagerness to explore are just as impressive as the long list of jazz legends with whom he’s played (Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Charles Lloyd). For this special kickoff to the Chicago Jazz Fest he’s assembled a one-off quintet with veteran local bassist Larry Gray that includes some of the most important and individualistic players the city has ever produced: pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and reedists Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell. Before leaving town for New York in 1966, DeJohnette worked briefly with Mitchell, Abrams, and other AACM members, but he never joined the organization himself—what binds these four together is their commitment to experimentation. It’s impossible to predict what these heavies will do (or how cohesive it will be), but assembling this much musical brilliance on one stage can’t fail to produce something fascinating. Peter Margasak

Artist in residence Hamid Drake leads a different band on each of the festival’s four days.Credit: Lauren Deutsch

Friday 30

Von Freeman Pavilion

Dedication ceremony featuring George Freeman
2 PM
The Von Freeman Pavilion will be consecrated by the late saxophonist’s brother and occasional stage partner, guitarist George Freeman, probably the last working musician in Chicago to have played with Charlie Parker. John Corbett

Christopher McBride Quartet
2:20 PM
Alto saxophonist Christopher McBride has proved himself a malleable sideman in recent years, testing the limits of postbop orthodoxy with trumpeter Marquis Hill or subtly commenting on the resonant singing of Milton Suggs. In 2012 he finally released a record under his own name, Quatuor de Force (Skiptone Music), where at first he seems interested mostly in silky ballads and smoky R&B—keep listening, though, and he’ll surprise you with a fiery, percussive Afro-Caribbean breakdown, which shatters the cool of “Epiphany,” or the swiftly swinging “The Wrath of Kneecoal,” which evokes Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in their heyday. This is McBride’s festival debut, and because he’s just moved from Chicago to New York, his local appearances will probably start tapering off soon. He’s joined by guitarist Jeff Swanson, bassist Michael Lough, and drummer Xavier Breaker. Peter Margasak

Ben Paterson Organ Quartet
3:30 PM
This terrific young mainstream keyboardist recently left Chicago for New York, but he returns today to lead his fine organ combo. He’s probably best known for his tastefully groovy acoustic piano playing, which has a little of Oscar Peterson’s crowd-pleasing oomph, but he’s also a monster on the Hammond B-3; this knockout quartet also includes drummer George Fludas, guitarist Kyle Asche, and trumpeter Victor Garcia. Peter Margasak

Miguel de la Cerna Quartet
4:40 PM
The Hyde Park Jazz Society has assembled this strong-looking quartet from among the regular performers at its weekly Room 43 concert series. Flexible pianist Miguel de la Cerna leads reedist Ari Brown, bassist Harrison Bankhead, and drummer Avreaayl Ra in a set that’s certain to push a little further out than the HPJS’s programming usually goes. Peter Margasak

Jazz & Heritage Pavilion

Mike Smith Quartet
2 PM
Alto saxophonist Mike Smith, onetime lead horn man for Frank Sinatra, is in the fourth decade of a weekly gig at Andy’s, but he’s not somebody to take for granted. He’s devoted to mainstream hard bop, and with this quartet—Smith plus Jordan Baskin’s piano trio with bassist Jeff Hamann and drummer Brian Ritter—he consistently proves that he’s worth paying attention to. Peter Margasak

Hamid Drake with Michael Zerang, Eigen Aoki, and Tsukasa Taiko drummers directed by Tatsu Aoki
3:30 PM
Drummer Hamid Drake doesn’t just make the most abstract music swing; he’s also a devoted student of rhythms from around the world. He and Michael Zerang draw on those traditions in their sunrise winter-solstice concerts, which have been easing Chicago’s passage from one year to the next since 1990, but for this performance they’ll narrow the focus to one: traditional Japanese drum music, performed with Eigen Aoki (son of jazz bassist Tatsu Aoki) and his Tsukasa Taiko youth unit. Taiko is all about the balance between massive force and serene emptiness, elements that Zerang and Drake understand quite well. Bill Meyer

A Tribute to Ken Chaney
5 PM

Keyboardist Ken Chaney, who died in December at age 73, was a vital presence on the Chicago jazz scene; a founding member of the AACM, he played in Young-Holt Unlimited (appearing on the 1968 hit “Soulful Strut”), co-led the adventurous, soulful Awakening, and pushed the envelope with his vocal-jazz group, the Xperience. Tonight trombonist and Awakening alumnus T.S. Galloway leads a terrific big band in his arrangements of some of Chaney’s best tunes. The group includes saxophonists Dudley Owens, Irvin Pierce, Rajiv Halim Orozco, and Mwata Bowden; trumpeters Corey Wilkes, Larry Bowen, and Pharez Whitted; trombonists Audrey Morrison, Norman Palm, and Willie Woods; bassist Larry Gray; pianist Robert Irving III; and drummer Xavier Breaker. Peter Margasak

Pritzker Pavilion

Geof Bradfield’s Melba!
6:30 PM
With his recent six-part opus, Melba! (Origin), reedist Geof Bradfield pays tribute to trombonist Melba Liston, one of jazz’s great female instrumentalists in an era when women rarely appeared on the bandstand. Her most important legacy, though, remains her masterful arranging, and she did her most enduring work with pianist Randy Weston, a partnership they maintained off and on from the 60s through the early 90s. Bradfield tosses in flashes of old-school bebop on “Central Avenue”—named for the bustling epicenter of the early jazz scene in LA, where Liston settled in the 40s—as well as Latin flourishes on “Dizzy Gillespie” and Moroccan modes on “Randy Weston,” but the music transcends place and time, allowing the composer’s elegant melodies and deft arrangements to shine. Bradfield is joined by pianist Ryan Cohan, trumpeter Victor Garcia, trombonist Joel Adams, guitarist Mike Allemana, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer George Fludas— and on several pieces by Weston himself. Peter Margasak

Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers, performed by the Golden Quartet and Pacifica Red Coral with video artist Jesse Gilbert
7:40 PM
A formative and formidable member of the AACM in the late 1960s, Wadada Leo Smith has charted his own path as a radiant trumpeter and innovative composer. He played on signal records by Anthony Braxton, Marion Brown, and Roscoe Mitchell, started the Kabell label to document his own work, and in 1973 self-published an incisive treatise on improvisation, Notes (8 Pieces) Source a New World Music: Creative Music. His suite Ten Freedom Summers (released by Cuneiform as a four-CD box in 2012) is a major achievement, an enormous, unflinching work that examines a decade in the history of the American civil rights movement, from Brown v. Board of Education to the Civil Rights Act. It took Smith more than three decades to complete; this year, it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Smith will present about one-fourth of the piece, which in its entirety lasts more than five hours; he’ll be accompanied by his Golden Quartet (pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff) as well as string quartet Pacifica Red Coral (augmented by harpist Alison Bjorkedal). Always thinking across media, Smith also includes a video component, provided by sound designer, software engineer, and installation artist Jesse Gilbert. John Corbett

Charles Lloyd and friends featuring Bill Frisell
9 PM
Reedist Charles Lloyd has always surrounded himself with excellent musicians—in the mid-60s he helped introduce legends-to-be Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett to the mainstream jazz audience—and his current working group, with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, is as tight and elastic as any he’s led. Lloyd‘s style owes a lot to John Coltrane’s meditative side, and even at its most serene his playing simmers with the intensity of a spiritual quest. This performance is part of a yearlong celebration of his 75th birthday that includes a series of special collaborations, which tonight brings another great player into the fold: Bill Frisell, one of the most recognizable jazz guitarists of the past three decades. Peter Margasak