Review: Chicago Jazz Festival

Brian Payne revels in a festival that doesn't need big pop draws masquerading as symbols of eclecticism in order to show top-class jazz. Cécile McLorin Salvant and Tom Harrell were among those illuminating the stage

The 36th annual Chicago Jazz Festival took place in Millennium Park and at the Chicago Cultural Centre – the latter’s gilded-age interior providing a stage beneath the world’s largest Tiffany-stained glass dome.

The festival is organised each year by the City of Chicago. The jazz is undiluted thanks to subsidies from corporations such as Boeing, American Airlines and Pepsi-Cola so there’s no need for big-ticket pop acts as is so often the case in the UK.

Millennium Park’s evening sets were in the modernistic Pritzker Pavilion with its swooping silver band shell. A permanent stainless steel network above the outside seating area and lawn beyond supports a sound system acoustically designed to replicate that of an indoor concert hall. There were also two huge open-air pavilions in the park to accommodate the daytime sets.

Thursday’s performances in the Chicago Cultural Centre included saxophonist David Boykin’s Expanse with flautist Nicole Mitchell; Hammond organist Chris Foreman’s Trio and Brazilian guitarist and singer Paulinho Garcia’s quintet. In a marked departure from the band’s jazz/samba theme Garcia took a solo seat and quietly sang Nat King Cole’s When I Fall in Love in such a sincere way that it visibly moved several in the audience to tears. Later at the Pritzker in the park, Ernest Dawkins with vocalist Dee Alexander and musicians from South Africa and Chicago conducted his new Afro Jazz Opera in a Mandela tribute. Impressive musicianship certainly, but Alexander’s incantatory vocals overshadowed and were too repetitive for my liking.

Stand-out sets on Friday included debonair new singer on the block Paul Marinaro (one to watch) and Clark Sommers’ trio Ba(SH). Sommers is Kurt Elling’s bassist. His trio with saxophonist Geoff Bradfield and drummer Dana Hall moved so deftly between the composed and the improvised that you could hardly detect the joins. Also of note was the Howard Alden/Andy Brown Quartet. In the evening, bassist Rufus Reid’s killer bop-based sextet was followed by a superb performance from Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret quintet. Terence Blanchard’s band with guests Ravi Coltrane and Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke closed the night.

On Saturday the high-octane hard bop of trumpeter Corey Wilkes (pictured above left) and his quintet (Miles Davis associate Bobby Irving on keyboards, Justin Thomas, vibes, Junius Paul, bass and Xavier Breaker, drums) met with massive applause, as did Kurt Rosenwinkel (regarded by many as one of the most influential guitarists of his generation) with Aaron Parks on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Colin Stranahan on drums. The evening at the Pritzker began with Ari Brown (blowing two saxes à la Roland Kirk) and his quintet. Gary Burton’s quartet with piano prodigy Vadim Neselovsky starred later.

However, the headline set on Saturday had to be Colors of a Dream, led by Tom Harrell (pictured right). Harrell’s band has no piano but two double bassists (Ugorina Okegwo and Esperanza Spalding), two saxophonists (Jaleel Shaw and Wayne Escoffery) and a drummer (Jonathan Blake). Harrell was typically lyrical on both trumpet and flugelhorn. Aided by the massive screen behind the band, all eyes in the park were on Esperanza Spalding and the close-up projections of her Brazilian-influenced vocals.

Dave Holland’s Prism finished the night on Saturday. Technically it’s the bassist’s band but Holland encourages compositions by each of its members – Kevin Eubanks, Craig Taborn and Eric Harland – so in effect it’s a collective. Unfortunately, with head down and seemingly oblivious to anyone else, Eubanks was allowed to indulge in over-extended guitar riffs at the expense of the rest.

Sunday was seen in by the dynamic Tomeka Reid Quartet. Straddling both jazz and classical styles on cello, she led a line-up that included free jazz guitarist Mary Halverson. Later in the day it was Albert “Tootie” Heath who stole the show. The legendary drummer recorded with John Coltrane and played with Art Farmer and Clifford Jordan, among others. His current trio with Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street cleverly reworked a range of composers with numbers from Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson. Bobby Broom’s adventurous set in the evening was followed by an equally original and complex performance from Miguel Zenon’s quartet. Both went down well with an appreciative audience.

Cécile McLorin Salvant (pictured top of the page) followed. The singer has taken the jazz world by storm with her powerful voice and incredible range. Personal compositions and interpretations of classic songs were conveyed with clarity and wit. Her accomplished performance with startling changes in register and tempo backed by Aaron Diehl’s tightly knit trio clearly absorbed and delighted the crowd. This was really a hard act for any band to follow – you’d need to be from another planet to even consider it.

The task fell to Sun Ra Arkestra. In sparkling space cloaks and ancient Egyptian headgear, the 20-strong band hit the crowd full on – its repertoire a boisterous medley of Fletcher Henderson swing, Chicago blues, bebop and free jazz. The apparent anarchy of this is in fact overseen and controlled by its leader, 90-year-old altoist Marshall Allen (pictured left). The  band did not disappoint in its musical exhibitionism either. Saxophonist Knoel Scott cart-wheeled across the 125-foot stage and then back-flipped all the way back. Farid Barron played a perfect stride piano solo while lying on his back. Half the band conga’d through the crowd chanting “Space is the Place” and the whole audience of 11,000 plus was on its feet. The band finished its set to a standing ovation. The collective smile of the audience in the park was palpable. On the way home one wondered whether Saturn really was winking in the sky that night.

Photos and review text copyright Brian Payne

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