Live Review: 2018 Chicago Jazz Festival

Matthew Shipp, Ivo Perelman, Charles McPherson, and Myra Melford are among the many highlights of a diverse program

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Matthew Shipp (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, which her Black Earth Ensemble performed at the Pritzker Pavilion on the first day of the 2018 Chicago Jazz Festival, is a visionary Afrofuturistic fable of new beauty arising from old—“merging,” as Mitchell has said, “the chalice with the blade, the urban with the earth-focused, the electronic/electric with the acoustic, the female with the male.” And, she might have added, the past and present with the future. The Ensemble’s instrumentation made this clear; the ancient sounds of traditional Asian percussion, wind, and string instruments (taiko, shamisen, shakuhachi)melded seamlessly with the outer-space ululations of a theremin alongside more ostensibly conventional “jazz” and “classical” voices. Musical stylings ranged from ensemble blends rooted in the Western canon through funk, fusion, art rock, and post-Sun-Ra free-form harmonic cosmology, all the way back home to deep-roots soul/gospel testifying.

Although flutist Mitchell had to bow out at the last minute due to a family medical emergency, her Ensemble, honed to a fine edge, more than did justice to her vision with an array of textures, colorations, and flights of ecstasy both carnal and spiritual. They also set the tone for the entire event: With its diverse and multifaceted program, this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival (Aug. 29-Sept. 3) expressed a determination to challenge such concepts as genre, generation, even time itself. As the late composer Louis “Moondog” Hardin put it, “Today is yesterday’s tomorrow, which is now.”

Nevertheless, for artists whose music is closely associated with a particular era, remaining true to their root aesthetics without getting mired in the past (i.e., becoming a “nostalgia” or “revivalist” act) can be a challenge. The Kenny Barron Quintet seemed content to please the oldheads by dutifully recycling familiar bop and hard-bop conceits (with occasional nods to Getzian jazz-samba exoticism); only saxophonist Dayna Stephens, with his supple timbre and defiantly bold improvisational thrust, sounded determined to summon new flame from old embers. The Charles McPherson-Barry Harris Quartet, on the other hand, traversed similar territory (their set consisted almost exclusively of standards—“Ornithology,” “Darn That Dream,” “’Round Midnight”/“Off Minor,” et al.) while unearthing gems at almost every turn, caressing even the most familiar phrases with the dedication of a lover whose passion intensifies, rather than dulls, over time. McPherson and Harris are lifelong friends, and this set was a celebration of their love for one another as much as it was a testimonial to the ongoing vitality of the music. Chicago veterans Larry Gray (bass) and George Fludas (drums) did an admirable job of providing both respectful accompaniment and tough-minded goading, as the occasion demanded.

Bassist Junius Paul is in command of a wide stylistic palette, but for this appearance he turned in a mostly straight-ahead, hard-bop-flavored set with a band that included trumpeter Corey Wilkes, keyboardist Justin Dillard, and veteran drummer Vincent Davis. Dillard contributed a healthy dollop of soul-jazz churchiness with his fatback piano chords and deep-groove Hammond B-3 work. Paul swung with both propulsiveness and accuracy, his extended lines scattering into quick-dancing flurries and then re-congealing; his arco passages on ballads summoned pathos with eloquence and restraint. Wilkes, characteristically, imbued even his most straight-ahead Dizzyisms with acerbic offshoots and unexpected melodic and rhythmic fillips. To paraphrase former Chicago trumpeter Brad Goode, he charges everything he plays with a bracing shock of the new. Roots-rich this music may be, but—in defiance of the accusations often hurled at tradition-savvy young lions of their ilk—it’s clear that the Junius Paul Quartet consider “roots” to be something alive and growing.

Modernists and futurists, as well as traditionalists, can get caught in ideological quicksand, and it’s a tribute to the artistry of figures as diverse as the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble, Tatsu Aoki’s Miyumi Project, Eric Revis and Ken Vandermark, and Matthew Shipp and Ivo Perelman that the music they performed during the festival resonated with both fearlessness and purpose: iconoclastic, perhaps, but never nihilistic, dissolving the familiar in order to summon new beauty in its wake.

“Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future” is the AACM’s stated mission, and the GBME’s afternoon performance at the Chicago Cultural Center exemplified it. The set opened with a group improvisation, newly conceived by conductor/alto saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, titled “Sixteen”—a reference to the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald, a young African-American man shot 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, whose trial is currently underway. Vocalist Maggie Brown contributed appropriately outraged and anguished commentary as the ensemble surged, brooded, and roiled beneath the solos (Dawkins squawking and declamatory, bassist Micah Collier urgent yet disarmingly tender, tenor saxophonist Ed House building from sparse mid-register meditations into keening squeals and overtones). The set concluded with a tribute to Muhal Richard Abrams and Phil Cohran, both founding members of the AACM who passed away last year. Reverent yet joyful, laced with intricate percussion textures, complementary interweavings from the other instrumentalists, and more vocals from Brown—who spoke/sang Abrams’ and Cohran’s names in invocation of their spirits—it was an aural bouquet in honor of two of the music’s most powerful creative forces. It’s axiomatic that there are no “wrong notes” in this kind of playing, but over the course of their set, the Ensemble carried that aphorism further: Every note sounded irrevocably, irreplaceably right.

The Miyumi Project’s set likewise included extended freeform passages, yet so interlocked were the principals, and so coherent and precise their playing, that the boundary (if there was one) between “composed” and “improvised” music virtually disappeared. A striking characteristic of this group is the way it often reverses thematic roles: Bassist / bandleader Tatsu Aoki usually sets the context, but instead of creating it at the outset, he builds it from a freely imagined idea already put forth by one or more of the others, after which he joins in, constructing a melodic and rhythmic framework within which the piece itself evolves. The result is an arresting melange of voices that calls forth a powerful sense of cross-cultural time travel, from the ancient Japan of Kioto Aoki’s taiko drumming and the European classical tradition embodied (and transcended) by Jamie Kempkers’ cello work, through the Afro-Cuban diaspora that Coco Elysees invokes with her conga syncopations, to the 20th-century North American blues, hard bop, and R&B summoned by clarinetist/baritone saxophonist Mwata Bowden’s wails and tenor man Edward Wilkerson’s burr-edged romanticism, and the postmodernist iconoclasm of the group’s collective improvisations.

Reed man Ken Vandermark isn’t originally from Chicago, but he’s been closely associated with the city’s creative music scene since moving there in the late 1980s. He’s currently the featured soloist in bassist Eric Revis’ quartet—although Revis, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Chad Taylor (another Chicagoan) unstintingly hold up their end of the solo duties as well. Vandermark, despite his bent for challenging melodic conventions, is a supremely lyrical player; even his harshest, most jarring sonic creations flow with synchrony, creating patterns of surpassing beauty. Davis is no less bold, reshaping even her smoothest-flowing figures with sharply delineated juxtapositions and switchbacks. Revis and Taylor simultaneously emphasized their instruments’ rhythmic and tonal capacities, alternately prodding their bandmates and providing a solid underpinning for their unfettered prestissimo flights. The group progressed through myriad emotional realms: ominous, angst-ridden, jubilant, triumphant, even goofy (Vandermark’s clarinet noodlings sometimes made him sound like Pee Wee Russell reincarnated as a Mardi Gras trickster), all limned so starkly that the effect was almost visual, as if the listener were being led through a dream.

In one of this year’s more intriguing groupings, pianist Matthew Shipp and saxophonist Ivo Perelman joined forces with bassist William Parker (Shipp’s former bandmate in David S. Ware’s quartet) and drummer Bobby Kapp for a set that alternated between the explosive and the sublime, and often encompassed both. A militance of spirit was palpable: These were sonic pilgrims, not to be deterred. As Perelman ascended into split-tone wails with Shipp and Parker roiling below—an effect not unlike that of a slowly erupting volcano—Kapp expanded on his instrument’s usual rhythmic function to forge atmospheres that both enveloped the others and spurred them to new heights. At times, multiple themes evolved simultaneously, juxtaposed yet interconnected, reminiscent in some ways of Eric Dolphy’s fabled “sideways” solos alongside Coltrane. The Dolphy influence was especially evident in the vocal-like qualities of Perelman’s timbre, as Shipp alternately danced, churned, and splayed, nimbly strewing pointillist colors every which way. The result was an almost Blakean festival of the imagination, in which conventional forms dissolved into patterns of wonder.

Two of the most highly anticipated sets at this year’s festival were valedictory tributes. The aforementioned Muhal Richard Abrams’ life and legacy were celebrated at the Pritzker by an ensemble that included some of his longtime colleagues, including pianists Amina Claudine Myers and Myra Melford, reedist Mwata Bowden, tenor saxophonist Ari Brown, trumpeter Leon Q. Allen, bassist Harrison Bankhead, and drummer Reggie Nicholson. “[Abrams’] handprint is on all of us,” Bowden said, and that became immediately apparent. Myers opened with an extended, hymn-like improvisation that progressed through many stylistic and emotional shadings, never forsaking its solemnity but always reaching up toward joy—playful, even antic at times—making it clear that there would be nothing funereal about this tribute. Bankhead played with his characteristic blend of zestful invention and good humor; Allen, Brown, and Bowden ranged effortlessly from guttural growls, smears, and midrange meditations to ascending freedom cries, resonant with purpose and meaning. Perhaps the most striking contribution, though, was Melford’s. Her imaginative brilliance, technical dexterity, brio, and deep-running emotional commitment made it clear that to discuss Abrams’ “influence” in this context would be to miss the point: So deeply embedded was his spirit that it seemed a lifeforce to be summoned as naturally as breathing.

Pianist Willie Pickens, who died last December, may not have attained quite the same level of international recognition as Abrams—his recorded legacy, which dates back to the late 1980s, is relatively sparse—but as a stylist and accompanist he had no equal. He toured with Elvin Jones during the 1990s; his long tenure at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase found him complementing singers and soloists of virtually every description; his studio work included sessions with leaders as varied as Jones, the late trumpeter Malachi Thompson, Buddy DeFranco, Von Freeman, Clark Terry, Louis Bellson, and Eddie Harris. Pickens’ daughter, pianist/drummer Bethany Pickens, served as both musical director and MC for the festival’s tribute to her father. The musical fare centered primarily on straightforward bebop/swing, with Larry Gray and veteran stickman Robert Shy contributing lightly dancing but propulsive support to the soloists, who included, along with Bethany herself, saxophonists Eric Schneider, Pat Mallinger, and Ed Peterson; vibist/pianist Stu Katz; and vocalist Milton Suggs, as well as special guest Donald Harrison and young trumpet prodigy Miles Hardemon, whose presence represented the countless students who benefited from Pickens’ tutelage over the years. A special treat was the band’s take on “Winter Wonderland,” from Pickens’ 1998 album A Jazz Christmas (which also featured Nicholas Payton): Set to a jazz-march cadence, it looped into a jaunty 6/8 bridge, then back again as Shy swung jubilantly and Peterson unfurled an appropriately ebullient solo, his tone as warm and spicy as a cup of cinnamon-flavored eggnog. Although some might quibble that this set didn’t explore realms as outward-reaching as Pickens himself was capable of negotiating, it was a heartfelt and impeccably executed paean to one of the most eloquent and inventive exponents of the mainstream jazz tradition.

Myers also appeared leading her own trio with guitarist Jerome Harris and drummer Reggie Nicholson. She has impeccable soul-jazz credentials—her résumé includes stints with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, among others—and her Hammond B-3 work was predictably groove- and funk-laden. On piano, she ventured farther out; her phrases and runs were more tightly wound than Shipp’s had been, but no less daring in their chordal and harmonic juxtapositions. Her singing voice, admittedly, was not to everyone’s taste. Raw and parched-sounding, it stripped away artifice and demanded immediate engagement—fully in the spirit of the blues, regardless of the musical style at hand—and her lyrics fearlessly confessed vulnerability as well as strength (“Your love is all I need / You fulfill my fantasy / Of a man I can tell my troubles to”). She concluded her set with a hymn, thus merging the secular with the sacred, reaching back to roots as fervently as she had explored new vistas just moments earlier. By doing so, she exemplified yet again one of the 2018 Chicago Jazz Festival’s dominant themes.

One of the inevitable frustrations of an event like this, of course, is logistics: The music may reshape, blend, or flat-out ignore such prosaic concerns as time and space, but attendees don’t have that luxury. Neither, unfortunately, do reviewers. Space considerations prevent appropriate recognition of numerous highlights, including (but not limited to) the encompassing sonic majesty and imaginative soloing of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society; the multitextured rhythmic and melodic farrago of the Arturo O’Farrill Sextet; the Laocoön-ish inside/outside interweavings of Nolatet (featuring Crescent City percussion legend Johnny Vidacovich), the Chris Speed Trio, Greg Ward & 10 Tongues, and the Geof Bradfield Nonet; and, of course, the timeless pop/soul-jazz mix of Ramsey Lewis and the majestic funk of Maceo Parker.

In the end, one more invocation of Muhal Richard Abrams’ legacy seems appropriate. The title of his now-classic 1974 album on Delmark also sums up the animating (and unifying) spirit behind this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival: Young at Heart, Wise in Time.