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Chicago Jazz Festival

Nicole Mitchell, on flute, with her Black Earth Ensemble
David Weiss

It took some deft footwork and improvisational acumen to pull off, but in the face of city cutbacks that threatened to truncate the Chicago Jazz Festival from its usual three days to two, the Jazz Institute of Chicago managed to put together an event that ran four days instead of three and encompassed a wider geographic spectrum than ever before. This year’s festivities featured a Thursday afternoon set at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (a state-of-the-art performance venue in Millennium Park, adjacent to the usual Grant Park location) and a Thursday evening presentation at nearby Roosevelt University; additional sets were also held on Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center, located just a block or two away at the corner of Michigan and Randolph, and again at the Pritzker on Friday afternoon and evening. Saturday and Sunday found the Fest back at Grant Park.

Several of the festival’s highlights occurred during the earlier programs. On Friday afternoon, cellist Tomeka Reid led her Hear In Now Trio – which also included violinist/vocalist Mazz Swift and bassist Silvia Bolognesi – in the intimate, acoustically impeccable Preston Bradley Hall at the Cultural Center. Reid led her ensemble with the same nuanced sensitivity that characterizes her playing, directing from her seat with understated eye, head, and body movements as her colleagues responded with near-synergistic empathy. Her cello work, meanwhile, was characteristically forceful, her trademark muscularity on pizzicato passages offset by the flowing, directional symmetry of her bowed lines.

But this was not a one-woman show: the three principals tossed ideas among themselves in circular, call-and-response patterns so densely interwoven that they often virtually obliterated the usual distinction between “solo” and “ensemble” work. The hues, befitting a group heavy on lower-range instruments, tended toward the dark and somber, but Swift’s brilliantine uptempo flourishes and the emotional intensity that she and the others brought to their playing ensured that bathos was avoided. Reid affected a buoyantly ironic gaiety with her dancing pizzicato runs and sinuous, extended arco stylings; Swift used her vocals sparingly, as seasonings to accentuate –or, at times, challenge and impel into new directions– the moods and colors swirling around her.

Also at the Cultural Center on Thursday was a rousing set by the AACM Experimental Ensemble, named in homage to the Experimental Band, the Muhal Richard Abrams-led aggregation that evolved into the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the mid-’60s. Led by multi-woodwind virtuoso Douglas Ewart, the eleven-member Ensemble incorporated sounds and influences ranging from aboriginal sacred music (invoked by Ewart’s didgeridoo) through strutting, free-form neo-New Orleans clarinet fusillades (courtesy of Mwata Bowden) and contemporary Afro-Cuban dance rhythms (the group boasted no less than three percussionists, and at various times almost everyone picked up a shaker, a bell, or some other “little instrument” as well) to tumultuous blasts of the AACM’s patented group improvisation. Swirling aural dreamscapes came into focus, shifted, morphed, and then dissolved into freshly-imagined sonic realms, sometimes tranquil, other times daunting, all held together by the group’s skill at anticipating and complementing one another’s ideas, no matter how spontaneous or unexpected. The set concluded with “The Ascension Of The Prophet,” Ewart’s tribute to the late saxophonist and AACM founding member Fred Anderson, a piece that again led both ensemble and audience through a labyrinthine emotional journey, ranging from mournfulness to trickster-like antic irreverence, before finally concluding with a series of meditative chords from pianist Ann Ward.

Friday night at the Pritzker featured an ambitious new work by this year’s Artist in Residence, Chicago-based flutist/composer Nicole Mitchell (see below); the evening was capped off with an affectionate 75th birthday tribute to Ramsey Lewis, who introduced a couple of new extended compositions that expanded on, rather than seriously challenged, his longtime persona as an amiable purveyor of pop-jazz pleasure. More substantial fare from the “mainstream” side of the street was provided at the Petrillo on Saturday evening by trumpeter David Weiss and his group Charisma, assembled in tribute to the late hard-bop trumpet pioneer Lee Morgan. Along with Weiss, the group featured trumpeter Eddie Henderson, mult-reedman (and former Morgan bandmate) Bennie Maupin, saxophonist Billy Harper (who tempered his usual pyrotechnics with some welcome textural and dynamic subtleties), and piano polymath George Cables. The set, which concluded with a jubilant workout on the inevitable “Sidewinder,” was hard-swinging and robust, perhaps lacking a bit of the legendary Morgan swagger but making up for it with unforced virtuosity and a joyful sense of fun of the kind that’s too often missing from earnest tribute projects such as this.

Nicole Mitchell, meanwhile, showcased her gifts as improviser and composer in an array of contexts. On Thursday night, she and pianist Anthony Davis’ interweaving filigrees created an atmosphere of both intimacy and tension-charged exploration in Roosevelt University’s chandelier-bedecked Ganz Hall. On Friday night at the Pritzker, she unveiled “Arc of O,” a densely textured composition that incorporated elements of modern classical music, contemporary mainstream jazz, free-jazz improvisation, and Mitchell’s own personalized fusion of spirituality and in-the-moment earthly joy. For this piece, Mitchell assembled the Black Earth Orchestra, a uniquely structured “double ensemble” that consisted of two of each instrument (to facilitate call-and-response dialogue as well as both unison and counterpoint interweaving of voices). The evening’s most memorable moments occurred during the solos, including Mitchell’s own relentlessly probing flute lines, Ari Brown’s time-stopping “lone voice in an icy universe” saxophone break that slowly became absorbed into a lush garden of aural life forms bursting jubilantly into being, and violaist Renee Baker’s fiercely articulated bolts of bowed lightning.

Mitchell has a penchant for high-flown sounding titles and statements of purpose (the “O” in “Arc of O,” she says, represents “the dark and fertile emptiness of living space from which all creativity arises”); her themes do, indeed, often invoke the circle of creation, growth, dissolution, and rebirth – entities seem to emerge in her music from womb-like sonic caverns; they blossom and cavort joyously for a time, only to dissolve and then manifest again, usually in surprisingly re-imagined forms. But such is the ebullience and sensual grace of her playing, and so radiant is the delight in discovery that permeates her music and her persona, that she never comes off as pretentious; even her most cosmic conceits usually end up sounding as unforced and organic as the natural world they’re often intended to celebrate.

Mitchell’s group Sonic Projections, which performed on the Jazz and Heritage Stage on Saturday afternoon, derived much of its impetus from the tension between the compositions’ melodic and rhythmic structures and the boundary-shattering solos of saxophonist David Boykin (joyously unfettered for the occasion), pianist Craig Taborn, and Mitchell herself, along with percussionist Chad Taylor. The next day, on the Jazz on Jackson [Street] Stage, her Black Earth Ensemble, joined by the remarkable Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda, performed selections from her “Mother Nature” suite, including “Rhythm of Life” and a brief fugue that Mitchell introduced as a “tune dedicated to the life of the bees.” Castaneda used his harp as a rhythm instrument, sounding sometimes almost like a steel drum, other times like a string-driven piano as he alternated deft bass runs with high-end pizzicato flurries. Vibist Jason Adasiewicz, whose furious onstage physicality belies the tenderness and insightfulness of his solos, provided additional percussion/melody melds, as Boykin, along with trumpeter David Young, added probing contours and angular elaborations on the ideas laid out by Mitchell’s multi-hued flute work.

The penultimate artist at the Petrillo on Sunday night was Henry Threadgill, yet another AACM founding member (long based in New York). Like most artists who work within the “free jazz” lineage, Threadgill approaches individual expression and group cohesiveness as complementary, rather than oppositional forces (thus his band’s name: a zooid is a cell capable of moving independently of the organism of which it is a part). Freedom within unity was a dominant and recurring theme as guitarist Liberty Ellman, bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi, trombonist/tuba player Jose Davila, cellist Christopher Hoffman, percussionist Elliot Kavee, and Threadgill himself melded and traded roles -accompanist, soloist, ensemble participant- with seamless fluidity.

The suite they played began in a deceptively tranquil-sounding mode, mostly emphasizing the stringed instruments with understated bottom support from Davila’s tuba and occasional fillips from Threadgill’s flute, that came close to lulling listeners into distraction – the energies seemed to dart and swirl almost aimlessly in the “now,” rather than focus or bend toward any discernible destination. But as additional voices blended in, tempos began to swirl and thrust more vigorously, the dynamic intensity grew, and the emotional landscape became darker and more surging, eventually building to a climax of almost nightmarish power in which themes and riffs repeated themselves obsessively and the imagery became nearly cinematic in its vividness, with Threadgill’s sax abrading and scolding, wedged into to the groove laid down by drums and tuba like a knife imbedded in flesh, sometimes tearing loose into hawk-squall screams and then returning to its relentless meld with the rhythmic and melodic currents emanating from below and coming at it from all sides, the metric and sonic layers building and expanding upon one another as if that zooid had become impelled into a sci-fi inferno of endless mitosis. Then, suddenly a dissolve into an abrupt resolution, and silence.

That silence might have seemed troubling, even terrifying, given what had preceded it, but in fact it felt instead like a harbinger of optimism, even a prophecy: to fill the void, nothing will suffice but more music and more light. Both the masterful artistry on display and the undaunted vigor and inventiveness of the event’s organizers this year made it clear that the Chicago Jazz Festival will continue to provide just that for many years to come.

Originally Published