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Chicago Jazz Festival

Chicago, Ill., Sept. 4-6, 2009

Amiri Baraka
William Parker

There was a bit of trepidation in the air before the 31st Chicago Jazz Festival kicked off on Friday, Sep. 4. The star power that had graced last year’s event (which began with a pre-festival performance by Sonny Rollins and concluded with a Sunday night set by Ornette Coleman) was largely absent for this year’s event, presented by CareFusion, the same company that “rescued” Newport’s annual celebration. Few feared for the festival’s artistic integrity, but the question was unavoidable: Could that ever-delicate balance between accessibility and critic-pleasing adventurousness still be maintained?

Credit the festival’s planners for plunging fearlessly, and early, into the lion’s den. It took both imagination and courage to slot The Trio-AACM veterans Muhal Richard Abrams (piano), Roscoe Mitchell (woodwinds) and George Lewis (trombone and occasional synth)-for the second set in Friday’s opening-night lineup at the Petrillo Music Shell, sandwiched between the jubilantly swinging but relatively straightahead Jeff Parker Quartet and the superficially eclectic pop-jazz chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux. Interweaving musical and emotional colorings with unerring synergy, Abrams and his cohorts surged forth with a power that belied the lack of drums; rather than try to create a pulse, they alternately played as if suspended over time, then plunged through time instead of riding atop it. The result was a drive more propulsive than many conventional traps-anchored ensembles might have been able to summon.

Perhaps predictably, Chicagoans provided many of the festival’s high points. Nicole Mitchell and her Black Earth Strings produced a provocative blend of European-derived counterpoint and Africanist call-and-response (fugue meets ring shout), resulting in a music of resonant spiritual and aesthetic power. Tenor sax titan Fred Anderson, celebrating his own 80th birthday (which occurred back in March), showcased his legendary tone-gnarled and burly one minute, almost overpoweringly forceful the next-as well as his always-fertile imagination, which on this night seemed more unbound than ever.

Chicago’s living musical heritage was also celebrated by William Parker and his ensemble, The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield, who paid tribute to the late Chicago soul man. Mayfield was known for serving up serious-minded personal and political statements in deceptively easy-to-digest pop flavorings; Parker and his group reversed that approach, stripping Mayfield’s conceits to the bone to reveal the militancy and anguish buried within. Vocalist Leena Conquest delivered Mayfield’s lyrics with clarion-toned ebullience while Amiri Baraka declaimed and signified alongside her, as assaultive blasts from the horns and nasty funk fusillades from bassist Parker and drummer Hamid Drake heightened the intensity even further. Here’s just a bit of the vocalists’ exchange:

Conquest: “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’…”

Baraka: “There’s a storm a-comin’!”

Conquest: “Freddie’s dead…”

Baraka: “All we know, he was sellin’ skag and blow-but that ain’t as bad as bombing Iraq!”

By re-imagining Mayfield’s music and message so radically, this ensemble invoked his spirit and paid tribute to his genius with far more eloquence than a standard “greatest hits” tribute could have ever done.

Archie Shepp’s set was billed as a tribute to Ben Webster; in that spirit Shepp showcased several Ellington and Strayhorn chestnuts (“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Chelsea Bridge”) along with a few of his own signature compositions. His trademark combination of romanticism, caustic wit and cerebral abstraction sounded undiminished, although-at least for this set-he seemed inclined to hew more faithfully to the songs’ melodic and harmonic structures than he once did. He recast “Steam,” his well-known homage to a cousin who was murdered while in his teens, as a soft-edged, almost autumnal meditation on tragedy and fate; he stretched the contours of “Burning Bright” somewhat further, breaking melodic and harmonic constraints to ascend into swaths of pure sonic texture. His tone, here and elsewhere, remained mostly declamatory-the old whispering-in-tongues gruffness seems no longer to be a part of his armamentarium. Shepp finished with a bluesy rave-up, allowing everyone plenty of solo space and inviting audience participation. It was a celebratory finale that may have nonplussed veteran fans who remembered the often-confrontational firebrand of yore.

Abrams, this year’s artist-in-residence, composed the festival’s closing number, the extended tone poem “Spiralview,” which was performed by a jazz orchestra assembled by veteran Windy City trumpeter Art Hoyle. Dedicated to President Barack Obama, it celebrated community-building: Instrumentalists in various combinations-and, eventually, the entire ensemble-put forth ideas that seemed first to be independent of one another, if not in conflict, then slowly merged into coherence. The piece ended on an unexpected, brief sonic stab, as if Abrams had intended to conclude with a question mark or an ellipsis and let the listeners fill in the rest. The crowd, believing the music was over, began to head for the exits, only to be lured back by a rollicking blues finale that eventually dissolved into one last, tumultuous collective improvisation.

That note of uncertainty left a few listeners grumbling, but it seemed appropriate. Even after 31 years, the Chicago Jazz Festival can’t afford the luxury of contentment or surety. It must continue to question, to seek the unknown, to take chances with the untried and the unimagined, if it is to maintain its reputation as one of the foremost jazz events in the world.

Originally Published