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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.

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