Ancestral spirits hovered over the Chicago Jazz Festival this year, and the participants responded with both reverence and celebration. Only weeks earlier, Windy City saxophonist Von Freeman had passed away at the age of 88, silencing one of the music’s most distinctive (if still under-acknowledged) voices; free-jazz tenor titan Fred Anderson, who died in 2010 and is still deeply missed, was also a strongly felt presence. Throughout the festival’s four-day run, artists on various stages took time out to acknowledge both men as trailblazers whose roles as teachers and mentors continue to cast shadows as encompassing and nurturing as the music they left behind.
It was appropriate, then, that this year’s Artist in Residence was multi-reedist Ken Vandermark, an iconoclastic adventurer nonetheless in command of a strongly rooted sense of heritage. Winner of the 1999 MacArthur Foundation fellowship (commonly known as the “Genius Grant”), the 47-year-old Vandermark is already well on his way to becoming an elder role model for aspirants following in his wake, just as Freeman and Anderson were to musicians of Vandermark’s own and earlier generations. Already he has made a name for himself, not just as a musician but as a curator and coordinator of events in Chicago and elsewhere; he has been especially aggressive in enlisting the talents of European jazz and free-jazz players, some of whom he called in to work with him on the various projects he put together for this year’s Jazz Fest.
Vandermark was featured in four different settings over the course of the festival. On Friday, at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, he was paired with saxophonist and pocket trumpeter Joe McPhee, like himself a dexterous shape-shifter who can segue effortlessly from minimalist sparseness to depth-charging improvisational fury, and who uses scales, harmonies and chordal constructions as instruments, not just musical frameworks-he enlists the distinctive sonic and emotional colorations of each to invoke seemingly endless dimensions and expanses of imagination. Putting McPhee alongside fellow multiphonic adventurer Vandermark (who also exploits the percussive as well as the melodic potential of his saxes and clarinet) was tantamount to hiring two players and getting a full band in return.
The following day, at Grant Park (for several years now, the festival has expanded its geographic reach to incorporate some downtown venues and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, as well as the main Grant Park lakefront location), Vandermark appeared on the daytime Jazz and Heritage Stage, this time alongside Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love. From their opening dual fusillade, it was obvious that they were intent on launching an assault on the distinction between “melody” and “rhythm.” Both players utilized tonality, timbre, cadence, and shifting time signatures as they interwove, tossed ideas back and forth, and goaded and complemented one another. Through it all, and despite his forays into unfettered abstraction, Vandermark’s tenor work maintained a down-to-earth, even funky sense of street-smart toughness, sometimes accentuated by a propulsive parade-beat impetus from Nilssen-Love. On clarinet, Vandermark alternated between tricksterish humor and a meditative intensity that sounded sometimes like prayer, other times like a soul crying in purgatorial isolation; he mined his bari’s deepest sonorities with a series of foghorn blasts that broke into muscular ascending phrases invoking both bar-walking R&B honks and post-Bluiett exploratory fervor.
Compared to his duets with McPhee and Nilssen-Love, Vandermark’s 11-piece Resonance Ensemble sounded almost mainstream, but no less provocative or challenging, at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park on Saturday evening. Throughout, Vandermark and his compatriots belied the accusation that jazz modernists sacrifice soul for intellectual abstraction: even their freest passages and solo statements bristled with emotional intensity, often laced with an almost Blakean sense of delight; along the way, slyly inserted fillips like a brief reference to Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” arose out of the swirls, making it clear that the old AACM manifesto,” Ancient to the Future,” was a guiding force for this group as well.
Vandermark dedicated the set to Michael Orlove, the former director of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs who became NEA’s director of presenting and artist communities earlier this year. He also dedicated a piece called “Creative Reconstruction Company” to Muhal Richard Abrams and his pioneering early-’60s Experimental Band (precursor to the AACM), and another new composition, “Eulogy for Two Rooms,” to the memories of Freeman and Anderson. Perhaps the evening’s most memorable moment occurred during “Eulogy,” a gift from the gods, or at least the weather. As the Ensemble moaned out a slow-heaving seascape, with clarinet and alto shrieks from Waclaw Zimpel and Mikolaj Trzaska sounding like a creaking ship’s timber and Per-Ake Homlander’s tuba bubbling bilge-like below, clouds shrouded Chicago’s skyline and cast shifting swirls of gray above the park and over the whitecap-frosted waters of Lake Michigan.
If that Saturday evening performance beneath threatening skies became (as Kerouac once wrote) “one big saga of the mist,” Vandermark’s final appearance with his Made to Break Quartet on Sunday afternoon on the Jazz on Jackson [Blvd.] Stage was a postmodernist passion play: he pitched the gruff, organic tonalities of his horns head-to-head against the squawk-burble-and-buzz onslaught of electronics artist Christof Kurzmann, as bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Tim Daisy played the role of Greek chorus, goading and commenting from below. Sometimes in unison, sometimes dancing in asymmetrical but locked-in counterpoint, sometimes seemingly at cross-purposes, the quartet charged through an explosive set that simultaneously challenged the very concept of what’s “real” in music (or, for that matter, the world) and threw down an ultimatum to anyone foolhardy enough to take up that challenge. Daisy’s drum work ranged from streetsy funk to free-form textural assaults; Hoff pounded, popped, brayed, and sometimes even walked his bass lines under and through the shapes and dimensions the others were summoning, destroying and then reimagining with warp-speed quickness; Vandermark, as usual, both held things together and impelled them into new directions with his armamentarium of melodic and tonal imprecations. If John Cage, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman had landed a gig aboard the P-Funk Mothership, it would have probably sounded like this.
Meanwhile, the festival’s usual stylistic inclusiveness was also on display. On Thursday night at the Pritzker, a program titled “Exquisitely Ella” featured three of Chicago’s top vocalists-cabaret chanteuse Spider Saloff, tough-swinging veteran Frieda Lee and the versatile and gifted Dee Alexander-backed by Jeff Lindberg and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra (augmented for the occasion by a 17-piece string section) in a heartfelt tribute to the First Lady of Song. On Friday night, again at the Pritzker, Roy Haynes seemed determined to show off his “schticks” along with his sticks as he spent almost as much time clowning, joking with the audience and even tap-dancing as he did leading his tightly oiled ensemble (saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, pianist Martin Bejerano, and bassist David Wong) through their postbop-flavored set-which, when it was allowed to happen, was both impeccably tasteful and charged with improvisational elan. Another seasoned showman, guitarist/vocalist Frank D’Rone, celebrated his 80th birthday on the Jackson stage on Saturday afternoon with his usual Sinatra-like suavity and well-tempered phrasing. That night, Dianne Reeves showed why she still does justice to the much-maligned term “diva” with her regal stage presence, vocal prowess (stentorian power tempered with flexibility and imaginative flair) and personalized combination of class and sass.
Trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez and El Commando de la Clave pointedly avoided hyperkinetic “Latin fire” clichés during their performance at the Petrillo on Saturday evening. Much of their set was taken at slow- to medium-boil, with plenty of room to hear the intricate, counterveiling rhythmic and melodic patterns laid down by percussionist Kiki Ferrer, pianist Javier Masso “Caramelo,” bassist Alain Perez and Gonzalez himself. Even on uptempo selections, this feeling remained strong, as the group melded elements of funk, Afro-Cuban rhythmic/timbral textures, and bebop-tinged melodic angularity with deft but unselfconscious virtuosity. On their suite-like re-imagining of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Gonzalez summoned a deep, luxuriant tone on his muted trumpet (in contrast to Miles’s trademark breathy languor); the arrangement featured a dancing uptempo interlude, complete with lyrics sung in Spanish, that brought fresh perspectives-musical and emotional-to a song that’s too often performed simply as homage.
Rhythm was also a dominant theme in the music presented by the Billy Hart quartet at the Petrillo on Saturday-but, significantly, they often seemed to honor it mostly in the breach. As if determined to belie the cliché about music being a “journey,” drummer Hart and his men summoned vistas that manifested rather than moved. Unison passages and solo statements melted into one another with liquid grace as Hart laid down complex sonic surfaces for the others to work on. Even on a relatively lively selection like the easy-loping “Duchess,” cadences were unforced, and extended arrhythmic spaces allowed the principals-tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson, and bassist Ben Street-to summon new shapes and explore new dimensions with almost Zen-like contemplation. Rather than progress from a beginning through a middle to an end, most of this music seemed to celebrate the “now” with meditative yet focused intensity; segues between meter-specific passages and suspended interludes created a subtle but strong tension-and-release. In this music, time was a prod for new ideas and perspectives, but it wasn’t necessarily a propulsive force-rhythm was an instrument, but not a rhythm instrument.
Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman may have established a reputation as a militant with his funk-and-freedom adventures as one of the leading lights of the M-Base collective back in the ’80s, but to contemporary ears he sounds almost like a classicist. He and his group, Five Elements, presented a joyspring of celebration at the Petrillo on Sunday. Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson was crisp and articulate-no wasted notes, no unnecessary flamboyance or pyrotechnic displays-as he both rode and prodded the rhythms being laid down by bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Marcus Gilmore (whose grandfather, it should be noted, is Roy Haynes). Coleman interwove seamlessly with Finlayson, a bit smoother perhaps but still precise and on-point; the two seemed to unearth gems in every burrow and byway they explored, often shifting roles with almost imperceptible quickness as first Finlayson, then Coleman, and then Finlayson again would drop down and provide a thematic base for the other’s upward-arcing flights. During the more uptempo sections, the various voices on stage-horns, bass, drums-scurried and chased one another like squirrels, sometimes almost in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, but always on common ground. Their intimate communication sounded like a celebration of brotherhood as much as a musical adventure, exemplifying Coleman’s lifelong dedication to artistic statements that affirm as well as challenge.
The festival concluded with New Orleans pianist/songwriter/producer Allen Toussaint leading a mostly homegrown ensemble, augmented with clarinetist Don Byron and guitarist Marc Ribot, through a stimulating set based on Toussaint’s 2009 instrumental recording The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch). Apropos of his hometown’s variegated musical heritage, Toussaint touched on everything from Crescent City jazz classics through swing-era standards to New Orleans R&B chestnuts (many of which he originally wrote and/or produced), as well as some unexpected oddities (“All white folks know this one,” he declared impishly during his rendition of the pop/folk ditty “Molly Malone”). Monk’s “Bright Mississippi” (complete with a plunge into the song’s inspiration, “Sweet Georgia Brown”) served as the set’s centerpiece. Toussaint concluded with a couple of Professor Longhair standards-“Tipitina” and the carnival anthem “Big Chief”-before signing off with his signature tune, “Southern Nights.” His performance-joyful, diverse, sweetened with nostalgia but forging bravely ahead-both exemplified and nurtured the spirit that permeated the 2012 Chicago Jazz Festival: as the legacies of departed greats were honored and praised, their fearlessness and willingness to shatter boundaries and create new beauty from old served as the guiding inspiration behind the best music that emanated from Chicago’s lakefront this year.