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The 2011 Chicago Jazz Festival: Ambitious Programming

Randy Weston, Lovano/Coltrane/Liebman Summit, Cassandra Wilson among the highlights

Saxophone Summit, L-R: David Liebman, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane
Mike Reed
Ernest Dawkins

The best jazz soloists learn to be both expansive and economical. As Dizzy once said, it can take a lifetime to learn “what not to play.” Along with the craft of selecting notes with precision, a musician must also master the art of making each of those notes count, so even the most sparsely articulated statement is fully realized.

This, in fact, is how the Jazz Institute of Chicago, along with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, tackled this year’s task of keeping the Chicago Jazz Festival a four-day event in the face of diminished funding. Obviously it wasn’t going to be possible to program nonstop, back-to-back performances all Labor Day weekend; thus, like a soloist picking his or her spots carefully, the festival planners emphasized both economy and focus in their scheduling.

The lineup on the opening Thursday was expanded to include six daytime events at various downtown locations, as well as Randy Weston’s highly anticipated evening performance at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Unlike in previous years, however, Friday consisted of only three performances, all in the late afternoon and evening. The result, at risk of milking an analogy, was akin to a well-crafted jazz improvisation: plenty of choice moments interspersed with silent spaces that highlighted, rather than diminished, the importance of what preceded and followed them. (Saturday and Sunday, as usual, ran from noon until about 10:30 p.m. in the traditional Grant Park location.)

Cellist Tomeka Reid set the tone for the evening at the Pritzker on Thursday, conducting the 18-piece Chicago Jazz Ensemble in a debut of her composition “A Testimony of Faith.” Featuring ceremonial-sounding percussion from both CJE drummer/artistic director Dana Hall and special guest Avreeayl Ra, stately, bass-heavy ensemble passages, and a penultimate section in 5/4 that seemed to invoke the traditional ring shout in both form and feel, it served as a kind of invocation, a welcoming to the ancestral spirits as they arrived to share and partake of Randy Weston’s featured tour de force.

Weston’s appearance was both a celebration of his 85th birthday and a tribute to his longtime collaborator Melba Liston. The set highlighted pieces arranged by Liston, including an excerpt from Weston’s suite African Sunrise, which he’d debuted at the 1984 Chicago Jazz Festival with a lineup that included Liston on trombone and Dizzy Gillespie on lead trumpet, and which he also performed at a return engagement in 1998. Most of the other offerings also reflected themes associated with African freedom given resonance by Liston’s complex yet uncluttered voicings laid atop multi-textured rhythms. Weston’s imposing physical presence- regal, dignified, radiating joy and implacable grace-was replicated in his playing, which was both praiseful and adventurous; other soloists, especially Dana Hall and trumpeter Pharez Whitted, likewise melded ebullience and steadfast, liberation-driven intensity.

On Friday night, the mood at the Pritzker was no less joyful but a lot funkier. From the first swirling cadences out of Chris Foreman’s Hammond B3, it was clear that the Deep Blue Organ Trio was about to take everyone, in the words of the late R&B singer Johnnie Taylor, to “the soul side of town.” The interplay among Foreman, guitarist Bobby Broom and drummer Greg Rockingham was cool, bluesy and swinging in the great soul-jazz tradition, and when alto saxophonist Bobby Watson came onboard (all too briefly) to stir things up even more with his church-flavored hard-bop lines, you could almost smell the greens and hamhocks cooking. Especially savory were selections from Wonderful!, the trio’s Stevie Wonder tribute CD on Origin. They brought rich-grooved, sophisticated hipness to such Stevie standards as “Jesus Children of America” and “My Cherie Amour,” and they recast his “Tell Me Something Good,” originally a novelty hit in 1974 for Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, as an easy-loping workout abrim with sensual grace.

Booking the Saxophone Summit-Joe Lovano, David Liebman and Ravi Coltrane, along with pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart-after Deep Blue took both chutzpah and faith. Would a crowd attuned to the trio’s nightclubby vibe have ears big enough to handle the uncompromisingly free explorations of Lovano, Liebman and Coltrane as they paid tribute to Coltrane’s legendary father? Yes, as it turned out, and all the more remarkably, perhaps, given that the selections they chose to highlight were mostly from Trane’s most challenging and controversial period. Their set included two movements from 1965’s Meditations (“The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” and “Compassion”), “India” (the closest thing to a Coltrane “standard” on offer), and “Seraphic Light” (from Stellar Regions, a 1995 release culled from one of Trane’s last studio sessions).

For the first twenty minutes or so, it sounded as if the three hornmen were trying to out-Trane Trane-a hopeless task, especially when you consider that Trane himself was the master of deconstructing his own music. Finally, about midway through “Compassion,” pianist Markowitz began inserting some new motifs into the maelstrom, and from that moment on things improved significantly. After an extended segue, featuring Lovano on flute and Liebman on wood flute with Ravi Coltrane moaning softly on tenor, “Compassion” gave way to “India,” which itself evolved into an almost entirely new composition, with fresh harmonic and melodic conceits adding both color and texture to the sometimes-monotonous modal drone of the original. With “Seraphic Light,” conventional scalar and chordal concepts were again abandoned in favor of no-holds-barred eruptions into new forms and new space. Yet through it all, the overall sound remained crisp and uplifting, even soothing-which may ultimately be Coltrane’s most profound and challenging musical lesson: attaining harmony through dissonance.

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