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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.

Trumpeter/flugelhornist Orbert Davis, the festival’s artist-in-residence this year, was showcased in three different slots, along with his Sunday afternoon mentor turn at the “Young Lions Stage” with an ensemble of elementary and high school musicians from the Chicago area. Davis’ improvisations might best be described as “elegant”; even at their freest, his lines are imbued with a symmetrical grace that sometimes verges on the genteel but usually remains both passionate and focused. His appearance at Roosevelt University’s Granz Hall on Friday afternoon was a pleasantly swinging affair. Pianist Brandon McCune and drummer Ernie Adams infused it with brio, perhaps a bit more than Davis himself. Things finally ignited on the finale, a hard-driving takeoff on the dual themes of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” and the Jimmy Heath standard “Gingerbread Boy,” with bassist Stewart Miller and Adams locking into a propulsive, forward-thrusting impetus.

More ambitious was Davis’ Saturday night performance at Grant Park’s Petrillo Music Shell. Fronting his 18-piece Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, he led the orchestra through a series of fresh compositions and standards, the latter including Bix Beiderbecke’s “Davenport Blues” and an excerpt from Davis’ reconfiguration of Miles’ Sketches of Spain. Davis, who said that he crafted his Sketches to emphasize Spain’s Moorish heritage, imported a hand drummer from Poland named Marianna Soroka for the occasion. (He’s nothing if not eclectic.) However, she sat in the percussion section with no special amplification, so her contributions were largely lost in the mix. Apparently closest to Davis’ heart, though, was “Amadeus Had a Dream,” featuring a Mozart string quartet backed by a conventional jazz rhythm section. “I think [Mozart] was a jazz musician,” Davis announced. “Is it classical or is it jazz? Who cares?” But although the musicianship was impeccable, the music itself often seemed to get lost in the chasm between cultures rather than create a bridge between them.

Looser and less pretentious was the Orbert Davis Sextet, who played Sunday afternoon on the Jazz on Jackson Stage. Davis’ fiery side finally got unleashed, no doubt fueled by the incendiary contributions of violinist Zach Brock and veteran Chicago inside/outside tenor master Ari Brown. Davis even allowed himself a few moments of funk-tinged puckishness on “The Real Deal,” his tribute to veteran Chicago radio personality Richard Steele; Brown accentuated the playfully streetsy feel with a few Maceo-like boots toward the beginning of his solo, as well as the raw-edged emotionality he maintained throughout the rest of it.

Earlier on Saturday evening, before Davis held forth with his Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, Trio 3 (Oliver Lake, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille) featuring pianist Geri Allen turned in a stunning set that included several selections from their recent collaboration, Celebrating Mary Lou Williams (Intakt). On the opening number, Eric Dolphy’s “Gazzelloni,” alto saxophonist Lake negotiated the piece’s severe angles in his astringent yet joyful tone, layering on vocal-like overtone squalls and flurries along the way. Allen’s spikes-and-shards piano solo followed suit: She mined grace, even reassurance, from chordal and harmonic juxtapositions that might have been impenetrable in lesser hands. Workman and Cyrille, emphasizing their instruments’ dual melodic and percussive roles, propelled and enriched the proceedings.

On the Mary Lou Williams pieces-including “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory,” “Blues for Peter” and “Libra”-Allen and the Trio eloquently showed how jazz history is a living continuum, not a battleground of demarcated ideological turfs. They re-envisioned Williams’ stride-and-swing-nurtured melodicism with deconstructive aggression, paying homage to her harmonic and melodic concepts and then splintering and expanding those concepts into realms of freedom. Revivalists take note: This is what a jazz tribute should be.

Although this year’s headliners at the Petrillo were big names from out of town-David Sánchez and Cassandra Wilson on Saturday, Roy Hargrove on Sunday-many of the festival’s most memorable moments came from Chicagoans who are still working to establish their names outside the city. On Saturday afternoon on the Jackson stage, trumpeter Marquis Hill led his Black-tet, which included alto saxophonist Chris McBride, pianist Joshua Moshier, bassist John Tate and drummer Jeremy Cunningham, through a set that conjured up old-school hipster swagger even as it recast familiar ideas with bracing creative energy. Later that same day, at the Petrillo, another Windy City trumpeter, Maurice Brown, showcased several offerings from his self-released CD The Cycle of Love; apropos to the title, the pieces limned vivid emotional landscapes, revealing the 30-year-old Brown to be a storyteller of old-soul eloquence and depth. And speaking of old souls, Sunday evening’s birthday tribute to 80-year-old Ira Sullivan found the irrepressible multi-instrumentalist playing with the chops and imagination of a man fifty years younger-but with the wisdom and heart of the revered elder statesman he is.

Mike Reed’s Myth/Science Assembly fused high-tech soundscapes with organic instrumental improvisation-vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz was especially impressive-as they tackled a series of sketches derived from a heretofore-unexplored trove of Sun Ra tapes and masters archived at Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio. In contrast, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins and his New Horizons Ensemble charted bold new territory with nothing but their axes, along with Dawkins’ lively imagination as composer and improviser and his sardonic, occasionally caustic wit. He showcased the latter on “Baghdad Boogie” from his current Delmark CD, The Prairie Prophet. The title song of that disc was written in honor of the late Chicago tenor titan Fred Anderson, and Dawkins and the Ensemble performed that tribute, as well. Like Anderson’s own music, the tune shot off in unexpected directions and celebrated discovery with unquenchable delight.

“Delight,” in fact, could serve as the catchword for the entire festival. The programming was artful and resourceful, and the exultant nature of the music itself infused the four days with a sense of triumphant satisfaction.

Originally Published