Monday, September 16, 2019

Freed by Free Jazz: The 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival, Part Two

One of the most prominent figures on Kansas City’s jazz scene insists that his town is home to “the best jazz musicians in the world.”  It’s a lovely thought, but even the staunchest advocates of hometown pride would have been disabused of that notion had they joined me at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend.  Twenty-two of the 30 jazz acts I heard during my 72 hours in Chicago were locally based.  All but a handful were at least as auspicious as their counterparts in Kansas City.

It’s also worth noting that Camila Meza is the only one of the approximately 500 musicians featured at the festival who have made an appearance in Kansas City this year.  The scarcity of concerts by the world’s most important jazz musicians is a galling reflection of the low demand for their talents in Kansas City.  The following assessments of every set I caught at the Chicago Jazz Festival are ordered by my personal preference.

Friday, August 30

1. The Art Ensemble of Chicago
After catching the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s incendiary outing at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville in March, I was eager to verify my sense that the legendary group led by Roscoe Mitchell truly managed to reassert itself as one of the most essential groups on the planet by expanding its size, sound and repertoire.  Brilliance confirmed!

2. The Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet
The trumpeter- a contender for my favorite musician of the decade- dedicated his set to the late Roy Hargrove.  The simmering playing of Akinmusire, pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown exuded indignant rage.  The sirens of nearby emergency vehicles heightened the sense of urgency.

3. The Juju Exchange
The young Chicago group led by Nico Segal, a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet of Chance the Rapper fame, didn’t play by the rules.  No two selections sounded alike.  In the oddest- and by extension the most exciting moment- guest artist Jamila Woods contributed to an exuberant interpretation of Chris Tomlin’s Contemporary Christian Music standard “How Great Is Our God”.

4. Joel Ross
I’m still dizzy.  The young vibraphonist is so disconcertingly quick that my Instagram clip appears to be in fast motion.  Far more than a showcase of accelerated chops, Ross and his band married the sophisticated elegance of the Modern Jazz Quartet with the 21st century beats of J Dilla.

5. George Freeman and Billy Branch
The venerable Chicago blues harpist Billy Branch’s recollection that he first encountered the blues when he heard Willie Dixon at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1969 was the sole moment in the set in which he was paired with the 92-year-old guitarist George Freeman that wasn’t entirely bonkers.  The men were joined by an interpretive dancer and a woman who exhorted the audience to chant “George the bomb.”  I happily obliged.

6. After Dark
Although it’s billed as a Von Freeman tribute band, the Chicago group After Dark played a set of prime Kansas City jazz that included jumping readings of Lester Young’s “Every Tub,” Charlie Parker’s “Quasimodo” and Mary Lou Williams’ “Mary’s Waltz.”

7. The Metropolitan Jazz Octet featuring Dee Alexander
While the Chicago fixture Dee Alexander has a fine voice and a vibrant personality, I was floored by the ingenious in-house charts played by the Metropolitan Jazz Octet.

8. The Miguel de la Cerna Trio
The Chicago pianist works in the elegant vein of Oscar Peterson.

Saturday, August 31

1. Jeremy Cunningham’s The Weather Up There
I’ve long admired the undefinable Chicago band Tortoise.  Drummer Jeremy Cunningham’s Chicago band featuring Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker flaunted similarly futuristic sounds.

2. Christian McBride's New Jawn
As if watching the transcendently powerful Nasheet Waits in action wasn’t enough, bassist McBride, saxophonist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter John Evans matched the genius of my favorite drummer.

3. Cécile McLorin Salvant
The profoundly imaginative vocalist makes most of her peers seem like dullards.

4. The AACM’s Great Black Music Ensemble
I left the festival grounds to catch the AACM’s Great Black Music Ensemble at Fred Anderson Park two miles south of Millennium Park.  The ramshackle (an unidentified but remarkable young keyboardist excepted) group of venerable elders and unconversant understudies were conducted by a furiously demonstrative bandleader.  Although the troupe resembled a minor league version of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, their sincerity was deeply moving.

5. Ryan Cohan's Originations
The Chicago based Ryan Cohan explained that he was “born of an Arab and a Jew” as he presented his Originations suite.  The masterful Third Stream outing by the ten-piece ensemble was slightly sinister.

6. Ben Wendel's Seasons
I expected the outing by saxophonist Ben Wendel, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Kendrick Scott to be my favorite set of the festival.  Yet after I was struck by Wendel’s passing resemblance to a young David Sanborn and his similar form of studied showmanship, I couldn’t get past the notion that Wendel, like Sanborn, is able to recognize and exploit the leading edge of the current sonic landscape.  I felt as if I’d been duped.

7. The Andy Brown Quartet
Imagine John Pizzarelli without the showbiz razzle-dazzle.  That’s the impeccably tasteful Chicago guitarist Andy Brown.

8. The Chris Madsen Quartet
The Chicago saxophonist sounds exactly like a buttoned-down member of a prestigious university’s jazz faculty.

9. Carolyn Fitzhugh
Brunch music.

10. The ChiArts Honors Jazz Combo

Sunday September 1

1. The Eddie Palmieri Sextet
Frail and understandably blue, Eddie Palmieri was grieving the death of his wife when I caught him at the Blue Note in 2017.  Palmieri was clearly in the mood to party in Chicago.  He moaned with the primal passion of a young lover and grunted with the don’t-give-a-damn indifference of an authoritative star.

2. Ben LaMar Gay
A skeptical announcer dismissively introduced the experimental Chicago artist Ben LaMar Gay as a performer of “real, real artistic music.”  As if in response to the hater, Gay suggested that he and his band intended to “make a sound and be curious together.”  Gay is one of the transgressive Chicago musicians who is breathing new life into jazz.  He recalled that his brothers bullied him at the Chicago Jazz Festival when he was seven.   “The songs that you’re hearing are the songs my brothers sung to me about getting the last piece of chicken,” Gay said.  “If they sound kind of weird, they should be.”  His best songs combined Chicago footwork with Mardi Gras Indian chants.

3. The Russ Johnson Quartet
Knowing only that Russ Johnson is the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, I had low expectations for the trumpeter.  I was astonished.  Abetted by the stellar saxophonist Greg Ward, bassist Clark Summers and drummer Dana Hall, Johnson’s imaginative subversion of swing resulted in one of the most dexterously adventurous sets of the festival.

4. Rempis/Flaten/Ra + Baker Quartet
I didn't fall in love with the Chicago Jazz Festival until a deliberately provocative free jazz quartet made a dissonant racket on the main stage.  Thousands of people were forced to either flee the churlish assault of saxophonist Dave Rempis, keyboardist and electronic manipulator Jim Baker, substitute bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Avreeayl Ra and risk losing their seats or withstand the attack and hold their ground.  I cheered when Ra’s violent pummeling buckled a cymbal stand and Håker Flaten brutalized his instrument as if it owed him money.

5. Latino-America Unida
The estimable jazz critics Howard Reich and Howard Mandel hailed the supergroup’s first public performance in their respective reviews for The Chicago Tribune and Downbeat, but the quintet's highly-anticipated debut struck me as a massive disappointment.  The aggregation of saxophonists Melissa Aldana and Miguel Zenón, pianist David Virelles, bassist Ricky Rodriguez and drummer Antonio Sánchez was definitely less than the sum of its parts.  I would have preferred to hear any one of the stars lead his or her own band.

6. Camila Meza and the Nectar Orchestra
Camila Meza knocked me out each of the three times I’ve heard her perform with the road warriors in the Ryan Keberle-led band Catharsis.  Yet I don’t care for the fussy chamber-jazz on her new album Ámbar.  Acknowledging the presence of a string quartet, Meza said “with this album I made my dream come true.”  I was nonplussed until her ensemble interpreted the David Bowie, Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny composition “This Is Not America.”  The sweeping Jimi Hendrix-inspired cover salvaged Meza’s set.

7. Sharel Cassity Quartet
Sharel Cassity could only come from Chicago.  The exciting young saxophonist is my happiest discovery.

8. The Joan Collaso Sextet
I didn’t attend church on Sunday morning, but a gospel-infused reading of “Love’s in Need of Love Today” reduced me to faith-based tears of gratitude.  The stirring vocals of Joan Collaso and her superlative backing vocalists on the tragically topical Stevie Wonder song compelled me to shout “amen.”  Collaso doesn’t shy away from the secular.  She joked about her devotion to one of her primary influences: “I really did try to marry Al Jarreau.”

9. The Dakarai Barclay Sextet
It’s terribly unfair to burden young musicians with next-big-thing tags, but this young trumpeter and his bandmates were extremely impressive.  Bonus: the ensemble covered Carmell Jones’ “Beepdurple.”

10. Juli Wood's Big Bari Band
A hard-swinging de facto Gerry Mulligan tribute.

11. Paulinho Garcia
In a frustrating anomaly, the demure set by the Brazilian guitarist was spoiled by loud chatter throughout the tent housing the Jazz & Heritage Pavilion stage.

12. Zach Rosenstiehl Nacht Group
The tentative young men played as if they were auditioning for their first professional gig.

Part one of this three-part analysis of the Chicago Jazz Festival is here.

(Original image of the Art Ensemble of Chicago by Plastic Sax.)

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