The honking and blowing of brass truly added new meaning to the term 'The Windy City.'
Nestled in between Buckingham Fountain and the Sears Tower, Grant Park came alive during Labor Day Weekend with the sweet sound of music at the 28th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival. This year, fascinating tributes were paid to Miles Davis' 80th birthday, the magical music of New Orleans, the lyricism of both Oscar Brown, Jr. and Billie Holiday and a heartfelt moment in the sun for trumpeter Malachi Thompson, a Chicago native, who recently passed away after a bout with leukemia. The weather was gorgeous and enormous crowds enjoyed music from three stages, as well as educational lectures, video presentations, food, arts and crafts. After-hours jazz sessions at the local clubs provided more music for the night owls who just couldn't get enough of a good thing. Dr. Michael White kicked things off with traditional tunes straight out of the King Oliver songbook, his clarinet wizardry bringing the French Quarter to life in ancient standards such as "West End Blues" and "Canal Street Blues". Donald Harrison's quartet of young musicians took a different approach to the spirit of New Orleans, injecting rap and funk into the beat for a more contemporary feel. Billy Harper's soaring tenor sax added texture to the Africa Brass Band, paying tribute to the late Malachi Thompson. Guest singer Dee Alexander sang soulfully on "A Saint Called Louie," paying homage to Satchmo. Nnenna Freelon, looking elegant as always, sang lovely versions of Holiday tunes, such as "You've Changed" and "All of Nothing at All," capped by a beautiful version of Duke's "Balm in Gilead".
Charlie Hunter seemed to play with 15 fingers on a bluesy avant-garde set which included steaming versions of original blues featuring Ray Anderson and his unique style of plunger mute trombone-playing.
One of the most adventurous performances was turned in by Dutch band Bik Bent Braam, their joyous sound veering from cartoonish Dixieland to stride, from rhumba to tango and then a wild ride of free-form Sun Ra-style mayhem, all in the same tune!
Bunky Green highlighted the set by Jason Moran and the Bandwagon. The playing was coy, eclectic and enthusiastic and Green's sax solos were inspired.
Maggie and Africa Brown shared personal reflections and songs related to the legendary Oscar Brown, Jr. They honored their father faithfully in songs such as "Dat Dere," "Work Song" and "A String Man". Their harmonies meshed beautifully with the tight band, featuring young trumpeter Corey Wilkes, who is making quite an impact on the Chicago jazz scene. In fact, he was outstanding with Roscoe Mitchell in one of the After-Fest sessions at the Hothouse; a performance of raw power and emotion.
The best performances belonged to the big stars of the lineup. Lee Konitz and his nonet performed subtle and gorgeous arrangements; one of the highlights was a scorching version of "Chromatically the Blues". Konitz lent his beautiful tone as a guest during Joe Lovano's set the night before, performing "All the Things You Are" with a hip and tender touch. In tribute to Miles' Birth of the Cool (on which Konitz originally played), Joe Lovano's band swung effortlessly through "Boplicity" and "Move". Lovano was all class, stating the importance of the musical contributions of John Hicks and Dewey Redman (who died the previous day) and his band burned on all cylinders in the original "The Deal". Steve Slagle played a particularly memorable solo on alto sax and Lovano brought it home with fiery passion on both his tunes and in arrangements made famous by Gunther Schuller, from the original Birth of the Cool sessions.
The final show, under the starlit skies and against the iconic view of skyscrapers, was a rousing joust session between organists Joey DeFrancesco and Dr. Lonnie Smith. In the home of the blues, accented by Ron Blake's wailing saxophone, they played a finale of "Willow Weep For Me" which sent the crowd home exhausted from dancing so much.
Once again, Chicago proved to be an epicenter of jazz, presenting some of the finest talent in the idiom, in a glorious setting. The honking and blowing of brass truly added new meaning to the term "The Windy City".