The Chicago Jazz Festival is the biggest free event of its kind anywhere, and it also likes to boast about the broad spectrum of music it offers... everything from the roots to the far-out branches (but no "smooth" jazz, thank good ness). It lived up to its billing on both counts over Labor Day weekend.
An estimated 310,000 people filled the Petrillo Bandshell and surrounding Grant Park Sept. 1-3. The list of highlights is a long one: Maggie and Africa Brown's vibrant song-and-dance tribute to their late father, poet, playwright and composer Oscar Brown Jr.; the Joe Lovano Nonet (one of three nonets at the festival... I can remember when there were no, no nonets) reworking Miles Davis' classics from the "Birth of the Cool" sessions; Dr. Michael White and his New Liberty Jazz Band playing early New Orleans music; an organ summit with Joey DeFrancesco engaging in mock combat with Dr. Lonnie Smith; pianists Willie Pickens and Jason Moran; and the artist in residence, the nearly 80-year-old Lee Konitz.
And Maurice Brown.
Trust me, if you haven't heard Brown, or heard of him, you will.
He's a young trumpeter from the Chicago area who moved to New Orleans after getting out of school in 1999. Then Katrina drove him out to New York, but not before he'd absorbed much of the joie de vivre the Crescent City is famous for.
Brown was one of several New Orleanians booked by the Jazz Institute of Chicago as a salute to that beleaguered city and its stature as the fountainhead of much of this music we all love. His band was pitted against a young Chicago counterpart led by Corey Wilkes, another fiery post-bop trumpeter who's known Brown since grade school. The battle was more like a lovefest, with the ensembles teaming up on stage for a grand finale.
Brown plays as though he's plugged into a stage outlet and zapping lightning bolts of energy out his horn, so the excitement is something to see as well as hear. And when he and his band mates, all displaced by the hurricane, paraded off the stage and down around the photo pit to simulate the "Second Line" anthem they played, followed by another Big Easy brass band favorite, "Do Whatcha Wanna", it was a defining moment of the festival for me, a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and a summons to all within earshot to come on down south and feast on much more of that musical gumbo.
The festival's opening night concert at Symphony Center was a two-part tribute to John Coltrane, who would have turned 80 this year.
First, hip vocalist Kurt Elling delivered a set of ballads associated with Trane, highlighted by "Nancy With the Laughing Face", which Elling dedicated to his baby daughter, nicknamed 'Nishi', and by "The Meaning of the Blues", with the singer plumbing the depths of both lyric and harmony on that classic. He was accompanied by his own trio, plus a string quartet and saxophonist Ari Brown.
The second set had talented tenor man Joshua Redman and his trio in front of a big band recreating Coltrane's "Africa/Brass" sessions. The moving "Alabama", composed after the Birmingham church bombing of 1963 and Martin Luther King's eulogy to the four girls, and call for protest, stays in the mind.
Oscar Brown's songs have never sounded so good as they did when his two spirited daughters and a fine band performed them. The clever lyrics to "Mr. Kicks", "Dat Dere" and "Signifying Monkey" came across clear as bells, and "The Old Man" portrayed a keenly observed last stage of life.
Bik Bent Braam is the name of a big band from Holland that fulfilled the festival's vow to bring in at least one international act each year. And it also proved to be great fun, blending early 1930s-style swing with avant-garde flourishes, reminiscent of the late lamented Sun Ra Arkestra. Soloists would come to the fore, sending earnest, often passionate messages from their horns, while behind them the band chimed in with barnyard squawks and squeals. A Dutch treat!
The Joe Lovano Nonet's superb playing of three of Miles Davis' cool-period masterpieces, "Moon Dreams", "Move" and "Boplicity", owed much to arranger Gunther Schuller, who conceived of richly textured ensemble passages that gave the music greater depth than the originals had. Lovano also joined with Konitz for an unaccompanied duet, and then all hands were turned loose on a driving blues finale.
Organists DeFrancesco and Smith brought the 28th annual festival to a rousing close, sticking mostly to the blues that have been the bread and butter for B-3 players ever since Jimmy Smith emerged on the scene. DeFrancesco is a bear, climbing all over the keyboard, pulling out all the stops from the get-go. Smith is a panther, teasing and tickling the keys, and the edge-of-its-seat audience, talking relentlessly toward the inevitable climax. Call it a draw.
Maurice Brown by Pat A. Robertson
Dr. Lonnie Smith by Mark Sheldon