Chicago Jazz Festival: New Works, Old Favorites

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Chicago Jazz Festival
Chicago, Illinois
August 30, 2008
Jazz is an ever-evolving art form, and the Chicago Jazz Festival celebrated its 30th anniversary by commissioning new works by four composers who drew on the music's century-long history while propelling it on toward its adventurous future. Three of the new suites had their world premieres on Saturday night, Aug. 30, with Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas and Gerald Wilson all in the spotlight.

Iyer's quintet played "Far From Over," a seven-part suite initially triggered by the Sean Bell tragedy in New York that pianist Iyer later broadened into a musical message of hope for change in this country - a plea for Obama's election. The multi-layered music drew on Iyer's roots both in America and India, with electric guitarist Prasanna's yipping, sitar-like runs emphasizing the latter.

Iyer said later the piece won't likely played again until at least 2009, because he has other commitments. It would be a shame to consign it to a shelf. Next up was trumpeter Dave Douglas, leading Brass Ecstasy, a new take on the brass band tradition that also pays homage to the late Lester Bowie and his Brass Fantasy. Douglas' band has a tuba chugging along behind his trumpet, a trombone, and a French horn.

The new composition "Chicago Calling: Bowie, Barack and Brass" blended New Orleans swagger, circus parade sounds and dissonant free-for-alls in always-entertaining, often amusing ways due to the occasional bleats, braps and puffy exclamations from the various horns. Distinctive solo voices, mostly that of Douglas, kept rising up over the ensemble sound.

Gerald Wilson's Los Angeles-based big band premiered "Chicago Is," musical odes to the city's icons - such as its sports teams and the wind off Lake Michigan. The music was fittingly muscular and bluesy, reflecting the leader's formative years in the Lunceford and Basie bands in the late '30s and '40s.

Wilson's sparkling commentary and flamboyant conducting reflected his joy at a 90-year-old life well lived; his music did so even more emphatically. The festival opened Thursday with Sonny Rollins' quintet playing a set nearly identical to the one that closed the Newport festival three weeks earlier. This time, Rollins cut back on his marathon solos, allowing sidemen to shoulder more of the task at hand. Bobby Broom, whose tender touch on guitar elevated several ballads, and mellow-toned trombonist Clifton Anderson made fine impressions. Dee Dee Bridgewater called herself a devoted disciple of the late bebop singer Betty Carter, and paid tribute in Friday night's opening set. While not in Carter's league at deconstructing and reinventing familiar tunes, Bridgewater showed chops aplenty on Carter's anthem, "Tight," and the too-seldom-heard ballad "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most."

Eddie Palmieri's incendiary piano and an in-sync horn trio - Brian Lynch on trumpet, Donald Harrison on tenor and Conrad Herwig on trombone - blazed through an hour of Latin jazz at night's end. Most salsa-fying!

The spirit of adventure from Saturday night's premieres carried over to the closing Sunday night sets by the Instant Composers Pool orchestra and the brass band 8 Bold Souls.

ICP, from Holland, was a real Dutch treat, kicking off with a free-jazz blowing session; rhythmic patterns became discernible, then recognizable harmonies began to emerge from the chaos, and suddenly, surreally, we were transported back to 1940, listening to Ellington's "Jack the Bear." The hour continued on mixing old and new sounds, with lots of comic turns and even more examples of serious musicianship.

More witty, stylish musical kaleidoscopy ensued with 8 Bold Souls' stew of funk, Middle Eastern music, bullfight fanfares and other influences. Then leader Edward Wilkerson brought on guest singer Dee Alexander; she was in glorious, Sarah Vaughan-like voice for the inspirational "I Can Fly," then dropped her soprano an octave for a scatting finish on the up-tempo finale, "What the Heck."

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