From the sublime singer/pianist Patricia Barber, Bill Holman and Jimmy Heath fronting a pair of big bands, third-generation Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdes, Ray Anderson's mirthful Pocket Brass band to the ridiculous a big band from Vancouver, BC., playing avant-garde compositions that veered wildly between real jazz and random noise there was something for all tastes at the 24th annual Chicago Jazz Festival.
Because the city's festival budget keeps getting pinched back, we see more and more Chicago musicians on stage at this annual four-day extravaganza, billed as the biggest free jazz fest anywhere. That's fine with out-of-town visitors like myself, eager to hear from artists who make this one of America's swingin'est towns. Denizens of the Windy City, however, lament the dropoff in the number of touring big-name acts, but there's no quibbling that Grant Park was again home to lots of great sounds Aug. 29 to Sept. 1. >
Barber, the biggest opening night attraction, is a mesmerizing singer, her controlled, low-pitched voice well matched to her poetic original tunes and leisurely paced classics like "Caravan" and "Wave." Then suddenly, that voice erupts an octave or two higher, the volume likewise raised, but still somehow it's restrained; shivers of pleasure ripple the spine.
Barber's a dynamite pianist, too, and Neal Alger's eerie slide guitar effects added to the haunting quality of her set, which had the normally bustling crowd hushed so as not to miss a note. Larry Coryell
and Arthur Blythe
together looked on paper to be an odd couple, but the jazz-rock guitarist and avant-garde alto saxman met one another halfway for an enjoyable, straight-ahead and energetic hour that featured tributes to the recuperating Chico Hamilton, in whose band both once played, and to the late Milt Jackson and Wes Montgomery.
Bill Holman is a West Coast guy, but there was nothing laid back about the arrangements he wrote years ago for big bands led by Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and Count Basie. And the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, conducted by the visiting Holman, dug zestfully into these charts, which gave plenty of room for masters like trumpeter Orbert Davis and altoist Louis Stockwell to solo. And Eddie Baker's twinkling bursts of piano echoed Basie's on "Tree Frog," a tune new to me that struck up an infectious New Orleans groove.
Ray Anderson's Pocket Brass also mimicked the brass band sound, but in miniature. The trombonist brought along trumpeter Lew Soloff, sousaphonist Jose Davila and drummer Pheeroan akLaff for his spirited "Sweet Home Suite." The two hornmen ripped and snorted in unison and separately on Anderson's paean to growing up in Chicago and discovering its rich musical veins, from the free jazz of the AACM to the gospel shouts of Jesse Jackson's church.
Ahmad Jamal remains a crowd favorite, 40 years after his "Poinciana" propelled him to jazz stardom. I find his alternately tender and bombastic passages too contrived Tenor guest star George Coleman was all warmth and passion on "My Foolish Heart," until some incongruous foolish squawks at the very end.
Mal Waldron and Oliver Lake comprised another piano/tenor duet, playing together for the first time. Waldron would spin out a phrase, then vary it a bit, then re-examine it again, and again, until his playing began to resemble an exercise for jazz piano wannabes. But it's a tantalizing mode of playing. Lake, on alto, swooped and soared above Waldron's dense foundation. An effective pairing.
Jimmy Heath's animated conducting of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra was a highlight, a big band bebop extravaganza that even the preboppers in the park had to love. Heath composed all the music on the bill, including the spunky "Gingerbread Boy," written for his son, and the ballad-turns-swaggering blues in three-quarter time, "Gemini," named for his daughter.
Chuchito Valdes is the third generation of Cuban pianists, and the emcee accurately forecast "he will scorch this stage." Now settled in Chicago, the son of Chucho, grandson of Bebo, led a 10-piece band through flame-hot renditions of Latin and mainstream jazz.
The festival's final night began with the all-Chicago tenor duo of Von Freeman, about to turn 80, and Eddie Johnson, who's 82, both playing with the vigor and imagination of those half their age.
The NOW (New Orchestra Workshop) Orchestra from Vancouver fulfilled the festival's annual commitment to import at least one act from abroad, and to expose audiences to experimental music well beyond what most of us would call jazz. Composer and guest conductor was George Lewis, and his showmanship kept me glued to my seat even though much of what ensued was chaos. Ridiculous? I thought so, but then many in the park seemed enthralled. Maybe the joke is on me, stuck-in-my-ways, play-me-some-melody-harmony-rhythm and stay-in-one-key-for-awhile dinosaur that I am.
See Mark Ladenson's 2002 Chicago Jazz Festival photo exhibit .