One of the aspects of Chicago's annual jazz festival is its family-friendly atmosphere, which provides children of all ages a chance to learn about jazz, as well as the opportunity to tap their feet to it. Tents lined the main aisle around the stage, offering food and drink, as well as classic videos of historic jazz performances. There were workshops presented by many musicians, one of which was drummer Winard Harper's congenial yet explosively percussive demonstration.
There are not many settings more dramatic for a jazz festival than Chicago's lakefront each Labor Day weekend, and for 25 years the setting sun glows orange upon Lake Michigan as the lights of the impressive city skyline ignite the night. Within this panorama, the sweet and sultry sounds of jazz attract a large and enthusiastic crowd of music lovers at Grant Park. There certainly wasn't a shortage of great musicians at this year's fest with styles and variations ranging the entire gamut of jazz. The higher degree of focus this year was placed on Latin rhythms and improvised free form jazz.
One of the nice surprises, and highlights, was a performance by pianist Chano Dominguez whose idiosyncratic merger of jazz techniques and flamenco rhythms provided the enthused audience with an education in world music. His classical piano combined beautifully with rhythm players who improvised fluidly, and evoked the sound of an entire orchestra with gorgeous keyboard flourishes.
Grammy winner Dave Holland performed with his big band, highlighted by interplay between trombonist Robin Eubanks and reedman Chris Potter. Of course, Holland backed up the band with a tight bass line, and the arrangements of original songs, such as "Blues for C.M." and "Happy Jammy" which were lush and powerful with echoes of Mingus.
Two alumni of John Coltrane's landmark quartet performed separate sets. Elvin Jones, who relied heavily on elegant brushstrokes throughout the set, still plays tastefully, and has a fine quartet backing him, as was heard beautifully on "A Night in Tunisia". McCoy Tyner's big band suffered mostly from a poorly projected sound system, which buried his piano too often beneath the rhythm section. Opening with a mighty burner, "Passion Dance," the band's charts were mostly modal and bluesy, especially on their rendition of "Blues on the Corner".
Two artists performed exciting, cutting edge sets. Ken Vandermark and Crisis are a 10-piece ensemble reminiscent of Muhal Richard Abrams' larger groups. Vandermark's original songs were part composed, part free-form, a stimulating and vibrant mix. Similarly Roscoe Mitchell was a wild ride - very complex floating free jazz, which challenged the audience's collective ear.
Sheila Jordan, 75 years young, can still sing in her inimitable lovely voice. Her song selection and arrangements were wonderful including two Oscar Brown, Jr.-related vocal classics: "Humdrum Blues" and "Dat Dere," not to mention her rare exercise of vocal gymnastics on Don Cherry's "Art Deco". Most memorable was her demonstration of unique scatting on Lennon/McCartney's "Blackbird," which she introduced with an enthusiastic Indian chant, the peak of a solid performance.
In addition to memorable appearances by Freddy Cole, Jane Bunnett, and Malachi Thompson, brass and reed playing veteran Ira Sullivan and his band of legendary Chicago musicians performed a nice set of post bop tunes, as heard in their rendition of "Dear Old Stockholm".
The outdoor festival was preceded by a Thursday night performance at Symphony Hall, featuring Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Watson, Peter Washington, and Winard Harper - a tribute to Art Blakey indeed. The band performed all Blakey numbers with respect to the bandleader's original arrangements. Winard Harper received the loudest ovations for his powerful staccato drumming, as "Moanin'" and "Along Came Betty" were the rousing crowd pleasers.
The Chicago Jazz Festival is a great tradition, typically attracting a large crowd, especially for the free performances at Grant Park. The 25th anniversary shows were eclectic, exciting, and stimulating. With its nationally known jazz performers, Chicago's jazz festival is a feast for the ears.