Chicago Jazz Festival 2009
September 4-6, 2009
Chicago can't lay claim to being the jazz capital of the world, nor was it the birthplace of jazz (though as the place where Louis Armstrong and other seminal New Orleans artists came after New Orleans, and as the birthplace of Benny Goodman 100 years ago, it can be considered the second chapter in the story of the music's evolution).
What Chicago does boast is the biggest free jazz festival in the world. This year's edition drew hundreds of thousands to Grant Park over Labor Day weekend. It's a great occasion, showcasing the Windy City's own talent while importing significant acts from around the country and abroad.
This year's festival was as diverse as ever, with concerts remembering pioneers like Goodman and Art Tatum; sets by current stars Dave Holland, Esperanza Spalding and Archie Shepp; and avant-garde explorations by founders and followers of the city's renowned Association for Advancement of Creative Artsgiants like Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell and Fred Anderson.
What was easily the stand-out performance came on Jazz Fest Eve in neighboring Millennium Park, which shares Grant Park's spectacular settingwrapped inside the city skyline, with Lake Michigan off to one sideand a venue blessed with a superior sound system. Jon Faddis led the Chicago Jazz Ensemble in a Benny Goodman centennial salute, with 87-year-old Buddy DeFranco getting most of the solo time on clarinet.
While it was great to hear a couple dozen of BG's big-band and small-group classics again, the night didn't really catch fire until clarinetist-saxophonist-composer Victor Goines was introduced, and the band ripped into the world premiere of his suite honoring Benny, called "Then, Now and Forever."
Goines, a regular in the Jazz and Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York, is now Director of Jazz Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and did his homework in writing this five-movement tribute to the Benny Goodman of Chicago's Austin High Group who would become the one jazz star the public most identified with Swing. Segments included "Maxwell Street Ghetto," a rambunctious romp that reflected the free-wheeling street music of Goines' hometown, New Orleans, more than it called Chicago's old Jewish quarter to mind; "Dearly Beloved," a gorgeous ballad that Goines said represented Benny's devotion to his poor, hard-working father; "We Four Plus One," reprising hits by the groundbreaking Hampton-Krupa-Wilson quartet, with trumpeter Faddis the "plus one" joining Goines in some close-harmony duets; and "Benny's Groove," a piece seemingly inspired by Ziggy Elman's famous solo on "And the Angels Sing," echoing Goodman's Jewish roots. Faddis underlined the point with a quote from "Hava Nagila."
The final movement, "Then, Now and Forever," had Goines and DeFranco imagining how BG might sound today as swing and post-bop co-exist in jazz's melting pot.
DeFranco was back in the spotlight at the festival proper, in a take-two of an album he made in 1956 with piano genius Art Tatum. He remains as fleet of fingers, and as cool and precise in tone as always, keeping up with his own torrents of ideas just as he did when matched with the legendary Tatum. Playing the pianist's part was Johnny O'Neal, giving it a game try. O'Neal did succeed in a delightful caricature of Tatum's penchant for excessive ornamentation: he started to play Jenkins'/Mercer's "P.S. I Love You," then digressed into one florid filigree after another before wandering back to the melody's opening bars. Then more digression. He never did finish playing the song.
Boogie-woogie piano isn't heard much these days, and a set by Bob Seeley and Bob Baldori (Chuck Berry's longtime keyboard player) on a side stage one afternoon didn't draw much of a crowd. That's a pity, given how much fun everyone had learning about the tunes and tales from the times of Albert Ammons (father of Chicago tenor great Gene Ammons), Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson.
Yoko Noge has been a blues favorite in Chicago for 25 years, her throaty, accented vocals embellished by piano runs that comet of the Sunnyland Slim School. At the festival, she previewed a new project: melding Japanese folk music and Chicago blues that will eventually be played by a seven-piece international band.
Dave Holland's big band was another highlight, playing fleshed-out versions of compositions originally intended for his small groups. Several seemed based on Native American scales and swung relentlessly, and he closed with "Blues for C.M." (Charles Mingus), a leisurely paced gem that shifted keys restlessly and coiled round and round its blues heart.
For anyone who had not heard Archie Shepp live, this was a welcome introduction. No longer the fire-breathing free-jazz radical of the'60s, Shepp dug his tenor into Ellingtonia, channeling his hero Ben Webster in a heavy-breathing but luminous "Chelsea Bridge." He finished up shouting the blues Kansas City-style.
On a night devoted largely to avant-gardesorry, but I've tried and failed to get satisfaction from sounds that lack melody and harmonyMadeline Peyroux was a pleasant change of pace. More folk singer than jazz diva, she sang originals about finding and mostly losing love, backed by a first-rate rocking quartet. Her voice often echoes Billie Holiday's, and what's wrong with that?
Chicagoan Dee Alexander wowed the crowd on the final night, singing originals all about her beloved hometownin a voice that compares to Sarah Vaughan's and backed by a fine big band. She seems poised to make a splash on the national and international jazz scenes.
Chicago has a limited yet robust club scene, and I got to Joe Segal's long-running Jazz Showcase and to Andy's for two successive nights of post-fest jam sessions.
Crusty multi-instrumentalist and Chicagoan Ira Sullivan was in charge of mixing and matching more than a dozen eager players at the Showcase, and ended up with a trio of top-tier tenor playersChris Potter, Eric Schneider and Scott Burnsbattling it out. Then Sullivan showed his tender side, picking up his flute for his traditional benediction, "Amazing Grace," in remembrance of the several jazz stars who have passed on this year. Johnny O'Neal sat in on gospel-rooted piano.