The Chicago Jazz Festival is programmed by Jazz Institute of Chicago, a non-profit that takes their mission quite seriously. There are surprisingly few cross-over artists featured and no "jazz-adjacent" performers, in contrast to other "jazz" festivals dependent on sponsors and ticket sales for survival. If you are a hard-core, capital "J" jazz fan, you are certain to find much to please you, and may well run into an act or two that truly challenges you. (Sets by Jaimie Branch
, Matthew Shipp
and Ivo Perelman
, and Eric Revis
with Ken Vandermark
, offered no olive-branches to the uncommitted.) So, it's a festival ideal for the jazz aficionado, but if you're travelling with a jazz-dubious spouse or friend, you may want to stick with the evening concerts... or just consider a more commercially-oriented event.
Chicago is a wonderful city and the downtown and loop area have grown more appealing since the early nineties, though you'll never confuse the South Loop with Xanadu. Any given week of the year has several nighttime concerts on offer at local clubs and watering holes (the Jazz Showcase
and Green Mill
are two of the best known, but there are many more)so there's plenty to do after the festival closes at 9pm, if you have the energy left to search it out. Unfortunately, Millennium Park's amenities are not as festive as they might be. Bathrooms are plentiful if not inspiringly clean or conveniently accessible. The food and drink on offer are basic in the extreme (hot dogs, pretzels, and what I unscientifically refer to as "7-11 nachos" are the order of the day), though of course once you've crossed Michigan Avenue the possibilities are endless. If you don't want to miss a single minute of music, you need to pack some food or settle for mediocre grub. The atmosphere is pleasant (Park attractions such as the famous reflective "bean" are sandwiched between the two afternoon venues, so you'll wander past thousands of tourists as you migrate from stage to stage) and this year, at least, there was a light security check at the entrance if you brought a bag or backpack. Will food trucks ever find their way to this culinary desert? One can only dream.
I can't do justice to all the acts I saw, much less the dozens of ones I missed, but here are a few highlights. If you can catch bass clarinetist Jason Stein
on disc or live, by all means do so. His quartet set with a tenor/counter-bass clarinetist! as the other horn brought humor and be-bop urgency to a festival that was a bit serious and inward looking in the afternoon sets. The Eric Revis / Ken Vandermark set was the richest of the hard-core "out" sessions, with plenty of color, texture and variety on offer. (Vandermark still breathes fire, but he's a flexible expressive player too and was a joy to experience). Black Diamond (google "Black Diamond Chicago Band" to have any hope of finding them) offered a two-tenor front line far from the blustery duals of yore, and are well worth a listen. Bassist Matt Ulery
contributed to many of the afternoon ensembles and mounted a big-band for the first Sunday night set. I'm not sure his large ensemble writing is the best facet of his musicianship but his smaller projects have been fascinating on record. The outstanding national act I was able to catch was Darcy James Argue
's Secret Society. The density and detail of his writing and arranging is as ambitious as it is compelling and the man knows how to build an ensemble from the bottom up. Argue's unit is possibly the most important large ensemble in jazz right now and amazing to witness live.
One or two of the afternoon acts were a bit marginalperhaps an unavoidable situation given the breadth of the programming. Since it's produced by the city, a certain amount of civic pontificating gums up the intervals between the evening sets, though the hosts themselves were charming. Finally, several afternoon performances convinced me that studio recordings versus live festival performances are a bit like the difference between acting for the movies and acting for the stage. Some musicians seemed to be playing studio-styled jazz that works best consumed through headphones, and the results didn't always translate well in an outdoor venue with all of its attendant distractions and the temptations of other music to sample just a few dozen yards away.
Jazz lovers should be thankful that a serious jazz festival with such a distinctive local flavor like this exists. If you have adventuresome ears, time, and money (even a "free" festival isn't after food, travel, and lodging are figured in), it's a wonderful way for the hard-core jazzbo to spend a Labor Day weekend.