Chicago Jazz Fest Shines Spotlight on Hometown Talent


Roscoe Mitchell (foreground) and Fred Berry perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Sept. 3.

(Photo: ©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.)

Reeds-and-winds iconoclast Roscoe Mitchell celebrated 50 years of recording. Trumpeter Jon Faddis reveled in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band charts from the late 1940s and early ’50s. And drummer Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom whipped up a storm of precise compositions and free improvisation. It all happened on the main stage of the 39th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival, held Aug. 31–Sept. 3 in downtown Millennium Park.

The free festival, curated by the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago, attracted tens of thousands to day-long programming at three side-stages as well as evening concerts in the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion and sound-reinforced field.

Of 58 bands performing, 42 were from Chicago, but the schedule duly represented jazz’s breadth, bringing to town New York City groups such as guitarist Mary Halvorson’s octet and saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s band (of David Bowie–backing fame). South Africa-via-England was represented in drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo’s London-based “Four Blokes,” and saxophonist Jonathan Doyle brought his trad-jazz ensemble, the Swingtet, all the way from Port Townsend, Washington. For a finale, audiences were transported to New Orleans courtesy of the Rebirth Brass Band.

In performance, Chicago native Mitchell, a longtime professor at California’s Mills College, was in a take-no-prisoners mode. Blowing high and fast, the 77-year-old reedist squeezed squeals and squiggles from his soprano saxophone on a low-key melody, leading into unaccompanied solos by his crew and collective improvisations that ranged from delicacy to rage.

Among Mitchell’s septet of colleagues old and new were trumpeter Fred Berry, now director of the Stanford University Jazz Ensemble, and drummer Alvin Fielder, whose rhythms still dance. (Both can be heard on Nessa Records’ 2011 release of Mitchell’s pre-Art Ensemble tracks, Before There Was Sound.) Second drummer Vincent Davis, splashy on cymbals, has worked in trio with Mitchell and bassist Junius Paul—who during the unannounced pieces plucked when fellow bassist Jaribu Shahid bowed, and vice versa. Also present was cellist Tomeka Reid, who used both arco and pizzicato techniques. The group’s coherence and command were evident at the extremes of volume—indeed, its audience remained rapt when one piece settled into sheer silence.

Miller’s Boom Tic Boom was comparatively more structured, its tunes constructed around complex meters and unusually long, quirky lines. Miller doesn’t let energy flag, remaining hyper-attentive to pianist Myra Melford, violinist Jenny Scheinman, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke and bassist Todd Sickafoose, who projected good humor even when abstracting basic material. Melford’s full-on keyboard attacks drew gasps, Scheinman won over the crowd with gritty fiddle strokes, Goldberg wowed with his E-flat contra-alto instrument and Knufke showed his mastery of timbre.

Photo of Allison Miller
Allison Miller, leader of Boom Tic Boom, performs at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Sept. 2. (Photo: ©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.)

Highlights by locals included 90-year-old guitarist George Freeman’s set, bass clarinetist Jason Stein’s trio Hearts & Minds and cornetist Josh Berman’s foursome with alto saxophonist Darius Jones, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Michael Vatcher.

Vocalist Dee Alexander, regarded as the Second City’s Sarah Vaughan, delighted in an “Ellebration” of Ella Fitzgerald’s centenary, in which she was joined by fellow Chicago singers Frieda Lee, Spider Saloff and Paul Marinaro, as well Sheila Jordan (who had her own hour, accompanied by pianist Steve Kuhn’s trio).

There was also a tribute to prairie poet Carl Sandburg, commemorating 50 years since his death. It was led by drummer Matt Wilson, who steered his Honey and Salt ensemble through spoken word segments. Canadian Dawn Thomson, who plays guitar in the group, offered folkish vocals in contrast to the sophisticated instrumental offerings by multi-reedist Jeff Lederer and cornetist Ron Miles. Elsewhere, pianist Jason Moran presented a multimedia concept piece marking Thelonious Monk’s 100th year.

But the fest’s most thrilling, thoroughly modern jazz was delivered by Faddis and his orchestra of four New York ringers and Chicago stalwarts. They had bonded in one rehearsal. The trumpeter—a teenage protégé of Gillespie—conducted with confidence and perfect comedic timing. Besides being an entertainer who is willing to get spontaneous and downright silly, Faddis is an ace instrumentalist and interpreter who expressed himself brilliantly on Gillespie’s “Tanga.”

Faddis also employed his incomparable upper register chops to fine effect on “Night In Tunisia” (otherwise a feature for the four-piece trombone section); “Things To Come,” on which alto saxophonist Antonio Hart was voracious, churning chorus after chorus; and “Manteca,” a showcase for bassist Todd Coolman, drummer Ignacio Berroa and pianist Willie Pickens, who, at age 86, is one of the Windy City’s most prized jazz stars.

Like Pickens, much of the homegrown talent featured at the Chicago Jazz Festival is little-known beyond the city. Not all great musicians tour the world. But listeners should be grateful for such excellent opportunities to check out great scenes like the one in Chicago. Three festival sets were broadcast live by local radio station WDCB, and more are being produced for eventual airing on the Jazz Network, distributed by WFMT. DB

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July 2019
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