Monk Tributes, Innovative Pairings Give Spark to Hyde Park Jazz Fest

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Nick Mazzarella (left) and Tomeka Reid perform at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which took place Sept. 23–24 in Chicago. (Photo: Michael Jackson)

The 11th annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival, populating a dozen varied venues amid the picturesque splendor of the festival’s namesake neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, proved as stimulating as ever this time around (Sept. 23–24). Programmed for the sixth year by the astute, visionary Kate Dumbleton—and assisted by music manager Carolyn Albritton, managing director Olivia Junell and stalwart new operations manager Dave Rempis, among others—the HPJF is unlike any other festival in its intensity and pace. Its principal hit: an offering of 30 presentations between 1 p.m. and midnight on Sept. 23.

The overlaps of concerts are carefully timed so that it is possible to catch portions of some simultaneous sets if you are a fast walker, but completists will be frustrated.

Despite the out of town stars that brightened the diverse bill (including Bill McHenry and Andrew Cyrille, Amina Claudine Myers, Jeremy Pelt, Oliver Lake, Joe Locke and Warren Wolf, plus the Malian musicians who collaborated with Nicole Mitchell), it was the local duo of Nick Mazzarella and Tomeka Reid at DuSable Museum that most impressed. Altoist Mazzarella was last heard in such a context at the HPJF alongside one of the festival’s regular fixtures, drummer Dana Hall. (In fact, Hall, performing solo, preceded Mazzarella’s set with cellist Reid on the DuSable stage.)

Under cascading drapes and soft lighting, the unlikely twosome (alto/cello duos are as rare as the teeth of hens) stationed themselves about six feet away from each other. An infrequent meeting for them, the two had collaborated two and a half years prior to record the audacious Signaling for the legendary Chicago progressive imprint Nessa.

An acknowledged precedent and inspiration for the project was the nexus between cellist Abdul Wadud and saxophonist Julius Hemphill. A listen to Hemphill and Wadud’s Live In New York (1976) bears comparison to Signaling, which opens with a baleful paean to these predecessors called “Blues For Julius And Abdul,” during which the bluesy melisma of the alto conjures the impassioned feelings that saxophonists Charlie Mariano and Ron Aspery used to generate. 

The duo at DuSable let the music do the talking and skipped announcements.

Mazzarella’s keen, preaching tone owes its foremost debt to Ornette Coleman and, to a lesser extent, Henry Threadgill, but he has smelted his influences into a compelling new alloy. Though his conception was suggestive of Hemphill in this context, Mazzarella’s approach was less scrappy than its antecedent, more measured, streamlined and virtuosic when the moment called. He played with relaxed concentration, smoothing out his thick beard or manipulating a string of bells or dropping them to the floor as a rhythmical comp to Reid’s excursions.

The latter’s instrument demands greater movement, and her long, wiry arms and sharp elbows made busy atop the cello’s fingerboard. On “The Ancestors Speak,” a track from Signaling, it sounded as though Reid (whose primary influences are Wadud and Threadgill sidewoman Diedre Murray) had prepared her cello with alligator clips on each string, an effect that she replicated at the DuSable Museum. The resulting timbre recalled the ominous sounds Charles Mingus used to elicit on bass. Yet the live set, as with the bulk of the new album, was wholly improvised. You would have been forgiven for assuming these were set pieces, such was the knowing timing between the two.

Both musicians maintained a high level of invention during their 60 minutes on stage. Mazarella gamely approximated or counterbalanced the whinnying velocity of Reid’s arco work with a succession of vented trills, pecky squawks and bird-like peeps. They reined their bluesy pas de deux outro to a barely audible volume, then ended on the stroke of 5:30 p.m., despite having no ability to monitor the time while playing.

Over at the Logan Center Performance Hall, another outstanding presentation, “Bamako*Chicago Sound System,” was a centerpiece, permitting two sets a couple hours apart. This was a major commission for the festival in partnership with the concurrent citywide World Music Festival and would not have been possible without partial underwriting from the MacArthur Foundation. A collaboration between flautist Nicole Mitchell and Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko brought together local percussionist JoVia Armstrong, spirited and original singer Mankwe Ndosi, guitarist Jeff Parker and West Africans Fatim Kouyaté and balafon player Fassery Diabaté.

Mitchell is never afraid to take risks and put forward projects that may be just germinating rather than fully realized or over-rehearsed, whereas this one seemed to blossom before our ears. Particularly delightful was the empathy between singers Ndosi and Kouyaté, and the joy with which Jeff Parker connected with Sissoko.

Marking the 100th anniversary of Thelonious Monk’s birth, the festival invited Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley to speak, and Kelley de-bunked popular myths about the pianist, most notably that he was a solitary, tunnel-visioned obsessive who lacked technique. Kelley’s talk touched on matters of consequence to Monk outside the realm of the jazz club—beyond the Minton’s scene in Harlem—that also played a part in shaping his music, including the influence of his mother, Barbara. One caveat would be forgetting to credit the photographers: There were several outstanding Jim Marshall shots in Kelley’s slideshow that were used without acknowledgment. 

Monk was again the focus of a presentation in the Logan Penthouse later that day. This time it was an informal lecture by clarinetist Ben Goldberg, yet another one-off booking by Dumbleton. “I had heard [Ben] play solo before, and he did a Monk tune at that time,” she said. “He was also in an incredibly great trio back when I lived in San Francisco in the early 2000s called ‘Plays Monk’ with drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Devin Hoff. It was so good. So that’s how I knew about Ben playing Monk and how amazing he was at it. Also, Ben was deeply inspired by Steve Lacy [who played with Monk]. So I thought it would be a nice contribution to a Monk celebration and different from the other programs. The Penthouse seemed like a perfect spot for it.” 

A “Monk and the Ladies” program featured Dee Alexander and Reid, performing together with renowned Detroit musicians Marion Hayden, Alexis Lombré and Gayellyn McKinney at the Wagner Stage. And at International House, “Double Monk” presented pianists Jeremy Kahn and Steve Million on two pianos together with dancer Ariane Dolan.

“Attendance was the highest to date,” summarized Dumbleton after the event (which drew approximately 18,000 people across its two days). “Every year it’s a deeper honor to program the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The level of passion for and the commitment to the annual convening is beyond inspiring. The musical roots of the South Side are so diverse and so rich that programming in 2017 is a wide-open palette. I can’t imagine a better place to put on a jazz festival.” DB


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November 2017
Rudresh Mahanthappa
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