The Good News from the Chicago Jazz Festival: Legendary drummer, percussionist, and nice guy Avreeayl Ra was back in the saddle tonight, after having been jumped and then beaten by a group of thugs as he walked to the parking lot from Chicago's Green Mill Jazz Club a couple of weeks back. From my seats, he looked fully recovered, but my photographs reveal some purple bruising around his left eye. He was in excellent form and spirits.
The Festival kicked into higher gear today, with some strong performances on the afternoon mini-stages by the Nate Lepine Quarter and the J.D. Allen Trio, with both groups pushing traditional boundaries, but in a very accessible and pleasing way. J.D. Allen's drummer, Rudy Royston, stood out with his fierce intensity, which may have been exceeded later in the day by Bad Plus drummer Dave King, but that is open to question.
Unfortunately, I missed Victor Garcia's Organ Septet, but the crowds made the effort just difficult. Would have been great to have seen guitarist Scott Hesse, but I think both Garcia and Hesse will be playing at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival later this month.
As for the main stage performances, the headliner was the Bad Plus, augmented by three players for a performance of Ornate Coleman's 1971 classic Science Fiction, but for me it was the opening act that stood out--Tatsu Aoki's Miyumi Project featuring Tsukasa Taiko and special guests Jon Jang and Francis Wong, both from the Bay Area. Tatsu is a longtime member of Chicago's jazz community who is known for mixing traditional Japanese percussion music and performance with terrific jazz. No surprise, given that Tatsu often includes Mwata Bowden, Edward Wilkerson, and Avreeayl Ra, among other Chicago jazz luminaries, in his musical projects--all present and accounted for tonight. Some terrific solos from Bowden on baritone sax, Wilkerson, and Francis Wong, who at one point seemed to be playing just the mouthpiece. As usual, I loved the synchronized entrances of the drummers, their colorful outfits, and of course, the powerful drumming. Tatsu modestly joked about the required bass solo, but he did a nice job and is certainly entitled to his time in the light.
Next up was octogenarian and pianist Harold Mabern, with the much younger Eric Alexander on tenor saxophone. Much like Benny Golson's performance the night before, a crowd pleasing straight ahead performance, but nothing life changing. By my count and taking nothing away from Alexander's talents, a little too much Alexander and not enough Mabern when it comes to solos.
After a stage change, Anat Cohen took the stage. Terrific as usual, with her interest in Brazilian music very much on display, as was her take on Klezmer music. Gads Lehavi, a 20-year old Israeli pianist was called into the lineup apparently due to a scheduling issue. He is particularly talented, doubling on acoustic and Fender Rhodes electric pianos.
And finally we come to the Bad Plus, which eschewed the very bent renditions of pop songs that launched its career for the Coleman piece. Chicago was in for a treat, at least in terms of the of the lineup, which included saxophonists Tim Berne and Sam Newsmen, and trumpeter Ron Miles. The latter went to high school with the very friendly gentlemen seated next to me, who took a lot of pride in the success of his classmates, including actor Don Cheedle. No doubt this performance will show up on "Ten Best" lists for 2016. Many passages were very good, but I could have done without the singing. Next time add Dee Alexander to the mix.
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