The Place to Be: The Cultural Center

The Place to Be: The Cultural Center

Kurt Elling was the headliner for the first full day of the 40th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival. I first heard Elling twenty-some years ago when he made his Jazzfest debut. Neither I, nor the people I was with, could stand him. I don’t remember whether I liked his singing, but he had to be one of the most arrogant performers I had ever encountered—Keith Jarrett and Esperanza Spalding also fall into that category. I was so turned off by Elling that I largely ignored his career during the ensuing years, as I do with Spalding. Jarrett has too much talent to be ignored.

After Elling surprised Tammy McCann last night, I was looking forward to his concert. Last night he had a Tony-Bennett/Frank Sinatra thing going on. Unfortunately, tonight he left the swing and the standards behind. With the exception of the opening number—Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall—I found Elling’s set to be bloated and far to arty. There was no enunciation of words.

Prior to Elling’s effort, we heard Nicole Mitchell and Mandoria Awakening. Actually, we didn’t hear Nicole. When she landed in Chicago, she learned of a family emergency, causing her to return to LA. Too bad, Nicole is quite talented.

Fortunately, the group carried on without her, treating the audience to two of Nicole’s compositions. I particularly liked the vocals provided by avery r. young (lower case is his choice), who rapped and sang.

Prior to Nicole, Geof Bradford performed with his nonet, which included Greg Ward (saxophone), Marquis Hill (trumpet), and the always terrific Scott Hesse on guitar. Adding rhythm to the mix were Clark Sommers (bass) and Dana Hall (drums). Bradford is one of several composers who dot this year’s lineup. For whatever reason, orchestral/large ensemble jazz is in style, and we are all the beneficiaries.

For me, however, the standout performances were earlier in the day at the Chicago Cultural Center. Every performance I saw was terrific. The day began with Sommers, Hall, and pianist Stu Mindeman reprising Chick Corea’s 1968 album, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. Throughout that effort, Sommers and Hall had quite the musical conversation, with a smiling and animated Hall constantly looking at Sommers for direction and challenge.

Following that performance, it was time to get your AACM on with a large ensemble performing under the name, the Great Black Music Ensemble. These folks always create interesting music, with strong solos, as well as group interaction. Today was no different. Ed House’s blistering solo (with Ernest Dawkins holding the mike) was particularly notable.

At some point, I left the Claudia Cassidy Theatre and headed to the Preston Bradley Hall, where drummer Ernie Adams led a spirited discussion about improvisation. He used the the childhood classic, Itsy Bitsy Spider, to demonstrate how improvisation works, looking for assistance from bassist Emma Dayhuff and pianist Miguel de la Cerna. Shortly after Adams had made his points, pianist and singer Carmen Strokes brought her quartet, which included guitarist Buddy Fambro, bassist Ron Hall, and drummer Vern Allison, to the stage She concluded her set with a spirited tribute to Aretha Franklin.

It was back to the Claudia Cassidy Theatre, where Jazz Beat, the Intersection of Jazz and Hip Hop, provided some young people with the opportunity to show what they could do, including Christian JaLon, who is a very poised and talented vocalist. After that Tatsu Aoki took to the stage, together with the other members of the Miyumi Project, for a beautiful set of Asian-influenced jazz. Great music flows any time Mwata Bowden and Edward Wilkerson are on stage. They were joined by a third saxophonist, Mai Sugimoto, who certainly held up her end of the bandstand.

It was then back to the Preston Bradly Hall, where the Paul Giallorenzo Trio performed. The trio includes Mikel Patrick Avery on drums and Joshua Abrams on bass, which meant the music would be excellent, but challenging.

I then grabbed a sandwich, and headed over to the Park Plaza Grill to hear Thaddeus Tukes perform on vibes with his group, which included Dayhuff. They sounded good and looked like they were having a good time under a bright blue sky.

Each year, many people miss the Cultural Center programming on the first day of the festival, which is a huge mistake.

Kurt Elling Stretches Out

Jeff Gets Serious

Christmas with Kurt Elling (John McClean on Guitar)

Marquis Hill with Kurt Elling

"Wow, That's Amazing" [My words, Not His]


Enjoying the Show

“This is a Red Light Song” [My Words, Not His]

John McLean with Kurt Elling

Marquis Hill Plays Trumpet While Kurt Elling Sings

Jeff "Tain" Watts on Drums with Kurt Elling


Janis Lane-Ewart Presenting an Award to Nicole Mitchell

Alex Wing and the Theremin Putting Out Some Good Vibrations

avery r. young (lower case) Sings and Raps on Haki R. Dadhubuti's Liberation Narratives

DCASE Commissioner Mark Kelly Extolling Jazz in the City

Clap Hands, Say Yeah (Audience Member May Have Been Present on Another Night)

Edward Wilerson, Mai Sugimoto, and Mwata Bowden with the Miyumi Project

Mwata Bowden on Baritone Sax with the Miyumi Project

Double the Bass, Double the Fun (Jamie Kempkers)


Edward Wilkerson with the Miyumi Project

Justin Boyd at the Intersection of Jazz and Hip Hop

Christian JaLon at the Intersection of Jazz and Hip Hop

Mikel Patrick Avery with the Paul Gialllorenzo Trio

Emma Dayhuff Helps Ernie Adams Explain Improvisation

Miguel de la Cerna Helps Ernie Adams Explain Improvisation

Vern Allison with the Carmen Stokes Quartet

Fingers, Frets, and Strings

Buddy Fambro with the Carmen Stokes Quartet

Thuds, Thumps and Taps

Ben Lamar Gay with the Great Black Music Ensemble in Colloraboration with AACM

Ed House with the Great Black Music Ensemble in Colloraboration with AACM

Jerome Imhotep Croswell with the Great Black Music Ensemble in Colloraboration with AACM

Adam Zanolini with the Great Black Music Ensemble in Colloraboration with AACM

Dana Hall Enjoying a Conversation with Clark Sommers

Clark Sommers and Dana Hall Pay Homage to Chick Corea

"Now He Sings, Now He Sobs"

Photographer’s Notes: A long lens was essential for many of these photographs. Several of the groups relied heavily on music stands, which basically meant there was a line of the black metal between them and the audience. I used a 40mm to 150mm telephoto lens on an Olympus OMD, Mark II to overcome the obstacles. It functioned as a 40mm to 300mm lens because of the camera’s cropped sensor. Using this lens permitted me to shoot between the music stands. I would have preferred a wider angle so that more of the subject was visible, but then the stands would have blocked much of the view, which is unacceptable.

Wet, Wet, Wet

Wet, Wet, Wet

Chicago Jazz Philharmonic

Chicago Jazz Philharmonic