Hot Weather, Hot Jazz
It was hot today, particularly after three 10-hour days of shooting and little food. Ah, but it was worth it. The last day of the 40th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival did not disappoint. Being a Sunday, lots of non-jazzers were in Millennium Park for selfies with Cloud Gate (the "Bean") and relief from the Crown Fountain’s arcs of cool water. I noticed the light on the fountain as I walked back from Starbucks, but skipped it when I saw all the adults in the fountain with their children. There is nothing that ruins a photograph of children happily at play than an overprotective adults, and there were plenty of them. See Helen Levitt’s photographic output from an era when children amused themselves in the streets of New York outside the eyesight of their parents.
I couldn't wait for the evening headliner, Maceo Parker, but there was plenty of great music to be heard before Maceo took the stage. Immediately prior to Maceo's performance, elder statesman Barry Harris and tenor saxophonist Charles McPhearson joined forces. For my money, this was probably the best music I heard during the five-day festival. I first heard McPhearson back in 1974 at Carnegie Hall during a salute to Charlie Parker. Lots of honking that night from the likes of Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods and others, but McPhearson stole the show with his smooth sonorous tones. He didn't steal the show tonight, but he came close. It was Barry Harris who came out on top with his understated playing and well-manicured nails. Harris proved once again that you don't have to be loud or boisterous to be great. Mr. Subtle.
And best of all was the Festival's invitation to Joe Segal to do the introductions. A frail Joe was rolled out in a wheel chair. But Joe is Joe, so hand him a microphone, and off he goes. He got in a few plugs in for the Jazz Showcase, inviting everyone to the post-Fest jam sessions and assuring them that the Showcase has plenty of room. He noted that WGN says its celebrating 70 years on the air, but that he is celebrating his 71st year of presenting jazz in Chicago. Photographer Mark Sheldon told me that he heard that Joe has presented some 21,000 shows over all those years. My one disappointment: Joe didn't do his "Save the Children" bit that we've all heard 21,000 times before. Fittingly, Harris singled Joe out at the end of the set for hanging in there all those years, keeping the music alive.
Before McPhearson and Harris took the stage, Arturo O'Farrill offered his take on Afro-Cuban rhythms. Yep, there is that Latin feel running through the sextet's music, but Arturo, his two sons (Adam on trumpet and Zachery on drums), and three other musicians (congas, bass, and saxophone) would have fit in nicely earlier in the day on the Von Freeman stage. The sextet was not just playing rhythms that would make for romantic summer evening on the dance floor in Grant Park: There was some edgy avant-garde stuff going on, particularly in Arturo's single-note-at-time piano playing. The ensemble, however, never let the underlying rhythms disappear, which meant that the music never spiraled out of control. Of all the musicians I heard this week, Arturo was the most political, making pointed statements about not needing no wall or borders.
The Festival likes giving young Chicago musicians a shot on the big stage. This year, it was Matt Ulery's Loom Large, who proved that Brooklyn-based Darcy James Argue's Secret Society isn't the only orchestra that can bring Gil Evans to mind. For the set's last two numbers, Ulery brought his friend and Chicago bassist Katie Ernst to the stage sans bass. Ernst is making quite a name for herself as a singer. Each time I hear her, she sounds more sublime and confident. In keeping with Ulery's work, her singing today was more tone poem than swinging or bluesy vocals, but she soared.
During the afternoon I circulated between the two stages flanking the Bean. The Von Freeman stage is where the more "heady" jazz could be heard. I have a mixed reaction to much of this music. Some of it I enjoy; some of it I hate. The line of demarcation is quite simple: Single honks, screeches, and plucks with no rhythm or melody is not to my liking. In most cases, the musicians surely hear rhythms and an underlying logic, but I certainly don't. On the other hand, thoughtful music inspired by Sun Ra, Fletcher Henderson, and Gil Evans really works for me, but Eric Revis's effort, which featured Ken Vandermark. On the other hand, Jason Stein, with the great Keefe Jackson on contrabass clarinet and Joshua Abrams on bass, did work. I suspect those three would be appalled by my comments about Revis and Vandermark. They are musicians. I am not one.
I certainly enjoyed the tribute to the late Chicago pianist John Wright. It was a treat to hear ragtime pianist Reginald Robinson’s fingers dance over the piano keys. And I never miss an opportunity to hear Dee Alexander, who performed just one song today. I am probably not supposed to do fashion commentary, but her blue outfit and retro sunglasses were smashing.
When I was not at the Von Freeman stage, I was at the Jazz Heritage Pavilion on the north end of the park. The afternoon's highlight was Fareed Haque and his Funk Brothers. The program brochure referred to it as "world soul jazz." I'd call it pretty terrific music. You had to love the pianist Kevin Kozol's enthusiasm and drummer Greg Fundis' timing. Great stuff.
And so there you have it. Another terrific last day.
[See Separate Post for Photographs and Commentary on Maceo Parker's Festival Closing Performance]
[Click on a photograph to enlarge it]
The Ever-So-Subtle Barry Harris
Slow Burn: Charles McPherson Accompanied by Bop Pianist Barry Harris
Charles McPhearson Deep in Thought
After 71 Years of Presenting Music, Chicago's Joe Segal Is Still Talking Jazz
Two Eyes on Eastern Expression: Arturo O'Farrill
Adam O'Farrill Accompanying His Father, Arturo
BamBam Rodriquez on Bass with Arturo O'Farill
Charles Lefkowitz-Brown with Arturo O'Farrill
Matt Ulery Leads Loom Large
Katie Ernst with Matt Ulrey's Loom Large
A Moment of Reflection
Fareed Haque with Funk Brother Kevin Kozol on Keys
And Powering It All
Kevin Kozol Looks to Fareed Haque for Direction
Fared Haque and a Lovely Guitar
Ken Vandermark on Tenor
Swirling Green: Kris Davis on Piano with Ken Vandermark
Beads of Sweat on the Bassist Eric Revis' Forehead
Ken Vandermark with Kris Davis
In Front of the Von Freeman Stage
Chad Taylor Doing Triple Duty Today
A Round of Applause in Front of Some Cool Shades
The Great Keefe Jackson with Jason Stein
The Plumber with Paris in His Pocket
Acclaimed Underground Trumpeter Jamie Branch with Her Band, Fly or Die
Jason Ajemain Applies the Bow to His Bass as He Flies Rather Than Dies
MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Reginald Robinson at the Piano
Ernie Adams on the Downbeat
Guitarist Jim Pierce Salutes John Wright
Dee Alexander in Striking Blues
Playing a Rag to Honor the Late John Wright