The Final Note

Eight or nine years ago, I saw the late Aretha Franklin during what was billed as her farewell tour.  Since then, I have been joking that I was going to sue her for false advertising because she continued to regularly perform for the next several years.  

Back in April, the Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich penned an article in which Chicago icon Ramsey Lewis said that his performance at the 40th Annual Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend would be his last performance in Chicago because he was retiring.  As is true for all of us, travel takes its toll. Lewis had had enough of crowded airports, shrinking seats, airport security, unreliable hotels, and all the other hassles and indignities that come with leaving home to travel to another location, particularly when the travel is work-related.  And then, on August 23, Reich wrote another story in his annual flurry of articles appearing shortly before and during the Chicago Jazz Festival. Lewis might be having second thoughts about retiring.  

Most people are thrilled when they can finally retire.  Most people, however, don't receive wild applause at the end of each day's work, which may explain the second thoughts. Whatever happens, I won't have to sue Ramsey Lewis.  The Chicago Jazz Festival is free.

For the time being, the cover photograph captures the last note that Lewis played before a live audience in Chicago.  If he shows up at the Jazz Showcase, Ravinia, or some other venue, I will have to head back out to capture the last note once again.  

Lewis' appearance was warmly received by his many adoring Chicago fans.  Yes, he did play. The In Crowd, as well as A Hard Day's Night.  It may come as surprise, but Lewis didn't write the song most associated with him, nor was he the first to record it.  The original version was sung by Dobie Gray, who was no relation to Dobie Gillis.  Also, somewhat surprisingly, Lewis’ version never reached Number 1 on the charts.  I certainly remember hearing it in 1965, but probably didn't appreciate it at the time.  

Lewis is an interesting character in the jazz world.  If you were a kid getting into jazz in the late Sixties and early Seventies, he certainly wasn't the pianist that you would be listening to up in your bedroom.  Most likely, you would choose Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Horace Silver, Bud Powell, Red Garland, or any number of others.  Cecil Taylor never had a Top Ten hit, but he had a lot more street cred than Lewis.  The In Crowd assured Lewis would have steady income by making the general public aware of his work--unlike many jazz musicians who die in obscurity--but it also turned him in to a prisoner, which is both unfortunate and unfair.  

Tonight, Lewis demonstrated that he knows his way around the keyboard.  Along with the hits, he played a piece from John Coltrane's Meditation's album, as well as the Stylistics Betcha By Golly, Wow.  I am definitely the wrong person to be assessing pianistic skills, but it is clear that Lewis' blues-based approach to the piano (he is from Chicago, after all) goes far beyond just one hit song as anyone who has listened to his body of work predating the In Crowd knows.

Prior to Lewis, Darcy James Argue, a Brooklyn-based composer, led his 18-piece orchestra, the Secret Society, in several orchestral works that brought to mind Gil Evans two seminal albums on Impulse (Into the Hot and Out of the Cool), Igor Stravinsky, John Zorn, and the artist collective known as Bang on a Can. The Secret Society’s work is marked by rapid tonal changes, laughing trombones, and percussive, high speed transitions. Although Argue uses one or two soloists in each piece, overall, the work is about the orchestral sound rather than any one player’s efforts.

Argue has a bent, ironic sense of humor, which is reflected in the music, his stage patter between numbers, his song titles, and his slightly out-of-alignment facial expressions and posture. He pitched the sale of his CDs after the performance, but then indicated that he would deface them if requested, which was his way of saying that he would sign autographs. If Argue had his way, his music would bring to mind the paranoia of our times, the evil of people transfixed by their screens, and privacy-invading social media. The very name, Secret Society, should make that clear. Fortunately, the Society is no longer so secret, which means more people are enjoying Argue’s engaging compositions. He might be offended, but some of his work is a throwback to the Looney Tunes animated shorts from the Thirties.

All of this does raise an interesting artistic question. Can orchestral music be anti-Trump or anti-social media? Or are the titles and stage humor just a clever marketing ploy? This is a recurring issue in art. Billy Strayhorn wrote Blood Count when he was dying of cancer. Was he really thinking about the number of his white cells when he was writing the song, or by coincidence, did he finish the composition just when the doctor delivered bad news about his white cell count? Maybe he was thinking about his impending death when he wrote the song? Who knows? Anyone who has had to title a piece a artwork knows that the title is often an afterthought.

Prior to Argue, one of my favorite pianists, Kenny Barron, gave what I considered to be a somewhat lackluster, but serviceable performance with his quintet. I much prefer some of his work with Charlie Haden, David Holland, and others. It was good, however, to see Jonathan Blake behind the drum kit. He is a regular at the Jazz Showcase, supporting a variety of musicians.

Prior to Barron, the Jazz Festival paid tribute to the great Willie Pickens, a much beloved Chicago pianist, who has played with just about everyone. Willie, who died unexpectedly late last year, was one the nicest people you could meet, but he was a force when it came to the piano. Nothing fancy for the tribute. It was mostly people who regularly worked with Willie, including Larry Gray (bass), Robert Shy (drums), Stu Katz (vibes), Eric Schneider (saxophone), Pat Mallinger (sax), and his daughter, Bethany, who took a turn at the drum set. It was also nice to see Donald Harrison on the bandstand.

Willie is already very much missed. Each year, the Jazz Festival runs a montage of photographs of those musicians who died during the prior twelve months. Willie’s photograph appeared last and received the loudest and most sustained applause.

During the day, there were plenty of performances on the two stages located on the north and south sides of Millennium Park’s plaza. It was a treat to see legendary pianist and organist Amina Claudine Meyers, who has one foot in the more avant-garde music of the AACM and the other in traditional gospel and blues traditions. You could certainly hear how she infused her gospel-bluesy vocals with AACM flourishes. She repeated phrases over and over, bringing to mind Philip Glass and Steve Reich among other modern minimalist composers. For my money, I will take her albums Salutes Bessie Smith and Women in [E]Motion, which feature straight-ahead blues and gospel music, although the modernism creeps in on a few numbers on those albums.

Also worthy of note were performances by the Matthew Shipp and Ivo Perelman Quartet and Dustin Laurenzi’s Natural Language, both at the Von Freeman Pavilion.

Overall, another strong day of music.

[Click on an image to enlarge it]

Ramsey Lews Listens to the Band During His Final Chicago Performance (Maybe)

Henry Johnson with Ramsey Lewis

A Member of “The In Crowd”

Henry Johnson Tunes 

Henry Johnson on Guitar

The Great Kenny Barron:  You Take What You Can Get

Jonathan Blake on Drums and Flat Cymbals with Kenny Barron

Kenny Barron Glances Right

The Prince of Justifiable Paranoia-Darcy James Argue, Leader of the Secret Society

Alexa Tarantino Reveals Her Identity By Playing with Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

Adam Birnbaum Wards Off Social Media with a Mouth Organ

Jacob Garchik Slides Along

Carl Maraghi Defends Privacy from Invasion with Wind Power

No Longer a Secret Society

Jason Palmer Fights Off Hackers

Interrogation Under the Bright Light, with Some Gamma Rays Thrown in For Good Measure

Kenny Barron at the Piano

Mike Rodriquez with the Kenny Barron Quintet

Johnathan Blake on Drums Puttin' Down the Beat for Kenny Barron

The Great Kenny Barron: You Take What You Can Get

Bethany Pickens Pays Tribute to Her Father

Stu Katz Pays Tribute to Willie Pickens

Larry Gray Pays Tribute to Willie Pickens

Robert Shy Pays Tribute to Willie Pickens

Donald Harrison Pays Tribute to Willie Pickens

Amina Claudine Myers at the Piano

Legend Amina Claudine Myers at the Organ

Dustin Laurenzi Leads Natural Language

In the Moment: Jeff Swanson with Natural Language

Unidentified Sax Player with Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language

Jeff Swanson Playing with Natural Language

William Parker with the Matthew Shipp and Ivo Perelman Quartet

Ivo Perelman with William Parker on Bass

Photographer’s Notes: My friend Mark Sheldon tells me that to be publishable, a photograph of a a pianist generally must capture both eyes, as well as fingers on the keyboard. If that’s the gold standard, Kenny Barron presented photographers with a challenge. He is a large man, so his right side blocked our view. More importantly, he tended to look toward the left side of the piano, as he worked that end of the keyboard almost exclusively. I don’t think he turned to the audience once while playing. So the only way to come even remotely close to the gold standard was to wait for him to speak to the audience. Even then, both eyes are not visible, but at least I captured his profile.

Hot Weather, Hot Jazz

Hot Weather, Hot Jazz

Wet, Wet, Wet

Wet, Wet, Wet