The 33rd annual Chicago Jazz Festival rolls out the carpet this weekend, capping off what has already been a busy jazz week – and one that, thanks to a vibrant series of after-fest shows, promises to stay busy each night after the last notes fall away to the Lake Shore Drive traffic. (More on those in the next 24 hours.)
All in all, the schedule this year seems surprisingly strong (even to those of us who worked to make it that way), paricularly when you consider that in late January, the very existence of the Festival was still up in the air – thanks to ex-Mayor Daley’s ham-handed attempt to privatize the event along with all the other lakefront music festivals.
The late start in the planning process did prevent the Programming Committee from engaging a number of headliners in their sights. But even so, a number of outside observers have noted that the overall program seems to have an especially good balance in terms of genres as well as the mix of national names, Chicago stars, and lesser-known locals making their Festival debuts.
And who would I be to disagree?
(Actually, your Chicago Jazz Examiner sits on the Board of the Jazz Institute of Chicago and chairs the Programming Committee for the entire jazz festival. This means I had a significant hand in choosing the artists, so feel free to read any of my comments through that filter.)
The Festival kicks off Thursday afternoon with six bands on three stages at the Chicago Cultural Center (77 E. Randolph), which made its debut as a full-fledged CJF venue last year. A mid-week afternoon may not be the most conducive timing for those of you who still have jobs – show of hands, please? – but even the gainfully employed would do well to pick and choose at least something from the opening-day menu.
At noon in the Randolph Cafe, saxist Rich Corpolongo will reprise the trio featured on his excellent 2010 Delmark album Get Happy, starring his fellow Chi-town veterans Dan Shapera (bass) and Rusty Jones (drums). Corpolongo may be a new name to many listeners, largely because his previous album came out in the last century and he hasn’t played too many high-profile venues: all the more reason to come out and hear what’s been missing. A true virtuoso on all his horns, Corpolongo fills his performances with a rigorous perfectionism and infectious energy.
At 12:15, longtime AACM elder Mwata Bowden will present The Maze Factor, a new work based on principles drawn from physical sculpture – both the geometric shapes of man-made works, and the organic shapes of nature. With a trustworthy Chicago ensemble anchored by drummer Dushun Mosely, Bowden will host guest turns from saxist Kidd Jordan, the ageless New Orleans innovator, and from Khari B., the Chicago vocalist-poet (and Bowden’s son). The leader will discuss the genesis and methodology of The Maze Factor in a half-hour pre-concert talk, starting at 11:30 in the Cassidy Theater.
At 12:30, under the dome in Preston Bradley Hall, the lapidary pianist and composer Bob Dogan leads his quintet. A former sideman with two of the most extroverted jazz soloists in jazz history (Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich), Dogan saves his own bravado for his compositions: strong, meaty lines with attractive harmonic schemes that engage and propel his soloists, who here include longtime associates Ryan Shultz on bass trumpet and Ron Dewar on saxophone and clarinet.
At 1:30 (Randolph Café), guitarist Curtis Robinson makes a long-overdue Festival return with a trio project celebrating the iconic guitar innovator Wes Montgomery. Robinson belongs to a lovely and lively Chicago guitar tradition that balances hard swing, enormous soul, and a healthy infusion of blues. Joining him are two more terrific exemplars of Chicago’s soulful swing, bassist Chuck Webb and drummer Leon Joyce.
San Francisco-area saxist Francis Wong – a major figure in Asian-American jazz and a frequent visitor to Chicago, which is the spiritual source for much of his music – takes the Cassidy stage at 1:45 to present his acclaimed four-movement piece Shanghai Stories. The piece is based on his father’s memories of growing up in Shanghai during the 1920s and 30s – a period considered China’s “jazz age,” when Chinese culture was influenced to some degree by American music – and melds the musical approaches of east and west. Among those in the Chicago-based ensemble: fellow saxists Jeff Chan and Edward Wilkerson, bassist Tatsu Aoki, and Yangqin Zhao on Chinese hammered dulcimer.
The afternoon’s final set (2-3 PM, Preston Bradley) was originally slotted for Jim Gailloreto’s Jazz String Quintet, but a minor injury to the group’s cellist forced a cancellation – opening the way for Glawdys N’Dee. This Chicago-based Guadaloupean songstress leavens the traditional Creole music of her homeland with jazz sensibility, and spices jazz standards with the florescent atmosphere of the island nation she left as a teenager. N’Dee’s debut 2009 album, Lyannaj, was a stunner.
In one way, it seems almost counter-intuitive to find so many artists performing indoors in early September: the Jazz Festival has always placed a premium on gathering lakeside crowds in Grant Park for the last summer weekend before the fall schedules click into place. On the other hand, the multiple stages and staggered start times for the sets – allowing you to theoretically hear at least some part of all six presentations – hearkens back to the now defunct Jazz Fair that the JIC used to sponsor each January.
In any case, the Festival will quickly move to more familiar surroundings – across the street from the Cultural Center to Millennium Park, for the opening-night concert starring Randy Weston with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble at 6:30 Thursday night.
At 85, Weston – the legendary pianist and composer, a direct link to the piano styles of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, and one of the earliest jazz musicians to systematically explore the music’s African roots – is one of the music’s true mandarins. With the CJE he will perform arrangements written by trombonist Melba Liston, his longtime collaborator (and a groundbreaking woman jazz artist of the 50s and 60s in her own right).
Some of these arrangements reside in the collection of the world-renowned Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College; some of them come from Weston’s own archives, and have rarely been heard in public. For good measure, the program also includes the premieres of newly commissioned works by CJE musical director (and drummer) Dana Hall, and by Chicago cellist Tomeka Reid.
All in all, a pretty heady start to the weekend, huh? And I haven’t even started in on how you can spend your evening once the Weston concert has ended; for that, tune in later tonight.
(This article has been updated to correct the title of Mwata Bowden’s piece, The Maze Factor; the original posting left off the last word of the title.)