Thursday, September 11, 2008

Chicago Jazz Festival 2008 Pt. 1

Got back last Friday night from the excellent Chicago Jazz Festival and some other travels, and enjoyed it immensely. Wednesday Evan and I had dinner with a couple local friends who last time took us to Rick Bayless's great Frontera restaurant - this time they recommended we all go to a place run by folks who used to work with Bayless at Frontera and were doing their own equally great (and less expensive!) thing further uptown now at a place called Mixteca. Our hostess Eva and I talked food and astrology and Mexico D.F. in my broken Spanglish while Evan and host Michael bonded over sports.

Thursday night was the opening of the festival - a Sonny Rollins set at the nicely appointed Pritzker Pavilion. Michael and I - the jazz fans of the group - agreed that it was hardly inspiring, but it still had moments I enjoyed - all of them strangely enough when Sonny was playing. I knew none of the tunes except "In A Sentimental Mood" and the closing number sounded like it might have been "Don't Stop the Carnival" but I wasn't sure (further investigation has shown me that the best piece - the opener - was the title cut off Sonny's album Sonny Please, which I guess I'm gonna need to hear now). Set started strong and then went steadily awry as the tunes went on (and on - five songs took up his 1 1/2 hour set, thus averaging a whopping 18 minutes each). He followed the strong groove-based number in odd time-signature ("Sonny Please") with a waltz-ballad, which was nice but nothing special. Third number was a bebop-flavored piece that was perhaps the least interesting thing of the night. Much solo space given to the percussionist who before he soloed had been inaudible and was turned up was simply uninteresting. This followed on the heels of plenty of space in each tune for trombonist Clifton Anderson and guitarist Bobby Broom, neither of whom do a lot for me at extended lengths. Fourth number was the Duke tune, done nicely enough but again nothing exceptional. Closing number was the Rollins calypso-type number that might have been "Don't Stop the Carnival" but I wasn't sure. By then my energy had flagged and it wasn't enough to salvage it. Nothing they played was bad for me, but nothing was inspiring. I thought the solid first number singalled greater things to come, but it was not to be.

Friday I headed downtown to the superb Velvet Lounge to catch a show by the current AACM Great Black Music membership. Huge band in a small room - 5 vocalists, keybs, drummer and percussionist, elec. bass and guitar, 3 trumpets, a trombone and 4 reeds. Plus the conductor. Plus a poet/spoken word artist. (Can anybody help me out with names?) Plus guests who sat in for a number or two each from the day's AACM-tribute at the main stage (Amina Claudine Myers, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, Thurman Barker, and Ari Brown all had their moments). Great venue for vibe and for community if maybe a little cramped for space. Band was already playing when I got there and they sounded great. Even though everyone was introduced at least twice I didn't recognize and can't remember any names except Douglas Ewert and the special guests (found all the AACM folks here). Band moved cleanly between charts, solos, and free moments, all set in motion by the conductor, all very well-rehearsed and beautifully done. Crowd was into it and gave back as much energy as the group put out, even before the "stars" started sitting in. Barker took over percussion duties for a track or two. Myers played keybs and lead the band for a heavy gospel-ish number. Smith came into a Sun Ra arrangement of a Fletcher Henderson number that the band was doing and played a duet/duel with the conductor (who was on clarinet) while Ewert took over conducting duties, bringing in orchestra "hits" and dense backgrounds behind the soloists. Mitchell blew the roof off with a relatively short (5 min or so) alto number backed by free drumming, plus bass and percussion (and maybe some interjections from others that I'm not remembering). Mitchell did circular breathing techniques and never took the horn from his mouth or stopped playing once he started. Wild stuff. After him the vocalists took center stage (metaphorically that is, there was no physical space for them to do so) for a nice choral piece that the poet came into after they set up some basic vocal rhythms. The group took his words and started incorporating them into their chants. Whole thing ended on the vocalists chanting "Obama, Obama, Barack Obama" which no matter what your political leanings had a better cadence and flow than "McCain, McCain, John McCain" would have. It was a real high for me. Great night overall, and even walking by the drug dealer hanging on the corner didn't bother me when he sized me up as a jazz fan heading home and not a customer and left me alone after a couple preliminary inquiries into my reasons for walking through his neighborhood at 2 AM.

Part 2 tomorrow...

No comments: