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Notes From a Jazz Fest



Variety has been essential to the spirit of the Chicago Jazz Festival ever since the first one 12 years ago. Chicago's festival is a smorgasbord of music, and the quality of the music has remained high indeed. This quality is largely due to the festival's seeking out of original musicians--players and composers who create from that most primal of artistic motivations, need. "Express yourself," Von Freeman likes to tell other musicians, and those words are close to the essence of jazz, with emphasis on "yourself."

A real problem nowadays is finding players from the older jazz idioms. Even when the Chicago Jazz Festival began, in 1979, the pioneers had long since vanished. Since then, most of the great swing musicians and a number of the major postwar figures who've played at past Chicago Jazz Festivals have passed on. And here's the dilemma: the most popular kinds of jazz these days are bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz, music played by jazz's own lost generations, music that grew out of a different kind of society, a different America. Since these idioms passed their peaks of development 40, 30, and 25 years ago, the people who play them today are mostly young musicians working within idioms from before their own times.

This year the Chicago Jazz Festival featured a fair number of long-experienced, even original musicians, as opposed to young ones who've revived older jazz idioms. From the swing era came tenor saxman Eddie Johnson, violinist Johnny Frigo--both Chicago veterans--and the irresistibly rocking pianist Jay McShann, who once led the last of the great Kansas City bands. McShann also sang in an uncanny imitation of nasal bluesman Walter Brown, vocalist in McShann's early 40s bands; blues violinist Claude Williams, who long ago was Count Basie's first guitarist, and bass great Milt Hinton shared equal solo space with McShann, while Buddy Tate, though in poor health, roared two up-tempo tenor-sax solos and the ballad "Blue and Sentimental."

Bill Russo led a big band that recalled the music he composed for Stan Kenton 40 years ago, and his wall-of-sound horn sections, his pianissimo-blasting fortissimo contrasts, and faraway muted trumpets hovering over a dark horizon of low saxophones brought back the old dance hall days. From the later 50s, tenorist Wardell Reese's band at least began in a hot organ-sax band vein before succumbing to a parade of vocalists; the nippy sound and melodic inventiveness of guitarist Roland Faulkner were the consistent features here.

Yet another veteran, alto saxist Lee Konitz, played with three different generations of musicians and sounded different each time. With late-blooming bopper Judy Roberts, he sounded like a swing saxophonist; with Russo, he sounded like a solitary, determined David surrounded by an army of Goliaths--amid Russo's "progressive jazz," I don't believe Konitz played a single double-time phrase. Laurence Hobgood's trio featured the pianist-leader's angular harmonies and broken rhythms and Paul Wertico's modal-oriented drumming, which clashed severely with Konitz's native simplicity of phrasing. Konitz's response was an elated freedom with chord changes, while engaging Wertico, then Dan Anderson (on tuba, not his customary bass) in duets--strange to hear, and perhaps a failure, but the kind that illuminates.

Of the festival's four nights, Thursday and Saturday were especially rewarding. On Thursday volatile tenorman Vandy Harris's band came on like gangbusters, and his trumpeter, Robert Griffin, played turbulent solos with a sharp bite. Edgy riffs and hot, fast, floating phrases grew into against-the-grain lines; at times he played two trumpets simultaneously, a stunt that, in Griffin's musicality, was not a stunt. He's a complex, emotional improviser, decidedly an original and, I want to emphasize, an important jazz musician right now. The terrific trio of Marilyn Crispell (piano), Reggie Workman (bass), and Gerry Hemingway (drums) then managed to turn up the heat on this already superheated evening. Crispell's long virtuoso solos were compounded of contrasts and call-response passages, with a singular toughness of intent; stylistically, she was somewhere between early Cecil Taylor, late Cecil Taylor, and Alex Schlippenbach.

The enormously popular trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and an uninspired band played a long set. Marsalis's most distinctive qualities were his full, ripe tone, his perfect technique, his rather random messing about with a plunger mute, and his occasional inflection that sounded so out of context that it fairly screamed, "This is an Inflection!" There was no content; his high-momentum solos, in their melodic vacuity, recalled a similar trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard, at his most superficial.

Since Marsalis's hyperactive press agents claim a connection between his playing and traditional jazz, specifically New Orleans jazz, I wish he would demonstrate the links. The closest he came last Thursday was a long, slow, dull piece that resembled an Ellington impression, the sort of thing the Duke used to compose in his sleep near the end of his career. The festival also had the Algiers Brass Band from New Orleans playing at the band-shell entrance each afternoon. The band played old New Orleans standards like "Ice Cream," "Mama Don't Allow," and "Hindustan" along with rock and funk tunes and Joe Zawinul's "Mercy Mercy Mercy," just to confound purists. Like it or not, the Algiers Band, with its wavery vaudeville clarinetist, raggedy two-trumpet counterpoint, and eclectic material, is typical of how traditional New Orleans jazz lives on today. In its earthy good humor and dancing high spirits, it is far, far away from Marsalis's glistening, stuffy perfection.

Saturday brought the marvelous Abbey Lincoln, who is that rarity of modern times, a natural singer. As a friend pointed out to me, she's assimilated all the fashionable techniques of jazz singing; they're so thoroughly subsumed into the service of her songs--her winsome verse to "Ten Cents a Dance," her high, blue curves of "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?," the complexities of her "The World Is Falling Down"--that the listener hardly notices her skill. In Lincoln's purity of intent, in her emotional directness, she resembled an otherwise dissimilar singer, the very young Billie Holiday, and that is high praise indeed. This set may well have been the most memorable of the festival.

And then came George Gruntz's hour-long Chicago Cantata, a three-ring circus, wild, crazy, and exhilarating. This mad spectacle included Von Freeman and Mwata Bowden in a tenor-sax duel and, even better, those uninhibited rowdies Lester Bowie (trumpet) and Ray Anderson (trombone) dueling; Howard Johnson played a grunting, throbbing tuba solo and Billy Branch played some hysterical harmonica; Sunnyland Slim played some sober piano choruses, utterly impervious to all the lunacy around him; most of all, as a unifying element, there was blues, blues, blues. Gruntz has made a career out of choosing good soloists and composing settings that stay out of their way; this work was no exception. He seemed to have chosen his Chicago players for their extroversion and idiosyncrasies at least as much as for their originality, which made Chicago Cantata a perfect piece for a huge crowd at an outdoor festival.

Strangely, he assigned the most difficult parts to his singers. Surely bluesmen Branch and Carl Weathersby found it odd to sing a Sterling Plumpp poem in unison; more strangely, the Norfleets, a pre-gospel-music spiritual quintet, were given relatively modern, swing-group harmonies to sing. The composed parts were simple and sketchy, and included a couple of faint bows toward ragtime and traditional jazz; the connection with Chicago's jazz history was tenuous except for several of the soloists, most of whom were veterans of the free jazz idiom. Trouble was, these musicians were accustomed to stretching out in long solos, while Gruntz gave them only a few choruses at a time. As a result, Sunnyland Slim, who conceives in chorus-by-chorus units, was the most impressive improviser. The fact that Chicago Cantata was composed by a Swiss jazzman to celebrate Switzerland's 700th birthday was not the work's most incongruous aspect. Never mind all the flaws and incongruities--the performance was a barrel of fun.

Elvin Jones's quintet was not exactly the ideal setting for the fine pianist Willie Pickens; Sunday, the group played three long, modal blues featuring the promising tenor Ravi Coltrane struggling with several different styles--just as his father John did 35 years ago. There was trombonist Ray Anderson playing cheerful, liberated stuff with just a rhythm section; there was the quartet Quatre, with the hot, dry trumpeting of Enrico Rava; there was piano soloist Yosuke Yamashita combining Dorothy Donegan showmanship with Cecil Taylor dissonances; there was the highly danceable pop music of flugelhornist Hugh Masekala.

Altogether, it was by no means as rich and rewarding as last year's extraordinary Chicago Jazz Festival, but without bringing all the same performers back there's no way it could have been. What we all heard this time was variety growing out of integrity, with plenty of satisfying music as the result.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.

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