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The Reader's Guide to the 29th annual Chicago Jazz festival



More than any I can recall, this year's Chicago Jazz Festival is a mixed bag. The Jazz Institute of Chicago, which programs the festival, still has a soft spot for tributes to international stars and local treasures (dead or alive), but that's about the only thread running through the bookings. The fest's diversity has always been one of its greatest strengths, but this time it seems more diffuse than diverse--and it doesn't help that the quality of the artists is uneven as usual.

That's not to say that the high points aren't pretty stratospheric. Legendary bassist Charlie Haden, a longtime bandmate of Ornette Coleman, is this year's artist in residence, and he'll perform in Grant Park three times. Strangely, though, only a single set will feature one of his regular projects--the powerful (and sizable) Liberation Music Orchestra. Admittedly that booking must've put quite a dent in the festival's budget, but I don't understand why Chicago can't at least try to pull off something like what they do in Montreal--Haden has been the featured artist at the jazz fest there on several occasions, showing off his current bands and reuniting old ones. In fact, Verve has released a bunch of live discs drawn from his 1989 appearances there.

Locals are heavily represented on the side stages, but too many of the most important innovators, whether from the bustling north-side scene or the rejuvenated AACM, are absent. Fortunately the festival organizers seem to be addressing some other blind spots, specifically concerning Latin jazz and the more contemporary, populist strains of the music--on Friday night the Latin All Stars and Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood both play the main stage.

Things get started Thursday, August 30, with a free set by the Anat Cohen Quartet at the Cultural Center and a concert by Herbie Hancock at Symphony Center (tickets, which went for $11-$56, were sold out at press time). Friday through Sunday the action is in Grant Park, where all events are free. The headliners play at the Petrillo Music Shell at Columbus and Jackson; afternoon sets are at the Jazz on Jackson stage (on Jackson near Lake Shore Drive) and the Jazz & Heritage stage (south of Jackson near the Rose Garden), where the programming includes family-oriented shows and concert-demonstrations. PM


Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center

6 PMAnat Cohen Quartet

RSince shortly after settling in the States in the late 90s, reedist Anat Cohen has played lead tenor in the all-female big band Diva, but more recently she's become a focal point for the emerging crew of excellent Israeli jazz musicians in New York. She nonchalantly absorbs and processes different genres--she's fluent in several Afro-Cuban idioms and a whiz at the jazzy Brazilian style called choro--and presses them into service in tightly arranged, memorable tunes and deeply focused improvisations. She has a full-bodied clarinet tone, neither stiff nor astringent, and traces melodies with easy grace and gripping intensity. Her excellent quartet includes bassist Omer Avital, pianist Jason Lindner, and drummer Daniel Freedman. PM

Symphony Center

7:30 PM, SOLD OUTHerbie Hancock

R Keyboardist and Chicago native Herbie Hancock established his genius early on--throughout the 60s he played in Miles Davis's second great quintet and recorded a series of brilliant albums for Blue Note--but since then he's distinguished himself largely by the lengths he's gone to avoid getting stuck in a rut. He's a savvy listener, and over the decades he's put his own stamp on all kinds of nonjazz material, including funk, rock, disco, and African music. Unfortunately his yearning for fresh sounds no longer seems to be leading him to new territory: he's been spending too much time lately on a treadmill of shallow conceptual exercises, where his brilliance only sporadically shines through. His forthcoming River: The Joni Letters (Verve) is another concept album--a collection of tunes written by or associated with Joni Mitchell--but at least it works, more or less. It helps that Hancock's old comrade Wayne Shorter is on board, along with an exciting young Beninese guitarist named Lionel Loueke. And many of the vocal cameos--by Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Luciana Souza, and even Mitchell herself--are surprisingly good (only Corinne Bailey Rae fizzles). Tonight Hancock is joined by Loueke, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Nathan East, and a "special guest" on piano. PM


Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center

10 AMRob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra

See Sunday's Petrillo listings; this is a free open rehearsal.

Jazz on Jackson

NoonRemembering Eldee Young with Redd Holt

and friends

Eldee Young, who died early this year, was one of the few jazz bassists to effectively double on cello, and with drummer Isaac "Redd" Holt he formed the rhythm section of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, one of the key bands in Chicago jazz history. The pair made more than a dozen LPs in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, first with Lewis and then in the deeply soulful Young-Holt Unlimited. Holt leads a local sextet in this tribute. JC

1:10 PMMark Colby Quartet

Chicago educator and journeyman saxophonist Mark Colby makes his money as a session man--he's played on more than 2,000 commercials--but you don't get Stan Getz calling you a "master of the saxophone" if you're just a good sight reader and technician. On his most recent album, 2005's Speaking of Stan (Hallway), Colby pays tribute to his longtime hero, evoking the phases of Getz's career--from bossa nova to the weightless orchestral experiments of Focus--without resorting to mere mimicry. Today this underappreciated blower is joined by drummer Bob Rummage, bassist Eric Hochberg, and a surprise guest. PM

2:20 PMTammy McCann

Chicagoan Tammy McCann, who cut her teeth in Europe singing gospel in the 90s, is a classic jazz singer, putting an improvisational spin on old standards while respecting their time-tested melodies. With her commanding pipes, she reminds me of Dinah Washington or Dakota Staton--and thankfully she's got the pitch control she needs to put that power to good use. Her fine backing quartet includes saxophonist Ari Brown and bassist Harrison Bankhead. PM

3:30 PMA Salute to Jimmy Ellis with Ernest Dawkins and Jabari Liu

Most visible these days as a member of Yoko Noge's band Jazz Me Blues, veteran saxophonist Jimmy Ellis has long been a key part of the local scene, both as a musician and an educator. His students have included Steve Coleman, New Horizons Ensemble leader Ernest Dawkins, and young upstart Jabari Liu; Dawkins and Liu join him today in a showcase that promises to demonstrate the trickle-down effects of mentorship. PM

Jazz & Heritage Stage

12:30 PMKenwood Academy Jazz Band directed by Gerald Powell

and composer in residence

Mwata Bowden

Lovely idea on the Jazz Institute's part to give future players--like this student group from Kenwood Academy--an early moment in the sun. There's nobody in town better to lead them than AACM composer and saxophonist Mwata Bowden, a committed educator and director of jazz ensembles at the University of Chicago. JC

2 PMJustin Dillard Trio

I've been impressed by the dynamic contributions Chicago pianist Justin Dillard has made in Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble and Ernest Dawkins's Chicago 12, but he also composes his own music and leads his own bands. This one includes Dave Miller on guitar and Mayaya McCraden on drums. PM

3:30 PMCharlie Haden with Jazz Institute of Chicago Jazz Links Students

Bassist Charlie Haden has raised four musical offspring (his daughter Petra was in That Dog and the Decemberists), so I'm sure he knows how to inspire young players. By the time of this gig he'll have rehearsed and performed with these Chicagoland jazz students. JC

Petrillo Music Shell

5 PMRobert Irving III: The Works of Thelonious Monk

Chicagoan Robert Irving III has never quite shaken the reputation he got from working with Miles Davis in the early 80s--he was Miles's keyboardist and musical director for the poppy, synth-heavy records Decoy and You're Under Arrest--and he hardly helped matters by wearing a strap-on electronic keyboard for one of his own albums. He's spent much of the past two decades demonstrating his bona fides as a hard-core jazz player, though, and the recent New Momentum (Sonic Portraits) combines his sturdy, harmonically ambitious original tunes with radical new arrangements of a handful of classics associated with Davis--Irving doesn't break any new ground, but his rigor is dazzling. Today he'll tackle the music of Thelonious Monk--a much trickier composer to mess with--in a quintet with bassist Harrison Bankhead, trumpeter Pharez Whitted, saxophonist James Perkins, and drummer Charles Heath. PM

6 PMMichele Rosewoman & Quintessence

RNew York pianist Michele Rosewoman is less well-known than she should be, perhaps because her catalog is relatively thin--she's released just eight albums as a leader since the late 70s, most recently The In Side Out (Advance Dance Disques) in 2006. She's harmonically inventive and leads strong bands, and much of her work displays a deep knowledge of Cuban music; her New Yor-Uba project, for instance, fuses jazz, traditional African music, and Cuban percussion. Her working band, Quintessence, which features young tenor star Mark Shim, appears here in an expanded version with special guests Michael Gregory on guitar and Vincent Gardner on trombone. JC

7:10 PMThe Latin All Stars: A Tribute to Hilton Ruiz

Plenty of great salsa musicians have shown an affinity for jazz, unsurprising given how important improvisation is to both disciplines, but even within that rarefied group Nuyorican pianist Hilton Ruiz was a special case: he could turn familiar montuno figures into entrancing dance-floor incantations with his dazzling rhythmic wizardry, and he was also totally fluent playing postbop without the safety net of a clave pattern. He died last summer in New Orleans at just 54, suffering a fatal heart attack after taking a serious fall. At this tribute some of his most accomplished comrades--like Ruiz equally at home in salsa and jazz--will explore his music and methodology. The top-flight octet gathering here includes trombonist Steve Turre, pianist Arturo O'Farrill, trumpeter Ray Vega, and percussionist Pete Escovedo, one of Latin music's key crossover players (and Sheila E's dad). PM

:30 PMMedeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood

RIt's hard to talk about the popularization of jazz without mentioning Medeski, Martin & Wood: nobody has introduced more young listeners to the genre lately than this funky, mildly adventurous trio from New York, which has been barnstorming college towns and festivals for the past decade, bringing the jam-band crowd over to the jazzier side and cultivating a fan base with the devotion of Deadheads. Their collaboration with jazz-guitar hero John Scofield got its start when Scofield invited the trio to work with him, resulting in his 1998 album A Go Go, and last year produced Out Louder, their first disc under the name Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood and the debut release from MM&W's new label, Indirecto. The supergroup appeals to two distinct jazz demographics, supplementing MM&W's hipster/hippie audience by drawing an army of guitar geeks. JC


Jazz on Jackson

NoonBill McFarland & the Chicago Horns

This three-piece horn section, led by trombonist Bill McFarland, frequently turns up on blues and R & B sessions, but joined by a sharp rhythm section it becomes a band in its own right. The Chicago Horns deliver an idiosyncratic take on the driving hard bop of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers--but unfortunately that sometimes means they make regrettable excursions into slick smooth jazz or bloodless funk. PM

1:10 PMMiguel de la Cerna

Pianist Miguel de la Cerna served briefly as musical director for the dynamic Oscar Brown Jr. and gigged steadily over the past few years in bands led by the late Eldee Young. He's probably most visible these days as an arranger and regular sideman for singer Dee Alexander, but today he'll strut his own stuff. PM

1:40 PMKen Chaney

RIt's fitting for Ken Chaney to have this slot at the same festival where Redd Holt is toasting Eldee Young, since Chaney goes way back with both of them: he was the pianist in Young-Holt Unlimited, whose blend of jazz and funky soul made them huge favorites of the African-American community in the late 60s and early 70s. (Check out their version of "Superfly.") Chaney has remained a steady presence on the Chicago scene since then, and on his wonderful new record, Spring Thing (Kenica), his piano still sounds as flexible and fluid as ever. JC

2:20 PMKeefe Jackson's Fast Citizens

Young improviser Keefe Jackson continues to grow, his tenor saxophone developing a stronger personality with the support of solid groups like his own Fast Citizens, which includes monster cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, massive cornetist Josh Berman, and in-demand drummer Frank Rosaly. The band's been around since 2003 and released its sparkling debut, Ready Everyday, last year on Delmark. JC

3:30 PMMulligan Mosaics Big Band

Like most baritone saxophonists, Ted Hogarth has a special place in his heart for Gerry Mulligan, the versatile composer and improviser who almost single-handedly transformed the instrument from R & B freak machine to respected jazz horn. Last year, with the blessing of the saxophonist's widow, Franca, Hogarth put together this big band to play some Mulligan tunes and arrangements, delivering them with gorgeous harmonies and filigreed melodies worthy of the man himself. PM

Jazz & Heritage Stage

12:30 PMEdwin Daugherty Quartet

Local saxophonist Edwin Daugherty, a product of the famed DuSable High School music program directed by Captain Walter Dyett and a longtime member of the AACM, appeared on some key early recordings by the great pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, but since then session work and jobbing have kept him largely out of the limelight--a real shame, since few players can move so comfortably from pop and R & B to straight-ahead bop to avant-jazz. His band includes drummer Dushun Mosley, bassist Harrison Bankhead, and pianist K.C. Fortenberry. PM

2 PMPercussion Discussion with John Vidacovich

I can't think of a better choice to lead this clinic than Johnny Vidacovich, the longtime drummer in Astral Project (see Sunday's Jazz on Jackson listings), whose deep knowledge of the groove goes well beyond his killer grip on the second-line rhythm. PM

3:30 PMTyphanie Monique & Neal Alger

In her duo with guitarist Neal Alger, best known as a sideman for Patricia Barber, local singer Typhanie Monique does use some jazz phrasing, but the music is essentially overcooked soul and R & B, short on any kind of convincing passion. Alger provides impressively varied support, but it ain't enough. PM

Petrillo Music Shell

5 PMDan Trudell's B-3 Bombers

RIt's easy to bury the lead on this gig: Dan Trudell is an exceptional organist with an idiosyncratic style steeped in the Hammond B-3's greasy-yet-ecclesiastical history, and his band has a three-horn front line, including saxophonist Pat Mallinger, plus a fine guitarist in Mike Standal. But the showstopper for sure is drummer Clyde Stubblefield, who played in James Brown's outlandishly funky band in the late 60s and hasn't lost a bit of his in-the-pocket snap. JC

6 PMThe Cookers: Eddie Henderson, James Spaulding, Billy Harper, George Cables, Cecil McBee, David Weiss, and Gene Jackson

RThe Jazz Festival has a permanent soft spot for the jam session. Unlike the fest's more rehearsed and arranged special projects, jams emphasize the strengths of individual players--and the lineup for this session is very strong indeed, one of the most tantalizing in years. Saxophonist Billy Harper is no stranger to the festival, and that's a very good thing--he's an understated powerhouse on tenor, with impeccable postbop credentials and a gorgeous melodic sensitivity. Alto saxophonist and flutist James Spaulding played with Sun Ra in Chicago in the 50s, but made his mark with Freddie Hubbard and then as a leader, releasing several solid CDs on the now defunct Muse label. Another former Hubbard sideman, George Cables, joins the group on piano, and the well-traveled Cecil McBee covers the bass. Drummer Gene Jackson is very busy this fest--on top of lending his power and class to this jam, he's playing with Michelle Rosewoman's group and the Mingus Big Band. JC

7:10 PMErnestine Anderson and Frank Wess

Ernestine Anderson has been a jazz-blues mainstay since the 50s, when she lent her smoky voice to Lionel Hampton's group and recorded with bebopper Gigi Gryce. Anderson's output was meager in the late 60s and early 70s, but she's been releasing albums pretty regularly since, including a few on Quincy Jones's Qwest label. Her counterpart on this gig is saxophonist Frank Wess, beloved for his work with Count Basie but also known for his enjoyable flute playing (three words you don't often see in a row). JC

:30 PMCharlie Haden & the Liberation Music Orchestra

RBecause jazz infrequently uses vocals, it even more rarely delivers overt political messages--but this superb instrumental orchestra, first convened by bassist Charlie Haden in the late 60s, makes strong statements with its repertoire alone. Throughout the group's history, pianist and composer Carla Bley has contributed dazzling arrangements of traditional material--songs of the Spanish civil war, antiapartheid anthems--and infused the music with both bitter irony and heartfelt conviction. Due to the band's size and the stature of its many contributors, it's by necessity been a sporadic endeavor, but Haden, aghast at the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, convened a new version of the group in 2005 for Not in Our Name (Verve), the first Liberation Music Orchestra album in more than a decade. Between the song titles ("Not in Our Name," "This Is Not America") and the pointed renditions of warhorses like "Amazing Grace" and "America the Beautiful," he leaves no doubt where he stands. The current 12-piece lineup is killer, as usual, and includes some of the most original and energetic musicians in jazz: saxophonists Tony Malaby, Miguel Zenon, and Chris Cheek, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, tubaist Joe Daley, and drummer Matt Wilson. PM


Jazz on Jackson

NoonPete Benson Organ Trio

RIn the long-running Sabertooth Organ Quartet, which has held down a weekly residency at the Green Mill for 15 years, Hammond B-3 whiz Pete Benson shows off his mainstream chops, stoking the fire in the group's hard-swinging music. And when he leads his own soul-jazz trio--with drummer Brian Ritter and immensely versatile, deeply soulful guitarist Jeff Parker--he's more than just another grease merchant. Sure, he can take it to church, but he's just as likely to worship at the altar of Larry Young, unfurling sleek, pianistic lines. PM

1:10 PMMark Courtney Johnson Quartet

Young local singer Mark Courtney Johnson aims high on his self-released debut, which came out a few years ago: he pushes his silky, muscular voice to its limit trying to bridge the gap between mainstream jazz and contemporary R & B, and some of the material is original. He occasionally misses the mark, but the wealth of ideas in his music is impressive nonetheless--and so is his backing group, a lean, disciplined trio of pianist Dan Cray, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte. PM

2:20 PMAstral Project

For nearly three decades this New Orleans quartet has been demonstrating how much fun high-level improvisation can be, embracing the joyful musical traditions of the Crescent City without letting the second-line rhythms and R & B flavors obscure their nuanced interactions. Saxophonist Tony Dagradi, guitarist Steve Masakowski, bassist James Singleton, and drummer Johnny Vidacovich are all busy session men in New Orleans, but when they get together they're a whole different animal. PM

3:30 PMA Windy City Jam featuring Charlie Haden

This year's artist in residence turns in his third and final performance of the weekend, an ad hoc set with some of the city's most prominent players: pianist Jeremy Khan, saxophonist John Wojciechowski, and perpetually supercharged drummer Paul Wertico. PM

Jazz & Heritage Stage

12:30 PMErwin Helfer and Skinny Williams

RWhen your mentors include Cow Cow Davenport and Jimmy Yancy, you'd better know your stuff. Chicago treasure Erwin Helfer has been slinging boogie-woogie piano since he was a youngster studying at the elbows of those legends, and he did more than dutifully learn his lessons: a voraciously curious spirit, he's made the music his own, bringing a Studs Terkel workingman's quality to the keyboard and emphasizing the joyous boundlessness of blues piano. Lately he's released a string of CDs on local label the Sirens, among them a 2003 disc with fine Chicago tenor saxophonist Skinny Williams, St. James Infirmary, where he covers two Fats Waller chestnuts and turns in a surprising take on "These Foolish Things." For what ails you, there's nothing better than a little help from Mr. Helfer and the weighty sound of Skinny. JC

2 PMArt of the Solo with Janice Borla

It's no surprise to see vocalist Janice Borla booked to break down the jazz solo: a devoted educator, she's conducted a vocal-jazz camp every summer in Naperville for the past 18 years. PM

3:30 PMMatt Geraghty Project

Bassist Matt Geraghty, who seems to encourage people to call him "G-Funk," moved to New York last year after about seven years in Chicago, but the band he's presenting today is packed with local talent, including saxophonist Jim Gailloreto, guitarist Steve Ramsdell, and vocalist Satya Gummuluri (who has a background in Carnatic music). On the recent Passport, Geraghty tries to use jazz improvisation to bridge the global sounds that interest him--particularly music from Brazil and India--but the slick, rock-inflected arrangements don't leave the players much breathing room. PM

Petrillo Music Shell

5 PMRevisiting the Apex Club with Kim Cusack and John Otto

Jimmie Noone will always be linked in memory to the quintet he led back in the 20s at the Apex Club in Calumet, where he established himself as one of the clarinet's greatest innovators: by splitting the difference between the heavy blues sound of Johnny Dodds and the thoughtful, extroverted style of Sidney Bechet, he brought a new sophistication to the instrument's jazz voice. But his band also broke ground, and not just because it helped introduce pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines to the world--reedist Joe Poston joined Noone on the front line, and the lineup didn't include a trumpet or a trombone. Today clarinetist Kim Cusack and alto saxophonist John Otto, two of the leading lights of neotrad jazz, will lead a band that includes seasoned vets like pianist James Dapogny and drummer Wayne Jones, re-creating the feel and instrumentation of Noone's group if not exactly duplicating its repertoire. PM

6 PMRob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra featuring Bill Dixon

RCornetist Rob Mazurek assembled this orchestra in 2005 for the inaugural Made in Chicago series in Millennium Park, and its superb debut album, We Are All From Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey), made it clear why he'd kept it going after those first gigs--the group's deep roster, drawn from a cross section of Chicago's diverse improvised-music community, brought layers of meaning to his driving, episodic tunes. Last year Mazurek struck up a friendship with trumpeter Bill Dixon, one of the most radically original musicians ever to play the instrument; Dixon expanded its vocabulary with small smears and breath sounds that presaged the approach of today's gesture-based trumpeters by nearly four decades, and his compositions and arrangements did the same thing for the structures they improvised within. Dixon is 81, and this is only his second performance ever in town--the first, unbelievably, didn't happen till this July. You might have a hard time imagining how Dixon's mercurial, intuitive style would fit into a large group playing relatively structured music, but I'm confident that Mazurek, with his broad range, sharp ears, and generous spirit, will make this a simpatico collaboration. PM

7:10 PMBobby Watson's Horizon

RVeteran alto saxophonist Bobby Watson knows a thing or two about the importance of a group sound: the Kansas City native first made his mark back in the late 70s with a five-year stint in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, an ensemble that for more than three decades practically defined hard bop. About a decade later he formed Horizon, a similarly inclined band that enjoyed a good run with a steady lineup in the early 90s. Driven by a compact, explosive rhythm section--drummer Victor Lewis, bassist Essiet Essiet, and pianist Edward Simon--Watson and trumpeter Terell Stafford blew melodies inspired by golden-age tunes but laced with thoroughly modern harmonic explorations. By 1994 the group had effectively disbanded, but three years ago Watson reconvened it for Horizon Reassembled (Palmetto), which proved it still had its old firepower--and tonight trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, who's sitting in for Stafford, ought to provide an extra jolt. PM

:30 PMMingus Big Band

RThe final spot at the festival this year is reserved for the Mingus Big Band, a much lauded, often wonderful ensemble that exclusively plays the music of monumental bassist and composer Charles Mingus. His music needs to be played by a working band, and that's part of what makes this the premier Mingus repertory group. Of course it doesn't hurt that his widow, Sue Mingus, wields an iron fist as its artistic director, or that its lineup includes some of the best musicians in New York: Ku-umba Frank Lacy on trombone, Lew Soloff on trumpet, and a sax section with the likes of Vincent Herring, Craig Handy, Seamus Blake, and baritone great Ronnie Cuber. JC

Thinking Outside the Park

The fest calls it a night before ten, but the jazz doesn't stop then.

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