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The Reader's Guide to the Chicago Jazz Festival

Featuring Nicole Mitchell's Sonic Projections, the Kurt Elling Quintet with Ernie Watts, the Ramsey Lewis 75th birthday celebration, and much more

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In December the City Council approved a budget that shrank the annual Chicago Jazz Festival from three days to two. The festival had already lost its fourth day in 2009—though the absence of the usual Thursday kickoff concerts was softened by the presence of an unaffiliated jazz show that night in Millennium Park—and the Jazz Institute of Chicago, which programs the event, fought hard to head off a further reduction. In the fall, after the cut was proposed, it sent a letter arguing for a three-day festival to every member of the City Council and to the Mayor's Office of Special Events, then urged citizens to oppose the move by contacting their aldermen. Not only was the fest a popular and important cultural event, the institute said, but "through attracting high-level sponsorship and exceeding its vendor revenue projections it is also an activity that generates much needed revenue for our city." All to no avail.

But in May festival planners pulled a rabbit out of their collective hat, announcing that the schedule would be four days long. The Chicago Jazz Partnership, a consortium of corporations and foundations that includes Kraft, Boeing, the Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust, and the MacArthur Foundation, has been underwriting the festival since 2008—founded in '05, it's already given millions to support jazz locally, notably by funding the wonderful Made in Chicago series in Millennium Park—and for 2010 it came through with its biggest check yet. This year's $190,000 contribution includes more than 25 percent of the total programming budget, which consists of $62,800 in CJP money and about $180,000 from the city. The fest will occupy its traditional Grant Park location only on Saturday and Sunday, while the Thursday and Friday programs will take place mostly in the relatively listener-friendly environs of Millennium Park and the Chicago Cultural Center.

The artists performing on the first two days can't match the bigger Grant Park bookings in popularity, but in terms of musical quality and stylistic range they're terrific—and it's no secret that the sight lines and sound are much better at Pritzker Pavilion than at the Grant Park stages. The marquee concerts at the Petrillo Music Shell are also great, from ruminative pianist Brad Mehldau to visionary saxophonist, flutist, and composer Henry Threadgill, a Chicago native. And as usual there will be tribute sets, including a salute to trumpeter Lee Morgan by the all-stars in Charisma and Maggie Brown's homage to the late singer Abbey Lincoln.

This year's artist in residence is Chicago flutist, composer, and bandleader Nicole Mitchell, current president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. She performs four times: on Thursday she'll duet with mercurial pianist Anthony Davis, on Saturday she'll lead her bold new quartet, Sonic Projections, and on Friday and Sunday she'll premiere new large-scale compositions with her Black Earth Orchestra and Black Earth Ensemble, respectively.

As always, all the music is free. Thursday's program is mostly at Pritzker Pavilion (Randolph and Michigan), with an early-evening set in Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall (430 S. Michigan, seventh floor). Friday's daytime shows are spread across the Randolph Cafe, the Claudia Cassidy Theater, and Preston Bradley Hall, all in the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington), and there's music at Pritzker beginning at 4 PM. Saturday and Sunday's events all take place in Grant Park. Afternoon sets are at the Jazz on Jackson stage (on Jackson near Lake Shore Drive), the Jazz & Heritage Stage (south of Jackson near Columbus), and the Young Jazz Lions Stage (east of the Heritage stage and south of the Jackson stage), which is back for a second year to showcase ensembles from area high schools and colleges. The Petrillo Music Shell, which hosts each evening's headliners, is at Columbus and Jackson—and after the music ends at the lakefront, there's more on offer around town every night—see sidebar for details. —PM

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Pritzker Pavilion

Noon Umbrella Music: Bridging Improvised Music and Dance Free music has a parallel in dance called contact improv, but it's notoriously tricky to negotiate the intersection of these art forms. So it's great to have an experienced master like drummer Michael Zerang—who's worked in dance settings for decades—collaborating here with the Blushing Poppy Dance Club, saxophonist Mars Williams, keyboardist Jim Baker, and bassists Kent Kessler and Nate McBride. Also performing is a regular project called Art Union Humanscape by bassist Jason Roebke, dancer and choreographer Ayako Kato, and cornetist Josh Berman, augmented today by bass clarinetist Jason Stein, dancers Julia Mayer and Lisa Gonzales, and Brian Labycz on electronics. —JC

1:05 PM Jodie Christian Quintet Chicago pianist Jodie Christian has returned after a protracted illness for a regular stint at Katerina's on Irving Park. He's long been a bridge builder, working in mainstream contexts in the 50s and 60s and later on with the city's leading experimentalists—including members of the AACM, which he helped found—but never choosing camps. A rich, imaginative soloist and supportive accompanist, Christian has a florid streak that he tempers with an exhaustive understanding of momentum and well-placed moments of tension. His granite-solid quintet includes a fellow elder statesman, drummer William "Bugs" Cochran—an alumnus of several early incarnations of Sun Ra's Arkestra—and tenor saxophonist John Brumbach, a fabulous straight-ahead player whose extensive discography includes sessions with Parliament-Funkadelic and the Gap Band. —JC

2:10 PM The Miyumi Project Big Band When bassist Tatsu Aoki first moved to Chicago in 1977, he gravitated to the radical, wide-ranging music of the AACM. With the Miyumi Project, he's reconciled those sounds with traditional Japanese music. The project, which fluctuates in size from gig to gig, will appear today as a big band with strings, four stouthearted saxophonists, and fearlessly swinging drummer Dushun Mosley—who'll get some extra firepower from the Japanese American Service Committee's home-grown Tsukasa Taiko drumming troupe. They'll debut Trans-Rooted, the third installment in Aoki's series of large-scale works about cultural heritage and exile. —BM

3:15 PM Jim Wagner's All-Stars featuring Willie Pickens, Ari Brown, Jimmy Ellis, Robert Shy, Frank Russell, Corey Wilkes, and Maggie Brown

Ganz Hall

5 PM Nicole Mitchell and Anthony Davis Flutist Nicole Mitchell performs with idiosyncratic pianist, scholar, and composer Anthony Davis, who rarely performs in Chicago; his restless experimental bent has carried him as far afield as opera and gamelan, but he never breaks his connection to his jazz roots. —PM

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