Chicago's Best Music Venue: Millennium Park

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Omar Souleyman
  • Omar Souleyman
The other day I got the city's brochure for free events this summer in Millennium Park. Since March different components of the season's programming have been announced, from the rock-flavored Downtown Sound series on Monday evenings to the Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series on certain Thursday nights. But seeing all of the events listed in one place was kind of mind-blowing. Since opening in 2004 Millennium Park has consistently hosted great music, but this year's season is far and away the strongest. Even if you didn't set foot in a single other venue all summer, you could enjoy a full season of excellent, wildly diverse concerts. And every one of them is free.

Early Warnings already has many of the highlights, but there's plenty more I'm excited about: the July 29 debut of a newly commissioned evening-length work by Tortoise, who'll be joined by heavyweight jazz players like Nicole Mitchell, Greg Ward, Ed Wilkerson, Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Jim Baker; an August 12 concert by Malian kora master Toumani Diabate, who will play new material with a strong lineup of drawn from Chicago's jazz community (Mitchell, Jeb Bishop, Josh Berman, Hamid Drake, Josh Abrams, Jeff Parker, Jason Adasiewicz, and Nate Lepine), some of whom previously worked as Diabate's horn section when his Symmetric Orchestra performed at Millennium Park a few years back; the highly anticipated Chicago debut of Benin's legendary Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou on July 15. Another, shorter Monday-evening series, called Dusk Variations, showcases unusual intersections between indie pop and classical music, with sets by the Portland Cello Project on August 2 and Clare & the Reasons on August 23, among others.

Still to be announced is the lineup for SummerDance. It isn't technically in Millennium Park, but since it's a short walk south in Grant Park, it's worth mentioning here. Among the highlights are Argentine tango specialist and bandoneon player Raul Jaurena on June 17, Louisiana Cajun and country band the Red Stick Ramblers on July 9, and New York bhangra-brass outfit Red Baraat on July 15. But the most exciting booking is the first U.S. show by Syria's Omar Souleyman, a lo-fi Arabic-pop oddball discovered by the folks at Sublime Frequencies Records, who've just released his new album, Jazeera Nights. The show happens on June 24.

Today's playlist:

Fred Anderson, 21st Century Chase (Delmark)
Tony Malaby, Paloma Recio (New World)
Pandit D.K. Datar & Ratnakar Gokhle, Mudra (Sense World Music)
Alberto Braida, Talus (Nuscope)
Various artists, Singapore A-Go-Go (Sublime Frequencies)

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