Chicago soul-jazz great John Wright warms things up for the Jazz Fest

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The Chicago Jazz Festival gets under way next week, and next week's edition of the Reader will feature a comprehensive preview written by John Corbett, Bill Meyer, and yours truly. But the action gets started even before the paper hits the streets, with a couple of free screenings of Sun Ra documentaries A Joyful Noise and Mystery and Mr. Ra at the Chicago Cultural Center on Monday and Tuesday (part of larger celebration of the pianist and bandleader's centennial) and a three-part series of early-evening solo piano performances at PianoForte Studios, also free. In this week's paper I previewed Wednesday's performance by New York's Matthew Shipp, but don't sleep on Tuesday's concert by Chicago soul-jazz progenitor John Wright (early jazz specialist Sam Grossner kicks things off on Monday).

Wright, who turns 80 on September 7, is one of those Chicago treasures hidden in plain view. He made his name in the early 60s with a fantastic series of albums for the Prestige label—between 1960-'62 he made three trio records for the imprint along with a single quartet outing, as well as another trio for Status. He made two more albums in the 90s, but otherwise John Wright would appear silent. Yet for most jazz artists it's all about live performance, and for many years Wright maintained a weekly gig at Philander's in Oak Park. He grew up playing the piano, and by the time he was a teenager he was playing organ for the Christian Hope M.B. Baptist Church. But it wasn't until serving in the army with a stint in Korea that Wright fell for jazz, working abroad with heavies including the trombonist Lou Blackburn and vibist Walt Dickerson.

Wright's first album, South Side Soul, immediately established his easy fluency at wedding gospel and blues themes with hard bop. That album named some of its tunes after specific Chicago intersections, such as "47th and Calumet" or "63rd and Cottage Grove." In a great interview conducted by University of Chicago art history professor Rebecca Zorach in 2011, Wright said, "I grew up on the South Side and knew what was going on as a young man. On 35th Street, Smitty's Corner was where I first started hearing blues and jazz, and there was another place on 38th and State Street, the Tick-Tock Club. I used to go in there and try to play as a youngster, but I had to put my age up. I'd always act like I was older and I never had a problem. You see these things going on, but I wasn't really into jazz because I didn't ever think that I could play it. I knew how to play church songs and all the gospel tunes, because I always played at the church. I played behind some of the great gospel singers. A lot of them have passed on; a few just passed this year: Albertina Walker and Delois Barrett Campbell." There's no missing the gospel feel in his playing, and few jazz pianists have been able to match Wright's natural gift for giving spirituality such a concrete form in sound. Below you can check out one of the best tunes from the album, an elegant, dusky blues called "LaSalle Street After Hours."

Today's playlist:

Georgia Anne Muldrow, Jyoti—Denderah (Some Otha Ship)
Trio 3, Wha's Nine: Live at the Sunset (Marge)
The Necks, Sex (Private Music)
Györgi Ligeti, Hamburb Concerto/Double Concerto/Ramifications/Requiem (Teldec)
The Dreamers, They Sing Like Angels (Ace)

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