Your comprehensive guide to the 37th annual Chicago Jazz Festival | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Your comprehensive guide to the 37th annual Chicago Jazz Festival

Previews of every act in Millennium Park and beyond, including Fred Hersch in his overdue festival debut and AACM cofounder Muhal Richard Abrams leading a historic reunion of the Experimental Band

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Friday, September 4

Von Freeman Pavilion

Noon | Rajiv Halim Quintet

One of the hardest-working and most talented young saxophonists in town, Rajiv Halim has just released Foundation, his overdue debut as a leader. His agile band—trumpeter Shaun Johnson, guitarist Scott Hesse, bassist Junius Paul, and drummer Michael Piolet—bring brisk, hard-hitting energy to his soulful postbop themes. Peter Margasak

The Chicago Jazz Festival

Thu 9/3 12:15-9 PM, Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington) and Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph)

Fri 9/4-Sun 9/6 12:30 PM-9:30 PM, Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph)

Millennium Park stages: Pritzker Pavilion, the Von Freeman Pavilion (on the south promenade), the Jazz & Heritage Pavilion (on the north promenade), and the Young Jazz Lions Pavilion (on the roof of the Harris Theater).

All shows are free and open to all ages. More details at

Thursday, September 3

Saturday, September 5

Sunday, September 6


1:10 PM | Jeremy Cunningham Quartet

Drummer Jerry Cunningham has been attracting attention with precise, empathetic timekeeping for the likes of saxophonist Caroline Davis, trumpeter Marquis Hill, and bassist Matt Ulery. Today he shows off his own tunes, proving he has just as much promise as a bandleader as he does talent as a percussionist. His terrific band includes Ulery, alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, and guitarist Jeff Parker. Peter Margasak

2:30 PM | Neusa Sauer

The longtime vocalist of Chicago's leading Brazilian band, Som Brasil, Neusa Sauer also performs under her own name, singing samba and bossa nova with sparkling purity and a sure-handed grasp of the fundamentals. She's backed by bassist Geoffrey Lowe, reedist Steve Eisen, guitarists Mike Allemana and Luciano Antonio, and drummer Luiz Ewerling. Peter Margasak

Craig Taborn - JOHN RODGERS
  • John Rodgers
  • Craig Taborn

[Recommended] 3:30 PM | Craig Taborn Trio

Beginning in the early 90s, pianist Craig Taborn slipped gradually into the jazz world's consciousness as a young member of heavyweight bands led by Roscoe Mitchell, James Carter, Steve Coleman, and Dave Douglas, but after spending more than 20 years establishing his own restless, exploratory sound, he's no longer in the background—he's one of the three or four most exciting keyboardists of his generation. Taborn has forged a productive relationship with the ECM label, making several recordings as a sideman, a great solo outing (2011's Avenging Angel), and a trio album with two New York compadres, drummer Gerald Cleaver and resourceful bassist Thomas Morgan (2012's Chants). The trio executes a distinctive and uncompromising blend of composition and improvisation, with Taborn moving between acoustic piano and electric keyboards (including the Fender Rhodes, which in his hands becomes something virtually brand-new). It's a wise choice for the festival, and should be a highlight of the weekend; bassist Chris Lightcap replaces Morgan. John Corbett

Jazz & Heritage Pavilion

Chad McCullough and Kobie Watkins of the Spin Quartet - JIM LEVITT
  • Jim Levitt
  • Chad McCullough and Kobie Watkins of the Spin Quartet

[Recommended] 12:30 PM | Spin Quartet

Trumpeter Chad McCullough, leader of this gritty quartet, recorded its debut album, In Circles (Origin), in 2013 in his old home of Seattle—he's since settled in Chicago and now teaches at DePaul. His powerful playing and no-nonsense compositions make the move to the Windy City seem foreordained: the propulsive, sculptural grooves of bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Kobie Watkins leave plenty of space for McCullough and saxophonist Geof Bradfield to trade sly jabs and feints, traverse deftly voiced melodies, and take off on extended solos. The two horn players have keen intuition, interjecting accents and adding cool counterpoint as though they're passing a baton. Peter Margasak

  • Stephanie Dowell/Post-Tribune
  • Art Hoyle

[Recommended] 2 PM | Art Hoyle Sextet: Clark Terry Tribute

There's no classier guy in jazz than Art Hoyle, period. With a voice of molten lava and a debonair smile, he's a trumpeter from another era, and even among his peers he's a cut above. Musically the long-term Gary resident is likewise impeccable, having lived through the full spectrum of jazz since the mid-1950s, from Lionel Hampton to Sun Ra. Today Hoyle and a saxophoneless ensemble pay tribute to another open-minded trumpeter, the legendary Clark Terry, who died this year at 94. By my count the band is a nonet, not a sextet, with three trumpets (Hoyle, Art Davis, Shaun Johnson) and three trombones (Andy Thornburg, Tracy Kirk, Steve Berry). John Corbett

Bobby Lewis - KEN CARL
  • Ken Carl
  • Bobby Lewis

3:30 PM | Bobby Lewis Sextet

Bobby Lewis's fluent phrasing and warm tone have made him a reliable presence on Chicago's recording-studio and jazz-club scenes since the 60s, when he moved here from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. And though in decades past he's made concessions to the currents of commerce, the sextet he brings today, with longtime pianist Jim Ryan and assertive saxophonist Pat Mallinger, should sail plumb in the middle of the jazz mainstream. Bill Meyer

Jay Pritzker Pavilion

Chico Freeman - MARCEL MEIER
  • Marcel Meier
  • Chico Freeman

5 PM | Chico Freeman: The Chicago Project featuring George Freeman

Saxophonist Chico Freeman, son of Chicago legend Von Freeman, lives in Switzerland these days, but his new project helps keep him tight with his relatives here. All in the Family (Southport) connects him with his 88-year-old guitarist uncle, George Freeman, for a wide-ranging program that touches on hard bop, funk, free jazz, and blues. Most of the players on the record reconvene for this set: guitarist Mike Allemana (a fixture in Von's final band), bassist Harrison Bankhead, pianist Kirk Brown, and Swiss percussionist Reto Weber (who plays the steel-drum-like "Hang," an instrument of his own design), along with nonalbum drummer Ernie Adams. Peter Margasak

  • Janette Beckman
  • José James

6 PM | José James: Billie Holiday Tribute

Singer José James has frequently experimented with jazz over the past decade, but on his recent albums for Blue Note, he found a sweet spot closer to funk and R&B. His new confidence has led him back to jazz, though, and to Billie Holiday—his biggest jazz influence, he says. Released this spring, 100 years after her birth, Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday (Blue Note) features nine of her best-known songs redone in a restrained, spartan style, with sensitive, pin-drop delicate accompaniment by a trio that includes pianist Jason Moran. James doesn't have the greatest range or tonal depth, and in his gossamer delivery he wisely refrains from any attempt to imitate Holiday. Tonight he's joined by keyboardist Leo Genovese, bassist Solomon Dorsey, and drummer Nate Smith. Peter Margasak

  • Vincent Soyez
  • Fred Hersch

[Recommended] 7:10 PM | Fred Hersch Trio

Pianist Fred Hersch turns 60 in October, and he's kicking off the celebration early with the brand-new Fred Hersch Solo (Palmetto), his tenth one-man album, recorded live last year in an acoustically lovely church in the Catskills. His sublime lyricism, exquisite touch, sensitive dynamic control, and lush harmonizations are unequaled in a solo setting, and he can carry those gifts into a trio setting—which is how he's making his overdue Chicago Jazz Festival debut. His remarkable combo with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson balances swift, elegant propulsion with Hersch's crystalline tone and tunefulness. Peter Margasak

Billy Strayhorn - CHUCK STEWART
  • Chuck Stewart
  • Billy Strayhorn

[Recommended] 8:30 PM | Billy Strayhorn Tribute with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra playing arrangements of Strayhorn songs by Edward Wilkerson, John Hollenbeck, Steven Bernstein, and Gordon Goodwin

This performance of Billy Strayhorn compositions by the Chicago Jazz Ensemble kicks off the Billy Strayhorn Festival, a ten-week series of concerts and educational events programmed by the Auditorium Theatre on the occasion of the centenary of the composer-pianist's birth. Strayhorn's accomplishments are so monumental, though, that American music celebrates his place in its firmament constantly, with no anniversaries needed. During his long association with Duke Ellington, Strayhorn melded his talents (as an arranger, composer, and bandleader) with Ellington's own, creating a body of work that constitutes the acme not just of big-band jazz but of all pre-rock 'n' roll American urban music—I defy you to hear "Take the A Train" without feeling at least a bit better about being alive. The CJO will play new arrangements of Strayhorn's tunes by (among others) Edward Wilkerson Jr., John Hollenbeck, and Steven Bernstein; the always amazing Dee Alexander will sing. Bill Meyer

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