Our guide to the Chicago Jazz Festival | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Our guide to the Chicago Jazz Festival

With 49 sets in four days, the oldest of the city's big lakefront music festivals stays strong in hard times

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Budget reductions meant that the city's festivals devoted to gospel, Latin, and Celtic music all suffered the indignity of being reduced to single days of programming at the Taste of Chicago this year. But the Chicago Jazz Festival, the oldest of the city's big lakefront music fests, has been spared that fate, at least for now. Though it hasn't run for three days in Grant Park since 2009, the grim-looking budget the City Council passed in December of that year didn't turn out to reduce the festival to two days—in 2010 its four-day schedule included Thursday and Friday programming at the Cultural Center, in Millennium Park, and elsewhere. This year the only major cut is the loss of daytime music on Friday, which all things considered is certainly something to be thankful for.

As was the case last year, most of the marquee names play on Saturday and Sunday—that is, the Grant Park days. But the music on Thursday and Friday is hardly chopped liver. In fact, the bookings provide a pretty good snapshot of Chicago's amazing jazz community, a diversity of riches that's on offer year-round. (Of the three big out-of-town bandleaders, two are backed by locals.) It's also no secret that the sight lines and sound quality are much better at Pritzker Pavilion than in Grant Park, and the shows at the Q QCultural Center provide an intimacy lacking at all of the outdoor stages.

The heavy-duty national names during the fest's first two days include brilliant octogenarian pianist Randy Weston, who performs at Pritzker with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble on Thursday night, and both acts playing that same stage as part of Friday's double bill: guest saxophonist Bobby Watson with the local Deep Blue Organ Trio, followed by the Saxophone Summit (aka Joe Lovano, David Liebman, and Ravi Coltrane). Among the highlights at Grant Park are mercurial, bluesy singer Cassandra Wilson on Saturday, trumpeter Roy Hargrove on Sunday, and a promising new Sun Ra project led by drummer Mike Reed with guests Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson, and Ingrid Laubrock, also on Sunday.

Past artists in residence at the festival have included envelope pushers Nicole Mitchell, George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Ed Wilkerson Jr., but this year the distinction goes to a relatively mainstream figure: trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Orbert Davis. On Friday and Sunday he'll play small-group sets, and on Saturday he'll present his ambitious Chicago Jazz Philharmonic project, with guests Marianna Soroka, Brandon McCune, and Zach Brock.

For the third year running now the Young Jazz Lions stage showcases local high school and university bands, but this time some serious ringers are raising the stakes. On Saturday the great alto saxophonist Phil Woods joins the already strong DePaul University Jazz Ensemble; on Sunday, Orbert Davis and violinist Zach Brock play with a group of standout students from Davis's recent summer jazz camp, and trumpeter Victor Garcia sits in with the Curie Jazz Ensemble.

As always, all music is free. On Thursday and Friday the shows are mostly at Pritzker and in different halls at the Cultural Center, but on Friday there's an early-evening set in Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall (430 S. Michigan, seventh floor). Saturday and Sunday everything's 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). For the second year in a row, local smooth-jazz club Close Up 2 (with radio station WLFM 88.7 FM) takes over the Young Jazz Lions Stage at 6 PM to present two groups nightly. The Petrillo Music Shell, which hosts each evening's headliners, is at Columbus and Jackson. And after the lakefront stages go quiet, there's more jazz on offer around town every night. —PM

Click here for the Reader's list of postfest jam sessions

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