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Right Time, Wrong Place


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Chicago Jazz Festival

Grant Park, September 2

The lineup for the second night of the jazz festival looked promising. Opening the evening would be the Chicago-based George Freeman Quartet, a bop-rooted group featuring the leader's biting and lyrical electrical guitar sounds and his better-known brother Von, a towering tenor saxophonist, on piano. They'd be followed by another local group, singer Jackie Allen and her trio (piano, bass, and drums), who move nimbly between jazz and cabaret styles. Next would be the exuberantly swaggering blues, bop, and ballads of veteran alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson. After that would come the more reserved and refined sounds of the Ellis Marsalis Trio, led by the pianist-educator who fathered two of the biggest stars on today's jazz scene, with guest artist Nicholas Payton, a highly touted young trumpeter from New Orleans. And capping off the evening would be the cutting-edge sounds of Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus Plus, featuring the Chicago-bred leader's wailing alto saxophone, his highly structured and densely textured compositions, and his penchant for idiosyncratic instrumental combinations--here (in addition to his saxophone and flutes) French horn, drums, two electric guitars, and two tubas as well as a guest accordionist and singer. What seemed promising on paper, though, didn't live up to its potential. But that had less to do with the musicians than with the festival itself.

Moments into the swinging medium-tempo number that began Freeman's performance, a fundamental problem became apparent--poor sound quality. The stand-up bass, instead of providing a warm and singing bottom, was reduced to a boomy thud-thud-thud. The grand piano, instead of contributing rich and resonant harmonic support, sounded plinky and clanky. And the drums, instead of supplying crisp retorts and taunts, seemed distant, thin, and brittle. Only Freeman's guitar, an instrument made to be amplified, emerged largely un-scathed. But what it gained in fidelity it lost in balance: it often seemed twice as big as the other instruments.

Problems of this sort recurred in one form or another throughout the night. When Allen sang a finger-snapping medium-tempo "Ella's Blues," the drums, instead of supplying buoyancy and drive, contributed only a clattery splat-splat-splat. When Marsalis offered a spare reading of "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," the bass, instead of providing a harmonic anchor, was so muddy that one pitch was virtually indistinguishable from the next. And in Threadgill's set one sonic problem seemed to follow another: the tubas were generally murky, the guitars at times inaudible, the drums often small and skittery, and Threadgill's saxophone frequently exaggerated.

Such problems rarely occur in a club setting. Most jazz clubs use limited amplification; the listeners are close to the musicians, and the room holds the sound. But an open-air venue as large as Grant Park requires that the sound be filtered through loudspeakers. The result on Saturday night called to mind an observation by composer Henry Brant: "I consider the loudspeaker a musical instrument, and a very unsatisfactory one.''

Just as the expressive power of a painting can't be divorced from its colors, the power of jazz can't be divorced from its sounds. Jazz is a music of interplay, but that quality was lost when, for example, Marsalis's phrasing created spaces and the notes his bassist played in them couldn't be heard. It's ensemble music, but that quality was lost when the volume was inflated on Freeman's guitar and Threadgill's saxophone, causing them to ride over rather than emerge from their groups. And it's a music of subtle colors and textures, but those qualities were lost on Freeman's wistful reading of "I Should Care," where the drummer's brushwork could barely be heard, and on Threadgill's densely polyphonic works, where the lines played on the guitars and tubas were often indistinct.

Another casualty of this setting was intimacy. With an attentive audience at a club or concert hall, jazz can be a highly nuanced mix of sounds and silences. But at the festival there was a steady buzz of incidental noise--a small plane with an advertising banner flying overhead, people talking, bells tolling every quarter hour. As a result, numbers that might have cast a spell in another setting--like Freeman's delicate "I Should Care" and Allen's largely a cappella reading of the traditional folk ballad "Careless Love"--fell flat.

Pacing presented another problem. In a club or concert hall a jazz group ordinarily plays two or three sets, giving the musicians time to find their way as a performance progresses. Playing multiple sets provides them with room to take risks, knowing that they'll have an opportunity to recover if they should fall. Like acts in a play, different sets often illuminate one another. A club setting can induce within a listener a feeling of timelessness and the sense that anything might happen. But at the festival each group was limited to one set of fixed duration. As a result their performances frequently felt cramped, few chances were taken, and the music often seemed more workmanlike than inspired.

These problems demonstrated what can happen when an art form is taken out of its natural habitat. Imagine a film festival in a large outdoor venue: colors would be washed out, images indistinct, and the intensity of sitting in a dark theater lost. Or consider an outdoor drama festival in which only the plays' first acts were performed and only some of the actors could be heard.

But what rarely worked in strictly musical terms often worked as part of an overall scene, making for some memorable moments Saturday night that couldn't be duplicated in a club or concert hall. As sunlight streamed over the skyline, Von Freeman unleashed one quirky, two-fisted piano solo after another, at times suggesting a sound track for a horror film. As the sun dipped behind the buildings, the half-moon lit up the southern sky, and small barbecues smoked out on the lawn, Lou Donaldson, whose set may have been the most successful, played a persuasively soulful "Danny Boy." And when Nicholas Payton leaped into his first solo on "From This Moment On" his fiery tone and bristling attack seized the crowd's attention.

In moments like these jazz is neither high art nor low art. While this music rarely rewarded a listener's exclusive attention, it was more than merely a sonic backdrop. Neither foreground nor background, it occupied an elusive middle ground. A listener might follow the music for a minute or two, say a few words to the person sitting next to him, take a sip of something, glance over at Buckingham Fountain, then listen some more. Although these performances offered few deep aesthetic rewards, at their best they made the occasion--as John Miller Chernoff has written of African music--"very, very sweet."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lauren Deutsch, Marc PoKempner.

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