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The Reader's Guide to the Chicago Jazz Festival

Featuring Nicole Mitchell's Sonic Projections, the Kurt Elling Quintet with Ernie Watts, the Ramsey Lewis 75th birthday celebration, and much more

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Jazz on Jackson

Noon Douglas Ewart Nyahbingi Drum Choir Though multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart has made his home in the midwest for more than 40 years, he grew up in Jamaica and has never forsaken his roots—they come to the fore in his Nyahbingi Drum Choir. Nyahbingi drumming originated in Africa, but Ewart, who plays reeds, digeridoo, and invented percussion instruments, encountered it in ceremonies called groundations convened by drummer and bandleader Oswald "Count Ossie" Williams outside Kingston. In a groundation participants usually preach and sing over a steady 4/4 drum pulse; Ewart's version adds spirituals, poetry, comedic skits, commentaries on current events, swinging horn riffs, and woolly free-jazz solos. —BM

1:10 PM Paul Giallorenzo's GitGo Local keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo has been involved in countless ensembles and played in a myriad of styles, from experimental electronics to chamber jazz to synth pop, but in GitGo he restricts himself to piano and the music to angular yet swinging jazz. Giallorenzo's compositions owe their existence to the moment a half century ago when iconoclasts like Andrew Hill cast off the harmonic bonds of bebop without sundering their ties to its melodicism and swing, but the quintet's music never sounds dated. That's because Giallorenzo, reedist Mars Williams, trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Anton Hatwich, and drummer Marc Riordan are as involved with modern pop and avant-garde improvised music as they are with jazz, and they apply their broad experience to this band to keep it fresh and unpredictable. —BM

2:20 PM Maggie Brown: A Tribute to Abbey Lincoln

3:30 PM Dana Hall Quintet with Nicholas Payton Though the recent Into the Light (Origin) is Dana Hall's debut as a bandleader, he's hardly shy about asserting himself. The veteran drummer favors a furious attack—and you never get the sense he's just hitting hard because he's got nothing to say. Hall swings with great nuance and negotiates the tempo changes built into many of the album's tunes with sublime grace. With an energy level worthy of Elvin Jones, he stokes the fires under his brawny, restless reimagining of 60s postbop, giving his excellent band—trumpeter Terell Stafford, saxophonist Tim Warfield Jr., bassist Rodney Whitaker, and pianist Bruce Barth—plenty to respond to. The album opens with an explosive take on Herbie Hancock's "I Have a Dream," with Hall changing up the groove and working in fresh accents every couple of bars. The title track makes effective use of live and postproduction electronics, from abstract swooshes that pan back and forth to swirling, spacey effects on Stafford's trumpet, and on "Jabali" the horn men push into full-on free-jazz territory. Everyone's performances on Into the Light are excellent, but even more impressive is the strength of Hall's leadership—through every shift in style and approach, he's able to hold the band to a coherent musical identity. They're joined today by brilliant trumpeter Nicholas Payton. —PM

Young Jazz Lions Stage

Noon Chi-Arts Jazz Combo

12:45 PM Jazz Ambassadors Combo

1:30 PM Kenwood Academy Jazz Ensemble

2:25 PM Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School Jazz Ensemble

3:20 PM Lincoln Park High School Jazz Ensemble

4:05 PM Roosevelt University Special Septet

Jazz & Heritage Stage

12:30 PM West End Jazz Band

2 PM Cameron Pfiffner's Marco Polo Though he's been on the scene for a quarter century, Cameron Pfiffner is probably best known to denizens of late-night Green Mill gigs—he's the bushy-bearded tenor saxophonist in the front line of Sabertooth. Pfiffner's wonderful, burly sound and often ingenious writing and arranging are highly regarded in divergent Chicago jazz camps but remain a well-kept secret from much of the listening public. Here he's at the helm of a sparkling six-horn tentet, featuring such local greats as massively resourceful pianist Tom Vaitsas—another talent uncommensurate with its reknown—and versatile drummer Tim Daisy. —JC

3:30 PM Nicole Mitchell's Sonic Projections The quartet Sonic Projections is the newest project from flutist Nicole Mitchell, the fest's artist in residence, and she and her bandmates—tenor saxophonist David Boykin, pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Chad Taylor—can tear into her open-ended themes with fierce improvisational energy or tease them out with an empathic, featherlight touch. She writes both episodic suites and terse melodic kernels, and the group spontaneously reshapes the material with such seat-of-the-pants daring that it gives their recent debut, Emerald Hills (Rogue Art), a pleasantly rough-around-the-edges feel. More than any of Mitchell's other groups, Sonic Projections is about volatility—highly attuned in their interactions and refreshingly willing to take risks, the musicians fearlessly leap out of her zigzag unison melodies and postclassical rhythmic schemes. In the album's liner notes Mitchell says she's "afraid of being comfortable—that seems the opposite of being alive." Her music here rarely does more than reference "comfortable" traditions—this band is all about navigating the unknown. —PM

6 PM Corey Wilkes Trumpeter Corey Wilkes's work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory established his avant-garde credentials, and his commanding playing with his combo Abstrakt Pulse on last year's Cries From tha Ghetto (Pi Recordings) confirms his impeccable straight-ahead chops. But with Black Slang he makes music that he can put on for the neighbors—it's an electric ensemble that's equally at home delivering fluent jazz solos and laying down grooves behind KRS-One. —BM

8 PM Steve Cole

Petrillo Music Shell

5 PM Chuchito Valdes Afro-Cuban Ensemble It can't be easy to be an Afro-Cuban pianist when your grandfather is the great Bebo Valdes and your father is tireless innovator Chucho Valdes, but that hasn't stopped Chuchito Valdes. He's a fine pianist and bandleader, and while his work has yet to suggest the brilliance of his forebears, his jazz-heavy band is as solid and swinging as any in Latin jazz. —PM

6 PM Rene Marie High Maintenance Quartet Skilled jazz singers are hardly an endangered species, and an increasing number seem to be making their debut albums in their teens. Though Rene Marie grew up with music, she didn't tackle it full-time till the late 90s, when she was in her early 40s, and her life experience showed through in the old-school vibe and easy maturity of her first records, which consisted mostly of standard repertoire. More recently she's followed the lead of the late Abbey Lincoln, creating music with a strong social and political thrust—a very rare tack for jazz vocalists. Last fall she mounted a one-woman musical-theater show addressing incest and child sexual abuse, Slut Energy Theory, and in December she released a strong collection of songs from the production on an album of the same name; in contrast to her early work, they're a contemporary-sounding mix of pop, gospel, and R&B. She performs with her regular trio: pianist Kevin Bales, bassist Rodney Jordan, and drummer Quentin Baxter. —PM

7:10 PM Charisma: A Lee Morgan Tribute Taking its name from one of the best records by singular hard-bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, this tribute band assembled by New York trumpeter David Weiss—perhaps best known for leading the New Jazz Composers Octet—has a ringer its ranks in the form of reedist Bennie Maupin, who played in Morgan's final groups. The other members of this killer lineup—reedist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, drummer Victor Lewis, bassist Dwayne Burno, and pianist George Cables—have all mastered the style as well. It's a gutsy move for any trumpeter to attempt to pay homage to such a formidable player, but Weiss's explosive new quintet outing with saxophonist J.D. Allen, Snuck In (Sunnyside), proves he's got the chops and the vision to pull it off. —PM

8:30 PM Either/Orchestra with Getatchew Mekurya and Teshome Mitiku Russ Gershon, saxophonist and leader of the open-eared and eclectic Boston-based Either/Orchestra, was one of the first American jazz musicians to pick up on the importance of Ethiopian popular music, much of which has a strong affinity with jazz. The Either/Orchestra, which has incorporated elements of the distinctive Ethiopian sound since the late 90s, was invited to play in the country in 2004, resulting in the band's own entry in the Ethiopiques series, the widely acclaimed Live in Addis. On that outing the big band grappled with one of the titans of Ethiopian music, Getatchew Mekurya, who plays tenor saxophone with the emotional intensity of Albert Ayler and the raw melodic power of Gene Ammons, albeit with a pentatonic Ethiopian accent. The Ethio-Either/Or merger has yielded fantastic results to date—including great playing by veteran baritone saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase, trumpeter Tom Halter, and a newish batch of band members. For this set, sure to be one of the most exciting of the festival, the group is joined by Mekurya and Teshome Mitiku, who's among the profound and important pop singers to come out of Ethiopia's bustling 60s recording scene. —JC

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