Now in its fourth year, this annual festival of jazz and improvised music is better and more ambitious than ever. Programmed and presented by the Umbrella Music collective, which includes several leading lights of the local scene, it runs through Sunday at multiple venues. The festival kicks off Thursday with "European Jazz Meets Chicago," a free fest-within-a-fest at the Cultural Center (78 E. Washington) that starts at 6 PM and features six acts in two halls. Umbrella's partnership with Swiss, German, Dutch, Lithuanian, Swedish, and Austrian consulates and cultural organizations helped secure the participation of musicians from those nations, some of whom—like Swedish guitarist David Stackenas and Swiss reedist Hans Koch—will perform with Chicagoans. I've written a Critic's Choice about Lithuanian saxophonist Liudas Mockunas and Austrian drummer Martin Brandlmayr, Thursday's first two artists, but special attention should also be paid to brilliant Dutch pianist Guus Janssen, who plays at 10 PM in a trio with his brother Wim on drums. (Janssen also plays a free "satellite" concert, which isn't formally part of the festival, Friday at noon in the Cultural Center's Randolph Street Cafe.)
The rest of the shows—Friday at Elastic (2830 N. Milwaukee), Saturday at the Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia), and Sunday at the Hungry Brain (2319 W. Belmont)—are just as special, each mixing Chicago talent with national and even international greats. On Friday the local New Horizons Quartet opens for New York pianist Matthew Shipp, who plays solo, and a group led by Oakland-based reedist and Art Ensemble of Chicago veteran Roscoe Mitchell that includes bassist Junius Paul, saxophonist Dave Rempis, and drummer Frank Rosaly. (LA cornetist Bobby Bradford, who was originally scheduled to play both Friday and Saturday, canceled for health reasons earlier this week.) On Saturday, after sets by locals Vox Arcana and Mike Reed's Loose Assembly (the latter joined by Mitchell), legendary Japanese free-jazz saxophonist Akira Sakata will make his long-overdue Chicago debut with guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer John Herndon—that is, the rhythm section from the Chicago version of Powerhouse Sound. On Sunday locals Head With Wings open, followed by Sakata and his superb working trio of bassist Darin Gray and drummer Chris Corsano. The headlining set is from Topology, a nonet of mostly local players featuring reedist Ken Vandermark and one of his greatest musical heroes, Poughkeepsie multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee; Vandermark has written new arrangements of McPhee's music for the occasion. (McPhee also duets with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm at a free satellite show Monday night in the U. of C.'s Bond Chapel.) Tickets to the Hideout show are $15, and at Elastic and the Hungry Brain there's a $15 suggested donation.