Sep 2 2016
Yes, you come to the Chicago Jazz Festival for the music. But the festival is much more than that. It has roots in the City of Chicago as much as the City branches out to become a part of the festival, too. They are interwoven into the same entity, and it’s one reason why I love to head way out to the back of the lawn area and see and hear both at the same time.
It looks like this…
Those musicians you see off in the distance are Orbert Davis and his ensemble.
Davis, this year’s festival artist-in-residence, performed his new commission “Soul Migration,” giving sonic form to the motion of six million African Americans leaving the South behind and, some, making Chicago their new home. And of everything they carried to a new place, music was one. Davis’s sprawling work holds hands with Natalie Moore’s “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago & American Segregation” and Timuel Black’s “Bridges of Memory,” two books that hit the same theme.
This isn’t the first time Davis has managed to encapsulate the sense of a City through the lens of an event. His 2011 release DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis is a captivating portrayal of the City through the timeline of its music up to the event of President Obama’s inauguration. It’s the kind of thing that incites the act of revisiting memories while etching new ones into the music of today.
Davis’s piece didn’t sit still. It hit any number of sounds, from contemporary fusion to straight-ahead old-school and new, to spoken word and deep into the melting pot of all those forms of expression as one. There was a moment, when vibraphonist Joel Ross was a voice all alone in the room, tranquil but resonating powerfully, and it was not difficult to imagine a person new to Chicago, behind them a terrible ordeal and ahead an uncertain future, as they sit in their windowsill and look out over the city as the first winter snow begins to fall, lightly, hypnotically, bringing a hush across the neighborhood. That’s what I’m going to remember of this performance.
With the sun still making its ascent, I strolled into Millennium Park. This was happening earlier than I’d intended. But when I realized I had forgotten to stock the hotel room with Irish Cream to go with my morning coffee, off I went into the City to resolve that tragic situation. God bless Chicago and it’s greasy spoon diners that serve alcohol at all hours. So, after my morning coffee and some chorizo & eggs, I decided to head up to the park and walk around. Grant Park is now Millennium Park, and all the open fields and train yards I recall from my teenage years have been replaced with a giant silver bean and climbing walls and lots of beautiful gardens, and so I have lots of exploring to do. But then I hear the sound of horns and saxophones coming from Pritzker Pavilion, and there is no feeling quite like walking into a park in the morning and being greeted by the sound of lovely harmonies. I headed on over, no expectations, but thinking I’d sit for a minute before my park adventure began. It was a large ensemble getting in some practice. I figure, hell, I’ll get up close to the stage and take a couple photos, maybe tweet ’em out or something. I zoom in on two of the musicians who are working through their parts, and that’s when I realize, good god, that’s Ron Miles and Curtis Fowlkes I’m looking at.
I’m gonna spare you a very long-winded, long-form piece about my love for the Bill Frisell album Quartet, but both Miles and Fowlkes round out half of the quartet that created that album… so, I’m a little starstruck at this point. That’s when this lady steps into the frame, obstructing my shot, and I’m thinking, c’mon lady, get out of the way… I’m trying to take a couple photos of two of my favorite musicians. “Lady,” as it turns out, is Carla Bley, and that’s when I realized I’m watching the Liberation Music Orchestra warm up for the evening’s show.
This is what they sounded like…
I never got to go on my Millennium Park adventure, which is a disappointment pretty easy to ignore when I had the best morning ever listening to the LMO “practice,” which, in a way, made it even better. Hearing the false starts and the interrupted takes, it made it much easier to live in the moment of the music, to realize that the beautiful music I’m hearing could truly end in the very next second, and that the reliance on a song having a certain, expected duration is something that can’t, in fact, be relied upon and there’s no way to let your guard down. It was a nice reminder of one way that live music can perform magic in ways that albums never can, that fascination of the unfinished, of the beauty in flaws.
It wasn’t long before I had to head over to the Von Freeman pavilion for the James Saunders Proyecto Libre show.