Sep 12 2016
It was just a week ago that the 2016 Chicago Jazz Festival wrapped up their 38th annual event. This was my first year covering it as official press (of the non-traditional, non-journalist blogger variety). I’d covered shows previously, but never to this scale. It was a new kind of experience. It was a whole lot of work, but all of it enjoyable. It left me pretty exhausted, but also left me looking forward to doing it again.
Here’s some stuff I did and some stuff I think about it all.
The shows I attended (including links to show previews and performance write-ups):
- Orbert Davis (post-)
- Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra (early-morning rehearsal) (post-)
- James Sanders Proyecto Libre (pre-) (post-)
- Magic Carpet (post-)
- Benny Golson
- Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra
- Luke Malewicz Heritage Quartet (post-)
- Nate Lepine Quartet (pre-) (post-)
- JD Allen Trio (post-)
- Anat Cohen Quartet
- The Bad Plus (play Ornette Coleman’s “Science Fiction”)
- Joel Ross’ Good Vibes
- Charles Rumback (pre-)
- Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans
- Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah
- John Scofield-Joe Lovano Quartet
- Street busker: Traffic Stop (I may be getting that name wrong)
- Street busker: Dude w/harmonica who served up some Toots Thielemans action.
Not a bad list, and yet I still regret that I wasn’t able to attend even more shows.
Also, as you can see from that list, I was able to give some rundowns (previews and post-show write-ups) of many of the acts. But I want to talk some more about the shows I attended, especially those that I didn’t cover already.
Benny Golson is a professional, pretty much in every sense of the word. The guy is one of the jazz giants, spanning several generations of the music’s evolution. He gets up there on stage and doesn’t screw around with his tunes. His anecdotes are related perfectly, as if he’s told them hundreds of times before. He’s a dapper gentleman on stage, serving additional roles as host to his own show and jazz ambassador. It was a pleasant show. It didn’t knock my socks off or anything, but it was nice just kicking back and enjoying something old-school on a Friday night. But what I thought was very cool was how much of the audience the show did, in fact, strongly connect with.
I don’t sit in the press pit (though, admittedly, I’d have better photos and vids to provide if I did). I like to wander around during the shows, checking it out from different angles, but also just to gauge the reactions of different sections of the audience. How are they reacting to the music. In the seats up front, are they riveted to the performance, silently staring up at the stage. What about further back… muted conversations? And what about the lawn seats where people do a mini-Ravinia layout and bring little tables and picnic baskets and are just as interested in simply spending time with friends on a Friday night downtown as they are to hear the music? Golson seemed to be connecting with all of those groups. When he told a story, people stopped chatting with friends to listen. When the music started back up, so did conversations, but never at a volume where people were attempting to talk over the music, as if it were inconveniently present during their night out. And later, after the show was over, there were a bunch of people who came up to Golson as he made his way to his ride and were seriously effusive in their love for him. Gotta say, when I first saw that show amongst the listings, nothing about it particularly excited me, but he was definitely a crowd favorite, and a nice choice to serve up to festival attendees who may only be casually interested in jazz, and just use the Festival as a nifty reason to head downtown for a night out.
The Bad Plus show on Saturday night had the opposite effect. The trio of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King gave their interpretation of Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction. Basically an unconventional band doing their version of an unconventional artist’s unconventional album. I enjoyed it far more than I’d expected. There were some moments I thought were spectacular. To start, this was the first time I’d seen drummer Dave King perform live, and now I realize that all of the people who’d related glowing reports about seeing Dave King live weren’t imbibing in overwrought hyperbole. King is amazing to watch in action, and to hear him in person was something I won’t soon forget. I like his studio albums just fine. I really enjoyed his most recent Surrounded by the Night. But, damn, in person, not sure that studio albums are gonna do it for me anymore.
The trio added saxophonists Sam Newsome and Tim Berne (on soprano and alto) and cornetist Ron Miles. There was a moment when Newsome and Miles were intertwining melodic lines in such gorgeous patterns, and I thought, we are about to miss an opportunity to get Festival security to usher the two musicians into a room, hit a record button, and not allow either to leave until we have an album’s worth of material. That was another moment I’m not likely to forget. It’s a shame more of the audience didn’t stick around to hear it.
A belated shout-out to an ultimate fan. The guy had crazy wild white hair that rivaled Sonny Rollins’s ‘do, and he was wearing a Jazz in Chicago festival t-shirt and everything about him said he was mad mad mad about Jazz music! He was at the JD Allen Trio show doing yoga or Tai Chi or something, as if attempting to channel Allen’s fiery performance through physical exercise. So much of this music inspires all kinds of emotional and intellectual reactions. Sometimes it’s hard to burn through them. This guy, with his workout regiment at the JD Allen show, he found a way that worked for him, and clearly didn’t give a shit what anyone else thought of it. Good for you, buddy. Screw boundaries and expectations. You like the music you like and you express it the way you wanted. The whole thing was strange, but it was also pretty cool in its way.
I regret I didn’t spend more time at the Young Lions Jazz Stage. Set atop the Harris Theater, this was the tent where the up-and-comers, mostly of high school and college age, were given the opportunity to show their chops at a big-time venue. I caught some of the Joel Ross’ Good Vibes set before having to hurry off to catch the Charles Rumback show. Ross, actually, was the vibraphonist who made an impression upon me during the Orbert Davis Soul Migration performance opening night. And later, I hung around just briefly before heading off to another show as another ensemble was playing the Young Lions stage. A raw enthusiasm really transmitted through their performances, that balancing act of being a professional and behaving like you’ve been-there-done-that matched against the massive realization that you’re gigging at the Chicago Jazz Fest. It was uplifting to see and the music was pretty damn good, to boot. I think it’s cool that the CJF fits young groups like this into the festival. It’d be nice if the Fest could find a way to present the Young Lions performances so they weren’t stacked up against the main acts. I say this without having any suggestion myself or knowing if it’s even possible. I offer it up only by way of saying, hey, great thing being done here. But next year, I’m gonna try to fit a couple of these sets into my itinerary.
Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah makes me very happy. Even when he presents a form of expression that doesn’t float my boat, it’s obvious he’s doing something new, something inventive, something different, and all three of those things make me very happy to have the music in my orbit.
The thing is, he’s just as amazing when in straight-ahead territory. I tweeted this from the Festival…
— Bird Is The Worm (@BirdIsTheWorm) September 5, 2016
I recommend passing this information on to your children and their children and so on. At some point, someone in your family will own their own time machine and they will forever thank you for dishing out this advice.
There is a gap of several years between my attendance at this year’s Festival and my previous ones back when I was still living in Chicago. Gotta say I really enjoy the layout more now than back in the day. I like how the awesome sculpture that is the Pritzker Pavilion is now the centerpiece of the Festival. I also like how the Von Freeman and Jazz & Heritage venues are located close nearby so it’s much easier to shuffle up the viewing itinerary and not have to trek halfway across the park to get from one venue to the next.
Some things I’d like to see improved: Please please please ditch that huge screen that sits behind the Pritzker stage. It is seriously distracting to those sitting in the pavilion seats and it’s all but useless to those sitting out in the lawn area. It’s so massive and omnipresent that I found myself involuntarily staring at the screen even when the musicians were just thirty yards away from me in plain sight. If you want to provide some sort of video feed for the lawn seating, then get some of those mobile screens they use at sporting events for the tailgaters. Another improvement would be on the sound in the smaller venues, Von Freeman and Jazz & Heritage. The echo effect and hollow reverb-y effects are pretty evident in those tents, and it’s a drag on the overall sound quality. Not being a sound technician, I’m in the unenviable position of not being able to offer any suggestions, but the sound quality in those tents really isn’t what it should be to honor the musicians playing in there.
That said, damn, it really made me happy to feel the electricity flowing through the audiences in those afternoon sets. As anyone with a passing familiarity with my site would know, I’m the kind of guy whose gonna be drawn to the one o’clock slot musicians more than the headliners. So it really cheered me to see the crowds drawn by the undercards and the interactions between musicians and listeners. Those afternoon slots showed how deep the talent pool is, as well as the excellent taste the festival programmers possessed in choosing those acts.
Hey, let’s talk about a few of them.
There’s never anything definitive about these statements, because “like” lives on a perpetually shifting scale, and one day can lead to changes without any logical causal effect. That said, my favorite show of the festival was (probably) the Magic Carpet set. I’m not gonna get too detailed here about why I loved that performance, because I wrote it all out just a few days ago (LINK). But it was a show full of spirituality and hapiness and it was a group I’d never before encountered. The joy of the music and the joy of discovering new music is a potent combination, and so it left a huge impression on me.
Another show I caught was Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans. Good god, the crowd came out to see her 3:30pm performance at the Jazz & Heritage Pavilion. There was all kinds of reasons to enjoy this set. One, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, to be outside with plenty of sunlight and a cool breeze and to have that classic New Orleans jazz sound carrying across the park is the kind of synchronicity everyone needs in their life. Also, Doreen knows how to tell a story and she knows how to get the crowd involved and everyone in that joint was having fun with the back-and-forth between band and audience. There’s all kinds of ways and approaches that “Jazz” will and should take to (re)build and expand its audience… no one approach is necessarily more correct or important than any other. I’m just saying, if you could bottle up the mixture of musicianship and raconteur that Doreen Kitchens and crew put together, that’s gonna be a part of the solution.
This was the first time I got to see Anat Cohen perform live. She really is freaking amazing. I’ve listened to so many of her albums, and so many more where she appears in the side personnel. I feel like I should’ve reached some Anat Cohen overload point by now, but each new album with her name and clarinet making an appearance is just one more additional exhibit of why she’s one of my favorite jazz musicians. Hearing her live brought even more clarity to the picture. Whether light on her feet or expanding her presence over a tune, her lyricism has the talent to captivate like a storyteller who always finds the perfect words, never wasting any, and seeing every facet of the sound it brings to the story. I’m not very good at remembering songs… not in a jazz context, at least. I’m not that guy who can hit the blindfold test and recognize a song title for its melody or can list off all the cool versions of a particular composition and which recordings they appeared on. My memory just doesn’t work that way. Well, most of the time. Because it seemed like every tune Cohen played that night rang clear in my memory, and the images of the album covers sprung forth and the song titles not long after. Cohen has such a distinct sound and her music is so damn memorable, and I’m already looking forward to the next time I get to see her perform live.
Back in the day, when I was living in Denver, I got to see trumpeter/cornetist Ron Miles play around town at some small joints… wine bars, restaurants, that kind of thing. I’d walk on over, grab a seat at the bar and drink, and just listen to him play with whatever combo he had working that particular night. My introduction to his music was via the Bill Frisell recording Quartet, and I immediately took to his sound. And it was such a gift to be able to hear him live most weekends, almost always within walking distance of my home. I’d sit in there, and most times I was pretty sure that I was the only one there who’d shown up to actually hear the guy play. Everyone else was there to have a drink, hang out with friends, eat, whatever. Nothing wrong with any of that, but when you’re the only one in a packed joint who seems to be sitting and listening to the music and doing nothing else, well, it’s easy to notice. After some of the shows, I’d go up and just say thanks for the music. I didn’t try to strike up a conversation or anything. I mean, this is a musician who’s showing up to work just like anyone else who has a job… I’m not looking to keep him sticking around the place any longer than he has to any more than I want to keep a coworker in their cubicle past their scheduled leave time. But I do remember Miles to be genuinely appreciative about my gesture of appreciation and he just seemed like a real nice and unassuming guy. Everything I’ve heard about him in the span of time since confirms those initial impressions.
A lot of stuff has happened in the twenty years since I was catching Ron Miles shows back in my Denver days. A lot of it hasn’t been easy. During those difficult times, the two things most integral to my survival was an untamed sense of humor and a willfully developed imagination. Music was, and still is, a close third. Seeing Miles on stage for an outstanding set with Charles Rumback triggered a sense of the passing of time and a supremely comforting recognition that those fervent beliefs that all the struggles and perseverance would lead to better times, and to experience the before and after pictures simultaneously while listening to a musician who was there for both… it resulted in some profoundly visceral reactions, a cathartic experience fueled by the building blocks of creativity, of music, and its timeless presence. Not sure why I even shared any of that, but there you have it.
Where I was going with all this to begin with was that the Charles Rumback performance was outstanding. It was the perfect mix of moody introspection via melody and extroverted chatter via percussion. My only complaint was that they didn’t play for 24 hours straight or immediately provide me a recording of the performance so I could listen to it again on the flight home. I really don’t think that was asking too much.
Here’s a track from that Frisell recording, Quartet… my intro to Ron Miles. I listen to Ron Miles’ contribution to the song “Coffaro’s Theme” and can’t help but wonder how he’s not known in every household on the planet.
I think that’s a wrap for this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival coverage.
In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be writing up some albums by artists who performed at this year’s fest. So, truly, it never really ends. Not, at least, ’til next year.