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Concert Review 2013.09.03 -CHICAGO JAZZ FESTIVAL
for the Chicago Tribune
Review: Chicago Jazz Festival goes eclectic for grand finale
"...among the foremost clarinet virtuosos working today"
September 2, 2013
You know a jazz festival has ventured into unusual territory when Lupe Fiasco eases onto the stage. That happened Sunday night as the 35th annual Chicago Jazz Festival was approaching the finish line, the Chicago rapper making an unannounced cameo with the Robert Glasper Experiment - a band that won a Grammy earlier this year for best R&B album (for "Black Radio"). Did any of this have anything to do with jazz? Not much. Did that matter? Not to the throngs that cheered Fiasco's brief, joyful appearance or Glasper's soulful, plugged-in, high-volume, dance-inducing music.
It certainly made for an eclectic finale, the last night of the fest an unlikely mix of styles, influences and traditions - just like jazz itself. Some moments were more satisfying than others, and the last evening of the fest didn't match earlier high points: Saturday's brilliant set from singer Gregory Porter, Friday's profundities from Wadada Leo Smith and Thursday's experiments from Jack DeJohnette.
But the wildly unpredictable last day of the festival seemed an apt metaphor for an event that was trying something new: a move from Grant Park to Millennium Park. Not everything goes smoothly when you're taking a chance, which is half the fun.
That said, Glasper's band - though rousing much of the audience and delivered at an unassailably high musical level - sounded as if it had wandered into the wrong festival when it appeared at the Pritzker Pavilion. You could be enchanted by vocalist Casey Benjamin's high-pitched cries and intrigued by Glasper's fluid right-hand lines on keyboards without being convinced that this performance fit this event.
Certainly many hard-core jazz listeners would have considered the trance-like nature of Glasper's performance a bit tepid, the backbeats relentless, the reverb overdone. And some "Black Radio" fans posting on Facebook during the concert found Glasper restrained by the Jazz Fest setting.
Either way, this was a curve ball, and every festival ought to have one or two of them.
The second one followed Glasper to end the fest, New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison bringing the Mardi Gras Indians of his Congo Square Nation onto the Pritzker stage. Harrison's late father, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., led the Guardians of the Flame tribe, and the saxophonist continues to champion this noble tradition, in which the Mardi Gras Indians chant and sway, wearing opulent feathered costumes.
The other high point of Harrison's set belonged to a Chicago jazz giant the saxophonist has long admired: pianist Willie Pickens. Harrison turned over the stage to Pickens for an extended solo, and Pickens made the most of it, producing a magnificent, larger-than-life version of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." But this wasn't a simple traversal of the tune - it was a wholesale reconstruction, Pickens making the piano shake with galvanic left-hand octaves, fast-flying right-hand phrases, colossal chord clusters and other thunderbolts.
Drummer Hamid Drake capped his tenure as the festival's artist in residence by revisiting the music from his album "Reggaeology." Avant-garde jazz and traditional reggae intertwined beautifully in this set, Drake's gripping rhythms the connective tissue between the two. To open Sunday night at the Pritzker, 86-year-old saxophonist Jimmy Heath played rambunctious solos, the admired artist proving once again that bebop remains the music of the future. Casual listeners may have wondered how a musician of this vintage maintains his fire, but regular visitors to the Jazz Showcase, where Heath's tours take him periodically, know he never has turned down the flame.
The afternoon stages at the Jazz Festival on Sunday offered a few highlights, as well, particularly in the work of New Orleans clarinetist Evan Christopher, who should have been given a main stage berth. He ranks among the foremost clarinet virtuosos working today, as he reiterated at the Von Freeman Pavilion in original compositions and Crescent City classics alike. How Christopher maintained a glowing tone while tossing off mercurial technical feats, riding Afro-Caribbean rhythms all the while, was something of a mystery.
And Chicago guitarist Fareed Haque, best known for applying his jazz sensibilities to various currents of world-music (and vice versa), recertified his credentials in mainstream swing playing with organist Tony Monaco and drummer Makaya McCraven at the Jazz and Heritage Pavilion.
So this year's Chicago Jazz Festival can be considered a qualified success (crowd estimates were not available as of Monday). The Pritzker Pavilion emerged as an ideal venue for nighttime attractions; Millennium Park was an idyllic setting; the afternoon side stages needed some fine tuning.
Now this festival should embrace the rest of the city, making the clubs and concert halls integral to the event, rather than kept outside of it.
Chicago jazz is too big and dynamic to be celebrated at a single address.
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