Story and Photos by Greg Turner
Because of a family friend’s birthday celebration I only attended the first 2 days of the 4 day Chicago Jazz Festival. But this was the first time in many years that I was able to attend the first day, and I saw and heard plenty.
Thursday’s performances were held at the Chicago Cultural Center, a building that used to be the downtown Public Library. The Cultural Center has 2 performance spaces, the Preston Bradley Hall and the Claudia Cassidy Theater, Because of the musical variety I attended the theater performances. The Live The Spirit Residency Young Masters are a group of teenaged musicians under the tutelage of veteran Chicago saxophonist Ernest Dawkins. They played all original compositions, sounding like “grown folks”. San Francisco based tenor saxophonist Francis Wong joined forces with a quartet of Chicago musicians, saxophonists Edward Wilkerson Jr and Mwata Bowden, bassist Tatsu Aoki, who also played a Japanese stringed instrument called a “shamisen” and his daughter Kioto Aoki on Taiko Drum to perform a tribute to the late Chicago Saxophonist Fred Anderson. I would define it as a mixture of Asian folk music and avant garde jazz.
The afternoon’s highlight came from alto saxophonist Fred Jackson Jr, a native of Ft Worth TX, and his Erudition Project. Jackson, rising star saxophonist Isaiah Collier, his cousin bassist Micah Collier and drummer Vincent Davis, performed what Jackson calls explorations in tribute to Jackson’s fellow Ft Worth natives Ornette Coleman and Dewey Redman. It was very powerful music.
Thursday at the Jay Pritzker Pavillon, the festival’s mainstage, had only 2 performances and both earned standing ovations.
Tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman and his group,
guitarist Mike Allemana,
vibraphonist/pianist Thaddeus Tukes, bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Yoron Israel celebrated the 100th birthday of Chico’s father, legendary Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, who passed away in 2012, playing music Chico had played with his dad. Von’s younger brother and Chico’s uncle, 96 years old guitarist George Freeman, guested on one tune and vocalist Margaret Murphy Webb sang 2 standards.
The evening ended with bassist Ron Carter and his Foresight Quartet, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, pianist Donald Vega and drummer Payton Crossley. They played music Carter had played with various groups during his lengthy career. At 86 years of age Carter, one of the most recorded jazz musicians of our time, shows no signs of slowing down and his band complements him well.
Because I had seen so much on Thursday I focused on Friday’s Pritzker performances.
I really enjoyed tenor Saxophonist Walter Smith III and his quartet as they played a solid set of music from Smith’s latest Blue Note release “Return To Casual” I also enjoyed the set of Chicago tenor saxophonist Ari Brown and his longtime quintet, some of it celebrating his playing with jazz great Elvin Jones, some celebrating his recent marriage. I was looking forward to seeing vocalist Dianne Reeves, especially since her 2018 festival performance was rained out after one song. But, due to” unforeseen circumstances” she cancelled and was replaced by vocalist Kurt Elling and Superblue, a group led by guitarist Charlie Hunter. The performance was more funk and R&B oriented, representing a new direction for Elling. Let’s just say it was not my thing.
Even though it doesn’t feature as many “names” as the other Labor Day Jazz Festivals in Detroit and Washington D.C, The Chicago Jazz Festival is always a good time because of the programming by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Jazz Institute of Chicago and of course the city’s musicians.