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Jazz Festival a cool hit; eclectic mix delivers potent musicmaking

The Jazz Summit Chicago Jazz Festival. Ravi Coltrane (from left) Dave Liebman Joe Lovano | Michael Jackson~For Sun-Times

The Jazz Summit at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Ravi Coltrane (from left), Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano | Michael Jackson~For the Sun-Times

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Updated: November 22, 2011 11:13AM

The final installment of the “Made in Chicago” series in Millennium Park ushered in the first day of the Chicago Jazz Festival last Thursday evening with another successful collaboration featuring a jazz giant and Columbia College’s Chicago Jazz Ensemble, directed by drummer Dana Hall.

Giant is the word for Randy Weston. At 6 feet eight inches tall (add another six inches for his kufi hat), his legs barely fit under the Steinway at the Pritzker Pavilion, and the piano keys were engulfed by his enormous hands. Weston beneficently introduced the music, inspired by his longtime association with trombonist/arranger Melba Liston (who died in 1999), revisiting the “African Sunrise” composition that featured Dizzy Gillespie with the Machito Orchestra at the Festival back in 1984. “Sketch of Melba” betrayed Weston’s fondness for Thelonious Monk, with its unhurried, incisive dollops at the keyboard. The 85-years-young pianist seemed to delight more in the outstanding solos from the ensemble, which included spirited blowing from Art Hoyle, Pat Mallinger and altoist Gerard Harris, than his own playing.

As groomed as the CJE is, Hall’s off-the-cuff announcements and muscular playing — his dreaded hair flying during solos on his own composition “Tales of the Gimbri”— made the impact of the Ensemble far from stuffy. Yet there was a sense of the meeting of rough and smooth when Weston’s journeyman team of saxist/flautist TK Blue, percussionist Neil Clarke and superbly earthy, completely original bassist Alex Blake, joined them.

Friday night there was a new vibe in the park. The opening set from soulful guitarist Bobby Broom and Deep Blue Organ Trio all too briefly featured altoist Bobby Watson. Watson joined in only for a couple of songs with the band, including a funky take on “Wings and Things,” the title tune from a 1965 album with Wild Bill Davison and Johnny Hodges. Also harking back to 1965, specifically a Down Beat Jazz Festival appearance by John Coltrane and Archie Shepp at Soldier Field, saxist Dave Liebman introduced material from the most uncompromising phase of Coltrane’s career, during the headlining set from what was billed as the “Saxophone Summit.”

The attempt to channel the bygone essence of Coltrane’s ecstatic spirituality seemed a little awkward as Liebman, with eyes closed in rapture, summoned the zone; he and Joe Lovano would occasionally let one hand leave their horns and levitate skyward as if in revelatory prayer. By contrast, Ravi Coltrane, twenty years Liebman’s junior, who was born the year of the commemorated concert of his father, paid respects in a more matter-of-fact fashion.

Liebman clearly had no intention of diluting the force of the music that originally inspired him and though the saxophones were primarily involved with weaving untempered texture together and raising ghosts, more strategy was evident in the clever harmonizations on the melody to “India,” which followed the shimmering “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Ghost” suite from Coltrane’s “Meditations” (1965).

The intense saxophony was levied when Liebman and Lovano took to bamboo flutes. But perhaps the most outstanding moment, nothwithstanding unique bass solos from Cecil McBee and the integrity of pianist Phil Markowitz, was when Liebman’s soprano sax shattered infinitesimal sound crystals in a duel against Billy Hart’s thunderous drums.

Saturday’s afternoon events were disrupted by a storm which curtailed Jeremy Khan’s worthy Pepper Adams Project. Khan had imported legendary saxophonist Pat LaBarbara from Toronto and singer Alexis Cole from New York for his set. But in view of the recent stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair, organizers were taking no chances and the Jazz on Jackson stage was shut down until the worst of the weather past.

Fortunately rain didn’t stop play earlier for young trumpeter Marquis Hill’s Black-Tet. Hill’s quintet, which features strong bassist John Tate and excellent saxophonist Chris McBride, was a delight, the knowingly poised, tonally restrained attitude of the frontline sounding beautiful on “Never Again” from the Spike Lee movie “Mo’Better Blues” and Hill’s catchy, meter-shifting “The Thump.”

Saturday night, another homegrown trumpet star, now 30, Maurice Brown grabbed his first jazz fest mainstage gig as a leader by the scruff of the neck alongside saxist Derek Douget. Brown’s band were bound to get across with funky drummer Joe Blaxx and fashion pioneer, bassist Solomon Dorsey (Dorsey’s shorts with bright yellow socks were unusual); Brown himself sported a sharp-cut red jacket with a huge image of Jimi Hendrix on back. Despite Brown’s showmanship, as a performer, his concepts, including excerpts from his “Cycle of Love” suite have substance, the mellow lilt of “Merry Go Round” with its interpolations from “In A Sentimental Mood” revealing thoughtfulness beneath flash.

Next up, “Trio 3” — with Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille and pianist Geri Allen — were strictly business with zero grandstanding. Lake’s onstage diffidence and the group’s off-putting preoccupation with the sheet music belied some superb playing on Eric Dolphy’s “Gazzaloni” and Lake’s “Flow” plus recitations of Mary Lou William’s words from “What’s Your Story Morning Glory” via drummer Cyrille. Cyrille’s “Navigator” finished the set; a disarmingly simple tune that revealed the deep focus of Lake’s tone (utterly unique if you discount resemblance to Arthur Blythe, his onetime cohort in the World Saxophone Quartet) and included a meaty latin section for Allen.

Not to be outdone by up-and-comers around the park, artist-in-residence Orbert Davis took no prisoners with a blistering opening trumpet solo over a groovy composition he wrote for a commercial for the Toyota Infinity. Witty and on great form, Davis then settled into his svengali role over the orchestra, introducing special guests: young Polish percussionist Marianna Soroka, pianist Brandon McCune, and violinist Zach Brock. The latter two were featured on Davis’ overt homage to Mozart, whom he insisted, because of his use of chromaticism, “was definitely a jazz musician.” During “Amadeus Had A Dream,” stage lights were dimmed leaving the orchestra members in silhouette and the audience slack-jawed at the marvel of Brock’s Paganini-level mastery.

Other stars of the ensemble were Steve Eisen on flute and tenor, soloing on “Moreno,” Davis’ addendum to the Miles Davis/Gil Evans Sketches of Spain, before the dark-hued finale of “Family Portrait” an excerpt from Davis’ promising commissioned piece “Life.”

One letdown notwithstanding the insistent dripping rain all day, was the truncated set from Cassandra Wilson, which started half and hour late and finished ten minutes early. Wilson proved to be her usual unflappable self, particularly in cahoots with handsome harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret on “Saddle Up My Pony” and “Forty Days and Forty Nights.” Still her wet but intrepid, poncho-clad public were somewhat shortchanged.

Michael Jackson is a local free-lance writer and photographer.

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