Ernie Krivda plays at the Chicago Jazz Festival. | Michael Jackson~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 3, 2013 6:14AM
The Jazz Festival’s move to Millennium Park, which organizers balked at for years because it is smaller than the area around nearby Petrillo Bandshell, has grown considerably in intensity and excitement.
True, the al fresco stage on Jackson has been replaced by massive, dingy tents flanking a major tourist attraction, Anish Kapoor’s mirrored “Bean,” but given recent rained-out shows, that seemed a blessing. Unfortunately a storm hit Friday. This truncated Miguel de la Cerna’s set in the Von Freeman Pavilion and wiped the tribute to Ken Chaney (a major bummer given a commission for 14-piece orchestra, plus flying in arranger-trombonist TS Galloway from Holland).
It looked likely Geof Bradfield’s ambitious Melba! project would meet the same fate, but the tempest didn’t linger, only causing a 30-minute delay.
Randy Weston showed up late, just in time to perform a new arrangement of “African Sunrise,” a piece celebrated at the festival twice before. Bona fide jazz royalty, pianist Weston played with his usual insouciance. It would have been interesting to hear him navigate the eponymous composition Bradfield wrote for Weston, but the band wasn’t complaining, upping the ante immediately when the Brobdingnagian 87-year-old strided on stage.
Victor Garcia, scripted by Bradfield to recall Dizzy Gillespie in this tribute to Melba Liston — legendary arranger for Gillespie and Weston — raised the already high Pritzker roof with trumpet screams and half-valved shakes, much as he had earlier in organist Ben Paterson’s stellar quartet. Though backstage rooms in the Gehry structure are soundproofed from front-of-house, one wonders if Garcia’s efforts were lost on Wadada Leo Smith, who brought his own game of stark trumpet intensity during excerpts from extended work “Ten Freedom Summers,” during which his Golden Quartet and specifically drummer Pheeroan akLaff were baffled from cellist Ashley Waters and chamber group Pacifica Red Coral by a plexi soundwall.
WLS treated the two ensembles as distinct entities during parts of the opus — excerpts included “Brown vs. Board of Education,” “Emmett Till,” “Sept 11th” and the topical “March on Washington 1963” — then united them. Respite from the high def of the million dollar onstage Jumbotron were visuals from Jesse Gilbert. Downbeat booth staff at the back of the park weren’t complaining about the Jumbotron, since they got to see and hear what they usually miss, and excellent sound allayed lengthy beer lines. Charles Lloyd’s tranquil tones contrasted with the fragmented textures of Smith and Lloyd’s recent hook with Bill Frisell is the hippest sax-guitar alliance since Joe Lovano met John Scofield. Frisell, with back to the audience — for closer listening? — toyed with new effects beyond the obvious sell-by of several tunes, but all was gauzy and gorgeous.
Intense guitarist John McLean evinced Frisell influence during a one-off set from Satoko Fujii’s outrageous orchestra in the Von Freeman tent on Saturday. McLean, whose last-minute inclusion in this fertile twelve piece was an inspired suggestion by Neil Tesser, underpinned broad swaths of Fujii’s hourlong piece with powerful, stalking lines.
Corey Wilkes’ whammy and wah wah pedals triggered simultaneously during his trumpet solo, giving more electro-funky oomph than bargained for but Sakoto applauds unapologetic showmanship; crackling creativity ensued around her anthemic motifs, titled after the “chance encounter” philosophy of Japanese tea ceremonies.
Frenchman Christian Pruvost amazed with his elongated trumpet mouthpiece fashioned from plastic tubing with a whistle at the end. Fujii delighted in her gamble on the local talent pool — which yolked Dave Rempis in a sax section with Ernest Dawkins, two fiery players who seldom meet — and her explosive show contrasted well with preceding sets from Ernie Krivda and Erin McDougald. The latter riffed on the rain with “No Weather for Ducks” and took off with the bolero tinged “Where Flamingos Fly.”
Her band included omnipresent bassman Larry Gray, fill-in drummer Paul Wertico (too loud in the tent) and double threat guitarist/pianist Rob Block.
McDougald’s periodic Betty Carter-like fantasias coincided with the noirish stylings of Krivda, whose rendition of “Emerald” — an encomium for his “steroid-fed” front lawn, was a highlight.
Gregory Porter clutched the crowd with a rousing set notable for pianist Chip Crawford’s sly wit, teasing with “The In Crowd” riff (referencing Porter’s upcoming album Liquid Spirit), during a protracted intro to “Work Song” (from his previous Be Good).
Substantial musical meat followed with Rudresh Mahanthappa’s superb Gamak quartet, the leader piercing pretension with a remark about liking the term “Wrathful Wisdom” without knowing its Buddhist significance; lampooning the inevitable end-of-set merch plug with, “you can find us on My Space, Facebook, Twitter and… My Twit Face.” He refuted anyone prone to dismiss him as a speed merchant, with a beautiful, becalming ballad dedicated to the embattled citizens of Syria.
Jason Moran capped the evening with his multifaceted Fats Waller review, during which fans of his piano playing would have most enjoyed his solo rendition of Waller’s “Handful of Keys.” Moran maintained basic Fender Rhodes grooves while his cast of gregarious jump dancers and singer Lisa E Harris did their thing, ostensible nods to Waller including subtle re-harmonization of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and the cascading melody of “Jitterbug Waltz” purloined for an rhythm and blues stretch out worthy of Sunday night’s Robert Glasper.
Michael Jackson is a local free-lance writer.