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A gumbo of grooves closes out the 35th Chicago Jazz Festival

For the closing night of the Chicago Jazz Festival, reggae and ska met slinky R&B and what New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison calls “nouveau swing” his longrunning gambit to reach a wider audience.

Artist in residence Hamid Drake helmed the island beats in the company of Bindu-Reggaeology, his stellar septet with guitarist Jeff Parker, in fromLos Angeles; Josh Abrams’ bass; the twin trombones of Jeb Bishop and Jeff Albert; Cincinnati beatboxer/rapper Napoleon Maddox and special guest Jason Adaseiwicz on vibraphone.

After trio and quartet gigs and a summit with longrunning sparring partner Michael Zerang and taiko drum troupe Tsukasa, it was time for drummer Drake to hit the festival’s main stage. Clearly delighted to be at the Pritzker Pavilion i Millennium Park, Drake joked that it was only because he had friends on the Jazz Institute board that he’d been selected as the festival’s artist-in-residence.

Then after free interplay between Bishop, Albert and Maddox, with a snare crack he and Abrams launched into “Kali’s Children No Cry” from Bindu’s 2010 record on the French Rogueart label. Though not on that CD, Adasiewicz, himself originally a drummer, fell quickly in synch with Drake, even peeling up the bar strips of the vibraphone and dropping them back in order to elicit more percussive sounds from his instrument.

Abrams watched Drake’s sticks closely to see when he would change the beat and double or cut the time. The latter strategy was part and parcel during Bishop’s arrangement of Fred Anderson’s “Three on Two,” which was heralded by a heartfelt shoutout to late saxophonist/clubowner Anderson, a crucial influence on Drake’s career. Midway into the set Maddox let loose with his equivocal lyrics to “Meeting and Parting” exhorting the love of someone he purports not to love. Drake’s retarding then snapping back of the beat created great tension and release, and Bindu closed with an unexpected crowd pleaser — a romp through the Skatalite’s 1964 classic “Confucius.”

With some pretension the next group up, Robert Glasper’s quartet, had clearly requested risers for drums and keys. The additional height made it impossible for the audience to see Glasper’s nimble piano fingers at work, Jumbotron or no Jumbotron. Saxophonist Corey Benjamin noodling on the keytar strapped round his neck in tandem with random vocoder vocals didn’t make up for it, although Sade’s “Cherish the Day” from Glasper’s 2012 easy listening Blue Note smash “Black Radio” was discernable. Glasper also offered props to the late trumpeter Donald Byrd as Benjamin shared the inane lyrics to Byrd’s “Think Twice.”

Meanwhile hot ticket bassist Derrick Hodge fleetingly recalled Jaco Pastorius with that fretless sound as drummer Mark Colenburg hooked into breakbeat drum loops. There’s a precedent for much of this in Ronnie Laws’ music from the mid-70s but Glasper, now in demand as a producer, is re-ploughing that niche. The Chicago audience, more accustomed to freejazz than funk, particularly at this year’s festival, didn’t seem fully sold on Glasper’s smooth ’tude, and the set was too long.

Alto saxist Donald Harrison, a festival favorite, had more luck getting over with his young band from Louisiana, although his self styled “nouveau swing” — jazz with a soulful twist — is basically a catch-all for broader appeal. Although Harrison spent almost as much time vocalizing (after a fashion) as Benjamin (who played fairly bruising alto, too, when he wanted to), he did tuck in to a fierce solo on Coltrane’s “Mr PC” after “Tico, Tico” (wrongly attributed to Charlie Parker, although Parker did play it) backed by local guest pianist Willie Pickens.

Just as Glasper proved exceptionally generous to his sidemen, Harrison and his group left the stage so Pickens could dazzle with a courageous, torrential piano solo over “Giant Steps.” It was quite a while until we heard Harrison’s lovely, feathery alto again, a keening, impassioned sound that led Lena Horne to dub him “Mr Cool Breeze” during his six year tenure in her group.

Finally Harrison ushered on the resplendent Congo Nation mardi gras Indian troupe from New Orleans and some of the crowd cracked open umbrellas (to second line rather than shield from the dripping rain). Harrison rewarded fans for their enthusiasm by tossing out T-shirts and copies of his recent CD “Quantum Leap” from the stage, as Millennium Park, which had been packed for most of the weekend, rain or shine, slowly started to empty out.

Michael Jackson is a local free-lance writer.

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