For the record, other great sets were turned in by Craig Taborn and Ryan Schultz. And it was really remarkable the way that Chicagoans treated experimental jazz as just another phase of the music.
Celebrating Sonic Experimentation at the Chicago Jazz Festival
While jazz heads usually debate about East vs. West Coast, a festival asks, why not the Windy City?
George Freeman performing at the 37th Chicago Jazz Festival. ENLARGE
George Freeman performing at the 37th Chicago Jazz Festival. Photo: Lauren Deutsch
By Martin Johnson
Sept. 8, 2015 6:16 p.m. ET
The 37th Chicago Jazz Festival concluded Sunday night at Millennium Park with a rare performance by the Experimental Band led by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, and in its four-day run the annual event highlighted and reinforced several important trends in jazz.
The festival celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a group formed by Mr. Abrams and three other composers to nurture the ideas of and offer performances by local musicians whose interests extended beyond the jazz mainstream. The organization quickly grew into an international phenomenon, and key members like Mr. Abrams, saxophonist Henry Threadgill, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and others became recognized both in jazz and contemporary classical music. The group stressed an inclusive approach. The Art Ensemble’s motto was “great black music from the ancient to the future,” and its repertoire included homages to jazz greats Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, two devout critics of the genre’s avant garde.
Many early members of the AACM relocated to New York, and a local chapter developed there. But in the past few years many stellar musicians have either stayed in Chicago or moved to other cities like Los Angeles. New York’s prohibitive costs are helping to create an increasingly decentralized jazz scene. There are impressive communities of musicians in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, and while none of those cities yet rival New York for prominence, frequent-flier miles rather than subway MetroCards are now required to take in the best in American jazz.
The Chicago scene is growing. In addition to the festival, which takes place downtown, there is an exceptional artist-run space, Constellation, on the North Side; on the South Side, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which is later this month, showcases both local and nationally renowned performers. The music program at DePaul University has become an incubator for leading jazz performers.
With concerts starting at noon and lasting until late in the evening each night, there was a lot of interesting music at the Chicago Jazz Festival, much of it by local musicians. For instance, on the first afternoon of the festival, one highlight was the set by the James Davis group Beveled, a sextet with the unique front line of two flugelhorns, two bass clarinets, bass and drums. They performed in the domed space atop the Chicago Cultural Center (a building across the street from Millennium Park), and the setting allowed the watercolor sonics of the flugelhorns to mesh with the low rumble of the bass clarinets with great clarity. On Saturday, in one of the tents set up in the park, bassist Jason Roebke led an octet that roared through tricky compositions with great ease. One of Sunday afternoon’s best performances came from some of the youngest musicians at the festival, the Kenwood High School Jazz Ensemble. The orchestra of teenagers deftly tackled the complex yet accessible work of AACM composers Edward Wilkerson and Douglas Ewart.
A Saturday highlight was Mr. Ewart and his group Inventions, as they wove poetry into a reggae-tinged adaptation of Ornette Coleman’s classic “Lonely Woman.” Saxophonist Chico Freeman, the son of local jazz great Von Freeman (1923-2012), returned to the city with his Chicago Project, a band that featured members of his father’s band and his uncle George Freeman, a spry 88-year-old guitarist who once played with Charlie Parker.
The festival was ambitiously programmed: Not only is experimental jazz rarely heard at free events that attract thousands of people (the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the festival’s primary outdoor venue, has an 11,000-person capacity) but many of the best jazz acts are designed for intimate spaces. Yet several acts filled the large space admirably. Guitarist Jeff Parker, an AACM member who relocated to Los Angeles a few years ago, presented a superb trio with bassist Chris Lopes and drummer Chad Taylor. Mr. Taylor’s nimble, insistent rhythms, Mr. Lopes’s big woody sound and Mr. Parker’s pungent ringing tone captivated the large crowd. Vocalist Cyrille Aimée led a gypsy-influenced quartet that offered fascinating spins on the work of Jim Morrison and Michael Jackson.
By Sunday evening it seemed entirely appropriate that the festival would close with the Experimental Band, a group that led to the formation of the AACM. The band featured several leading figures, including Mr. Threadgill and Mr. Smith, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, pianist Amina Claudine Myers and percussionists Thurman Barker and Reggie Nicholson. They played an hourlong piece written by Mr. Abrams for the event, and it was serene; innovative harmonies in the ensemble sections contrasted with pithy, winding solo and duo sections. It concluded four days of music that showed that Chicago’s jazz scene is still a hotbed of experimentation and that some of the pioneers of that sound are still on the cutting edge.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.