Mid-August is always a predictable time in Chicago. The days get shorter; the wind whips around a little bit harder; each day gets a little bit cooler as autumn rears its ugly head. We Chicagoans are notorious for milking summer for all it's worth, which might be the real reason that the Chicago Jazz Festival is held on Labor Day weekend every year like clockwork. To this writer, there is something magical about sitting by the lake, taking in memorable melodies as the breeze from the lake keeps the atmosphere comfortable. I call it "baby bear cool"-- just right.
The first time I went to the Jazz Fest was in 1987. Wynton Marsalis introduced his quintet to the world and was only a few years away from putting his indelible stamp- for better or for worse- on Jazz at Lincoln Center and jazz in general. Marsalis didn't impress my eighteen-year-old ears: I felt even then that his classical training emotionally detached him from the music he professes to love and preserve. But I'm getting catty and that's a viewpoint for another time. It was the whole feeling of the night that got to me. Here was a musical form that my youthful ignorance blinded me to; introduced to me by my picking up two George Benson albums from a cutout bin at a Musicland ("The George Benson Collection" and "Collaboration" with Earl Klugh). A music so unlike the hair metal that ruled the airwaves and my record collection of that time, yet elicited an emotional response in me that to this day I have a hard time explaining to people. I was hooked for life on that night. Jazz became my opiate, my barbiturate, and my stimulant. It is a music that is eternally humbling, always showing me that for everything I learn about the music, there are untold lessons I've yet to figure. Every summer I schedule vacation time around the Chicago Jazz Festival, take a chair and a cooler to Grant Park, and listen.
The 23rd annual showcase of local and internationally acclaimed artists will take place from August 30th through September 2nd. The Chicago Jazz Festival doesn't get the press of the North Sea Jazz Festival or any of the series of JVC Jazz festivals across the country, and it doesn't get the support of the city that it should-- at $175,000 the Jazz Festival's programming budget is a fraction of the programming budget of the Chicago Blues Festival-- but the Jazz Institute of Chicago under the guidance of Executive Director Lauren Deutsch and the Mayor's office of Special Events have worked hard to maintain the festival's status as the largest major free jazz festival in the country, one that is programmed to reflect as many myriad styles of the jazz umbrella that they possibly can. Every year, thousands of jazz aficionados come to Chicago to take in the sounds of artists they otherwise might not be able to see, be aware of, or afford, given the pricey covers of venues like Chicago's Jazz Showcase or Green Dolphin Street.
Among the artists featured over this year's four-day festival are Dave Brubeck, Pharoah Sanders, Terence Blanchard, Gerald Wilson, and Germany's NDR Big Band, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, and a special tribute to Milt Hinton, who passed away earlier this year.
Brubeck and Sanders should provide the highlights of the festival. Brubeck will headline Friday night, performing a program of some of his rare experimental work from the late 1940's-- although I don't see him getting through his set without playing "Take Five". Sanders will play with Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio Thursday night before Ms. Bridgewater. This will mark Sanders' third appearance in less than a year in Chicago; his December performance with the Ritual Trio at HotHouse was one of the most blistering gigs I have ever seen. If he plays with a fraction of the intensity he displayed that night, this set could be a showstopper. Even so, Bridgewater is always up to the challenge of following a hot opening act.
Kurt Elling will be undoubtedly previewing songs from his upcoming release "Flirting With Twilight" (Blue Note). The album of ballads is a welcome change of pace from the Grammy nominated vocal pyrotechnics he's displayed in the past. His quartet on this evening will feature special guests Orbert Davis, Pat Mallinger, and Jim Gailloreto. Gerald Wilson, one of the seminal architects of the West Coast big band sound, will return to the festival on September 1st in a headline program that features Teddy Edwards and Harold Land.
The festival closes out on September 2nd with the one-two punch of the NDR Big Band and Blanchard. The NDR, Germany's oldest big band, will perform a program of songs written by Kurt Weill. Expect lots of improvising and tempo shifts that change on a dime. Blanchard closes the festival with a program that will lean heavily on his new album of Jimmy McHugh compositions "Let's Get Lost" (Sony Classical). Blanchard will be joined by guest vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Jane Monheit.
Other artist's to check out during the festival are pianist Jason Moran in solo recital at the Chicago Cultural Center on August 30th, Ralph Alessi's Modular Theater with Special guests Ravi Coltrane and George Colligan (also at the Cultural Center, August 31st), and a performance of Tatsu Aoki's "Rooted: Origins of Now" on September1st. "Rooted" will use a big band setting to explore the marriage of Asian rhythms and improvised melodies that Aoki usually reserves for his Miyumi Project.