Akinmusire Debuts Poignant Multimedia Project at Chicago’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival

DownBeat

by Michael Jackson

Ambrose Akinmusire unveils his new multimedia project, “Banyan,” at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago on Sept. 26. (Photo: Michael Jackson)

Ambrose Akinmusire unveils his new multimedia project, “Banyan,” at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago on Sept. 26. (Photo: Michael Jackson)

Under the sharp curatorial ear of artistic director Kate Dumbleton, abetted by Hyde Park Jazz Society’s vivacious, indefatigable Judith Stein and a team of half a dozen effective women (plus nearly 300 volunteers), the ninth annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival proved once again to be a highlight in Chicago’s cultural calendar.

On Sept. 26–27, more than 40 jazz events in 14 locations energized the picturesque environs in and around the mile-long Midway Plaisance, six miles south of Chicago’s downtown Loop neighborhood.

The event was made possible with funding from the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, The Logan Center, The Joyce Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, the Rebuild Foundation and public donations. Community-oriented commissioned projects included percussionist Mikel Patrick Avery’s Parade and cellist Tomeka Reid’s string ensemble. In large part due to Dumbleton’s persistence, the world premiere of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s multimedia presentation “Banyan” also transpired.

Duos were a significant feature of the festival’s first day. Bassist Matt Ferguson and guitarist Mike Allemana helmed three sets at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, and violinist Regina Carter and Xavier Davis wooed Rockerfeller Chapel with a gorgeous Astor Piazzolla piece followed wittily at the stroke of midnight by Ellington's “Come Sunday.”

Earlier, veteran singer Mary Stallings and pianist Bruce Barth performed. They were followed by Chicago-born reedist Henry Threadgill and Cuban pianist David Virelles at the Logan Center’s main performance hall.

The latter set was typically uncompromising. Starting 15 minutes late, Threadgill commenced with five minutes of eerie antiphony on bass flute before Virelles, 40 years his junior, was given the nod to join in. Having received a Canadian grant to study with Threadgill, the Cuban knew well what was expected of him. Though Virelles’ playing was exclamatory—deploying knuckles, elbows and hammerings with the heel of his hand—he appeared to be closely tracing notated music the whole time, as was Threadgill, though nothing was announced.

Concentrating on flutes, agitating limpid soundpools into nervy ripples, Threadgill eventually called upon that keening yet stubby alto saxophone sound that remains instantly recognizable, as signature as that of the late Ornette Coleman. If it is less known, it is perhaps due to the thorniness and unrelenting metrical drive of the former’s approach, which, despite Threadgill’s wit for appending snappy titles to his music—when he’s of a mind—suggests an irrevocable continuum sans neat beginnings/endings.

Another stellar duo, parlaying more parabolic lyricism, was that of guitarist Jeff Parker and reedist Geof Bradfield, who performed obscurities and some of Thelonious Monk’s more challenging repertoire with astonishing simpatico in the responsive acoustical environment of Hyde Park Union Church.

Transitioning from tenor sax to soprano and bass clarinet, Bradfield was flawless, his timing acute. Parker has always had a highly individual and disarmingly loose sense of rhythm, and the tension of his attack, coupled with the warmth of his tone, contrasted Bradfield’s agile lyricism.

The material—which included Monk’s seldom perused “Gallop’s Gallop,” “Brake’s Sake,” “Light Blue,” “Coming On The Hudson” and “Work”—appeared to be second nature for the artists, allowing them to focus on tight listening, rhythm and tone control.

Two other duos in the rarefied setting of the ninth-floor penthouse of the Logan Center threatened to render many other acts at the festival comparatively bourgeois. Local saxophone titans Dave Rempis and Nick Mazzarella were separately featured in battle with, respectively, drummers Frank Rosaly and Dana Hall.

Mazzarella is an alto sax specialist, and his vintage Conn is as much part of his centered deportment as was Coleman’s plastic Grafton alto back in the day. Despite his air of calm and consideration, Mazzarella unleashed fiercely expressionistic music, all hinged with sober study of his lineage.

Hall, DePaul University’s director of jazz studies, turned feral behind the kit, playing intensely with arms akimbo (he had a reserve pair stashed underarm). With dreadlocks swinging, his efforts left him drenched in perspiration. During a moment of quietude, Mazzarella’s alto uncannily recalled a Native American flute as he feathered the keys.

An hour later, Rempis and Rosaly mirrored the excellence and integrity of Mazzarella and Hall. Rempis is a criminally undersung tour de force. Alto was his first horn, but he is equally stentorian on tenor and baritone. As with Mazarella, Rempis’ command of all registers is daunting and virtuosic. What he plays, however abstract, pushes past pure catharsis, never becoming pointlessly repetitive.

Playing a snare drum swaddled in fabric and metal tassels, Rosaly drew on an arsenal of small cymbals, gongs and diverse brushes, chattering the looped end of his nylon whisks between drumhead fasteners, or cross-sticking like a deliberately clumsy, postmodern Gene Krupa, even using fingertips or spastically wafting hands and elbows above the kit as if to nudge the airflow.

As fun as Rosaly is to watch, with his stick-spinning mannerism and febrile busy-ness, his playing in relation to Rempis revealed a chemistry that’s far from just spontaneous (they have toured as a duo but not played as such for some time). The drummer mimicked and contrasted against the clacks and squalls of Rempis’ cycle-breathed saxophone.

Such intimate intensity in the sunlit penthouse was a marked departure from the silhouetted 12-piece orchestra assembled by Ambrose Akinmusire for his premiere of “Banyan.” Much as Miguel Zenón has done, “graduate level” jazz artists, inspired by the peculiarly communal aspects of the music, have expanded traditional horizons to get sociopolitical points across and shed light on forgotten elders. Steve Reich and Jason Moran are precursors to Akinmusire’s conceit here, but there’s no doubting his sincerity or originality.

The banyan is a sacred fig tree in India referred to in the Bhagavat Gita. Its roots grow up as its branches hang down. Perhaps Akinmusire refers to the value of elders in the community and the respect due from the new generation.

To this end, a huge video screen the width of the stage in the Logan Hall interspersed homespun footage of such sages as Archie Shepp, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Threadgill and Bertha Hope-Booker, among animated caricatures and other abstractions.

The music began with elegiac longtones and Akinmusire’s sensitivity to syntax (evident from his fabulously titled Blue Note releases When The Heart Emerges Glistening and The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint). His crack ensemble—including Jason Palmer, Josh Roseman, Marcus Strickland and Justin Brown—functioned more as soundtrack orchestra than big band.

Akinmusire juggled solo space for his crew (nice trumpet volley from Jumaane Smith) during passages where a morphing multicolored stave or anime-style shell-like organisms prevailed onscreen.

Perhaps to placate those eager to hear the mellifluous tone and patent pendulous notes from the leader’s own trumpet, Akinmusire came downstage in the dim light to echo and semantically underline Shepp’s utterance of the word “meaning.” Thence the full ensemble came to a dramatic “da-da-DATT!” cacophonous finale.

Given how in-demand Akinmusire is (he just performed another commissioned piece, “The Forgotten Places” at the 2015 Monterrey Jazz Festival), he’s to be commended for his equilibrium, not to mention the vision of his work.

So, too, are the organizers of this cleverly balanced festival. The fall in Chicago is a new season to be celebrated, and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival always seems to provide the perfect weekend for milling along the Midway.

(Note: To read a review of the 2014 Hyde Park Jazz Festival, click here.)