Hyde Park Jazz Fest Spotlights the Masters

Chicago Tribune

by Howard Reich

A single neighborhood became the jazz nexus of the city over the weekend, as the eighth annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival swung into churches, galleries, the Midway Plaisance and more.

The event, which ends Sunday, drew enormous crowds and showed Chicago what a great jazz festival is all about. Following is a diary of Saturday’s indelible music-making:

1:45 p.m.: Ari Brown Quintet at Wagner Stage on the Midway. You could hear Brown’s steeped-in-blue tenor saxophone from blocks away. It was an ideal sound to open the fest, for Brown practically embodies the Chicago tenor tradition, though reconsidered through the aesthetic of John Coltrane. Sure, Brown was playing an ancient standard, “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” but, as always, he transformed it with seeming effortlessness. So, too, the subsequent tunes in his set, Brown offering characteristic grandeur of tone, expansiveness of gesture and deliberation of tempo.

3:30 p.m.: Dee Alexander at Wagner Stage. The largest outdoor crowd I’ve seen at the festival since its inception converged here more than half an hour before the set. This amounted to a reaffirmation of singer Alexander’s stature as a top Chicago jazz artist with a perpetually growing fan base. Alexander was in sumptuous voice, her sound radiant in the middle register, beautifully rounded on top and evocatively husky down below. She showed suppleness of voice and a blues-swing sensibility in “Now or Never,” high-flying scat singing in “Perdido” and tragicomic drama in “Guess Who I Saw Today,” all from her new “Songs My Mother Loves” album. Alexander had been scheduled to share the stage with saxophonist Oliver Lake, but the weekend’s mess at O’Hare and Midway airports prevented his appearance. No matter. Chicago saxophonist Irvin Pierce had plenty to say, and pianist-arranger Miguel de la Cerna consistently found the right tempos for a singer of uncommon versatility.

4:05 p.m.: Art Hoyle at Hyde Park Union Church. Another Chicago treasure, trumpeter Hoyle recently turned 85, but you wouldn’t know it from the buoyancy of his rhythms or the exuberance of his spirit. Hoyle focused on traditional and bebop-era tunes, two of several realms in his wide artistic vocabulary. Much of the appeal of this quintet owed to the interaction between Hoyle and reedist Eric Schneider, Hoyle’s lithe trumpet lines jubilantly answered by Schneider’s arabesques on clarinet. And who could resist the musicians’ account of “I Thought About You,” Hoyle unspooling silken phrases on fluegelhorn and Schneider evoking an earlier, more romantic era on tenor saxophone.

5:20 p.m.: Tomeka Reid’s Hear in Now at Logan Center. This one-of-a-kind trio packed Logan Center’s Performance Hall, with additional listeners waiting to get in. Joined by violinist Mazz Swift and bassist Silvia Bolognesi, Chicago cellist Reid unfurled music that blithely ignored walls typically separating jazz, classical, avant-garde and other idioms. Moreover, because violinist Swift often sang wordless lines in unison with her fiddle, Hear in Now produced four-part counterpoint rich in musical incident. The trio performed original compositions by each of its members, the repertoire ranging from densely written works to warmly lyrical pieces, the set combining high sophistication with easy accessibility.

6:45 p.m.: Nicole Mitchell’s Ice Crystal at International House. The protean flutist, who flourished in Chicago until accepting an academic appointment in California three years ago, had been scheduled to premiere “Water Walker,” contemplation on her environmental concerns. But “I rebelled against myself,” she told a capacity audience, deciding instead to write and perform new tunes addressing the tumult of violence and other urban strife in Chicago. Perhaps only Mitchell knows the explicit connections between her scores and the real-life topics she explored, but on purely musical terms her work with Ice Crystal proved gripping in content and fluid in delivery. Mitchell layered her legato lines, quicksilver figures and novel sonic effects above Jason Adasiewicz’s vividly ringing vibraphone, Joshua Abrams’ robustly stated bass lines and Frank Rosaly’s crisply articulated drum work.

8:10 p.m.: Dana Hall’s Black Ark Movement at Logan Center. Each season seems to bring an unexpected new venture from Chicago drummer Hall, director of jazz studies at DePaul University. He unveiled his latest project, Black Ark Movement, which he has conceived to explore the landmark collaboration of reedist John Carter and trumpeter Bobby Bradford. In “Scramble,” clarinetist Ben Goldberg and trumpeter Russ Johnson improvised nimble, cat-and-mouse duets. In “Seeking,” John Wojciechowski’s expressively bent notes on flute, Robert Hurst’s sonorous sliding pitches on bass and Hall’s delicate, hand-held percussion yielded an austere sonic beauty. The tour de force arrived with “Sticks and Stones,” the entire ensemble finessing mercurial, ferociously syncopated rhythms.

9:30 p.m.: J.D. Allen Quartet at Logan Center. The tenor saxophonist came on strong from the start, his sound immense, his tone penetrating, his gestures broad. Allen’s colleagues ramped up the intensity still further, with particularly striking work from pianist Orrin Evans, his solos as expansive as his accompaniments were hard driving.

11 p.m.: Craig Taborn at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Many artists have given late-night festival performances at Rockefeller through the years, but none has used the acoustically challenging space as effectively or dramatically as pianist Taborn did in a stunning solo set. The solemn chords of his opening essay in sound resonated majestically in this hyper-reverberant room, while his pianissimo single notes floated into the ether. Evoking the rapid-fire staccato chords of Myra Melford at one moment, the across-the-keyboard flights of Cecil Taylor the next, Taborn set off an avalanche of ideas, all cogently expressed.

hreich@tribune.com