by Howard Reich
Ten years ago, a group of Hyde Park cultural activists led by James Wagner realized a dream long in the making: They created a jazz festival unlike any other that attracted throngs to the historic neighborhood.
For hours on end, listeners could stroll from one landmark venue to the next — among them Hyde Park Union Church, the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and the Midway Plaisance — to hear some of the world's greatest jazz musicians. For free.
Wagner died in 2009, at 75, but he had lived to see the festival thrive and its main stage, on the Midway, named in his honor in 2008.
Even Wagner, a visionary dedicated to nurturing jazz in Hyde Park, might have marveled at how far the festival has come since those early days, the event having evolved into a showcase for some of the most innovative currents in music.
The 10th anniversary festival, unfolding on 13 stages across Hyde Park from Sept. 24-25, will honor Wagner and will feature MacArthur Fellowship winner Miguel Zenon in a commissioned work; 90-year-old piano giant Randy Weston in solo performance; trumpeter-bandleader Amir ElSaffar's merger of traditional Iraqi music and jazz; and much more.
"We wanted to make the festival bigger than the neighborhood and have a global narrative," says festival executive and artistic director Kate Dumbleton, in explaining the international thrust of much of this year's programming.
"Just thinking about the world today and the kind of xenophobia and enclosed-ness that is around" inspired the global perspective, adds Dumbleton.
In addition, the festival has partnered with the Hyde Park Art Center in commissioning visual artists to create installations along the Midway Plaisance, where the fest's biggest outdoor performances take place.
The following are highlights of this year's event, but the full program and schedule are to be announced in July. For more information, visit www.hydeparkjazzfestival.org.
Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet. Alto saxophonist Zenon has been commissioned to create a new work he'll perform with the genre-defying, Chicago-based Spektral (he has recorded beautifully with the ensemble). The suite will explore music from rural regions of Puerto Rico, giving the festival a potentially significant world premiere.
"I wanted to work with Miguel again," says Dumbleton of a gifted musician who had played the festival's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel solo concert in 2012.
"So two years ago I had said to him: Is there anything you want to do in Chicago?"
Zenon replied that he wanted to write for strings and chose the Spektrals, who embraced the idea, says Dumbleton.
Randy Weston. The towering pianist remains at the forefront of interweaving musical practices of Africa with contemporary jazz improvisation and composition. But Weston also stands as a leonine soloist, and he has been booked to play alone at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.
"I always start with the chapel," says Dumbleton, in explaining how she and her colleagues begin programming the event. "For the 10th anniversary, it was a bit of a tsunami to try to figure out."
When the idea of featuring Weston at Rockefeller Chapel bubbled up, "I wrote to his wife, and in about two seconds she said, 'He would love to come,' " remembers Dumbleton.
"I said, 'I just want to give you upfront the information that this concert is at 11 p.m. — do you think Randy would be OK?'
"She said, 'He could play at midnight. Whatever you want.' "
Amir ElSaffar Two Rivers Ensemble. Trumpeter-vocalist ElSaffar, a former Chicagoan, released one of the best jazz albums of 2015: "Crisis" (Pi Recordings), though one hesitates to even categorize this work under a single genre. Mixing the modes, scales and rhythmic particuls of his Iraqi heritage with the spirit of jazz improvisation, ElSaffar and his Two Rivers Ensemble conjured an extraordinary range of color and texture.
Matana Roberts. As much storyteller as saxophonist-bandleader, Roberts grew up on the South Side of Chicago and was influenced by Fred Anderson, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the vast stylistic breadth of the city's music scene. Long based in New York, she's in the midst of an ongoing series of ensemble recordings titled "Coin Coin," the project ultimately to include 12 albums. For this performance she'll perform solo.
Tom Harrell. A singular figure in jazz, Harrell thrives as a profoundly lyrical trumpeter, masterful composer and nimble arranger in a variety of jazz languages. His 2014 album "Trip" found him pushing against jazz convention and expectation alongside tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Adam Cruz. That's the band he'll bring to the festival, and because the ensemble will be playing outdoors on the Midway Plaisance, this could be a more muscular performance than one often encounters from Harrell's soft-spoken club dates.
"Who doesn't like Tom Harrell?" asks Dumbleton. "And Mark Turner has a huge fan base here, so a lot of young people will come out probably."
Joshua Abrams, Jeff Parker, Ari Brown, Gerald Cleaver Quartet. Chicago bassist Abrams plays a significant role in new music in Chicago, having appeared on uncounted recordings and penned documentary film scores, as well. "I like to give opportunities to local people to bring in someone special for a project," says Dumbleton, and Abrams proposed a collaboration with master drummer Cleaver.
Dee Alexander Quartet featuring Dwight Trible. Alexander has been a key figure in the Hyde Park Jazz Festival since its inception, and she returns in vocal duets with Trible.
Greg Ward & 10 Tongues: "Touch My Beloved's Thought." Last year, alto saxophonist Ward reconceived Charles Mingus' "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" in a gripping performance with dancers choreographed by Onye Ozuzu at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. A live recording of that concert will be released on Greenleaf Music in July, and Ward will reprise his adaptation here (sans dancers).
Wayfaring: Katie Ernst and James Falzone. Two consistently creative musicians — bassist-vocalist Ernst and clarinetist Falzone — play duets.
Victor Goines Quartet. The great reedist, a longtime member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and director of jazz studies at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music, will close the festival Sept. 25. "Every year the founders want him to play in the festival, and every year he's out with Wynton," says Dumbleton, referring to Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra director Marsalis. "This is the one year he's not."
Bobby Lewis 80th Birthday Quintet. The beloved Chicago trumpeter deserves as many birthday tributes as come his way, and then some.
M.A.D.D. Rhythms & Rajiv Halim Quartet: "Supreme Love." M.A.D.D. Rhythms, a tap dance collective, and saxophonist Halim collaborate on music from John Coltrane's landmark "A Love Supreme."
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.