Hyde Park Jazz Festival review: Music embraces a neighborhood

Chicago Tribune

by Howard Reich

Huge crowds, congenial atmosphere, pleasant weather — and, oh yes, more music than any individual possibly could get to.

The 10th annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival swept into the historic Chicago neighborhood over the weekend, instantly turning it into the world's largest jazz club.

Following is one listener's diary of a now-indispensable event that ends Sunday:

Willie Pickens Quartet: 2:20 p.m. at the Wagner Stage on the Midway Plaisance. Even playing an upright piano on a temporary, outdoor stage, the eminent Chicago pianist sounds tonally resplendent. The rinky-dink keyboard, in fact, adds a touch of character to Pickens' work, the 85-year-old master proving once again that he can draw torrential sound from virtually any set of keys. Trumpeter Pharez Whitted leads the charge in Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody 'n You," Whitted's clarion tones heard blocks away. Veteran drummer Robert Shy and bassist Kurt Schweitz generate plenty of energy, but Pickens' pianism rumbles at the center of the storm.

Thaddeus Tukes/Isaiah Collier Duo: 2:50 p.m., Smart Museum of Art. Chicago launches young jazz musicians the way Silicon Valley produces start-ups. A few years ago, vibraphonist-keyboardist Tukes and saxophonist Collier were youngsters with loads of potential. Though still students, both perform as polished professionals, especially together. Tukes starts into a chord progression, and a very savvy audience instantly shouts out "Tunisia," recognizing Gillespie's classic "A Night in Tunisia." Collier responds on tenor saxophone with bebop-informed improvisations. The saxophonist's soulful reinvention of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" inspires elegant phrase-making from Tukes on vibraphone. These two clearly have a great deal to say to each other.

Garden of Souls: 3:30 p.m., Wagner Stage. You didn't have to know that this Chicago band focuses on music of Ornette Coleman to recognize the searing, blues-rich quality of Coleman's art. Alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and tenor saxophonist Geof Bradfield each in his own way evokes the profoundly lyrical, keening quality of Coleman's playing, while drummer Mike Reed never stops churning. Bassist Joshua Abrams alternates between long-lined, bowed phrases and sharp, pizzicato attacks. Coleman's legacy is well-served.

Matana Roberts: 4:10 p.m., University of Chicago's Logan Center Penthouse. The former Chicagoan celebrates her homecoming in music and words. "It's such a pleasure to come from here," she says, then punctuates her alto saxophone solos by exclaiming the names of Chicago icons that influenced her. "Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge." "Von Freeman's New Apartment Lounge." "Billy Brimfield." "Lin Halliday." Roberts rhapsodizes, too, on Saturday's opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Her extended solos speak eloquently of the African-American experience, her work peppered with references to the "Star-Spangled Banner."

Dee Alexander: 6:13 p.m., Wagner Stage. An enormous crowd swarms the area to hear one of Chicago's most beloved jazz musicians. "We want to take this time to spread some healing in the community," Alexander tells her admirers. "We want to offer the healing hand of music." And so she does, chanting long, throaty lines, with honeyed tones in her middle range, warmly cushioned notes up high and plush and velvety pitches down low. No one else on earth sounds like this.

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet: 7:15 p.m., Logan Center's Performance Hall. The centerpiece of the festival brings a capacity audience to a hush for the world premiere of Zenon's "Yo Soy La Tradicion" ("I Am Tradition"). Commissioned for the occasion by the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, the piece elegantly blurs distinctions among jazz, classical and folkloric music. Substantive yet accessible, rhythmically intense but often melodically soaring, "Yo Soy La Tradicion" shows Zenon — as in previous work — finding inspiration in the musical, cultural and religious rituals of his native Puerto Rico. Yet this is no kitschy appropriation of familiar dance forms. Instead, Zenon has crafted a vast work in which meter, tempo, texture and instrumental technique are in constant flux. Certain passages bristle with complex interactions between Zenon and the Spektral Quartet. Others prove disarmingly direct by virtue of their poetic melodies or buoyant rhythms or extended passages of hand claps for all the musicians. Zenon has built forward motion into the string writing so deftly that you never really miss the rhythm-section accompaniment that typically drives small-ensemble jazz. It's a major work that ought to be recorded, and Zenon should enter it for the Pulitzer Prize music competition.

"Supreme Love": 9:30 p.m., Logan Center. Thrilling. How else to describe an ensemble of tap dancers riffing exuberantly to John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," played live by a top-notch Chicago quartet? Or perhaps "riffing" isn't precisely the right word for the intricate choreography Jumaane Taylor has designed for the dancers of M.A.D.D. Rhythms. Somehow Taylor and friends capture the emotional ferocity of the music, the dancers — ranging from ages 12 to 31 — igniting a storm of percussive beats and loosely synchronized body movement. Taylor's solo in the "Resolution" movement emphasizes lightning-quick footwork and crisp articulation, the ensemble eventually joining him in a riot of rhythm. Saxophonist Greg Ward and bassist Junius Paul turn in tumultuous solos of their own, with plenty of action from drummer Isaiah Spencer and pianist Amr Marcin Fahmy.

Randy Weston: 11 p.m., Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. 90 apparently is the new 70, judging by nonagenarian pianist Weston's expansive performance. Playing solo in cavernous Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, Weston offers a freewheeling lecture-recital intertwining his philosophies on the origin of music with his larger-than-life pianism. The rolling rhythms and rumbling, right-hand octaves he delivers in his "Blues for Senegal," the sonorous midregister lyricism he conjures in his "Berkshire Blues" and the mystical gestures and complex harmonies he coaxes from the piano's stratosphere in his "The Healers" point to a pianist with a pervasively orchestral concept. He tips his hat to Chicago with a piano-solo version of "African Sunrise," which the Chicago Jazz Festival commissioned him to create for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and orchestra in 1984. Weston's all-over-the-keys manner evokes the sound of many instruments, each given voice under his remarkably nimble fingertips.

The Hyde Park Jazz Festival continues with the Marquis Hill Blacktet at 2 p.m.; Douglas Ewart, 3 p.m.; Denise Thimes Quartet, 4 p.m.; Chicago Jazz Orchestra, 5 p.m.; and Victor Goines Quartet, 6 p.m.; on the Midway Plaisance. For details, go to www.hydeparkjazzfestival.org.