by Michael Jackson
Perfect fall weather further sugared the already sweet experience of the 8th annual HydePark Jazz Festival on Chicago’s South Side on Sept. 27–28. Under the creative leadership of artistic director Kate Dumbleton, the event has consistently presented choice collaborations and original concepts from local musicians and those from further afield.
“An important thing we launched this year is the beginning of an effort to support artists developing new projects or wanting to present something special for the festival,” said Dumbleton. Drummer Dana Hall’s Black Ark Movement, cellist Tomeka Reid’s Hear in Now string trio and saxophonist Geof Bradfield’s “Our Roots: The Music of Clifford Jordan and Lead Belly” were all examples of this, as was vocalist Dee Alexander’s planned collaboration with veteran reedman Oliver Lake, who ultimately couldn’t make it because of travel problems caused by a fire at an air traffic control center in the Chicago area.
“We will do more of this in the future,” Dumbleton continued, “the idea being that local artists have support to develop ideas that include guest artists from out of town or explore new material.”
Another initiative has been to expand the Story Share Project via a booth where the festival records testimony from the public about their experiences and relationships with jazz. The recordings are being made into an online audio-video platform.
The Hyde Park Jazz Festival attracts about 12,000–15,000 attendees annually. Jazz fans from all over the Chicago area make it a destination, whether to stroll between the two stages on the grassy Midway, seek outlying venues such as Kenwood Academy, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, the Smart Museum or Oriental Institute Gallery, or enjoy key concerts at Logan Center Performance Hall.
One of the outstanding sets this year featured flutist Nicole Mitchell’s Ice Crystal at International House. Since she moved to California to teach at University of California, Irvine, Mitchell’s appearances in Chicago are not taken for granted, and her enthusiasm to be back in town was explicit. “This is still my home, and I know you can feel that,” she said warmly. “This is where it all started.”
With the latter statement, she not only referred to her apprenticeship at the late saxophonist Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge but to the historically important role the South Side played in the development of jazz in Chicago. She cautioned that despite the appearance of new venues such as the 50 Yard Line, a sports bar that has taken on the legacy of the New Apartment Lounge’s Tuesday-night jams, the absence of the Velvet as a progressive forum was still being felt.
“But I am not trying to make a political statement today … I rebelled against my own self,” she said coyly, summarily nixing the advertised premiere of a new suite called Water Walker, set to address environmental issues. “Despite the continuing problems of drought, pollution, racism in Ferguson [Missouri] and violence on the streets … we are just gonna play some tunes today. Is that OK?”
Some of Mitchell’s technical developments with the flute—her lines, compelling enough from a jazz standpoint, are peppered with triple-tonguing, melismatic growls, curious massaging of the tone holes, split tones and vocal gasps—have become more subtly integrated. Her mastery of cycle breathing was almost imperceptible; her vocalizations across the headjoint like the nominal exhalations of a goldfish, except during “Changin’ The Same,” when she called out the title while blowing (à la Roland Kirk).
Meanwhile, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz balanced an extremely forceful attack on his non-aggressive ax with limpid contributions in quieter moments. The quicksilver interplay of the lead soloists in Ice Crystal would be like two kittens playing with a ball of string if not for the deep tone and swing of bassist Joshua Abrams married to the choke-time tension and clickety-clack precision of drummer Frank Rosaly.
In contrast with Mitchell’s skills at drawing the audience in, tenor saxophonist JD Allen barely spoke a word during his headlining slot at Logan Performance Hall. Segues between tunes are a feature of Allen’s style, and they have the effect of obviating chitchat. After an introduction linked him with the legacy of John Coltrane, Allen launched into a textured modal holler reminiscent of Coltrane’s more imploring manner yet somehow refined and chiseled into shape. Although passages in Allen’s adroit solos specifically parsed Coltrane’s harmonic syntax—and pianist Orrin Evans’ driving left hand recalled McCoy Tyner—it was the influence of Dexter Gordon (an acknowledged influence on Trane) that rang out at least as clearly.
Tadd Dameron’s ballad “If You Could See Me Now” was implacably delivered Dexter-style midway through the set. Despite unabashed adherence to the rhapsodic traditions and turnarounds of Gordon’s approach, Allen’s restrained manner paradoxically affected a postmodernism that remained emotionally sincere.
Such matters were much less complicated to decipher en route to pianist Craig Taborn’s 11 p.m. grand finale solo set at Rockefeller Chapel, as the sound of Houston Person’s tenor billowed “The Masquerade Is Over” across the Midway from the West Stage. Person, in the company of drummer Ernie Adams, pianist Jeremy Kahn and bassist Stewart Miller, rendered chestnuts “Take The ‘A’ Train” and “What A Wonderful World” with impeccable timing and little pretense, signing off with a blues pregnant with swagger.
Taborn’s hour-long soliloquy was entirely devoid of cliché. As remarkable as previous midnight concerts at this spectacular chapel have been during previous versions of the festival (including star turns by saxophonist Miguel Zenón and clarinetist Anat Cohen), Taborn’s effort seemed the least preconceived, as if he were genuinely permitting the vaulted acoustics and sanctified surroundings to cast their spell. His initial half-hour improv eschewed attempts to wow the crowd with gymnastic batteries of abstraction, though abrupt stomping of the dampening pedal as a percussive device was unusual. What Taborn achieved in that echoing nave was a heightened level of integrity and meditative focus.
The Hyde Park Jazz Festival is helping to incubate new levels of self-expression and conceptual acuity from musicians within the supportive community it serves. Its programmers make carefully considered choices as to which artist best fits a particular venue. This fest is getting better every year.