Neil Tesser’s Preview of Hyde Park Jazz Fest
by Neil Tesser
The weather forecast is picture-perfect for this year’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival (Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 27-28) – terrific news for a festival that spreads its performances over a couple of square miles. Wear your walking shoes, and make a little time to stroll between stages. Early autumn in Hyde Park, especially on and around the University of Chicago campus, would beckon leaf-lovers even without a boatload of music. The chance to catch solid sounds – especially after recovering from the wealth of music presented by the Chicago Jazz Festival four weeks earlier – makes the stroll all the more inviting.
Despite the Chicago Tribune’s misplaced attempts to pit the two festivals against each other, they really have relatively little in common. The Chicago Jazz Festival (which I help program) is built around its with internationally known headliners, while still reserving more than 70 percent of the total program for Chicago artists; the Hyde Park event books local musicians almost exclusively, with only a handful of well-chosen stars from east and west coasts. The CJF follows the “traditional” jazz-fest model, with all the artists appearing on three or four stages within a few minutes’ walk from each other, in Millennium Park; the HPJF uses a community-based approach, with events taking place at more than a dozen venues, some of them primarily accessible by shuttle bus. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but turning them into competing entities is a fool’s errand; the festivals offer complementary visions, and together make a terrific pair of September bookends for Chicago listeners.
As it turns out, this year the HPJF features several artists who appeared in Millennium Park over Labor Day weekend; that if you missed them there, you can catch them here. These include saxist Ari Brown (Saturday at 1:30), leading the same quintet as at the downtown event; the trio Larenzi/Ernst/Green (Saturday at 4 PM); cellistTomeka Reid, downsizing from a quartet to present her intercontinental Hear in Now trio (Saturday at 5:15); and bassist Clark Sommers, who ledhis trio (Ba)SH at Millennium, playing this weekend with a solid quintet (Saturday at 6). This echelon even includes a couple notable New Yorkers: sax sensation JD Allen, who played downtown in Tom Harrell’s band but here leads his own quartet; and the widely acclaimed pianist Craig Taborn, a native midwesterner whose solo set (Saturday at midnight) should satisfy those who felt shortchanged by his relatively low profile in Dave Holland’s Prism at Millennium Park.
As usual, the vast bulk of the 35 performances will take place on Saturday, when the music runs from noon till midnight. Below, I’ve noted several (but certainly not all) of the Chicago-based bands that will grab my attention.
Saturday, September 27
Dee Alexander Quartet with Oliver Lake
3:30 PM, Wagner Stage, Midway Plaisance
Despite her frequent local appearances, I hate to miss any chance to hear Chicago’s reigning jazz diva; you never know what, or in this case who, she’ll come up with next. Leading three distinct bands; covering material from 1950s torchers to free music from the AACM; re-creating the sound of Ella Fitzgerald on the one hand and a didgeridoo on the other – all with unshakable intonation and unstoppable swing – Alexander has set a high bar for other vocalists, not only here but across the jazz world. For this performance, she teams her regular working trio (led by pianist Miguel de la Cerna) with saxist Oliver Lake – a founding force (in 1967) behind the AACM-adjacent Black Artists Group of St. Louis – whose eclectic projects eclipse even Alexander’s. Lake has applied his acerbic tone and hyper-expressive technique to music ranging from the World Saxophone Quartet (which he also co-founded) to his depth-charged big band to the Jump Up, his reggae-jazz fusion with a futurist edge. Pairing him with Alexander offers a match made in new-jazz heaven.
Geof Bradfield’s “Our Roots: The Music of Clifford Jordan and Lead Belly”
3:00 PM, Kenwood Academy Auditorium, 5015 S. Blackstone
Among the most versatile and adventurous reedists in town (which in Chicago is really saying something), Geof Bradfield has also emerged among the music’s best composers, on the strength of his imaginative concepts and his attention to detail. This latest project – which he’ll share with the world on an album due in a few months – grows out of a concert he performed late last year for the Fulton Street Art Collective’s monthly “Jazz Record” series. That series asks an artist to choose a jazz album that influenced him and then to recreate that album in concert, first track to last; Bradfield dug out his copy of tenor saxist (and Chicago native) Clifford Jordan’s 1965 LP, These Are My Roots – a groundbreaking jazz tribute to the folk-blues legend Lead Belly. From that experience, Bradfield has shaped this new project, which has inspired him to move beyond Lead Belly’s songs into similar material – by the likes of Son House and the Georgia Sea Island Singers – that Jordan never touched. The all-star band comprises trumpeterMarquis Hill, trombonist Joel Adams, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Dana Hall.
Tomeka Reid’s Here in Now (HiN)
5:15 PM, Logan Center Penthouse, 915 E. 60th
Despite the sanguine local presence of cellist Tomeka Reid, Chicagoans don’t get to hear this trio often, due to the fact that one of its members lives in New York (violinist Mazz Swift) and another in Italy (Silvia Bolognesi). People worldwide don’t often get to such groupings in general, since this instrumentation is not exactly ubiquitous in jazz. For that matter, you don’t find so many string trios like this in classical music, either; Here in Now qualifies as something of a chimera. But these women get so deep into their instruments, and immerse themselves so thoroughly in the music, that the obvious potential pitfalls – Does it swing? No horns or chord instruments? No drums? – fall by the wayside. And the technical acumen of each player offers a separate level of admiration on its own.
Nicole Mitchell’s Ice Crystal
6:45 PM, International House, 1414 East 59th
I picked Aquarius, this band’s debut album as the third best album of last year, and I remain amazed at how so many other critics and poll-voters seemed to sleep on it.Nicole Mitchell’s star has only continued to rise since she relocated to Southern California in 2011, where she now teaches at UC Irvine; in Ice Crystal, she teamed up with vibist Jason Adasiewicz, who in the last five years has garnered more attention than any new-music jazzman I can recall. The album offers an especially rangy and satisfying set of compositions by Mitchell, as well as some of her most authoritative flute solos on disc; as a bonus, it was among the first demonstrations that Adasiewicz’s powerfully percussive vibes style had a soft side as well. Bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly complete what I consider a dream lineup, and one that I can’t wait to hear, in person, and hopefully with new compositions that extend their reach.
Houston Person (Chicago) Quartet
9:30 PM, West Stage, Midway Plaisance
I’ve appended the parenthetical “Chicago” to the name of this band for two reasons. First, the entire rhythm section (pianistJeremy Kahn, bassist Stew Miller,drummer Ernie Adams) is locally based. And even though the veteran saxistHouston Person has called New York home for decades, he could easily pass for a Chicago tenor man. In fact, it’s hard to believe he didn’t come up under Capt. Walter Dyett (along with Von Freeman andGene Ammons and Clifford Jordan and a dozen other tenor men with similar cred); for that you can thank his swaggering tone, the bottomless reserves of soul, and a work ethic that should shame artists half his age. Person turns 80 in November, and he still churns out albums at an almost alarming clip: an estimated 80 recordings under his own name, and dozens more in collaboration with others – primarily the vocalist Etta Jones, with whom he conducted a music-only romance from the late 60s until her death in 2001. Whatever the reason, Person plays rarely in Chicago – which is, after all, his kind of town – so this set all but demands your attendance.
NOTE: This article has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to the instrumentation of Here in Now. (I originally wrote that this combination of instruments represented “three-quarters of a string quartet”; in fact, a traditional string quartet does not contain bass. NT)