by Howard Reich
Chicago's best jazz festival energized a city neighborhood over the weekend, drawing large crowds to an ancestral home of the music: the South Side.
Once again, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival — in its ninth year — showed how a great jazz soiree unfolds, with performances across the University of Chicago campus and beyond. Here's one listener's diary of Saturday concertgoing (the event ends Sunday):
Justefan Group: 1:32 p.m., Wagner Stage on the Midway. With every ringing note that vibraphonist Justin "Justefan" Thomas plays, you realize what Chicago lost and Los Angeles gained with his recent move west. But while Justefan has left Chicago, Chicago hasn't left him, as is obvious from the grit and drive of his music-making. It doesn't take long into Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" before Justefan is pushing hard rhythmically and throwing off blues-tinged figurations. A free improvisation shows the innate musicality of Justefan's work, but his tenuous singing and the group's overwrought bass lines suggest that the young bandleader still has ample room for growth.
Whirlpool with Ron Miles: 2:33 p.m., Smart Museum of Art. This ethereal-sounding ensemble plays one of the festival's most intimate outdoor spaces, the museum's embracing courtyard. On a still afternoon, such as this one, you can hear nearly every nuance from alto saxophonist Caroline Davis, guitarist Jeff Swanson and drummer Charles Rumback. Theirs is a meticulously crafted, translucent music that makes its points not through volume but via luster of tone and sensitivity of gesture. Add to this Miles' elegant phrasings on cornet, and you have a band equally persuasive in mainstream and experimental musical languages.
Isaiah Collier and Thaddeus Tukes: 3:12 p.m., Oriental Institute. Every time I hear tenor saxophonist Collier, a student at Chicago High School for the Arts, I'm struck by his maturity, self-assuredness and, above all, musicality. He's true to form this time, partnering with Tukes, a student at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music. In Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood," Collier shows tonal grit, poetry of line and a depth of feeling one does not generally associate with teenagers. Tukes plays a sublimely understated accompaniment on electronic keyboard, and when he turns to vibraphone, we hear the breadth of his harmonic imagination, as well as his fluidity with four mallets.
Ismene Potakis, 29, and Aaron Yi, 25, dance to the music of the Fat Babies at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
Dana Hall/Nick Mazzarella Duo: 3:45 p.m., Logan Center Performance Penthouse. Anyone who follows jazz in Chicago knows that drummer Hall and saxophonist Mazzarella can summon tremendous power on their instruments, which indeed they do in this jewel box of a room high atop Hyde Park. But some of their most gripping music occurs at a whisper, Hall telegraphing succinct riffs, Mazzarella unspooling lustrous lines on alto saxophone, suggesting an admiration for Johnny Hodges.
Ambrose Akinmusire's "banyan": 5:15 p.m., Logan Center Performance Hall. The most eagerly anticipated event of the festival, trumpeter Akinmusire's multimedia work "banyan" emerges as a bold experiment that works better musically than visually. Akinmusire's big-band score overflows with appealing ideas, from softly brooding passages to restless, bebop-tinged sections to a plaintive, culminating trumpet solo from the composer. A few of the accompanying video interviews fare well, especially a soliloquy from Henry Threadgill that draws a spontaneous ovation. But the herky-jerky repetitions of video snippets are more irritating than illuminating; and the abstract images on screen say little about the message of "banyan," which explores issues of identity and the meaning of jazz. Akinmusire's exquisite score deserves better.
John Wojciechowski: 6:40 p.m., Wagner Stage on the Midway. The formidable Chicago saxophonist gives listeners a taste of his newly released recording, "Focus." Closing his set with the title track, Wojciechowski summons considerable muscular force and relentless rhythmic push, his tone penetrating, his solos bristling with invention. As drummer Dana Hall drives the band forward, pianist Ryan Cohan works the full range of the keyboard and bassist Dennis Carroll supports it all. This band does not go gently into the night.
Russ Johnson's Headlands: 7:35 p.m., International House. Leading his new Headlands band, Johnson offers a wide range of expression, from his brilliant opening fanfare to the lyricism listeners have come to expect from him. With Matt Ulery playing electric bass, Rob Clearfield on electric keyboard and Frank Rosaly on drums, Johnson presides over a heady, atmospheric music, the band's plugged-in, gauzy textures provide a striking contrast to Johnson's sometimes piercing, sometimes tender trumpet lines.
Tomeka Reid Ensemble: 8:35 p.m., Wagner Stage on the Midway. Chicago cellist-bandleader Reid produces one of the festival's most dramatic sets, leading a string ensemble of exalted virtuosity fueled by Mikel Patrick Avery's drums. Each of these players stands as a charismatic figure in his or her own right, but together they extend the possibilities of what a gathering of strings can achieve. Shifting from straightforward swing passages to novel techniques, from intricate group improvisation to profound solo statements, Reid's band obliterates distinctions among jazz, classical, avant-garde and other far-flung idioms, while her solos transcend the presumed limitations of her instrument.
Henry Threadgill and David Virelles: 9:43 p.m., Logan Center Performance Hall. This booking represents a coup for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, considering the rarity of Threadgill's performances in Chicago and the chance to hear him in a duet setting with Cuban pianist Virelles. Threadgill does not disappoint, his sensuous strands of melody on flutes accompanied by startling chord clusters from Virelles. When Threadgill plays insistent themes on alto saxophone, they're answered by Virelles' colossal pianism.
Regina Carter and Xavier Davis: 11:08 p.m., Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Violinist Carter opens with a buoyant account of a very old tune, "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me," her impeccable pitch, lovely grace notes and delicately bent pitches reminding listeners of why she practically has become a symbol of jazz violin in our times. Moreover, she reaffirms that music as wholly accessible and entertaining as this also can be smart and sophisticated, as she shows in the repertoire of Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder and Astor Piazzolla. A joyous ending to an inspiring day.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
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