by Howard Reich
Two world premieres, one piano colossus, a brilliant look at Thelonious Monk and a couple of vibraphonists swinging hard in a house of worship.
Now that’s a jazz festival — more specifically, the 11th annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which ends Sunday.
As always, the event unfolded smoothly, albeit with one surprising misstep: Audience members were allowed to sit on the stairs that form the aisles of the Logan Center Performance Hall, an obvious safety hazard.
Otherwise, though, Chicago’s most appealing jazz festival turned several blocks of Hyde Park into a sprawling musical nexus.
Here’s a diary of Saturday’s highlights:
2:10 p.m. — Makaya McCraven Group at Wagner Stage, Midway Plaisance. A good omen: The first sounds I hear, from nearly a block away, emanate from the trumpet of Marquis Hill. He’s unfurling the long, plaintive lines of “Three-Fifths a Man,” from Chicago drummer McCraven’s “In the Moment” album. As I get closer to the Midway Plaisance, it’s increasingly clear that McCraven is achieving the elusive task of conveying transparency of ensemble sound in an outdoor setting. The shimmering delicacy of this music and the nimbleness of McCraven’s drum work augur well for what’s yet to come.
3:10 p.m. — Nicole Mitchell and Ballake Sissoko at Logan Center Performance Hall. The most intensely anticipated event of this year’s festival — presented in conjunction with World Music Festival Chicago — proves eminently worth the wait. Flutist Mitchell, a former Chicagoan who performs here often, collaborates with musicians from Mali and her Black Earth Ensemble in the world premiere of “Bamako*Chicago Sound System.” In intertwining West African musical ritual with African-American jazz techniques, “Bamako*Chicago Sound System” illuminates commonalities between two cultures. Six instrumentalists and two vocalists improvise on compositions of Mitchell and of Malian kora virtuoso Sissoko. The result: a contrapuntally complex, sonically lustrous music. Its high point comes in Mitchell’s “We Are Vulnerable,” distinguished by singer Mankwe Ndosi’s imploring chant, Sissoko’s virtuoso flights on kora and the band’s hypnotic accompaniment. Malian singer Fatim Kouyate revels in the declamatory phrases of several Sissoko compositions, and the duets between guitarist Jeff Parker and kora master Sissoko represent a dialogue between continents but also across epochs.
6:10 p.m. — Dee Alexander: Monk and the Ladies at Wagner Stage. To celebrate this year’s Thelonious Monk centennial, Chicago’s pre-eminent jazz singer convenes an all-female ensemble of considerable power. But it’s Alexander’s vocals — technically audacious and irrepressibly inventive — that define the occasion. She delivers airborne scat passages in “Monk’s Dream,” backed by fat chords from pianist Alexis Lombre and soaring legato lines from cellist Tomeka Reid. In Monk’s “Ask Me Now,” Alexander takes an audaciously slow tempo, reaffirming her position as one of the most persuasive Monk vocalists since Carmen McRae.
7:31 p.m. — Geof Bradfield at Logan Center Performance Hall. The second world premiere of this year’s festival comes from one of Chicago’s most accomplished composers of extended works. Bradfield tells a large audience that his suite “Yes, and … Music for Nine Improvisers” is inspired by the Compass Players, the groundbreaking group of theatrical improvisers whose experiments began in Hyde Park in the 1950s. The music ranges from carefully scored passages for reeds and horns to more spontaneous interchanges among various subsets of players. In both scenarios, the music finds continuity in the tonal glow of the ensemble playing, the subtlety of instrumental voicing and the harmonic sophistication of everything these musicians offer.
9:37 p.m. — Willie and Bethany Pickens Plus Friends. After leading a trio in two selections with characteristic elegance, Chicago pianist Bethany Pickens leans into the microphone and says, “I’ve enjoyed my brief time with you this evening, but we know why you’re really here.” She refers, of course, to her father, piano titan Willie Pickens, who soon takes to the stage to noisy ovations. He rewards the audience with a performance as unexpected as it is propulsive: his jazz trio version of an ancient hymn by composer John Dunstable. “It’s from the 15th century,” says Pickens, “but we’re going to try to give it a 21st-century, avant-garde treatment.” Does he ever. After playing the theme straightforwardly (albeit with chord substations never imagined several centuries ago), Pickens produces gales of sound at the keyboard. Fast-flying scales, quicksilver arpeggios, swirls of color in the instrument’s upper reaches — Pickens unleashes quite an arsenal. At 86, he’s playing with as much force and fervor as ever, as well as the insights of a lifetime in jazz.
11:07 p.m. — Joe Locke/Warren Wolf Duo at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Even under the best circumstances, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel can be an echo chamber. So the prospect of hearing two vibraphonists duetting here prompts both curiosity and caution. But Locke and Wolf tame the room’s acoustics, at least from the perspective of anyone sitting up close. Better still, Locke and Wolfe emerge as well-matched partners, Locke’s hyper-virtuosity and unrelenting intensity counterbalanced by Wolf’s single-note lines and more relaxed approach to rhythm. The two attain an easy synchronicity from the outset in Wolf’s “Gang Gang,” though here, and elsewhere, it’s Locke’s four-mallet technique and constant rhythmic tension that command attention. The musicians close the night with Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove,” their blues figurations a balm to the ear.
The Hyde Park Jazz Festival continues from 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday; visit www.hydeparkjazzfestival.org.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.