The Chicago Jazz Festival

Chicago Jazz Fest The Chicago Jazz Festival
August 31 – September 3, 2000
by Sidney Bechet-Mandela

The Chicago Jazz Festival is unique among jazz gatherings for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s free, a claim that can’t be made by too many other international festivals. The event, at the city’s downtown Grant Park band shell, is also known for featuring acts from different countries and for it’s dedication to the preservation of avant-garde jazz.

It is those latter two qualities that caused quite a bit of controversy at this year’s festival, as many in the audience thought that the way-out performances by Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder Roscoe Mitchell, and Italy’s Instabile Orchestra priceless, while others found them not worth the price of admission.

But overall, the festival organizers had to be happy with the big crowds that came to this 22nd annual four-day event that always ends on the eve of Labor Day. The people came out to see the headliners and nary a one disappointed the masses.

Day one opened up with four Chicago drummers, including Pat Metheny’s Grammy winning skins beater Paul Wertico, paying tribute to the late be-bopper Wilbur Campbell, and they were followed by a smoking set by guitarist Henry Johnson and his trio with special guest on sax, Hank Crawford.

The revived Andrew Hill, originally from Chicago, played his piano next with a sextet that included legendary Windy City horn man Von Freeman. But this Thursday night was reserved for vocalist Diane Reeves with her guest vibraphonist Stefon Harris.

Her near 50 minute set was a real crowd pleaser with a generous helping of standards, like Mood Indigo, Afro-Blue and Yesterdays, that have become hers due to her intrinsic arrangements. Her this-tight band, featuring soon to be star Otmaro Ruiz on keyboards, accompanied her with flawless precision.

By the time she got to the final number, her own Grandma’s Song (Better Days) she had the crowd in her hand. The love flowing to and from the stage was thick, and when she said goodbye with the wish “may all your stories have happy endings,” the Denver native seemed nearly moved to tears with the overflowing positive response. Had the universally loved Herbie Hancock not been the headliner the next night, this festival could’ve had a momentum problem after this dynamite performance.

But alas, the former boy genius that attended this city’s Hyde Park High School was up on Friday and an even bigger crowd filled the park to hear what Hancock calls his Gershwin’s World Group.

A tall, strapping trumpeter named Guy Fricano led off that evening. He’s a musician who is a cocky as he is lanky, with a lot of technical flash and little soulful substance. But the evening took off when he left the stage as the brilliant David Murray Octet opened the door to the temple of John Coltrane and wailed. The front line of trumpeters Hugh Ragin and Roy Campbell, trombonist Craig Harris, sax/flute veteran James Spaulding and Murray were this-tight in their near hour long tribute.

The group wailed on a number of Coltrane standards, with highlights being Murray’s unique and intense playing of the baritone saxophone and incredible harmony created by the crowd chanting the haunting line to Trane’s Ackowledgement- “a love supreme, a love supreme…” It was a magic festival moment.

Hancock was obviously hyped from the moment he hit the stage. With his family right down front, the pianist, dressed like a fashion model in conservative black, chatted from the stage like he was at home before realizing everyone else came to hear him play.

With Scott Colley on bass and the solid Terri Lynn Carrington on drums, the pianist played a six-song 50 minute set that was so fluid, it went by in seemingly half that time.

He introduced a new arrangement of his classic Maiden Voyage that sent an electric ripple through the crowd once they recognized what it was. He also introduced a young saxophone player from Israel by the name of Eli Degibri, who played a crowd pleasing solo on Hancock’s funky arrangement of the nearly century old song St. Louis Blues.

Long after the festivities were over on the festival grounds, Hancock buzzed Chicago later that night with an electrifying hour long surprise appearance at a jam session at the city’s venerable jazz nightspot, the Jazz Showcase.

Though the last two nights of the festival had less glamorous jazz names than Reeves and Hancock, the crowds were just as enthusiastic and just as pleased with the veterans who anchored the last two Charles Lloyd and Dave Holland, and Phil Woods But each night was spiced with the kind of controversy that is guaranteed at any of the major city festivals that feature avant-garde music like in New York and Vancouver.

Saturday night was sponsored by ECM Records, but any one expecting the airy soft, eclectic the label was known for were disappointed. Guitarist Bobby Broom, who is not an ECM artist, opened Saturday night with a functional set, but he was followed by a torrent of sound from Roscoe Mitchell and his group the Note Factory.

At best Mitchell’s music was collective improvisation by a group of musicians. At worse, it was a bunch of noise. Many who thought the latter led a noticeable rush to the concession area, but the majority of the audience stayed enjoying the expressive music, or at least giving it a chance. It was the exact situation closing night when the Instabile Orchestra made their Chicago debut.

Lloyd’s band was quite exciting with John Abercrombie on guitarist and Billy Higgins on drums. Though he played a number on tracks from his brand new album, Voices In The Night, the sax player’s deft tone of sax conjured up aural images of the classic 60’s recordings Lloyd made at the Monterrey Jazz Festival. If Hancock elicited the most energetic response from the crowd, Lloyd may gotten the warmest.

Bassist Holland closed the night on a few satisfying notes. With a pride of young lions with him, including Robin Eubanks, (Kevin’s brother) on trombone and the exciting Steve Nelson on vibraphone and the versatile composer Chris Potter on reeds. The imaginative, and sometimes witty compositions from Potter and Holland, from the bassist’s ECM album Prime Directive were quite accessible and appreciated by the crowd. Each member of Holland’s group performed long flamboyant solos with maybe drummer Billy Kilson’s being the best. All in all, ECM had to had sold a few albums in Chicago over Labor Day weekend.

It was Nelson who showed up at the Showcase on this Saturday night and stole the jam session with his bombastic playing style on vibes.

The last night of this festival was somewhat of a letdown as none of the groups could generate the energy of the previous nights. The tribute to the late Lester Bowie was honorable and heartfelt, but tepid, considering the players come from the heart of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Percussionist Giovanni Hildalgo was almost a Latin cliché with the group Batacumbele, the Puerto Rico-based group that spawned the career of saxophonist David Sanchez. Woods closed the festival with fellow sax man Steve Lacy and a big band playing the big band music of Thelonious Monk.