The Chicago Jazz Festival really ought to be marketed as a roller-coaster ride, its thrilling musical highs counterbalanced by its sudden, plummeting lows.
The 34th annual event, which ends Sunday night in Grant Park, careened freely between the two extremes, inducing some queasiness along the way.
After Thursday's sluggish opening at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, the event took flight the next evening at the same venue with three indelible performances, one more surprising and satisfying than the next.
You knew the fest had its heart in the right place when Friday night's show opened with a freshly conceived tribute to Chicago tenor saxophone icon Von Freeman, who died in August at age 88. Though the homage had been conceived after the festival's program went to press, it unfolded beautifully, with tenor man Chico Freeman backed dynamically by his father's old band.
The younger Freeman steeped his playing in the fiery bebop language of his dad but never attempted to mimic the fabulous eccentricities of the great Vonski's work. Instead, Chico Freeman unleashed tremendous gales of sound – minus the slightly flatted intonation, high-register squeals and quizzical little asides that were Von Freeman signatures. As Chico Freeman thundered, he heard a comparable accompaniment from men who had played uncounted sets with Von Freeman: pianist Ben Paterson, bassist Matt Ferguson, drummer Michael Raynor and guitarist Mike Allemana.
If anyone doubted the durability of Von Freeman's music, these artists made clear that they will carry forth Vonski's legacy.
No sooner did the Freeman set end than the Chicago Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble took the Pritzker stage to deliver the most ambitious and dramatic performance it has yet given its hometown audience. Never before had this band produced such an authoritative account of Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms, so majestic an array of orchestral colors or such a profusion of technically daring instrumental solos.
Trumpeters Victor Garcia and pianist Darwin Noguera, who founded CALJE, led the proceedings, Garcia's high-register exclamations counterbalanced by Noguera's all-over-the-keys pianism. When Garcia and trumpeter Tito Carrillo traded solos, each pushing the other to reach for higher notes and faster tempos, listeners heard what Afro-Cuban horn virtuosity is all about. Carrillo, meanwhile, crafted the long-lined, golden-toned, ultra-romantic lyricism that few contemporary musicians can conjure these days.
Here was a band rooted in the past but looking unflinchingly to the future, as it did the newly composed "45 Degrees," an affectionate tribute to Dizzy Gillespie's breakthroughs in merging Cuban music and jazz. Garcia and Nythia Martinez sang the kind of imploring, declamatory duets you hear in the nightclubs of Havana, while the band drove rhythms relentlessly forward.
Not an easy act to follow, but one man topped it: 87-year-old drummer Roy Haynes. The climactic performance that Haynes delivered – with some help from his aptly named Fountain of Youth band – wasn't so much a jazz set as a work of performance art embracing comedy, music, monologue and improvised dance.
Rising up from behind the drums, Haynes placed a microphone on the stage floor and tap-danced robustly, the stomping of his feet resonating through the park almost as if Savion Glover had made an unannounced appearance. When Haynes began smashing the front side of his bass drum with his sticks, cracking wise to his audience and sharing his microphone with anyone who wanted to step forward and sing his praises, it was clear that this small-but-cyclonic force of nature could not be contained, not even at this exalted age. Unforgettable.
By Saturday, however, when the festival moved to Grant Park, the nosedive was imminent, even if there were several high points in the offing, too.
The revered Chicago singer Frank D'Rone celebrated his 80th birthday with glowing vocal tone and relentlessly inventive singing at the dismal Jazz on Jackson Stage. To see an artist of D'Rone's elegance and stature playing before such a small afternoon audience – many forced to sit on the filthy asphalt street due to lack of adequate seating – was not an uplifting experience. D'Rone sang poetically in "When Joanna Loved Me" and aggressively in "Just One of Those Things," but he should have been on the main stage at night.
Ditto the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who has played infrequently in Chicago and environs and deserved to be heard by the widest possible audience. Notwithstanding the limitations of the Jazz on Jackson Stage, Akinmusire unveiled a startling musical vocabulary of his own making: bursts of sound, abrupt silences, streaks of melody, pitches bent far outside the well-tempered scale.
The evening events at the Petrillo Music Shell provided their usual distractions. Dianne Reeves, one of the most accomplished female vocalists working today, sang too short a set to make much impact, the opaque acoustics of the setting robbing her vocals of texture, nuance and tonal subtlety. Her version of "Stormy Weather" was a marvel of melodic creativity, but she needed more time and a warmer sonic environment to do justice to her art.
Trumpeter-conguero Jerry Gonzalez led his quartet in a solid but lifeless set, offering generic versions of "Some Day My Prince Will Come" and "Love for Sale."
Chicagoan Ken Vandermark, artist-in-residence at this year's festival, nearly salvaged the evening with his Resonance Ensemble, a group of international players who performed Vandermark's bracing new compositions. He dedicated "Creative Reconstruction Company" to Muhal Richard Abrams' storied Experimental Band and the piece indeed incorporated techniques of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which Abrams helped create. Vandermark penned "Eulogy for Two Rooms" in memory of Von Freeman and Fred Anderson, its elegiac closing passages attesting to the influence both fallen giants have had on Vandermark and countless others.
Still, we'll have to wait for Vandermark's planned recording to fully hear the details of this music – Grant Park made no room for them.