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2014 Chicago Jazz Festival RE-view

Alex Marianyi
Staff Writer
alex.marianyi[at] / @alexmarianyi


Venue matters
The Chicago groups really brought their "A" game
There’s actual age, and then there’s jazz age
I wish there were more vibraphone players
I don’t normally love free jazz, but...
A jazz festival in your own city is twice as awesome and twice as exhausting

Venue matters
Throughout the entire fest, I found myself loving the performances that I could sit up close to and not necessarily loving the performances where I was further away. Even if I was sitting in the second or third row, the Pritzker Pavilion, the main (and largest) venue for the weekend, just had so much less energy and was much less fun. Whereas, the two pavilions that featured the afternoon performances allowed for an easier connection between audience and performers, making it more fun for both.

When I think about the performances that I saw on the smaller stages, mostly Chicago groups, I feel like my pre-existing connection with these performers would’ve been stretched to its limit had they taken place on the main stage. So, when musicians who I don’t know personally took to the big stage, it was often hard for me remain focused for long periods of time and to enjoy the performances as deeply as those that happened earlier in the day.

That being said...

The Chicago groups really brought their "A" game.
Time and time again, this festival showed that, while supergroups can be fun, groups of musicians who have been playing together for years and sometimes decades consistently make better music. This is not to say that there weren’t awesome headliner performances. Colors of a Dream, Prism, and Cecile McLorin Salvant all performed beyond expectations and had the crowd hanging on their every note.

However, no one got the party going quite like Corey Wilkes Quintet or Ba(SH). Corey Wilkes Quintet certainly had the hometown advantage, and it seemed like everyone in attendance for Ba(SH) knew what to expect (because they no doubt read my review of their album). Both crowds showed up with whistles and applause at the ready, and it didn’t take either group long to bring the crowd to cheers.

Some of the other Chicago-based highlights included the introspective and ever-tasteful Laurenzi/Ernst/Green, John Wojciechowski’s seemingly inhuman ability to play the saxophone, and Ernest DawkinsMemory in the Center, an Afro Jazz Opera. Dawkins’ band was filled with some of my favorite Chicago musicians such as the ultra-hip yet unpretentious trumpet player Marquis Hill, the extremely powerful yet perfectly calibrated vocalist Dee Alexander, and the trumpet player who leaves it all on the stage, Maurice Brown, fresh off of his album from last year Maurice vs Mobetta that features Talib Kweli and Prodigy.

There’s actual age, and then there’s jazz age
Possibly the most energetic performance of the weekend was Albert "Tootie" Heath. Armed with Ethan Iverson (most prominently of The Bad Plus) at piano and Ben Street at bass, Heath rollicked through a wide range of jazz standards from the pensive to the downright joyous. You would never believe the man is turning 80 next May. But that’s just his actual age. His playing made him sound like he was many years younger than 41-year-old Iverson; however, he didn’t sound inexperienced. He just sounded… well… young. Youthful. Full of energy and optimism.

Jazz age also became apparent when comparing two of the weekend’s Chicago saxophone trios; Laurenzi/Ernst/Green and Ba(SH). The former sits in my generation (Millennial) and the latter consists of members from the generation before mine (Generation X). They each had the same time slot on consecutive days, and both were met with overwhelming applause and adoration from their respective audiences. Ba(SH) certainly had aspects of their performance work in their favor as a result of more experience, but it wasn’t readily apparent that they were somehow superior to Laurenzi/Ernst/Green. Both groups were great. They were just differently great.

While Ba(SH) saxophonist Geof Bradfield displayed his usual ability to make the impossible seem pedestrian, L/E/G saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi instead went for emphasizing those lines that showed an offbeat approach to articulating harmonies and constructing melodies. Ba(SH) bandleader and bassist Clark Sommers really dug in and played some powerful anchoring lines throughout their set, and L/E/G bassist and vocalist Katie Ernst showed off her vocal agility and penchant for connecting saxophone and drums with her rock solid bass playing. Dana Hall, on drums for Ba(SH), was a force to be reckoned with in his own solos as well as being the power source for solos by both Bradfield and Sommers, as L/E/G drummer Andrew Green embodied the essence of taste and understatement.

Both groups were great. They were just differently great.

I wish there were more vibraphone players
In Corey Wilkes much loved group is vibraphonist Justin Thomas. It occurred to me during this set that there aren’t many vibraphonists out there or across jazz history, and that makes me sad. With rousing solos, Thomas proved time and again what an addition he can be to a group, and rumor has it that he may have his own album in the works. When not soloing, he even endeavored in some inventive support of Wilkes’ trumpet solos.

The next day, I got a chance to catch Sun Rooms. The leader of this group is vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and this man plays a lot of vibraphone. His harmonic and rhythmic invention both as a composer and in the moment are nothing short of delicious, and it appears there is nothing his brain can conceive of that his mallets are not ready to produce.

Speaking of Sun Rooms...

I don’t normally love free jazz, but...
Adasiewicz along with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass and Mike Reed on drums ebbed and flowed through a most beautiful and varied set. Their obvious musicianship carried through all phases of their performance, and I couldn’t help but be captivated by the communication between the three. Generally, one of my biggest disappointments with listening to free jazz is a lack of structure in both individual songs and entire sets; however, Sun Rooms made it pretty obvious what was happening and when.

Not even 24 hours before, the Russ Johnson Quartet were navigating through some of the most beautiful melodies I heard all weekend. In addition to his organic and inventive compositions, Johnson’s trumpet playing was out of this world. In fact, some of the musicians I was hanging out with were having difficulty identifying exactly how he was accomplishing what he was doing.

A jazz festival in your own city is twice as awesome and twice as exhausting
When I covered the Detroit International Jazz Festival last Labor Day, I was pretty tired at the end of each day. Some warm weather combined with nearly all of the music my brain could handle meant some early nights and paying dearly for the late ones. However, truly experiencing a jazz festival in your own backyard means you pay dearly for everything at all times in every moment ever.

Saturday was the best example of that.

The first group I wanted to see was at 12:30. So, naturally, I woke up at 11 (I was out late with musicians the night before), giving myself just enough time to shower, clothe, commute downtown, and get my press pass for the day. I palled around with my friends in Laurenzi/Ernst/Green for a bit after their performance, grabbed some food, and made my way over to catch another awesome Chicago group, the John Wojciechowski Quartet. After chilling with drummer Dana Hall, I caught Corey Wilkes aforementioned set and then made my way over to the main stage.

After being annoyed in the press section for most of Gary Burton’s performance and all of Colors of a Dream’s set, I made my way back to the grass and joined up with some friends. As the last few notes from Prism echoed through Millennium Park, my friends and I began packing up our blankets. I was downright exhausted. But on my way out, I ran into Chicago critic, recent Grammy-winner, and member of the jazz festival committee Neil Tesser who said, “See you at Constellation!”

Oh, the after-fest hang. After a train ride, a bus ride, a few drinks with Howard Mandel (head of the Jazz Journalists Association), Mike Reed (head of the festival committee and owner of the venue we were at), and of course friend Neil Tesser, and then the cab ride home, the word "exhausted" no longer seemed appropriate. Of course, once at home, my kitchen was a mess (didn’t clean it until Monday), my cats were mad that I had been gone so long (they got over it), and my roommates were all still awake and ready for my half-drunk, half-asleep ramblings about the evening (which I happily bestowed upon them). Bedtime: 3am. Conclusion: a jazz fest in your own city is twice as awesome and twice as exhausting.

Alex Marianyi does electronic music sitting in his living room. You can follow him on Twitter, and he won’t even file a restraining order.