Nonagenarian guitarist George Freeman will be among the Chicago musicians stepping into the spotlight at the Chicago Jazz Festival. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune) (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)
One of the charms of the Chicago Jazz Festival – dating to its inception in 1979 – has been the spotlight it aims at Chicago musicians.
For while out-of-town stars help draw crowds, Chicago artists get to reach a wider public than at any other time of the year.
This year’s festival will underscore the point during downtown events at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion and adjacent stages Aug. 29 through Sept. 1 (plus daytime shows Aug. 29 at the Chicago Cultural Center).
Legendary Chicago jazz guitarist George Freeman, 92, performs regularly in the city’s jazz rooms (and beyond), and blues harmonica master Billy Branch works the Chicago scene when he’s not touring the world. But rarely do you get to hear them performing live together, a seasoned jazzman riffing with a profound upholder of the city’s blues traditions.
They collaborate on Freeman’s latest album, “George the Bomb!” (on the Chicago-based Southport label), Freeman’s slashing guitar lines enriched by Branch’s raspy vocals and full-throated harmonica work. Two generations and musical idioms meet up here, exchanging ideas and reminding listeners that the blues remains the root of it all.
George Freeman and Billy Branch play at 4:15 p.m. Aug. 30 at the Pritzker Pavilion.
It may seem hard to believe, but the Art Ensemble of Chicago marks its 50th anniversary this year with a two-disc recording and a Jazz Festival appearance. Original members Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors Maghostut and Joseph Jarman have passed away, leaving multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye as surviving members.
But the open-eared sensibility, historically informed improvisation and stylistically far-reaching character of the Art Ensemble endures and flourishes, thanks to Mitchell and Moye’s collaboration with new generations of experimenters on the double album “We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration” (Pi Recordings). The lineup includes flutist Nicole Michell, cellist Tomeka Reid, bassists Junius Paul and Silvia Bolognesi, trumpeter Hugh Ragin and many more. The music transcends category, conveys a spiritual core and extends beyond instrumentals to embrace spoken word and chant.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago performs at 7:45 p.m. Aug. 30 at the Pritzker Pavilion.
Chicago’s jazz traditions stretch back to the dawn of the 20th century or earlier, depending on how you view the chronology. But surely no ensemble in the city today illuminates the emergence of jazz as a sophisticated popular music or revives its historic performance practices more persuasively than the Fat Babies. The band lays claim to that era anew on its latest release, “Uptown” (the group’s fourth album on Chicago-based Delmark Records), which combines vintage scores with newly composed work penned in period style.
The recording’s title, of course, refers to the neighborhood where the band has held forth for years in an appropriately historic room, the Green Mill Jazz Club. Listen to the gorgeous reed and brass voicings in Bennie Moten’s “Harmony Blues,” the bristling syncopation that drives Jesse Stone’s 1920s vintage “Ruff Scufflin’” and the sheer rhythmic buoyancy and joyous spirit of the Andy Kirk band’s “Traveling That Rocky Road,” and you’re encountering vintage repertory performed with felicity to the era but buoyed by contemporary energy. To hear this music with the acoustical clarity unavailable to early-period jazz musicians is to gain deeper understanding of the inner workings of these scores.
Then, too, the Fat Babies offers newly composed work that very sounds as if it might have been penned about century ago – but without wallowing in nostalgia, as in the ebullient title track. Yes, the album’s vocals suggest a nostalgic throwback, echoing the era before Frank Sinatra forever altered our expectations of what jazz singing can be. But the Fat Babies’ instrumentals are nonpareil.
The Fat Babies perform at 1:50 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Von Freeman Pavilion.
Other Chicago attractions not to be missed:
Mike Reed’s “The City Was Yellow.” Chicago drummer-composer-impresario Reed has been working for years on creating a kind of “Real Book” – or catalog – of compositions created by Chicago artists between 1980 and 2010. Reed gives the project its highest profile presentation yet with cornetist Rob Mazurek, flutist Nicole Mitchell, saxophonists Ari Brown and Geof Bradfield, trombonist Steve Berry, guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Matt Ulery. 6:30 p.m. Aug. 29 at the Pritzker Pavilion.
Miguel de la Cerna Trio. Perhaps best known as Chicago singer Dee Alexander’s pianist and music director, de la Cerna stands as a versatile soloist and bandleader who deserves our attention. He’ll be joined by bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer Greg Artry. 11:30 a.m. Aug. 30 at the Von Freeman Pavilion.
After Dark. This sextet explores and revels in the music of Chicago jazz hero Von Freeman – who died in 2012 at age 88 – and his era. That means music steeped in the realm of bebop. The all-star Chicago band features guitarist Michael Allemana; saxophonists Geof Bradfield, Scott Burns and Rajiv Halim; and bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Dana Hall. Noon Aug. 30 at the Jazz and Heritage Pavilion.
Kenwood Academy Jazz Band. How many other high school jazz ensembles can claim to have performed, recorded and played the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. with pianist and MacArthur Fellowship winner Jason Moran? Here’s hoping this set will include excerpts from Kenwood’s famous collaboration with Moran, “Looks of a Lot.” 2:10 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Young Jazz Lions stage on the Harris Theater Rooftop Terrace.
Frank Catalano Quartet. A herculean saxophonist who divides his time between Chicago, New York and the road, Catalano makes most venues sound too small for his immense sound and galvanic force. He’ll be joined by drummer Mike Clark, pianist John Roothaan and bassist Greg Geary. 3 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Jazz and Heritage Pavilion.
Ryan Cohan’s “Originations.” It’s hard to say what Chicagoan Cohan does better – play the piano or compose. Listeners can judge for themselves as Cohan and several top Chicago musicians perform Cohan’s “Originations,” a multi-movement suite for jazz sextet and string quartet. Among the players: reedists John Wojciechwoski and Geof Bradfield; trumpeter Tito Carrillo; bassist James Cammack; drummer Michael Raynor; and the KAIA String Quartet. 5:25 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Pritzker Pavilion.
Russ Johnson Quartet. Though he teaches at the University of Wisconsin, trumpeter Johnson long has been a vital contributor to some of Chicago’s most innovative groups. On this occasion, he’ll be joined by saxophonist Greg Ward, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Dana Hall. 1:50 p.m. Sept. 1 at the Von Freeman Pavilion.
Howard Reich is the Tribune's Emmy-winning arts critic; author of six books, including "The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel"; and writer-producer of three documentaries. He holds two honorary doctoral degrees and served on the Pulitzer music jury four times, including for the first jazz winner, "Blood on the Fields."
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