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Chicago Jazz Festival 2010

Posted in Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the September 5th, 2010

My first three summers in Chicago, something always came up on Labor Day weekend to keep me away from the Chicago Jazz Festival, despite my best intentions. I was bound and determined to catch at least one evening’s worth of performances this year–and, for once, it worked out as planned. We nearly froze to death: for the first time all summer, it was actually a cold evening, but as more than one person noted, this was well suited to the “cool jazz” we were enjoying.

We arrived Friday evening at Millennium Park as the Mike LeDonne Trio with special guest saxophonist Eric Alexander were winding down a groovy, organ-driven set. This was followed by flutist Nicole Mitchell and her Black Earth ensemble, a double orchestra: two cellos, two trumpets, two drummers, two flutes, etc. They opened with a short piece and then proceeded to the main event, the premiere of a new 40-plus minute composition titled “The Arc of O.” It’s a complex piece of music, with one foot in twentieth-century classical idioms and the other in avant-garde jazz. Episodic in structure, it ranged across time signatures, styles, and keys, though there were a few repeated gestures that seemed to link the pieces together: the swelling crescendos played by the whole orchestra, for example, or emotional passages of scatting by the two vocalists. Mitchell spent most of her time conducting, though she did perform a few exciting passages on her flute. They closed their set with another short piece which she introduced as “The Arc of the Wind.”

Next up were the headliners, veteran Chicago pianist Ramsey Lewis celebrating his 75th birthday with a very sharp set by his trio (Larry Gray on bass, Leon Joyce on drums, both excellent). They opened with a creative workout on the old spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which Lewis has been playing for years. But much of the program was devoted to recent Lewis compositions, including “To Know Her….” from his recent collaboration with the Joffrey Balley. They also performed several keenly intelligent new pieces that had never been played live before–several of which don’t even have titles yet. The set featured terrific, confident interplay among the veteran musicians. For his encore Lewis turned in a very playful version of his 1966 hit, “The In Crowd,” including allusions to Chopin, the “Sex in the City” theme song, and who knows what else. At the end, the crowd serenaded Lewis with a round of “Happy Birthday to You.”

My teeth were chattering from the cold by the end of the evening. But I am delighted to have finally attended the Chicago Jazz Festival, and I look forward to many return visits in the future. Next year, I’ll try to remember to bring a jacket.

Here’s Howard Reich’s review of the evening from the Chicago Tribune. And here’s fan video of the Lewis encore:

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