TVD Live: Chicago Jazz Festival at Millennium Park, 9/2–9/3

PHOTOS: DENNIS McDONOUGH | Millennium Park was swinging with New Orleans grooves while tipping the scales in favor of the jazz-oriented city’s more edgy sounds when the Chicago Jazz Festival took over the park on Labor Day weekend. There were lots of homegrown players as well as the cream of the crop of New York’s young stars, and one very special musician from South Africa.

Mary Halvorson (pictured below) is known as a guitar player’s guitar player and she has been setting the standard in New York for over a decade. For her show in Chicago she brought her octet with Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, saxophonists Jon Irabagon and Ingrid Laubrock, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Jacob Garchik, bassist John Hebert, and drummer Ches Smith.

Halvorson is known as a prickly, jittery player who writes very inventive music. With the octet she was able to showcase her compositions which move from pastoral to a fierce storm. On the lyrical second song, the trumpeter’s solo was a majestic clarion call.

While everyone in the group had an opportunity to shine, Ches Smith really stood out. Halvorson is understated and humble; smiling at her musicians as they played. She didn’t say a word except to introduce the band when the set was over as the huge crowd in the Von Freeman Pavilion exhaled simultaneously.

After the brainy music, it was over to the main stage for a set by New Orleans’ own Dr. Michael White (pictured at the very top) with his quartet. White is an emotive clarinetist and he has the perfect partner in his longtime trumpeter Gregory Stafford (pictured below). Their musical interplay is like a spoken word conversation between two brilliant players.

The horn players were joined by Seva Venet on banjo and Mark Brooks (pictured below) on upright bass. With no drums or piano, the music these four musicians presented was New Orleans traditional jazz stripped to its basics. They played classic songs including “Perdido Street Blues,” an original gospel called “Sunday Morning” with Stafford on vocals, “Strutting with Some BBQ,” “Summertime,” and “Second Line.”

Chicago took center stage with BassDrumBone. This group features trombonist Ray Anderson, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Gerry Hemingway and has been together on and off for 40 years. It shows.

The rapport between the players was positively telepathic and it was easy to tell why the three musicians, who all have diverse careers, like to come back to this anything-but-simple trio. The set was very cerebral music but these are all very physical musicians who put their bodies to work while playing.

On Sunday, I had a chance to check out one of South Africa’s most famous living musicians. The 77-year-old drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo (pictured below) brought his Four Blokes group. It was supposed to be five musicians, but one saxophonist missed the trip because of immigration issues.

The band featured pianist Alexander Hawkins, veteran bassist John Edwards (pictured below) and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings.

While some of the music had an out-there, avant-garde edge, elements of the distinctive South African lilt and characteristic chord voicings crept in at times. With two generations of musicians on stage, Moholo-Moholo let the young guns shine. Hutchings (pictured below) played barefoot and rocked back and forth on his toes while soloing. Hawkins (pictured below) gradually sweated through his shirt as he bounced on the piano bench.

They played the set straight through without stopping between pieces. At the end, Moholo-Moholo, who had been chanting ecstatically earlier, shouted, “We love you, we love you” before closing with one final piece.

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