Sunday at the Chicago Jazz Festival

Sunday at the Chicago Jazz Festival

by Kevin Lynch

copyright © 2003 Kevin Lynch

Chicago: Surprisingly, the Chicago Jazz Festival was not the biggest music event on Lake Michigan shores on Labor Day weekend. That honor went to the Harley-Davidson party in Milwaukee, which featured several rock and country acts - and the late Princess Di's fave Elton John, who had many of 150,000 bikers howling in protest and gunning their hogs outta town early.

The Chicago Jazz Festival rarely makes such faux pas and this year's festival was no exception. For example, Madisonian Roscoe Mitchell (a Chicago transplant) was honored as the festival's artist-in-residence and gave several performances, including leading a big band.

My drive down to Chicago (accompanied by literally hundreds of bikers) got me there in time for light rain to hit the festival, so the Sunday evening crowd was shrunken and prune-withered.

Backed-up tollbooth traffic forced me to miss much of singer Karrin Allyson's performance, which was more buoyant than her recent recordings would lead you to expect. But I was glad I made it down as soon as the Chano Dominguez Quintet came on. Dominguez, from Cadiz, Spain, grabbed the audience immediately with his nuevo flamenco jazz. He's a forceful, rhythmically deft pianist with an unusual rhythm section -- bass, drums and two clappers. That is, two performers sat across stage from the pianist and added rhythmic accenting with microphoned hand clapping. One of them was also a vocalist who emitted mournful, microtonal incantations that evoked gypsies wandering the windswept terrains of Andalusia.

The other clapper, "Kejio" Cordoba, was also a sharp flamenco dancer who jumped up to strut like a Senor Bojangles during a portion of almost every tune. The dance was a hit -- and a rarity at this jazz fest. Using dancers should be a natural for certain festival events, even if many people don't associate serious jazz with dance anymore. Of course, the explosion of Afro-Cuban jazz is changing that.

The evening's headliner was the McCoy Tyner Big Band. It was great for the Midwest to see perhaps the most esteemed and influential living jazz pianist in a setting to expand on his musical ideas. Those still tend toward surging waves of melody which this big group elevated to stunning crests. The line-up included the powerhouse tenor player Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, saxoponist Joe Ford, the dazzling conga player Richie Flores and an undentified trumpeter (anyone?) who's working on Dizzy-style balloon cheeks.

As for Tyner, he was his usual soft-spoken, gracious self, and magisterial at the piano. However, I wondered. Is father time is catching up with the 64-year-old Tyner? Either he's lost some of his virtuoso fire or he didn't want to upstage his band. The set climaxed with his big hit "Fly With the Wind," when fireworks exploded over the mighty Chicago skyline, a tradition for the end of the festival. Tyner returned for an encore, his classic "Blues on the Corner," and the tune's gutsy, asymmetric swing nailed the heart of great jazz. The crowd loved it. Then they filed out, soggy but satisfied.

Kevin Lynch first published this review in The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal.

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