One of my favorite weekends of the year got off to a great start this year. The Chicago Jazz Festival is, amazingly, in its 35th edition, but this year, it feels extra special. For one thing, it has, for the first time, moved out of Grant Park and away from the rather awful Petrillo band shell, where the sound is bad and the sight lines are worse. The new home is beautiful and nearly perfect Millennium Park and the spectacular Pritzker Pavilion. Secondly, it is getting going a little early, presenting a full day of music on both Thursday & Friday instead of starting Friday evening.
Like the World Music Festival, which begins in a couple of weeks, the Jazz Fest provides so many options that you have to make choices. You just can't do it all. Reflecting on the music I chose yesterday, I realized that I went with, more than anything else, the rhythm at the heart of jazz. Two Chicago bassists, Larry Gray and Harrison Bankhead, presented back to back sets at the Chicago Cultural Center. They couldn't have been more different, Gray's intimate trio vs. Bankhead's sprawling septet. What they shared, of course, was the pulse of their instrument holding things together, providing a center to the sounds swarming around them. Bankhead's approach, especially, is grounded is gospel and funk, lending a spiritual center to his band's improvised explorations, a place to come home to.
Later that afternoon, I caught Chicago based drummer Hamid Drake and his trio in an expansive set that was as much ancient Africa as it was modern jazz. Bankhead was once again at the center, literally quoting Wade in the Water and other Negro spirituals. Unfortunately, we had to scoot out a little early so as not to be late to the night's big event, the return to Chicago of legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette.
I wrote about trumpeter Victor Garcia for Chicagomusic.org a few weeks ago and the Made in Chicago series programmed by the Jazz Institute of Chicago. That series generally picks talented Chicago musicians and gives them the resources to stage a dream project at the Pritzker. This opening night of the Jazz Fest was also the closing night of Made in Chicago, so the same principal applied, except this time is was a world famous musician who was encouraged to dream.
What did he do? Well, he staged a reunion of three more legendary musicians who got their start in Chicago roughly the same time as DeJohnette, out of the same AACM collective that now, 40 something years later, counts Harrison Bankhead among its participants. Four guys in their seventies (or older) playing with ferocious energy and not conceding an inch to the urge to mellow into old age. And in the center of them? The much younger Larry Gray on bass. Make no mistake: Gray is one of Chicago's most talented and versatile bassists, but I don't think he ever dared to dream he'd be hanging with cats this heavy. And it was hard to miss DeJohnette's appreciation for Gray's talent when he called him out at the show's conclusion: "Larry Gray... Larry Gray!"
All this happened on Thursday, by the way. Three more days of Jazz Fest left! I guess I'll rest on Monday.