Some Chicago jazz musicians double as social activists, using music to change lives.
Saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, for instance, grew up in and around Englewood and has been fervently devoted to his South Side neighborhood, creating a jazz festival that has given young musicians opportunities to learn from the masters and share a stage with them.
On Saturday afternoon Dawkins presided over the 15th annual Englewood Jazz Festival, and anyone who doubted that it has taken root wasn't at Hamilton Park on West 72nd Street. Though rain forced the event indoors, the Hamilton Park Cultural Center was packed with listeners of various generations who lingered until the last note was sounded.
Most of the music-making resonated with Chicago jazz history, especially the event's culminating performance featuring saxophonist Chico Freeman. Jazz devotees know that Freeman is the son of tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, a Chicago jazz legend who died two years ago at age 88. Having left Chicago long ago, Chico Freeman doesn't play back home very often, which made this performance significant. All the more because he was joined on stage by guitarist George Freeman – Von's brother and Chico's uncle.
Add to the equation bassist Harrison Bankhead, pianist Kirk Brown and drummer Avreeayl Ra, and you had an all-star Chicago lineup joining a native son making a welcome return.
"It's good to be back home," Chico Freeman told the house, to noisy approval.
What mattered most was the music, and from the outset the saxophonist did justice to his father's legacy, his uncle's example and the family's exalted musical reputation.
Chico Freeman opened his set at nearly full throttle, joined by the rhythm section in a hard-charging version of McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance." The saxophonist's penetrating sound and muscular delivery left no doubt that he's his father's son and was positive that the Chicago tenor tradition lives on. Chico Freeman may be less idiosyncratic than Von – who reveled in arcane harmony and a slightly flat, keening pitch – but he shows a comprehensive command of his horns. You could hear it in the enormous scale of his sound on tenor, the warmth of his tone on soprano and the fluidity of his improvisations on both.
In his own "Dark Blue," penned as a tribute to Duke Ellington, Freeman produced a warmly cushioned timbre evoking a more romantic era in tenordom. George Freeman entered the fray here, the 87-year-old guitarist playing ingeniously sculpted lines and succinct, declamatory phrases. And in his own "My Scenery," the guitarist provided delicate counterpoint to Chico Freeman's ultra-lyrical soprano saxophone lines.
The Freemans will go into the studio on Monday to cut an album for Southport Records. Judging by this performance, it could be an important document.
Earlier in the afternoon, Dawkins revisited "Memory in the Center, An Afro Jazz Opera," his homage to Nelson Mandela that received its world premiere last month at the Chicago Jazz Festival in Millennium Park. The piece sounded significantly more taut and focused this time, while Khari B.'s narration rang out more clearly (in part because Dawkins kept the instrumental forces toned down while Khari B. performed). The performance augured well for the future life of this piece.
Moreover, to see and hear musicians such as trumpeter Corey Wilkes and baritone saxophonist Aaron Getsug staffing the festival's Live the Spirit ensemble was to recall that these musicians – and many others – launched their careers in Dawkins' festival bands. That's perhaps the greatest legacy of the Englewood Jazz Festival, which continues to nurture young talent.
When bassist Matt Ulery released his breakthrough double-album "By a Little Light" two years ago, one wondered whether he ever would be able to match its tonal glow and compositional originality. He's done so with his new double album, "In the Ivory," and he celebrated its release Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club.
As strong as Ulery's music is on the recording, it proved still more attractive in concert, with details of voicing and subtleties of harmony that much clearer to the ear. Leading his Loom quintet plus string quartet and vocalist, Ulery made a strikingly strong case for this music. Harmonies that seemed simplistic on the recording were rendered more interesting by virtue of free-wheeling solo improvisations from trumpeter Marquis Hill, saxophonist Geof Bradfield and pianist Rob Clearfield. Drummer Jon Deitemyer kept the music pulsing with characteristic understatement and elegance.
The music from "In the Ivory" sounded more polished, controlled and even-keeled than "By a Little Light." To hear Grazyna Auguscik's vocal lines floating above the instrumental texture in Ulery compositions such as "Write It On the Wall" and "There's a Reason and a Thousand Ways" was to relish the originality of Ulery's musical language, which intertwines contemporary jazz, classical minimalism and pop-tune accessibility, among other unexpected influences.
Quite a feat.