For Chicago jazz lovers, the best part of summer starts Thursday.
That's when the ninth annual Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series launches at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. For six consecutive Thursday evenings, some of Chicago's most admired jazz musicians – many with ardent followings around the world – will bring choice projects to the city's premier outdoor listening space.
But the series doesn't cater exclusively to jazz connoisseurs. On the contrary, because admission to all of the events is free, anyone even mildly curious about why so many listeners admire vocalist Dee Alexander or rush to performances by drummer Dana Hall or revere former Chicagoan Jack DeJohnette can discover what the fuss is all about. The risk factor, in other words, is quite low: At worst, you spend an evening under the stars in the Loop – or flee to catch a movie.
In a way, Made in Chicago – which is presented by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago – represents a long overdue jazz counterpart to the Grant Park Music Festival. That mighty institution has produced free classical concerts downtown since 1935 and now presents the Grant Park Orchestra (established in 1944) primarily at the Pritzker Pavilion.
But the Grant Park Music Festival begins in early June, features multiple performances and open rehearsals by the orchestra each week, plus other attractions, in a busy, multifaceted season. Surely Made in Chicago – which has proved both its artistic value and popular appeal – deserves a longer run starting at the beginning of summer, just like the Grant Park Orchestra.
Even at its six-concert duration, however, Made in Chicago always has been an invitingly programmed affair. I recall indelible concerts, such as great Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez collaborating with his father, Danilo Perez, Sr., who flew in from Panama to sing the sensuous boleros of his homeland, in 2005; the legendary, 77-year-old Brazilian composer-pianist Joao Donato coming here to collaborate with Chicago singer-guitarist Paulinho Garcia in a celebration of bossa nova, in 2008; and Polish-born, Chicago-based singer Grazyna Auguscik celebrating Chopin's bicentennial with accordionist Jarek Bester and pianist Andrzej Jagodzinski, who came here from Poland for the occasion in 2010.
Made in Chicago has shown less international reach in recent seasons, but even the more locally focused lineup serves at least three noble purposes: It gives Chicago musicians a larger audience than they can reach in any jazz club; it enables them to present special projects they've been developing; and it gives Chicagoans who haven't yet heard the siren call of jazz to give it a listen.
Much of the credit for the invention of Made in Chicago must go to Helen Doria, who served as Millennium Park's first executive director and died last December at age 61 of complications from liver disease. Cultural commissioner Michelle Boone and others will pay homage to her during the opening night of Made in Chicago, which Doria had taken particular pride in developing.
In addition, the new LED screen recently installed at the Pritzker Pavilion will be used during Thursday night's first concert of the season and during its closer, the Aug. 29 show by DeJohnette, which doubles as opening night of the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Following is an annotated guide to this year's Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series. All concerts begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, near Randolph Drive and Michigan Avenue, and each performance opens with a brief set from talented Chicago-area high school musicians participating in the Jazz Institute's Jazz Links Education Program. Admission is free; for more information, visit jazzinchicago.org or phone the Jazz Institute at 312-427-1676.
"Dee Alexander's Funkin' with Acoustic Soul: Tribute to James Brown and Jimi Hendrix"; Thursday. What started when singer Alexander offered an impromptu homage to Brown after his death, in 2006, has become a major set-piece in her repertoire. So many people began asking her to sing more Brown that year that she mastered a growing list of his songs and expanded into music of Hendrix, as well. What do jazz versions of Brown's "Sex Machine" and Hendrix's "Purple Haze" sound like? Considering Alexander's knack for melodic invention, she'll likely venture far from the originals. Opening act: The Ross Brothers Project.
Victor Garcia's "Crossing Borders"; Aug. 1. Jazz listeners already know that Garcia stands as a fast-rising Chicago trumpeter, but his work as composer-arranger-leader has deepened his reputation. Last September, he and pianist Darwin Noguera led their Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble in a volcanic show in Millennium Park during the Chicago Jazz Festival. A couple of weeks later, Garcia unveiled a new septet at the University of Chicago's Logan Center, offering provocative original compositions. This time, Garcia has been commissioned to create a new score, which will explore music of Mexico in a jazz setting. Opening act: Alexis Lanier Trio.
Jeff Parker-Nels Cline Quartet: "The Turning Point"; Aug. 8. Musical genres should collide on this night, considering the resumes of Parker and Cline. Parker travels freely among avant-garde, jazz and alternative rock idioms, as in the band Tortoise. His recent move from Chicago to Los Angeles represented a significant loss for this city's new-music scene, but it also makes this return performance greatly anticipated. He'll collaborate with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, which should "bring in people who follow him," says Jazz Institute executive director Lauren Deutsch, thereby expanding the audience of Made in Chicago. They'll be joined by drummer Frank Rosaly and bassist Nate McBride. Opening act: Gallery 37 After School Matters Jazz Ensemble.
Dana Hall: "The Andrew Hill Project with Black Fire"; Aug. 15. An unjustly overlooked innovator, pianist Andrew Hill began his studies and career in Chicago and went on to become a self-styled experimenter who died in 2007. His achievements long have interested Chicago drummer-bandleader Dana Hall, who has been studying Hill's work for years and has offered listeners hints of his discoveries, most notably during the Hyde Park Jazz Festival last year, when Hall led a quartet in fiery re-conceptions of Hill's music. This time, Hall has been commissioned to create new arrangements for an octet that will include saxophonists Geof Bradfield and Nick Mazzarella, pianist Orrin Evans and bassist Clark Sommers. Opening act: Sean Van Dril Quartet.
"Tale of the Tiger": Pat Mallinger Quartet featuring Bill Carrothers and Cameron Pfiffner's Marco Polo; Aug. 22. This evening could have been titled "Green Mill at Millennium Park," for all the headliners have enjoyed long tenures at the Uptown jazz nexus. Saxophonist Mallinger leads his quartet with pianist Carrothers one weekend each year at the Mill and also fronts the Sabertooth Organ Quartet alongside Pfiffner there starting 'round midnight every Saturday. Granted, the Pritzker Pavilion won't convey quite the same intimacy as the Mill, but, on the other hand, there's the attraction of Pfiffner leading Marco Polo, an 11-piece ensemble that will include trumpeter Marquis Hill, reedist Juli Wood and drummers Tim Daisy and Tim Mulvenna. Opening act: Tony Milano Trio.
Jack DeJohnette: 'Chicago Revisited'; Aug. 29. Drum legend DeJohnette hasn't lived here in decades but he always has considered his roots in Chicago as the fulcrum of his art. "This concert came about by me asking Jack what he'd like to do to express his Chicagoness," recalls Jazz Institute executive director Lauren Deutsch. DeJohnette, she adds, said he wanted to mark the influence of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) on him. Thus he'll be leading a dream band staffed by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, reedist Roscoe Mitchell, multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill and bassist Larry Gray (the latter an uncommonly versatile Chicagoan taking a role that might have been by held by AACM bassist Malachi Favors, had he lived). No opening act.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.