New home for jazz fest knows how to swing

In a single stroke, the Chicago Jazz Festival went from grunge to glamour over the weekend, thanks to a simple – and desperately needed – change of address.

For its first 34 years, the long-suffering, often cash-strapped event subjected musicians and listeners alike to dismal production values in wide-open, oft-muddy, acoustically awful Grant Park.

The funding remains meager, but for its 35th anniversary at least the fest moved up to Millennium Park, where it looked and sounded like a million bucks (which is $800,000 more than its undernourished programming budget of $200,000).

Though there were flaws aplenty at this edition, which continues through Sunday, and though the amateurish aspects of the fest haven't yet been stamped out, much of the music-making was profound. Some decidedly was not.

But all of it was presented in a setting worthy of the art of jazz. No longer were visitors forced to pass through a tacky midway of concession stands to reach inferior stages where listeners were forced to sit on the dirty ground to hear great artists. Instead, music lovers strolled through the exquisitely landscaped promenade near the Cloud Gate sculpture, then headed either to the superb Pritzker Pavilion for nighttime shows or to three nearby stages for afternoon performances.

The most magical moments on Friday and Saturday arose at the Pritzker Pavilion, where listeners could hear the music with a degree of clarity and warmth that the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park never approached. Moreover, the very layout of the Pritzker encouraged listeners to focus on music, rather than conversation, the permanent seating gently sloping toward the stage and effectively connecting audience to performers. I've never heard a Petrillo crowd as raptly attentive as the listeners at the Pritzker.

Two performances were unforgettable.

On Friday night, trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith led his Golden Quartet and Pacifica Red Coral in excerpts from his "Ten Freedom Summers." This collection of pieces stretches roughly seven hours, and a better funded, more boldly imagined jazz festival would have engaged Smith to play this music over three evenings – as he conceived it – in a venue such as the Chicago Cultural Center, across the street from Millennium Park.

But the hour-long excerpt that Smith was allowed to play at the Pritzker proved more gripping, concise and ingeniously shaped than the recording of "Ten Freedom Summers" suggests. A master at uttering profound truths with bracing dissonance, stripped-down musical gestures and striking contrasts of instrumental color, Smith presided over music of searing expressive power. Even if you didn't know that "Ten Freedom Summers" grapples with our nation's struggles over civil rights, this music conveyed tremendous visceral and intellectual impact.

The mostly abstract video designs that played on the Pritzker's huge new LED screen, above and behind the performers, was the handiwork of artist Jesse Gilbert. Those visuals were attractive, but it was the music that mattered most.

Why two emcees blathered about the proceedings before Smith had a chance to play a note of it is unfathomable, all the more because the performance already had been delayed by Friday night's storm. But, alas, at the Chicago Jazz Festival, sophomoric lectures precede almost every performance.

In this case, even with all the unwanted verbiage, the emcees did not convey the single piece of information the audience needed, before or after the performance: which pieces were on Smith's program?

In order, they were "Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954"; "Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless"; "September 11th, 2001: A Memorial"; and the newest and last of the long-evolving collection, "The March on Washington, D.C. – August 28, 1963."

The other indelible set occurred on Saturday evening, when Gregory Porter affirmed his stature as potentially the next great male vocalist in jazz. It wasn't just Porter's magisterial instrument or freshly original songs or ineffably charismatic manner that inspired the most exuberant ovations of the festival's first three days. Beyond those achievements, Porter spanned a tremendous stylistic range, from the storytelling nature of "On My Way to Harlem" and the chanted tones of "No Love Dying" to the church-inspired exhortations of "Liquid Spirit" and the fiery declamations of "Work Song."

Later in the evening, the genre-stretching alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa showed plenty of fervor but not nearly enough variety in music from his album "Gamak." Pianist Jason Moran – who had played colossal solos for saxophonist Charles Lloyd at the Pritzker the night before – offered brilliant pianism in his "Fats Waller Dance Party," but the show wasn't as effective as it had been last year at Symphony Center. In part, that was because the Pritzker's enormously tall and wide stage made this partly theatrical presentation appear small, while an audience-participation segment turned a concert into something resembling a dance class.

On Friday evening, Geof Bradfield's septet played a vivid account of his "Melba!" suite and pianist Randy Weston joined Bradfield's band for Bradfield's radiant new arrangement of Weston's "African Sunrise," originally commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival.

This was a personal best for Bradfield, who with this performance placed himself among this city's leading composer-bandleaders.

The daytime stages near the Pritzker represented dramatic improvements over their ramshackle predecessors in Grant Park. This time, the side stages were fully enclosed tents with interior lighting, ceiling fans and lots of seating – though still not quite enough. The unwieldy, inefficient picnic benches ought to be replaced by additional seats, which also should fill in the open spaces toward the back of the newly named Von Freeman Pavilion, Jazz and Heritage Pavilion and Chicago Community Trust Young Jazz Lions Pavilion (that ridiculously cumbersome name has got to go).

These secondary stages -- do we really need to call them pavilions? – need some acoustical fine-tuning. The concrete flooring surely contributed to varyingly harsh sound in all three of those spaces and should be padded in the future, to absorb noise. Moreover, the stages in the Von Freeman and Jazz and Heritage venues were not high enough for people in the back – and even in the middle – to see the performers well. The stages need either to be raised or placed elsewhere in these spaces. And, periodically, some sound did bleed from one stage to another.

The Young Jazz Lions area faced two problems: Its location on the Harris Theater rooftop isolated it from the rest of the fest, and it was over-amplified for big bands playing a space this small. This vital facet of the festival, which nurtures young musicians and audiences, should be reinvented.

During the course of the weekend, the daytime venues offered engaging sets from tenor saxophonist Ernie Krivda; and an overly long but otherwise potent new work from pianist Satoko Fujii leading her newly created Orchestra Chicago, "Ichigoichie." Fujii said in an email that "there is no English word" to translate this term.

Music this complex, substantial and provocative always challenges language.

Twitter @howardreich


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