The University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts doesn't officially launch until next month, but jazz listeners got to check out its sleek new Performance Hall over the weekend.
A decidedly dressed-up crowd turned out Friday night for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival Gala, a dinner-and-concert fundraiser for the fest, which will play at the Logan Center on Sept. 29 and other neighborhood venues Sept. 29 and 30. In effect, the jazz devotees were among the first to see and hear the emergence of a major auditorium.
Though the sprawling, $114 million Logan Center encompasses several concert and theater spaces, the Performance Hall commands particular attention because of its central location in the Logan complex, as well as its formal ambience. When you step out of the wrap-around lobby and into the room itself, there's no question that you're entering a sanctuary for the performing arts: the ambient lighting and steeply raked seating tell you as much.
The sharp pitch to the seating makes for unusually good sightlines, a tip-off that the room will serve multiple art forms: dance and film, as well as music. One rarely encounters such a deep incline from the last row of the house to the first in a room accommodating just 474, though that also made the Performance Hall feel a tad stiff and stately. Or maybe it was just the unyielding quality of brand new seats that inevitably will be softened over time.
The place loosely suggests a smaller version of Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, in that the first rows come close to the lip of the stage, placing listeners at just about eye-level with performers. For those who wish to witness the artists' every facial gesture, the front of the auditorium provides ample opportunity.
The wooden stage floor and back wall also evoke Pick-Staiger, and at Logan the panels behind the artists can be moved forward and back. Thus they double as acoustical reflective surfaces to be adjusted according to the needs of the performers.
It would be fool-hardly to draw firm conclusions about the sound of a room based on a single concert, for it takes months for technicians and musicians to learn how to use a space as sophisticated as this. Even so, Friday night's performance was promising. Chicago trumpeter Victor Garcia's new septet opened the room for jazz aficionados and challenged it, as well, for this muscular group cast almost everything it played on a large sonic scale.
Overall, the Performance Hall sounded quite live and a bit boomy, though Garcia and friends never exceeded the room's ability to contain and manage sound. But it was close. A little less amplification would have helped, especially for those sitting in the center and front of the house. The rear of the hall sounded best, with the most convincing mix of natural and amplified sound.
Most encouraging was the play of the drums, a challenge for any recital hall, especially one that will present a great deal of jazz. The volcanic Chicago drummer Charles Heath put the room to the test, applying characteristic energy and power to solo and accompanying passages alike. In both contexts, there was no mistaking the thunder of his work, but clarity was preserved. Every rhythmic combination he articulated rang out crisply, notwithstanding his volume level, which suggested that the Performance Hall can absorb sound as well as it can project it.
Garcia's septet, which he unveiled on this occasion, filled nearly every cubic inch of the place with a rush of decibels. For the most part, this full-throated ensemble fared well, the room picking up the brilliance of Garcia's trumpet solos while mostly allowing each musician's lines to be heard when everyone was playing.
Musically, Garcia scored a triumph, the band dispatching his complex original scores and arrangements so adroitly that sometimes it was difficult to believe these seven musicians hadn't shared a stage until this evening (though the core quartet has been performing across the city). Garcia has built the septet's sound on Dan Trudell's buoyant organ work, the horns' unison exclamations and Heath's propulsive backbeats on drums.
With Scott Hesse offering warm chordal support on guitar (he suffered the most from over-amplification) and Trudell's fancy footwork providing bass lines, this septet put a funk-tinged, upbeat, up-tempo spin on practically everything it played. Trombonist Luke Malewicz and saxophonists Rocky Yera and Rich Moore joined Garcia in bringing a punchy quality to the music-making, though some quieter moments would have been welcome.
Nevertheless, the Garcia Septet got off to a robust start, as did the Logan's Performance Hall itself, with many inspiring nights surely ahead from both.
The Hyde Park Jazz Festival runs Sept. 29 at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St., and Sept. 29 and 30 in other neighborhood venues; visit hydeparkjazzfestival.org or phone 773-324-6926. The Logan Launch Festival runs Oct. 12-14; visit loganlaunch.uchicago.edu or phone 773-702-2787.