Seven years ago, an ad hoc group of South Siders decided to stage a neighborhood jazz festival unlike anything else in the city.
Instead of herding musicians and listeners into a one-size-fits-all downtown park, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival would present artists in unconventional spaces neatly suited to their work. Locations such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, among others, were transformed into jazz dens where listeners could hear the music under nearly ideal acoustical circumstances.
The festival became an instant hit, and over the weekend we were reminded why, with listeners packing venues large and small, indoors and out. All at once, the neighborhood became a kind of jazz village, as audiences strolled from one spot to the next to hear innovative Chicago musicians, as well as national and international figures.
Following is a diary of Saturday's marathon of music-making at Chicago's most appealing jazz festival, which ends on Sunday night:
1:30 p.m.: Pharez Whitted at the James Wagner Stage on the Midway. Chicago trumpeter Whitted may be nationally known for the heft of his sound and the stratospheric reach of his high notes, but on this afternoon he leads his quintet in a surprisingly – and seductively – low-key performance (at least by his standards). In "Watusi Boogaloo," Whitted plays phrases that slyly dance around the band's buoyant but unhurried backbeat. In "Another Kinda Blues," he dips into a bit of funk, hitting offbeats with sharp accents but soft tones. And in "The Unbroken Promise," Whitted and the band build a crescendo so slowly and meticulously that you barely know it's happening. Of course, it's tough to miss when you have Eddie Bayard sharing the front line on tenor saxophone, Ron Perrillo yielding copious ideas on piano, Greg Artry churning rhythms on drums and Dennis Carroll providing a foundation for it all on bass.
2:45 p.m.: John Wojciechowski at the Smart Museum of Art. Chicago saxophonist Wojciechowski plays in so many other people's bands – when he's not busy teaching high school – that we rarely get to hear him fronting his own. That situation is remedied this afternoon, with Wojo (as everyone in Chicago jazz calls him) leading a sterling band featuring pianist Ryan Cohan, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Dana Hall. Finally, listeners get a chance to hear Wojciechowski and Hall in a space big enough to hold all the sound they can produce: the great outdoors. Serenading an uncommonly hushed and attentive audience in the Smart Museum's courtyard, Wojciechowski takes his music to exotic harmonic realms in his "Lexicon" and rigorously develops ideas in his whimsically titled "Title." Wojciechowski also offers an excerpt from bandmate Cohan's suite "The River," the tune "Kampala Moon" unfolding as a sensuous jazz nocturne. As in previous years, though, more chairs are needed at the Smart Museum courtyard.
5 p.m.: Frank Rosaly's Green and Gold in the Performance Penthouse at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts. Drummer Rosaly leads one of his most attractive and promising ventures, an unconventional ensemble devoted to exploring the nearly forgotten repertoire of Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons. Driven by Rosaly's light, lithe and dexterous approach to the drums, the band captures much of the flavor of the 1960s jazz avant-garde without sounding quaint or nostalgic. The nimble front-line work of saxophonist-flutist Cameron Pfiffner and alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella is central to this venture, Pfiffner's ultra-dry tone counterbalanced by Mazzarella's uncommonly lustrous sound. The sinewy quality of their unison passages finds empathetic support from Tomeka Reid's warm timbre on cello, Anton Hatwich's spry bass lines and, of course, Rosaly's hyper-sensitive, hyper-active drum work. There's no mistaking the potential of this project.
7 p.m. Jeff Parker at the University of Chicago's International House. Guitarist Parker was a mainstay in a variety of Chicago bands before his recent move to California, so this performance amounts to a welcome homecoming. At first glance, he appears to be playing at something of a disadvantage, because his trio's bassist, Chris Lopes, cannot make this engagement. Chicago bassist Joshua Abrams steps into the breach, however, acquitting himself handsomely in scores he has had to learn in short order. The trio, with longtime Parker collaborator Chad Taylor on drums, reaches a high point in Taylor's "Mainz" from Parker's "Bright Light in Winter" album. Here Parker produces other-worldly electric-guitar effects punctuated by Abrams' bowed phrases down low and Taylor's crisp percussion. Parker reaches into jazz standards, as well, his version of "Body and Soul" melodically creative yet with nary a wasted note.
9:30 p.m. Tomeka Reid Quartet at International House. The miking is a problem here, Reid's amber-toned cello lines not adequately amplified and, therefore, not fully projecting to a crowded house. Even so, the originality of Reid's work is unmistakable, thanks to the regality of her sound in legato phrases, the exuberance of her rhythm in swing sections and the precision of her pizzicato work in uptempo passages. In all, a model of what contemporary jazz cello playing can be. If the sound imbalance makes it impossible to adequately assess the band, guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly certainly reflect Reid's aesthetic in bracingly fresh repertoire, including originals by Reid, Abrams and Fred Lonberg-Holm.
11:15 p.m. Anat Cohen and Douglas Lora Duo at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Every great jazz festival needs a world premiere, and the Hyde Park gathering has an unforgettable one in this engagement by Israeli clarinetist Cohen and Brazilian guitarist Lora. Though the two had collaborated before in various settings, this performance marks their first duo concert, and judging by its lyrical urgency and technical finesse, there should be many more to come. Cohen stands as one of the world's great clarinetists, the rounded beauty of her tone matched by the joyousness of her phrasings. Long a student of choro and other Brazilian idioms, Cohen dispatches its relentless syncopations idiomatically but also brings to bear the soulfulness that marks all her work. She hardly could have a more empathetic partner than Lora, who draws lush harmony and a vast array of colors from his seven-string guitar. A splendid new duo is born.
The Hyde Park Jazz Festival runs from 1 to 8 p.m. Sunday at the Midway Plaisance, between Woodlawn and Ellis Avenues; admission is free; visit hydeparkjazzfestival.org.