Remembering Ken Chaney with a major tribute

Ken Chaney

Ken Chaney (February 14, 2013)

The death of esteemed Chicago pianist Ken Chaney in December, at age 73, caught his fans by surprise and left a hole in the city's musical life.

As bandleader, he presided over such distinctive ensembles as the funk-tinged Ken Chaney Xperience, which combined vocals and instrumentals in unconventional ways; and the Awakening, which illuminated his experimental leanings.

Chaney had led the Awakening in a triumphant performance during the Made in Chicago jazz festival in Poznan, Poland, just a month before he died of natural causes.

But Chaney's influence stretched far beyond the stage, for he was a mentor to generations of emerging Chicago musicians, thanks to his work with the education programs of the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago.

So it's fitting that the Jazz Institute will pay tribute to Chaney with a marathon performance Friday evening at Hamilton Park, on West 72nd Street, as part of its long-running JazzCity concerts in the parks.

"We are paying homage to Ken Chaney with a tribute that celebrates his life and work because he was so tightly woven into the fabric of the jazz community," writes Jazz Institute executive director Lauren Deutsch in an e-mail.

"He opened doors for young musicians, supported the work of teachers in the schools, mentored many and worked with everyone."

Specifically, Chaney was music director of JazzCity since its emergence in 1997 and involved himself deeply in an array of Jazz Institute programs.

"He always had his ears open, especially for young talent, introducing (future trumpet stars) Maurice Brown and Corey Wilkes to us when they were still in high school," adds Deutsch. "He loved facilitating the Jazz Links jam sessions (for students) because he could see young people grow over the course of several years. He never had a bad word to say about anyone and always encouraged creativity above all, which I think goes all the way back to his roots in the AACM.

"He was a talented and generous musician, unafraid to try anything. We may never again meet such a humble giant."

Or, as Ramsey Lewis put it upon learning of Chaney's death: "He was a very sensitive human being, a very humble human being and highly creative. Although he never became a national treasure, all the musicians who live in Chicago held him in high esteem. … He was one of the top names from our city."

I can think of no more fitting – or rewarding – a way to pay homage to Chaney than to attend Friday's celebration. It will open with a bagpipe salute from Duke Payne and continue with a bebop band led by Willie Pickens and staffed by drummer Ernie Adams plus a younger generation of musicians: saxophonists Rajiv Halim and Irvin Pierce, trumpeter Marquis Hill, trombonist Zakiya Powell and bassist Josh Ramos. The Awakening band will feature saxophonist Ari Brown, trumpeter Pharez Whitted, pianist Miguel de la Cerna, bassist Ramos and drummer Adams, plus guest vocalist Dee Alexander.

And a reunion of Chaney's Xperience will feature pianist Robert Irving III, bassist Frank Russell, drummer Charles Heath and vocalists Ann and Susan Ward.

This one could go long.

Two mighty ensembles

Call it a Battle of the Bands or an embarrassment of riches.

Either way, listeners who value large-ensemble jazz will get plenty of it this weekend, when two of Chicago's leading ensembles converge on the calendar.

Orbert Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic has been picking up its performance tempo in recent seasons, showing audiences the many dimensions of Third Stream jazz (which loosely might be defined as a mixture of jazz and classical sensibilities and languages).

On Saturday, Davis will present "DuSable to Obama: Chicago's Black Metropolis," Emmy Award-winning music from the documentary film of the same name. Though Davis' score provided an evocative backdrop to the documentary, he has expanded and refined it for concert performance.

Moreover, Davis has fashioned two distinct versions of the piece. A Family Matinee will offer a one-hour rendition of "DuSable to Obama" conceived for audiences of all ages. A more extensive, evening-length concert will expand on this material.

Vocalist Maggie Brown and saxophonist Ari Brown will be guest soloists, as the CJP performs in the city's newest major arts complex, the Logan Center for the Arts.

In suburbia, Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra on Saturday will pay homage to a certifiable jazz-soul legend. "A Tribute to Ray Charles" will feature Allan Harris taking the title role, with Dee Alexander, Joan Collaso and Yvonne Gage as the Raelettes.

Obviously, no one ever can replace Charles, his concerts and recordings as indispensable to the jazz repertoire as they are impossible to replicate. But successful tributes have unfolded before, notably one the CJO offered in 2010 at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. With Perrian Jordan singing Charles' lead vocals and Tammy McCann, Alexander and Collaso as the briefly rejuvenated Raelettes, the spirit of "Hit the Road, Jack," "Unchain My Heart" and other Charles signatures endured.

Jordan originally had been scheduled to sing this performance, but his death last year meant a substitute needed to be found.

Like the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, the CJO recently turned in some of its strongest work, performing an audacious evening of technically challenging music by Frank Zappa last December at Park West.

In essence, both the CJP and the CJO are playing in the afterglow of fine performances – and hoping to keep the momentum going.

"DuSable to Obama: Chicago's Black Metropolis" plays at 2 p.m. Saturday in a one-hour Family Matinee; $5-$10. An evening-length performance will start at 7:30 p.m. Saturday; $10-$35. At the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; 773-702-2787 or arts.uchicago.ede/content/logan-center or chicagojazzphilharmonic.org.

"The Chicago Jazz Orchestra Presents: A Tribute to Ray Charles" starts at 8 p.m. Saturday at North Central College's Wentz Concert Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville; $30-$35; 630-637-7469 or northcentralcollege.edu or chicagojazzorchestra.com.

Also worth hearing:

Juli Wood. The versatile saxophonist partners with pianist Kelly Brand. Expect music from Wood's recent album, "5 4 3 2 1," albeit in intimate form. 6:30 p.m. Friday at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park Rd.; no cover; 773-348-7592 or katerinas.com.

Ava Logan. Chicago vocalists don't often get to play the Jazz Showcase, but the club's emphasis on local musicians during the coldest months has given singer Logan a rare opportunity. She'll front an all-star band staffed by pianist Willie Pickens, drummer Robert Shy and bassist Larry Gray. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20-$30; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.

Stephane Wrembel. Guitarist Wrembel made his reputation building on the gypsy-jazz innovations of Django Reinhardt, but he says he's also trying to push beyond them into more eclectic, more contemporary fare. He'll lead a quintet. 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com
Twitter @howardreich

Awakening to the Xperience: Tribute to Ken Chaney
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where:
Hamilton Park, 513 W. 72nd St.
Tickets:
Free; 312-427-1676 or jazzinchicago.org
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